I recently read a beautiful poem and I was curious to know more about the poet Maria Sabina. I assumed that she would be a modern poet, but what I discovered was a fascinating story.
María Sabina Magdalena García was born over a century ago in a community of Mazatec, an indigenous people of Mexico who live in Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Maria Sabina spent her entire life in the remote village of Huautla de Jiménez, up in the Sierra mountains in this area. Maria Sabina belonged to a family of traditional curandera (healers) and shamans. Among many indigenous peoples the healer or shaman has a very important function in the community. It is believed that these healers communicate with this world and that of the gods, and thus have the ability to cure both physical and spiritual conditions, and even predict the future.
The healing ceremonies of the Mazatec included the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms (which they called “holy children”) as a method of contact with divinity. It is said that when Maria was just eight years old she and her sister were sitting under a tree when they noticed some of these mushrooms growing wild, and ingested them. The little girls had a terrifying hallucinatory experience, but during this Maria heard an otherworldly voice that told her about some herbs that would cure her uncle who was very sick at the time. She followed the instructions about where to find these, and the herbs cured her uncle.
The young girl became known in the village as a sabia or wise one. Maria seemed to have intuitively developed a knowledge of the ancient Mazatec rituals and the healing power which was attributed to the ritual intake of a particular species of fungi (Mexican Psilocybe) which grow only in mountain range of Sierra Mazatec.Thus began Maria’s lifelong use of ‘magic mushrooms’ for special healing sessions known as velada. Local people visited Maria not only to be healed physically, but also for spiritual guidance. Under the influence of the hallucinogenic mushrooms she guided the patients through out-of-body experiences that revealed the cure for the illness. She claimed that the mushrooms produced wisdom in her; as she said much later in life “I am the woman who looks inside and examines.”
Maria was totally dedicated to her healing ceremonies with mushrooms that included ritual chanting, tobacco smoke, consumption of mescal (an agave plant), and ointments extracted from medicinal plants. Therapeutic laughter was also a part of the ceremony. The rituals were conducted at night because it was believed that the healer was guided in the journey by the stars. The veladas were held purely for medicinal purposes, to purge illness and heal the sick.
Maria Sabina would have continued to live her life as the local curandera and sabia in her remote mountain village, and she and her practice of magic mushrooms or “holy children” as she called them, would have died unknown to the outside world. But destiny had planned another ending to her story.
In the early 1950s, an American Robert Gordon Wasson and his wife who were interested in ethnobotany were looking at the use of hallucinogenic plants in the rituals of indigenous groups in different parts of the world. As they were travelling in the Mazatec Sierra region, they heard of a famous healer of Huautla. In 1955, they travelled to the remote mountain village, and to gain access to her, pretended that they had come to be treated by Maria Sabina. As a curandera, Sabina would never deny a request for help. By then she was already in her sixties and her ceremonies were not known outside her immediate area. She conducted several veladas using the mushrooms with the foreigners, who also documented the entire experience in photos and recordings. When they returned, they also took back with them samples of the fungi which was identified as Psilocybe Mexicana. The fungus was cultivated in Europe and its primary ingredient, psilocybin, was isolated in 1958 by Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD.
In 1957 Life magazine published an article which chronicled the Wasson’s experiences with Maria and her magic mushrooms. Maria Sabina became famous; people from all over the world began to visit her. By the mid-sixties, at the height of the hippie culture, there was a deluge of visitors to Huautla de Jiménez–media, tourists, artists, intellectuals, anthropologists, researchers, and celebrities (including among others, John Lennon, Walt Disney. Aldous Huxley, and Carlos Castaneda). Sadly, many of these visitors were interested purely in getting high on the magic mushrooms, and psychedelic recreational pursuits, and were disrespectful of local culture and traditions. The wanton rush to gather the mushrooms also eroded the delicate ecological balance of the mountain slopes and forests.
The unwanted attention completely altered the social dynamics of the community and threatened to destroy an ancient Mazatec tradition. The people of Huautla de Jiminez put the blame on Maria Sabina and accused her profiting from their tradition. Villagers attacked and tried to burn down her house several times; they tried to run her out of the village. The police accused her of being a drug dealer. Maria Sabina was ostracised by her community.
Interestingly, she accepted her fate as if it were pre-determined and had been told to her during one of her ceremonies. But she regretted that she had opened up the ceremony for a foreigner, and felt that the sanctity of the velada had been irredeemably desecrated by the recreational use of her “holy children”. She realised that “From the moment the foreigners arrived, the holy children lost their purity. They lost their force. They ruined them.” Later in life she became bitter about her many misfortunes and how others had profited from her name. She spent her last years in abject poverty and malnutrition, and died in a hospital in 1985 at the age of 91 years.
While she may have later attained notoriety for her magic mushrooms, María Sabina is regarded as a sacred figure in Huautla. She is also respected and honoured as one of Mexico’s greatest poets. She did not know how to read or write; her verses were either spoken or sung like chants in her native dialect. She said that it was not her words that she expressed, but the voice of her ninos santos or holy children who spoke through her. She claimed to see the mushrooms as children dancing around her, singing and playing instruments. She was simply their interpreter and she treated them with great respect. She added cadence to her words and expressed them with her entire body. Her chants were first translated from her native Mazatec into English and, only later, into Spanish.
Sharing the poem that led me to this incredible story.
Cure yourself with the light of the sun and the rays of the moon.
With the sound of the river and the waterfall.
With the swaying of the sea and the fluttering of birds.
Heal yourself with mint, with neem and eucalyptus.
Sweeten yourself with lavender, rosemary, and chamomile.
Hug yourself with the cocoa bean and a touch of cinnamon.
Put love in tea instead of sugar, and take it looking at the stars.
Heal yourself with the kisses that the wind gives you and the hugs of the rain.
Get strong with bare feet on the ground and with everything that is born from it.
Get smarter every day by listening to your intuition, looking at the world with the eye of your forehead.
Jump, dance, sing, so that you live happier.
Heal yourself, with beautiful love, and always remember: you are the medicine.
Today is Earth day. What better way to celebrate than to savour these words and make them our mantra for life and living.