January 1, 1552 - The Aztec Use of Entheogens

By: Polly Hill

Hippie culture is often the first thing thought of when talking about psychedelic substances, more commonly referred to as psychedelics. The soaring popularity of psychedelics in the 1960s is often what comes to mind, and we fail to recognize that 408 years earlier hallucinogenics were just as popular. The Aztec civilization was no stranger to entheogens and the Aztec herbal demonstrates that. This book shows the many purposes of entheogens and helps to show the many different ways the Aztec culture was influenced by such substances.

Entheogens are psychoactive substances that alter one’s mental state, primarily their perception, cognition, mood, and consciousness. For the Aztecs, psilocybin “magic” mushrooms, Ololiuqui (better known as Rivea corymbose or morning glory), Datura, peyote, and piziet (tobacco) provided these effects. Although some other plants have these side effects, the Aztecs used those five most frequently. In general, these substances were used for ceremonial and religious purposes One of the best examples of the heavy religious involvement with entheogens is the representation of Xochililli, the Aztec god of art, dance, song, and flowers. The Florentine Codex says that the statue of Xochililli, also known as the ‘Prince of Flowers’, contained multiple entheogenic traits. On the darker side of religion, Tlapatl and Toloatzin (lesser-used entheogens) were given to prisoners before they were sacrificed.

Like other Mesoamerican groups, the Aztecs used entheogens to interpret visions, heal, and understand or make prophesies. Morning glory flowers contain black seeds that the Aztecs ground up and filtered. This process removes the psychoactive substance known as alkaloids, which would then drink to produce visions. The morning glory induced intoxication was described in the Florentine Codex as something of a nightmare. The book says “It makes one besotted; it deranges one, troubles one, maddens one, makes one possessed. He who eats it, who drinks it, sees many things which greatly terrify him.” These entheogen-induced visions were meant to fulfill prophesies. Tenochtitlan, the most well-known Aztec city was built because of a psychedelic induced vision. Morning Glory also has some soothing properties that were utilized by the Aztecs to alleviate pain. It is one of the many entheogens used for healing purposes.

Tobacco use was also very common among the Aztecs. Often, tobacco was smoked and the user was believed to have the ability to call forth the devil and learn details about the future. However, practices like these were only for priests. Sometimes tobacco was mixed with datura to enhance the psychedelic experience. The experience brought on by this mixture was believed to allow the consumer to access a greater sense of enlightenment.

One of the most commonly used entheogens among the Aztecs was peyote. Peyote is a cactus that contains over 60 hallucinogenic alkaloids and is heavy in mescaline, a strong psychedelic. Besides nausea and vomiting, peyote has been reported to produce colorful hallucinations, sometimes called kaleidoscopic visions, and create a sensation of weightlessness and alter time perception. Peyote was often ingested by Aztec warriors because it was believed to be a “protective plant”. The religious use of peyote is also quite evident in archeological findings. Traces of peyote have been found along with shamanic remains like bone rods and incense.

Teonanácatl, the Nahuatl name for psilocybin mushrooms, directly translates to “god mushroom”. This name was probably derived from the religious use of such entheogens. Quetzalcoatl, a prominent Aztec god, was said to have few vices, one of which was “intoxicating mushrooms”. Because of this, psilocybin mushrooms were considered sacred and ingested with the intent to become unified with the universe. Mushrooms were one of the most difficult entheogens to retrieve. Finding psilocybin mushrooms was a labor-intensive and all-night excursion. This caused the price of mushrooms to be significantly higher than most other entheogens, and only available to the Aztec upper class.

The presence of entheogens in Aztec culture is undeniable, and neither is the influence they had on the Aztec people. With their many purposes, they influenced many aspects of Aztec life. Although the Aztecs aren’t the origin of psychedelic substances, they heavily contributed to the development of hallucinogenic substances.