The world of shamanism in Mexico has not had such a great exponent as María Sabina, considered by many as a queen in shamanism and the sacred arts of ceremonial consumption of mushrooms and hallucinogenic substances. Her story is impressive and sad in equal parts since to become who she was, this woman had to endure several abuses and violence from both external people and herself. Get to know her in-depth here.
Who Was Maria Sabina?
According to information from books such as Vida de María Sabina, la Sabia de los Hongos, by Álvaro Estrada, and La Otra Vida de María Sabina, by Juan García Carrera, María Sabina Magdalena García, her full name, was born 1904 originally from Oaxaca, Mexico. Her exact date of birth is unknown, as she claimed to have arrived in this world on Saint Mary Magdalene’s Day, July 22, but her biographers point out that her baptismal certificate was dated March 17 of the same year.
What is known about her is that since she was young she had already shown some affinity to the spiritual world thanks to her father, Crisanto Feliciano, who passed when she was three years old, although she remembers that she once saw him performing a ritual with other men for the ceremonial consumption of some mushrooms. The men, considered in her hometown as chotá-a t chi-née, which in Mazatec means “wise men,” had sought to prevent the death of her father, who was apparently the victim of a curse sometime before María Sabina’s birth.
Although she lived most of her childhood in extreme poverty after being raised by her mother, María Concepción, and her grandparents, Manuel Cosme and María Estefanía, María Sabina never lost her desire to learn more about the power behind the world of mushrooms and the work of shamans. In fact, between the ages of 5 and 7, her family allowed her to have a more direct approach to mushrooms by allowing her to glimpse a healing ritual for one of her uncles, at which time she was unable to ingest them but was able to identify them and learn about their properties, which helped her to find specimens of them shortly thereafter to try them on her own.
María Sabina: The Horrors of Macho Culture
At the age of 14, María Sabina was considered fit to become a wife, and that is why her family gave her marriage to her first husband, Serapio Martínez, with whom she had three children before becoming a widow in the 1920s. From then on, she lived through an ordeal because of her second husband, a sorcerer whose name was supposedly Marcial and who, although at first taught her the arts of magic and the use of his knowledge of mushrooms for shamanic rituals, ended up creating a violent environment for her from which she could not escape.
Marcial was jealous to see that María Sabina was surpassing him in knowledge, which is why he frequently beat her up. She told in an interview with Alvaro Estrada, her main biographer, that she was able to endure all his humiliations and damages thanks to the power of mushrooms, which she called her “holy children.” Fortunately, María Sabina was able to get rid of Marcial a few years later, when he got a mistress and aroused the rage and anger of the shaman’s children, who beat him to death because they felt he had betrayed their mother.
By that time, this woman had already awakened the interest of many people because she had demonstrated an innate ability with healing and divination, a gift that, in fact, helped her to predict the death of Erasto Pineda, former mayor of Huautla de Jiménez, in Oaxaca, after which many people began to see in the consumption of mushrooms a spiritual and religious activity.
Robert Gordon Wasson and María Sabina
Part of the enormous popularity that María Sabina achieved over the years is due to the banker and mycology fanatic Robert Gordon Wasson, who traveled in 1955 to the Sierra Mazateca after having read three years earlier a report by journalist Robert Graves on the power of hallucinogenic mushrooms and their connection with ancestral cults. After making several negotiations, Wasson managed to get Maria Sabina not only to admit him to his presence but also to teach him some of her knowledge thanks to an event known as a “night vigil,” in which she indicated the use and power of various mushrooms and gave him and his wife, Valentina Pavlovna, some samples of them.
As the days went by, the relationship between this man and the shaman grew stronger, to the point that she agreed to tell him some of her secrets about the properties of her “holy children” so that he would keep all the talks on tape recordings. When the visit ended, Wasson set out to transcribe all of Maria Sabina’s knowledge in a text, which many years later would become the book The Wonderful Fungus: Teonanácatl Mycolatry in Mesoamerica, in which the man exposed the North American society to the power and importance of fungi in the Mazatec culture.
However, sometime before the appearance of this book, thanks to an article that Wasson published in Life Magazine about his encounters with Maria Sabina, he managed to make the Mexican and international public venture to the mountainous regions of Oaxaca to discover the mushrooms that the shaman used for her spiritual encounters. And then, with the emergence of the article and the rise of the hippie culture, Maria Sabina became a kind of idol for the public to the extent of receiving constant visits from people outside her community, among them several celebrities like Disney, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and lovers of the paranormal.
The Decline of María Sabina
Despite her popularity and the economic income she obtained thanks to her visits, things did not go very well for the shaman in her last years, as she became increasingly fed up with having to receive people who were not really interested in her spiritual knowledge, but simply in getting high. This led her to suffer from a terrible depression that worsened over the years, as Ramón Méndez Estrada recounted in his report María Sabina de Huautla: Isis Without a Veil, launched in 1986.
“Many people took advantage of me. I remember that time when Wasson arrived again: he gave me a record with my songs on it. I asked him how he had done it; I never imagined hearing myself. I was upset because at no time had I authorized Wasson to steal my songs. I cried about it for a long time, and insomnia kept me awake,” she said months before her death.
That sadness, in the end, began to take its toll on her body to the point of convincing her that she had become infected with all the diseases she had managed to cure over the years for not having put a stop to those visitors who only sought her out for profit. Maria Sabina even said that the power of her “holy children” diminished for her in her last months of life, since she could not feel their strength or energy no matter how much she ingested them, so she agreed with herself that she had already asked for her gift as payment for all that she had lived.
And it was in 1985 when this woman gave her last breath, in a situation of poverty because she never had an established system of payment, and most of what she received, which was very little, went to her food and other details for her sustenance.
Story written in Spanish by Alejandro Vizzuet in Cultura Colectiva