I don’t remember when my fascination with the color blue began, but it has always held a magical quality for me. Maybe it was when I heard that our fiber artist neighbor, who taught me how to spin wool when I was nine, was dyeing cloth with indigo, and part of the process included using urine. Or maybe it was tied to a trio of films that I found intriguing during my formative years. Blue Velvet, Betty Blue, and Blue. My bikes were always blue, and my first car, that I still have, is a baby blue Mustang. It’s not conscious, and I would never say my favorite color is blue, but it just keeps turning up.
Whatever the reason, I’ve had a continuous interest in colors and pigments over my lifetime, particularly blue. So when I was reading a book about the Virgin of Guadalupe, and discovered that the famous American image was largely made from unknown pigments, including the traditional blue color of her mantle, I was mesmerized, to say the least. The image is considered to have been divinely made, so many have decided that is the reason we don’t understand the makeup of the colors.
Moreover, there is a mysterious blue pigment in Aztec (and also Mayan) art called Maya Blue, which historians suspect is the source of the recipe for Guadalupe’s blue. It too, is ultimately of unknown origin, although many efforts have been made to prove that it is made from indigo.
To top it off, my further inquiries also identified Romanian churches covered in old paintings made using many colors that included an unidentified blue pigment.
Soon after I learned about the mystery blues, I attended a mushroom dye class with MycoPigments founder Alissa Allen. It made me wonder if maybe mushrooms were an ingredient in the mysterious colors that were used to create the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, maybe even the Romanian blue, and also perhaps the blue in Mayan and Aztec art, (especially since the Aztecs painted their sacrifices to their Rain God blue, and fed them blue psychedelic mushrooms.)
I wondered if and how the spiritual/religious aspects of blue and the unknown pigment recipe could be connected, since it seemed like they were, in every case.
A Lost History
Oddly, there appears to be no known evidence of mushroom dyes or pigments in history. This seems impossible, since fungal dyes are more easily achieved than plant dyes. It is feasible that we have interpreted some of the clues to fungal dyes and pigments from a perspective of not knowing about them in the first place, and assuming the information to refer to plant dyes, which are already known. Also, if Maya Blue and other historic pigments were made by women, it may be that the secrets remained intact, as women and women’s rituals and duties were rarely studied or observed by the male anthropologists who typically documented indigenous processes. Additionally, in the case of the Aztecs, the Spanish vilified sacramental mushrooms in Mexico and mushroom references went underground at that time, perhaps taking any mushroom dye information with them.
Contemporary native people also give a possible clue: “In 1958, through his Indian contacts, Dr. [Gaston] Guzman learned of the Aztec word teotlaquilnanacatl. This word is used by the Indians of the Sierra de Puebla region to describe the sacred mushrooms; translated it means ‘the mushrooms that paint’”. (Smith, David www.stainblue.com/)
People have assumed this means they paint visions—but what if there is a multi-layered meaning, also literally meaning what it says; that they paint? Could those mushrooms (or even a companion mushroom) be part of the elusive recipe for some of these unidentified pigments? I wonder if it’s possible that the psilocybin mushrooms used in Aztec rituals were also made into blue paint—especially since Maya Blue paint itself was used in many of the same rituals.
I still can’t explain why the color blue fascinates me, but I’m continuously interested in the histories and possibilities and reasons behind the ancient dyes and dye processes, particularly blue. We may never know what the unknown blue pigments are made from, but it’s intriguing to wonder.