Long before 1960s counter-culture, an indigenous Mexican healer was creating extraordinary poetry under the influence of psychedelic mushrooms. As the British Council celebrates Mexican literature at the London Book Fair, author Chloe Aridjis writes about María Sabina, who had a lasting influence on the country's literature.
She spent her entire life in a small Mazatec village up in the mountains of Oaxaca and worked the land in order to pay for beer and cigarettes. She did not know how to read or write; her verses were either spoken or sung. She expressed herself through the voice of the sacred mushroom, in a language that could be neither taught nor acquired. Her chants were first translated from her native Mazatec into English and, only later, into Spanish. Yet in the eyes of many, María Sabina is considered one of Mexico’s greatest poets.
I still remember the first time, as a child, I heard of her — it was February 1983 and at a traffic light in Mexico City, my parents had seen the headline and bought a newspaper from the vendor. María Sabina, the great mushroom priestess, oral poet, and healer/shaman, was ailing. My father, a poet himself, had read transcriptions of her work. He rang the paper and sent her a message via the journalist. The following day, he received a reverse charge call from Oaxaca from María Sabina’s grandnephew, who confirmed she was very weak. They arranged for her to come via taxi all the way from Huautla de Jiménez, her village, to the capital.
María Sabina was examined at the Institute of Cardiology and then at the General Hospital: the verdict was severe malnutrition. Word spread at the hospital that the famous shaman was present, and soon other patients began visiting her room hoping to be healed. Yet how was it that the country’s most renowned curandera (healer) had been dying of hunger? Mexico encompasses a vast geography of indigenous worlds that have managed to survive extreme poverty, social and cultural discrimination, abuse by the authorities, and destruction of habitat. However, their plight is rarely at the forefront of official concerns.
It took a foreigner to bring her recognition: R. Gordon Wasson, an unconventional banker from New York, cultivated a lifelong fascination with hallucinogenic mushrooms. Wasson’s account of his visit to Oaxaca was published in an issue of LIFE magazine in June 1957. Despite giving her the name Eva Mendez to protect her identity, the article catapulted María Sabina to fame.
In his piece, Wasson tells of having gone to a remote mountain village in search of the mythical mushrooms and those who used them in rituals. Announcing his quest, he was promptly led by villagers to María Sabina. And so it was that on the night of 29-30 June 1955, Wasson and photographer Allan Richardson were, in Wasson’s words, 'the first white men in recorded history to eat the divine mushrooms', under her guidance. In an adobe house, in the presence of twenty villagers (there were always a few children, though they weren't allowed to partake), the two men were given chocolate to drink. Then María Sabina counted out the mushrooms – always in pairs, she would divide them into male and female – and handed Wasson six pairs in a cup. As he chewed them slowly, wincing at their acrid taste, all the candles were snuffed out, leaving everyone in darkness till dawn.
Wary at first, the nausea and nervousness soon gave way to the most splendid of visions. Wasson felt wide awake. He saw grand gardens and constructions, but none he’d seen in life, as if he were drawing on a collective unconscious, a universal repository of visions. He claimed they were vivid in colour, sharp in focus, and always harmonious. They began with art motifs like those in textiles, and then evolved into 'resplendent palaces with courts, arcades, gardens'. Later, the walls of the house seemed to dissolve, leaving his spirit even freer to travel. When he repeated the ritual a few days later, he saw a river with estuaries, and flowing water — and a beautiful, enigmatic woman in primitive garments, very still, like a statue, but breathing. 'It seemed as though I was viewing a world of which I was not a part and with which I could not hope to establish contact. There I was, poised in space, a disembodied eye, invisible, incorporeal, seeing but not seen.'
The mushrooms were eaten in twos, and María Sabina’s words were spoken in couplets. During the all-night vigil, it was as if the traveller was entering a world where poetry was structure and structure was poetry, a world ruled by symbolic associations and dreamlike architecture, where time ceased to exist and one was both inside and outside at once. During the ceremony María Sabina would eat twice as many mushrooms as everyone else but remained calm and dignified. Wasson was aware of the priestess as she hummed, chanted and clapped, leading everyone towards ever greater heights of ecstasy.
My father’s book of her verses is signed with a fingerprint. Once she was strong enough to leave hospital, she came to our house. In walked a very small old woman with two grey braids and an aura, accompanied by three family members who helped translate into Spanish. She sat on the sofa between me and my sister and remarked on how our Labrador’s gaze was that of a human rather than a dog. I remember following her eyes with my own, curious to see what they alighted on. I listened to her voice, toothless yet powerful, and then later, on a record, to her chants.
I am a shooting star woman, says
I am a trumpet woman, says
I am a drum woman, says
I am a woman violinist, says
Because I am a woman of letters, says
Because I am a Book woman, says
The 'says' refers to the mushroom speaking. María Sabina did not take credit for her poetry: the mushrooms, her niños santos, or holy children, as she called them, spoke through her; she was simply their interpreter, and she treated them with great respect. Some shamans would call the mushrooms 'clowns', and she sometimes called herself a 'clown woman'. Laughter, curative, was often part of the ceremony. She claimed to see the mushrooms as children dancing around her, singing and playing instruments. She translated for them, was their instrument. Unlike the other shamans, she added cadence and musicality to the ritual, made the song her own and expressed it with her entire body. Her language emerged undistilled from somewhere ancestral, far from ego, far from 'culture'.
Once her existence became known thanks to the article in LIFE, rock musicians, artists and Beat poets travelled to Huautla de Jiménez, hoping to be guided on a journey by the mushroom priestess. After reading Wasson’s exalted narrative, who could blame them? Yet, she condemned those who ignored the mushrooms’ sacred purpose in favour of purely hedonistic pursuits.
Her final years were marred by poverty, illness and misfortune. Her son was killed, and her home burnt down by villagers angered by the unwelcome attention she had brought their community. Death was approaching, she was aware of her suffering; she was born poor and would die poor.
Yet, she had fulfilled her calling. In an oral account of her life, she describes a mushroom vision whereby the 'Principal Ones' – tutelary gods, the lords of the rivers and mountains, ancient invisible presences in nature – announced her mission:
'On the table of the Principal Ones, a book appeared, an open book that went on growing until it was the size of a person. In its pages there were letters. It was a white book, so white it was resplendent.
One of the Principal Ones spoke to me and said, "María Sabina, this is the Book of Wisdom. It is the Book of Language. Everything that’s written in it is for you. The Book is yours, take it so that you can work." I exclaimed with emotion, "That is for me. I receive it."'
Since her, dozens of other poets from different indigenous communities – Tzotzil, Mayan, Zapotec – have continued to render the world around them in verse. People have begun taking their voices more seriously; they are recognised as contributions to literature, not ethnography. Yet, so far, there’s been no-one remotely like María Sabina.
English translations are from 'María Sabina: Reflections', edited by Jerome Rothenberg (University of California Press, 2003).
Find out more about the London Book Fair's 2015 Mexico Market Focus Cultural Programme, which will bring the best in contemporary Mexican writing and publishing to the UK, giving audiences a rare opportunity to meet renowned Mexican writers.