Many of the ancients used drugs to commune with their gods. Ritualistic consumption of psychoactive compounds, whether by a shaman or a supplicant, helped bridge the gap between reality and the spirit world, offering enlightenment to those who chose that path.
Many of these compounds are known today, laid bare by modern science and understood, in chemical form at least. However some of these drugs remain mysterious.
One such is the Aztec compound they called Teonanácatl, which translates to “God’s Flesh”. This sacred plant, almost certainly a mushroom, appears in their codices, is depicted in Aztec artwork, and we even have documentation of the ceremonies in which it was depicted, Aztec gods and all.
What was this strange fungus, and where can such a thing be found today?
Hidden in Plain Sight?
By this point some readers will puzzled, insistent that we know perfectly well what Teonanácatl was and is. Psilocybe aztecorum, “psylocybin of the Aztecs”, is a well documented fungus and is every bit as psychedelic as the Aztecs told us.
First harvested from the slopes of Mount Popocatépetl and identified as a distinct species in 1956, psilocybe aztecorum is categorized as a distinct mushroom from other psychedelics available in the region. Furthermore, it is still in use in rituals, specifically those of the Mazatec people in Oaxaca, Mexico.
However it should be pointed out that we have no solid evidence that this mushroom is indeed the fabled “God’s Flesh”. The Aztecs were well aware of the various mushroom species available to them and the effect they could have, but only one was elevated to the divine.
Neither is there a consensus in the modern scientific community that psilocybe aztecorum is the fabled God’s Flesh mushroom. Some believe it to be psilocybe mexicana, or perhaps panaeolus campanulatus var. sphinctrinus. In truth, the evidence as presented matches all three of these mushrooms.
What can we piece together from the evidence, then? The Vienna Codex, an Aztec text, the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl carries a woman as a groom would his wife, and the woman in turn carries three mushrooms, much as you would children. One of the mushrooms is distinct, and appears to match known psychoactive mushrooms in the region.
The same shaped mushroom can be seen in the Codex Magliabechiano, where a seated man has three mushrooms in front of him. The mushrooms are colored jade, denoting them as sacred, and above the man flies an unknown god.
However, Dominican and Franciscan missionaries also recounted being served “intoxicating” mushrooms in Aztec ceremonies, almost certainly the God’s Flesh mushrooms. And here we have an oddity: the description of the mushrooms as a “small black fungus” does not seem to match the mushrooms identified as Teonanácatl.
The monks may have been confused by the preparation of the fungus, or otherwise mistaken in their description. However this does give rise to an intriguing possibility: does the true God’s Flesh await rediscovery.
The cataloguing of mushrooms, psychedelic or not, remains an incomplete process and more are being found every year. With only the vague Aztec descriptions to base our understanding on, it would be an easy mistake to conclude that one of the many psychoactive species in the region is the fabled God’s Flesh mushroom, and move on.
But the Aztecs knew a lot about psychedelics, and one thing they were clear on is that this mushroom in particular was sacred. It did something different to the other mushrooms available to them, presumably including the psychoactive ones.
Could the fabled Teonanácatl still be hidden out there, awaiting rediscovery? Could we find it once again, and once again taste the Flesh of a God as the Aztecs did?
Top Image: Extract from the Book of the Life of Ancient Mexicans: a man sits in front of three green (sacred) mushrooms. The God at the man’s shoulder is unknown: could these be the famed God’s Flesh mushrooms? Source: Zelia Nuttall / Public Domain.
By Joseph Green