Mushroom Worship In Mesoamerica
Re-opening Old Roads of Archaeological Inquiry
Carl de Borhegyi: Copyright 2020
The information provided in this book is for educational, historical, and cultural interest only, and does not condone the use of mind altering mushrooms. This research is dedicated to the pioneering work of Maya archaeologist Stephan F. de Borhegyi and ethno-mycologist Robert Gordon Wasson. From the time of their initial meeting in Guatemala in 1953 until my father's untimely death in 1969, the two scientists worked in close cooperation and shared a voluminous correspondence of over 500 letters. In the years that followed Borhegyi's death, the existence of a mushroom cult in ancient Mesoamerica, and specifically among the ancient Maya, has been essentially ignored and dismissed as inconsequential.
In this book the author extends his father’s research by pulling out and illustrating, with words and images, a few threads in the complex fabric of Mesoamerican art, history and mythology. These threads illustrate a relationship between the “mushroom stones” and hallucinogenic mushrooms, principally Amanita muscaria, with warfare and the Mesoamerican ballgame, associated with a trophy-head cult and the ritual act of decapitation, linked to the Toltec Feathered Serpent god-king Quetzalcoatl-Kukulcan.
" I think cultures which possess intoxicants or stimulants develop much more rapidly because of the better possibility for new ideas and inventions" (Letter to Wasson from Borhegyi, October 19, 1955 Wasson Archives Harvard University).
Suzanne de Borhegyi-Forrest, Ph.D.
Mesoamerican mushroom imagery first came to the attention of the modern world in the late 19th century when the German geographer Carl Sapper published a picture of an effigy mushroom stone from El Salvador in the journal Globus (29 May 1898). Sapper noted that the stone carving was “mushroom-shaped” but did not consider whether it actually represented a mushroom, but that the stone object was a phallic symbol (Wasson and de Borhegyi, 1962 p. 42). This connection was supplied two months later by Daniel Brinton in an article in Science (29 July 1898) when he noted that “they (mushroom stones) resemble in shape mushrooms or toadstools, and why should not that be their intention?” (Wasson, 1980: p.175).
However difficult it was for scholars to accept the mushroom stones as representations of actual mushrooms, the case for their association with a psychogenic mushroom cult came in 1952 when R. Gordon Wasson and his wife, Valentina Pavlovna, came on the scene. Although neither of them were professional anthropologists--Wasson was a New York banker with the firm of J.P. Morgan, and an amateur mycologist; his wife, Valentina Pavlovna, a pediatrician--they were engaged in writing a book about the cross cultural role of mushrooms in history. In the course of their studies they learned of the existence of an entheogenic mushroom cult among the Mazatecs and Mixtec Indians in southern Mexico. They also found reports of the pre-Conquest use of “inebriating” mushrooms written by such prominent Spanish historians as the Dominican friar Diego Durán (1964, 225-6), Fray Bernardino de Sahagun (1947,:239, 247), and Motolinía ,(1858, Vol. I: 23).
The friars who reported the ceremonial use of psychogenic mushrooms were sparing with their words and inevitably condemnatory in their description of mushroom “intoxication.” They were, in fact, repulsed by the apparent similarities of the mushroom ceremony to Christian communion. Wasson and Pavlovna, however, read these reports with great interest. They were particularly excited when, In 1952, they learned that archaeologists working at the Maya site of Kaminaljuyu on the outskirts of Guatemala City had found a tripod stone carving in the shape of a mushroom bearing the effigy of a jaguar on its base. Sure that it corroborated the existence of a Pre-Colombian mushroom cult (Wasson and Wasson, 1980:75 -178), they consulted American Museum of Natural History archaeologist Gordon Ekholm.
The author’s father, Stephan de Borhegyi, became the intermediary in their investigations. A recent emigrant from Hungary with a Ph.D. in Classical Archaeology and Egyptology from the Peter Paszmany University in Budapest, Borhegyi had been invited to Guatemala to study American archaeology by the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Working under a grant provided by the then Viking Fund of New York (subsequently the Wenner Gren Foundation) his project was to catalog the extensive archaeological collections of the Guatemalan National Museum. In the course of this project he came across numerous unprovenanced small stone sculptures shaped like mushrooms which he described in correspondence with Ekholm. Ekholm put him and the Wassons in touch with one another. Shortly thereafter, the Wassons, Borhegyi, and I, (his wife and the author’s mother, Suzanne), embarked on a trip through the Guatemalan highlands in search of evidence of an existing mushroom cult such as had been reported among the Mazatecs and Mixtecs of Mexico. No such cult was uncovered, but both the Wassons and the Borhegyis suspected that the lack of evidence might be explained by the extreme sacredness and sensitivity of the subject among the Maya Indians, coupled with an inadequate amount of time devoted to winning the confidence of their informants. Wasson did, however, find corroborating evidence of inebriating mushrooms in a number of Mayan word lists for the Cakchiquel linguistic area around Guatemala City (Wasson, 1980, pp. 181-182).
Following their sojourn in Guatemala, Wasson and Pavlovna went on to visit the remote village of Huautla de Jimenez in southern Oaxaca. Here they not only found evidence of an existing mushroom cult, but had the opportunity to participate in a mushroom ceremony conducted by a local curandera, Maria Sabina. The results of their research exploded into worldwide notoriety in 1955 with the publication of Wasson’s article entitled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom.” in the popular magazine LIFE (May 13, 1957). To Wasson's consternation, his description of the mushroom ritual reverberated through the hippie culture of the time. Seemingly overnight the little Oaxacan village was mobbed with thrill seekers—“hippies, self-styled psychiatrists, oddballs, even tour leaders with their docile flocks.” (Wasson, 1980, p. XVI). Wasson sent samples of the hallucinogenic mushroom to a pharmaceutical laboratory in Switzerland for analysis with the result that the active agent was both identified and made into synthetic pills. The era of widespread abuse of the psychedelic mushroom began with a vengeance that rocked society.
It is strange that, in the half century since Borhegyi published his first articles on Maya mushroom stones and proposed their use in connection with Maya psychogenic mushroom ceremonies, little attention has been paid to this intriguing line of research. I propose that the oversight is related to the worldview classification scheme established by Wasson, in which he distinguished between peoples and cultures that liked mushrooms (mycophiles) and those that feared them (mycophobes) (Wasson, 1980: XV). This classification might be extended to include all psychogenic or mind-altering substances with the exception of alcohol. Their use in the Western world is considered to be objectionable, immoral and, for the most part, illegal. In any event, it is clear that, while the Pre Columbian peoples of Mesoamerica were decidedly mycophilic, the majority of archaeologists who have studied them are mycophobes. The result has been that their possible centrality to ancient Mesoamerican religious rituals has been either overlooked or, at best, barely acknowledged (Martin and Grube, 2000:15; Coe, 1999: 70; Sharer, 1994: 542, 683).
There may, however, be another, more immediate, reason for this neglect. That, I believe, is the memory of the very unsettling period in our recent history when too many individuals, most of them young people, “tripped out” on a variety of psychedelic substances, and in too many cases harmed themselves in the process. While neither Steve nor I ever took the sacred mushroom. Our son, Carl (without my knowledge I might add), did experiment with the mushroom during his student years in the late 1970s at Southwestern Michigan College and the early 1980s at the University of Wisconsin. This enables him to speak from experience of the mushroom’s awe-inspiring effect on the mind and body. He is quick to say that he would not repeat the experiment today, but he does not deny the obvious—that one has to have experienced the “magic” effects of the mushroom to truly comprehend the mushroom experience. Quoting from Daniel Breslaw’s book Mushrooms, “a smudge on the wall is an object of limitless fascination, multiplying in size, complexity, and color,” (1961). It is our sincere hope that, by calling for a new, and much needed, look at the role of entheogenic mushrooms in Pre-Columbian art and ideology, we will not inadvertently encourage a new wave of thrill-seeking experimentation with the mushroom and its derivatives. It should be possible to engage in the former, without provoking the latter......
In 1952 archaeologists working at the Maya site of Kaminaljuyu on the outskirts of Guatemala City found a tripod stone carving in the shape of a mushroom bearing the effigy of a jaguar on its base. Sure that it corroborated the existence of a pre-Columbian mushroom cult, the Wassons consulted American Museum of Natural History archaeologist Gordon F. Ekholm, who put the Wassons in touch with archaeologist Stephan F. de Borhegyi, better known simply as Borhegyi.
Borhegyi, an emigrant from Hungary with a Ph.D. in Classical Archaeology and Egyptology from the Peter Paszmany University in Budapest, had been invited to Guatemala to study American archaeology by the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Working under a grant provided by the then Viking Fund of New York (subsequently the Wenner Gren Foundation) his project was to catalog the extensive archaeological collections of the Guatemalan National Museum. While at work on these collections Borhegyi came across a number of small, unprovenanced carved stone effigy figures that resembled mushrooms to such a degree that they were called "mushroom stones."
Photo of Gordon Wasson (above left), from Life Magazine 1957. The replica mushroom stone next to Wasson was a gift from Borhegyi (above right). Borhegyi supported his theory of a mushroom cult among the ancient Maya with a solid body of archaeological and historical evidence.
Quoting Michael D. Coe, today's unofficial "Dean of Maya studies"
"These peculiar objects , one of which was found in an E-III-3 tomb, are of unknown use. Some see vaguely phallic association. Others, such as the late Stephan de Borhegyi, connect them with the cult of the hallucinogenic mushrooms still to this day prevalent in the Mexican highlands, and it is claimed that the mortars and pestles with which the stones are so often associated were used in the preparatory rites" (The Maya, 1993 fifth edition, by M.D. Coe, p. 60).
Kaminaljuyu jaguar mushroom stone with traces of red paint still visible was excavated from the Pre-Classic Miraflores phase tomb E-III-3 , 1000-500 BCE.
Borhegyi found the mushroom stone figures so intriguing that he prepared a monograph for submission to the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C. "Notes on Middle American Archaeology and Ethnology". Before submitting it, however, he sent it off to be critiqued by archaeologist Gordon Ekholm at the American Museum of Natural History. Dr. Borhegyi proposed the theory that hallucinogenic mushroom rituals were a central aspect of Maya religion. Borhegyi based his theory of a mushroom cult among the ancient Maya on his identification of a mushroom stone cult that came into existence in the Guatemala Highlands and Pacific coastal area around 1000 B.C. along with a trophy head cult associated with human sacrifice and the Mesoamerican ballgame. Ekholm, in turn, showed Borhegyi's monograph to his friend Robert Gordon Wasson, an amateur mycologist who was looking for archaeological evidence of an ancient hallucinogenic mushroom cult in Mesoamerica. Wasson wrote to Borhegyi and within months the two embarked on what became an intense and fruitful collaboration that lasted until the end of Borhegyi's tragically short life. In the years that followed Borhegyi’s death, the existence of a mushroom cult in ancient Mesoamerica, and specifically among the ancient Maya, was denied or essentially dismissed as inconsequential. Borhegyi's proposal of an ancient mushroom cult met with limited, highly skeptical acceptance at best, among his archaeological colleagues. At the time, no one seriously thought that they represented real mushrooms. Few in the Mesoamerican archaeological community seriously considered the possibility that the mushroom sculptures had an esoteric religious significance.
In a letter to Gordon Wasson from Borhegyi dated March 20, 1953:
"I was very interested in your suggestion that these mushroom stones might be connected with the narcotic mushroom cult. However, in spite of the fact that the cult was known to exist and still survives in the Zapotec, Chinantic, and Mazatec region, no mushroom stones have ever been reported from there. On the other hand, as you will see from the photographs, the effigy mushroom stones much more frequently represent animals than humans although the human effigies do seem to be from the earliest period. So far I have found no specimen with the gills or lamellae that could prove conclusively that it was a true representation of a mushroom. Unfortunately this seems to be a food that has completely escaped the attention of the ethnologists but I will check further for references to its use".
"In short, I am extremely intrigued with your suggestion and will most certainly follow up all leads. The trouble with field archaeologists like myself is that we become so involved in our routine that, like a horse with blinders, it never occurred to us that the mushroom might play an important role in the development of a culture. I would be very glad to hear more about ethno-mycology from you and the role it has played on human culture" (letter from Borhegyi to Wasson March 20, 1953, Wasson Archives Harvard University).
Some of the small mushroom-shaped sculptures were plain and realistic, (depicted above), others were adorned with human and animal effigies. While the majority of mushroom stone sculptures were of indeterminate provenance, a sufficient number had been found during the course of archaeological investigations as to permit Borhegyi to classify and date them typologically. The majority had been found in Guatemala in the highlands or on the Pacific Piedmont--Maya areas along the intercontinental mountain range which were heavily influenced in Preclassic times by the powerful Olmec culture (Borhegyi de S.F. 1957, 1959, 1961, 1963).
The Wassons, published Borhegyi’s article on Middle American Mushroom Stones in their monumental book, Russia; Mushrooms and History, (Wasson and Wasson, 1957). In the monograph Borhegyi identified the existence of an ancient mushroom stone cult that could have begun as early as 1000 B.C.E. Borhegyi noted that many of the mushroom stones, especially those dating between 1000 B.C.E. and 100 C.E. depicted images of toads, as well as snakes, birds, jaguars, monkeys, and humans. The majority of the images appeared to emerge from the stem of the mushroom (Wasson and Wasson, 1957, Borhegyi de, S.F., 1957b.)
"Some Middle American specialists may challenge my assumption of a connection between the "mushroom stones", which ceased to be made centuries before Columbus arrived on these shores, and today's surviving mushroom cult." .... "For years I had only an assumption to go on , but now, thanks to discoveries made by the late Stephan F. de Borhegyi and us, I think we can tie the two together in a way that will satisfy any doubter" (Wasson,1972:188n).
The Wasson's also included Borhegyi's chronological distributional chart of these Pre-Columbian mushroom stones and pottery mushrooms, found at various archaeological sites in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
Quoting ethno-archaeologist Peter T. Furst:
"In its pages [Mushrooms, Russia and History ] Borhegyi and Wasson suggested a connection between the sacred mushrooms of Mexico and the prehistoric stone mushrooms of Guatemala, the first time that such a possibility had been considered in print. The connection between these sculptures and the historic mushroom cults of Mesoamerica has not always been accepted. Though many mushroom stones are quite faithful to nature, they were, until recently, not even universally thought to represent mushrooms at all, and a few die-hards even now, in the face of all the evidence, reject this interpretation." (1972)
Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi......
"My assignment for the so-called mushroom cult, earliest 1,000 B.C., is based on the excavations of Kidder and Shook at the Verbena cemetery at Kaminaljuyu. The mushroom stone found in this Pre-Classic grave, discovered in Mound E-III-3, has a circular groove on the cap. There are also a number of yet unpublished mushroom stone specimens in the Guatemalan Museum from Highland Guatemala where the pottery association would indicate that they are Pre-Classic. In each case the mushroom stone fragments has a circular groove on the top. Mushroom stones found during the Classic and Post-Classic periods do not have circular grooves. This was the basis on which I prepared the chart on mushroom stones which was then subsequently published by the Wassons. Based on Carbon 14 dates and stratigraphy, some of these Pre-Classic finds can be dated as early as 1,000 B.C. The reference is in the following".....(see Shook, E.M. & Kidder, A.V., 1952. Mound E-III-3, Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala; Contributions to American Anthropology & History No. 53 from Publ. 596, Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C. (letter from de Borhegyi to Dr. Robert Ravicz, MPM archives December 1st 1960 )
The Wassons may have provided an important explanation for this lack of interest. He and his wife, Valentina, had observed that, across the globe, cultures seemed to be divided into those who loved and revered mushrooms, and those who dismissed and feared them. The first group of cultures they labeled "mycophiles," while the latter were "mycophobes." In the New World, it appears that all of the native cultures were, and still are, unquestionably mycophilic. In contrast, the great majority of archaeologists and ethnologists who studied and described them, and who traced their cultural origins to Western Europe, were decidedly mycophobic. This major difference in cultural background may be responsible for what I believe should be seen as a lamentable gap in our understanding of indigenous New World magico-religious origins. (Wasson: 1957)
"In examining these mushroomic artifacts we must keep in mind that they were not made for our enlightenment. They were iconic shorthand summarizing a whole bundle of associations ,--whatever those associations were. The Christian cross is to be found in endless shapes, including the "effigy cross" or crucifix, and all stem back to a complex of emotions, beliefs, and religious longings. The crucifix would reveal to an archaeologist eons hence more than, say, a Maltese cross. So with the mushroom stones, the subject matter of the effigies holds the secret" (Wasson and Wasson, 1957, Borhegyi de, S.F., 1957b.)
Mushroom stones with an effigy of a human, bird, jaguar, toad and other animals, occurred earlier in time and have been mostly found at the higher elevations of the Guatemala Highlands (for their distribution by archaeological sites see Borhegyi de, 1961).
While some anthropologists and archaeologists had accepted Borhegyi's and Wasson's idea that mushrooms and other hallucinogens were used in ancient Mesoamerica, their use was, in most cases, dismissed as relatively incidental and devoid of deeper significance in the development of Mesoamerican religious ideas and mythology. With a few exceptions, notably the research and writings of ethno-archaeologist Peter Furst, further inquiry into the subject on the part of archaeologists came to a virtual halt. Fortunately, a few mycologists, most notably Bernard Lowy and Gaston Guzmán, (2002:4; 2009) continued through the years to make important contributions to the scientific literature. To this day, the subject remains relatively little known and generally missing from the literature on Mesoamerican archaeology, art history, and iconography.
Quoting Wasson (1957):
"Dr. Borhegyi's chart suggests to us that hallucinatory mushrooms were the focus of a cult in the highland Maya world that goes back at least to early pre-classic times, to B.C. 1000 or earlier, the earliest period when technically such artifacts could be carved in stone. Thus tentatively we trace back the use of the divine mushroom in Middle America to the earliest period from which a record could be expected to survive. Beyond that horizon may we project the mushroom agape back through millennia, to the Eurasian home-land whence our Indians' ancestors migrated."
According to Borhegyi:
"mushroom stones follow the same pattern as the three-pronged incensarios, figurines, rimhead vessels etc. That is, they are abundant during the Pre-Classic, disappear from the archaeological scene completely during the Early Classic, and are revived in somewhat changed form in the Late Classic." (Letter from Borhegyi to Wasson April 8th, 1954)
Quoting Wasson (1957):
"Dr. Borhegyi later combed the Quiche and Cakchiquel chronicles and legends for references to mushrooms. There come down to us from early times two native narratives of the Highland Maya, one in Quiche and the other in Cakchiquel, the Popol Vuh and the Annals of the Cakchiqnels. Written in the native languages, they have been translated into Spanish and English. Dr. Borhegyi discovered in each of them one reference to mushrooms, and in each case mushrooms are associated with religious observances. "
Letter to Gordon Wasson from Borhegyi who writes.....
“I discovered two interesting sentences relating to mushrooms from Indian Chronicles, written around 1554 by natives. In the Popol Vuh, translated from the Spanish version by Delia Goetz and Sylvanus Griswold Morley, University of Oklahoma press, Norman Oklahoma, 1950, page 192. “And when they found the young of the birds and the deer, they went at once to a place the blood of the deer and of the birds in the mouth of the stones that were Tohil, and Avilix. As soon as the blood had been drunk by the gods, the stones spoke, when the priest and the sacrificers came, when they came to bring their offerings. And they did the same before their symbols, burning pericon (?) and holom-ocox (the head of the mushroom),holom=head, and ocox= mushroom”. “I think this section definitely indicates that the Quiche used mushrooms in connection with their religious ceremonies. I even wonder what made the stones speak “.
“In the annals of the Cakchiquel’s, translated from the Cakchiquel Maya by Adrian Recinos and Delia Goetz, University of Oklahoma press, Norman, Oklahoma 1953, pp. 82-83. “At that time, too, they began to worship the devil. Each seven days, each 13 days, they offered him sacrifices, placing before him, fresh resin, green branches, and fresh bark of the trees, and burning before him a small cat, image of the night. They took him also the mushrooms, which grow at the foot of the trees, and they drew blood from their ears.”
“The Cakchiquel version therefore also connects mushrooms with ceremonial offerings to the gods. This mushroom, I think is our anacate, if it grows at the foot or on the tree”.
In the highlands of Guatemala and along the Pacific slope where the majority of mushroom stones have been found, and where the Amanita muscaria mushroom grows in abundance, the mushroom stones that reappear in the highland Maya area during Late Classic times (600-1000 C.E.) are mostly the plain and or tripod variety (Type D) common to the Pacific Coast and Piedmont area as well as in Western El Salvador. The plain or tripod mushroom stones, which carry no effigy on the stem (stipe), have been typically found at lower elevations and may indicate the ritual use of the psilocybe mushroom in these regions (for their distribution by archaeological sites see Borhegyi de, 1961a, p. 500).
In the Central and Western Highlands of Guatemala, Type D tripod mushroom stones resembling stone-stools (toad-stools?) have been reported from Kaminaljuyu, the Antigua-Agua area, Amatitlan, Mixco Viejo, Tecpan, Zacualpa, and San Martin Jilotepeque (de Borhegyi, S.F. 1965a, p.37).
Quoting Borhegyi in a letter to Wasson:
"In connection with the altitude distribution of mushroom stones there seems to be some difficulty. The mushroom stones are not exclusively confined to the Highlands but also occur in the South Coast where the altitude does not exceed 1000 feet. However, as I learned from my informants, the anacate [fly ageric?] grows in this region also. An interesting feature is the fact that the mushroom stones from the lower altitudes are of the late type and are plain or tripod, possibly representing a secondary manifestation of the original idea" (Borhegyi to Wasson, June 14, 1953 Wasson Archives Harvard University)
Above is a ballgame yoke fragment with footprint (excavated in 1948 by J. Eric S. Thompson) along with a tripod mushroom stone (Type D) from a pit in front of Monument 3 at the Pacific coastal site of El Baúl in Guatemala (Milwaukee Public Museum Archives). Type D tripod mushroom stones (plain and effigy style) were frequent in the Pacific Coast and Piedmont area as well as in western El Salvador (Borhegyi de, 1965: 37).
Maya archaeologist J. Eric Thompson found a anthropomorphic mushroom stone representing a seated individual with a mushroom cap in the course of a trial survey of the Southern Maya area. The mushroom looking specimen came from the Central Highlands of Guatemala. Thompson described the piece as a huge mushroom-like object that some anthropologists thought to be stone stools.
Quoting Sir J. Eric S. Thompson:
"I had heard of the theory that these stones might represent a narcotic mushroom cult, but I would think it a difficult theory to prove or disprove... I know of no reference to their use among the Maya, ancient or modern" (Thompson to de Borhegyi, March 26,1953, MPM Archives).
In a letter to Borhegyi from J. Eric Thompson, dated November 30, 1955:
"I wonder what is your archaeological evidence for placing the Pipil migration to Cotzumalhuapa at A.D. 900--1000? Evidence at El Baul was that the latest phase, except for a little surface material, contained San Juan plumbate, which is fairly securely placed as Tepeu".
"Many authorities consider God B to represent Kukulcan, the Feathered Serpent, whose Aztec equivalent is Quetzalcoatl (Herbert Spiden 1975 p.62).
Borhegyi noted that ballplayers depicted on Monument 27 at El Baúl wear tight-fitting monkey head helmets, and hand-gloves that represents either the local survival of the Olmec influenced Preclassic handball game, or a late Classic revival of the game in the area (Borhegyi de, 1980: 16). He adds that: “These zones were once influenced by the Olmecs and later by ‘warlike’ Mexican Gulf Coast groups. One wonders if these grisly sacrificial activities are native to this area or are Pre-Classic survivals of a game once played with human heads with long, flowing hair in the Tajín and La Venta areas and in parts of Oaxaca”.
Quoting Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi:
" the ballgame, and cultural diffusion may be in order"
"While human decapitation was a widespread custom throughout both the Old and New Worlds as early as the Paleolithic period, its association with ancient team games seems to have occurred only in central and eastern Asia, Mesoamerica, and South America (for ballgames in Southeast Asia, see Loffler, 1955). The use of severed human heads in the polo games of Tibet, China, and Mongolia goes back at least as far as the Chou Dynasty (approximately 1100 B.C. -250 B.C.) and possibly to Shang times (about 1750 B.C. -1100 B.C.). By the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), the polo game in China had become more refined and human heads were apparently replaced by balls. However, the custom of using "trophy heads" in the game must have survived in modern form in marginal areas, as evidence by the fact that the present day Tajik tribesmen of Afghanistan still use the head of a goat as a ball during the game (Abercombie, 1968). While more studies are needed along this line, it is tempting to suggest that the custom of using human heads in competitive ballgames be added to the growing Pre-Classic inventory of "trans-Pacific contacts" (S.F. de Borhegyi 1980, p.25).
The Mesoamerican Ballgame, Trophy Heads and Hallucinogenic Mushrooms
Many of the observations in this Chapter reflect the work of Borhegyi carried out from the 1950s through 1969 and in the book The Pre-Columbian ballgames: A Pan-Mesoamerican Tradition, published posthumously in 1980 by the Milwaukee Public Museum where he had served as the Director.
According to Borhegyi, the ritual ballgame can only be explained as a cross-cultural phenomenon, for it transcended all linguistic barriers in Mesoamerica. “Perhaps the games channeled competition short of warfare, between villages or ceremonial centers, into the field of skill and were a means of predetermining the selection of human victims to fulfill the requirements of the cyclical, or annual ritual sacrifices” (Borhegyi de, 1980: 3).
“On the Basis of the widespread use of stone hachas, palmas, yokes, and manoplas, we can safely state that by Middle Classic times the competitive ballgames played in formal courts from northern Mexico to as far south as Honduras and El Salvador achieved a Pan-Mesoamerican magnitude” (de Borhegyi 1980 p.3).
The ritual ballgame was played to commemorate the completion of period endings in the sacred calendar, such as a katun ending, a 20-year time period that always ended on the day Ahau. It was on that day, after inferior conjunction that Venus reappears as the Morning Star. Of all the planets Venus was the most important in Mesoamerican art, cosmology, and calendrics, and the Venus cult associated with central Mexico and the Toltec invasions into the Maya area emphasizes the feathered serpent. Central Mexican influence is also evident in a Tlaloc cult connected with Venus warfare during the Classic period (Susan Milbrath 1999, p.157)
The mushroom ritual was likely timed astronomically to the movements of the planet Venus and possibly to the sacred period of inferior conjunction. At this time Venus sinks below the horizon and disappears into the "underworld" for eight days. It then rises from the underworld as the Morning Star. There is also plenty of evidence that ballplayers from the Gulf Coast area wore knee pads with the Ahau glyph design (Borhegyi de, 1980: 8) a symbol of Lord, and Maya kingship, and symbol of Underworld Venus resurrection.
Above is a figurine holding what the author believes is an Amanita muscaria mushroom in his left hand. Note the figurine's large god
eyes, and the three Ahau icons, one on each knee and one on his ballgame yoke (Figurine from Denver Museum
The ballgame represented a religious function throughout Mesoamerica, and the importance of the sacred ballgame and its rituals associated with ballcourt complexes in city planning, and the game’s relationship to ancestors and serpent worship, and warfare, should not be underestimated, for there are over 1200+ archaeological sites in Mesoamerica that have identified at least one ballcourt, and cities like El Tajín in Veracruz, Mexico that boast a minimum of 18 ballcourts. Borhegyi proposed that the Olmec-influenced handball game in ancient times was probably played in open fields or open plazas, and may have used the severed heads of humans and jaguars to mark out the boundaries or as targets or goals.
The mushroom experience, as well as caves and ballcourts were believed to be entrances or portals into the underworld. Dictionaries of Maya Highland languages compiled after the Spanish Conquest mention several intoxicating mushroom varieties whose names clearly indicate their ritual use. One type was called xibalbaj okox, "underworld mushroom", alluding to the notion that this particular mushroom transported one to a supernatural realm of the underworld dead (Sharer, 1994: 484).
Archaeologists believe that Mesoamerican people may have played the ballgame to symbolize the movements of the sun, moon and the planets, most notably the planet Venus as a resurrection star, and that the ball symbolized the sun’s continuous struggle to free itself at night from the clutches of the underworld. Rituals of self-sacrifice and decapitation in the underworld, allude to the sun's nightly death and subsequent resurrection from the underworld, by a pair of deities (twins or brothers) associated with the planet Venus as both the Morning Star and Evening Star. This suggests that the ballgame and its rituals are associated with the 584-day Venus cycle. As described in the Dresden Codex, the synodic revolution of Venus from Morning Star to Morning Star is 584 days, and that these revolutions were grouped by the Nahuas and Maya in fives, so that 5 x 584 equaled 2,920 days, or exactly eight solar years.
In the religion of the ancient Maya, various twins or brothers represent the dualistic aspects of the planet Venus, as both a Morning star and Evening star. Maya creation stories record that twins were responsible for placing the three stones of creation into the night sky at the beginning of this world age. These three stones, which represent the three original hearthstones of Maya creation, refer to a trinity of gods responsible for creating life from death. One of these gods, known as First Father, ruled as the Sun God in the previous world age. He was decapitated by the Lords of Death after being defeated in a ballgame. His twin sons, (Venus?) after finding his bones buried under the floor of the ballcourt, resurrected him from the underworld and placed him into the night sky as a deified ballplayer. I believe that the Maya could see this resurrected decapitated ballplayer, in the night sky, still wearing his ballgame belt, as the constellation of Orion. As the planet Venus, Quetzalcoatl in his impersonation of Tlaloc, rules the underworld, and was responsible for ritual decapitation.
In El Titulo de Totonicapán, it is said that the Quiché gave thanks to the sun and moon and stars, but particularly to the star that proclaims the day, the day-bringer, referring to Venus as the Morning Star. The Sun God of the Aztecs, Tonatiuh, first found in Toltec art, is frequently paired with Quetzalcóatl in his aspect of Venus as Morning Star. The mushroom ritual associated with warfare, and the ballgame was probably timed astronomically to the period of inferior conjunction of the planet Venus. At this time, Venus sinks below the horizon and disappears into the "underworld" for eight days. It then rises before the sun, thereby appearing to resurrect the sun from the underworld as the Morning Star. For this reason, mushroom-induced decapitation rituals were likely performed in ballcourts, a metaphor for the underworld, which was timed to a ritual calendar linked to the movements of the planet Venus as both a Morning Star and Evening Star.
According to Borhegyi, depictions of ritual ballgame sacrifice by decapitation appear to be a common theme in Preclassic times (Borhegyi de, 1980: 23). The great city of Teotihuacán’s overt and disruptive presence on the Maya people during the Classic Period resulted in a suppression of Olmec-inspired rituals and cult paraphernalia, such as mushroom stones and three-pronged incense burners, commonly used during the Preclassic period. They were replaced with pottery vessels and incense burners of a Teotihuacán-type decorated with human skulls, jaguars, and such deities as Quetzalcóatl, Tlaloc and Xipe-Totec.
Sometime between the 7th and 8th century, with the fall of Teotihuacán and its influence diminished, northern and central Mexico as well as parts of highland Guatemala and most of the Yucatan Peninsula was dominated by the Toltecs, and it seems that a revival of bloody ball game rituals of Preclassic Olmec fertility rites of human decapitation once again took center stage in the great ceremonial centers of Mesoamerica.
According to Borhegyi, the Toltecs, under the influence of Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl, were responsible for a brief revival (A.D. 950-1150) throughout Mesoamerica of a trophy head cult associated with warfare and the ritual ballgame (Borhegyi de, 1980: 25).
Toltec influence previously foreign to the highland Maya can be seen in new ball-game rituals and paraphernalia, associated with idolatry and heart-sacrifices (the feeding of idols with food, incense and blood) and the decapitation of prisoners captured in warfare (S.F. de Borhegyi 1965a p.54-55). Borhegyi further proposed that the change in ballgame rituals and the switch from the Olmec handball game to the hip ball game most likely came as a result of the newly instituted Quetzalcóatl rites (Borhegyi de, 1980: 24). He believed that the ballgame and these Olmec-influenced fertility rites were linked esoterically to the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms and that these bloody rituals were banished or forced underground during the heyday of Teotihuacán (Borhegyi de, 1980: iv).
The immense popularity of Quetzalcóatl is indicated by the lengthy descriptions accorded to him by almost all of the early chroniclers of New Spain, today Mexico. Quetzalcóatl is alluded to in Nahua myth as the great civilizer and King of the Toltecs, and in Maya legends was known as Kukulkán or Gukumatz, also meaning "Lord Feathered Serpent". All three culture heroes were reputed to be the inventors of the science of measuring time as serpents represented the bondage of time and its cyclical nature. Additionally, the Annals of Cuauhtitlán (Nahua manuscripts) record that it was Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl who invented the ballgame, and wherever a temple stood dedicated to Quetzalcóatl, there existed a ballcourt (Nicholson, 1967: 117)
Anthropologist Irene Nicholson...
"In spite of the great gulf that separates Precolumbian thought from our own in many of its external aspects; in spite of distortions, irrelevancies, decadence and subsequent annihilation by European conquerors of a great part of it; the culture which this mysterious leader established [Quetzalcoatl Votan] shines down to our own day. Its message is still meaningful for those who will take the trouble to make their way, through the difficulties of outlandish names and rambling manuscripts, to the essence of the myth". (Mexican and Central American Mythology 1967, p.136)
Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl was regarded as "The Father of the Toltecs", and became ruler of Tollán/Tula, and by his inspired enlightened way he encouraged the liberal arts and sciences, and was revered for the cultural advancement of his people. His life of fasting and penitence, his priestly character, and his benevolence toward his followers, are evident in the material that has been preserved in the 16th century Spanish chronicles and in the hand-painted books of the indigenous people. He was also known as the lawgiver and, according to Spanish historians, he was unwilling to harm any human being, despite the temptation from demons to perform human sacrifice.
It's likely that Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl traveled to Chichén Itzá after he founded the city of Tula, and that he brought with him Toltec culture and a mushroom Venus religion associated with the ballgame. The Itzá Maya of Yucatan called this ruler Kukulkán (meaning “holy spirit” or “god” and “serpent and sky”), and it is believed he rebuilt the great city of Chichén Itzá, and later founded the Maya capital city of Mayapán. Aztec chronicles tell us that the Toltec priest-ruler Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl sailed across the Gulf of Mexico toward Yucatan at approximately A.D. 978. There is ample evidence in the archaeology of Yucatan for a sea-borne invasion by the Toltecs in the late tenth century (Hedrick, 1971: 262). Toltec groups from Mexico undoubtedly traveled by both land and sea to penetrate the Maya region at various times.
On April 8, 1954, Borhegyi wrote to Wasson noting that: "…mushroom stones follow the same pattern as the three-pronged incensarios, figurines, rimhead vessels etc. That is, they are abundant during the Preclassic, disappear from the archaeological scene completely during the Early Classic, and are revived in somewhat changed form in the Late Classic". The apparent absence of mushroom stones in Early Classic tombs (A.D. 200-400) or within ceremonial precincts suggests that the sacred mushroom cult of Preclassic origin, proposed by Borhegyi to be ritually connected to the ballgame, was discontinued, or banished from the Teotihuacán-occupied, or influenced highland Maya ceremonial centers.
Borhegyi noted the connection between the re-appearance of mushroom stones and a trophy-head cult associated with the ritual act of decapitation, and that many Late Classic (A.D. 600-1000) stone carvings relating to the ballgame depict balls incorporating human skulls or depict human skulls in lieu of balls. He also believed that the stone heads, and later stone rings set in the walls of formal ballcourts, were symbolic replacements for the hanging of the losers’ heads on walls – the trophy heads of earlier times. The hanging of human heads can be found in a passage in the Popol Vuh, in which one of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu, and his father Hun Hunahpu had their decapitated heads hung in a tree (Borhegyi de, 1980: 24-25). In fact, almost all evidence of ballgame sacrifice relates to the act of ritual decapitation, both self-decapitation and by execution, which takes place metaphorically in the underworld. The mushroom and its powerful effects on the mind were the means of divine transport, thus the portal or gateway into the underworld in which one is deified and resurrected at death.
Mushroom Venus Warfare and the Classic Maya Collapse
We are told that the Itzas were Chontal Maya who J. Eric S. Thompson called the Putun, who made their way by sea around Yucatan to Cozumel and eventually established themselves in Chichen Itza by the year A.D. 918, the 1st invasion according to Thompson (The Classic Maya Collapse 1973 p.128), which is prior to the arrival of Kukulcan or Quetzalcoatl and the Toltecs. Thompson believed that the Classic Maya collapse was caused by a peasant revolt and that the new lords were swept away by the revolutionary tide just like the old Classic Maya elite (Jeremy Sabloff: The Classic Maya Collapse 1973 p.128) (Thompson 1970: Chapter 1).
Quoting archaeologist E. Wyllys Andrews IV
"The Toltecs appear to have stimulated the last upward surge of Maya civilization. There origins are uncertain; their disappearance seems to represent their absorption by the Maya. Whoever they were, their impact on the Maya physical type and language was minimal" (The Classic Maya Collapse 1973 p. 255).
The history of the Toltecs in Yucatan tends to support the arrival of Kukulcan in the year A.D. 987 Anales de Cuauhtitlan (Muriel Porter Weaver 1972 p.222). The Chontal-speaking Maya who called themselves Itzá, were devout followers of the god-king Quetzalcóatl. Borhegyi believed the Quiché and Cakchiquel Maya were also Nahuatl-influenced Chontal Mayas as both were linguistically related and shared a common Toltec-inspired genealogical origin (Borhegyi letter to Wasson, March 22, 1954).
The Quiche and Cakchiquel being Maya, were they the ancestors of the present population that invaded Guatemala ? Or conquerors, who imposed themselves, and then were absorbed by the Maya-speaking native population ? It seems that the mushroom stone cult was either adopted by the new comers after their arrival, or else common to the native population and to the invaders.
The history of the Quiche peregrination of their ancestors, a Nonoalca-Pipil-Toltec-Chichimec group is described in detail in the Popol Vuh (Facts and Artifacts of Ancient Middle America 1978 p. 135) According to the Popol Vuh, some Pipil groups continued on to Guatemala and became the forebears of the Quiché Maya. It's worth mentioning again that Borhegyi believed that the plain, un-carved type of mushroom stone must have been re-introduced to Guatemala and the Cotzumalhuapa area along with new ball game rituals during Late Classic times, by these “Tajinized Nonoalca” Pipil groups, where the severing of human heads reached new levels (Borhegyi de, 1965: 37; Borhegyi de, 1980: 25; Borhegyi letter to Wasson, November 30, 1953, Wasson Archives).
It’s tempting to think that the Itzás, who claimed Toltec ancestry, and the Quiché and Cakchiquel who were also Nahuatl-influenced Chontal Mayas, who claimed Toltec ancestry, may have been responsible for the so-called "Collapse of Classic Maya civilization". All were devout followers of Quetzalcoatl's mushroom-Venus religion, emphasizing celestial worship, and ballgame sacrifice.
By the close of the Classic period, most of the lowland Maya ceremonial centers were mysteriously abandoned, and this intrusion into the lowlands would coincide with the abandonment of valley sites as ceremonial centers, and the beginning of hilltop defensive sites in the highlands of Guatemala (Borhegyi de, 1965: 37).
According to Borhegyi, a completely new group of priest-rulers came into power bringing with them a form of ancestor worship associated with the vision-serpent (mushrooms?) and the ritual ballgame (Borhegyi de, 1965: 31). Maya inscriptions tell us that the movement of the planet Venus and its position in the sky was a determining factor for waging a special kind of warfare known as "Tlaloc warfare" or "Venus Star Wars." These wars or raids were timed to occur during aspects of the Venus astronomical cycle, primarily to capture prisoners from neighboring cities for ceremonial sacrifice (Schele & Freidel, 1990: 130-31, 194). These wars, waged against neighboring city-states for the express purpose of taking captives for sacrifice to the gods, thus constituted a form of divinely sanctioned "holy" war. The ballgame may have served as a substitute for direct military confrontation by these warlike tribes from the Gulf Coast of Mexico (Scarborough & Wilcox, 1991: 14-15).
Photographs © Justin Kerr
Above are two Late Classic (600-900 A.D.) Maya figurines, both from Jaina Island representing warriors wearing what the author proposes is a headdress encoded with divine mushrooms. Jaina Island is a small island not far from the Laguna de Terminos region, that was controlled in Late Classic times by the Chontal speaking Putun Maya.
Above center is Post Classic gold figurine of an Aztec warrior wearing what is likely a mushroom inspired nose plug. The figure holds a shield in his left hand encoded with Venus symbol known to scholars as the quincunx. According to J. Eric Thompson the idealized Venus cycle always ended on the day 1-Ahau, (Milbrath p.170). The synodic revolution of Venus, from Morning Star to Morning Star is 584 days, and that these revolutions were grouped in fives, (see Maya Dresden Codex) so that 5x584 equaled 2,920 days, or exactly eight solar years (Nicholson, 1967 pp. 45-46).
Its almost certain that in Mesoamerica certain mushrooms were consumed prior to these raids and before the ballgame to induce superhuman strength ? The Psilocybe mushroom, called teonanacatl (God's Flesh) by the Aztecs, contains the substance psilocin and psilocybin, the active ingredient that causes the mushroom hallucination. The psilocybin mushroom is indigenous to the sub-tropical regions of the U.S, Mexico, and Central America. The Amanita muscaria mushroom contains the powerful hallucinogen muscimol, which is known to cause the feelings of increased strength and stamina. The connection between Amanita muscaria mushrooms and feats of strength was first proposed by Samuel Odman in 1784. He proposed that Amanita muscaria was the intoxicant of the Viking Berserkers (Kevin Feeney 2013, ch. 6, p.298). The Viking Berserkers, who worshiped their warrior god Odin (Woden of the Anglo-Saxons), believed death was merely a passage from this life to another, and were expected to welcome death in the service of Oden.
Spanish chronicler Fray Sahagun, who first reported mushroom rituals among the Aztecs, wrote that the Chichimecs and Toltecs consumed hallucinogens before battle to enhance bravery and strength (Furst 1972, p.12).
Fray Diego Duran writes that war was called xochiyaoyotl, which means "Flowery War". Death to those who died in battle was called xochimiquiztli, meaning "Flowery Death" or "Blissful Death" or "Fortunate Death". Fray Alonso de Molina's big lexicon of the Nahuatl language (language of the Aztecs) published in 1571, Molina gives us another word for mushroom, xochinanacatl, meaning flower mushroom, xochitl meaning flower and nanacatl meaning mushroom (Wasson 1980, p80).
To date, there are almost ninety different theories or variations of theories purporting to explain the Classic Maya Collapse which took place between A.D. 900 and A.D. 1000, when archaeologists see an abrupt halt of any new construction and that dated monuments with Long Count dates called stelae ceased to be erected. It is during this time period in the Central lowlands of Guatemala that archaeologists see a sudden decline in population or the abandonment of Maya cities. Maya archaeologist T. Patrick Culbert explained that “the evidence all indicated that the Classic Maya had disappeared somewhere in the time-shrouded past and had left no modern descendants with even a faint touch of their glory and accomplishments” (1974: 105).
We are led to believe that some mysterious fate befell the Classic Maya, and that people just suddenly disappeared and that the once great Maya cities of the Classic Period were all abandoned. There was also the deliberate abandonment of most of the Guatemala highland valley sites shortly before the close of the period. Site after site was deserted, never to be reoccupied, in spite of the fact that many of the centers had been in use for more than two millennia.
Borhegyi’s theory for the Classic Maya collapse was of a Toltec invasion into the Maya region by Nahuatl-influenced Chontal Maya tribes from the Laguna de Terminos region.
On March 22, 1954, Borhegyi wrote to Wasson:
"This is a completely new theory that I have recently formulated. It is quite revolutionary, and I will try to publish it as soon as possible. When you carefully check the Annals of the Cakchiqueles and the Popol Vuh, you will read that, in spite of the fact that the Quiché and Cakchiquel tribes claim origin in the legendary city of Tollán, throughout their trip until they reach the Guatemalan Highlands (they) encounter only tribes speaking a language similar to their own. The country between the Laguna de Terminos and the Usumacinta region was and still is populated by Chol Mayas. Consequently, the Quiché and Cakchiqueles must have understood this language, and therefore were also Maya speakers. When they reached Guatemala, they met the Maya and, in the Annals, they referred to them as "stutterers", thus implying that they spoke a language somewhat similar to their own. J. Eric Thompson, a few years ago advanced the theory that the Itzás who came to Chichén Itzá about 1000 A.D. were Mexican-influenced Chontal Maya Indians from the Laguna de Terminos region. The Yucatecan Mayas called the Itzá invaders "stutterers", or "people who speak our language brokenly". I therefore suggest that the Quichés and Cakchiqueles were equally Nahuatl-influenced Chontal Mayas. I think that the story is as follows: the priest king Quetzalcóatl/Kukulcán/Gucumatz was expelled by his enemies from Tula (Tollán), sometime around 960 A.D. He left with a small group of his followers and went to Tlapallan, that is, the Laguna de Terminos region. Here he apparently settled down. It would seem that some of the Chontal tribes accepted the mushroom cult introduced by him and after a few years, the pressure of enemy tribes forced them to move on, led by descendants of Quetzalcóatl and his followers. Some went northeast to Chichén Itzá; others moved southward following the Usumacinta toward Guatemala. The archaeological picture of Northern Guatemala favors this theory. Linguistically, it is far more plausible than the other. The few leaders could still refer to their homeland as Tollán, and probably continued for a while to speak Nahuatl. The great mass of followers, however, did not speak this language and therefore probably spoke Chontal Maya. The Quiché and Cakchiquel Maya are, of course, linguistically related to the Chol and Chontal Maya. Please understand, this is a completely new theory. I am in the process of gathering archaeological data, which might support it."
What is commonly and rather ambiguously referred to as the Mexican Period in Yucatan are the years from A.D. 987 to 1224, when Chichen Itza was dominated by the Toltecs (Muriel Porter Weaver 1972 p.222). Toltec influence on the Maya of Yucatan can easily be seen in the architectural design of temples, palace monuments and ballcourts at the ruins of Chichén Itzá. Religions blended at Chichen Itza where we find the Toltec cult of Kukulcan or Quetzalcoatl mingling with the Mayan long-nosed god Chaac. As mentioned earlier, "Many authorities consider God B to represent Kukulcan, the Feathered Serpent, whose Aztec equivalent is Quetzalcoatl (Herbert Spiden 1975 p.62). We find images of decapitated ballplayers carved on the walls of formal ballcourts at El Tajín and Chichén Itzá that supports the western origin of the ballgame carried by the Putún-descended peoples when they relocated north to Chichén Itzá and south to the Guatemala Highlands.
Borhegyi called into question the construction date of the Great Ballcourt at Chichén Itzá, one of seven ball courts known to exist. He and fellow archaeologist Lee A. Parsons believed that this Great Ballcourt was built much earlier than previously supposed, possibly Mid to Late Classic period (Borhegyi, de, 1980: 12, 25). Borhegyi believed that the stone ballcourt rings at the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza were an Early Post-Classic addition and indicated a later change of rules in the way the game was played. He further believed the gruesome human decapitation scenes and human "skull balls" were Late Classic and were influenced by the "Tajínized Nonoalca" (Pipils) or the Olmeca-Xicallanca who spread during that period from the Gulf Coast to Yucatan and through the Petén rainforest as far as the Pacific coast of Guatemala (Borhegyi de, 1980: 25). Ballgame reliefs from the Pacific Slope of Guatemala are contemporary with those of the Great Ball Court complex at Chichen Itza (Susan Milbrath 1999 p.82).
One of the early Spanish chroniclers, Diego Muñoz Camargo, recorded that the grand city of Cholula, famous for the Great Pyramid dedicated to Quetzalcóatl, was the capital of the Olmeca Xicallanca who were from the important coastal trading center of Xicalango, located in southern Campeche. At the time of the Spanish Conquest, this was an important coastal trading center controlled by a seafaring people known as the Putún Maya who may have been related either culturally or linguistically to an earlier Olmec culture. Archaeologist J. Eric S. Thompson proposed that the Itzá who came into northern Yucatan were Chontal Mayan speakers (Thompson, 1970: 3-5). Thompson described the Itzá’s as the Putún Maya, a group of Mexicanized Chontal Mayan speakers from the Gulf coastal area, who were sea traders who controlled Chichén Itzá shortly after A.D. 900. Most historians believe now that the God-king Kukulcán and the Toltec priest-ruler Topiltzin Quetzacóatl, both meaning "Plumed Serpent," were one and the same man.
Cholula emerges as the cultural giant where the worship of Quetzalcóatl flourished. Spanish chronicler Friar Toribio de Benavente, affectionately called Motolinia by the Indians, wrote in his Memoriales that followers of Quetzalcóatl came to Cholula to give their lives in sacrifice, in return for immortality. He described the great ceremony to Quetzalcóatl which lasted eight days which, coincidentally, is the same number of days that, according to legend, Quetzalcóatl was in the underworld creating humanity by bloodletting on the bones of his father and the bones of past generations. He then emerged from the underworld resurrected as the Morning Star.
Motolinia named a star Lucifer (most likely Venus) which the Indians adored “more than any other save the sun, and performed more ritual sacrifices for it than for any other creature, celestial or terrestrial” (LaFaye, 1987: 141).
Bartolome de las Casas, a Bishop of Chiapas in the mid-1500s, reported that: "after the sun, which they held as their principal god, they honored and worshiped a certain star more than any other denizen of the heavens or earth, because they held it as certain that their god Quetzalcóatl, the highest god of the Cholulans, when he died transformed into this star" (Christenson, 2007: 205). Las Casas further noted that the Indians awaited the appearance of this star in the east each day, and that when it appeared their priests offered many sacrifices, including incense and their own blood (Christenson, 2007: 205).
Spanish chronicles tell us that the Aztecs and Toltecs attributed their enlightenment to Quetzalcóatl. In the 16th century, Franciscan Friar Bernardino de Sahagún recorded in his Florentine Codex (Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, 1547-1582) that: They (the Indians) were very devout. Only one was their God; they showed all attention to, they called upon, they prayed to one by the name of Quetzalcóatl … the one that was perfect in the performance of all the customs, exercises and learning (wisdom) observed by the ministers of the idols, was elected highest pontiff; he was elected by the king or chief and all the principals (foremost men), and they called him Quetzalcóatl. (Sahagún, 1950, vol. 10: 160).
Friar Sahagún (in book 9 of 12) refers to mushrooms with a group of traveling priests merchants known as the pochtecas, meaning merchants who lead because they were followers of Quetzalcóatl, who they worshiped under the patron name Yiacatecuhtli or Yacateuctli, Lord of the Vanguard. He describes the mushroom’s effects and their use in several passages of his Florentine Codex (“Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España”). He records how the merchants celebrated the return from a successful business trip with a wild mushroom party.
The pochteca (pochtecatl), who occupied a high status in Aztec society acquiring luxury goods for its ruler, journeyed under military protection, in all directions carrying merchandise as well as
spreading the religion of their god-king Quetzalcóatl. The pochteca are the subject of Book 9 of the Florentine Codex, where it mentions: "The eating of mushrooms was sometimes also part of a longer
ceremony performed by merchants returning from a trading
expedition to the coast lands. The merchants, who arrived on a day
of favorable aspect, organized a feast and ceremony of thanksgiving
also on a day of favorable aspect. As a prelude to the ceremony of
eating mushrooms, they sacrificed a quail, offered incense to the
four directions, and made offerings to the gods of flowers and
fragrant herbs. The eating of mushrooms took place in the earlier
part of the evening. At midnight a feast followed, and toward dawn
the various offerings to the gods, or the remains of them, were
ceremonially buried" (Sahagún, Book 9 chapter viii; Florentine Codex, fol 3 Ir-3 Iv).
The Toltec influenced Pipils, (Mexican invaders) a term that applies loosely to the speech and culture of various Nahuat-speaking groups whose influence (deity cults and art styles) penetrated the Guatemala Highlands and Pacific coastal area from Central Mexico. The Pipils probably brought with them their ballgame paraphernalia, such as stone yokes, and thin stone ballgame hachas, as well as plumbate pottery, and tenoned stone heads. The sculptures at the Cotzumalhuapa sites along the Pacific coastal area of Guatemala and Mexico have been attributed to the Pipils (Herbert J. Spinden 1975 p.214).
Borhegyi postulated several waves of Pipil intrusion, but that these Pipil-Toltec migrations, were not migrating families but rather religious leaders or merchants, under military protection from their ruler. According to Borhegyi there is archaeological evidence to support the idea that woman were left behind and took no part in the foreign occupation (Borhegyi 1965b). The second Tajinized-Teotihuacan-Pipil intrusion into the highland Maya area in the Late Classic period after the destruction of Teotihuacan, A.D. 700-900 coincides with the general abandonment of the valley sites as ceremonial centers and the beginnings of hilltop defensive sites (Muriel Porter Weaver 1972 p. 149-152). Borhegyi attributes this group for the initial warlike conditions that pushed settlements to the hilltops (Borhegyi 1965a:30-41). These groups were followers of the god-king Quetzalcoatl, and in their migration from the Mexican Gulf Coast, into the Guatemala Highlands and along the Pacific slope, they brought with them an earlier Olmec culture including ballgame rituals of human decapitation and a trophy head cult (S.F. de Borhegyi 1960, Field Report).
According to Borhegyi in a letter to Gordon Wasson, "the Teotihuacan overlords in the Maya Highlands were repressing various such native highland Maya cults or rituals during Early Classic times as the ones related to the three-pronged cencer cult, figurine cult, and mushroom cult, etc...These cults were much in vogue during Pre-Classic times, then disappear during the Classic Period (or forced underground, because a tabu), and reassert themselves again in the Late Classic after the fall of the Teotihuacan. It's likely that mushroom stones persisted during these times but, there is no stratigraphic evidence for this. If the Teotihuacanos did indeed consume sacred mushrooms in their rituals, they did not like them represented and venerated in the form of stone images. The total absence of mushroom stones in the Valley of Mexico and other Teotihuacan dominated areas would substantiate my statement" (letter from Borhegyi to Wasson, February 12, 1968)
The general belief has been that the Quiché Maya and Cakchiqueles who both claimed Toltec ancestry, entered the Guatemalan highlands from the eastern lowlands after the abandonment of Chichén Itzá in Yucatan. The date in textbooks for their entry has been set between A.D. 1250-1300, using the GMT correlation (Porter Weaver, 1981: 477). The Quiché Maya, whose traditions and history are recorded in the Popol Vuh, claim that their migration was led under the spiritual “guidance” of their patron god named Tohil who is now considered to be a variant of Quetzalcóatl and Kukulcan (Hugh Fox, 1987: 248).
According to S.W. Miles, the archaeologist Robert Wauchope, who worked at three main sites at Gumaarcah, Iximche, and Zacualpa during the late 1940s, could not find “archaeological coordination earlier than ca. A.D. 1300, between ceramics and genealogical reckoning” (Miles, 1965: 282-283).
Borhegyi questioned this date in his letter to Wauchope dated April 8, 1954 (Milwaukee Public Museum Archives), explaining: I will try to put down in as concise form as possible, my questions concerning Quiche archaeology:
1) "As you know, Dick Woodbury found cremations in Tohil effigy jars at Zaculeu. If cremations are to be connected with the Quiche expansion under Quicab this would mean that Zaculeu was occupied by them during the Early Post-Classic period. 2) You postulated Quicab's reign in the middle of the 15th century. These lately discovered cremations at Zaculeu would infer an earlier date for this reign, i.e., around 1300. If I remember correctly, you derive the date for Quicab's reign from a passage in the Annals of the Cakchiquels, which states that the daughter-in-law of Quicab died in 1507. Can it be that this passage refers to Quicab II, and not to Quicab I? In this case, Quicab I could have reigned in 1300. 3) I think the arrival of the Quiche-Cakchiquel's to Guatemala (probably following the Usumacinta River from the Laguna de Terminos) can be correlated with the first appearance of Fine Orange X wares, Mexican onyx vases, Tohil plumbate, and effigy support tripod bowls. ... On the other hand, the Quiche expansion under the reign of King Quicab falls together with the distribution of white-on-red ware, red on buff ware, red-and-black-on-white ware, and micaceous ware. This data also suggests a reign of around 1300 for Quicab. 4) I have long wondered about the quick "Mayanization" of the Quiche and Cakchiquel tribes, who supposedly came from Tulan. Using Morris Swadesh's lexicostatistical system, it is quite improbable that by the time of the conquest all these tribes could have spoken Maya with practically no retention of their original language. Could it be that the Quiche and Cakchiquels, like the Itzas and Xius of Yucatan were actually Chontal speaking Mayas from the Laguna de Terminos region, who wandered southward after being influenced by Nahuatl speaking groups? I wonder if Quetzalcoatl, after leaving Tula for Tlapalan, settled among these Chontal Mayas and introduced among them a new religious cult, based on the worship of idols. Could it be that only a few of Quetzalcoatl's followers (who actually could trace their origin to Tula) led these Chontal Mayas down into Guatemala? If so, they must have arrived to the borders of Guatemala around 1000 and not, as you once postulated, around 1300. Their arrival, around 1000 AD coincides with the appearance of Fine Orange X wares, Tohil plumbate etc. (we have lately found Tohil plumbate sherds at Altar de Sacrificios and at Santa Amelia). I would appreciate very much your comments on this hypothesis and questions mentioned above. If you'd like, I could even write it up for the Research Records, amplified with the latest distributional studies of the abovementioned wares. At any rate, I would be very much interested to know your opinion"
As ever, Steve
Thompson argued that Fine Orange wares were manufactured by Putun (Chontal) Maya, presumably living in the Usumacinta Valley (Robert Rands 1973, The Classic Maya Collapse p.205), and proposed that the Itzá who came into northern Yucatan were Chontal Mayan speakers from the Gulf coastal area, who invaded Chichén Itzá shortly after A.D. 900 (Thompson, 1970: 3-5). Some went northeast to Chichén Itzá; others moved southward following the Usumacinta toward Guatemala. The archaeological picture of Northern Guatemala favors this theory. As mentioned earlier, Borhegyi believed the Quiché and Cakchiquel Maya were also Nahuatl-influenced Chontal Mayas as both were linguistically related and shared a common Toltec-inspired genealogical origin (Borhegyi letter to Wasson, March 22, 1954). The loyalty of these groups to their hometown of Tula is evident in the native legends relating to various long journeys taken by the Quiche and Cakchiquel royal princes to receive the insignia of royalty and the picture writings of Tulan from the court of Nacxit (Kukulkan, Quetzalcoatl) the Lord King of the East (S.F. de Borhegyi 1965a p.54).
Toltec influence can be seen throughout the Guatemala Highlands at a number of archaeological sites like Kaminaljuyú and Zacuala, and along the Pacific slope area known for its important cacao plantations, a region in which the sculptural style at sites like El Baúl, Bilbao and El Castillo is a mixture of both Maya and Mexican elements called Cotzumalhuapa.
More recent archaeological evidence suggests that Borhegyi’s original date of A.D. 1000 was right after all. One archaeological site along the Pacific slope that provides clear evidence of both Olmec and Maya development is the archaeological site of Tak’alik Ab’aj (formerly called Abaj Takalik), a pre-Columbian archaeological site in Guatemala. This area runs along the intercontinental mountain range which was heavily influenced in Preclassic times by the powerful Olmec culture.
Maya archaeologist Marion Popenoe de Hatch (2005: 1) noted that:
"According to the stratigraphic evidence and the analysis of ceramics recovered in recent excavation, it would seem that Tak’alik Ab’aj was conquered by K’iche (Quiche) groups at the beginning of the Early Postclassic period (ca. 1000 AD). This date goes a long way back from the period comprised between 1400 and 1450 AD that many ethno-historians claimed for the K’iche expansion towards the South Coast of Guatemala"… "The problem is when, and the Tak’alik Ab’aj information suggests that the expansion had been initiated at the beginning of the Early Postclassic period and not at the beginning of the Late Postclassic, that is to say around 1000 AD, contemporary to the dispersion of the Tihil Plumbate pottery. The chronicle states that the conquest took place in 1300 AD, but archaeological evidence shows that this happened around three centuries prior to that date, that is, around 1000 AD."
Rituals of Resurrection:
In the Popol Vuh, a book on the mythology, astronomy, history, religion, and the legends of the Quiche and Cakchiquel people, there are numerous passages that reveal obscure connections between Maya creation myths, the ballgame, ritual decapitation, self decapitation (Borhegyi,1969: 501) and Maya astronomy, involving the movement of the sun, moon, and the planet Venus that are commonly depicted on Maya vase paintings.
Anthropologist Dennis Tedlock who translated the Popol Vuh into English in 1985, identified five episodes in the Popol Vuh involving underworld decapitation and self-decapitation. In one episode, the ball playing Hero Twins decapitate themselves in the underworld in order to come back to life. Tedlock explained that, based on evidence discovered by Borhegyi, he does not rule out the presence of an Amanita muscaria mushroom cult in the Popol Vuh (Tedlock, 1985: 250).
Among the ancient Maya, and Nahua, the ballgame and human sacrifice and the ritual of
decapitation were believed necessary to save mankind from calamity and the cosmos from
collapse. Since the greatest gift one could offer the gods was one’s own life, emulating the ways of Quetzalcoatl, who took his own life, to create the fifth sun, the purpose of human
sacrifice was to preserve life rather than destroy it (Muriel Porter Weaver 1972 p. 205). I believe strongly that this concept of life from
death via ritual decapitation could only have been inspired by the divine mushroom.
Gordon Wasson believed that the origin of ritual decapitation may lay in the mushroom religion itself and terminology used in reference to mushroom parts. In a letter to Borhegyi dated June 7, 1954, he writes of the Mixe (a linguistic group of northeast Oaxaca) continuing use of the psilocybin mushroom:
"The cap of the mushroom in Mije (or Mixe) is called kobahk, the same word for head. In Kiche and Kakchiquel it is doubtless the same, and kolom ocox is not “mushroom heads”, but mushroom caps, or in scientific terminology, the pileus of the mushroom. The Mije in their mushroom cult always sever the stem or stipe (in Mije, tek is “leg”) from the cap, and the cap alone is eaten. Great insistence is laid on this separation of cap from stem. This is in accordance with the offering of “mushroom head” in the Annals of the Cakchiqueles and the Popol Vuh. The writers had in mind the removal of the stems. The top of the cap is yellow and the rest is the color of coffee, with the gills of a color between yellow and coffee. They call this mushroom, pitpa "thread-like", the smallest, perhaps 2 horizontal fingers high, with a cap small for the height, growing everywhere in clean earth, often along the mountain trails with many in a single place. In Mije the cap of the mushroom is called the "head" "kobahk in the dialect of Mazatlán. When the “heads” are consumed, they are not chewed, but swallowed fast one after the other, in pairs".
Evidence of a trinity of gods among the ancient Maya was also supplied by Ethno-mycologist Bernard Lowy, who linked sacred mushrooms with lightning and a creation myth, and a trinity of creator gods associated with divine rulership. He reported that cakulha was not only the Quiché term for thunderbolt but is also the Quiché Maya name for the Amanita muscaria mushroom (Lowy, 1974: 189). The Quiche speakers do not know why Amanita muscaria (cakulha, spelled kakulja in Wasson 1980:229) is the word for lightning-bolt god and no longer think of the word's meaning when they use it, but cakulha is the god of the lightning-bolt and that this Quiche term is found in the Popol Vuh (Wasson 1980:229).
Quoting Bernard Lowy:
"Kakulja is one of a trinity of gods referred to in the Popol Vuh as "Kakulja Huracan" which enigmatically refers to "a single leg" that is, the single shaft of the thunderbolt. Where this shaft struck the earth the miraculous mushroom Amanita muscaria arose. Relating this to Vedic myth, we have a further, unexpected verification of the meaning of Soma. Does not this "single leg" also reveal the meaning of the riddle cited by Wasson in the traditional verse sung by German children..."Sag' wer mag das Mannlein sein Das da steht auf einem Bein ?" (Bernard Lowy, Ethnomycological Inferences from Mushroom stones, Maya Codices, and Tzutuhil Legend 1980 pp.94-103)
Above is a Type D tripod mushroom stone from Guatemala that has a human effigy on the stem (Late Classic, A.D. 600-900). According to the Popol Vuh, the founders of the Quichéan lineages traveled a great distance eastward “across the sea” to the Toltec city called Tulan Zuyva where they received their gods “whom they then carried home in bundles on their backs” (Allen J.