A Brief History of Salvia Divinorum
Salvia divinorum is a member of the mint family, or Lamiaceae, and is native to the mountain regions of Oaxaca, Mexico. It has been used for centuries by the Mazatec Indians of the region, in a manner similar to psilocybin mushrooms and lysergic acid-containing morning glory seeds, as a ritual entheogen and divinatory aid.(Whitcomb, 1998) The diterpene salvinorin A is the chemical responsible for the visionary effects produced by this species. (Whitcomb, 1998) There are approximately 1,000 known species in the salvia family; however, the only species known to produce visions is salvia divinorum. (Siebert, 2010)
The first, and earliest account in history of Salvia Divinorum was by Jean Bassett Johnson in 1938. Johnson confirmed rumors that the Mazatec Indians had been brewing a tea from the crushed leaves of salvia, called “Hierba Maria” then drinking the brew to induce hallucinations for use in divination and healing rituals. (Rovinsky, S.A., & Cizadlo, G.R., 1998) In the summer of 1938 Johnson visited the Mazatec town of Huautla de Jiminéz, Oaxaca, with a group of young anthropologists and went on to write articles based on his findings while studying the culture in in the region. His first article covered the various aspects of Mazatec culture and language. In the section relating to curing and witchcraft he discussed the magic mushrooms:
“Shamans, as well as other persons, use certain narcotic plants in order to find lost objects. In some cases teonanacatl is used, while in others a seed called “semilla de la Virgen” is used. “Hierba María” is similarly used. The Zapotecs use a plant called “bador”, the little children, and the Aztecs used narcotic plants in a similar manner.” (Johnson 1939a). Excerpts from his second article go on to detail a more in-depth analysis of the Mazatec’s divination activities.
The following is an excerpt from the article written based on interviews with different shaman.
“To find a lost animal or object, one takes some mushrooms at night. One commences to speak (after falling asleep). It is not permitted to keep an animal around which might cry out and disturb the sleeper, who goes on speaking while another person listens. The sleeper tells where the lost animal or thing is, and the next day, there it is when they go to find it. In addition to the mushrooms, some people use a seed called “Semilla de la Virgen”, others use “Hierba Maria”… The use of various magical plants to find lost objects is not restricted to the Mazatec alone; the Zapotec use a plant called “bador, the little children,” which is administered the same way as yerba Maria by the Mazatec. The leaf is beaten well, and a tea is made thereof. It is probable that the Chinantec use it, since it well known to those who live in the vicinity of Ojitlan. The Aztecs used narcotic plants in a similar way.” (Johnson 1939b)
It was in 1952 when Johnson’s father-in-law, Roberto G. Weitlaner, reported on the preparation of “Yerba de Maria”. Weitlaner was trained and worked as an engineer, but later switched majors to anthropology after he immigrated to Mexico. (Pompa & Pompa, 1966) He led numerous expeditions throughout Mexico and was an expert on the peoples of Oaxaca. Salvia divinorum is aptly named “Yerba de María”, or “Hierba María” due to the visions of The Virgin Mary which are reportedly shared by users during their hallucinogenic trips.1 Some users have concluded this woman is the ruler of the other dimension, which you seem to visit while hallucinating under salvia.10
The first herbarium specimens collected were by Arturo Gomez-Pompa, an ethnobotanist from Mexico. It was while researching mushroom use amongst the Mazatecs that he learned of another plant which possessed similar hallucinogenic properties.3 He concluded the plant belonged to the Salvia family even though he was unable to identify it past the genus level because it had yet to flower. Without flowers, it is nearly impossible to identify a species. 3
In 1962, Gordon Wasson and Albert Hoffman obtained the first known flowering specimens of salvia divinorum. Wasson was the famous botanist who first reported on psilocybin mushrooms and deemed salvia divinorum a “less desirable alternative to hallucinogenic mushrooms. While studying the botany of narcotic plants in southern Mexico, Mr. R. Gordon Wasson became interested in a member of the Labiatae class of plants, which the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca used as a psychotropic drug. He joined forces with Carl Epling and Carlos D. Jativa-M to write “A New Species of Salvia from Mexico” which was published to The Harvard Library’s collection Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. https://books.google.com/books?id=iGkdMgAACAAJ
It was also in 1962 that Sterling Bunnell, a psychiatrist from San Francisco Bay who researched hallucinogens, travelled to the Mazatec region to harvest mushrooms. While there he discovered salvia divinorum and returned home to California with live specimens. He then shared those cuttings with a colleague Alexander Shulgin, a Dow Chemical employee, and with Carl Epling at UCLA. (Strassman, R. MD, Rush, John PhD, et. Al. 2009) pp132-133)
During the peak of hallucinogenic use among Westerners in the 60’s, salvia divinorum was vaguely known and mainly used only by the Mazatec during periods when mushrooms were not in season. The effects were noted as very mild and subtle, as the effects would diminish very easily. During the 1970’s a few mail order nurseries began to sell salvia divinorum to the public, at extremely expensive prices and very low quality. It was only during the 1990s when users began to master the art of use. (Strassman, R. MD, Rush, John PhD, et. Al. 2009, pg 133)
In August 2002 American researchers discovered salvia divinorum acts at the kappa opiate receptors, or KOR site. KOR is proposed to be the area in the brain where human perception takes place. This discovery placed Salvia divinorum in a class of drugs known as KOR agonists. This classification of drugs has been declared to possess psychotherapeutic benefits in cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Schizophrenia. (Boire, R.G., Russo, E., Fish, A.R., Bowman, J., 2001)
3) Gómez Pompa, A. 1957. Salvia divinorum herbarium sheets, A. Gómez Pompa 87556 and 93216 National Herbarium (UNAM), México, D.F.
4) Gómez Pompa, A. 2001. Personal communication 5/13/2001.
5) Johnson, J.B. 1939a. Some notes on the Mazatec, Revista Mexicana de Estudios Antropológicos,3:142-156.
6) Johnson, J.B. (1939b) The elements of Mazatec witchcraft, Etnologiska Studier 9:128-150.
7) Pompay Pompa, A. (1966) Summa Antropológica en homenaje a Roberto Weitlaner, INAH, México, D.F. Many of the articles deal directly with his life and his numerous expeditions.
8) Boire, R.G., Russo, E., Fish, A.R., Bowman, J., 2001; Roth, B.L., Baner, K., Westkaemper, R., Siebert, D., Rice, K.C., Steinberg, S., Ernsberger P., Rothman, R.B., 2002, Salvadorian A: A potent naturally occurring nonnitrogenous kappa opioid selective agonist. Proc Natl Acad Sci.: 99(18): 11934-11939.