Revelation 2012

What if the apocalypse already happened?

De Borhegyi died instantly. He was 47.

"He had accomplished so much, but so much of his work was also left undone," Carl says. "It doesn't surprise me that the people at the museum say he haunts it. I feel his presence too. He's always over my shoulder. I feel him guiding me."

FROM THE MOMENT Carl saw the event listing, he couldn't get it out of his head: a meeting of the Maya Society at Hamline College, everyone welcome.

Amanita muscaria, a psychotropic mushroom used by the ancient Maya
Thinkstock
Amanita muscaria, a psychotropic mushroom used by the ancient Maya
A collection of the Mayan mushroom stones that fascinated Stephan de Borhegyi. Now, 30 years after his death, his son Carl has taken up his hunt for the secret meaning of the mushroom ritual.
courtesy of Carl deBorhegyi
A collection of the Mayan mushroom stones that fascinated Stephan de Borhegyi. Now, 30 years after his death, his son Carl has taken up his hunt for the secret meaning of the mushroom ritual.

It had been more than 30 years since the death of his father, but Carl felt his spirit urging him forward. He called the number listed, and spoke to Phyllis Messenger, the head of the Maya Society.

"I'm interested!" Carl said.

"De Borhegyi," Phyllis said out loud, turning the caller's name over in her mouth. "Are you by any chance related to the great Mayan archaeologist Stephan de Borhegyi?"

"Yes," Carl said. "He was my father."

Suddenly, Carl couldn't stop talking. He confided in Phyllis things he had told hardly anyone—all about his father's death, how it had left a wound that had never fully healed, how after living his whole adult life away from the world of archeology, he wondered if his father wanted him to take up his work with the Maya.

Phyllis told Carl she understood. Her husband had also long been troubled by the death of someone close to him. A Maya scholar himself, Skip Messenger had been standing next to his friend and mentor Denis Puleston atop a Mayan pyramid in Chichen Itza when Puleston was struck by lightning.

"Skip tried to give him CPR, but it was no use," Phyllis told Carl, and paused. "Come to the next Maya Society meeting. I think you might find it's therapeutic."

She was right. From his first visit to the lecture hall in the Drew Science Building, de Borhegyi felt at home. The group brought some of the foremost experts on Mayan civilization to speak, and with every presentation, Carl found himself more fascinated.

He forged an especially close bond with Skip, a kind-eyed man with a Santa Claus beard who remembered meeting Carl's father. Skip invited Carl to take his class the next semester—an introduction to the Maya for Hamline undergraduates.

Carl accepted, and thrived in the program.

"He was so enthusiastic, so excited," Skip says.

After class, Carl whiled away evenings studying his father's papers. He came across repeated mentions of the mushroom mystery, and felt certain that his father must have been right: Psychoactive mushrooms played a central role in Mayan religion.

But just like his father, Carl couldn't find the evidence to prove it.

Until one night he did.

Carl was sitting alone at the dining room table, exploring an online archive of newly scanned images from Mayan funerary vases. He clicked open the first photo in the collection and his jaw dropped.

Two priestly figures stood in a procession. Emblazoned on their robes were psychedelic mushrooms.

"I started shaking," de Borhegyi remembers. "I couldn't believe it. I had found my Rosetta stone."

He rushed upstairs, where his wife, Barbara, had fallen asleep with their young son Cole.

"Wake up!" he said. "I found it! I found the mushrooms!"

Groggy, Barbara didn't immediately register the significance of her husband's words. But Cole did.

"Jeez, Mom," Cole said. "Dad just cracked the Maya code and you're not excited?"

A FEW MONTHS LATER, Carl stood anxiously fiddling with his pointer in the familiar Hamline lecture room as the Maya Society members trickled in.

Turnout looked to be good that night—nearly 100 people, an auspicious crowd for the public unveiling of his discovery.

After years with the Maya Society, Carl now sat on its board, and had a hand in selecting the experts invited to speak. He had invited his mother, Suzanne Forrest, who shared so many of his father's adventures, to talk. But at the last minute, she had injured herself on a trip.

It was the perfect moment to unveil his mushroom findings.

As the lights went down, Carl began his PowerPoint presentation, starting with a slide of the vase that triggered his epiphany.

In the months since his first discovery, he had found hundreds and hundreds of mushroom images in the vase archive. Some were obvious, others hidden in a headdress or as decorative border elements. But once you knew what to look for, the mushrooms were everywhere.

"The discovery of the mushrooms unlocks a whole new level of understanding of the Maya," Carl said. "They used these mushrooms as a sacrament to travel to the underworld, just as the god Quetzalcoatl does every day when the sun sets. That's what the jaguar imagery you see everywhere in Mayan art represents: the transformation into a being of the underworld. That's how they could throw themselves into this death cult, this ritual sacrifice and suicide and bloodletting—they were high on mushrooms."

But to Carl's dismay, not everyone in the audience was persuaded by his revolutionary discovery. Skip, his friend and mentor, thought Carl had overreached.

"He just went a little overboard," Skip says. "He was flipping through images, using the pointer, just saying, 'Mushroom, mushroom, mushroom.' There were certainly some images that I was ready to admit were mushrooms, but a lot of them were just a stretch."

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