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The Early History of Salvia divinorum
Leander J. Valdes, III
The Entheogen Review: 10(3):73-75
Unless you believe that Salvia divinorum is the old Mexica (Aztec) narcotic plant pipiltzintzintli (I don't), the story of this fascinating mint began in the late 1930s. When R. Gordon Wasson and Albert Hofmann brought back material for Carl Epling to identify (Wasson 1962, 1963; Epling and Játiva-M 1962), they ended a search that had lasted nearly a quarter of a century. Their party traveled through Oaxaca under the auspices of a famous Mexican anthropologist, Roberto Weitlaner (an Austrian by birth), who had been guiding expeditions to Oaxaca for decades (Pompa y Pompa 1966). I've quoted everything relative to S. divinorum from each of the following rather rare references, translating to English where necessary.

In the summer of 1938 Jean B. Johnson, Weitlaner's son-in-law, visited the Mazatec town of Huautla de Jiminéz, Oaxaca, with a group of young anthropologists. He wrote a couple of articles based on their findings. The first one covered various aspects of Mazatec culture and language. In the section on curing and witchcraft he discussed the magic mushrooms:

Shamans, as well as other persons, use certain narcotic plants in order to find lost objects. In some cases teonanacatl is used, while in others a seed called "semilla de la Virgen" is used. "Hierba María" is similarly used. The Zapotecs use a plant called "bador", the little children, and the Aztecs used narcotic plants in a similar manner(Johnson 1939a).
"Semilla de la Virgen" is "the Virgin's seed," and "Hierba (or Yerba) María" is Mary's herb, both refer to Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. In the second article Johnson covered the activities of Mazatec shamans in greater detail. It is an excellent and interesting source of information, being based on interviews with a shaman. Concerning the Mazatec trio of magic plants he wrote:

To find a lost animal or object, one takes some mushrooms at night. One commences to speak (after falling asleep). It is not permitted to keep an animal around which might cry out and disturb the sleeper, who goes on speaking while another person listens. The sleeper tells where the lost animal or thing is, and the next day, there it is when they go to find it. In addition to the mushrooms, some people use a seed called "Semilla de la Virgen", others use "Hierba Maria"... The use of various magical plants to find lost objects is not restricted to the Mazatec alone; the Zapotec use a plant called "bador, the little children," which is administered the same way as yerba Maria by the Mazatec. The leaf is beaten well, and a tea is made thereof. It is probable that the Chinantec use it, since it well known to those who live in the vicinity of Ojitlan. The Aztecs used narcotic plants in a similar way (Johnson 1939b).
Bador, or badoh, was later identified as the morning glory, Rivea corymbosa, and it is the seeds that are used, not the leaves (Wasson 1963). Johnson was killed in Africa during World War II.

Blas P.Reko, like Weitlaner, was an Austrian expatriate. He was a doctor and naturalist, and often worked in collaboration with the anthropologist (Reko 1945; Pompa y Pompa 1966). In his book on medicinal plants, he wrote:

I cannot leave unmentioned here another magical plant whose leaves produce visions and which the Cuicatecs and Mazatecs (of the districts of Cuicatlán and Teotitlán) call "leaf of prophecy." The loose leaves I have obtained do not allow its scientific identification at the present time.
Teotitlán is in the Valley of Oaxaca, in the upper central part of the state. It is Mazatec country. Cuicatlán is the district directly adjacent to the southeast. A search engine such as GoogleTM can find you some good maps. As an aside, the credit for discovering the magic mushrooms has been given to Richard Schultes (1939), and later R.G. Wasson. Actually, at the time Schultes was in the Sierra Mazateca, working on his PhD thesis (Schultes 1941). He was accompanying Reko, who had been puzzling out the mushroom mystery since 1919. During the late 1930s Reko sent specimens he had collected to various American taxonomists for identification. He later said this about the American botanist:

I have to mention these details, now that an ambitious young Harvard student, having turned literary pirate, has taken credit for my discoveries (The identification of Teonanacatl, by Richard E. Schultes, Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University, Febr. 21, 1939), after I had communicated to him the results of my prolonged investigations and invited him on a botanical expedition to Huautla de Jiménez during the summer of 1938, where I gave him numerous samples of the aforesaid mushroom, which had been finally positively identified by Dr. Linder as Paneolus campanulatus L. var. sphinctrinus (Fr.) Bresadola. Samples that I sent to professor C.G. Santesson in Stockholm revealed the presence of a new narcotic glucoalkaloid.
Schultes never did return to Mexico, and turned his research toward South America.

Weitlaner, himself, was trained and worked for a while as an engineer, but later switched to anthropology after emigrating to Mexico (Pompa y Pompa 1966). He led numerous expeditions throughout Mexico and was an expert on the peoples of Oaxaca. While collecting data on the Chinantecs, he came across a person who gave him a lot of information about Mazatec healing rites, including the use of Yerba de María, or S. divinorum. The interview covering the mint went as follows:


Asking Don S. about the mushroom Teonanacatl, which is found in Huautla de Jiménez, he said it wasn't used in Jalapa, but he mentioned another plant that was called Yerba de María.

The plant somewhat resembles yerba mora but its leaves are a little wider; only the leaves are used, and they are put in water. First they are rubbed (crushed) in the hands, the water is not boiled, and they are used for very specific means. When the curandero goes to the mountain to search for this plant, he has to kneel down and pray to it before cutting it. There are only two or three specialists who know this remedy. They aren't brujos, and they cut the plants only when they need them, after praying.

For example, if someone is ill, and the doctors don't know the disease, then with this herb they can divine the illness. The curandero who brings the leaves first asks the sick person if they are addicted to alcohol, for a person who doesn't drink is prescribed fifty leaves, but one who does is prescribed one hundred. The ill one drinks the water in which the leaves have been squeezed; at midnight the curandero goes with them and another person to a place where there is no noise, as for example, a house where the sick person drinks the potion. They wait a quarter of an hour for the effects of the drug, and the sick person begins to describe the type of illness they are suffering from. The sick one finds themselves in a semi-delirious state, they speak as if in a trance and the others listen attentively to what they say, they throw off their clothing as if with the herb they could free themselves of the animals. At daybreak the curandero bathes the sick person with the same water that they took, and with this they are cured.

It is said that this bath ends the intoxicated state of the sick person who has taken the herb.

When one is trying to uncover a robbery or loss, the curandero listens to what the person who has taken the plant says and in this manner the deeds are discovered.

There is a man called Felipe Miranda in Jalapa de Díaz who goes to the mountain every three to six months to collect the herb; he performs excellent cures and he is doing quite well, economically; they say he grows the plant, but he won't reveal what type of herb it is.

Later Weitlaner continued:

It seems odd that the use of the mushroom called Teonanacatl was categorically denied, when we know that in the Mazatecan capital of Huautla de Jiménez its esoteric use is very well known. As has been said, here it gives way to the plant known as Yerba de María.

Perhaps it may be of interest to point out the fact that a plant called Yerba de la Virgen is used in almost the identical manner in the Otomí town of Santa Ana Hueytalpan, in the region of Tulancingo, Hidalgo, according to Dr. J. Soustelle, who learned of it and wrote us. However, he didn't mention an auto-diagnosis as takes place in our Mazatecan town.
Yerba mora is Black Nightshade or Solanum nigrum; illness can be physical, psychological or magical. There is a more detailed description of crushing the Salvia leaves by hand (Valdés et al 1983). Weitlaner's article is excellent reading.

When I was in Mexico City in 1980, I visited the National Herbarium (a place where plant specimens are stored) to look at their collection of S. divinorum. I learned that in 1957 the Mexican botanist, Arturo Gómez Pompa, while in the Sierra Mazateca collecting mushrooms for the drug firm CIBA, found a Salvia species known by the Mazatecs as ska Pastora. He noted that it was hallucinogenic (alucinante) and a dose was 8-12 pair of leaves. Flowering material was unavailable (floral description is almost always necessary to define a new species), so it couldn't be identified past the genus level. Unable to return to the area before Wasson and Hofmann's visit, he missed the chance to get the credit for identifying ska María Pastora (Gómez Pompa 1957, 2001).

This, then, is what was known about S. divinorum before Wasson and Hofmann set out to collect the magic plant. These old articles pose some very important unanswered questions. Reko noted possible use of S. divinorum by the Cuicatecs, and Weitlaner by the Otomi. These people live in areas surrounding the Mazatecan heartland, and they as well as the Chinantecs are long overdue for study. These old explorers used horses and mules for their traveling, I used a car and a jeep, but I'm sure that now one could do it all by bus, if they were brave enough (traveling on rural Mexican buses can be a real learning experience).

  • Epling, C. and Játiva-M., C. 1962. A new species of Salvia from Mexico. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University, 20:75-76.
  • Gómez Pompa, A. 1957. Salvia divinorum herbarium sheets, A. Gómez Pompa 87556 and 93216 National Herbarium (UNAM), México,D.F.
  • Gómez Pompa, A. 2001. Personal communication 5/13/2001.
  • Johnson, J.B. 1939a. Some notes on the Mazatec, Revista Mexicana de Estudios Antropológicos,3:142-156.
  • Johnson, J.B. (1939b) The elements of Mazatec witchcraft, Etnologiska Studier 9:128-150.
  • Pompay Pompa, A. (1966) Summa Antropológica en homenaje a Roberto Weitlaner, INAH, México, D.F. Many of the articles deal directly with his life and his numerous expeditions.
  • Reko, B.P. (1945) Mitobotanica Zapoteca. Tacubaya, México, D.F. (Privately printed), pp. 17, 53-54.
  • Schultes, R.E. (1939) Plantae Mexicanae II. The identification of Teonanacatl, a narcotic
  • Basidiomycete of the Aztecs. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 7:37-54.
  • Schultes, R.E. (1941) Economic aspects of the flora of northeastern Oaxaca, Mexico. Ph.D. Thesis, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
  • Valdés, L.J., III., Díaz, J.L., and Paul, A.G. (1983) Ethnopharmacology of Ska María Pastora (Salvia Divinorum, Epling and Játiva-M.). J. Ethnopharmacology 7:287-312.
  • Wasson, R.G. (1962) A new Mexican psychotropic drug from the mint family. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 20:77-84.
  • Wasson, R.G. (1963) Notes on the present status of Ololiuhqui and the other hallucinogens of Mexico. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 20:161-193.
  • Weitlaner, R.J. (1952) Curaciones Mazatecas. Anales del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (México) 4:279-285.