In Search of the Magic Plant "Ska Maria Pastora" in the Mazatec Country

R. Gordon Wasson, with whom I had maintained friendly relations since the investigations of the Mexican magic mushrooms, invited my wife and me to take part in an expedition to Mexico in the fall of 1962. The purpose of the journey was to search for another Mexican magic plant. Wasson had learned on his travels in the mountains of southern Mexico that the expressed juice of the leaves of a plant, which were called hojas de la Pastora or hojas de Maria Pastora, in Mazatec ska Pastora or ska Maria Pastora (leaves of the shepherdess or leaves of Mary the shepherdess), were used among the Mazatec in medico-religious practices, like the teonanacatl mushrooms and the ololiuhqui seeds.

The question now was to ascertain from what sort of plant the "leaves of Mary the shepherdess" derived, and then to identify this plant botanically. We also hoped, if at all possible, to gather sufficient plant material to conduct a chemical investigation on the hallucinogenic principles it contained.

Ride through the Sierra Mazateca
On 26 September 1962, my wife and I accordingly flew to Mexico City, where we met Gordon Wasson. He had made all the necessary preparations for the expedition, so that in two days we had already set out on the next leg of the journey to the south. Mrs. Irmgard Weitlaner Johnson, (widow of Jean B. Johnson, a pioneer of the ethnographic study of the Mexican magic mushrooms, killed in the Allied landing in North Africa) had joined us. Her father, Robert J. Weitlaner, had emigrated to Mexico from Austria and had likewise contributed toward the rediscovery of the mushroom cult. Mrs. Johnson worked at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, as an expert on Indian textiles.

After a two-day journey in a spacious Land Rover, which took us over the plateau, along the snow-capped Popocatepetl, passing Puebla, down into the Valley of Orizaba with its magnificent tropical vegetation, then by ferry across the Popoloapan (Butterfly River), on through the former Aztec garrison Tuxtepec, we arrived at the starting point of our expedition, the Mazatec village of Jalapa de Diaz, lying on a hillside.

There we were in the midst of the environment and among the people that we would come to know in the succeeding 2 1/2 weeks.

There was an uproar upon our arrival in the marketplace, center of this village widely dispersed in the jungle. Old and young men, who had been squatting and standing around in the half-opened bars and shops, pressed suspiciously yet curiously about our Land Rover; they were mostly barefoot but all wore a sombrero. Women and girls were nowhere to be seen. One of the men gave us to understand that we should follow. him. He led us to the local president, a fat mestizo who had his office in a one-story house with a corrugated iron roof. Gordon showed him our credentials from the civil authorities and from the military governor of Oaxaca, which explained that we had come here to carry out scientific investigations. The president, who probably could not read at all, was visibly impressed by the large-sized documents equipped with official seals. He had lodgings assigned to us in a spacious shed, in which we could place our air mattresses and sleeping bags.

I looked around the region somewhat. The ruins of a large church from colonial times, which must have once been very beautiful, rose almost ghostlike in the direction of an ascending slope at the side of the village square. Now I could also see women looking out of their huts, venturing to examine the strangers. In their long, white dresses, adorned with red borders, and with their long braids of blue-black hair, they offered a picturesque sight.

We-were fed by an old Mazatec woman, who directed a young cook and two helpers. She lived in one of the typical Mazatec huts. These are simply rectangular structures with thatched gabled roofs and walls of wooden poles joined together, windowless, the chinks between the wooden poles offering sufficient opportunity to look out. In the middle of the hut, on the stamped clay floor, was an elevated, open fireplace, built up out of dried clay or made of stones. The smoke escaped through large openings in the walls under the two ends of the roof. Bast mats that lay in a corner or along the walls served as beds. The huts were shared with the domestic animals, as well as black swine, turkeys, and chickens. There was roasted chicken to eat, black beans, and also, in place of bread, tortittas, a type of cornmeal pancake that is baked on the hot stone slab of the hearth. Beer and tequila, an Agave liquor, were served.

Next morning our troop formed for the ride through the Sierra Mazateca. Mules and guides were engaged from the horsekeeper of the village. Guadelupe, the Mazatec familiar with the route, took charge of guiding the lead animal. Gordon, Irmgard, my wife, and I were stationed on our mules in the middle. Teodosio and Pedro, called Chico, two young fellows who trotted along barefoot beside the two mules laden with our baggage, brought up the rear.

It took some time to get accustomed to the hard wooden saddles. Then, however, this mode of locomotion proved to be the most ideal type of travel that I know of. The mules followed the leader, single file, at a steady pace. They required no direction at all by the rider. With surprising dexterity, they sought out the best spots along the almost impassable, partly rocky, partly marshy paths, which led through thickets and streams or onto precipitous slopes. Relieved of all travel cares, we could devote all our attention to the beauty of the landscape and the tropical vegetation. There were tropical forests with gigantic trees overgrown with twining plants, then again clearings with banana groves or coffee plantations, between light stands of trees, flowers at the edge of the path, over which wondrous butterflies bustled about.... We made our way upstream along the broad riverbed of Rio Santo Domingo, with brooding heat and steamy air, now steeply ascending, then again falling. During a short, violent tropical downpour, the long broad ponchos of oilcloth, with which Gordon had equipped us, proved quite useful. Our Indian guides had protected themselves from the cloudburst with gigantic, heart-shaped leaves that they nimbly chopped off at the edge of the path. Teodosio and Chico gave the impression of great, green hay ricks as they ran, covered with these leaves, beside their mules.

Shortly before nightfall we arrived at the first settlement, La Providencia ranch. The patron, Don Joaquin Garcia, the head of a large family, welcomed us hospitably and full of dignity. It was impossible to determine how many children, in addition to the grown-ups and the domestic animals, were present in the large living room, feebly illuminated by the hearth fire alone.

Gordon and I placed our sleeping bags outdoors under the projecting roof. I awoke in the morning to find a pig grunting over my face.

After another day's journey on the backs of our worthy mules, we arrived at Ayautla, a Mazatec settlement spread across a hillside. En route, among the shrubbery, I had delighted in the blue calyxes of the magic morning glory Ipomoea violacea, the mother plant of the ololiuhqui seeds. It grew wild there, whereas among us it is only found in the Garden as an ornamental plant.

We remained in Ayautla for several days. We had lodging in the house of Dona Donata Sosa de Garcia. Dona Donata was in charge of a large family, which included her ailing husband. In addition, she presided over the coffee cultivation of the region. The collection center for the freshly picked coffee beans was in an adjacent building. It was a lovely picture, the young Indian woman and girls returning home from the harvest toward evening, in their bright garments adorned with colored borders, the coffee sacks carried on their backs by headbands. Dona Donata also managed a type of grocery store, in which her husband, Don Eduardo, stood behind the counter.

In the evening by candlelight, Dona Donata, who besides Mazatec also spoke Spanish, told us about life in the village; one tragedy or another had already struck nearly every one of the seemingly peaceful huts that lay surrounded by this paradisiacal scenery. A man who had murdered his wife, and who now sits in prison for life, had lived in the house next door, which now stood empty. The husband of a daughter of Dona Donata, after an affair with another woman, was murdered out of jealousy. The president of Ayautla, a young bull of a mestizo, to whom we had made our formal visit in the afternoon, never made the short walk from his hut to his "office" in the village hall (with the corrugated iron roof) unless accompanied by two heavily armed men. Because he exacted illegal taxes, he was afraid of being shot to death. Since no higher authority sees to justice in this remote region, people have recourse to self-defense of this type.

Thanks to Dona Donata's good connections, we received the first sample of the sought-after plant, some leaves of hojas de la Pastora, from an old woman. Since the flowers and roots were missing, however, this plant material was not suitable for botanical identification. Our efforts to obtain more precise information about the habitat of the plant and its use were also fruitless.

The continuation of our journey from Ayautla was delayed, as we had to wait until our boys could again bring back the mules that they had taken to pasture on the other side of Rio Santo Domingo, over the river swollen by intense downpours.

After a two-day ride, on which we had passed the night in the high mountain village of San MiguelHuautla, we arrived at Rio Santiago. Here we were joined by Dona Herlinda Martinez Cid, a teacher from Huautla de Jimenez. She had ridden over on the invitation of Gordon Wasson, who had known her since his mushroom expeditions, and was to serve as our Mazatec and Spanish-speaking interpreter. Moreover, she could help us, through her numerous relatives scattered in the region, to pave the way to contacts with curanderos and curanderas who used the hojas de la Pastora in their practice. Because of our delayed arrival in Rio Santiago, Dona Herlinda, who was acquainted with the dangers of the region, had been apprehensive about us, fearing we might have plunged down a rocky path or been attacked by robbers.

Our next stop was in San Jose Tenango, a settlement lying deep in a valley, in the midst of tropical vegetation with orange and lemon trees and banana plantations. Here again was the typical village picture: in the center, a marketplace with a half-ruined church from the colonial period, with two or three stands, a general store, and shelters for horses and mules. We found lodging in a corrugated iron barracks, with the special luxury of a cement floor, on which we could spread out our sleeping bags.

In the thick jungle on the mountainside we discovered a spring, whose magnificent fresh water in a natural rocky basin invited us to bathe. That was an unforgettable pleasure after days without opportunities to wash properly. In this grotto I saw a hummingbird for the first time in nature, a blue-green, metallic, iridescent gem, which whirred over great liana blossoms.

The desired contact with persons skilled in medicine came about thanks to the kindred connections of Dona Herlinda, beginning with the curandero Don Sabino. But he refused, for some reason, to receive us in a consultation and to question the leaves. From an old curandera, a venerable woman in a strikingly magnificent Mazatec garment, with the lovely name Natividad Rosa, we received a whole bundle of flowering specimens of the sought-after plant, but even she could not be prevailed upon to perform a ceremony with the leaves for us. Her excuse was that she was too old for the hardship of the magical trip; she could never cover the long distance to certain places: a spring where the wise women gather their powers, a lake on which the sparrows sing, and where objects get their names. Nor would Natividad Rosa tell us where she had gathered the leaves. They grew in a very, very distant forest valley. Wherever she dug up a plant, she put a coffee bean in the earth as thanks to the gods.

We now possessed ample plants with flowers and roots, which were suitable for botanical identification. It was apparently a representative of the genus Salvia, a relative of the well-known meadow sage. The plants had blue flowers crowned with a white dome, which are arranged on a panicle 20 to 30 cm long, whose stem leaked blue.

Several days later, Natividad Rosa brought us a whole basket of leaves, for which she was paid fifty pesos. The business seemed to have been discussed, for two other women brought us further quantities of leaves. As it was known that the expressed juice of the leaves is drunk in the ceremony, and this must therefore contain the active principle, the fresh leaves were crushed on a stone plate, squeezed out in a cloth, the juice diluted with alcohol as a preservative, and decanted into flasks in order to be studied later in the laboratory in Basel. I was assisted in this work by an Indian girl, who was accustomed to dealing with the stone plate, the metate, on which the Indians since ancient times have ground their corn by hand.

On the day before the journey was to continue, having given up all hope of being able to attend a ceremony, we suddenly made another contact with a curandera, one who was ready "to serve us ." A confidante of Herlinda's, who had produced this contact, led us after nightfall along a secret path to the hut of the curandera, lying solitary on the mountainside above the settlement. No one from the village was to see us or discover that we were received there. It was obviously considered a betrayal of sacred customs, worthy of punishment, to allow strangers, whites, to take part in this. That indeed had also been the real reason why the other healers whom we asked had refused to admit us to a leaf ceremony. Strange birdcalls from the darkness accompanied us on the ascent, and the barking of dogs was heard on all sides. The dogs had detected the strangers. The curandera Consuela Garcia, a woman of some forty years, barefoot like all Indian women in this region, timidly admitted us to her hut and immediately closed up the doorway with a heavy bar. She bid us lie down on the bast mats on the stamped mud floor. As Consuela spoke only Mazatec, Herlinda translated her instructions into Spanish for us. The curandera lit a candle on a table covered with some images of saints, along with a variety of rubbish. Then she began to bustle about busily, but in silence. All at once we heard peculiar noises and a rummaging in the room-did the hut harbor some hidden person whose shape and proportions could not be made out in the candlelight? Visibly disturbed, Consuela searched the room with the burning candle. It appeared to be merely rats, however, who were working their mischief. In a bowl the curandera now kindled copal, an incense-like resin, which soon filled the whole hut with its aroma. Then the magic potion was ceremoniously prepared. Consuela inquired which of us wished to drink of it with her. Gordon announced himself. Since I was suffering from a severe stomach upset at the time, I could not join in. My wife substituted for me. The curandera laid out six pairs of leaves for herself. She apportioned the same number to Gordon. Anita received three pairs. Like the mushrooms, the leaves are always dosed in pairs, a practice that, of course, has a magical significance. The leaves were crushed with the metate, then squeezed out through a fine sieve into a cup, and the metate and the contents of the sieve were rinsed with water. Finally, the filled cups were incensed over the copal vessel with much ceremony. Consuela asked Anita and Gordon, before she handed them their cups, whether they believed in the truth and the holiness of the ceremony. After they answered in the affirmative and the very bitter-tasting potion was solemnly imbibed, the candles were extinguished and, lying in darkness on the bast masts, we awaited the effects.

After some twenty minutes Anita whispered to me that she saw striking, brightly bordered images. Gordon also perceived the effect of the drug. The voice of the curandera sounded from the darkness, half speaking, half singing. Herlinda translated: Did we believe in Christ's blood and the holiness of the rites? After our "creemos" ("We believe"), the ceremonial performance continued. The curandera lit the candles, moved them from the "altar table" onto the floor, sang and spoke prayers or magic formulas, placed the candles again under the images of the saints-then again silence and darkness. Thereupon the true consultation began. Consuela asked for our request. Gordon inquired after the health of his daughter, who immediately before his departure from New York had to be admitted prematurely to the hospital in expectation of a baby. He received the comforting information that mother and child were well. Then again came singing and prayer and manipulations with the candles on the "altar table" and on the floor, over the smoking basin.

When the ceremony was at an end, the curandera asked us to rest yet a while longer in prayer on our bast mats. Suddenly a thunderstorm burst out. Through the cracks of the beam walls, lightning flashed into the darkness of the hut, accompanied by violent thunderbolts, while a tropical downpour raged, beating on the roof. Consuela voiced apprehension that we would not be able to leave her house unseen in the darkness. But the thunderstorm let up before daybreak, and we went down the mountainside to our corrugated iron barracks, as noiselessly as possible by the light of flashlights, unnoticed by the villagers, but dogs again barked from all sides.

Participation in this ceremony was the climax of our expedition. It brought confirmation that the hojas de la Pastora were used by the Indians for the same purpose and in the same ceremonial milieu as teonanacatl, the sacred mushrooms. Now we also had authentic plant material, not only sufficient for botanical identification, but also for the planned chemical analysis. The inebriated state that Gordon Wasson and my wife had experienced with the hojas had been shallow and only of short duration, yet it had exhibited a distinctly hallucinogenic character.

On the morning after this eventful night we took leave of San Jose Tenango. The guide, Guadelupe, and the two fellows Teodosio and Pedro appeared before our barracks with the mules at the appointed time. Soon packed up and mounted, our little troop then moved uphill again, through the fertile landscape glittering in the sunlight from the night's thunderstorm. Returning by way of Santiago, toward evening we reached our last stop in Mazatec country, the capital Huautla de Jimenez.

>From here on, the return trip to Mexico City was made by automobile. With a final supper in the Posada Rosaura, at the time the only inn in Huautla, we took leave of our Indian guides and of the worthy mules that had carried us so surefootedly and in such a pleasant way through the Sierra Mazatec. The Indians were paid of, and Teodosio, who also accepted payment for his chief in Jalapa de Diaz (where the animals were to be returned afterward), gave a receipt with his thumbprint colored by a ballpoint pen. We took up quarters in Dona Herlinda's house.

A day later we made our formal visit to the curandera Maria Sabina, a woman made famous by the Wassons' publications. It had been in her hut that Gordon Wasson became the first white man to taste of the sacred mushrooms, in the course of a nocturnal ceremony in the summer of 1955. Gordon and Maria Sabina greeted each other cordially, as old friends. The curandera lived out of the way, on the mountainside above Huautla. The house in which the historic session with Gordon Wasson had taken place had been burned, presumably by angered residents or an envious colleague, because she had divulged the secret of teonanacatl to strangers. In the new hut in which we found ourselves, an incredible disorder prevailed, as had probably also prevailed in the old hut, in which half-naked children, hens, and pigs bustled about. The old curandera had an intelligent face, exceptionally changeable in expression. She was obviously impressed when it was explained that we had managed to confine the spirit of the mushrooms in pills, and she at once declared herself ready to "serve us" with these, that is, to grant us a consultation. It was agreed that this should take place the coming night in the house of Dona Herlinda.

In the course of the day I took a stroll through Huautla de Jimenez, which led along a main street on the mountainside. Then I accompanied Gordon on his visit to the Instituto Nacional Indigenista. This governmental organization had the duty of studying and helping to solve the problems of the indigenous population, that is, the Indians. Its leader told us of the difficulties that the "coffee policy" had caused in the area at that time. The president of Huautla, in collaboration with the Instituto Nacional Indigenista had tried to eliminate middlemen in order to shape the coffee prices favorably for the producing Indians. His body was found, mutilated, the previous June.

Our stroll also took us past the cathedral, from which Gregorian chants resounded. Old Father Aragon, whom Gordon knew well from his earlier stays, invited us into the vestry for a glass of tequila.

- from Hofman, A - LSD, My Problem Child, Chapter 6: