Robert Gordon Wasson (1898-1986) worked as an Assistant Director of public relations at J.P. Morgan & Co. a big bank in America. At the same time, he is also considered to be the founder of the psychedelic revolution which started in the West during the second half of the last century. This means he had two very different careers that almost seem to contradict each other.
Wasson was also one of the first persons who studied ethnomycology and for this reason, is considered as the founder of the discipline. A mycologist examines mushrooms and ethno means ethnic, which is a synonym for cultural civilization. Within ethnomycology one also studies the cultural use of mushrooms.
Because Wasson had studied journalism he knew how to share his knowledge with the general public. His work is always thoroughly corroborated and describes astonishing discoveries. His first article ‘Seeking the Magic Mushroom’ (1957) enabled the general public to read about psychedelic mushrooms for the first time. This article made a very large contribution to the psychedelic revolution. A number of books and articles would follow.
Biography of Robert Gordon Wasson
Wasson was born in Montana and grew up in New Jersey where he served as a radio operator during the First World War. Afterwards, he studied at the Columbia School of Journalism and London School of Economics. For a while, he taught English and worked as a journalist for several magazines. At an older age, he got a job at J.P. Morgan & Co.
In 1926 he married a Russian woman called Valentina Pavlovna Guercken. Compared to most Americans she had a completely different attitude towards mushrooms and in this way, his interest in the use of mushrooms was awakened. This interest transformed into fascination. After a while, he even quit his job at the bank to dedicate the rest of his life to unravelling the mysteries of the many mushroom cults which have existed worldwide. For this research, he also visited tribes that to this day use psychedelic mushrooms as a part of their ceremonies.
Robert Gordon Wasson's ethnomycology study
As was explained earlier his wife triggered his interest in mushrooms. The couple began a thorough study of the use of mushrooms, which resulted in the 1957 book Mushrooms, Russia and History. As part of their research Wasson and his wife visited the Mazatec in Mexico. They were the first Westerners who took part in a mushroom ritual with the Mazatec. Shaman María Sabina led the ritual and taught them the use and effects of psychedelic mushrooms. Unfortunately, this did not end well for María Sabina. You can read more about her in this article.
In May 1957 the article ‘Seeking the magic mushroom’ was published by the magazine Life. This article received worldwide attention and got many people interested in the use of mushrooms.
The botanist Roger Heim helped Wasson with the collection of several types of psychedelic mushrooms. Heim then decided to grow these mushrooms and Albert Hoffman identified the chemical structure of the psychoactive substances psilocybin and psilocin. Hoffman and Wasson also figured out the psychoactive component of the plant Salvia.
After this Wasson started an in-depth study of soma. Somas are substances described in myths and religions with which one was put into contact with the gods. We do not know which substances were used to make such a concoction. It is often assumed that they contained psychoactive plants or moulds. Thus the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge - which is described in the bible - possibly refers to the use of psychoactive mushrooms. Do you do want to know more about this? Read the news item on the Tree of Knowledge.
In the holy scriptures of the Hindus, soma is also mentioned. According to Wasson, the old Hindus used the fly agaric to make contact with the gods. He published this theory in the 1967 article ‘Divine Mushroom or immortality’.
After this, he turned his attention to the Eleusinian Mysteries. These initiation rites were held by cults in ancient Greece. The ceremonies were secret and if participants spoke of them they were put to death, so our knowledge of what took place is very limited. It was possible to trace the use of the barley beverage kykeon during such rituals. According to Wasson and Albert Hoffman, this beverage contained ergot. This is a mould which grows on grain. The mould contains the psychoactive component LSA, from which Albert Hoffman synthesized LSD for the first time. LSA, however, is also psychoactive.
In the article ‘The Road of Eleusis: unveiling the secret of the mysteries’ Wasson and Hoffman present their theory on the possible contents of Greek somas. After this Wasson publishes a large number of other interesting articles and books, in which he repeatedly throws light on the fact that many old cultures used psychedelics.
In honour of his work and many insights, two mushrooms have been named after Wasson. The names of these mushrooms are Psilocybe wassoni and Psilocybe wassoniorum.
Robert Gordon Wasson and María Sabina
María Sabina was born in Huautla the Jimez at the end of the nineteenth century. Her exact date of birth date is unknown as the Mazatec did not keep track of these dates. María Sabina belonged to the Mazatec people. Her father died from an illness when she was three years old, after which her mother decided to move back in with her parents. Her grandfather and great-grandfather on her father's side were wise men who worked with psychoactive mushrooms. They also held ceremonies. María possessed the same gifts as her ancestors and therefore was inaugurated as a shaman. She was the first shaman that permitted Westerners to take part in the sacred mushroom ceremonies.
For this reason, Robert Gordon Wasson arrived at María Sabina and consequently participated in a ceremony. He asked if he could take a photograph of her. She gave permission, under the condition that he would keep this photograph for himself. Wasson did not hold his part of the deal and published her photograph anyway.
In the article ‘Seeking the Magic Mushroom’ Wasson described his experiences during his first mushroom ceremony. In an attempt to protect her privacy he called María Sabina in his article Eva Mendes. Since he did name the location and published her photograph people quickly learned her real name.
As a consequence interest grew among Westerners for participating in mushroom ceremonies, in particular, those of the Mazatecs. Scientists, hippies, members of the counterculture, mushroom seekers and many others travelled to Mexico to meet María Sabina. In 1967 a group of more than seventy people from America, Canada and Europe even rented a hut in the surrounding villages. Virtually all of them arrived after reading the article ‘Seeking the magic mushroom’. María Sabina befriended many of them. Among them were also some celebrities, like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
The large influx of foreigners, however, put María Sabina in the spotlight of the Mexican police. They accused her of selling drugs to foreigners. As a result of this, the Mazatec community was disrupted. Her own people accused her of causing this situation after which she was banished from the village. Her house was also burned down.
Afterwards, María Sabina regretted introducing Wasson to the magical world of the psychedelic mushrooms. Wasson, in turn, claimed that his only aim had been the spreading of knowledge. Because of her own missteps, María Sabina got embittered at an older age. According to her Westerners showed almost no respect for the holy magical mushrooms. In the West, they were mainly used by young people as a narcotic. As a result, the mushrooms lost their purity and ceased to work.
Robert Gordon Watson bibliography
Wasson published a large number of books and articles, some of them self-published in small editions. Because of this some original books have become real collector’s items and can only be obtained at extremely high prices. Fortunately, most of his work is also available as a free pdf download.
- ’Seeking the Magic Mushroom’ (1957) is the first article on mushrooms published by Wasson. He shared his first experience during the mushroom ceremony under the guidance of Maria Sabina. The article also served as promotion for his first book.
- Mushrooms, Russia and History (1957) is a very large book. It contains more than four hundred pages, consists of two parts and has been abundantly illustrated. Part one describes how mushrooms were once used as food in Europe and Russia. Also, some famous assassinations with mushroom poison are described. Wasson then explains how mushrooms - after the rise of Christianity - were considered by some as the helpers of Satan. The second part describes how psychoactive mushrooms are used by indigenous tribes in Mexico. The book can only be found as a collector's item and in good condition cost around two thousand dollars.
- Divine Mushroom or Immortality (1968) in this book Wasson describes how according to him the fly agaric was the Vedic soma.
- A review of Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings or Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. (1969) Wasson was also highly interested in the books of Carlos Castaneda. He wrote a number of reviews on them.
- A review of Carlos Castaneda's A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan. (1972)
- A review of Carlos Castaneda's Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan. (1973)
- A review of Carlos Castaneda's Tales or Power. (1974)
- María Sabina and her Mazatec Mushroom Velada (1976) is a book in which the ceremonies led by María Sabina are described. It contains four cassette tapes with recordings of a ceremony. This book is also strictly a collector's item and in good condition will fetch more than four thousand dollars.
- The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries (1978) is a book in which Wasson tries to uncover the secret of the Greek rituals. It is a special book because it tackles the subject from three perspectives: a chemist, mycologist and historians share their views. This book is still sold in online shops like Amazon.
- The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica (1980) is a sort of biography in which Wasson looks back on his study of the use of psychedelic mushrooms. He begins with his first experience at Maria Sabina followed by a large number of insights, experiences and descriptions. In this way, he meticulously maps the history of psychedelia. This book was published in a new edition in 2014 and can be obtained through Amazon.
- ‘The Last Meal of the Buddha’ (1982) is an article in which Wasson postulates that the somas in Buddhism also are psychedelic mushrooms.
- Persephone's Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion (1986) In his last book Wasson clearly shows how ancient civilisations all over the world used psychedelic mushrooms. According to him, religions originated in this way.
Robert Gordon Watson: an important psychonaut
It can be rightfully said that Wasson made an enormous contribution to the knowledge concerning the use of psychedelics. Thanks to him many Westerners started to use psychedelic mushrooms, which offered deep insights for a number of them. Furthermore, his unravelling of the soma and the insight that most religions were preceded by a mushroom cult changed the way we look at the world. His contribution to the psychedelic revolution has been especially important.