Re-opening Old Roads of Archaeological Inquiry
Carl de Borhegyi: Copyright 2016
Mesoamerica: is a term that "defines those areas of Mexico and Central America that witnessed the development of advanced pre-Columbian civilizations such as the Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, Teotihuacano, Toltec, Mixtec, and Aztec, all of which shared a number of interrelated cultural traits involving religious concepts, ritualism, architecture, arts, and crafts, hieroglyphic writing, and calendrics" (Paul Kirchhoff, 1942) (Charles Gallenkamp, 1959, revised 1985 p.3).
Forward to Mycolatry 101:
Suzanne de Borhegyi-Forrest, Ph.D.
Mesoamerican mushroom imagery first came to the attention of the modern world in the late 19th century when the German geographer Carl Sapper published a picture of an effigy mushroom stone from El Salvador in the journal Globus (29 May 1898). Sapper noted that the stone carving was “mushroom-shaped” but did not consider whether it actually represented a mushroom, but that the stone object was a phallic symbol (Wasson and de Borhegyi, 1962 p. 42). This connection was supplied two months later by Daniel Brinton in an article in Science (29 July 1898) when he noted that “they (mushroom stones) resemble in shape mushrooms or toadstools, and why should not that be their intention?” (Wasson, 1980: p.175).
However difficult it was for scholars to accept the mushroom stones as representations of actual mushrooms, the case for their association with a psychogenic mushroom cult came in 1952 when R. Gordon Wasson and his wife, Valentina Pavlovna, came on the scene. Although neither of them were professional anthropologists--Wasson was a New York banker with the firm of J.P. Morgan, and an amateur mycologist; his wife, Valentina Pavlovna, a pediatrician--they were engaged in writing a book about the cross cultural role of mushrooms in history. In the course of their studies they learned of the existence of an entheogenic mushroom cult among the Mazatecs and Mixtec Indians in southern Mexico. They also found reports of the pre-Conquest use of “inebriating” mushrooms written by such prominent Spanish historians as the Dominican friar Diego Durán (1964, 225-6), Fray Bernardino de Sahagun (1947,:239, 247), and Motolinía ,(1858, Vol. I: 23).
The friars who reported the ceremonial use of psychogenic mushrooms were sparing with their words and inevitably condemnatory in their description of mushroom “intoxication.” They were, in fact, repulsed by the apparent similarities of the mushroom ceremony to Christian communion. Wasson and Pavlovna, however, read these reports with great interest. They were particularly excited when, In 1952, they learned that archaeologists working at the Maya site of Kaminaljuyu on the outskirts of Guatemala City had found a tripod stone carving in the shape of a mushroom bearing the effigy of a jaguar on its base. Sure that it corroborated the existence of a Pre-Colombian mushroom cult (Wasson and Wasson, 1980:75 -178), they consulted American Museum of Natural History archaeologist Gordon Ekholm.
The author’s father, Stephan de Borhegyi, became the intermediary in their investigations. A recent emigrant from Hungary with a Ph.D. in Classical Archaeology and Egyptology from the Peter Paszmany University in Budapest, Borhegyi had been invited to Guatemala to study American archaeology by the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Working under a grant provided by the then Viking Fund of New York (subsequently the Wenner Gren Foundation) his project was to catalog the extensive archaeological collections of the Guatemalan National Museum. In the course of this project he came across numerous unprovenanced small stone sculptures shaped like mushrooms which he described in correspondence with Ekholm. Ekholm put him and the Wassons in touch with one another. Shortly thereafter, the Wassons, Borhegyi, and I, (his wife and the author’s mother, Suzanne), embarked on a trip through the Guatemalan highlands in search of evidence of an existing mushroom cult such as had been reported among the Mazatecs and Mixtecs of Mexico. No such cult was uncovered, but both the Wassons and the Borhegyis suspected that the lack of evidence might be explained by the extreme sacredness and sensitivity of the subject among the Maya Indians, coupled with an inadequate amount of time devoted to winning the confidence of their informants. Wasson did, however, find corroborating evidence of inebriating mushrooms in a number of Mayan word lists for the Cakchiquel linguistic area around Guatemala City (Wasson, 1980, pp. 181-182).
Following their sojourn in Guatemala, Wasson and Pavlovna went on to visit the remote village of Huautla de Jimenez in southern Oaxaca. Here they not only found evidence of an existing mushroom cult, but had the opportunity to participate in a mushroom ceremony conducted by a local curandera, Maria Sabina. The results of their research exploded into worldwide notoriety in 1955 with the publication of Wasson’s article entitled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom.” in the popular magazine LIFE (May 13, 1957). To Wasson's consternation, his description of the mushroom ritual reverberated through the hippie culture of the time. Seemingly overnight the little Oaxacan village was mobbed with thrill seekers—“hippies, self-styled psychiatrists, oddballs, even tour leaders with their docile flocks.” (Wasson, 1980, p. XVI). Wasson sent samples of the hallucinogenic mushroom to a pharmaceutical laboratory in Switzerland for analysis with the result that the active agent was both identified and made into synthetic pills. The era of widespread abuse of the psychedelic mushroom began with a vengeance that rocked society.
It is strange that, in the half century since Borhegyi published his first articles on Maya mushroom stones and proposed their use in connection with Maya psychogenic mushroom ceremonies, little attention has been paid to this intriguing line of research. I propose that the oversight is related to the worldview classification scheme established by Wasson, in which he distinguished between peoples and cultures that liked mushrooms (mycophiles) and those that feared them (mycophobes) (Wasson, 1980: XV). This classification might be extended to include all psychogenic or mind-altering substances with the exception of alcohol. Their use in the Western world is considered to be objectionable, immoral and, for the most part, illegal. In any event, it is clear that, while the Pre Columbian peoples of Mesoamerica were decidedly mycophilic, the majority of archaeologists who have studied them are mycophobes. The result has been that their possible centrality to ancient Mesoamerican religious rituals has been either overlooked or, at best, barely acknowledged (Martin and Grube, 2000:15; Coe, 1999: 70; Sharer, 1994: 542, 683).
There may, however, be another, more immediate, reason for this neglect. That, I believe, is the memory of the very unsettling period in our recent history when too many individuals, most of them young people, “tripped out” on a variety of psychedelic substances, and in too many cases harmed themselves in the process. While neither Steve nor I ever took the sacred mushroom. Our son, Carl (without my knowledge I might add), did experiment with the mushroom during his student years in the late 1970s at Southwestern Michigan College and the early 1980s at the University of Wisconsin. This enables him to speak from experience of the mushroom’s awe-inspiring effect on the mind and body. He is quick to say that he would not repeat the experiment today, but he does not deny the obvious—that one has to have experienced the “magic” effects of the mushroom to truly comprehend the mushroom experience. Quoting from Daniel Breslaw’s book Mushrooms, “a smudge on the wall is an object of limitless fascination, multiplying in size, complexity, and color,” (1961). It is our sincere hope that, by calling for a new, and much needed, look at the role of entheogenic mushrooms in Pre-Columbian art and ideology, we will not inadvertently encourage a new wave of thrill-seeking experimentation with the mushroom and its derivatives. It should be possible to engage in the former, without provoking the latter......
Quoting R. Gordon Wassan...
"Here was the Secret of Secrets of the Ancients, of our own remote forebears, a Secret discovered perhaps sporadically in Eurasia and again later in Mesoamerica. The Secret was a powerful motive force in the religion of the earliest times (Wasson 1980, p. 53)
"It [the mushroom] permits you to see, more clearly than our perishing mortal eye can see, vistas beyond the horizons of this life, to travel backwards and forwards in time, to enter other planes of existence, even (as the Indians say) to know God."
After examining thousands of ancient artifacts, a project that would have been impossible before the existence of the computer and high speed Internet, I discovered a wealth of mushroom imagery in ancient religious art. Surprisingly, most of this mushroom imagery concerned the Amanita muscaria, or Fly Agaric mushroom, as it is often called, rather than the better known hallucinogenic, Psilocybin mushroom. Both varieties, as well as others were represented. The fact that mushrooms had not been noted earlier is explained by the way these images were so cleverly encoded into the art that they became almost invisible. Invariably the mushroom imagery was associated with ritual sacrifice in the Underworld, with jaguar transformation and period endings, and with the decapitation and resurrection of the Underworld Sun God by a pair of deities associated with the planet Venus as both the Morning Star and Evening star. Mushrooms, in fact, are so closely associated with underworld jaguar transformation, and underworld jaguar resurrection, that they must have been believed to be the vehicle through which both were accomplished. They are also so closely associated with ritual decapitation, that their ingestion may have been considered essential to the ritual itself, whether in real life or symbolically in the underworld.
In 1952 archaeologists working at the Maya site of Kaminaljuyu on the outskirts of Guatemala City found a tripod stone carving in the shape of a mushroom bearing the effigy of a jaguar on its base. Sure that it corroborated the existence of a pre-Columbian mushroom cult, the Wassons consulted American Museum of Natural History archaeologist Gordon F. Ekholm, who put the Wassons in touch with Maya archaeologist Stephan F. de Borhegyi, better known simply as Borhegyi.
Jaguar effigy mushroom stone excavated from the Pre-Classic Miraflores E-III-3 tomb at Kaminaljuyu.
Borhegyi, an emigrant from Hungary with a Ph.D. in Classical Archaeology and Egyptology from the Peter Paszmany University in Budapest, had been invited to Guatemala to study American archaeology by the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Working under a grant provided by the then Viking Fund of New York (subsequently the Wenner Gren Foundation) his project was to catalog the extensive archaeological collections of the Guatemalan National Museum. While at work on these collections Borhegyi came across a number of small, unprovenanced carved stone effigy figures that resembled mushrooms to such a degree that they were called "mushroom stones."
Borhegyi found the mushroom stone figures so intriguing that he prepared a monograph for submission to the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C. "Notes on Middle American Archaeology and Ethnology". Before submitting it, however, he sent it off to be critiqued by archaeologist Gordon Ekholm at the American Museum of Natural History. Dr. Borhegyi proposed the theory that hallucinogenic mushroom rituals were a central aspect of Maya religion. Borhegyi based his theory of a mushroom cult among the ancient Maya on his identification of a mushroom stone cult that came into existence in the Guatemala Highlands and Pacific coastal area around 1000 B.C. along with a trophy head cult associated with human sacrifice and the Mesoamerican ballgame. Ekholm, in turn, showed Borhegyi's monograph to his friend Robert Gordon Wasson, an amateur mycologist who was looking for archaeological evidence of an ancient hallucinogenic mushroom cult in Mesoamerica. Wasson wrote to Borhegyi and within months the two embarked on what became an intense and fruitful collaboration that lasted until the end of Borhegyi's tragically short life. In the years that followed Borhegyi’s death, the existence of a mushroom cult in ancient Mesoamerica, and specifically among the ancient Maya, was denied or essentially dismissed as inconsequential. Borhegyi's proposal of an ancient mushroom cult met with limited, highly skeptical acceptance at best, among his archaeological colleagues. Few in the Mesoamerican archaeological community seriously considered the possibility that the mushroom sculptures had an esoteric religious significance.
We know that the ancient Maya of the Guatemala Highlands apparently revered the Amanita muscaria mushroom, which they portrayed in small stone sculptures known as mushroom stones, associated with the ancient cultures of the Olmec and Maya, that have been interpreted as evidence for the usage of hallucinogenic mushrooms in Mesoamerican religion spanning almost 3,000 years (S.F de Borhegyi 1961).
While the majority of mushroom stone sculptures were of indeterminate provenance, a sufficient number had been found during the course of archaeological investigations as to permit Borhegyi to determine approximate dates and to catalog them stylistically. The Wassons, published Borhegyi’s article on Middle American Mushroom Stones in their monumental book, Russia; Mushrooms and History, (Wasson and Wasson, 1957). In the monograph Borhegyi identified the existence of an ancient mushroom stone cult that could have begun as early as 1000 B.C.E. and lasted as late as 900 C.E. Borhegyi noted that many of the mushroom stones, especially those dating between 1000 B.C.E. and 100 C.E. depicted images of toads, as well as snakes, birds, jaguars, monkeys, and humans. The majority of the images appeared to emerge from the stem of the mushroom (Wasson and Wasson, 1957, Borhegyi de, S.F., 1957b.) The Wasson's included Borhegyi's chronological distributional chart of these Pre-Columbian mushroom stones and pottery mushrooms, found at various archaeological sites in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi......
"My assignment for the so-called mushroom cult, earliest 1,000 B.C., is based on the excavations of Kidder and Shook at the Verbena cemetery at Kaminaljuyu. The mushroom stone found in this Pre-Classic grave, discovered in Mound E-III-3, has a circular groove on the cap. There are also a number of yet unpublished mushroom stone specimens in the Guatemalan Museum from Highland Guatemala where the pottery association would indicate that they are Pre-Classic. In each case the mushroom stone fragments has a circular groove on the top. Mushroom stones found during the Classic and Post-Classic periods do not have circular grooves. This was the basis on which I prepared the chart on mushroom stones which was then subsequently published by the Wassons. Based on Carbon 14 dates and stratigraphy, some of these Pre-Classic finds can be dated as early as 1,000 B.C. The reference is in the following".....(see Shook, E.M. & Kidder, A.V., 1952. Mound E-III-3, Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala; Contributions to American Anthropology & History No. 53 from Publ. 596, Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C. (letter from de Borhegyi to Dr. Robert Ravicz, MPM archives December 1st 1960 )
Quoting ethno-archaeologist Peter T. Furst:
"In its pages [Mushrooms, Russia and History ] Borhegyi and Wasson suggested a connection between the sacred mushrooms of Mexico and the prehistoric stone mushrooms of Guatemala, the first time that such a possibility had been considered in print."
The Wassons may have provided an important explanation for this lack of interest. He and his wife, Valentina, had observed that, across the globe, cultures seemed to be divided into those who loved and revered mushrooms, and those who dismissed and feared them. The first group of cultures they labeled "mycophiles," while the latter were "mycophobes." In the New World, it appears that all of the native cultures were, and still are, unquestionably mycophilic. In contrast, the great majority of archaeologists and ethnologists who studied and described them, and who traced their cultural origins to Western Europe, were decidedly mycophobic. This major difference in cultural background may be responsible for what I believe should be seen as a lamentable gap in our understanding of indigenous New World magico-religious origins. (Wasson: 1957)
Quoting Gordon Wasson...
"In examining these mushroomic artifacts we must keep in mind that they were not made for our enlightenment. They were iconic shorthand summarizing a whole bundle of associations ,--whatever those associations were. The Christian cross is to be found in endless shapes, including the "effigy cross" or crucifix, and all stem back to a complex of emotions, beliefs, and religious longings. The crucifix would reveal to an archaeologist eons hence more than, say, a Maltese cross. So with the mushroom stones, the subject matter of the effigies holds the secret".
Photo of Gordon Wasson (above left), from Life Magazine 1957. The replica mushroom stone next to Wasson was a gift from Borhegyi (above right).
Quoting Wasson (1957):
"Dr. Borhegyi's chart suggests to us that hallucinatory mushrooms were the focus of a cult in the highland Maya world that goes back at least to early pre-classic times, to B.C. 1000 or earlier, the earliest period when technically such artifacts could be carved in stone. Thus tentatively we trace back the use of the divine mushroom in Middle America to the earliest period from which a record could be expected to survive. Beyond that horizon may we project the mushroom agape back through millennia, to the Eurasian home-land whence our Indians' ancestors migrated."
Quoting Wasson (1957):
"Dr. Borhegyi later combed the Quiche and Kakchiquel chronicles and legends for references to mushrooms. There come down to us from early times two native narratives of the Highland Maya, one in Quiche and the other in Kakchiquel, the Popol Vuh and the Annals of the Kakchiqnels. Written in the native languages, they have been translated into Spanish and English. Dr. Borhegyi discovered in each of them one reference to mushrooms, and in each case mushrooms are associated with religious observances. "
Letter to Gordon Wasson from Borhegyi who writes.....
“I discovered two interesting sentences relating to mushrooms from Indian Chronicles, written around 1554 by natives. In the Popol Vuh, translated from the Spanish version by Delia Goetz and Sylvanus Griswold Morley, University of Oklahoma press, Norman Oklahoma, 1950, page 192. “And when they found the young of the birds and the deer, they went at once to a place the blood of the deer and of the birds in the mouth of the stones that were Tohil, and Avilix. As soon as the blood had been drunk by the gods, the stones spoke, when the priest and the sacrificers came, when they came to bring their offerings. And they did the same before their symbols, burning pericon (?) and holom-ocox (the head of the mushroom),holom=head, and ocox= mushroom”. “I think this section definitely indicates that the Quiche used mushrooms in connection with their religious ceremonies. I even wonder what made the stones speak “.
“In the annals of the Cakchiquel’s, translated from the Cakchiquel Maya by Adrian Recinos and Delia Goetz, University of Oklahoma press, Norman, Oklahoma 1953, pp. 82-83. “At that time, too, they began to worship the devil. Each seven days, each 13 days, they offered him sacrifices, placing before him, fresh resin, green branches, and fresh bark of the trees, and burning before him a small cat, image of the night. They took him also the mushrooms, which grow at the foot of the trees, and they drew blood from their ears.”
“The Cakchiquel version therefore also connects mushrooms with ceremonial offerings to the gods. This mushroom, I think is our anacate, if it grows at the foot or on the tree”.
In the highlands of Guatemala and along the Pacific slope where the majority of mushroom stones have been found, and where the Amanita muscaria mushroom grows in abundance, the mushroom stones that reappear in the highland Maya area during Late Classic times are mostly the plain and or tripod variety (Type D) common to the Pacific Coast and Piedmont area as well as in Western El Salvador. The plain or tripod mushroom stones, which carry no effigy on the stem (stipe), have been typically found at lower elevations and may indicate the ritual use of the psilocybe mushroom in these regions (for their distribution by archaeological sites see Borhegyi de, 1961a, p. 500).
Above is a ballgame yoke fragment with footprint that was excavated in 1948 by J. Eric S. Thompson along with a tripod mushroom stone (Type D) from a pit in front of Monument 3 at the Pacific coastal site of El Baúl in Guatemala (Milwaukee Public Museum Archives). Type D tripod mushroom stones (plain and effigy style) were frequent in the Pacific Coast and Piedmont area as well as in western El Salvador (Borhegyi de, 1965: 37).
Borhegyi noted that ballplayers depicted on Monument 27 at El Baúl wear tight-fitting monkey head helmets, and hand-gloves that represents either the local survival of the Olmec influenced Preclassic handball game, or a late Classic revival of the game in the area (Borhegyi de, 1980: 16). He adds that: “These zones were once influenced by the Olmecs and later by ‘warlike’ Mexican Gulf Coast groups. One wonders if these grisly sacrificial activities are native to this area or are Pre-Classic survivals of a game once played with human heads with long, flowing hair in the Tajín and La Venta areas and in parts of Oaxaca”.
Quoting Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi:
" the ballgame, and cultural diffusion may be in order"
"While human decapitation was a widespread custom throughout both the Old and New Worlds as early as the Paleolithic period, its association with ancient team games seems to have occurred only in central and eastern Asia, Mesoamerica, and South America (for ballgames in Southeast Asia, see Loffler, 1955). The use of severed human heads in the polo games of Tibet, China, and Mongolia goes back at least as far as the Chou Dynasty (approximately 1100 B.C. -250 B.C.) and possibly to Shang times (about 1750 B.C. -1100 B.C.). By the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), the polo game in China had become more refined and human heads were apparently replaced by balls. However, the custom of using "trophy heads" in the game must have survived in modern form in marginal areas, as evidence by the fact that the present day Tajik tribesmen of Afghanistan still use the head of a goat as a ball during the game (Abercombie, 1968). While more studies are needed along this line, it is tempting to suggest that the custom of using human heads in competitive ballgames be added to the growing Pre-Classic inventory of "trans-Pacific contacts" (S.F. de Borhegyi 1980, p.25).
The Mesoamerican Ballgame, Trophy Heads and Hallucinogenic Mushrooms
Many of the observations in this Chapter reflect the work of Borhegyi carried out from the 1950s through 1969 and in the book The Pre-Columbian ballgames: A Pan-Mesoamerican Tradition, published posthumously in 1980 by the Milwaukee Public Museum where he had served as the Director.
According to Borhegyi, the ritual ballgame can only be explained as a cross-cultural phenomenon, for it transcended all linguistic barriers in Mesoamerica. “Perhaps the games channeled competition short of warfare, between villages or ceremonial centers, into the field of skill and were a means of predetermining the selection of human victims to fulfill the requirements of the cyclical, or annual ritual sacrifices” (Borhegyi de, 1980: 3).
The ritual ballgame was played to commemorate the completion of period endings in the sacred calendar, such as a katun ending, a 20-year time period that always ended on the day Ahau. It was on that day, after inferior conjunction that Venus reappears as the Morning Star. According to Borhegyi, it was believed that in order to avoid catastrophe at the end of each 52-year period which also ended on the day Ahau, man through his priestly intermediaries, was required to enter into a new covenant with the supernatural (Borhegyi de, 1980: 8). In the meantime, he atoned for his sins and kept the precarious balance of the universe by offering uninterrupted sacrifices to the gods. The Calendar Round was considered to be so important that the world would end at the completion of 18,980 days or 52 years if sacred termination ceremonies were not performed. This was known as the New Fire Ceremony and this time cycle of 52 years was recognized by all Mesoamericans. Ritual sacrifice was a way for the ancients to nourish and sustain all the living beings of the cosmos which gave order and meaning to their world.
The mushroom ritual was likely timed astronomically to the movements of the planet Venus and possibly to the sacred period of inferior conjunction. At this time Venus sinks below the horizon and disappears into the "underworld" for eight days. It then rises from the underworld as the Morning Star. There is also plenty of evidence that ballplayers from the Gulf Coast area wore knee pads with the Ahau glyph design (Borhegyi de, 1980: 8) a symbol of Lord, and Maya kingship, and symbol of Underworld Venus resurrection.
Above is a figurine holding what the author believes is an Amanita muscaria mushroom in his left hand. Note the figurine's large god
eyes, and the three Ahau icons, one on each knee and one on his ballgame yoke (Figurine from Denver Museum
The ballgame represented a religious function throughout Mesoamerica, and the importance of the sacred ballgame and its rituals associated with ballcourt complexes in city planning, and the game’s relationship to ancestors and serpent worship, and warfare, should not be underestimated, for there are over 1200+ archaeological sites in Mesoamerica that have identified at least one ballcourt, and cities like El Tajín in Veracruz, Mexico that boast a minimum of 18 ballcourts. Borhegyi proposed that the Olmec-influenced handball game in ancient times was probably played in open fields or open plazas, and may have used the severed heads of humans and jaguars to mark out the boundaries or as targets or goals.
The mushroom experience, as well as caves and ballcourts were believed to be entrances or portals into the underworld. Dictionaries of Maya Highland languages compiled after the Spanish Conquest mention several intoxicating mushroom varieties whose names clearly indicate their ritual use. One type was called xibalbaj okox, "underworld mushroom", alluding to the notion that this particular mushroom transported one to a supernatural realm of the underworld dead (Sharer, 1994: 484).
Archaeologists believe that Mesoamerican people may have played the ballgame to symbolize the movements of the sun, moon and the planets, most notably the planet Venus as a resurrection star, and that the ball symbolized the sun’s continuous struggle to free itself at night from the clutches of the underworld. Rituals of self-sacrifice and decapitation in the underworld, allude to the sun's nightly death and subsequent resurrection from the underworld, by a pair of deities (twins or brothers) associated with the planet Venus as both the Morning Star and Evening Star. This suggests that the ballgame and its rituals are associated with the 584-day Venus cycle. As described in the Dresden Codex, the synodic revolution of Venus from Morning Star to Morning Star is 584 days, and that these revolutions were grouped by the Nahuas and Maya in fives, so that 5 x 584 equaled 2,920 days, or exactly eight solar years.
In El Titulo de Totonicapán, it is said that the Quiché gave thanks to the sun and moon and stars, but particularly to the star that proclaims the day, the day-bringer, referring to Venus as the Morning Star. The Sun God of the Aztecs, Tonatiuh, first found in Toltec art, is frequently paired with Quetzalcóatl in his aspect of Venus as Morning Star. The mushroom ritual associated with warfare, and the ballgame was probably timed astronomically to the period of inferior conjunction of the planet Venus. At this time, Venus sinks below the horizon and disappears into the "underworld" for eight days. It then rises before the sun, thereby appearing to resurrect the sun from the underworld as the Morning Star. For this reason, mushroom-induced decapitation rituals were likely performed in ballcourts, a metaphor for the underworld, which was timed to a ritual calendar linked to the movements of the planet Venus as both a Morning Star and Evening Star.
According to Borhegyi, depictions of ritual ballgame sacrifice by decapitation appear to be a common theme in Preclassic times (Borhegyi de, 1980: 23). The great city of Teotihuacán’s overt and disruptive presence on the Maya people during the Classic Period resulted in a suppression of Olmec-inspired rituals and cult paraphernalia, such as mushroom stones and three-pronged incense burners, commonly used during the Preclassic period. They were replaced with pottery vessels and incense burners of a Teotihuacán-type decorated with human skulls, jaguars, and such deities as Quetzalcóatl, Tlaloc and Xipe-Totec.
In Mesoamerica, mushrooms are also linked with warfare. Maya inscriptions tell us that the movement of the planet Venus and its position in the sky was a determining factor for waging a special kind of warfare known as Tlaloc warfare or Venus "Star Wars." These wars or raids were timed to occur during aspects of the Venus astronomical cycle, primarily to capture prisoners from neighboring cities for ceremonial sacrifice (Schele & Freidel, 1990: 130-31, 194). These wars, waged against neighboring city-states for the express purpose of taking captives for sacrifice to the gods, thus constituted a form of divinely sanctioned "holy" war.
Sometime between the 7th and 8th century, with the fall of Teotihuacán and its influence diminished, northern and central Mexico as well as parts of highland Guatemala and most of the Yucatan Peninsula was dominated by the Toltecs, and it seems that a revival of bloody ball game rituals of Preclassic Olmec fertility rites of human decapitation once again took center stage in the great ceremonial centers of Mesoamerica.
According to Borhegyi, the Toltecs, under the influence of Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl, were responsible for a brief revival (A.D. 950-1150) throughout Mesoamerica of a trophy head cult associated with warfare and the ritual ballgame (Borhegyi de, 1980: 25). Borhegyi further proposed that the change in ballgame rituals and the switch from the Olmec handball game to the hip ball game most likely came as a result of the newly instituted Quetzalcóatl rites (Borhegyi de, 1980: 24). He believed that the ballgame and these Olmec-influenced fertility rites were linked esoterically to the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms and that these bloody rituals were banished or forced underground during the heyday of Teotihuacán (Borhegyi de, 1980: iv).
On April 8, 1954, Borhegyi wrote to Wasson noting that: "…mushroom stones follow the same pattern as the three-pronged incensarios, figurines, rimhead vessels etc. That is, they are abundant during the Preclassic, disappear from the archaeological scene completely during the Early Classic, and are revived in somewhat changed form in the Late Classic". The apparent absence of mushroom stones in Early Classic tombs (A.D. 200-400) or within ceremonial precincts suggests that the sacred mushroom cult of Preclassic origin, proposed by Borhegyi to be ritually connected to the ballgame, was discontinued, or banished from the Teotihuacán-occupied, or influenced highland Maya ceremonial centers.
Borhegyi noted the connection between the re-appearance of mushroom stones and the ritual act of decapitation, and that many Late Classic (A.D. 600-1000) stone carvings relating to the ballgame depict balls incorporating human skulls or depict human skulls in lieu of balls. He also believed that the stone heads, and later stone rings set in the walls of formal ballcourts, were symbolic replacements for the hanging of the losers’ heads on walls – the trophy heads of earlier times. The hanging of human heads can be found in a passage in the Popol Vuh, in which one of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu, and his father Hun Hunahpu had their decapitated heads hung in a tree (Borhegyi de, 1980: 24-25). In fact, almost all evidence of ballgame sacrifice relates to the act of ritual decapitation, both self-decapitation and by execution, which takes place metaphorically in the underworld. The mushroom and its powerful effects on the mind were the means of divine transport, thus the portal or gateway into the underworld in which one is deified and resurrected at death.
In Maya religion the monkey represents the first of the Nine Lords of the Night or underworld associated with re-birth. The word "Ku" in Classic Maya glyphs was assigned to the monkey god and in glyphs his monkey profile was used to describe "holy" or "divine," referring to "god", or Lord (M.D. Coe 2001, p.109).
Borhegyi’s typological breakdown of mushroom stones according to their chronology and distribution, indicate that the mushroom stones that reappeared in the highland Maya area during Late Classic times were mostly the plain and tripod variety common to the lower elevations of the Pacific Coast and Piedmont area as well as in western El Salvador (Figure 4). Mushroom stones with an effigy of a human, bird, jaguar, toad and other animals, occurred earlier in time and have been mostly found at the higher elevations of the Guatemala Highlands (for their distribution by archaeological sites see Borhegyi de, 1961).
Mushroom Venus Warfare and the Classic Maya Collapse
The Great Toltec diaspora into the Guatemala Highlands was most likely contemporary with Quetzalcóatl’s (Kukulcán’s) invasion into Yucatan during the Early Postclassic period A.D. 900-1000 and associated with the takeover of the city of Chichén Itzá. Borhegyi believed the Quiché and Cakchiquel Maya were also Nahuatl-influenced Chontal Mayas as both were linguistically related and shared a common Toltec-inspired genealogical origin (Borhegyi letter to Wasson, March 22, 1954).
The Chontal-speaking Maya who called themselves Itzá, were devout followers of the god-king Quetzalcóatl and his mushroom-inspired religion. It’s tempting to think that these so-called Mexicanized Mayan speakers who claimed Toltec ancestry may have been responsible for the collapse of Classic Maya civilization. By the close of the Classic period, most of the lowland Maya ceremonial centers were mysteriously abandoned, and this intrusion into the lowlands would coincide with the abandonment of valley sites as ceremonial centers, and the beginning of hilltop defensive sites in the highlands of Guatemala (Borhegyi de, 1965: 37).
At the end of the Late Classic period (A.D. 700-1000) warlike tribes from the Gulf Coast of Mexico reached the highlands of Guatemala via the Usumacinta River and the Pacific coast of Mexico, and established themselves on the coastal Piedmont of Guatemala (Borhegyi de, 1965: 31). The ballgame may have served as a substitute for direct military confrontation by these warlike tribes from the Gulf Coast of Mexico (Scarborough & Wilcox, 1991: 14-15). According to Borhegyi, a completely new group of priest-rulers came into power bringing with them a form of ancestor worship associated with the vision-serpent (mushrooms?) and the ritual ballgame (Borhegyi de, 1965: 31)
To date, there are almost ninety different theories or variations of theories purporting to explain the Classic Maya Collapse which took place between A.D. 900 and A.D. 1000, when archaeologists see an abrupt halt of any new construction and that dated monuments with Long Count dates called stelae ceased to be erected. It is during this time period in the Central lowlands of Guatemala that archaeologists see a sudden decline in population or the abandonment of Maya cities. Maya archaeologist T. Patrick Culbert explained that “the evidence all indicated that the Classic Maya had disappeared somewhere in the time-shrouded past and had left no modern descendants with even a faint touch of their glory and accomplishments” (1974: 105).
We are led to believe that some mysterious fate befell the Classic Maya, and that people just suddenly disappeared and that the once great Maya cities of the Classic Period were all abandoned. There was also the deliberate abandonment of most of the Guatemala highland valley sites shortly before the close of the period. Site after site was deserted, never to be reoccupied, in spite of the fact that many of the centers had been in use for more than two millennia.
Borhegyi’s theory for the Classic Maya collapse was of a Toltec invasion into the Maya region by Nahuatl-influenced Chontal Maya tribes from the Laguna de Terminos region.
On March 22, 1954, Borhegyi wrote to Wasson:
"This is a completely new theory that I have recently formulated. It is quite revolutionary, and I will try to publish it as soon as possible. When you carefully check the Annals of the Cakchiqueles and the Popol Vuh, you will read that, in spite of the fact that the Quiché and Cakchiquel tribes claim origin in the legendary city of Tollán, throughout their trip until they reach the Guatemalan Highlands (they) encounter only tribes speaking a language similar to their own. The country between the Laguna de Terminos and the Usumacinta region was and still is populated by Chol Mayas. Consequently, the Quiché and Cakchiqueles must have understood this language, and therefore were also Maya speakers. When they reached Guatemala, they met the Maya and, in the Annals, they referred to them as "stutterers", thus implying that they spoke a language somewhat similar to their own. J. Eric Thompson, a few years ago advanced the theory that the Itzás who came to Chichén Itzá about 1000 A.D. were Mexican-influenced Chontal Maya Indians from the Laguna de Terminos region. The Yucatecan Mayas called the Itzá invaders "stutterers", or "people who speak our language brokenly". I therefore suggest that the Quichés and Cakchiqueles were equally Nahuatl-influenced Chontal Mayas. I think that the story is as follows: the priest king Quetzalcóatl/Kukulcán/Gucumatz was expelled by his enemies from Tula (Tollán), sometime around 960 A.D. He left with a small group of his followers and went to Tlapallan, that is, the Laguna de Terminos region. Here he apparently settled down. It would seem that some of the Chontal tribes accepted the mushroom cult introduced by him and after a few years, the pressure of enemy tribes forced them to move on, led by descendants of Quetzalcóatl and his followers. Some went northeast to Chichén Itzá; others moved southward following the Usumacinta toward Guatemala. The archaeological picture of Northern Guatemala favors this theory. Linguistically, it is far more plausible than the other. The few leaders could still refer to their homeland as Tollán, and probably continued for a while to speak Nahuatl. The great mass of followers, however, did not speak this language and therefore probably spoke Chontal Maya. The Quiché and Cakchiquel Maya are, of course, linguistically related to the Chol and Chontal Maya. Please understand, this is a completely new theory. I am in the process of gathering archaeological data, which might support it."
Toltec influence on the Maya of Yucatan can easily be seen in the architectural design of temples, palace monuments and ballcourts at the impressive ruins of Chichén Itzá. Images of decapitated ballplayers carved on the walls of formal ballcourts at El Tajín and Chichén Itzá supports the western origin of the ballgame carried by the Putún-descended peoples when they relocated north to Chichén Itzá and south to the Guatemala Highlands.
Borhegyi called into question the construction date of the Great Ballcourt at Chichén Itzá which is the largest in Mesoamerica. He and fellow archaeologist Lee A. Parsons believed that this Great Ballcourt was built much earlier than previously supposed, possibly Mid to Late Classic period (Borhegyi, de, 1980: 12, 25). Borhegyi also believed that the stone ballcourt rings were an Early Post-Classic addition and indicated a later change of rules in the way the game was played. He further believed the gruesome human decapitation scenes and human "skull balls" were Late Classic and were influenced by the "Tajínized Nonoalca" (Pipils) or the Olmeca-Xicallanca who spread during that period from the Gulf Coast to Yucatan and through the Petén rainforest as far as the Pacific coast of Guatemala (Borhegyi de, 1980: 25).
One of the early Spanish chroniclers, Diego Muñoz Camargo, recorded that the grand city of Cholula, famous for the Great Pyramid dedicated to Quetzalcóatl, was the capital of the Olmeca Xicallanca who were from the important coastal trading center of Xicalango, located in southern Campeche. At the time of the Spanish Conquest, this was an important coastal trading center controlled by a seafaring people known as the Putún Maya who may have been related either culturally or linguistically to an earlier Olmec culture. Archaeologist J. Eric S. Thompson proposed that the Itzá who came into northern Yucatan were Chontal Mayan speakers (Thompson, 1970: 3-5). Thompson described the Itzá’s as the Putún Maya, a group of Mexicanized Chontal Mayan speakers from the Gulf coastal area, who were sea traders who controlled Chichén Itzá shortly after A.D. 900. Most historians believe now that the God-king Kukulcán and the Toltec priest-ruler Topiltzin Quetzacóatl, both meaning "Plumed Serpent," were one and the same man.
In Cholula, the worship of Quetzalcóatl flourished. Spanish chronicler Friar Toribio de Benavente, affectionately called Motolinia by the Indians, wrote in his Memoriales that followers of Quetzalcóatl came to Cholula to give their lives in sacrifice, in return for immortality. He described the great ceremony to Quetzalcóatl which lasted eight days which, coincidentally, is the same number of days that, according to legend, Quetzalcóatl was in the underworld creating humanity by bloodletting on the bones of his father and the bones of past generations. He then emerged from the underworld resurrected as the Morning Star.
Motolinia named a star Lucifer (most likely Venus) which the Indians adored “more than any other save the sun, and performed more ritual sacrifices for it than for any other creature, celestial or terrestrial” (LaFaye, 1987: 141).
Bartolome de las Casas, a Bishop of Chiapas in the mid-1500s, reported that: "after the sun, which they held as their principal god, they honored and worshiped a certain star more than any other denizen of the heavens or earth, because they held it as certain that their god Quetzalcóatl, the highest god of the Cholulans, when he died transformed into this star" (Christenson, 2007: 205). Las Casas further noted that the Indians awaited the appearance of this star in the east each day, and that when it appeared their priests offered many sacrifices, including incense and their own blood (Christenson, 2007: 205).
Spanish chronicles tell us that the Aztecs and Toltecs attributed their enlightenment to Quetzalcóatl. In the 16th century, Franciscan Friar Bernardino de Sahagún recorded in his Florentine Codex (Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, 1547-1582) that: They (the Indians) were very devout. Only one was their God; they showed all attention to, they called upon, they prayed to one by the name of Quetzalcóatl … the one that was perfect in the performance of all the customs, exercises and learning (wisdom) observed by the ministers of the idols, was elected highest pontiff; he was elected by the king or chief and all the principals (foremost men), and they called him Quetzalcóatl. (Sahagún, 1950, vol. 10: 160).
Friar Sahagún (in book 9 of 12) refers to mushrooms with a group of traveling priests merchants known as the pochtecas, meaning merchants who lead because they were followers of Quetzalcóatl, who they worshipped under the patron name Yiacatecuhtli or Yacateuctli, Lord of the Vanguard. He describes the mushroom’s effects and their use in several passages of his Florentine Codex (“Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España”). He records how the merchants celebrated the return from a successful business trip with a wild mushroom party.
The pochteca journeyed in all directions from Central Mexico, carrying merchandise as well as
spreading the mushroom religion of Quetzalcóatl (Sahagún, Book 9 chapter viii; Florentine Codex,
fol 3 Ir-3 Iv).
Another passage from Friar Sahagún in his Florentine Codex reads:
The eating of mushrooms was sometimes also part of a longer
ceremony performed by merchants returning from a trading
expedition to the coast lands. The merchants, who arrived on a day
of favorable aspect, organized a feast and ceremony of thanksgiving
also on a day of favorable aspect. As a prelude to the ceremony of
eating mushrooms, they sacrificed a quail, offered incense to the
four directions, and made offerings to the gods of flowers and
fragrant herbs. The eating of mushrooms took place in the earlier
part of the evening. At midnight a feast followed, and toward dawn
the various offerings to the gods, or the remains of them, were
ceremonially buried. (Sahagún, Book 9 chapter viii; fol 3 Ir-3 Iv).
The Nonoalca were a Nathuat-Pipil group that settled in the southern Veracruz-Tabasco area after the fall of Teotihuacán. According to the Popol Vuh, some continued on to Guatemala and became the forebears of the Quiché Maya. Borhegyi believed that the plain, uncarved type of mushroom stone must have been re-introduced to Guatemala and the Cotzumalhuapa area during Late Classic times, by these “Tajinized Nonoalca” Pipil groups, where the severing of human heads reached new levels during Late Classic times (Borhegyi de, 1965: 37; Borhegyi de, 1980: 25; Borhegyi letter to Wasson, November 30, 1953, Wasson Archives).
The general belief has been that the Quiché Maya and Cakchiqueles who both claimed Toltec ancestry, entered the Guatemalan highlands from the eastern lowlands after the abandonment of Chichén Itzá in Yucatan. The date in textbooks for their entry has been set between A.D. 1250-1300, using the GMT correlation (Porter Weaver, 1981: 477). The Quiché Maya, whose traditions and history are recorded in the Popol Vuh, claim that their migration was led under the spiritual “guidance” of their patron god named Tohil who was associated with rain and fire and is now considered to be a variant of Quetzalcóatl (Fox, 1987: 248).
According to S.W. Miles, the archaeologist Robert Wauchope, who worked at three main sites at Gumaarcah, Iximche, and Zacualpa during the late 1940s, could not find “archaeological coordination earlier than ca. A.D. 1300, between ceramics and genealogical reckoning” (Miles, 1965: 282-283).
Borhegyi questioned this date in his letter to Wauchope dated April 8, 1954 (Milwaukee Public Museum Archives), explaining: I will try to put down in as concise form as possible, my questions concerning Quiche archaeology:
1) "As you know, Dick Woodbury found cremations in Tohil effigy jars at Zaculeu. If cremations are to be connected with the Quiche expansion under Quicab this would mean that Zaculeu was occupied by them during the Early Post-Classic period. 2) You postulated Quicab's reign in the middle of the 15th century. These lately discovered cremations at Zaculeu would infer an earlier date for this reign, i.e., around 1300. If I remember correctly, you derive the date for Quicab's reign from a passage in the Annals of the Cakchiquels, which states that the daughter-in-law of Quicab died in 1507. Can it be that this passage refers to Quicab II, and not to Quicab I? In this case, Quicab I could have reigned in 1300. 3) I think the arrival of the Quiche-Cakchiquel's to Guatemala (probably following the Usumacinta River from the Laguna de Terminos) can be correlated with the first appearance of Fine Orange X wares, Mexican onyx vases, Tohil plumbate, and effigy support tripod bowls. ... On the other hand, the Quiche expansion under the reign of King Quicab falls together with the distribution of white-on-red ware, red on buff ware, red-and-black-on-white ware, and micaceous ware. This data also suggests a reign of around 1300 for Quicab. 4) I have long wondered about the quick "Mayanization" of the Quiche and Cakchiquel tribes, who supposedly came from Tulan. Using Morris Swadesh's lexicostatistical system, it is quite improbable that by the time of the conquest all these tribes could have spoken Maya with practically no retention of their original language. Could it be that the Quiche and Cakchiquels, like the Itzas and Xius of Yucatan were actually Chontal speaking Mayas from the Laguna de Terminos region, who wandered southward after being influenced by Nahuatl speaking groups? I wonder if Quetzalcoatl, after leaving Tula for Tlapalan, settled among these Chontal Mayas and introduced among them a new religious cult, based on the worship of idols. Could it be that only a few of Quetzalcoatl's followers (who actually could trace their origin to Tula) led these Chontal Mayas down into Guatemala? If so, they must have arrived to the borders of Guatemala around 1000 and not, as you once postulated, around 1300. Their arrival, around 1000 AD coincides with the appearance of Fine Orange X wares, Tohil plumbate etc. (we have lately found Tohil plumbate sherds at Altar de Sacrificios and at Santa Amelia). I would appreciate very much your comments on this hypothesis and questions mentioned above. If you'd like, I could even write it up for the Research Records, amplified with the latest distributional studies of the abovementioned wares. At any rate, I would be very much interested to know your opinion"
As ever, Steve
Since then, more recent archaeological evidence suggests that Borhegyi’s original date of A.D. 1000 was right after all. One archaeological site along the Pacific slope that provides clear evidence of both Olmec and Maya development is the archaeological site of Tak’alik Ab’aj (formerly called Abaj Takalik), a pre-Columbian archaeological site in Guatemala. This area runs along the intercontinental mountain range which was heavily influenced in Preclassic times by the powerful Olmec culture.
Maya archaeologist Marion Popenoe de Hatch (2005: 1) noted that:
"According to the stratigraphic evidence and the analysis of ceramics recovered in recent excavation, it would seem that Tak’alik Ab’aj was conquered by K’iche (Quiche) groups at the beginning of the Early Postclassic period (ca. 1000 AD). This date goes a long way back from the period comprised between 1400 and 1450 AD that many ethno-historians claimed for the K’iche expansion towards the South Coast of Guatemala"… "The problem is when, and the Tak’alik Ab’aj information suggests that the expansion had been initiated at the beginning of the Early Postclassic period and not at the beginning of the Late Postclassic, that is to say around 1000 AD, contemporary to the dispersion of the Tihil Plumbate pottery. The chronicle states that the conquest took place in 1300 AD, but archaeological evidence shows that this happened around three centuries prior to that date, that is, around 1000 AD."
Toltec influence can be seen throughout the Guatemala Highlands at a number of archaeological sites like Kaminaljuyú and Zacuala, and along the Pacific slope area known for its important cacao plantations, a region in which the sculptural style at sites like El Baúl, Bilbao and El Castillo is a mixture of both Maya and Mexican elements called ‘Cotzumalhuapa’.
Cotzumalhuapa culture is well known for its many horizontally-tenoned stone heads that represent jaguars, birds, monkeys and serpent heads, as well as human skulls and human faces, some peering out of the beaks of birds or serpent jaws. Borhegyi noted: “Some of the tenoned human heads represent rabbit-eared, snouted and fanged anthropomorphic individuals with dangling eyeballs, a feature commonly associated with the god Quetzalcóatl in his form of Éhecatl the Wind God” (Borhegyi de, 1980: 17).
While at first glance the face of the "Weeping Gods" gives the illusion of a deity with dangling eye-balls. However as "I discovered", if you look closely, you will see that the dangling eyeballs are actually encoded mushrooms "Hidden In Plain Sight." The photo of the "Weeping God" above left is from VanKirk, Jacques, and Parney Bassett-VanKirk, Remarkable Remains of the Ancient Peoples of Guatemala, Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1996.)
The immense popularity of Quetzalcóatl is indicated by the lengthy descriptions accorded to him by almost all of the early chroniclers of New Spain, today Mexico. Quetzalcóatl is alluded to in Nahua myth as the great civilizer and King of the Toltecs, and in Maya legends was known as Kukulcán or Gucumatz, also meaning "Lord Feathered Serpent". All three culture heroes were reputed to be the inventors of the science of measuring time as serpents represented the bondage of time and its cyclical nature. Additionally, the Annals of Cuauhtitlán (Nahua manuscripts) record that it was Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl who invented the ballgame, and wherever a temple stood dedicated to Quetzalcóatl, there existed a ballcourt (Nicholson, 1967: 117)
Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl was regarded as "The Father of the Toltecs", and became ruler of Tollán/Tula, and by his inspired enlightened way he encouraged the liberal arts and sciences, and was revered for the cultural advancement of his people. His life of fasting and penitence, his priestly character, and his benevolence toward his followers, are evident in the material that has been preserved in the 16th century Spanish chronicles and in the hand-painted books of the indigenous people. He was also known as the lawgiver and, according to Spanish historians, he was unwilling to harm any human being, despite the temptation from demons to perform human sacrifice.
It seems likely that Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl traveled to Chichén Itzá after he founded the city of Tula, and that he brought with him Toltec culture and a mushroom Venus cult associated with the ballgame. The Itzá Maya of Yucatan called this ruler Kukulcán (meaning “holy spirit” or “god” and “serpent and sky”), and it is believed he rebuilt the great city of Chichén Itzá, and later founded the Maya capital city of Mayapán. Aztec chronicles tell us that the Toltec priest-ruler Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl sailed across the Gulf of Mexico toward Yucatan at approximately A.D. 978. There is also ample evidence in the archaeology of Yucatan for a sea-borne invasion by the Toltecs in the late tenth century (Hedrick, 1971: 262).
Rituals of Resurrection:
In the Popol Vuh, numerous passages reveal obscure connections between Maya creation myths, the ballgame, ritual decapitation, self decapitation (Borhegyi,1969: 501) and Maya astronomy, involving the movement of the sun, moon, and the planet Venus that are commonly depicted on Maya vase paintings.
Gordon Wasson believed that the origin of ritual decapitation may lay in the mushroom religion itself and terminology used in reference to mushroom parts. In a letter to Borhegyi dated June 7, 1954, he writes of the Mixe (a linguistic group of northeast Oaxaca) continuing use of the psilocybin mushroom:
"The cap of the mushroom in Mije (or Mixe) is called kobahk, the same word for head. In Kiche and Kakchiquel it is doubtless the same, and kolom ocox is not “mushroom heads”, but mushroom caps, or in scientific terminology, the pileus of the mushroom. The Mije in their mushroom cult always sever the stem or stipe (in Mije, tek is “leg”) from the cap, and the cap alone is eaten. Great insistence is laid on this separation of cap from stem. This is in accordance with the offering of “mushroom head” in the Annals of the Cakchiqueles and the Popol Vuh. The writers had in mind the removal of the stems. The top of the cap is yellow and the rest is the color of coffee, with the gills of a color between yellow and coffee. They call this mushroom, pitpa "thread-like", the smallest, perhaps 2 horizontal fingers high, with a cap small for the height, growing everywhere in clean earth, often along the mountain trails with many in a single place. In Mije the cap of the mushroom is called the "head" "kobahk in the dialect of Mazatlán. When the “heads” are consumed, they are not chewed, but swallowed fast one after the other, in pairs".
When I began searching the Justin Kerr Data Base of Maya vase paintings for mushrooms, one of the first Maya vase paintings I found with encoded mushroom imagery was Maya vase K1490, illustrated below. This Late Classic Maya vase painting (600-900 C.E.) from highland Guatemala was like a Maya vase "Rosetta Stone" in the amount of information it contained. I immediately saw the mushrooms in the robes of the twin smokers on the far right. I also noticed that the artist had encoded mushroom imagery into the headdresses, and that mushrooms were on the tips of the noses of the executioners with obsidian knives. A dark loop symbol was repeated three times along the upper rim of the vessel. Because of this repetition, I suspected that it might be important and related to mushroom-inspired religious beliefs.
Photographs © Justin Kerr K1490
In the vase painting above, the Lord of the Underworld is depicted as the white skeletal god in the center of the scene. He holds a decapitated head in one hand and a serpent-bird staff in the other. Known as Skeletal God A, his fleshless body represents death and decay, but also the transformation at death from which life is regenerated.
Like many other Late Classic period carved and painted vessels, Maya Vase painting K1490 depicts the sacred (and improbable) ritual of self-decapitation. Note that the third individual from the right has no head. He holds in his left hand the obsidian knife with which he has decapitated himself. In his right hand he holds the cloth in which he will wrap the head in a bundle. The fourth individual from the right is shown holding the decapitated head by the hair with his right hand, and a knife in his left hand. After a close examination of this scene, it occurred to me that it might depict an early version of an episode related in the colonial period document known as the Popol Vuh.
I believe that this complex scene may illustrate one of the passages in the Popol Vuh in which the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, smoke cigars in the underworld. That they are smoking hallucinogenic cigars is also suggested by the mushrooms that the author believes are encoded on their robes, and in their mushroom-inspired headdresses. The two smokers are the first two individuals on the right. The two figures in front of them, since they wear the same clothing as the first pair, may be the same set of twins. One of the twins, however, has undergone sacrificial decapitation. Another interpretation could be that the two smokers, through their hallucinations, are seeing the fate of their father and uncle in their underworld struggle against the Nine Lords of Death, the Xibalbans.
Photographs © Justin Kerr
Maya vase K8936, shown above, also depicts scenes associated with the Maya creation story.
According to the Popol Vuh, after the Xibalbans (the Lords of the Underworld) defeated Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu in a ballgame, they sacrificed them and hung the severed head of Hun Hunahpu in a calabash tree. The head of Hun Hunahpu impregnated a daughter of the Xibalbans, named Blood Woman, with the Hero Twins by spitting into her hand.
In the scene above, the jaguar god of the underworld, shown on the far left, holds a decapitated head (likely the head of Hun Hunahpu). Seated below the jaguar is the pregnant daughter of the Xibalbans known as Xquik "Blood Woman". She is painted blood red, and is shown stretching out her palm beneath the decapitated head. The decapitated head of Hun Hunahpu spits semen onto her hands which fertilizes, giving birth to the legendary Hero Twins. Her father, one of the Lords of death in the Maya underworld, is the skeletal god to the far right who also holds the bloody head of Hun Hunahpu.
In front of Blood Woman sits a character marked with cimi death signs (looks like a % sign) on his legs. He wears on his head what, I believe, is a mushroom-inspired headdress. In his hand he holds a drinking vessel which may contain a mushroom-based beverage which he will use to journey or portal into the underworld. The large jar or olla that sits on his lap may contain the cultivated sacrament. The skeletal death god on the right also carries a ceramic jar. It likely contains a hallucinogenic beverage to be taken at death for the ritual cross-over, or underworld journey. The large blood-stained X-icon located on his skull cap represents the portal door to this journey of transformation.
Directly behind Blood Woman, at the bottom of the scene, is a large transparent view of the inside of her womb. In it we see the unborn Hunahpu, the eldest of the Hero Twins. He is shown on his back with his knees pointed upwards. Hunahpu, the first born of the Hero Twins, personifies Venus. His day-sign is One Ahau or Hun Ahau, the sacred date of the heliacal rising of Venus as Morning Star in the Venus Almanac of the Dresden Codex. To the left of the unborn Hunahpu is a coiled serpent in the shape of a ballgame hoop. The hoop bears symbols of the four cardinal directions. The inner circle denotes the goal of the hoop as well as the central portal of resurrection. It is associated with the color green, which is the green quetzal-feathered serpent aspect of Quetzalcoatl as the planet Venus.
In Mesoamerican mythology Quetzalcoatl represents the Lord of the Ballgame and Lord of decapitation. It is likely his image that the Maya saw as a decapitated ballplayer in the constellation of Orion. Orion was believed to be the belt or ballgame yoke of Hun Ahau or Quetzalcoatl. The three stars of his ballgame yoke may represent the three hearth stones of Maya creation.
Behind the serpent is a rabbit, a symbol of the moon and fertility, holding a ball between its knees. The ball is marked by the symbol of three, referring again to the three hearth stones that were placed at the time of creation by the pair of twins depicted directly above. These are clearly the Hero Twins from the Popol Vuh. The twin on the left with jaguar features can be identified as Xbalanke. He holds what appears to be the three hearth stones of creation (the three thunderbolts in the Popol Vuh?). Two of the three stones appear under the right arm and he is placing the third stone in his left hand into the sky at the place of ballgame sacrifice.
Xbalanke's trademark attributes are his jaguar spots, (note his spotted ear), symbolic of the Moon and underworld sun or Sun God. He most likely represents the Evening Star aspect of the planet Venus. To the right of Xbalanke is his older twin brother Hunahpu. He can be identified by his blowgun, which he holds like a paddle, rerminiscent of the Paddler Twins. He is likely an aspect of the planet Venus as Evening Star. Both twins wear the scarf of underworld decapitation, and both are depicted above their unborn bodies. The womb of Hunahpu is directly behind Bloodwoman, while the womb of Xbalanke is in the shape of a curled up jaguar and is depicted directly behind the rabbit holding the ball.
"The cache of nine miniature mushroom stones demonstrates considerable antiquity for the "mushroom-stone cult," and suggests a possible association with the nine lords of the night and gods of the underworld, as well as the possible existence of a nine-day cycle and nocturnal count in Preclassic times. The association of the miniature mushroom stones with the miniature metates and manos greatly strengthens the possibility that at least in some areas in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica metates were used to grind the sacred hallucinatory mushrooms to prepare them for ceremonial consumption." (de Borhegyi 1961: 498-504)
" The lords used these symbols of rule, which came from where the sun rises, to pierce and cut up their bodies (for the blood sacrifice). There were nine mushroom stones for the Ajpop and the Ajpop Q'amja, and in each case four, three, two, and one staffs with the Quetzal's feathers and green feathers, together with garlands, the Chalchihuites precious stones, with the sagging lower jaw and the bundle of fire for the Temezcal steam bath."
Page 24 of the Codex Vindobonensis, above, shows the Wind God Ehecatl-Quetzalcóatl (circled) holding an
axe in one hand and the decapitated head of the underworld Death God in the other. Here, Quetzalcóatl gives
instructions to a young Xochipilli who is depicted with tears in his eyes as he holds a pair of divine mushrooms in his
right hand (Photo from The British Museum)
It has long been known that page 24 of the Codex Vindobonensis concerns the ceremonial role of mushrooms among the Mixtecs. In 1929 Walter Lehmann noted the resemblance to mushrooms of the objects portrayed in the hands of many of the characters depicted in this Codex. Mexican archaeologist Alfonso Caso later provisionally identified what he called "T-shaped" objects in the manuscript as mushrooms (Wasson 1980, p. 214). Gordon Wasson concluded that it showed "the major place occupied by mushrooms in the culture of the Mixtecs." According to Ethno-archaeologist Peter Furst, the scene depicts the divine establishment of the ritual consumption of sacred mushrooms" by the god-king Quetzalcoatl (1981, pp.151-155).
In the middle of the page on the right side the god-king Quetzalcoatl is depicted gesturing to the god-king Tlaloc directly in front of him to open the portal to the underworld. According to Peter Furst, who describes this iconography, the scene depicts the divine establishment of the ritual consumption of sacred mushrooms" (1981, p.151). He identifies the triangular or V-shaped cleft in the basin of water on the left as a cosmic passage through which deities, people, animals and plants pass from one cosmic plane to another.
On the bottom left, two figures stand beside another V--shape portal of Underworld resurrection. The figure on the left who points to the sky, also has fangs. He appears to be a human transformed at death into the Underworld Sun god, or mythical "were jaguar". This gesture probably signifies resurrection from the Underworld. The two-faced deity in front of him holds what appear to be sacred psilocybin mushrooms similar in shape to the ones in the photograph below.
This two-faced deity is, in all likelihood, the dualistic planet Venus and the god of Underworld sacrifice and resurrection. Note that the two-faced deity is painted black (signifying the Underworld) and wears a double-beaked harpy eagle headdress (signifying the sun's resurrection). The five plumes in the harpy eagle's headdress refer to the five synodic cycles of Venus. The three mushrooms in his hand refer to the Mesoamerican trinity: the three hearthstones of creation. ie., the sun, the morning star and the evening star.
The circle below the feet of the figure on the left is divided into four parts, two of them dark and two light, each with a footprint. The Fursts, Peter and Jill, have identified this symbol as representing the north-south axis or sacred center as the place of entry into the Underworld. (Furst, 1981: 155). This symbol also appears in the scene above in association with a figure plunging through the a V-shaped cleft into the Underworld.