Psilocybin mushrooms, commonly known as magic mushrooms or shrooms, are a polyphyletic, informal group of fungi that contain psilocybin and psilocin. Biological genera containing psilocybin mushrooms include Copelandia, Gymnopilus, Inocybe, Panaeolus, Pholiotina, Pluteus, and Psilocybe. Psilocybin mushrooms may have been used in ancient religious rites and ceremonies. They may be depicted in Stone Age rock art in Africa and Europe, but are most famously represented in the Pre-Columbian sculptures and glyphs seen throughout Central and South America.
Prehistoric rock art near Villar del Humo, Spain, offers a hypothesis that Psilocybe hispanica was used in religious rituals 6,000 years ago, and that art at the Tassili caves in southern Algeria from 7,000 to 9,000 years ago may show the species Psilocybe mairei.
Hallucinogenic species of the Psilocybe genus have a history of use among the native peoples of Mesoamerica for religious communion, divination, and healing, from pre-Columbian times to the present day. Mushroom stones and motifs have been found in Guatemala. A statuette dating from ca. 200 CE. and depicting a mushroom strongly resembling Psilocybe mexicana was found in a west Mexican shaft and chamber tomb in the state of Colima. A Psilocybe species was known to the Aztecs as teōnanācatl (literally “divine mushroom” – agglutinative form of teōtl (god, sacred) and nanācatl (mushroom) in Náhuatl) and were reportedly served at the coronation of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II in 1502. Aztecs and Mazatecs referred to psilocybin mushrooms as genius mushrooms, divinatory mushrooms, and wondrous mushrooms, when translated into English. Bernardino de Sahagún reported ritualistic use of teonanácatl by the Aztecs, when he traveled to Central America after the expedition of Hernán Cortés.
After the Spanish conquest, Catholic missionaries campaigned against the cultural tradition of the Aztecs, dismissing the Aztecs as idolaters, and the use of hallucinogenic plants and mushrooms, like other pre-Christian traditions, was quickly suppressed. The Spanish believed the mushroom allowed the Aztecs and others to communicate with devils. In converting people to Catholicism, the Spanish pushed for a switch from teonanácatl to the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist. Despite this history, in some remote areas, the use of teonanácatl has persisted.
The first mention of hallucinogenic mushrooms in European medicinal literature appeared in the London Medical and Physical Journal in 1799: a man had served Psilocybe semilanceata mushrooms that he had picked for breakfast in London’s Green Park to his family. The doctor who treated them later described how the youngest child “was attacked with fits of immoderate laughter, nor could the threats of his father or mother refrain him.”
In 1955, Valentina Pavlovna Wasson and R. Gordon Wasson became the first known European Americans to actively participate in an indigenous mushroom ceremony. The Wassons did much to publicize their experience, even publishing an article on their experiences in Life on May 13, 1957. In 1956 Roger Heim identified the psychoactive mushroom that the Wassons had brought back from Mexico as Psilocybe, and in 1958, Albert Hofmann first identified psilocybin and psilocin as the active compounds in these mushrooms.
Inspired by the Wassons’ Life article, Timothy Leary traveled to Mexico to experience psilocybin mushrooms firsthand. Upon returning to Harvard in 1960, he and Richard Alpert started the Harvard Psilocybin Project, promoting psychological and religious study of psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs. After Leary and Alpert were dismissed by Harvard in 1963, they turned their attention toward promoting the psychedelic experience to the nascent hippie counterculture.
The popularization of entheogens by Wasson, Leary, authors Terence McKenna and Robert Anton Wilson, and others has led to an explosion in the use of psilocybin mushrooms throughout the world. By the early 1970s, many psilocybin mushroom species were described from temperate North America, Europe, and Asia and were widely collected. Books describing methods of cultivating Psilocybe cubensis in large quantities were also published. The availability of psilocybin mushrooms from wild and cultivated sources has made it among the most widely used of the psychedelic drugs.
At present, psilocybin mushroom use has been reported among some groups spanning from central Mexico to Oaxaca, including groups of Nahua, Mixtecs, Mixe, Mazatecs, Zapotecs, and others. An important figure of mushroom usage in Mexico was María Sabina, who used native mushrooms, such as Psilocybe mexicana in her practice.