Naturally occurring mind-altering drugs have been an integral part of numerous religious and shamanic practices since before the faiths that they helped define had names.
There are any number of arcane means and methods by which people seek to achieve a complete and authentic entheogenesis - a chemically-catalysed rebirth into their perfect psychic selves - including immersion in Hephaestus’ Quench and use of the Siege Absolute, but the ritual preparation and ingestion of the sap of certain South American subspecies of the Ceiba tree (Ya’axché in the original Mayan dialects) was once one of the more common. With other subspecies, namely Ceiba insignis and Ceiba speciosa, sometimes used in the preparation of ayahuasca, the tree has a long history of use as a psychoactive sacrament as well as a place in some Meso-American cultures’ cosmologies. To this day there are adherents to these beliefs, to these rituals, the most devout of whom are known as Ya’axché Travellers. They say that their experience allows them to navigate parallel dimensions, to see visions of their other lives in other worlds, other paths that they might have taken.
The details of how the Ya’axché sap is prepared and how to prepare oneself for taking it are carefully protected secrets weaved into and passed on in an oral tradition, a sequence of stories and songs that also contain enough misinformation to prevent the uninitiated from making their own versions of this potent brew. It might seem odd given this extreme caution but outside of these details, the recipe and method for preparing the sacrament and the training of its adherents, the Ya’axché Travellers are extremely open and about their faith and the unstructured, non-hierarchical manner of its broader praxis. There is, for example, no particular pomp and circumstance around the consumption of the prepared Ya’axché sap: it is taken openly and privately, collectively and singly, and sits somewhere close to prayer in its function as a conduit to divinity and a request for guidance or for the strength to weather adversity.
Imbibed, the sacrament puts the mind into a trance-like state and the body into rigor, muscles tightening and locking the Ya’axché Traveller into whatever pose or position they have assumed as the effects take hold. This can be frightening to even an informed observer, the appearance of some terrible sickness magnified by the accompanying sharp, staccato breaths and sudden slickness of cold sweating on the chill skin of the Traveller. From the outside this condition may appear to last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, but the subjective experience can seem to last tens of thousands of years - if not hundreds - for the Ya’axché Traveller themselves. It is described as being cast into an endless, electric rainbow multiverse, traversing countless worlds in a cascade of images that ebb and fade at the whims of indescribable flows and currents. Only other instances, incarnations, instantiations of a Travellers’ soul act as fixed points, temporary anchors to lives that can be relived, replayed in real time.
Touching these anchors, living out these other lives and drawing on their experiences to graft unique psychic strengths onto a Traveller’s own is the ultimate expression of the Ya’axché Travellers’ purpose. They claim that every life lived on every dive into the multiverse adds to a Traveller’s wisdom, their resolve and resilience. The elements of other essences are copied, they stress, not taken, and the Ya’axché Travellers emphasise that this ephemeral trade is not one-sided: they share what they have gained, transplanting aspects of their self, their selves, into the other lives they inhabit in order to share their strengths and improve their nature across all the possible worlds they inhabit. Though these benefits may seem unreservedly positive, there are dangers associated with the practice, including the psychic shock of re-entry: Much of the grandiosity of the experience is forcibly pared away, winnowed down to a less vivid and bearable level, which leaves the Traveller with an acute, albeit usually short-lived, sickness from the overload of experience.
If this defence and uniformity of the experience sounds too pat, too rehearsed, there may be an answer in the chemistry of the key ingredient of the preparation. It has been theorised that the source and nature of an entheogen affects its ritual purpose and quality: Where the Ya’axché, like peyote, is brought to life by the sun and the light and opens the consciousness to other worlds, things that are associated with darkness, death and decay, like the psychotropic mushrooms favoured in some European mystical traditions, open paths to the afterlife and the underworld. The sickness, and the danger of it being permanently damaging to those who aren’t properly educated and carefully trained, is one of the main reasons that the Ya’axché Travellers try to dissuade outsiders and neophytes from using the sacrament should they manage to acquire a sample.
There is also a more immediate and prevalent danger, a bleak counterbalance to the more mystical and sacred aspirations behind this tradition. Unprepared or improperly prepared, the sweet sap of the Ya’axché can be an addictive poison, and much of the misinformation in the Ya’axché Travellers’ songs and stories is intended to render any incorrect preparation both harmless and inert. Despite these precautions there are still those who risk either their own lives, or the lives of others, by trying to recreate the Ya’axché sacrament. In such instances those who are killed quickly can be thought of as fortunate; those who survive are granted weak visions of their personal paradises, fleeting glimpses which they are compelled to chase with repeated doses of imperfect preparations. As this obsession becomes all-consuming they become what the Ya’axché Travellers call “sap wraiths”. intellects fade to a vicious and mute insensibility, their bodies transforming and becoming skeletally gaunt under loose and waxy skin as they become mindless sap wraiths, driven to seek out and gnaw helplessly on any variant of the Ceiba tree that they can find.
Despite their strength, born of a detached disregard for their own pain, the sap wraiths’ threat is limited by their single-minded and self-destructive obsession: They all die of thirst, starvation or exposure in a matter of weeks. The existence of these sap wraiths has been made more widely known by parasitic companies whose attempts to co-opt and appropriate the ritual use of the sacrament have led to brief outbreaks of the sickness. The beliefs and practice of the Ya’axché Travellers have come under fire in the wake of such incidents; made misunderstood or deliberately misrepresented by the proselytising envoys, colonisers and missionaries of competing ideologies who service commercial interest who would seek to control any potential or presumed source of power. Unable to criminalise the Ya’axché Travellers outright, various authorities have begun programs to locate and remove the Ya’axché trees. While they claim to be destroying them in the interests of public safety there have been credible reports that the trees are being sold to the highest private bidders for further exploitation.