Maria Sabina, in the shaman’s biography put together by one of her confidant’s, Jerome Rothenberg, relates her first experience with a ‘Wise Man,’ those that dispense a particular type of medicine through living a life with mushrooms as their companions. It began, Sabina states, with her uncle taking ill and not being able to leave his bed:
“The Wise Man Juan Manuel, who was not a very old man, arrived at our hut after nightfall. He had a bundle wrapped up in banana leaves that he treated with exaggerated care. I went up close to see what he had… but [he] rapidly… took it in his hands and prevented me from getting any closer…
‘Nobody can look at what I have here. It isn’t good: a curious look could spoil what I have here.’ he said.
Curiosity made me stay awake. I saw how the Wise Man… unwrapped the banana leaves. From there he took out various big fresh mushrooms the size of a hand. I was accustomed to seeing those mushrooms in the woods where I took care of the chickens and the goats. There were many of that kind of mushrooms…” (Rothenberg and Estrada, 11)
She goes on to relate the vigil that the Wise Man conducted with the help of what she called the ‘saint children’ and ‘San Pedro,’ a mixtures of tobacco, lime and garlic that is rubbed onto the arms of sick individuals during rituals (Rothenberg and Sabina, 12) Her uncle survived and was healed by the ritual. The saint children, according to her tale, then appeared to her and her sister in the forest a few days later. She states that she recalls her grandparents speaking favorably of them and with that intergenerational knowledge she and her sister, as children, ingested them. There was no ritual, no initiatory practice that made her a ‘Wise Woman.’ The mushroomkin chose her and her sister to share their magic with. Sabina and her sister continued to ingest them because of the visions that they produced brought them closer to Christ and they staved off the hunger that they always felt as children. In her biography she states that:
“Sometime later I knew that the mushrooms were like God. That they gave wisdom, that they cured illnesses, and that our people, since a long time ago, had eaten them. That they had power, that they were the blood of Christ.” (Rothenberg and Estrada, 14).
Mushrooms as the body or flesh of deities is an idea that has existed well before Christianity, as we have encountered already in the short history of this investigation.
Perhaps mushrooms are some of the few gods that still live among us and speak to us directly.
And why wouldn’t we think that? Why would be view them as commonplace, as a mundane part of nature? They have existed here on our planet since the beginning of time.
Take as evidence the findings of researchers in 2017 that approached proving the timedepth that mushrooms have existed through the identification of mycophagous beetles trapped in amber. The researchers begin by naming those varieties of mushroom fossils that we have evidence of, namely Marasmius, Marasmiellus and Crinipellis, all of which have modern day ancestors who’s evolutionary path has diverged little since the mid-Cretaceous — 105 million years ago (Can et al, 2).
These modern-day siblings still do the same job as their ancient ancestors, decaying leaf litter and wood. The researchers suggest that the presence of specialized mycophagous rove beetles fossils in amber allows us to intuit the existence of their food (Can et al, 3).
Imagine, walking through the woods and into the ecological assemblage of one of the three mushrooms above. That is as close to time travel that a magic-user is likely to get with remote viewing the Jurassic era herself. Mushroom-lore has been robbed from those of us that were raised in an imperial Western culture, but for what reason?
R. Gordon Wasson was an early holder of this opinion. He states in his 1980 work, ‘The Wonderous Mushroom’:
“I believe… mushrooms were ignored [due to a] deep-seated mycophobic strain in the West-Euopean elements that have studied or observed the Nahuatl culture, a latent mycophobia, a subliminal rejection, that runs through much of Western civilization and that dates from a time in prehistory when the cult of assorted entheogenic mushroom species was superseded by other religious foci and ultimately by the Christian religion.” (Wasson, xx)
His first point in the above quote is supportive of my assertion, but what of the second, that mushroom-lore was superceded by Christianity? His own informant, Maria Sabina, refutes this. Mushrooms were not superseded by other religious foci, they were syncretized with them, with the mushrooms clearly preceeding Christianity in the minds of those that know the ‘little saints’. All mushroom-lore has been with us since proto-humans have been putting food into our mouths, which is essentially forever. Mushroom-lore, living with mushroomkin as companion species and spirits, is our oldest magic. It is certainly older than the discovery and cultural assimilation of teosinte and its domesticated cousin, maize, by the Aztec ancestors of Maria Sabina.
Mushrooms and maize have grown up together in the religio-spiritual constructs of indigenous people. Wasson, when reporting on his ethnomycological predecessor Evans Schultes’ encounter with Wise Men and mushroom rituals states that:
“In 1938 Schultes took back to Harvard from Huautla de Jiménez specimens of the mushrooms and Johnson with his companions succeeded in enlisting a shaman for a… session. This session turned out to be one where grains of corn were used for divination... and the mushrooms were ingested by the shaman alone.” (Wasson, xix)
Reading maize is still practiced today and, if you will permit a diversion before examining from our primary spirit-form, I would like to offer you some details on the practice. All of what follows comes from the fascinating paper, ‘Reading maize: A narrative and psychological approach to the study of divination in Mesoamerica’ from the Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies.
Reading maize is done to predict the outcome of illnesses, to interpret dreams, omens, or other events in the future that may weigh on the one consulting the shaman. The entire act of divination consists of remedies provided by the seer and offerings to ‘It Naaxwin’ the Earth Deity (Rojas, 225). The author goes on to state:
“In Poxoyëm, the Ayöök town where the research for this current article was carried out, the act of divining with maize is called mook pajk wëjwë. Mook means maize, pajk is seed, and wëjwë (or wëjpë) is to divine.
Maize is a central aspect of the worldview and culture of Mesoameri-can peoples. The Ayöök are no exception. Every one of the seeds, in each cob, is a product of It Naaxwin, the Earth. She is an omniscient and omni-present entity that witnesses the development of our lives. She knows and hears all. She is everywhere, it could be said that maize is her favorite son, as our sacred nourishment and daily source of food. Therefore, as with It Naaxwin, maize deserves respect. As It Naaxwin, maize is alive, has a spirit, and it can see, listen and feel. If by mistake, a maize seed falls on the ground, it should be immediately picked up and given a kiss as a gesture of apology…
Every consultation begins with [an] invocation and the pouring of mezcal for It Naaxwim. The deity’s permission to be consulted is sought… A prayer is also given for the well-being and health of the consultant while holding a lot of maize and making the sign of the cross… These rituals are capable of mitigating or even inverting bad prognostications. They are also ways of easing affliction.” (Rojas, 229)
It is reported that between 16 and 18 kernels are normally used and the anatomy of the kernels offer meaning to the diviner:
“The forepart of the seed, where the tip cap is, resembles a face with the nose and eyes of a person; the squarish end of the endosperm corresponds to the back of a person. On one side of the body, the surface has a concavity and on the reverse, the seed is flat.” (Rojas, 229-230)
“From the signs then, the seeds point toward the symbols, which vary depending on their position. When the concavity is on top, this indicates a living person and generally a positive answer. If the flat surface is on top, this signals a deceased individual or a negative outcome. It may be easier to recognize the seeds as agents, either alive or dead, such as relatives, friends or neighbors, as well as agencies that correspond to events or feelings such as love, abandonment, deception, treason, lies, gossips, problems, happiness, triumph, job, money, sickness, anguish, abortion, pregnancy, etc. These agents and agencies connect with time and space in order to acquire significance in the narrative.
The maize is cast on top of a table or flat surface, most of the time on top of an embroidered tortilla napkin. This napkin offers a genuine spatial dimension while representing a known geographical space, which can be the house, the town itself, a region, a country or even the entire continent. This piece of cloth comprises the horizontal ground of the world. During the reading session it is common to hear diviners referring to geographical features, for example “your job is out of town”, “a person gossips in the place where the sun sets”, “your road is free of obstacles”, “the North is free (the way to the United States)”. This napkin is essential in bringing the chronotope alive during the divinatory narrative, especially significant for the space component.”” (Rojas, 229-230)
A Western magic-user could certainly use an important cloth, like that wrapping their favorite tarot deck, or, another interpretation of this could be the use of an actual map or sketch that represents the temporal and geographical components of the divination. Incorporating fungi or their sigils to represent desired effects on the tableau is also an option. A type of divinatory diorama with maize seed representing the people or spirits in the space. The spatio-temporal component of the divination is unique.
The author goes on to provide more rich details on the practice:
“There are two ways to cast the maize seeds. One consists of throwing the whole bunch of seeds smoothly with one hand, at once, on top of the napkin (like throwing dice). The second method starts by placing one seed in the center of the napkin. Often, this seed represents the client, so it must be laid in the “living” position, with the concavity upside and “looking” downwards, toward the diviner… In other situations, regarding an inquiry that deals with more persons, the necessary amount of seeds would be placed on the napkin with a clear identification of the persons involved. Afterwards, the seeds inside one hand will be thrown one by one to the maize in the center, holding them in a “living” form. Once they fall, their position may change to “alive” or “dead”.” (Rojas, 232)
Kernels that fall with their backs up, signifying a negative spirit or an ancestor, can be interpreted as fundamental figures in the future of the querant. If these are left unattended — if these spirits are not given offerings, then diseases, bad dreams and bad luck can manifest (Rojas, 229).
“With this method, little by little the seeds provide images on top of the table, or make the “client” or “people” in the center change place and move in different directions. The arrangement of seeds when the last seed is thrown brings a final diagnosis. The cast of seeds is performed several times for every question, with one or both methods, until the reading is clear. Three throws is an adequate number for each session.
Once rolled, the arrangement of the kernels creates images that convey conventions and signs which can be orally expressed… the diviner identifies the points of the story where time and space intersect.” (Rojas, 232)
Variations of the ritual also exist throughout Latin America. For instance:
“Among the K’iche’ in Guatemala, divination starts by placing the largest crystal of a bunch of small stones and seeds at the center of the table, called ilol, literally the ‘seer’” (Rojas, 236)
The use of other materials also strengthens the theory that the placing of mushroomkin or their sigils on the table is an acceptable variation as well.
Maize and mushroomkin are members of the same assemblage in more ways than one. Our spirit-form for this week reveals a more intimate interkingdom relationship between the two. Ustilago maydis is one of the most prominent members of the group Ustilaginales, which are unique pathogens that effect seed grains world wide. A more common name for U. maydis is corn smut, and it is only found in conjunction with corn or corn’s pre-domestication ancestor, teosinte (Herrera and Martínez-Espinoza, 149). The fact that Corn Smut also effect teosinte means that it is possible that they co-evolved together. The fungus has certainly been around long enough for the Olmec, Aztec and Maya to have learned how to use it to their gastronomic and economic advantage.
It has been considered a delicacy in Mexico for a thousand years or more, and is now, as any good mushroomkin-on-a-mission does, making its way into the ’nouveau cuisine’ of fine restaurants (Herrera and Martínez-Espinoza, 149). Beginning its life cycle as a yeast, U. maydis only transubstantiates into a mushroom in the presence of maize or teosinte. Unlike most mushrooms whose fruiting bodies are triggered by the lack of nutrition, the fruiting bodies require nutrition to form (Herrera and Martínez-Espinoza, 152).
Known as Huitlacoche in Mexico, the fungus contains proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins that contribute to its nutritional value, also it has been reported that it contains proteins with balanced levels of essential amino acids, something which does not occur in corn having a deficiency mostly in lysine. The fungus also contains compounds with antioxidant properties (León-Ramirez et al, 256). Once infected, Huitlacoche turns corn into a complete protein, creating a more nutritional food literally out of thin air. In Mexico, an adult will consume over 25 grams of corn protein daily — the equivalent of 1100 Kcal, a very high percentage when based on a diet that typically contains around 55 grams of protein and around 2000 Kcal a day (León-Ramirez et al, 258).
Known as Bia’hui’ in Zapotec, the production of corn smut is in third place in Mexico, trailing behind Agaricus bisporus and Pleurotus ostreatus. It is highly digestible, possesses a unique flavor, like the sweetest corn and the highest grade mushroom together (von Frank S and von Frank A, 2017) and maintains all of its nutritional value even after dehydrating or cooking. In Mexico, one cob of sweet corn’s market price is around 0.20 USD. One contaminated with huitlacoche is sold for 2.00 USD or more (León-Ramirez et al, 258). Huitlacoche is financial magic. It is rich in vitamins like riboflavin, biotin, niacin and folic acid and has a high percentage of antioxidants (León-Ramirez et al, 259). Not only financial magic, this mushroom kin is clearly a form of health magic as well as it would greatly improve the health of those on a largely corn-based diet if they had regular access to huitlacoche.
It has been studied by biologists for over 250 years. According to the 1995 paper, ‘Huitlacoche (Ustilago maydis) as a food source — biology, composition and production’:
“Common smut of maize has been of interest to biologists and farmers for more than 250 years. Some of the first reports that discuss maize smut with some precision appeared in 1760. The cause of common smut, the fungus U. maydis… was recognized in the early part of the nineteenth century. In 1883, Julius Oscar Brefeld demonstrated beyond a doubt the infective nature of U. maydis by spraying maize plants with a suspension of sporidia and by dropping sporidia into the whorls of maize. He proved that you, above the ground, meristematic tissues were subject to infection. Brefeld also demonstrated that U. maydis could be propagated indefinitely on nutrient substrates, including manure decoction… In 1917, Piemeisel… found that vigorously growing plants were most susceptible to smut attack, teliospores remained viable for several years, and cultures retained virulence when grown on artificial media… The method that has given the best results for production of galls on ears is injection.” (Valverde et al, 192)
Other monikers for our spirit form are Devil’s Corn, Huitlacoche is roughly translated to ‘Raven’s Excrement’ or more coarsely, ‘Black Shit’ and if the term ‘smut’ is translated into modern language, our spirit’s name also be ‘Corn Soot’ (Bob, 2007), making our mushroomkin a relative to a favorite sprite of Hayao Miyazaki.
For those of you interested in attempting to invoke our Soot Daemon, cultures are readily available or if found in the wild, a culture can be created by streaking the black spores across potato dextrose agar or another solid nutritional media (Valverde et al, 215). As mentioned above, the most reliable method of infection is through injection directly into a sweet corn cob. It is reported that the Silver Queen variety of sweet corn is especially susceptible, which is important because there are many hybrids that have been bred to be less susceptible to infection, like the Silver King variety (Bob, 2007)
It is also worth mentioning that our Soot Daemon is a powerful antibiotic against Bacillus subtilis, Staphylococcus aureus and Mycobacterium smegmatis (Valverde et al, 215) and that the Zuni used it to induce labor (Bob, 2007).
The Soot Daemon’s sigil is useful for producing radiant health, especially in those that are experiencing malnourishment due to poverty or overwork. Focusing on the sigil, along with modern or traditional medical treatment, can assist with the elimination of infections or to kick-start labor for a child who is reluctant to leave the womb.
His sigil is also a gateway to the hordes of spirits connected with the Olmec, Aztec and Maya empires. It is lucky to hang in restaurants, as it is evident that our spirit-form is pushing the probability matrix to find its way onto the plates of the entire world. It is a sigil that connects one with luxury and the finest things in life through good health and adding 10x wealth to one’s normal income.
Sigil courtesy of Ghostly Harmless’ Sigilizer
Bob F (2007) Huitlacoche. Cornell Mushroom Blog. Retrieved from blog.mycology.cornell.edu/2007/11/13/huitlacoche.
Can C, Lessen R A B, Hibbet D S, Xia F and Huang D (2017) Mycophagous rove beetles highlight diverse mushrooms in the Cretaceous. Nature Communications. pp 1-7
Herrera J R and Martínez-Espinoza A D (1998) The fungus Ustiilago maydis, from the aztec cuisine to the research laboratory. International Microbiology (1) pp 149-15
León-Ramirez C G, Sánchez-Arreguín J A, Ruiz-Herrera J (2014) Ustilago maydis, a delicacy of the Aztec cuisine and a model for research. Natural Resources (5) pp 256-267.
Rojas A (2016) Reading maize: A narrative and psychological approach to the study of divination in Mesoamerica. Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies. pp 224-246
Valverde M E, Parades-López O, Paraky J K and Guevara-Lara F (1995) Huitlacoche (Ustilago maydis) as a food source — biology, composition and production. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition (35, 3) pp 191-229.
von Frank S and von Frank A (2017) When life gives you corn smut, make Huitlacoche soup. Tyrant Farms. Retrieved from https://www.tyrantfarms.com/when-life-gives-you-corn-smut-make-huitlacoche-soup/
Marasmius from John Van Der Heul
Marasmiellus from Adam Bryant
Crinipellis from Gordon C. Snelling
Ustilago maydis from Britt Bunyard
All are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.