Teotlnanácatl: In Search of the Aztec 'God's Flesh' Psychedelic Mushroom
Magic mushrooms, Shrooms, and the ever-famous Liberty Cap are all familiar terms for the same groovy fungus. Popularized in the western world in the late 50s, psychedelic mushrooms have been used for centuries in a number of different cultures and religions. Psychedelic mushroom use can be traced back to over 6000 years ago, to rock art found near Villar del Humo in Spain. Selva Pascuala is a rock cave in eastern Spain that archaeologists have discovered contains several rock paintings of psychoactive mushrooms. Mushroom experts say that the paintings appear to illustrate a specific species of psychoactive mushroom: Psilocybe hispanica, the only psilocybin mushroom native to Spain.
An even more interesting mushroom in this family, however, is Psilocybe aztecorum. P. aztecorum can be found across the western US as well as in Central and South America. Their name stems from their assumed roots in Aztec history, which describes them as a key part of Aztec religious and cultural rituals. They called these varieties “teotlnanáctl” mushrooms, which translates into “God’s Flesh Mushrooms.” However, it was not always clear exactly what type the teotlnanáctl mushrooms were, or if the “God’s Flesh” mushroom still exists. So, what’s so special about these mushrooms, and why was their discovery so important to understanding Aztec spiritual perspectives?
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Illustrated card with psychedelic mushrooms. (Stellar Bones / Adobe Stock)
The Magic of Teotlnanáctl Mushrooms Lies In Psilocybin
All forms of psychedelic mushrooms are a part of the Psilocybe family, a family of mushrooms known for their high psilocybin content. Psilocybin is a psychedelic compound that turns into psilocin once ingested by an individual. Psilocin is ultimately the substance that then causes the variety of hallucinogenic symptoms and effects seen in those brave enough to consume a psilocybin mushroom.
It is thought that psilocin is able to cause these psychedelic effects due to its structural similarity to serotonin. When psilocin is present in the body, it is physically capable of latching onto serotonin receptors in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for cognitive behavior and executive function. The binding of psilocin to a specific type of serotonin receptor there (called 5-HT2A) ultimately causes the psychedelic symptoms experienced by those who have taken psilocybin mushrooms.
Those who have tried psilocybin mushrooms have reported physical symptoms including drowsiness, muscle weakness, euphoria, nausea, and vomiting. Other experiences include changes in visual, auditory, and tactile senses. Individuals may experience heightened senses or incorrect perceptions of their surroundings including changing colors, moving surfaces, and the warping or “melting” of objects.
Psilocybin mushrooms can also heighten an individual’s emotions at the time of taking them - if an individual takes them while anxious, they may find themselves more anxious than before. This also applies to happiness, relaxation, and paranoia. Panic may set in in individuals who have ingested too much of the mushroom(s) at one time.
These heightened emotions may be the cause of so many cultures using them in religious or spiritual rituals. A study from Johns Hopkins University revealed that when combined with positive behaviors such as meditation and spiritual practice, a small dose of psilocybin caused long-term changes in the traits and behaviors of those in the study. Participants reported feeling more altruistic, grateful, and forgiving after their experiences using psilocybin. They also reported feeling closer interpersonal connections and a greater ability to cope with everyday stress. Interestingly, research also suggests that psilocybin or psilocin are not known to cause dependency (addiction) like other recreational drugs.
Xochipilli, Aztec god of flowers, from book Hallucinogenic Plants by Richard Evans Schultes, with Teotlnanáctl mushrooms motifs on his knees and ears. (U.S. Forest Service)
The Aztec Culture Used Lots of Hallucinogenic Substances
The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican culture that formed in mid-Mexico around the year 1300 AD. The Aztecs are considered the ancestors of modern-day Nahuas, Mexico’s largest recognized indigenous group. The Aztec culture was highly interwoven with their religion, which focused on the worship of multiple deities including Tlaloc, Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, Xochipilli, and several more. And they are especially well-known for their extensive usage of hallucinogenic substances such as Teotlnanáctl mushrooms.
The Aztecs believed that these deities were responsible for creating the universe and keeping it functioning. If the gods were not pleased, they may cease to keep the Sun burning or prevent the Earth from receiving resources. To placate the gods, they frequently engaged in blood sacrifices of both animals and their own people. A sacrifice would ultimately thank the Earth for her fruitfulness and encourage the gods to continually revive the Sun. Their religious life also revolved around calendars, a ritual calendar that was 260 days long, and a solar calendar that was 365 days long.
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The use of entheogens is a common theme amongst Aztec artifacts recovered from Mesoamerica. Entheogens are psychoactive substances that induce alterations in perception, mood, consciousness, cognition, or behavior in sacred contexts. Sculptures, statues, paintings, writings, and even fossilized remains of various entheogens (such as the Bufo toad) all point to the regular consumption of hallucinogenic substances within Aztec civilization. The Florentine Codex, a research study performed by Bernardino de Sahahun in the 16th century, actually identifies at least five specific entheogens used by the Aztecs.
Research suggests that outside of regular use by citizens during festivals and times of celebration, these hallucinogenic plants were predominantly used by officials, including priests and nobility. They would also be shared with visiting dignitaries as a form of welcome. Priests traditionally used the plants to engage in religious activities including divination, prophecy, healing, and dream interpretation.
Xōchipilli as depicted in the Borgia Codex. (Public domain)
Xochipilli: The Aztec God of Fun
Another major piece of evidence pointing towards the Aztec use of hallucinogens is their major deity Xochipilli. Xochipilli was known to the Aztecs as the god of summer, flowers, painting, dancing, love, and creativity. Combined, he was the god of “fun,” further nicknamed the “Prince of Flowers.”
At festivals, statues of Xochipilli would be given offerings including corn, and pulque, an alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant, also known as agave. At times, pulque would also be mixed or taken with other entheogens to cause stronger physical effects.
Of the recovered artifacts from Aztec civilization, a statue of Xochipilli from the Late Post-Classical Period (1450-1500 AD) provides further insight into the use of teotlnanácatl mushrooms in Aztec culture. Xochipilli sits upon a platform adorned with flowers, butterflies, and dots representing the sun.
On Xochipilli himself are animal skins, psychotropic flowers, and teotlnanácatl mushrooms. These psilocybin mushrooms were termed teotlnanácatl mushrooms, a Nahuatl term that can be translated into “sacred mushroom” or “God’s Flesh mushroom.” Specifically, the term breaks down into “teotl,” which translates into “god” and “nanácatl,” which translates into “fungus.” The teotlnanácatl mushrooms can be seen specifically adorning his ears and knees. This suggests that hallucinogenic mushrooms would have been used by Aztecs seeking pleasure, creativity, or emotional warmth outside of religious use.
Further proof of this usage comes from Francisco Hernandez de Toledo, who was a physician to the King of Spain in 1656. Hernandez was a naturalist and spent much of his time and effort finding and researching natural plants that had medicinal uses and purposes. As part of his work, he wrote a guide to the New World to prepare missionaries to enter the mission field and be more aware of local resources and cultural differences.
In this guide, he describes the frequent use of hallucinogenic mushrooms by Mesoamerican natives. Specifically, he states that the mushrooms caused “madness” in the natives, claiming they caused them to see “... All kinds of things, such as wars and the likeness of demons.”
Psilocybe aztecorum and Psilocybe mexicana are the two primary candidates for the teotlnanácatl mushrooms used by the Aztecs. (Alan Rockefeller / CC BY-NC-SA)
The Great Discovery of P. Aztecorum
Researchers observing these artifacts then had to consider: what were these teotlnanácatl mushrooms, and are they still around? These questions went unanswered until 1956 when French mycologist Roger Heim discovered what he believed to be a cluster of Psilocybe mexicana. P. mexicana was originally discovered by Roger Heim that same year and was originally thought to be the only species that could have been the teotlnanácatl described within Aztec history. As he researched the P. aztecorum more thoroughly, he decided to designate it as its own species due to differing physical characteristics from P. mexicana.
Specifically, P. aztecorum has a slightly different cap shape than P. mexicana. P. aztecorum is normally identified by its convex or campanulate (ball-shaped) cap shape, while P. mexicana has a conical or umbonate (umbrella-shaped) cap shape. In addition, the spores of P. aztecorum are purple, while the spores of P. mexicana are more purple-brown. P. aztecorum also has smaller spores and is found at lower elevations compared to P. mexicana. These may sound like slight differences, but they are quite noticeable to professional mycophiles and other mushroom experts.
Heim named the species after the Aztecs when he noticed their proximity specifically to Aztec regions and also discovered their continued use amongst Nahua communities. P. Aztecorum was also one of the species mentioned in the 1957 Life magazine article that brought the knowledge of “magic mushrooms” to the western world. In the article, R. Gordon Wasson, an American ethnomycologist, describes the experiences he had using various psychedelic mushrooms during religious rituals performed by the Mazatec people. The Mazatec are another indigenous Mexican group, which while different from the Aztecs, do share similar religious rituals and entheogen usage tendencies.
Because of the location and description of P. aztecorum, some believe that this is the true teotlnanáctl mushroom described in Aztec history. However, we cannot be certain that it was. It is possible that the teotlnanáctl was simply P. mexicana, or perhaps the Aztecs used both species in their ceremonies. It is also possible that the Aztecs did not differentiate between the two due to their similarity and therefore recognized both species as the sacred “God’s Flesh” mushroom used so often in their religious rituals. Since both mushrooms are part of the psilocybe family and therefore produce the same physical effects, it would have been difficult to perceive a significant difference between them at the time. Regardless, it is clear that the teotlnanáctl mushroom, whether P. aztecorum, P. mexicana, or both, still lives on and is used to this day.
Mexican magic mushrooms. (alexander_volkov / Adobe Stock)
Shrooms Still Going Strong!
Though the use of psychoactive mushrooms in religious and cultural rituals is becoming less common as time progresses, they are still used heavily in some areas of the world. In particular, Central Mexico still has high psilocybin mushroom usage amongst the Nahua, Mazatec, and Zapotec groups. They are also still heavily used in some native medical treatments, especially those originally practiced by María Sabina, a famous Mexican healer known as the “priestess of mushrooms” throughout the 1900s.
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Because of human nature, the use of psilocybin mushrooms, as teotlnanácatl mushrooms were never not in use by the Aztecs, will likely never fully stop. Some cultures and religions will continue to use them in sacred, passed-down rituals. Others may continue to try them as recreational drugs, an activity that has only grown in popularity in the western world since the 1950s.
Regardless, the full history of the use of these mushrooms is still being uncovered, and we may never know the full extent to which they have been used in the past. With more research and expert analysis, perhaps someday we will learn even more about the Teotlnanácatl mushroom and its uses within Aztec culture and religion.
Top image: The Mexican magic mushroom or Teotlnanácatl mushroom is believed to be one or a mixture of these two psilocybin mushrooms of Mexico: Psilocybe aztecorum and | or Psilocybe mexicana. Source: alexander_volkov / Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh
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