Who was María Sabina and how did she change the history of ethnomycology?
María Sabina lived in Huautla de Jiménez, in the mountains of the Sierra de Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. Her paternal family had a tradition in healing knowledge and were considered shamans. Her father died when she was 3 years old, so her mother went to work, she and María Ana were left in the care of her maternal grandparents. They lived in poverty and both had to help them in their jobs raising silkworms, animals, in the plantations and domestic chores.
The first mushroom ritual she attended was when an uncle of hers was sick and a healer treated him. Thanks to that experience, she recognized the mushrooms, while walking along a hill with her younger sister, María Ana. Impulsively, they both tried the mushrooms, laughed, cried and thus began to experiment with the visionary mushrooms or “The Holy Children”, what would you call psilocybes mushrooms.
At the age of 14, she was given away to marry Serapio Martínez, with whom she had three children: Catarino, Viviana and Apolonia. María Sabina emphasized that Serapio knew how to read and write. He joined the fight in the Mexican Revolution and when he returned, after a while, he died. She was widowed after six years of marriage. Faced with this situation, she became ill and they say that she could not move. No one knew how to cure her. She used the mushrooms as medicine and it was revealed to her that she should worship God and heal other people with them.
She went to work to support her children and her mother. She was a street vendor and worked in the fields. She did some cures, but she had to put it aside and over time she began to forget it.
After more than 10 years of mourning, Marcial Carrera appears, determined to conquer her. It was said that he was a witch and although she was not very interested, she ended up marrying him. They had six children and all died, except for her daughter Aurora. Marcial was drunk and cheated on her. In addition, he was violent and beat her.
In the middle of this bad moment of María Sabina, a crucial event occurs, her sister gets sick, and all the healers of the place assured that she would die. María Sabina decides to hold a ceremony to try to cure her. María Ana is healed and word quickly spreads about María Sabina's healing abilities. But Marcial, her husband, jealous of her powers, becomes even more aggressive with her. Until one day, her cheating with other women of hers played against him, since the children of the lover with whom he was cheating on her, killed him.
She again she is widowed. She says the mushrooms healed her and gave her strength during that time of abuse. Since the death of her second husband, she has dedicated herself entirely to healing through mushrooms and has become a well-known healer in the Huautla area. She treated emotional problems, addictions and even fights between families.
In 1955 Robert Gordon Wasson, an American banker and ethnomycologist, arrives in Huautla to meet María Sabina and her powerful mushrooms. Accompanied by photographer Allan Richardson and a translator from the same town, they arrive at the healer's house to experience a ceremony with “Los Niños Santos”.
The testimony and record of Wasson's visit were published in 1957 in Life magazine and caused a stir on a scientific as well as a social level. To protect her identity a little, she changes her name to Eva Méndez. He then publishes a string of books about it and word spreads about María Sabina. It was the 60-70s and the hippie movement was at its peak. A healer who used mushrooms in Mexico was very striking news for the time.
Many foreigners arrived, and from one day to the next, Huautla was filled with visitors looking for God or a transcendental experience, while others just wanted to get high. There were two cases of people who, being drugged with other substances, consumed mushrooms with María Sabina and ended up running down the hill to the city shouting incoherently, with their eyes blank, causing a stir in the town. She was accused of drug use and arrested twice. When this situation became known, important international anthropologists and scientists communicated with the president of Mexico, José Guillermo López, and asked him to release her.
María Sabina was an important healer who knew how to use hallucinogenic mushrooms to heal. She lived in Mexico. She did not know how to read or write. She didn't speak Spanish either. She was indigenous Mazatec, and that was her language. In Mazatec the word book does not exist. She didn't write her story. She didn't even tell her first hand, since she was translated into Spanish for foreigners and Mexicans interested in her power and knowledge. It is important to clarify that the life of María Sabina is reported and recorded by others. Her story, what she lived and what she knew, belongs to a language that we do not understand or speak.
Paul Stamets’ work of 40+ years as a mycologist inspired the character of Lieutenant Stamets in the “Star Trek: Discovery” series, made him the protagonist of the documentary Fantastic Fungi and has now been immortalized with the species Psilocybe stametsii (Dentinger & Furci, 2023).