This is the oral autobiography of the great Mazatec Indian
shaman, accompanied by a full translation of two chanting/curing
sessions. "With words we live and grow," she chants as
part of her revelation of the dimension of a
language-centered/vision expressed poetry, whose roots go back into
pre-Conquest Mexico and whose voices reach her through the sacred
In Mazatec, Mara Sabina's calling is, literally, that of
"wise woman"— a term that we may choose to translate as
"shaman" or, by a further twist, as "poet." But
that's to bring it and her into our own generalized kind of
reckoning and naming. In much the same way, this book, which first
appeared in Spanish in 1977, and French by 1979, translates her from
the particularities of local Mazatec culture to the generalities of
a book and media technology that can travel almost anywhere. (Or so
we like to think.) (Jerome Rothenberg, Preface, page 8)
Not once does Mara Sabina reproach me for having made known to the
world both the mushrooms and her gift as their ministrant. But not
without anguish do I read her words:
Before Wasson, I felt that the saint children elevated me.
I don't feel like that anymore. The force has diminished. If
Cayetano hadn't brought the foreigners. ... the saint children
would have kept their power...From the moment the foreigners
arrived, the saint children lost their purity. They lost their
force; the foreigners spoiled them. From now on they won't be any
good. There's no remedy for it.
These words make me wince: I, Gordon Wasson, am held responsible for
the end of a religious practice in Mesoamerica that goes back far,
for a millennia. I fear she spoke the truth, exemplifying her
wisdom. A practice carried on in secret for centuries has now been
aerated and aeration spells the end.
At the time of my first velada with Maria Sabina, in 1955, I had to
make a choice: suppress my experience or resolve to present it
worthily to the world. There was never a doubt in my mind. The
sacred mushrooms and the religious feeling concentrated in them
through the Sierras of Southern Mexico had to be made known to the
world, and worthily so, at whatever cost to me personally. If I did
not do this, "consulting the mushroom" would go on for a
few years longer, but its extinction was and is inevitable. The
world would know vaguely that such a thing had existed but not the
importance of its role. On the other hand, worthily presented, its
prestige, Maria Sabina's prestige, would endure. Alvaro Estrada has
contributed the final chapter to this massive effort that I have
made and I am grateful to him, and to Maria Sabina also, for her
cooperation. (R. Gordon Wasson, Retrospective Essay, pages 19-20)
Once my uncle Emilio Cristino got so sick he couldn't get up. I was
a girl of five, six, or seven. I didn't know what his sickness was.
Grandmother Maria Estefania, worried, went in search of a Wise Man
named Juan Manuel to cure uncle. ...
The Wise Man Juan Manuel had arrived to cure uncle Emilio Cristino;
for the first time I was present at a vigil with the saint
children. I understood that later. I saw how the Wise Man Juan
Manuel talked, and talked. His language was very pretty. I liked it.
At times the Wise Man sang, sang, and sang. I didn't understand the
words exactly, but they pleased me. ...
Some days after the vigil in which the Wise Man Juan Manuel cured
Uncle, Maria Ana and I were taking care of our chickens in the woods
so that they wouldn't be the victims of hawks or foxes. We were
seated under a tree when suddenly I saw near me, within reach of my
hand, several mushrooms. They were the same mushrooms that the Wise
Man Juan Manuel had eaten. I knew them well. My hands gently tore up
one mushroom, then another. I looked at them up close. "If I
eat you, you, and you," I said to them, "I know that you
will make me sing beautifully." I remembered that my
grandparents spoke of these mushrooms with great respect. That was
why I knew that they weren't bad.
Without thinking much about it, I put the mushrooms in my mouth and
chewed them up. Their taste wasn't pleasant; on the contrary, they
were bitter, tasting of roots, of earth. I ate them all up. My
sister Maria Ana, watching me, did the same.
After having eaten the mushrooms, we felt dizzy, as if we were
drunk, and we began to cry; but this dizziness passed and then we
became very content. Later we felt good. It was like a new hope in
our life. That was how I felt. ...
Another day we ate the mushrooms and I had a vision: a well-dressed
man appeared, he was as big as a tree. I heard the mysterious voice
that said: "This is your father Crisanto Feliciano. . . ."
My father. It was years since he had died, now it gave me pleasure
to know him. The immense man, my father, spoke. Pointing at me he
said these words: "Maria Sabina, kneel down. Kneel and pray. .
. . ." I kneeled and prayed. I spoke to God who each time I
felt to be more familiar. Closer to me. I felt as if everything that
surrounded me was God. Now I felt that I spoke a lot and that my
words were beautiful. (pages 38-40)
For me sorcery and curing are inferior tasks. The Sorcerers and
Curers have their Language as well, but it is different from mine.
They ask favors from Chicon Nindo. I ask them from God the Christ,
from Saint Peter, from Magdalene and Guadalupe.
It's that in me there is no sorcery, there is no anger, there are no
lies. Because I don't have garbage, I don't have dust. The sickness
comes out if the sick vomit. They vomit the sickness. They vomit
because the mushrooms want them to. If the sick don't vomit, I
vomit. I vomit for them and in that way the malady is expelled. The
mushrooms have power because they are the flesh of God. And those
that believe are healed. Those that do not believe are not healed.
Cayetano Garcia was sindico for three years; in that time
there were no serious problems or situations that the town
government could lament. ...
"Maria Sabina," he said, still breathing hard from the
walk, "some blonde men have arrived at the Municipal Building
to see me. They've come from a faraway place with the aim of finding
a Wise One. They come in search of Little-One-Who Springs-Forth.
I don't know whether it displeases you to know it, but I promised to
bring them to meet you. I told them that I know a true Wise Woman.
The thing is that one of them, looking very serious, put his head up
close to my ear and said: 'I'm looking for ?nti1xi3tjo3.' [the dear
little ones that leap forth]. I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
For a moment I doubted it, but the blonde man appeared to know a lot
about the matter. That was the impression I got. The man seems
sincere and good. Finally I promised to bring them to your
"If you want to, I can't say no. You are an official and we are
friends," I replied. ...
One night soon after, the foreigners were present at my vigil.
Afterward I found out that Wasson had been left marveling, and that
he went so far as to say that another person in Huautla who claimed
to be a Wise One was nothing but a liar. In reality he meant the
When the foreigners took the saint children with me. I didn't
feel anything bad. The vigil was fine. I had different visions than
usual. I saw places I had never imagined existed. I reached the
place the foreigners came from. I saw cities. Big cities. Many
houses, big ones.
Wasson came other times. He brought his wife and his daughter.
Different people came with him as well. ...
After those first visits of Wasson, many foreign people came to ask
me to do vigils for them. I asked them if they were sick, but they
said no ... that they had only come "to know God." They
brought innumerable objects with which they took what they call
photographs and recorded my voice. Later they brought papers
[newspapers and magazines] in which I appeared. I've kept some
papers I'm in. I keep them even though I don't know what they say
It's true that Wasson and his friends were the first foreigners who
came to our town in search of the saint children and that
they didn't take them because they suffered from any illness. Their
reason was that they came to find God.
Before Wasson nobody took the mushrooms only to find God. They were
always taken for the sick to get well. (pages 71-73)
And even though I'm the "clean woman," the "principal
clown woman," evil has been done to me. Once they burned my
house of seven arm-lengths. It was built of wood with a thatched
roof of dried sugarcane leaves. I don't know the reason why they did
it. Some people thought it was because I had revealed the ancestral
secret of our native medicine to foreigners.
It's true that before Wasson nobody spoke so openly about the children.
No Mazatec revealed what he knew about this matter. I only obeyed
the sindico; and yet I think now that if the foreigners had
arrived without any recommendation whatsoever, I would still have
shown them my wisdom, because there is nothing bad in that. The children
are the blood of Christ. When we Mazatecs speak of the vigils we do
it in a low voice, and in order not to pronounce the name that they
have in Mazatec (?nti1xi3tjo3) we call them little things or little
saints. That is what our ancestors called them. (page 79)
For a time there came young people of one and the other sex,
long-haired, with strange clothes. They wore shirts of many colors
and used necklaces. A lot came. Some of these young people sought me
out for me to stay up with the Little-One-Who-Springs-Forth.
"We come in search of God," they said. It was difficult
for me to explain to them that the vigils weren't done from the
simple desire to find God, but were done with the sole purpose of
curing the sicknesses that our people suffer from.
Later I found out that the young people with long hair didn't need
me to eat the little things. Fellow Mazatecs weren't lacking
who, to get a few centavos for food, sold the saint children
to the young people. In their turn, the young people ate them
wherever they liked: it was the same to them if they chewed them up
seated in the shade of coffee trees or on a cliff along some trail
in the woods.
These young people, blonde and dark-skinned, didn't respect our
customs. Never, as far as I remember, were the saint children
eaten with such a lack of respect. For me it is not fun to do
vigils. Whoever does it simply to feel the effects can go crazy and
stay that way temporarily. Our ancestors always took the saint
children at a vigil presided over by a Wise One.
The improper use that the young people made of the little things
was scandalous. They obliged the authorities in Oaxaca City to
intervene in Huautla. ... though not all the foreigners are bad,
it's true. (page 86)
But from the moment the foreigners arrived to search for God, the saint
children lost their purity. They lost their force; the
foreigners spoiled them. From now on they won't be any good. There's
no remedy for it.
Before Wasson, I felt that the saint children elevated me. I
don't feel like that anymore. The force has diminished. If Cayetano
hadn't brought the foreigners. . . . the saint children would
have kept their power. Many years ago when I was a child, they grew
everywhere. They even grew around the house; but those weren't used
in the vigils, because if human eyes see them that invalidates their
purity and force. It was necessary to go to distant places to search
for them, where they were out of reach of human sight. (pages 90-91)