High Times Greats: R. Gordon Wasson

The magical mushroom quest of R. Gordon Wasson (1898-1986).
High Times Greats: R Gordon Wasson
Photograph of R. Gordon Wasson by Allan B. Richardson in 1955, Mexico/ Wikimedia Commons

From a 1980s issue of High Times comes Peter Gorman’s tribute to the late godfather of the psychedelic revolution, R. Gordon Wasson. In honor of Wasson’s birthday on September 22, we’re bringing you the October, 1987 High Times cover story below.

To some, R. Gordon Wasson is clearly the man who pulled the trigger and fired the first round in the psychedelic revolution. To others, he was an extraordinary scholar, an able amateur botanist and anthropologist, a meticulous student of early man’s religion and an ardent traveler.

R. Gordon Wasson was born in Great Falls, Montana, in 1898, the son of a minister. He spent his early years in Newark, New Jersey, attended Columbia School of Journalism, taught there for a short time afterward, then moved to England to study at the London School of Economics. It was while in London that he met and fell in love with Valentina Pavlovna, a Russian emigré studying to become a doctor. In 1926, after Pavlovna had completed her studies, they married and moved to New York. There she began a pediatric practice which flourished; he wrote on economics for the New York Herald Tribune.

Some months later, while on a delayed honeymoon, Gordon Wasson first came in contact with wild mushrooms. As he put it: “In the afternoon of the first day in the Catskills, we went strolling…. Suddenly my bride spied wild mushrooms in the forest, and racing over the carpet of dried leaves in the woods, she knelt in poses of adoration before first one cluster and then another of these growths. She was overcome with joy at seeing the same kinds of mushrooms in the United States that she had seen in Russia.” That night she added the mushrooms to everything she cooked; he refused to eat, sure that all wild fungi were deadly poisonous and that he would be a widower in the morning.

Not the kind of auspicious beginning one might expect from a man who would become the world’s foremost authority on hallucinogenic mushrooms. Wasson’s wife had grown up gathering mushrooms for the table; he had been taught they were poisonous. The cultural opposition caused them to begin a lifelong search for the origins of those opposing viewpoints.

By 1928, Wasson had left journalism for banking, working as an investment banker for Morgan Guaranty Trust. Meanwhile, during her spare time, Valentina began collecting material on mushrooms in myth and literature. They began to vacation in areas where people were known for their love of mushrooms: Friesland, Lapland, Provence, and the Basque country. Friends in these places sent them material on mushrooms, and friends of friends did the same. Wasson soon had to coin a term for their field of inquiry. He named it ethnomycology, the study of the mushroom’s place in the culture of man. The material eventually grew so voluminous the Wassons decided to publish a study. While preparing the book, they realized how many religious references were involved. Suddenly Wasson and his wife had a simultaneous thought: Was it not probable that our ancestors worshipped a mushroom? Wouldn’t this explain the aura in which all fungi seem to be bathed? But what kind of mushroom was worshipped, and why?

This was the turning point in their work. They found themselves studying the mushroom not only for its anecdotal place in cultural history, but also for its probable religious significance. The first key to this riddle was the discovery of six extant primitive peoples in Siberia who still used hallucinogenic mushrooms in shamanistic rites. Further study indicated that even in cultures where mushrooms were taboo, they carried a supernatural aura. Greek literature was filled with references to mushrooms as “food of the gods.” Prohibitions against mortals eating them were severe.

The Wassons became obsessed with their work. The concept of drugs and religion was not entirely new: Mescaline had recently been synthesized from peyote buttons and were the subject of study among Indians of the Southwest and Northern Mexico, and Philippe de Felice had written that the connection between religion and the taking of drugs was “…a kind of phenomenon which cannot be disregarded by anyone who is trying to discover what religion is, and what are the deep needs it must satisfy.” Wasson’s father himself had written a book decrying Prohibition, citing alcohol use in religious service, but the trail the Wassons were on was broader than any of these. They were looking for a specific fungus which apparently had been used in disparate pans of the globe from Siberia to India, including China, and perhaps even in MesoAmerica.

A second turning point in the Wassons’ study came on September 19, 1952. They received two letters that day, both of them evidence they were on the right track. The first was a drawing of a pre-conquest Guatemalan stone carving representing a mushroom; the second was a letter from the poet Robert Graves calling their attention to an article by Richard Evans Schultes, the famed ethnobotanist. In it, Schultes presented evidence of a mushroom cult in Mexico; he had even brought back specimens of the supposedly magic mushroom for study at the Harvard Botanical Museum. Moreover, Schultes had claimed to have witnessed a shamanistic ritual in which they were used, though he made no claim to having ingested the mushrooms himself.

Since it ran counter to the prevailing thought of the day, Schultes’ paper, and even his specimens, had not raised many eyebrows at Harvard. Upon seeing his specimens, one of the botanists there remarked, “Dried mushrooms look like dried peyote tops, so they’re one and the same thing.”

In 1953 the Wassons made their first expedition to a town mentioned by Schultes, Huautla de Jiminez, in search of the magic mushroom cult. They were accompanied by anthropologist Roberto Weitlaner, the man who had made the first claims about the magic mushrooms and whose work had inspired Schultes.

Mushrooms opened up new worlds and new horizons. Wasson became convinced they were responsible for planting the seed of religion in primitive man. They also provided him with his first genuine awareness of ecstasy. He and his wife— who had extraordinary visions of her own when she tried the mushrooms—spent as much of the following year in Mexico as possible.

In 1954 Aldous Huxley had published The Doors of Perception, an essay detailing the effects of his first encounter with mescaline. But while Huxley loaded the gun, it was Wasson who pulled the trigger. On February 13, 1957, Life magazine published a 15-page article detailing, experientially, Wasson’s first experiences with the shamaness Maria Sabina. The fantastic style of the text, coupled with Richardson’s extraordinary photographs ushered in, with one fell swoop, the age of psychedelics.

Wasson described the ritual in such amazing terms that years later the leaders of the psychedelic revolution would all nod their heads to him: He inspired them, told them the ideal conditions under which hallucinogens were to be taken, what they could expect, and how to have a good and beneficial trip. Timothy Leary dedicates a chapter in his book High Priest to Wasson. Others, from Owsley to Sandoz to Wolfe, acknowledge the Life article as having burned into their consciousness the desire to know what Wasson had experienced.

For Wasson, it was never his intent that anyone should follow him to Maria Sabina’s home in Huautla de Jiminez. In the Life article he never mentioned a town, and he changed Sabina’s name to Eva Mendez in an effort to protect her privacy. But Wasson was well-known, stylishly flamboyant, and already had been the subject of magazine articles. Other writers who knew the real location of his velada were not as thoughtful. Maria Sabina and her little town were soon descended upon by hordes of would-be visionaries, curiosity seekers, and even tour guides and their charges.

In a sense, it couldn’t have been any other way: Huxley had whetted the appetites of a generation for mind-expanding drugs; Wasson excited the imaginations of those who excited us. His descriptions of tripping in a deep Mexican night with a powerful modern-day curandera must have boggled the mind in a day when hallucinogens were nearly unknown. Some writers have gone as far as to say that had he not published his story in Life, there would never have been a psychedelic revolution (the term psychedelic was one Wasson refused to use, coining instead entheogen for plants which produce a divine experience). For better or worse, the world was changed forever.

Unfortunately, the change was not for the better. Maria Sabina herself is quoted in a biography as saying: “When we Mazatecs speak of the veladas we do so in a low voice, and, so as not to pronounce the mushroom’s name in Mazatec, we call them ‘little things’ and ‘little children’… From the moment when the strangers arrived the holy children lost their purity. They lost their strength… before Wasson I felt that the Holy Children elevated me. I no longer feel so.”

Wasson was crushed when he realized how she felt and how disturbed the Mazatec rituals had become. Shamans and curanderas began to crop up all over Mexico offering their services to all, regardless of the intent of the seekers. For Wasson, this was a profaning of a sacred ritual of enlightenment. Schultes says that Wasson’s intent was “purely scientific and sociological. His interest was in the effect of these plants and the use of them in religious and magical ceremonies, ancient and modern. Secondly, he wished to see if they might not lead to compounds that could be used in our medicine.” But Wasson would later defend himself by saying, “What else could we have done? Had we refrained from presenting to the world the facts as we knew then, a novel and major chapter in Early Man’s cultural history would perhaps have vanished forever.” It was, he felt, just an accident that he had arrived in Mexico during the same decade as the highways, airports, and telephones.

Gordon Wasson and Valentina continued their search for the roots of religion in Guatemala, New Guinea, and Borneo for the following two years, until Valentina’s death. Wasson was devastated by the loss, but perhaps her death drove him to work even harder than before. In 1963 he quit his position at the Morgan Guaranty and Trust and set off for the Orient. With a translator, Wendy Doniger, to whom he credits coauthorship of SOMA: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, Wasson began a painstakingly slow dissection of the Rig Veda, the oldest religious text ever discovered, hoping to prove that the previously unidentified “divine plant” of the text was actually the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria, also known as Soma. Not only did he eventually prove his point to the scholastic world, he went further and traced its influence from parts of Russia through India, the Middle East, and into China and Europe.

Following his return from the Orient, Wasson turned his attention to the study of the ancient Greek Rites of Eleusis. With the help of Carl Rock and Albert Hofmann he proposed and proved that the ancient rites incorporated ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus growing on barley, as integral to the ceremony. The implications of this line of thought were inspiring: If true, it is not unlikely that Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Sophocles had experienced hallucinogenic inspiration similar to that of LSD.

In his later years Wasson traveled, lectured, and wrote further on the ethnomycology of magic mushrooms. He died on December 23, 1986, while visiting his daughter in Binghamton, New York, shortly after finishing Persephone’s Quest, a consolidation of theories on psychedelic involvement in early religion.

He is survived by his daughter and son.

Wasson was cremated in Washington, D.C., and his ashes were interred there. Considering the scope of his life’s work, it is remarkable how unnoticed his death has gone in the major media.

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