Quetzalcoatl and His Mushrooms – Mushrooms in Mesoamerica

Editor’s Note:

As promised, here is an article that explores mushroom use in classical Mesoamerican cultures; it is not exhaustive, because it largely revolves around how the Aztecs used mushrooms in religious practice and for divination. This article will focus a good bit on the deity Quetzalcoatl, a heroic god who was much revered by the Aztecs, Maya, Toltecs, and other indigenous Americans.

Quetzalcoatl
An image of Quetzalcoatl from the Codex Magliabechiano, 16th century. Public Domain photograph.

One of the most common stories that schoolchildren are taught about the Aztecs is that they thought the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was in fact Quetzalcoatl, and this incident of mistaken identity opened up the door to much misery and suffering to the indigenous Mesoamericans at the hands of the invaders. Whether or not this tale is true is debatable, and many scholars believe that Cortés cooked up this narrative to please his royal masters, which was then reinforced by other European observers at the time. Nonetheless, I have included it because, well, it’s pretty interesting irrespective of whether or not Cortés invented the story.

In case you’re just stumbling upon this blog for the first time, I encourage you to take a look at the other posts I have written about the role of mushrooms in human history; I have posted a number of articles on this subject, including one about mushroom use 19,000 years ago in the Upper Paleolithic period, ancient Greece and Egypt, Rome, and ancient mycophiles in other parts of the world.

If your interest is more toward learning which mushrooms to hunt for in the forests of North America, there is plenty of past content on this blog that might satisfy you. Rest assured, this is not some Erowid-inspired blog that only deals in discussions of psychoactive fungi. Although I find the historical use of these organisms religiously to be a fascinating topic, my interest in mushrooms is purely culinary, aesthetic, and citizen-scientific. However, this bit of history is just too weird and cool to pass up.

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Quetzalcoatl – A Divine Mycophile

Quetzalcoatl
A bust of Quetzalcoatl in Teotihuacán. Photo by Jaime de la Fuente. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Spain.

“You have graciously come on earth, you have graciously approached your water, your high place of Mexico, you have come down to your mat, your throne, which I have briefly kept for you, I who used to keep it for you. You have graciously arrived, you have known pain, you have known weariness, now come on earth, take your rest, enter into your palace, rest your limbs; may our lords come on earth.”

When the Franciscan scholar Bernardino de Sahagún penned these words in the latter half of the 1700s, he attributed them to the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II, whose humble rhetoric ostensibly welcomed Hernán Cortés to the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan in 1519. Also, this passage was interpreted as an invitation to Cortés to take command of the city. The arrival of Cortés in Mesoamerica spelled disaster for the Aztecs, an ancient civilization that would eventually succumb to the Catholic invaders, driving their rich culture and religious practices underground. According to Sahagún’s Florentine Codex and Cortés’ own letters to Charles V, the Aztec king Moctezuma II presumed that the Spaniard was a divine being, the Plumed Serpent Quetzalcoatl.

Moctezuma had reason to believe that the pale skinned, blue-eyed newcomer was indeed the Aztec deity of knowledge and self-reflection. Although the Aztecs held the god Quetzalcoatl in high esteem, he was an absent ruler at the time of Cortés’ arrival; a man-god whose triumphant return to earth was prophesied to occur around the year that Cortés showed up on the scene.

Quetzalcoatl was an old god, an inheritance from the Toltecs, a people that thrived during the Mesoamerican Classical period (200 AD-1000 AD). Both Maya and Aztec people worshipped Quetzalcoatl, and artifacts at the Mayan city Chichèn Itzá bear a strong resemblance to Toltec iconography.

The Plumed Serpent was a heroic and benevolent god and a tireless protector of mankind. Iconically, Quetzalcoatl is a strange hybrid creature adorned with the brightly colored feathers of the quetzal bird and the body of a serpent. He also appears as a richly attired human warrior, an image that sometimes supplants Santa Claus and Christ in Mexican Christmas celebrations to this day.

Quetzalcoatl was, among other things, a deity with human frailties, and one of his primary weaknesses had to do with mushrooms. The Aztecs told all sorts of stories about the Plumed Serpent, and as with most mythological systems, some of the tales conflicted with one another and created an interesting patchwork of story lore.

Quetzalcoatl is credited with creating the earth, supporting all life by becoming the sun (if only for a little while), and stealing maize from the ants and gifting it to humans, which, considering the importance of corn to Mesoamerican peoples, was tantamount to creating civilization. Picture a cross between Odysseus and Coyote the Trickster, add a dash of divine might and a penchant for magic mushrooms, and you’ll grok Quetzalcoatl’s place in Mesoamerican mythology.

According to one widespread and popular legend, Quetzalcoatl came to earth to rule the world as a celibate man-god and became the living icon and leader of the Aztec priesthood. First he created mankind using bone meal and his own blood. After his arrival on earth, the newly corporeal Quetzalcoatl ran the length and breadth of Mexico bleeding from the wounds he’d inflicted upon his penis to create the human race. In each spot his blood splashed, magic mushrooms sprouted from the soil.

After this show of self-sacrifice, Quetzalcoatl settled into his role as king and ruled with wisdom and restraint. He instructed both men and gods in the uses of teonanàcatl, the psychoactive mushrooms of genus Psilocybe that grow all throughout Mexico. Teonanàcatl is interpreted to mean “flesh of the gods,” which is perhaps a linguistic remnant of its legendary origin as drops of divine penis-blood, or possibly simply a reference to the powers of the revered hallucinogenic mushrooms. Here is a passage written by a Catholic clergyman and scholar explaining the Aztecs’ relationship with the mushrooms:

“The native people would pick these little mushrooms, and some were small and yellow, and some were black. The had small round heads and slender stems. There were sometimes mixed and eaten with honey or with chocolate, and when they were eaten they would make one see many things which would or would not make them much afraid, or even laugh. Some would dance or weep, others would merely sit and dream. Some had visions of death, or of falling in battle. Some believed that they were being eaten by a wild animal and others believed that they would become very wealthy. All forms of good or evil could become a reality under the influence of the fungus, which the natives referred to as teonanàcatl, teo implies divine, and nanàcatl means meat or mushroom, hence the term ‘flesh of the gods’.” 

Psilocybe mushrooms and a few species in different genera—primarily Panaeolus and Gymnopilus—contain the psychoactive compounds psilocybin and psilocin. These two chemicals act as serotonin agonists and cause users to experience a wide range of psychedelic effects, from hallucinations to hilarity. In addition, magic mushrooms often cause feelings of profound connection to the earth, time dilation, and dissolution of self—or perhaps more appropriately in the case of the Aztecs, a blending of self with the universe.

Tezcatlipoca
Tezcatlipoca, the god of the nocturnal sky. Public Domain photograph.

For a time things were good and Quetzalcoatl set aside his vices: sex, intoxicating mushrooms, and feuds with a recalcitrant rival brother named Tezcatlipoca the Smoking Mirror, who was the god of the night.

However, the rule of Quetzalcoatl was not built to last. In a fit of jealousy and rage, Tezcatlipoca served his twin a mushroom-laced drink at a banquet for Quetzalcoatl’s minions and fellow gods, and the mighty Plumed Serpent became intoxicated (see: really, really stoned). So stoned in fact that he was unable to resist the wiles of the demon-goddess Tlazoteotl, who was the patron of sin and adultery. In his mushroom-induced stupor, Quetzalcoatl ended up having sex with Tlazoteotl, breaking his vow of celibacy in a most terrific fashion.

In his shame, Quetzalcoatl resigned his position as supreme and mighty leader and sailed east. As he rode the waves into the sunrise, Quetzalcoatl’s vessel burst into flames and consumed him. Thus disembodied, the Plumed Serpent rose to the heavens and his fiery heart lit the sun and gave it heat. Before his departure it is said that Quetzalcoatl promised to return to the people of Mexico, once more to rule them with all the wisdom, courage, and self-control he’d lost in the Tlazeoteotl’s bed.

Quetzalcoatl and Moctezuma II

Archaeologists have discovered statues of mushroom shamans that were carved over 3,000 years in Mexico and Guatemala, and by the time of Moctezuma’s coronation in 1502, the Aztec aristocracy routinely used Psilocybe mushrooms for divination and ecstatic rituals. The Aztec clergy believed Teonanàcatl was magical gift reserved for the upper crust of society, and harsh penalties were meted out upon those presumptuous enough to trip on mushrooms without the express permission and supervision of the theocrats.

References to magic mushrooms and other psychoactive substances appeared in Aztec religious art, and it is clear that the Aztecs had a profound relationship with these plants and mushrooms. Around the time Moctezuma came to power, sculptors created a very trippy statue of the god Xochipilli, who was known as the Prince of Flowers. Xochipilli was the Aztec god of love, beauty, games, blossoming plants, and corn. The Prince sits on a pedestal decorated with magic mushrooms and five psychoactive plants, and his wide-eyed stare and awestruck posture conveys a very altered state of mind indeed.

Hernán Cortés
A painting of Hernán Cortés. Public Domain photograph.

Moctezuma threw himself a fabulous party in the capital city of Tenochtitlan to celebrate his newly minted rule in 1502. Wealthy attendees gobbled up magic mushrooms by the handful and lapsed into hysterics, and the whole affair went over pretty well (fortunately there was no demon sex this time around). By all accounts, Moctezuma loved being on top of the heap and embraced a series of policies to widen the gap between the rich and poor, further stratifying an already strained social hierarchy. However, these dubious policies were not to be Moctezuma’s legacy; instead, he is remembered for failed leadership and extreme gastrointestinal distress.

When Hernán Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1520, he wore all the features of the lost god-king Quetzalcoatl: jade eyes, pale skin, nice armor, and a big ego. It was all very convincing, at least according to Cortés’ account. Moctezuma, upon learning of the newcomer, was reasonably sure that human rule on earth was finished and offered to abdicate his authority rather than risk a confrontation with the Plumed Serpent Quetzalcoatl.

Of course, it’s totally possible that Moctezuma’s offer was insincere, and that he knew full well that Cortés was no god, but the self-same stranger who’d been raiding and pillaging in Aztec borderlands for the better part of a year. It’s also just as believable that Moctezuma never uttered the words Bernardino de Sahagún attributed to him, and the “groveling natives” theme was cooked up in order to impress the royalty that funded operations in New Spain. One way or the other, the Spanish abhorred the Aztecs and their savage religious practices and myths, magic mushrooms and all.

Moctezuma II
A painting of Moctezuma II. Public Domain photograph.

By the summer of 1521, Catholic missionaries banned magic mushrooms and users faced mutilation or death. As with so many other oppressed peoples, the Aztecs took their religious use of mushrooms underground, and not much was known of these practices until J.P. Morgan VP and ethnobotanist R. Gordon Wasson traveled to Mexico and participated in a magic mushroom ritual under the guidance of a Mazatec curandera (which means healer or shaman) named Maria Sabina in the mid-1950s.

In 1957, an article by Wasson titled Seeking the Magic Mushroom appeared in Life magazine, which triggered a tremendous wave of interest in psychoactive mushrooms in North America among the beatniks, and added fuel to the fire of the burgeoning hippie movement.

Going forward, I will might explore the story of Wasson and those who followed him in the intellectual study of mushrooms (both psychoactive and otherwise), but for now I will only note that it’s clear that even though Cortés and his fellow Catholic invaders sought to stamp out any semblance of the Aztec identity and religious expression, they ultimately failed to totally destroy the shamanic practices of indigenous Mesoamericans.

At the end of the day, the mushroom was a spiritual cornerstone of Aztec society as an indelible part of the culture and history of indigenous Americans, and that legacy lives on in southern Mexico to this day. And the Aztecs weren’t alone. All over the globe, mushrooms of all sorts left an imprint (spore print?) on the great civilizations of the past, and their importance is difficult to overstate.


5 thoughts on “Quetzalcoatl and His Mushrooms – Mushrooms in Mesoamerica”

  1. Currently reading Graham Hancock’s book War God and read about the “Flesh of the Gods.” Wanted to more a little more reading about it and this was a very good and informative history of magic mushrooms in Mesoamerica.

    1. I am glad you enjoyed it, Crystal, thanks for the positive feedback. I find the Mesoamerican use of mushrooms to be absolutely fascinating, especially when it comes to the brutal intersection of Catholicism and the mythic traditions of the Maya and Aztecs.

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