The Devil's Book of Culture: History, Mushrooms, and Caves in Southern Mexico

The Devil's Book of Culture: History, Mushrooms, and Caves in Southern Mexico

The Devil's Book of Culture: History, Mushrooms, and Caves in Southern Mexico

The Devil's Book of Culture: History, Mushrooms, and Caves in Southern Mexico

Synopsis

Since the 1950s, the Sierra Mazateca of Oaxaca, Mexico, has drawn a strange assortment of visitors and pilgrims--schoolteachers and government workers, North American and European spelunkers exploring the region' vast cave system, and counterculturalists from hippies (John Lennon and other celebrities supposedly among them) to New Age seekers, all chasing a firsthand experience of transcendence and otherness through the ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms "in context" with a Mazatec shaman. Over time, this steady incursion of the outside world has significantly influenced the Mazatec sense of identity, giving rise to an ongoing discourse about what it means to be "us" and "them."In this highly original ethnography, Benjamin Feinberg investigates how different understandings of Mazatec identity and culture emerge through talk that circulates within and among various groups, including Mazatec-speaking businessmen, curers, peasants, intellectuals, anthropologists, bureaucrats, cavers, and mushroom-seeking tourists. Specifically, he traces how these groups express their sense of culture and identity through narratives about three nearby yet strange discursive "worlds"--the "magic world" of psychedelic mushrooms and shamanic practices, the underground world of caves and its associated folklore of supernatural beings and magical wealth, and the world of the past or the past/present relationship. Feinberg' research refutes the notion of a static Mazatec identity now changed by contact with the outside world, showing instead that identity forms at the intersection of multiple transnational discourses.

Excerpt

The Sierra Mazateca came to international attention in the 1960s as North American youth came to the region to experience the magical primitive in the form of hallucinogenic mushrooms, at the same time that anthropology classes were being horrified by the violent primitive nature of Venezuelan Indians and a few years before television audiences would thrill to harmonious primitive nature in the form of the “Stone Age” Tasaday in the Philippines. the Sierra became the sort of place where something valuable could be discovered—something secret that the rest of the world had lost, something that required a quest into a dense geographical and psychedelic space. the mushroom seekers and others who came to the Sierra did not notice, but the inhabitants of the strange world they encountered were already participating in discourses that used terms like “primitive” and “modern”—and these worldly natives incorporated the input of their new visitors to refashion their sense of identity, to continuously adapt their own varied concepts of culture and secrecy, which sometimes mirrored those of their visitors.

Late one gray evening in early 1994 in Huautla de Jiménez, a mysterious stranger offered me a key to Mazatec culture and history in the form of what he called a “book”—really a sheaf of papers. What does it mean that “culture” in the present, or “history” as a component of that culture, becomes objectified as a material item that can be transferred between individuals? and what does it mean that the materialized culture does not take just any old shape but assumes the form of a book? and why is this book not openly read and distributed, but transferred in the dark, under the signs of secrecy, betrayal, an evil stranger, and sexual indiscretion? My interpretation of this incident expanded in complexity when Mazatec friends confirmed to me that the mysterious stranger was much like El Chato, a supernatural figure who provides wealth in exchange for male fertility and who is sometimes glossed as “the Devil.”

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