“Here lies the body of a Mazatec woman who, due to her wisdom, was admired by friends and strangers."
María Sabina's headstone
Have you ever wondered why the story of an indigenous woman living a simple life became so popular all over the world? She has turned into a symbol of spirituality. In her native country, people admired her and became the secret accomplices of her work, while western countries were captivated by her mysticism. There are many myths and stories surrounding her life, rituals, and ceremonies. However, it was because of Gordon Wasson, an American researcher, that she became an international figure.
Through María Sabina we have access to all the cultures and towns she represents. She's a window to see and understand other visions of life. The psychoactive properties of peyote are a threshold leading to other realities and millenary societies. They're another way to perceive the world and reality, and to connect with nature, animals, mountains, rivers, the sky...
What did María Sabina see? What were the elements that allowed her to heal, transcend, and go through other realms? During her rituals, she consumed mushrooms as the means to travel to other worlds. But in this journey, one needs guidance to not get lost in the immensity of the trip. Sabina asks: "Give me! Give me what's true!" She asks her cigarette for an answer, a path to follow, and it whispers universal truths through its smoke.
Prepare to know a woman with no blood, a smoke woman that caught the interest of many personalities of the Western world, who approached her to experience the spiritual manifestations of ancestral traditions. We know the Beatles went to India to find spiritual peace. In the same way, media outlets such as Life magazine told Sabina's story, and the world became thirsty to discover the guru.
She was an authentic person and her story started a craze in Western countries who wanted to get to know her methods. Rumor has it that even artists like John Lennon or Paul McCartney worshiped and visited her. Just as many wrote about her spiritual journeys, other tabloids exposed incredibly absurd anecdotes about her life. No matter what, María Sabina always remained true to herself. She didn't need to meet celebrities, to be defended, or recognized. She continued living a simple life where she was allowed to visit extraordinary worlds.
Let's take a look at her life, all those episodes that many journalists choose to ignore for the sake of getting a controversial article.
The non-canonized saint
When Wasson met her, he was a bank clerk in the United States. He had a hard time deciding whether exposing her life was worth it, but he knew the entire world had to know about her. In Mushrooms, Russia and History and Flesh of the Gods he tells his experience with this intriguing woman. When he was 87 years, and with a decayed health, he wrote a letter to a friend in which he stated that "the Catholic church should canonize her. She had an exemplary character. She was always a faithful Catholic, despite the people that hated her."
Of course, María will never be canonized. Although she was a wise woman and a healer, and the Church did acknowledge her work, she would always be set apart from religiousness. They would never take the risk to canonize someone who masters the usage of psychotropic substances and who was linked to the world of spirituality and sorcery.
She had three children. You might think this is isn't relevant. However, women healers or shamans were not allowed to be around men four days before and after engaging in rituals. When she became a widow for the second time, she realized she had to devote her life to her destiny and become a full-time healer. She saw herself as a bloodless woman, the mother of all, and the earthly representative of spirituality.
Gordon Wasson's research has helped the development of Ethnomycology and the study of mushrooms in millenary cultures. "Little children," or sacred mushrooms, always accompanied Sabina in her healing rituals. As she would say, these are the ones that do the healing. After consuming them, both the patient and herself would throw up all the evilness. These "little children" helped the patient free their body from illnesses.
When we sleep, our spirit wanders like an animal. When we're sleep deprived and consume mushrooms, we're encouraged to make a journey through time and heal. Mushrooms speak through Sabina's voice, and their words are capable of helping the sick. She spreads a mixture of mezcal, lime, and garlic –called San Pedro– on the body of those who visit her, giving them strength and courage. Sacred mushrooms do the rest of the work. However, not everybody can "see" beyond the experience of consuming them. Sabina thought that only some chosen people were born with the gift of understanding the language of the mushrooms. So if you didn't have the gift, no matter how many rituals you got involved in, you'd never get to talk to them.
Oaxaca is one of Mexico's most representative states of beauty, tradition, and folklore. It's the heart of the Mazatec mountain chain, where shamans, wise people, and healers go to ask for peace, harmony, and fertility. Sabina would go to the mountains to ask the spirits for power to defeat evil.
Wasson's recounts of his relationship with Maria Sabina let us know more about her life than just the image many tabloids wrote about the old indigenous woman who smoked marihuana. Beyond science, there are many other ways to understand the world and have access to other forms of knowledge. Their relationship helped the world understand that ancient traditions must be preserved and promoted, since they hold all the wisdom of humankind.
Her chants were recorded by Wasson and then translated to unweave all the secret words of the shamans. They are accompanied by a musical instrument, and through sounds and movements, they invoke St. Peter and Jesus to reach another level of spirituality.
Here are some verses of one of her chants:
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.
There are many documentaries about her life that intend to break all those stereotypes around this indigenous woman who consumed marijuana and peyote. She considered these drugs to be the means to access other levels of consciousness and heal people. Her ancestral knowledge will survive because there are still many protecting it.
Wasson was the medium between María Sabina and the world, and it was through their relationship that we had the chance to know her life beyond the sensationalism of TV cameras. He made a faithful portrait of this healer and helped us understand the culture and traditions behind her practices.
People like María Sabina are keepers of the world, defenders of traditions that go beyond smoke and delusions. She's the clock woman, the one that measures time: her own time. She was a simple woman who planted corn and dreams.
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La vida de María Sabina, la sabia de los hongos
Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards