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Concerned mostly with indigenous use
Datura and Brugmansia species as Sacred Plants and Medicines
Once upon a time a long, long time ago, a boy called A'neglakya and his sister A'neglakyatsi-tsa lived deep within the Earth. As often as they could they came up to the surface to go on long walks, exploring the land, watching and listening carefully to all and everything they encountered on their journeys. Upon their return they told their mother about everything they had seen. However, one day the twin-sons of the Sun-god grew suspicious of them and they wondered what they should do about the inquisitive pair. Soon after, A'neglakya and his sister were once again on one of their walkabouts, when they came upon the sons of the Sun-god. Casually the twins inquired about their well-being: "We are very happy" was the reply, and A'neglakya told the twins how he and his sister could make people fall asleep and have visionary dreams or let them 'see' the whereabouts of lost objects. Upon hearing this the twins decided that the two definitely knew too much and that they should put an end to A'neglakya's and A'neglakyatsi-tsa's doings. That day the sons of the Sun-god let the brother and sister disappear into the Earth forever. But lo and behold, two beautiful flowers emerged from the ground in just the same spot where the two had vanished. They were the same flowers that the brother and sister had laid on the heads of the people to give them visions. In their memory the Gods called the flower A'neglakya and their children spread far across the Earth - bringing visions to many people.
This Zuni legend about the origin of Datura also provides an insight into the nature of it's essential character. A'neglakya and his sister could 'make people fall asleep and have visionary dreams'. Since time immemorial various Datura species have been revered as sacred visionary plants by practically all cultures who have come into contact with it. There are many different species in this genus (e.g. D. ceratocaula, D. ferox, D. innoxia, D. metel, D. quercifolia, D. stramonium, D. tatula, D.wrightii, D. discolor, D. alba, D. fastuosa, and this article also includes references to the closely related Brugmansia species). Their distribution spans all warm and tropical regions of the world. Daturas usually grow as herbaceous annuals whilst the Brugmansias even grow into small trees. The most striking feature, shared by all species are the beautiful trumpet-like flowers, ranging in color from white to pinkish purple, and in some varieties even to bright golden yellow and red. The flowers exude a beautiful, narcotic scent, especially at night. The seed capsules of the Datura species are typically the size of a walnut and are covered with thorns that may become quite sharp and spiky as the plant matures. The appearance of these seed-capsules has given rise to the English common name, 'Thornapple' and the German 'Stechapfel'. When the 'apple' is ripe the capsule opens up into four segments, thus releasing its little black to pale-brown seeds. The Brugmansia fruits are more succulent and usually have a smooth surface. The seeds are similar colours, sharply angular and generally larger than those of Datura (approx. 0.75 cm).
Because of the far-reaching distribution of Datura species across the planet there is some dispute concerning their origin. The greatest variety of species occurs in Mexico and Central America which has led some Botanists to believe that the explorers of the New World had been responsible for bringing Daturas back to Europe, along with other members of the nightshade family. Other sources suggest that their original home could be found somewhere in the vicinity of the Caspian Sea from where it spread south to Africa and east to Asia, eventually arriving in Europe, supposedly with the gypsies sometime during the Middle Ages.
It appears that Daturas have always played a significant role as 'culture plants' and evidence regarding their uses both in Asia and in the New World dates back at least 3000 years. In both hemispheres Daturas were regarded as sacred and especially valued for their power to induce visionary dreams, to see the future and to reveal the causes of disease and misfortune.
All over the New World, from the southwestern corner of North America, throughout Mexico as well as in Central and South America the historical and contemporary uses of the local Datura species (D. innoxia, D. stramonium, D. tatula, D. ferox D. ceratocaula and D. discolor) by the indigenous population is well documented. In the tropical regions the more common Brugmansias tend to take the place of Daturas, in both their sacred and medicinal roles. From historical accounts recorded by the Conquistadors we know that the Aztecs, who had a detailed knowledge about numerous sacred and medicinal plants, were familiar with several types of Datura species. One of these Daturas was called Toloache and is probably D. innoxia. It was used as a painkiller in certain initiation rituals and given as a narcotic to the ritual sacrifices. For this purpose the preferred method of administration was either by enema or as a rolled-up leaf suppository which reduces some of the less pleasant side effects of the drug. Another type of Datura (D. ceratocaula), called Atlinan by the Aztecs, enjoyed a particularly sacred status. It was regarded as the sister of Ololuiqui, another sacred hallucinogenic plant. These plants were so sacred that only the priests were allowed to use them. With their help they held counsel with the Gods - divining the outcome of future events, discovering the whereabouts of lost or stolen objects and prognosticating the causes of diseases, especially if black magic was suspected. As a medicinal remedy they prepared an ointment for cracked soles and injured feet, made plasters for ulcers, pustules and infected wounds and skin sores, and used it for poultices to treat rheumatic aches and pains.
In many areas of South America various Brugmansia species are cultivated and used in much the same way as Datura species are elsewhere. To this day the ground seeds are mixed into the Chicha, the sacramental corn beer (Zea mays) found everywhere on that continent. The combination of Datura seeds and alcoholic drinks appears to be a global phenomena. It is a documented practice amongst all kinds of unrelated tribes throughout the Americas, was practiced in China (mixed with wine), and even became popular in Europe during the Middle Ages (mixed into beer). Whilst in the New World the beverage was generally used within a ritual context, in the Old World the brews were generally consumed for more recreational purposes.
In the Andes Datura (probably D. arborea = Brugmansia arborea) is known as Chamico. Here, as in other parts of South America it is taken as a tea or smoked to induce visions. Apart from its sacred significance it is also regarded as one of the most ancient healing herbs. It is thought that the ancient Peruvian healers and shamans employed "Datura's" narcotic and anesthetic properties when performing ritual or medical operations (e.g. skull trepanations).
The Auruks who are at home in present day Chile still use Datura in much the same way as their ancestors did. It not only plays a significant role as a shamanic plant but is also widely used as medicine. They even give a brew of the leaves (D. ferox) to unruly children - trusting in the powerful plant-spirit to teach the children a good measure of respect. The Jivaros prepare a drink with roasted maize and the juice of Brugmansia sanguinea fruits for the same purpose.
The Shamans and Brujos of the New World know how to use the plant for astral travel. In this context Datura not only provides a visionary journey but also facilitates the shape-shifting process. Transformations into birds seem to be especially closely associated with the shamanic use of Datura.
In the Amazon various species of Brugmansia are used either alone or as an additive to Ayahuasca, the most important sacred visionary brew of that area. Ayahuasca preparations are commonly used for initiation rites, healing ceremonies and shamanic journeying. The Jivaros use Brugmansia in initiation rituals to obtain 'an outer soul', a soul that is able to communicate with the ancestor spirits. Medicinally Brugmansias are mainly employed as an external application for rheumatic and arthritic aches, pains and swellings, skin rashes and wounds. Among some tribes of the Sibundoy region Brugmansia is mixed in with the dog-food as part of an ancient hunting magic ritual. It is believed that in this way the dogs too will partake in the visionary powers of the plant which will help them to 'see' the prey more easily.
Carlos Castaneda learned about Datura from his mentor Don Juan. The wise old brujo was never too fond of the 'devil's weed', claiming its power was like that of a woman. "She is as powerful as the best of allies, but there is something I personally don't like about her." he tells his pupil, "She distorts men. She gives them a taste of power too soon without fortifying their hearts and makes them domineering and unpredictable. She makes them weak in the middle of their great power."
Nevertheless he instructed Castaneda in the preparation and uses of all parts of the plant, roots, leaves, flowers and seeds. According to Don Juan each part has a different power which must be conquered in its own special way. He taught Castaneda the secrets of 'lizard divination' in which the use of Datura plays a central role. In this method two lizards are caught and specially prepared for the ritual. Whilst under the influence of the Datura preparation the diviner asks the lizards to help find the answer to his question. One of the reptiles is sent away to search for clues, whilst the other remains sitting on the shoulder of the diviner, whispering in his ear all that the wandering lizard is seeing and experiencing.
Don Juan also taught his pupil how to approach the plant properly and how to ask permission from the plant-spirit before digging it up. He was very particular about these details and told Castaneda never to use an iron tool when digging up Datura. Only by using a branch of a special tree-friend of the plant could one be sure that the plant would not be unduly hurt and thus would be more likely to act beneficially and friendly in the subsequent encounter. This taboo regarding the use of iron tools when digging up a particular plant is encountered frequently in association with magical and medicinal plants (e.g. mandrake, ginseng and many others) It points to the extremely ancient use of that plant - dating back to times before the first iron was ever cast.
The native people of the southwestern regions of North America also hold Datura sacred. Here it is mostly D. innoxia and D. innoxia ssp innoxia (syn: D. meteloides) that are used for magical and medicinal purposes. In Zuni tradition it belongs to the rain-priests who use the root (D. innoxia) when they appeal to their ancestor-spirits for rain. Sometimes they also sprinkle a little powdered root into their eyes in order to communicate with 'the feathered ones' at night.
The Chumash people of California regarded Datura (D. metel) as their 'Culture Plant'. According to their Cosmology the world was originally inhabited by 'the First People', supernatural beings who were regarded as the tribal ancestors. The world of the First People was destroyed by a primal flood which transformed these ancestors into all the birds, animals and plants of today. Among the First People was an old Grandmother known as 'Momoy', who had the gift of clairvoyance. When the flood came she was transformed into the Datura plant. The descendants of the First People (i.e. the Chumash) can share in her gift of clairvoyance by partaking of her sacrament. According to the myth, Momoy washes her hands in water and the Initiate drinks the resulting liquid. Thereupon he falls into a deep sleep in which he meets his animal-spirit helper, communicates with his ancestors or has visionary dreams about his future.
Datura (D. metel ) plays an essential role in the Initiation ritual of the Chumash. Upon reaching puberty all young boys and girls are given a cold water extract of Datura root which sends them on a visionary journey with a deep hallucinatory sleep to follow. Boys are usually initiated individually whilst girls, due to their gentler temperament, may sometimes be initiated in groups. The purpose of the ritual is to establish contact with an animal helper or other type of protector through their visions. The bond thus formed remains strong for the rest of their lives and is regarded as indispensable for the success of all their worldly and other-worldly undertakings. The initiation ritual takes place under the guidance and supervision of five experienced shamans. When the initiate awakens from his sleep he is in a very suggestible frame of mind. During this period the shamans interpret his visions and sing to him, thereby conferring tribal morals, ethics and values.
After the initial initiation ceremony individuals can choose to visit Momoy any time they deem necessary, for instance to get in touch with the spirit of a relative who has passed away, to find lost objects or to reveal the cause and cure of a disease. Shamans undertake repeated journeys to Momoy in order to acquire more spirit helpers and subsequently to gain more power. Certain ritual preparations, such as fasting and sexual abstinence for several days usually precede the encounter, though in emergency situations many of the restrictions may be disregarded. The only taboo concerning the use of Datura is imposed on consumptives and menstruating women.
The Chumash also use Datura medicinally as an anesthetic for setting bones, to treat bad bruises and wounds, to 'freshen the blood' and to treat hemorrhoids. Among some groups Datura was used to induce a quasi comatose state in cases of severe trauma. The anesthetic and narcotic properties of the plant would numb the pain receptors thereby reducing stress and tension in the patient, which in turn speeds up the healing process.
The use of Datura as a magical plant was and probably still is also common in the Caribbean. There it is known as 'herbe aux sorciers' (herb of the sorcerers) and 'concombre-zombi' (Zombie-Cucumber). This name refers to a rather sinister use of the plant - literally zombification. Delinquents in particular became the victims of this practice. Criminals who did not seem to improve their records upon other means of punishment sometimes were turned into Zombies. A strong herbal brew containing, among other plants, Datura combined with the extremely potent extract of the puffer-fish poison (d-tubucucurine) was given to the criminal. The effect of the brew was to stupefy the convict to the point of pseudo-coma and to numb his physical sensations. In this state a person is unable to respond to any kind of stimulus, although they may well be consciously aware of them. The Zombie-to-be was declared dead and placed into a coffin with an attached air-tube and a funeral ceremony was conducted. After 3 days or so the coffin was retrieved from the ground and the Zombie was given another dose of Datura followed by an 'initiation into the after-life', in which he was brainwashed in accordance with the rules of the new order. From that day on he was given regular doses of the Datura concoction to maintain the hypnotic state. The spirit of the victim was thus literally forced to get out and stay out of the body and the Zombie lost all sense of self or ego-identity.
The Bokors and Exumas, the black healers and shamans of the Caribbean islands obviously also knew of less sinister uses of the plant. Like other shamans they used the plant to induce visionary trances, to divine the sources of disease and misfortune and to retrieve lost objects and employed it medicinally. The clairvoyant use of Datura (D. fastuosa) is also documented in Africa. Here it is a young 'untouched' boy who plays the role of the 'criminal-telepathist'. Under the influence of a Datura concoction he is taken to a place of crime whereupon he 'tunes into the scene'. He wanders around restlessly, tracing the steps and actions of the culprit he reconstructs the events, eventually following the thieves trail until he finds him and/or his catch.
In Eurasia references to the uses and sacred status of Datura (predominantly D. metel) can be found from the Caspian Sea to China. Especially in India it found a highly revered place of honor as one of Shiva's sacred plants. According to the vamana purana it grew out of Shiva's chest and the garuda purana gives instructions for ritual offerings of Datura flowers, which should be made to Yogashwara (=Shiva) on the 13th day of the waxing Moon in January.
Sadhus and Yogis smoke the leaves and seeds mixed with Ganja, another plant sacred to Shiva. The combination of the two plants alludes to the dual (androgynous) nature of the God. Datura represents the male polarity whilst Ganja symbolizes the feminine aspect. The chilum is lit with two sticks, further signifying the duality. As the God of Flames Shiva transforms the inherent powers of his sacred plants and invokes the cosmic sexual energy of the universe. The Kundalini snake, hitherto fast asleep in the nether regions of the base chakra is awakened and winds its way up through the chakras until the yogi's consciousness is filled with cosmic consciousness in which all opposites merge into oneness. In accordance with this symbolism Datura flowers in particular held a widespread reputation as a powerful aphrodisiac.
Elsewhere a somewhat less charming ritual practice was associated with Datura intoxication. The Thugs, or Thuggees, a particularly fanatical sect of Kali-worshippers also held Datura (D. fastuosa var. alba) sacred. According to their belief Kali, the dark Goddess of death and fertility demanded at least one male sacrifice per day. A Datura preparation known as Dhƒt, was used both to bestow a fearless frenzy in the worshipers as they attacked their victims (usually travellers), and to drug these prior to the sacrifice.
Man-t'o-lo is the Chinese name for Datura (D. alba) and a Taoist legend refers to the plant as the flower of one of the pole stars. According to the story messengers from this star could be recognized because they always carry a Datura flower. In China it was customary to mix Datura with Cannabis and wine. According to ancient tradition it is said that if the person gathering the plant was laughing at the time, all who would drink from it would also laugh but if the gatherer had been crying, all that were to taste the wine would also cry and if they had been dancing, all that were to partake in it would also feel like dancing. The Chinese valued Datura as an aphrodisiac and for other recreational uses as well as for its medicinal properties.
In Europe Datura was apparently not commonly known in the classic period. It appears to have been introduced by the gypsies, or maybe the wandering herb found its own way into the warmer regions of southern Europe. The gypsies certainly knew and used the plant for magical purposes, such as scrying and as an aphrodisiac. It is also reported to have been one of the essential ingredients of the infamous flying ointment of the witches. Numerous accounts of 'journeys to the Sabbath' during which the accused 'danced with the devil' were recorded by the executioners of the inquisition. These accounts were usually obtained through severe torture and it is difficult to separate actual experience (visionary or real for that matter) from things admitted to out of fear and terror. However, it now seems to be clear that the experiences of flying through the sky, dancing with the devil and partaking in orgiastic feasts and rituals were in fact references to hallucinatory journeys whilst under the influence of some pretty powerful alkaloids. The prosecution of course took every word as naked factual truth and the 'witches' were condemned to burning at the stake for their 'shameful sins'.
Nevertheless, despite its unpropitious reputation as a witches-herb it was valued and commonly employed for its medicinal properties even in Europe. Until recently Datura cigarettes were prescribed to asthma sufferers. Datura acts anti-spasmodically and has a particularly relaxant effect on the respiratory muscles. Furthermore it suppresses glandular secretion, thus reducing the amount of mucous excreted through the lungs - the combination of these valuable properties makes it an almost ideal remedy for the treatment of asthma.
Throughout the Middle Ages Datura flowers were commonly sold for their aphrodisiac qualities all over central and southern Europe. They had the reputation of breaking down any resistance to sexual approaches. Pimps in particular knew how to use the herb to their own best advantage. An indignant German writer aptly documents this common use of Datura, which he describes as: 'a tool of brothel-keepers, wicked seducers of girls, depraved courtesans and shameless lechers.'
Evidently Datura did not enjoy such a high degree of reverence and respect by the people of Europe as it received in Asia or the Americas. The difference of attitude among the Church-fathers on either side of the Atlantic, who in Europe had been largely responsible for sullying the reputation of Datura, is epitomized in the image of 'Santo Toloache', the patron Saint of Datura found in Mexico. In the New World the Catholic Church was forced to sanctify the old pre-christian deity. Santo Toloache helps those who wish for reciprocated love. The faithful worshipers who pray to him make offerings of Datura flowers and take a tea of Datura leaves as a special sacrament. Here too, the ancient use of Datura as a powerful aphrodisiac is clearly implied.
Datura preparations can have very powerful effects, depending not only on the type of species and dose used, but also very much dependent on the 'set and setting' of the person using it. The effect on unsuspecting or unprepared people is graphically and comically illustrated in the following account dated to 1676. Inadvertently a group of young soldiers had consumed rather large portions of soup containing Datura leaves as a 'spice':
In Virginia there is a plant called the Jamestown weed, whereof some having eaten plentifully became fools for several days; one would blow up a feather in the air, a second would dart straws at it with much fury, a third sit naked, like a monkey grinning at the rest; a fourth fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces. In this frantic state they were confined, lest they kill themselves, though there appeared nothing but innocence in all their actions. A thousand such simple tricks they played and after eleven days they returned to themselves, not remembering anything that had passed.
All species of Datura and Brugmansia contain powerful alkaloids which in sufficient quantities have the power to kill. The main alkaloids represented are Scopolamine, Hyoscyamine and Atropine. Self-experimentation is not recommended and must be strictly avoided by anyone who suffers any kind of heart condition. The effects are stimulating on the central nervous system and simultaneously depressing on the peripheral nerves. Symptoms include an increased heart rate, drying up of the mucus membranes, a dry throat and sometimes cramps. At first the effects are arousing, sometimes manifesting as uncontrolled talking or laughing, forgetfulness and indulging in senseless repetitive activities. Vivid hallucinations and delirious illusions may also occur. Occasionally the effects can produce extreme violence and destructive urges. The period of agitation is usually followed by a deep prolonged sleep accompanied with vivid dreams and hallucinations, often of a sexual nature. Upon awakening one might experience a distinct hang-over and a total lack of memory as to what actually happened during the state of altered consciousness.
Sacred plants should always be approached with due respect and should never be taken simply for pure entertainment value. Drug-induced visionary journeys can have a profound impact on the psyche, sometimes with long lasting after effects. It is recommended that no-one should attempt such a journey without the guidance and support of an experienced person. In traditional societies it is customary to undergo a cleansing process prior to engaging in any kind of trance or visionary work. Utmost importance is placed on mental, emotional and physical preparation and purification to ensure a beneficial outcome of the ritual. Not to undergo these preparations lays the candidate wide open for a trip to hell or worse, lasting effects of mental derangement and paranoia following the experience. Sacred plants only provide the key to other dimensions but what is to be found there depends on the mental and psychological state of the initiate.