Entheogenics and the Maya

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The ancient Maya are thought to have used entheogens, or chemical substances, typically of plant origin, that were ingested to produce non-ordinary or altered states of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes. "Entheogen," an alternative term for a hallucinogen or psychedelic drug, is derived from ancient Greek words ἔνθεος (entheos, meaning "full of the god, inspired, possessed") and γενέσθαι (genesthai, meaning "to come into being"). This neologism was coined in 1979 by a group of ethnobotanists and scholars of mythology.[1] Some authors claim entheogens have been used by shamans throughout history, with appearances in prehistoric cave art such as a cave painting at Tassili n'Ajjer, Algeria that dates to roughly 8000 BP.[2][3] In 1977, José Luís Díaz noted an emerging scholarly discourse in ethnopharmacology that represented a scholarly basis for investigating these practices[4]

History of Maya entheogen use[edit]

Maya entheogen use remains an enigma, mostly because there is little evidence available from the archaeological record. There is also little evidence from the epigraphic record and Andrew McDonald and Brian Stross note that Maya script referring to these substances may prove especially difficult to decipher[5] At present, most of the evidence comes from ancient Maya art and rare examples of residues of substances recovered from ceramic containers.

Species and their effects[edit]


Tobacco (Nicotiana spp.) contains the alkaloid nicotine, which affects the nervous system. The Maya used tobacco extensively for recreation and rituals alike.[6] Varieties of tobacco used by the Maya differed from tobacco that used in modern cigarettes and other related products[7] The Maya smoked the leaves to scare away snakes and spirits.[8] Besides smoking the dried leaves, the Maya also consumed their tobacco by making tea out of it and ingesting the liquid.[9]


Psilocybe mexicana, known to the Aztecs as teonanacatl (agglutination of "teo" - god and "nanacatl" - mushroom, literally divine mushroom[citation needed]), is a psychedelic mushroom that has been used in Mesoamerican cultures for over 2000 years.[10] The fungus contains two separate entheogenic compounds, psilocybin and psilocin that cause the user to experience visual hallucinations. Often cited archaeological evidence for Maya use of Psilocybe mexicana is the existence of "mushroom stones," carved stone objects from highland Guatemala that have been interpreted as representations of mushrooms, some of which have anthropomorphic figures on the base or stem.[11] (These should not be confused with the naturally occurring geological formations also known as mushroom stones.) These objects have been found at many archaeological sites and have been interpreted as being symbolic of the ritualistic use of the plant in Maya culture.[12] However, there is a lack of consensus on interpretations of these as evidence for ritual use of Psilocybe by the Maya.[13]

Water lilies[edit]

Nymphaea ampla, a white-flowered water lily, is another possible entheogen of significance for the Maya.[14] Many scholars compare Nymphaea ampla to the blue lotus (Nymphaea caerulea) that was used extensively by ancient Egyptians. The water lily is widely represented in Maya art, especially in its depictions with jaguars and Maya kings. The cultural importance can somewhat be seen in the Mayan naming of the plant, nikte’ha’ (Mayan for "vulva of the water") as it would have represented life, sexual activity, fertility, birth, etc. The plant causes opiate-like effects on the user and is known to have been used as a calming sedative and mild trance inducer.[15]

Morning glories[edit]

Known to the Aztecs as ololiuqui, varieties of morning glory including Turbina corymbosa and Ipomoea tricolor, are also thought to have been used by the Maya under the name xtabentún (thought by some to be the origin of Xtabentún liqueur). Their seeds contain ergine, or d-lysergic acid amide, which is related to lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). When consumed, it is reported to give powerful hallucinogenic visions, even when only consuming small doses.[citation needed]


Salvia divinorum is a psychoactive plant native to Mexico that is also known to have hallucinogenic effects. The chemical in the plant that induces these is known as Salvinorin A. The method of consumption would probably have been in the form of a tea made from fresh leaves. However, it could also have been consumed by smoking dried leaves. the Mazatec people use a method which involves chewing the fresh leaves.[16]


  1. ^ C. A. P. Ruck et al., "Entheogens" in Journal of Psychedelic Drugs vol. 11 (1979) pp. 145-146, describing it as "a new term that would be appropriate for describing states of shamanic and ecstatic possession induced by ingestion of mind-altering drugs":
  2. ^ McKenna, Terence (1992) Food of the Gods. London: Rider.
  3. ^ King, Chris (2012) Entheogens, the Conscious Brain and Existential Reality: Part 1. Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research 3(6):579-604.
  4. ^ Díaz, José Luís (1977) Ethnopharmacology of Sacred Psychoactive Plants Used by the Indians of Mexico. Annual Review of Pharmacological Toxicology 17:647-675.
  5. ^ McDonald, J. Andrew and Brian Stross (2012) Water Lily and Cosmic Serpent: Equivalent Conduits of the Maya Spirit Realm. Journal of Ethnobiology 32(1):74-107.
  6. ^ References needed
  7. ^ Reference needed.
  8. ^ Alcorn, Janis B. (1984) Huastec Mayan Ethnobotany. Austin: University of Texas Press
  9. ^ Reference needed
  10. ^ Reference needed
  11. ^ Reference needed
  12. ^ Díaz, José Luís (1977) Ethnopharmacology of Sacred Psychoactive Plants Used by the Indians of Mexico. Annual Review of Pharmacological Toxicology 17:647-675.
  13. ^ Reference needed
  14. ^ Reference needed
  15. ^ Emboden, W.A. (1979) “Nymphaea ampla and Other Mayan Narcotic Plants.” Mexicon 1:50–52.
  16. ^ Valdés, Leander J. III, José Luis Díaz, and Ara G. Paul (1983). Ethnopharmacology of ska María Pastora (Salvia divinorum, Epling and Játiva-M). Journal of Ethnopharmacology 7(3):287–312.