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Memeing Maria Sabina: How Social Media Whitewashes Culture

Updated: Jun 18

Memeing Maria Sabina: How Social Media Whitewashes Culture

I am wise even from within the womb of my mother. I am the woman of the winds, of the water, of the paths, because I am known in heaven, because I am a doctor woman.” María Sabina Magdalena García

By Eden Woodruff and Tom Hatsis Sometime in the late summer of 2020 a Facebook post sharing some very sweet and inspiring advice in the form of a poem, coupled with a photo of an elderly woman, went viral. It wasn’t controversial; instead, it recommended a way of being that’s a strong departure from how most of us with access to social media live today. It asked us to embrace simple pleasures, enliven our intuitive senses, tend to our needs, and restore ourselves by immersing in the sensual beauty of nature.

The poem reads:

“Heal yourself with the light of the sun and the rays of the moon. With the sound of the river and the waterfall. With the swaying of the sea and the fluttering of birds. Heal yourself with mint, neem, and eucalyptus. Sweeten with lavender, rosemary, and chamomile. Hug yourself with the cocoa bean and a hint of cinnamon. Put love in tea instead of sugar and drink it looking at the stars. Heal yourself with the kisses that the wind gives you and the hugs of the rain. Stand strong with your bare feet on the ground and with everything that comes from it. Be smarter every day by listening to your intuition, looking at the world with your forehead.  Jump, dance, sing, so that you live happier. Heal yourself, with beautiful love, and always remember … you are the medicine.”

The message is truly lovely, and it ends on a really beautiful and empowering note. But we think it was the message in combination with the photo and name of the author that truly resonated with people.

The photo shows the weathered face of a woman of advanced age—the kind of face one rarely sees in the virtual public square. “Advice from María Sabina, Mexican healer and poet,” (henceforth referred to as “Advice”) the post promises us.

Ah yes, María Sabina.

Psychedelic researchers and those with a general interest in the area have been familiar with María Sabina for over half a century since she became known as the first Mazatec curandera to allow four foreigners from the United States to take part in a psilocybin mushroom ceremony (or velada) in 1955. When two of the participants, Valentina and Robert G. Wasson, published articles of their experience in the spring of 1957, this remote woman and her mystical practices were suddenly thrust into a strange new world. A world that had forgotten this access to numinous realities through psychedelic mushrooms. The world of mid-20th century Western Civilization. Unbeknownst to her at the time, María Sabina became somewhat of a celebrity in the States. She would find out soon enough when a herd of psychedelic tourists trashed her home.1 Though the West has various traditions that employed psychoactives dating to ancient times,2 publication of the Wassons’ encounter renewed interest in the esoteric use of mushrooms and contributed to the momentum of the first wave of the psychedelic Renaissance.

At the time, Sabina’s mushrooms were torn from their Oaxacan context (that was arguably as important as the mushrooms themselves). Westerners took the mushrooms and ran with them, creating their own mythos and culture around them. It is important to represent the experiences of diverse (and ignored) voices, so that overlooked and forgotten traditions can be maintained; and (with this Advice) now María Sabina’s life once again became available to thousands of people who’d never heard of the Oaxacan curandera (or medicine woman).

The only problem is that Sabina didn’t write the Advice. In fact, it sounds nothing like her. 

We have pointed this out in the past and when we did some viewers accused us of overblowing the issue. Maybe we are.

It’s just that we know so little about Sabina’s world; shall we just sit and watch while that little gets swept away?

As many are aware (but still can’t seem to escape from) social media thrives by keeping people engaged in divisive, often hostile, exchanges. We think the meme went viral because it spoke to a deep longing we hold for nurturing grandmotherly wisdom. We suppose it’s no wonder that poetic Advice allegedly written by a wise elder, free of any political ideology, would be such a hit. But in the process—as is often the case these days—the Advice had merely reshaped an exotic culture into our own likeness and image – our own trope – turning Sabina into our indigenous “fairy godmother.” The fairy godmother reaches across every aisle. Psychenauts tend to have a modern view of what medicine people are like, often truncating their cultural and regional differences into a few basic patterns. The Advice paints María Sabina as a sort of Pocahontas character a la Disney’s 1995 film. So, for example, while Pocahontas implores us to “paint with all the colors of the wind,” the Advice asks us to “Heal [ourself] with the kisses that the wind gives [us] and the hugs of the rain.” We tend to view indigenous peoples as perfect beings in tune with nature and timeless truths—the “noble savage” stereotype is above reproach. These people commit no wrongs – they do not lie, cheat, or steal; they do not have any personal failings like pride or envy. But María Sabina, gifted healer as she was, did have pride in her abilities. “Ego death,” so often taken as a truism of the psychedelic experience, did not exist for María Sabina. So while white college students experiencing ego death for the first time on a high dose of acid might believe that Sabina had totally annihilated her ego using mushrooms, nothing could be further from the truth. She was very much a gatekeeper of the healing potential of the mushroom; it would be quite out of character for Sabina to have uttered anything like “you are the medicine,” as the Advice reads. Her entire livelihood was based on taking the medicine herself, exploring “The World Where Everything is Known” (her name for the inner realms of the mushroom), and relaying whatever prescriptions obtained while there to her patients. We tend to think that she often dished out mushrooms to her clients willy-nilly because she shared them with the Wassons after only knowing them for a short while. But that was rarely the case (her family and inner circle notwithstanding—they often ate the mushrooms with her; the majority of the time, those infirmed coming to see Sabina to be healed rarely ate the mushroom). María Sabina believed that she possessed a unique gift working with mushrooms to heal. Even her own sister, Anna María, who ate the mushroom often, was not worthy of its healing knowledge:

“The mushroom is similar to your soul… And not all souls are the same… Ana María, my sister… talked to the mushrooms, but the mushrooms did not reveal all their secrets,”3 María Sabina

This is hardly the kind of person who would say, “you are the medicine.” She, María Sabina—along with her Little Saints—was the medicine. Not even her own sister was worthy.

The redefining of María Sabina began with Valentina and Robert Gordon Wasson. In their published accounts of their adventures in Oaxaca, the Wassons painted la curandera as more primitive than she actually was to further their own preconceived biases of an unbroken Ur-mushroom religion originating thousands of years ago. Their very thesis depended upon it.4

As it turns out, modern women do not possess the requisite pixie dust of the best fairy godmothers—or so thought the Wassons. Sabina’s television watching, beer drinking, tobacco smoking, and guitar playing disrupted the picture the Wassons were trying to frame—so they left María Sabina’s all too human habits out of their stories.5

Although María Sabina wasn’t as primitive as the Wassons reworked her, the Advice still holds very modern ideas of which she had likely never heard. Take as an example the Advice’s nod to the Third Eye, which is how we interpret the line that implores us to look “at the world with [our] forehead.” But the idea of the Third Eye only enters the Western Hemisphere in the 1956 novel by Cyril Henry Hoskin, The Third Eye, and there is zero evidence that this Eastern concept ever made its way into María Sabina’s village, Huautla de Jiménez—and even less evidence that it did so by 1985, the year María Sabina passed on. Incidentally, even a casual Google search for “Third Eye in Mexico” still only fetches articles about the “Evil Eye in Mexico” (mal de ojo).

The math, it seems, works like this:

  1. The Third Eye is a spiritual concept

  2. + María Sabina was a spiritual woman

  3. = María Sabina must have known about the Third Eye.

Modern psychenauts associate the Third Eye with other tropes of modern, holistic psychedelic spirituality. In order for María Sabina to be worthy of the title of “medicine woman,” (and more importantly, act as our indigenous fairy godmother), she must have been familiar with everything your usual psychenaut is familiar with: quantum theory, Chinese medicine, astrology, The Secret, pineal glands, sacred geometry, Jungian shadow work, the deep esoteric Spiritual Theory of Everything that ties it all together …. and of course, the Third Eye. This is less a deduction to evidence and more a whitewashing of various spiritual traditions, totally unrelated to each other, that evolved on opposite corners of the globe, joined together by our psychenaut who wishes to paint spiritual women like María Sabina in their own likeness and image. In this way, the psychenaut can both elevate María Sabina as a divinity and then join her in the heavens. We have heard of these things (Chinese medicine, Carl Jung, etc.) because North America is a melting pot of exotic ideas and cultures. But it strains credulity to imagine someone living in the nearly impenetrable mountain village of Huautla de Jiménez in the mid- (and late-) 20th century would have heard of Jung, quantum theory, sacred geometry, Third Eyes, and all the rest. We hypothesize that since María Sabina has become a respected “elder” among psychenauts we cannot imagine her as ignorant of the kinds of notions some have come to believe about spirituality today. In a well-meaning effort to honor María Sabina, the person who originally cited the famed curandera as the author of the Advice riveted our modern ideas onto her; consequently, in doing so, that person negated the fascinating amalgam of Sabina’s practice: a curious mix of local folk traditions coupled with a highly Christianized sense of the cosmos. There is simply no rational reason to believe that María Sabina was familiar with the Third Eye (and all the rest) and even less evidence that such a far Eastern concept would end up in the Advice. We only have one source (published in two places) for María Sabina’s poems and songs. They are first found on a record made by Robert Gordon Wasson in 1956 titled Mushroom Ceremony of the Mazatec Indians of Mexico; secondly, English versions of her poems (all sung in Mazatec on the record) appear in Henry Munn’s María Sabina: Her Life and Chants (1981). Munn also preserves for us the lyrics to another of María Sabina’s veladas, which took place in 1970, as recorded by Julia and Celerino Cerqueda. The Advice is not included in this collection. That should really end the debate right there. However, should the reader not yet be convinced that the Advice was falsely attributed to María Sabina, please consider and compare the following excerpts.

From the Advice:

“Put love in tea instead of sugar and drink it looking at the stars. Heal yourself with the kisses that the wind gives you and the hugs of the rain.”

From María Sabina: Her Life and Chants:

“Because she is Christ woman Because she is Christ woman ha ha ha so so so so so so so so so Whirling woman of colors Whirling woman of colors Woman of the network of lights Woman of the network of lights Clock woman Clock woman ha ha ha so so so so so so so so so ….”6

Do you really believe the same person wrote both those poems? Another fact about María Sabina conveniently overlooked to paint her as our indigenous fairy godmother is that she was a devout Christian. The number of times María Sabina makes reference to Jesus, Mary, the Christian god, and other Christian saints in her actual poems is staggering. The Advice contains 12 lines. Not a single one touches upon Sabina’s two favorite topics found carpet bombed throughout her poetry: Jesus and her relationship with him. Again, let’s go to Sabina’s own lyrics. Here are the opening words she chose when she allowed Julia and Celerino Cerqueda to record her velada in July 1970:

“Father Jesus Christ God the Son and God the Holy Spirit Lord Saint Peter Lord Saint Paul Saint, saint, saint, Holy saint Father, says, Father Jesus Christ, says God and Son, says God the Holy Spirit, says Saint Peter Saint Paul Saint, saint …”7

you get the idea. Can this really be the same woman who wrote “Be smarter every day by listening to your intuition, looking at the world with your forehead”? Of course not. We often struggle to hold two opposing truths: María Sabina the Christian and María Sabina the medicine worker seem antithetical to us. And yet, María Sabina embodied both. To deny her Christianity is to dismiss the impact of colonialism on indigenous peoples and its unwitting byproduct—the scrubbing of culture. The nature of the Internet Age expedites this process. In this case, one large organization that shared the Advice was The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (COSM), Alex & Allison Grey’s psychedelic art church with over 190,000 followers. At the time of this writing the post has over one thousand likes, voluminous positive comments, and seven hundred shares. But the misinformation didn’t stop with arguably the most famous entheogenic artists. A Facebook group called Folklore, Customs, Legends, and Mythology, which has over 400,000 members shared the meme as well; it has 18,000 likes 14,000 shares.

“Truth” is no longer created by, well, truth, but rather created by “influencers” – psychedelic or otherwise. Followers, not facts, matter.

Like most misattributions haphazardly believed in the Internet Age, the viral nature of the Advice includes both positives and negatives. The positives: more people outside of psychedelia now know about this extraordinary woman. The negatives: the Advice tears Sabina from her culture and places her into a more easily-digestible paradigm for the “cannabis and yoga” demographic of the 21st century American public. To talk about the realities of María Sabina’s life is not to denigrate her (as we have been accused). It’s to bring the full context of this woman’s life into public awareness, and draw attention to another problem: namely, the way we are brainwashing ourselves with our own biases and access to unlimited information. Desire for social media “likes” and “reactions” far outweigh our desire to tell a more complicated story. It might behoove us to remember that Internet algorithms are designed to show us what we want to see, not what is accurate or true. We know this isn’t what people want; the human soul ultimately desires truth. But with the rise of unabashed claims strewn across the Internet, it is time to consider just how much we are manipulating ourselves though “likes and shares” and whitewashing cultures in the process. What shall we do to guard against this?

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  1. Andy Letcher, Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom (2007), 97-98.

  2. See Chris Bennett, Cannabis and the Soma Solution (2010); Brian Muraresku, The Immortality Key (2020); Giorgio Samorini, “The oldest archeological data evidencing the relationship of Homo sapiens with psychoactive plants: A worldwide overview,” in Journal of Psychedelic Studies s 3(2), pp. 63–80 (2019).

  3. Joan Halifax, Shamanic Voices: A Survey of Visionary Narratives (New York: Penguin Press, 1991), 133.

  4. Letcher (2007), 89.

  5. Ibid., 108; see also Munn (1981), 98.

  6. Munn (1981), 114.

  7. Ibid., 126.

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