Mazatec shamans have a long and continuous tradition of religious use of Salvia divinorum, using it to facilitate visionary states of consciousness during spiritual healing sessions. Most of the plant’s local common names allude to the Mazatec belief that the plant is an incarnation of the Virgin Mary, with its ritual use also invoking that relationship. Its chief active psychoactive constituent is a structurally unique diterpenoid called salvinorin A, a potent κ-opioid and D2 receptor agonist. Salvia divinorum is generally understood to be of low toxicity (high LD50) and low addictive potential since it is a κ-opioid agonist and a great deal of research has indicated that κ-opioid agonist activation of the kappa opioid receptor as shown by salvia may, in-fact, serve as a potent addiction treatment therapy.
Salvia divinorum remains legal in most countries and, within the United States, is legal in the majority of states. However, some have called for its prohibition. While not currently regulated by US federal drug laws, several states have passed laws criminalizing the substance. Some proposed state bills have failed to progress and have not been made into law (with motions having been voted down or otherwise dying in committee stages). There have not been many publicized prosecutions of individuals violating anti-salvia laws in the few countries and states in which it has been made illegal.
Salvia divinorum is native to the Sierra Mazateca in Oaxaca, Mexico, where it is still used by the Mazatec, primarily to facilitate shamanic visions in the context of curing or divination. S. divinorum is one of several species with hallucinogenic properties that are ritually used by Mazatec shamans. Others include certain morning glory seeds (Turbina corymbosa), psilocybin mushrooms, and various coleus species. In their rituals, the shamans use only fresh S. divinorum leaves. They see the plant as an incarnation of the Virgin Mary, and begin the ritual with an invocation to Mary, Saint Peter, the Holy Trinity, and other saints. Ritual use traditionally involves being in a quiet place after ingestion of the leaf—the Maztec shamans say that “La Maria (S. divinorum) speaks with a quiet voice.”
It is also used remedially at lower dosages as a diuretic, and to treat ailments including diarrhea, anemia, headaches, rheumatism, and a semi-magical disease known as panzón de borrego, or a swollen belly (literally, “lamb belly”).
The history of the plant is not well known, and there has been no definitive answer to the question of its origin. Speculation includes Salvia divinorum being a wild plant native to the area; a cultigen of the Mazatecs; or a cultigen introduced by another indigenous group. Botanists have also not been able to determine whether it is a hybrid or a cultigen.
Salvia divinorum was first recorded in print by Jean Basset Johnson in 1939 while he was studying Mazatec shamanism. He later documented its usage and reported its effects through personal testimonials. It was not until the 1990s that the psychoactive mechanism was identified by a team led by Daniel Siebert.
Gordon Wasson tentatively postulated that the plant could be the mythological pipiltzintzintli, the “Noble Prince” of the Aztec codices. Wasson’s speculation has been the subject of further debate amongst ethnobotanists, with some scepticism coming from Leander J. Valdés, and counterpoints more supportive of Wasson’s theory from Jonathan Ott.
The identity of another mysterious Aztec entheogen, namely that of poyomatli, has also been suggested as being Salvia divinorum. Here too there are other candidate plants, notably Cacahuaxochitl (Quararibea funebris), again suggesting that there is no consensus.
The genus name, Salvia, was first used by Pliny for a plant that was likely Salvia officinalis (common sage) and is derived from the Latin salvere. The specific epithet, divinorum, was given because of the plant’s traditional use in divination and healing. it is often loosely translated as “diviner’s sage” or “seer’s sage”. Albert Hofmann, who collected the first plants with Wasson, objected to the new plant being given the name divinorum:
I was not very happy with the name because Salvia divinorum means “Salvia of the ghosts”, whereas Salvia divinatorum, the correct name, means “Salvia of the priests”, But it is now in the botanical literature under the name Salvia divinorum.
There are many common names for S. divinorum, most of them relating to the plant’s association with the Virgin Mary. The Mazatec believe the plant to be an incarnation of the Virgin Mary, so they take great care in handling the plant. The name “Ska Maria Pastora”, often shortened to “Ska Maria” or “Ska Pastora”, refers to “the leaf or herb of Mary, the Shepherdess.” Other Spanish names include “hojas de Maria”, “hojas de la Pastora”, “hierba (yerba) Maria”, and “la Maria”. A plant believed to be S. divinorum was referred to as “hoja de adivinacion” (leaf of prophecy) by the Cuicatec and Mazatec. S. divinorum is also known as la hembra (“the female”), when it is included by the Mazatec as part of a family of similar religious hallucinogens. The others it is connected with are Coleus pumila, called el macho (“the male”) and two forms of Coleus blumei which are called el nene (“the child”) and el ahijado (“the godson”).
Some researchers see the lack of an indigenous Mazatec name as demonstrating a non-Mazatec origin for the plant. Others point out that the Virgin Mary is not normally viewed as a shepherdess in Christianity, and that image may hint at a pre-Hispanic Mazatec cultural reference to the plant.
Salvia divinorum has become both increasingly well-known and available in modern culture. The Internet has allowed for the growth of many businesses selling live salvia plants, dried leaves, extracts, and other preparations.
Medical experts, as well as accident and emergency rooms, have not been reporting cases that suggest particular salvia-related health concerns, and police have not been reporting it as a significant issue with regard to public order offences; in any case, Salvia divinorum has attracted negative attention from the media and some lawmakers.
Media stories generally raise alarms over Salvia divinorum’s legal status and are sometimes headlined with generally ill-supported comparisons to LSD or other psychoactive substances. Parental concerns are raised by focusing on salvia’s usage by younger teens—the emergence of YouTube videos purporting to depict its use being an area of particular concern in this respect. The isolated and controversial suicide of Brett Chidester received much media attention.
Salvia divinorum was the subject of the first use of YouTube within drug-behavioral research when scientists at San Diego State University rated randomly selected videos of salvia users to study observed impairment. Their findings corroborate reports that the most profound effects of smoking salvia appear almost immediately and last about eight minutes. Effects include temporary speech and coordination loss.
Psychedelic experiences are necessarily somewhat subjective and variations in reported effects are to be expected. Aside from individual reported experiences there has been a limited amount of published work summarising the effects. D.M. Turner’s book Salvinorin—The Psychedelic Essence of Salvia Divinorum quotes Daniel Siebert’s summarisation, mentioning that the effects may include:
- Uncontrollable laughter
- Past memories, such as revisiting places from childhood memory
- Sensations of motion, or being pulled or twisted by forces
- Visions of membranes, films and various two-dimensional surfaces
- Merging with or becoming objects
- Overlapping realities, such as the perception of being in several locations at once
There also may be synesthetic experiences. Glossolalia (speaking in tongues) has been reported by Reason.
A survey of salvia users found that 38% described the effects as unique in comparison to other methods of altering consciousness. 23% said the effects were like yoga, meditation or trance.
One firsthand journalistic account has been published in the UK science magazine New Scientist (note: the dose for this experience was not reported):
The salvia took me on a consciousness-expanding journey unlike any other I have ever experienced. My body felt disconnected from ‘me’ and objects and people appeared cartoonish, surreal and marvellous. Then, as suddenly as it had began, it was over. The visions vanished and I was back in my bedroom. I spoke to my ‘sitter’—the friend who was watching over me, as recommended on the packaging—but my mouth was awkward and clumsy. When I attempted to stand my coordination was off. Within a couple of minutes, however, I was fine and clear-headed, though dripping with sweat. The whole experience had lasted less than 5 minutes.
There have been few books published on the subject. One notable example is Dale Pendell’s work “Pharmako/Poeia—Plants Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft”, which won the 1996 Firecracker Alternative Book Award and has a chapter dedicated to Salvia divinorum. It includes some experience accounts:
It’s very intense, I call it a reality stutter, or a reality strobing. I think that having been a test pilot, and flying in that unforgiving environment with only two feet between our wingtips, helped to prepare me for this kind of exploration.
Other users have written extensive prose and/or poetry about their experiences; some describe their visions pictorially, and there exist examples of visionary art which are ‘salvia-inspired’. Others claim musical inspiration from the plant: including “Salvia divinorum” by 1200 Micrograms, “Salvia” by Deepwater Sunshine, and “Flight 77” by Paul Dereas.