Maybe it’s because of the romantic books by Carlos Castaneda, that Mexico always seemed to me like a country of witches and magic. Mysterious realms of spirits induced by cactus or hallucinogenic mushrooms, a constant battlefield of good and evil powers, overwhelming divine knowledge: this is hard to comprehend with a rational or even sane mind. And now I was passing through this land of magic myself. A couple days before arriving to the mountains in Oaxaca, I was sitting in the kitchen of an old ranch. Marco, the owner, and I had just started a mysterious conversation about magic.
‘Well, does the magic actually exist?’ No one knows.
Nevertheless, my new friend starts bursting with the stories from his highland hometown. There was an old lady in his village, who according to rumours was a bruja (witch). One night he and his friends saw that woman walking in the darkness with two chicken and a huge machete in her hands. They decided to follow her, and soon the road led to the cemetery. The guys remained hiding and waiting, until Bruja returned. To their horror – she was empty-handed. She had sacrificed the chicken in the graveyard!
For local minds, the surrounding world was full of magic powers. Darkness belonged to nahuales – shapeshifter spirits that show up after sunset in a form of an animal. They can be either good or bad – both the guardian spirits and the manifestation of destructive powers. Often they showed up to people transporting harvest. It was necessary to offer some of your harvest to the spirit, otherwise you were risking to get into serious problems. Marco remembered a story of his godfather. Once he was returning home to his house in the mountains. It was already dark and he was passing through a narrow mountain path, when he suddenly saw an enormous demonically black dog, standing still in the shadows. Scared almost to death he ran back home. After the incident on the road his health worsened and he almost died.
Mountains was also home for duende. It was a small midget spirit with a lamp on his head. Once someone saw a light jumping from one cliff to another, they could be sure it’s the duende. One of his primary occupations was kidnapping little kids while they were asleep. After sometime they reappeared far away from home in the middle of the forest. But this trip sometimes had tragical consequences – more sensitive kids would go crazy.
Rural landscape after the dark was the realm of demons. It was easy to recognise them, because they wore black: black clothes, black sombrero, even their face and their horse were black. They were called arrieros. Demons always had a bag with gold. When they trespassed one’s path, the only way to escape the bad or even mortal consequences, was to offer some kind of sacrifice to the spirit.
Gold itself was a tricky deal. If you were lucky to find it somewhere in the nature, you could not take it, because it definitely belonged to the black man with sombrero. He would hunt you down to get his gold back. So, the tip of the day – for your own safety, just leave gold where you found it! Someone for sure will go after you :).
Baaam… A really big bug hit the window. The sound of the crash echoed through the whole kitchen. Shivers went up my spine. A really bad timing to crash into the window… Suddenly, I started thinking what I knew about the modern magic. The name of Maria Sabina was on my mind.
“And you probably heard about Maria Sabina”, read my mind Marco.
The famous mushroom’s lady
Painting of Maria Sabina in the streets of Oaxaca de Juarez
Coming from Mazatec community, Maria Sabina became famous for her magical healing powers in late 60’s. She used hallucinogenic mushrooms for her rituals to communicate with alter realities. She called the fungus “holy children”. She was the first contemporary Mexican curandera, or a shaman, which shared her knowledge with foreigners. However, it had some disastrous consequences. One of her acquaintances, with whom she shared a great deal of her practises expecting his discretion, published an article revealing her name and area. Mushrooms turned out to be a huge hit in the west. The word spread fast and soon many hippies from the west arrived in search of their personal spiritual enlightenment. Even such stars like Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Mick Jagger paid her a visit. Samples of Maria’s “holy children” were brought to Europe. It accelerated their cultivation, which became a base for synthesising LSD.
Once an old hippy told me that tourism equals terrorism. In this case it proved to be right. The purity of the healing was contaminated by the flood of foreigners, consuming mushrooms for hedonistic purposes. The drug use also drew the attention of police, which put the entire tradition of healing with hallucinogenic substances in danger. The community blamed Sabina and even burned her house down. Later in her life, Maria regretted sharing her knowledge with foreigners. She put it in these words:
“From the moment the foreigners arrived, the ‘holy children’ lost their purity. They lost their force, they ruined them. Henceforth they will no longer work. There is no remedy for it.”
The land, which bore Maria, is still a popular attraction even many years after her death. Every year many tourists come here searching for strong experiences. This demand transformed the place entirely. Now the town serves the needs of tourists, and the authenticity of the holy ritual vanished.
I recalled a conversation I had with australian traveler Glenn, about his visit to this psychedelic Mecca:
“It was completely a place of black magic!”
Something changed in the energetics. A tension of competition, envy and jealousy filled the village. Everyone wanted to accommodate the tourists, and if they picked the neighbour’s house, the grudge and negative energy was felt everywhere in the air.
One scene was the most memorable for Glenn. While staying in one of the small houses in the village, through the window he saw the neighbour’s house, hosting a couple from Europe. As soon as the couple left, the old Mexican woman, the doña of the house rushed up the stairs towards the couple’s room. Moving with precise moves her feather sceptrum, she started whispering her spells. Only the sound of couple coming back made her stop. That was a pure manifestation of black magic, according to Glenn.
“Imagine what would happen if you have the ‘healing’ ritual performed by this woman…”
Here I was on my way to the Mexican mountains. I had a great suspicion that a bruja of my own was waiting somewhere in this land of magic…