María Sabina (July 22, 1894 – November 23, 1985) was a Mazatec curandera who lived her entire life in a modest dwelling in the Sierra Mazateca of southern Mexico. Her practice was based on the use of the various species of native psilocybe mushrooms, such as Psilocybe mexicana.
María Sabina was born outside of Huautla de Jimenez in the Sierra Mazateca towards the end of the 19th century, perhaps in 1894 although Sabina herself was not sure. Her parents were both humble campesinos, her mother María Concepcion and her father Crisanto Feliciano, who died from an illness when she was three years old. She had a younger sister María Ana. Her grandfather and great grandfather on her father's side were also wise men, skilled in using the mushroom to communicate with God. After the death of her father her mother took the family to live with her parents, and Sabina grew up in the house of her maternal grandparents.
María Sabina was the first contemporary Mexican curandera, defined as a native shaman, to allow Westerners to participate in the healing vigil that became known as the velada, where all participants partake of the psilocybin mushroom as a sacrament to open the gates of the mind. The velada is seen as a purification and as a communion with the sacred.
In 1955, the US ethnomycologist and banker R. Gordon Wasson visited María Sabina's hometown of Huautla de Jimenez, Oaxaca, and participated in a velada with her. He also brought spores of the fungus, which he identified as Psilocybe mexicana, to Paris. The fungus was cultivated in Europe and its active ingredient was duplicated as the chemical psilocybin in the laboratory by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1958.
US youth began seeking out María Sabina and the "holy children" as early as 1962, and in the years that followed, thousands of counterculture mushroom seekers, scientists, and others arrived in the Sierra Mazateca, and many met her. By 1967 more than 70 people from the US, Canada, and Western Europe were renting cabins in neighboring villages. Many of them went there directly after reading "Seeking the Magic Mushroom", a 1957 Life magazine article written by Wasson about his experiences.
Sabina cultivated relationships with several of them, including Wasson, who became something of a friend. Many 1960s celebrities visited María Sabina, including rock stars such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
While she was initially hospitable to the truth seekers thronging to her, their lack of respect for the sacred and traditional purposes caused María Sabina to remark:
"Before Wasson, nobody took the children simply to find God. They were always taken to cure the sick."
As the community was besieged by Westerners wanting to experience the mushroom induced hallucinations, Sabina attracted attention by the Mexican police who thought that she sold drugs to the foreigners. The unwanted attention completely altered the social dynamics of the Mazatec community and threatened to terminate the Mazatec custom. The community blamed Sabina, and she was ostracized in the community and had her house burned down. Sabina later regretted having introduced Wasson to the practice, but Wasson contended that his only intention was to contribute to the sum of human knowledge.
Late in life, María Sabina became bitter about her many misfortunes, and how others had profited from her name. She also felt that the ceremony of the velada had been desecrated and irremediably polluted by the hedonistic use of the mushrooms:
"From the moment the foreigners arrived, the 'holy children' lost their purity. They lost their force, they ruined them. Henceforth they will no longer work. There is no remedy for it."
Use of synthetic entheogens
María Sabina was celebrating a mushroom velada with pills of Indocybin or synthetic psilocybin.
On the 1962 expedition organized by R. Gordon Wasson to see Maria Sabina, Hofmann came along and brought a bottle of psilocybin pills. Sandoz was marketing them under the brand name "Indocybin"—"indo" for both "Indian" and "indole" (the nucleus of their chemical structures) and "cybin" for the main molecular constituent, "psilocybin." ("Psilo" in Greek means "bald," "cybe" means "head.") Hofmann gave his synthesized entheogen to the curandera who divulged the Indians' secret. "Of course," Wasson recalls of the encounter, "Albert Hofmann is so conservative he always gives too little a dose, and it didn't have any effect." Hofmann had a different interpretation: activation of "the pills, which must dissolve in the stomach before they can be absorbed, takes place only after 30 to 45 minutes, in contrast to the mushrooms which, when chewed, work faster because part of the drug is absorbed immediately by the mucosa in the mouth." In order to settle her doubts about the pills, more were distributed, bringing the total for Maria Sabina, her daughter, and the shaman Don Aurelio up to 30 mg., a moderately high dose by current standards but not perhaps by the Indians'. At dawn, their Mazatec interpreter reported that Maria Sabina felt there was little difference between the pill and the mushrooms. She thanked Hofmann for the bottle of pills, "saying that she would now be able to serve people even when no mushrooms were available."
Álvaro Estrada, a fellow Mazatec, recorded her life and work and translated her chants. Estrada's American brother-in-law, Henry Munn, translated many of the chants from Spanish to English, and wrote about the significance of her language. According to Munn, María Sabina brilliantly used themes common to Mazatec and Mesoamerican spiritual traditions, but at the same time was a unique talent, a masterful oral poet and craftsperson with a profound literary and personal charisma.
It is sung in a shamanic trance in which, as she recounted, the "saint children" speak through her:
Because I can swim in the immense
Because I can swim in all forms
Because I am the launch woman
Because I am the sacred opposum
Because I am the Lord opposum
I am the woman Book that is beneath the water, says
I am the woman of the populous town, says
I am the shepherdess who is beneath the water, says
I am the woman who shepherds the immense, says
I am a shepherdess and I come with my shepherd, says
Because everything has its origin
And I come going from place to place from the origin...
Sabina is regarded as a sacred figure in Huautla. At the same time, her image is used to market various local commercial ventures, from restaurants to taxi companies.
The Mexican counterculture has an affinity for Sabina. The Mexican rock group Santa Sabina is named for her, and El Tri, one of the first and most successful rock groups in Mexico, dedicated the song "María Sabina" to her, proclaiming her "un símbolo de la sabiduría y el amor" ("a symbol of wisdom and love").
Mexican musician, Jorge Reyes, included prerecorded chants of Maria Sabina in the track "The Goddess of the Eagles", in his album Comala. Reyes also used more of the recording in his collaboration with "Deep Forest" in the track, "Tres Marias", in the Album "Comparsa".
- Rothenberg, Jerome, with Alvaro Estrada. 2003. The Life" in María Sabina: Selections. University of California Press. 2003. p.3 "I don't know what year I was born, but my mother, Maria Concepción, told me that it was the morning of the day that they celebrate the Virgin Magdalene there in Río Santiago, an agencia of Huautla. None of my ancestors knew their age."
- Rothenberg, Jerome. 2003. "Editor's Preface" in María Sabina: Selections. University of California Press. p. X
- Rothenberg, Jerome, with Alvaro Estrada. 2003. The Life" in María Sabina: Selections. University of California Press. p. 3–8
- In Spanish, the noun la velada refers to a vigil or watch, and is uniformly a nocturnal one. "Acción y efecto de velar", as defined in the Real Academia Española's Diccionario de la lengua española (RAE 2001)
- It was R. Gordon Wasson who used the term by which it has since become generally known, when he first wrote about the ritual in María Sabina and Her Mazatec Mushroom Velada (1974). See Karttunen 1994: 225.
- Estrada 1996 passim; Monaghan & Cohen 2000: 165
- Letcher, Andy (2006). Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom. England: Faber and Faber Ltd. pp. 97–98. ISBN 0-571-22770-8.
- Estrada, Álvaro, (1976) Vida de María Sabina: la sabia de los hongos (ISBN 968-23-0513-6)
- Rothenberg, Jerome. 2003. "Editor's Preface" in María Sabina: Selections. University of California Press. p. XVI
- Rothenberg, Jerome. 2003. "Editor's Preface" in María Sabina: Selections. University of California Press. p. XIV-XVI
- Psychedelics Encyclopedia, p 237–238
- Estrada, María Sabina: her Life and Chants
- on YouTube
- Allen, John W. (1997). María Sabina: Saint Mother of the Sacred Mushrooms. Ethnomycological journals, v. 1. Seattle, WA: Psilly Publications. ISBN 0-9631518-9-4. OCLC 39920921.
- Allen, John W., and Jochen Gartz, 2002. Teonanácatl: A Bibliography of Entheogenic Mushrooms (ISBN 1-58214-099-5)
- Estrada, Álvaro, (1976) Vida de María Sabina: la sabia de los hongos (ISBN 968-23-0513-6)
- Estrada, Álvaro, (1981). María Sabina: her Life and Chants (ISBN 0-915520-33-8)
- Estrada, Álvaro (1996). Huautla en tiempo de hippies (in Spanish). Mexico: Grijalbo. ISBN 970-05-0665-7. OCLC 35986756.
- Feinberg, Benjamin, (2003). "The Devil's Book of Culture: History, Mushrooms, and Caves in Southern Mexico" (ISBN 0-292-70190-X)
- Gonzáles, Enrique, (1992). Conversaciones con María Sabina y Otros Curanderos (ISBN 968-20-0158-7) (Spanish)
- Guerrero, Rita, (n.d.) "¿Qué nombre le ponemos?", Chapter 3 of the History of Santa Sabina
- Harner, Michael J., ed. "Hallucinogens and Shamanism" (ISBN 0-19-501649-1)
- Karttunen, Frances E. (1994). Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0-8135-2030-4. OCLC 28150669.
- RAE [Real Academia Española] (2001). Diccionario de la lengua española (online version) (in Spanish) (22nd ed.). Madrid: Editorial Espasa Calpe. ISBN 84-239-6814-6. OCLC 48657242.
- Monaghan, John D.; Jeffrey H. Cohen (2000). "Thirty Years of Oaxacan Ethnography". In John D. Monaghan (Volume ed.), with Patricia A. Andrews. Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, Vol. 6: Ethnology. Victoria Reifler Bricker (General Editor). Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 150–178. ISBN 0-292-70881-5. OCLC 42786223.
- Rothenberg, Jerome, ed. (2003). "María Sabina: Selections" (ISBN 0-520-23953-9)
- Zolov, Eric, (1999). Refried Elvis: The Rise of the Mexican Counterculture (ISBN 0-520-21514-1)