Both the ancient and the ethnographic literature make mention of a number of psychoactive plants, the botanical identifications of which have not yet been determined.
Early Greek writings contain descriptions of plants with incredible effects and fantastic properties, such as moly and nepenthes. It is uncertain whether these names refer to real or to imaginary plants. There are many mythical plants, such as the tree of knowledge, the plant of life, the mushroom of immortality (cf. “Polyporus mysticus”), and the golden apples of Freia, that do not belong to the plant kingdom as we know it but thrive instead in the mythic beyond.
Some old names for magical plants have been adopted by modern botanical taxonomy and assigned to plants that have nothing in common with the earlier flora. The following genus names were all given by Carl von Linné (Carolus Linnaeus; 1707–1778), the great Swedish naturalist and the founder of binominal nomenclature. In choosing these names, he gave expression to his extraordinary love of classical mythology:
Silphium L. (Compositae)—cup plant, compass plant
Canna L. (Cannaceae)—canna lily
Nepenthes L. (Nepenthaceae)—pitcher plant
Daphne L. (Thymelaeaceae)—spurge laurel (cf. Laurus nobilis)
Strychnos L. (Loganiaceae)—nux-vomica (cf. Strychnos spp.)
In the ethnographic literature, magical plants are often not identified botanically, as the researchers did not possess sufficient botanical knowledge or they returned without the plant material that would have made an identification possible.
Some of the names for these unidentified plants appear to have been general terms used to refer to a variety of psychoactive plants or substances (e.g., amapola, moly, soma).
“In the meantime, the cunning scoundrel gave me . . . a poisonous drink of I know not what kind, sweet indeed and lovely scented, but also extremely treacherous and confusing to the senses; for immediately after I had partaken of it, everything seemed to spin around me, the entire cave stood upside down, in short, I was no longer my usual self, and I finally sank into a deep sleep.”
CONVERSATIONS WITH THE SEA GODS (II)
The ancient magical plant ephemeron (“one-day plant”) is often interpreted as the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale). Up until now, however, it has not been possible to produce the legendary effects of ephemeron using the crocus. The botanical identity of the psychoactive plant of Medea thus remains uncertain.
The name of this unidentified plant is derived from that of the ancient achaimenis:
A plant that was used in the Orient for love magic, which it is not possible to identify with any of the plants we know of today. It is said to have had the appearance of “electrum” [= amber] and to have grown in Indian Tardistylis. Its root, consumed in the form of a lozenge, supposedly possessed the ability to evoke “terrible” visions. (Hirschfeld and Linsert 1930, 149*)
Pliny described a psychoactive plant from Cheirokmeta, the lost book of Democritus:
The achaimenis, which has the color of amber, grows without a leaf in India in the area of the Taradastyles [an unknown tribe]; when criminals consume this in wine, the torment of the appearances of different gods compels them to admit everything; he also calls [it] hippophobos [“horse’s terror”] because the mares in particular watch out for it. (24.161)
This leafless plant may be a psychoactive fungus, such as Panaeolus subbalteatus¸ which grows wherever horses are kept. In the philological literature, the plant is often interpreted as Euphorbia antiquorum L.
“The Magnificent Shining One”
According to Pliny, Democritus was well versed in magic and knew a great number of magical plants:
And so he told of the plant aglaophotis, which is said to have received its name as a result of the wonder humans had for its special color and which thrives in the marble quarries of Arabia on the Persian side, which is why it is also called marmaritis [marble plant]; the magicians made use of this when they wanted to summon the gods. (24.164)
This plant has often been interpreted as the peony (Paeonia sp.),343 which is not psychoactive. Mandragora officinarum has also been suggested as a possibility.
The word amapola is used in South America to refer to opium (cf. Papaver somniferum). In Mexico and Guatemala, many plants are referred to as amapola [N.N.], perhaps because they are able to exert a psychoactive effect or are used in folk medicine as an opium substitute (Martínez 1987, 52 f.*’ Argueta V. et al. 1994, 119*).
Plants Known as Amapola
The fruits of Bernoullia flammea, a tree that grows in the tropical lowlands, recall both the fruits of the genus Banisteriopsis and those of the maple (Acer spp.). Known in Guatemala as amapola (“opium”), the fruits shown here were collected near the ancient ceremonial center of Tikal.
The recipe for a medicine against “evil winds,” consisting of espingo buds, ashango seeds, pucho seeds, cabalonga, and nutmeg.
In Guatemala, the hollyhock (Alcea rosea L.) is known as amapola, “opium.” Whether the plant produces narcotic effects has not yet been determined.
The cabalonga fruit, obtained at the “witches’ market” in Chiclayo, Peru.
In Mexico, 4 g of the petals of amapola (Passiflora foetida?) brewed with 200 ml of water is drunk as a tea to treat lack of dreams, over-excitability, whooping cough, and asthma (de la Rosa 1995, 15). In the tropics, sedative teas made of the flowers or leaves of Pseudobombax ellipticum are drunk to treat coughs, asthma, and flu (Argueta V. et al. 1994, 120*). The chemistry is unknown.
de la Rosa, Francisco. 1995. Ayúdese con las yerbas y plantas medicinales mexicanas. Mexico City: Editores Mexicanos Unidos.
In Colombia, the hard fruit of black cabalonga, said to be a large tree, is one of the most sought-after magical agents. It is purported to have potent psychoactive effects. The fruits are rare and are sold under the table at herb markets for exorbitant prices. For this reason, other fruits are often sold in their place:
The true cabalonga can be recognized by placing it under the tongue for a little while. Only a few moments are sufficient to produce sensations of dizziness. . . . The Ashaninka of Atalaya, in whose medicine cabalonga plays a major role, say that it grows in the land of the Amahuaca, in the area around the source of the Rio Inuya. (Faust and Bianchi 1997, 248f.)
In shamanism, black cabalonga is used for healing as well as for harmful magic and also to prepare magical arrows for shamanic battles. Ayahuasqueros utilize the hallucinogenic effects of the fruit to learn how to use plants for healing.
At the “witches’ market” (mercado modelo) in Chiclayo (northwestern Peru), cabalonga seeds are sold only when asked for and then at relatively steep prices. In the curanderismo of the folk healers (curanderos), they are an important ingredient in a medicine for treating “evil winds” (aires), i.e., illnesses of a psychosomatic or psychological nature. This treatment requires that cabalonga seeds, ashangoseeds (possibly a Rubiaceae), nutmeg (Myristica fragrans), espingo buds, and pucho seeds (Nectandra sp.) be ground; mixed with chicha, wine, hard liquor (cf. alcohol), or water; and ingested.
In northern Peru, the seeds of the Ignatius bean (Strychnos ignatii; cf. Strychnos spp.) are apparently also sold under the name cabalonga. These are imported from outside the country and are more prized than those of the Amazonian cabalonga de la selva (Giese 1989, 258*).
Black cabalonga has also been interpreted as Strychnos cabalonga hort. Lind. and as Strychnos brachiata Ruiz et Pav. (cf. Strychnos spp.).
The name cabalonga blanca, “white cabalonga”—considered to be a weaker relative—is used to refer to a Thevetia species (Thevetia spp.) that is also used as an ayahuasca additive.
In Mexico, several plants are known by the name cabalonga, some of which may have psycho-active properties (Martínez 1987, 119*):
In Spanish, the name cabalonga is generally used to refer to the Philippine Ignatius bean (Strychnos ignatii Bergius; cf. Strychnos spp.).
Faust, Franz Xaver, and Antonio Bianchi. 1998. Die mysteriöse Cabalonga. Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness, 1996 (5): 247–51. Berlin: VWB.
Plants Known as Cabalonga
cabalonga Jatropha multifida L. Euphorbiaceae cabalonga Strychnos panamensis Seem. Loganiaceae cabalonga Thevetia peruviana (Pers.) Mer. Apocynaceae cabalonga de la huasteca Thevetia peruviana(Pers.) Mer. Apocynaceae cabalonga de tabasco Thevetia peruviana (Pers.) Mer. et Sandw. Apocynaceae
This name is used to refer to an unidentified “parasitic plant” that formerly was used in the shamanism of the Peruvian Shipibo Indians as a psychoactive initiatory plant. Its use was apparently identical with the use of another uncertain epiphyte, shahuan-peco. However, the effects of charin peco were said to be weaker than those of shahuan-peco (see there).
Devil’s Foot Root
In a 1966 article, Varro E. Tyler remarked upon the devil’s foot root or radix pedis diaboli, a root that is said to grow on the Ubangi River between the Congo and former French Equatorial Africa. It supposedly has the form of a human foot and is red-brown in color. West African medicine men are said to have used it for trials by ordeal. The root is purported to have psychoactive effects when it is burned as an incense and the smoke inhaled. Tyler’s statements were based not upon his own studies but on an article in a book from A. Conan Doyle (The Complete Sherlock Holmes) (Tyler 1966, 292*). It is possible that the entire story is nothing more than a late Victorian fiction.
“Bride of Dionysos”
Dionysonymphas is another name for hestiateris.
“Twelve Gods’ Plant”
Pliny discussed this wondrous and as yet not clearly identified “plant of the gods” directly after moly:
After [moly], the most highly regarded plant is one that is known as the twelve gods’ plant, recommending it [as a symbol] for the power of all the gods. Drunk in water, it is said to heal all ailments. It has seven leaves that are very similar to those of lettuce [Lactuca] and that arise from a yellow root. (Natural History 25.28)
The plant may have been a species of Lactuca (cf. Lactuca virosa). The Gaul Marcellus (ca. 400 A.D.) wrote in his Latin recipe book De medicamentis that dodecatheon was also called donax (27.7). This may be a reference to Arundo donax. The twelve gods’ plant has also been identified with primrose (Primula elatior [L.] Hill or Primula veris L.) and butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris L.) (Dierbach 1833, 176*). Other sources suggest that dodecatheon was a medicine compounded from twelve plants that was said to be effective against all diseases (Baumann 1982, 115*). It may have been an alchemical product made of the twelve sacred plants that were consecrated to the twelve Olympian gods. This divine preparation may have borne those who used it up to Olympus (cf. Müller-Ebeling et al. 1998).
Since ancient times, the magical plant that Medea used to induce the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece to fall asleep has been known as kolchikon. Linnaeus subsequently chose this name as the genus name for the crocus (Colchicum autumnale L.; Baumann 1982, 111*). But ephemeron and the crocus are almost certainly not identical (Engel 1978, 18*). Virgil described how Moeris, a herdsman versed in magic, used this plant to transform himself into a wolf:
This plant here, this poison, gathered beforehand
Moeris himself gave to me; it grows in abundance on the Pontus.
With it—often did I see it—Moeris transformed himself into a wolf
and hid in the forest; in this form, he lured the souls
from the grave; in this form, he could even move the seeds in the ground.
The shifting of forms from human to wolf was well known in ancient times and was usually associated with the consumption of human flesh (Burkert 1997, 98 ff.), and sometimes also with the use of Aconitum napellus or Lupinus spp. (cf. witches’ ointments).
The mysterious African devil’s foot root is said to resemble a foot—half human, half goat’s hoof—and to produce profound psychoactive effects when burned as an incense. The plant may be nothing more than a literary joke. (Illustration from 1910)
Burkert, Walter. 1997. Homo Necans: Interpretationen altgriechischer Opferriten and Mythen. 2nd ed. Berlin: de Gruyter.
The literature from the colonial period, and especially Arriaga’s report from Peru (1621), makes frequent mention of a fruit named espingo, ishpingo, ispinku, yspincu, or ispincu. It was said to be rather small and roundish and somewhat similar to an almond. It was used as a medicine and as an inebriating additive to beer:
In the plains, from Chancay and downriver, the chicha that the huacas [= temples] offer is known as yale. It is made from zora [= malted maize] mixed with chewed maize and has espingo powder added to it. They prepare the chicha so that it is very potent and syrupy. After they have poured as much of this over the temple as they think proper, the magicians drink the rest. The chicha makes them completely crazy. (Arriaga 1992, 40*)
Espingo had a magical and religious significance similar to that of villca (see Anadenanthera colubrina):
The espingo is a dry, small fruit similar to the round almond, with a penetrating but not very pleasant scent. They bring it from the Chechepoyas [i.e., from the tropical lowlands]. They say that when taken in the form of a powder, espingo is a very effective medicine against stomachaches, bloody diarrhea, and other diseases, and they purchase it for a good price. People are wont to sell espingo for these purposes. Not too many years ago, in Jaén de Bracamoros, the Indios paid their tribute in espingo. The deceased Lord Archbishop forbade the sale of espingo to the Indios under pain of excommunication, for he knew that it was a common offering at the huacas. In the flatlands in particular, there is not a one who has conopas [= images of the gods, sacred objects] who does not also have espingo, no matter how often they have been searched. (Arriaga 1992, 43*)
The Incas offered a chicha with an espingo additive at the festivals of Raimi, Citua, and Aymoray (Wassén 1973, 40). One source states that those who consume espingo, e.g., the Incan magicians (omo), would “go crazy” because of the fruit (Wassén 1973, 38). In the seventeenth century, the chronicler and missionary Bernabé Cobo claimed that the pleasantly scented fruit of the espingo tree was called vainilla (“vanilla”) and was traded over long distances, and that the Indians esteemed it highly for its medicinal properties. Henry Wassén, who has worked on the botanical identification of the stock plant, has assumed that a number of plants with similar properties were subsumed under the name espingo. Today, there is still a plant known as asango-espingo (perhaps a species from the Rubiaceae or the Lauraceae Family). The following plants have all been suggested as possible candidates for the espingo of the colonial period (cf. Wassén 1979, 59 ff.; 1973, 40):
An espingo necklace from the “witches’ market” in Chiclayo, Peru.
Quararibea spp.: possibly psychoactive (Ott 1993, 418*)
Gnaphalium dysodes Spreng.: unknown344
Trifolium sp. (trébol): botanical identity unknown
nambicuara (Bombacaeae): unknown effectiveness
A botanical and anatomical study compared espingo seeds with the seeds of Quararibea and concluded that the two may be identical (Bondeson 1973). However, if no additional ethno-historical sources or archaeological or ethnobotanical samples are discovered, the knowledge of the identity of the espingo tree may be lost.
In Ecuador and Peru, the American cinnamon tree (Ocotea quixos Lam. [syn. Nectandra cinnamomoides Nees]; Lauraceae) is still referred to as ishpino or espingo. A chemical analysis of a botanically unidentified sample of espingo found substances that have the scent of cinnamon: cinnamaldehyde, O-methoxycinnamaldehyde, cinnamic acid, and methylcinnamate. The same substances are found in Ocotea quixos (Naranjo et al. 1981). Ocotea continues to find favor as a cinnamon-like spice and is used in Ecuadoran folk medicine as an appetite stimulant, disinfectant, and diarrhea remedy. The scented calyxes are used as an aromatic additive to a chicha made from maize and sugarcane juice that is known as alajua. This mildly alcoholic drink is offered in Ecuador to the ancestors of one’s own family (Naranjo et al. 1981, 234).
Today, the following plants are known in Peru as ishpingo or espingo:
Ajouea tambillensis Mez (Lauraceae)
Jacaranda copaia (Aublet) D. Don (Bignoniaceae)
Ocotea jelskij Mez (Lauraceae)
Guarea trichilioides L. (Meliaceae): among ayahuasqueros (cf. ayahuasca)
The wood of this tree is used to make magical wands for the northern Peruvian mesa rituals (Giese 1989, 259*; cf. Trichocereus pachanoi).
In northern Peru, espingo buds are still used in folk medicine, sometimes in combination with cabalonga and nutmeg (Myristica fragrans). The precise identification of these buds is not known.
The South American coca bush Erythroxylum hondense.
The coca plant Erythroxylum cumanense with its typically small, very round leaves. Many species of Erythroxylum contain alkaloids, but most contain only traces of cocaine.
In the Ucayali region of Peru, a leguminous tree, Amburana cearensis, is known in the local Spanish as ishpingo. Healers and shamans esteem it as a “master plant.” The bark is used to prepare medicinal baths to treat illnesses that are the result of harmful magic (Arévalo V. 1994, 251*).
Bondeson, Wolmar E. 1973. Anatomical notes on espingo and seeds of Quararibea. Göteborgs Etnografiska Museum Årstryck 1972:48–52.
Brenner, F. 1975. El ishpingo: su oso pre-columbino y actual. Folklore Amer. 19:101–4.
Naranjo, Plutarco, Anake Kijjoa, Astréa M. Giesbrecht, and Otto R. Gottlieb. 1981. Ocotea quixos, American cinnamon. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 4:233–36.
Wassén, S. Henry. 1973. Ethnobotanical follow-up of Bolivian Tihuanacoid tomb material, and of Peruvian shamanism, psychotropic plant constituents, and espingo seeds. Göteborgs Etnografiska Museum Årstryck 1972:35–47.
———. 1979. Was espingo (ispincu) of psychotropic and intoxicating importance for the shamans in Peru? In Spirits, shamans, and stars, ed. D. L. Browman and R. A. Schwarz, 55–62. The Hague: Mouton.
“The Leaf That Evokes Laughter”
Pliny has provided us with a description of this plant that is based upon the writings of Democritus:
The gelotophyllis grows in Bactria [= Afghanistan] and on the Borysthenes [= Dnieper]; when drunk together with myrrh and wine, various figures will float before one’s eyes, and the urge to laugh will cease only if one eats pine nuts with pepper [Piper spp.] and drinks honey in palm wine. (24.164)
This “plant that incites laughter” has often been interpreted as Cannabis indica. Indeed, Indian hemp does grow in Afghanistan, and the laughter that the use of hemp can evoke is legendary.
The Kogi Indians of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Colombia) call their coca hayo, a word that comes from the Tairona language. They distinguish three “species” of coca, each of which belongs to one of the tribes of the region. The Kamkuama tribe, which has now either disappeared or become extinct, cultivated a type of coca that had long leaves. The Kogi plant a variety with small leaves, and the Ika a type with tiny leaves (cf. Erythroxylum novogranatense). It is said that the ancestors, i.e., the Tairona, planted or harvested a tree named guanguára or guanguála in the páramos (high marshes) that had cocalike leaves with similar effects (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1985, 1:87*; Uscategui M. 1959, 281 f.*). Unfortunately, the botanical identification of this tree is unknown. It may simply have been another wild species of the genus Erythroxylum.
The original haoma plant has not yet been identified with certainty. See the section on haoma on pages 747 f.
Also known as halikákabon or halicacabum, this plant belonged to a group of psychoactive plants known as trychnos or strychnos (cf. strychnos manikos), the botanical identity of which is unknown:
There is yet another kind [of strychnos], called “salt jar,” that provokes sleep and can cause death even more quickly than opium; others call it “fool’s herb” [morion], still others moly. But it was praised by Diocles and Euenor, and Timaristos even lauded it in a poem, wherein she strangely forgot about its harmlessness, for her, [the plant] is a fast-acting agent for firming up wobbly teeth by rinsing these with halicacabon in wine; at least they added the qualification that this should not be done for very long, lest madness be the result. . . . The root of halicacabon is imbibed as a drink by those who wish to utter prophecies and who want to be seen as truly enthusiastic about God in order to strengthen superstitious conceptions. As an antidote—which I am that much happier to be able to mention—water to which an ample quantity of mead has been added should be drunk warm. And I do not want to neglect to say that halicacabon is so contrary to the nature of the adder that its root, when placed very close to it, will quiet the very deadly power that its stupefaction can bring. This is why grinding it up and adding it to oil it can aid a person that has been bitten. (Pliny 21.180–82)
Halicacabon, a mysterious psychoactive plant of antiquity, was identified in early modern times as the Chinese lantern plant (Physalis alkekengi L.). (Woodcut from Fuchs, Läebliche abbildung und contrafaytung aller kreüter, 1545)
This entheogenic plant has been interpreted as Atropa belladonna or Withania somnifera. Dioscorides described morion as a species of Mandragora (cf. Mandragora spp.).
Leonhard Fuchs depicted two plants under the name halicacabum (Fuchs 1545). Halicacabum vulgare is the Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi L.; cf. Physalis spp.). The other species (halicacabum peregrinum, welsch schlutten) is probably Cardiospermum halicacabum L. Linnaeus selected the ancient name as a species name for the American balloon vine (Cardiospermum halicacabum L.; Sapindaceae), which is not known to have any psychoactive effects.
“Plant That Gives a Meal”
Pliny’s information about this plant is based upon the statements of Democritus, who was well versed in the magical arts:
In Persia, the hestiateris has its name from the guest meal, for it produces gaiety there; it is also called protomedia [“preferred by the Medians”] because it can be used to ingratiate oneself with their kings; kasignete [“the fraternal”] because it grows only with its own kind and not with any other plants; it is also called dionysonymphas [“bride of Dionysos”] because it goes wonderfully with wine. (24.165)
This plant has been variously interpreted as Areca catechu, pimpinella (Pimpinella major [L.] Huds.; Umbelliferae), and Sanguisorba minor Scop. [syn. Poterium sanguisorba L., Pimpinella minor (Scop.) Lam.] (Rosaceae).
The name means “refused by horses” and is a synonym for achaimenis.
“Water People Medicine”
This as yet unidentified little plant with lanceolate leaves is said to be similar to the shahuan peco plant, which is also botanically unknown. The Peruvian Shipibo-Conibo Indians regard it as a “master of the healing arts.”A shaman will consume parts of this plant with ayahuasca when he wishes to undertake a spirit or astral journey into the water world (Gebhart-Sayer 1987, 337*).
The Andean inebriant machamacha may be a pseudoberry. (Gaultheria acuminata, from Latin America)
Some 250 years ago, the Hottentots (Khoikhoi) chewed kanna, also known as canna or channa, in order to induce visual hallucinations:
About 200 years ago, Kolbe used the name Kanna (Channa) to refer to a plant whose root he supposedly saw the Hottentots use as an agent of pleasure. They chewed it and retained it in their mouths for a long time. It made them drunken and stimulated. Their “animal spirits became animated,” their eyes sparkled, and their faces were marked by laughter and happiness. A thousand charming ideas arose in them, a gentle joy that amused itself over the simplest of jests. When they used too much of the agent, they would ultimately lose consciousness and fall into horrible deliriums. (L. Lewin 1980 [orig. pub. 1929], 296*)
Because the name was used at the end of the nineteenth century to refer to one or more Mesembryanthemum species (Mesembryanthemum spp.), it was assumed that the originally described inebriant was in fact Mesembryanthemum tortuosum (Hartwich and Zwicky 1914). Today, the valid botanical name for this plant is Sceletium tortuosum. Louis Lewin was of the opinion that the plant may also have been Sclerocarya caffra or Sclerocarya schweinfurthiana (1980, 297*).
In the seventeenth century, white settlers in South Africa applied the name kanna to Aureliana canadensis, the root of which was used as a substitute for the true mandrake (Mandragora officinarum).
The word kanna is almost too reminiscent of cannabis (cf. Cannabis indica). Perhaps the original kanna was actually a mixture of Cannabis sativa and Sceletium tortuosum.
In its genus name, the canna lily carries on the name kanna, spelled as canna. Canna seeds are sometimes strung together to make bracelets and necklaces. (Canna indica, photographed in Chiapas, Mexico)
Apart from the name, kanna has nothing to do with the lilylike plant Canna indica L. (Cannaceae), a native of tropical America whose seeds the Indians string into bracelets and necklaces. Kanna is sometimes confused with Salsola dealata Botsch., known as ganna.
Hartwich, Carl, and E. Zwicky. 1914. Über Channa, ein Genußmittel der Hottentotten. Apotheker-Zeitung 29:925 f., 937–39, 949 f., 961 f.
In 1875, the ethnologist Miklucho-Maclay described an inebriating drink named keu, which the Papuas of the Maclay Coast (Papua New Guinea) prepared in a manner similar to the Polynesian kava-kava. Although the men, young men, and boys produced the drink on the occasion of tribal festivals, only the older people were allowed to consume it. It is possible that this bush, the leaves, stalk, and roots of which were used, was Piper methysticum, a different Piper species (Piper spp.), or an as yet unknown plant. This theory is not unlikely, because we do know that Piper methysticum was used on Papua New Guinea (Haddon 1916). But the drink that was prepared from this plant is known as wati. More recently, a previously undescribed Piper species was discovered on Papua New Guinea. Chemical investigations isolated 2-methoxyangonin, kavalactones, and flavonoids from the material (Hänsel et al. 1966; Sauer and Hänsel 1967).
Haddon, A. C. 1916. Kava drinking in New Guinea. Man 16:145–52.
Hänsel, R., H. von Sauer, and H. Rimpler. 1966. II-methoxyangonin aus einer botanisch nicht beschriebenen Piperart Neu-Guineas. Archiv der Pharmazie 299:507–12.
Miklucho-Maclay. 1875. Ethnologische Bemerkungen über die Papuas der Maclayküste. Naturkundig Tijdschrift (Batavia) 1:8.
Sauer, H. von, and R. Hänsel. 1967. Kawalaktone und Flavonoide aus einer endemischen Piper-Art Neu-Guineas. Planta Medica 15:443–58.
In South America, a number of plants of the Family Ericaceae are given the name macha or macha-macha and are regarded as psychoactive. The ripe fruits are sweet and delicious and invoke inebriating effects when consumed in great quantities. These effects are described as “drunkenness.” The botanist Hippolito Ruíz identified macha as Arbutus parviflora [nom. nud.!] and characterized the Ericaceae known as macha-macha as Thibaudia (Schultes 1980, 111*). It is possible that this name refers to various species of the genus Vaccinium (cf. Vaccinium uliginosum) or Pernettya. In Peru, the wandering healers of the Callawaya refer to a Gaultheria species as machamacha; it contains methylsalicylate (Bastien 1987, 128*). There is also said to be macha-macha in the Las Huaringas region of northern Peru, especially at Laguna Shimbe. Unfortunately, nothing is known about its botanical identity. The Ericaceae Befaria glauca var. coarctata has fruits that cause dizziness and have a stimulating effect. It is known as macha-macha in Bolivia (von Reis Altschul 1975, 214*).
The renowned ethnologist Alfred Métraux wrote that the shamans of the Mojo Indians (a Brazilian Arawak tribe) consumed a drink called marari, which they made from a plant of the same name, when they wished to consult the spirits. The effects of the drink were said to last for some twenty-four hours and were described as excitation, sleeplessness, and pains—nothing particularly pleasant. Marari was said to compare to “our verbena.” It is not clear whether Métraux was comparing this plant to the European verbena (Verbena officinalis L.)345 or to another plant from South America that has long been cultivated in the Mediterranean region, lemon verbena (Lippia citriodoraH.B.K. [syn. Aloysia triphylla (L’Herit.) Britt.]). There are a number of plants (Verbena spp., Lippia spp.) in South America that are very similar to these two verbenas (and which the literature on essential oils and incense usually confuses). Only careful ethnobotanical research will be able to cast light upon these questions (Schultes 1966, 298*).
The wonderfully scented lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla = Lippia citriodora) is also called the lemon bush and is often confused with the true verbena (Verbena officinalis).
Métraux, Alfred. 1943. The social organization and religion of the Mojo and Manasi. Primitive Man 16:1–30.
This tropical rain forest plant is found in West Africa, where the Pygmies used it as an alternative agent of pleasure and inebriant to bangi (Cannabis sativa) and tava (Nicotiana tabacum):
In an emergency, when there is no tobacco or hemp to be found, the Pygmies turn to the leaves of a forest plant, medeaka, which they smoke. The effects are said to be stronger than those of bangi [= Cannabis sativa]. But it does not seem correct that the leaves of the poisonous tava tree are smoked as well. (Schebesta 1941, 179)
The root, which was known as masili, was chewed as an aphrodisiac (Schebesta 1941, 236). This plant may be one of the many West African Mitragyna species (cf. Mitragyna speciosa).
Schebesta, Paul. 1941. Die Bambuti-Pygmäen von Ituri, vol. 2: Ethnographie der Ituri-Bambuti. Brussels: George van Campenhout.
Homer provided only a brief description of moly, the divine magical plant of Hermes. Odysseus used moly, which was classified as a pharmakon, “remedy/poison,” to protect himself from the sorceress Circe, who had transformed his men into swine (Schmiedeberg 1981). An important piece of information is that Hermes (= Mercury) harvested the plant in Circe’s garden, and thus the messenger of the gods transformed one of Circe’s own magical plants into an almost homeopathic type of antidote:
[Hermes] pulled from the ground a poisonous plant,
Presented it to me and showed me what it was and how it grew.
Black was the root, white as milk were the flowers, the gods
call it moly. It is very difficult for mortal men to find; the gods, of course, can do anything.
Generations of alchemists, Greek scholars, philologists, pharmacologists, and ethnobotanists have attempted to determine the botanical identity of Homer’s magical plant (cf. Baumann 1982, 110*; Dierbach 1833, 192*; Rahner 1957*). Even Theophrastus, the father of botany, made an effort to ascertain the botanical identity of the stock plant:
Panakeia, the plant that heals all, thrives in large quantities and prefers rocky ground near Psophis, Moly by Pheneos, and on the mountain of Cyllene. They say that this plant would be like the moly that Homer mentions; that it has a root like an onion and leaves like the squill; and that it is used against magical formulae and magic, but it is not, as Homer stated, difficult to dig up. (Theophrastus, History of Plants, 9.15)
Dioscorides (3.21) wrote that the sea holly or sea hulver Eryngium maritimum L. (Umbelliferae), prized as an aphrodisiac, was also known as moly (Rätsch 1995a, 228 ff.*).
Moly was already being construed as a psychoactive plant in ancient times. Remarkably, both moly and the magical plant of Circe were interpreted as the mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) (Dierbach 1833, 204*; Kreuter 1982, 29*). Dioscorides passed down the name circeon for the mandrake (cf. Rahner 1957, 201*) and mandragora circaea for the plant that Circe used to transform the men of Odysseus into “swine” (= sexually aroused men):
The Mandragora. Some call it antimelon [= “in the apples’ place”], others dirkaia, also kirkaia [= “plant of Circe”], as the root appears to be effective as a love charm. (Dioscorides 4.76)
According to Apollodorus (second century B.C.), the most important scholar of his time, mandrake (which he called kirkaia riza) was used as an amulet against the harmful magic of Pasiphae, daughter of Helios (Circe was also a daughter of Helios), wife of King Minos, and mother of Ariadne and the Minotaur (frag. 2.15).
In late ancient times, it was assumed that the mandrake had been a gift from the Greek/ Egyptian god Hermes Trismegistus—the god of alchemy (Fowden 1993)—and that it was suitable for conjuring up spirits and for use in alchemical practices. Because Hermes/Mercury is depicted in some ancient works of art with an opium capsule in his hand, moly could be interpreted as Papaver somniferum.
Bauhinius identified the renowned Hermetic magical plant moly, which Odysseus used to restore the men who had been turned into swine back into men, as rue (Ruta graveolens L.; cf. soma). Stannard (1962) identified the Hermetic moly with Peganum harmala and explicitly referred to a passage in Dioscorides:
The so-called fathers of botany went to great lengths in their efforts to botanically identify moly, the magical plant of Homer. The squill was long considered to be the legendary plant. However, with the discovery of new plants in the New World, many of the species that were returned to Europe were also regarded as candidates. The botanical illustrations, however, suggest a plant that grew from the imagination of the engraver and his client. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)
Wild rue. Some also call wild peganon the plant that is known as moly in Cappadocia and in Asian Galatia. It is a bush that develops several branches from a single root, it has leaves, much larger and more tender than the other peganon [= rue] and with a penetrating scent, a white flower, small capitula on the tips, larger than with cultivated peganon [= rue], mostly consisting of three parts, in which is found a trigonal, light yellow seed that is useful. In late autumn, the seed becomes ripe and can be used, with honey, wine, chicken gall, saffron [Crocus sativa], and fennel juice [Foeniculum vulgare], finely ground, to treat dull vision. Some also call this same plant harmala, the Syrians besasa, the Egyptians epnubu, the Africans churma, but the Cappadocians moly, because it is essentially similar to the moly, for it has a black root and white flowers. It grows in hilly and fertile soil. (Dioscorides 3.46)
Moly has long been interpreted to be the squill (Urginea maritima [L.] Baker [syn. Scilla maritima L.]) (Rahner 1957*):
According to the testimony of Homer, the most renowned of all plants is moly, about which he believed that it received its name from the gods; he attributes Hermes with its discovery and use against the strongest enchantment. It is said to grow today in the region of Pheneos and on Cyllene in Arcadia. According to Homer, it is a plant with a round, black root the size of an onion and with one leaf like the squill [Scilla], but it is (not) difficult to dig up. The Greek writers have reported its flowers to be yellow, whereas Homer wrote that they are white. I found a physician wise in herbal lore who told me that it also grows in Italy, and after a few days (in autumn) he had one brought to me from Campania that was dug up under difficult circumstances from craggy rocks. It had a 30-foot-long root that was not complete but had been ripped out. (Pliny 25.26–27)
Nevertheless, Lucian describes in a dialogue (Menippus) how the priests or magicians, dressed in the style of the Persians, used the squill as a magical plant for conjuring up the dead for oracular purposes (cf. Lupinus spp.). The squill contains highly effective cardiac glycosides (cf. Digitalis purpurea) (Roth et al. 1994, 714*).
Other plants with bulbs (Liliaceae) have also been interpreted as moly, including Nectaroscordum siculum (Ucria) Lindl. [syn. Allium dios-coridis Sibthorp, Allium siculum Ucria], Allium magicum L. (magic leek), Allium moly L. (Linnaeus actually named this species after the magical plant), Allium nigrum L., and Allium sativum L. (Dierbach 1833, 192; Schöpf 1986, 117*). Allium victorialis L. is known as false mandrake, for its root was often used in place of that of the true mandrake (cf. Mandragora officinarum).
Wedel, a pharmacologist, wrote in one of his dissertations (De Mythologia Moly Homeri, Jena, 1713) that moly was a Nymphaea (cf. Nymphaea caerulea). In his work De Moly Homerico et fibula Circaea(Lipsiae 1716), D. W. Triller identified moly as black hellebore (Helleborus niger L.; cf. Veratrum album, snuff).
It appears that in ancient times, the word moly was more or less a catchall term that meant “magical plant” or “entheogen.” It was used to refer to plants that were psychoactive and employed for magical purposes (in a manner quite similar to the use of the words haoma and soma).
Fowden, Garth. 1993. The Egyptian Hermes: A historical approach to the late pagan mind. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Schmiedeberg, O. 1918. Über die Pharmaka in der Illias and Odyssee. Schriften der wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft in Straßburg 36.
Stannard, J. 1962. The plant called moly. Osiris 14:254–307.
In the Odyssey, Homer sang the praises of the psychoactive effects of a wondrous pharmakon called nepenthes (literally “consoling plant”):
But Helen, the daughter of Zeus, remembered something:
and immediately put a magical agent into the wine which they drank,
good against sorrow and bilious nature: for all evils
it created forgetfulness. It was in the mixing jug: anyone who then drank of it,
on that day would no tears flow down his cheeks,
even when both his father and mother would die,
yea even when his son, the beloved, or his brother
would be slain with swords by the enemy directly before him,
so that he would see it with his own eyes.
Now the daughter of Zeus could avail herself of agents with such skillful effects.”
The beautiful Helena offering the wondrous nepenthes. (Illustration: John Flaxman)
In late ancient times, the squill (Urginea maritima [syn. Scilla maritima]) was already being interpreted as the Hermetic magical plant moly. However, any information about the psychoactive effects squill may have has not come down to us. (Wild plant, photographed on Naxos, Greece)
Theophrastus himself attempted to fathom the origins of this pharmakon:
The places outside of Hellas that yield special healing herbs are regions in Tyrrhene and Latium (where, it is said, lives Circe), and several regions in Egypt, about which Homer said: Helen brought from there the useful things that Polydamna, the wife of Thon, had given her. There the fruit-bearing earth produces the greatest number of pharmaka, many of these are beneficial and others harmful. Among these, so he tells us, was nepenthes, the famed pharmakon that heals worries and afflictions, for it allows one to forget diseases. These regions have been named by the poets. (History of Plants, 9.15)
Because of the effects attributed to it, the Homeric nepenthes has often been interpreted as opium (cf. Papaver somniferum) as well as certain other plants:
In contrast, another assumption is more likely, that the agent of Helena was the juice of Cannabis indica, hashish. The use of hemp and of pills made from it was . . . known in Egypt at an early date and was very popular, and because of the connections between Greece and Egypt, Homer may . . . have had very good knowledge of this. . . . Moreover, the condition produced by its use, which corresponds to the Oriental names for it, “stimulator of happiness, soul cheerer” [cf. Oriental joy pills], accords with that which Homer described, namely a cheerfulness that cannot be dampened by the hardest strokes of fate. (Berendes 1891, 131 f.*)
Since the stock plant was said to be indigenous to Egypt, it has also been identified as Egyptian henbane (Hyoscyamus muticus):
The Egyptian priests used this plant in many ways during their religious practices, especially to placate that hostile god whom they called Typhon. The sedative powers of this Egyptian henbane appear to be even more energetic than those of the one we are used to [Hyoscyamus niger]; for when someone receives some of the powder of the plant either accidentally or on purpose, there follows a condition of madness that continues for several days, after which clear consciousness returns once more. This plant has been interpreted as the nepenthes of Homer, a statement that should not be entirely disregarded, but that in fact has much that speaks for it. (Dierbach 1833, 189*)
Nepenthes has also been identified as Mentha pulegium, Mandragora officinarum, and even Catha edulis.
In modern times, the name nepenthes is used to refer to a genus of carnivorous plants (Family Nepenthaceae; pitcher plants) that encompasses a number of species (e.g., Nepenthes maxima Reinw.,Nepenthes sanguinea Lindley). These plants, however, are not psychoactive (Emboden 1974, 135f.*).
Pliny provided us with a description of this plant, which comes from the island of Elephantine on the Nile, renowned as the place where the mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) was found:
The ophiussa on Elephantine in the same Ethiopia has a lead-colored and unsightly appearance and is said, when drunk, to produce such dread and such terror of snakes that people would kill themselves out of fear; this is why the desecrators of temples are forced to drink of it. Palm wine is an antidote. (24.163)
This information inspired the film Young Sherlock Holmes (from the studio of Steven Spielberg). In this film, an Egyptian sect of murderers kills its victims by shooting an arrow that has been treated with an unidentified hallucinogen into the carotid artery. The victims experience such terrible visions, including snakes, that they commit suicide. Today, many people continue to believe that people will throw themselves out of windows because they have been driven to madness by psychedelics. This motif, which is quite popular in the yellow press, appeared in a novel that Leo Perutz (1882–1957) wrote in 1923,Der Meister des jüngsten Tages [The Master of Judgment Day] (cf. Claviceps purpurea).
Perutz, Leo. 1990. Der Meister des jüngsten Tages. Reinbek: Rowohlt.
The relatively unknown Mexican Magnolia dealbata may have been the source of the Aztec inebriant poyomatli.
This Aztec inebriant, also written as pipizizintli, pepetzintle, pepetichinque, and pipiltzintzin, is now usually interpreted as Salvia divinorum. This interpretation, however, is by no means certain.
Potamaugis is another name for thalassaigle.
This Aztec inebriant is mentioned in the Florentine Codex, written in colonial times by Sahagún. It has not yet been clearly identified. One suggestion is Quararibea funebris (see Quararibea spp., Theobroma cacao). Another possibility is that the name refers to the flowers of Cymbopetalum penduliflorum (Dunal) Baill. Magnolia dealbata Zucc. (see Magnolia virginiana), now known as elexuch wu, has also been suggested as a candidate (Diaz 1979, 94*; Ott 1993, 412*). If no additional ethnohistorical sources are discovered, the secret of poyomatli may have been lost with the destruction of the Aztec culture.
The Desana Indians of the Tukano tribe, who live in the Vaupés region of Colombia and Brazil, have different classes of shamans. The sakaka shamans—the word is from the língua-geral—specialize in journeying to the underworld, especially the underwater worlds. In order to travel there, a shaman will chew the root of a plant known by the name sakaka. This enables him to traverse great distances underwater. Because they are said to be related to malevolent water beings, these shamans are regarded as rather dangerous. To date, the sakaka plant has not been clearly identified; it may be a species from the Family Connaraceae (Buchillet 1992, 212). Whether this genus contains psychoactive species is unknown; several species do have toxic properties (Buchillet 1992, 228). The Indians use some species of the genus Connarus as fish poisons (Schultes and Raffauf 1990, 141*).
Buchillet, Dominique. 1992. Nobody is there to hear: Desana therapeutic incantations. In Portals of power: Shamanism in South America, ed. E. J. M. Langdon and Gerhard Baer, 211–30. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Also written as semnos, semnios is another name for theombrontion.
“Moult of the Ara Parrots”
The Shipibo-Conibo, who live in the Ucayali region of Peru, use this name to refer to an as yet botanically unidentified “parasitic plant that grows on tall trees” (Illius 1991, 122). It is said to be very rare, is considered to be difficult to find, and cannot be recognized by everyone. This hallucinogenic parasite nests in the forks of branches of various jungle trees in the area around Pucallpa (Peru). It has three-fingered leaves, and the Shipibo-Conibo shamans use only the longest, middle leaflet. The freshly crushed leaflet is either mixed with tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) and smoked or mixed with tobacco juice and drunk. In addition, the diluted juice is rubbed over the entire body (Gebhart-Sayer 1987, 211*).
In former times, anyone who wished to become a merayabo, a priest-shaman, was required to use this ominous plant. The novice needed to consume a drink made of the small leaflets and “bathe” in it just once during his training. The visionary effects began some twelve hours later and lasted for a similar period; they were culturally stereotyped:
You hear loud thunder, even when the sun is shining and not a cloud can be seen, you begin to tremble all over your body and you hear voices. The two “lords” of the shahuan pecó appear in human form. They threaten the drinker and attempt to talk him out of wanting to make use of the power of the plant. When he has become almost unconscious (shiná-oma) as a result of the continued trembling, the two yoshinbo [= plant spirits] throw him back and forth many times like a ball. A jaguar appears, bites the adept in the back of the neck, and sucks out all of his blood “so that he becomes light.” Then the jaguar bears him upward for several hours. Suddenly the meraya-to-be notices that he can move through the air himself and that he “sees everything.” In the clouds, the yoshinbo provide him with information about all manner of diseases. Finally, the jaguar leads him to anta yoshin.The anta yoshin is a great physician who reveals to the shaman how he can heal himself and protect himself from the attacks of “brujos” (“sorcerers”). (Illius 1991, 122 f.)
Unfortunately, the use of this plant is disappearing among the Shipibo. Shahuan peco is an initiatory plant that should be ingested by shamans-in-training after they have been consecrated with ayahuasca. It is regarded as the most powerful of the visionary plants (Gebhart Sayer 1987, 340*), and a shaman typically will take it only once during his lifetime. The plant spirit (shahuan-anta-jonibo) gives him the ability to undertake spirit or astral journeys into far distant places. One of the few Shipibo shamans actually to have had an experience with this rare plant described its effects:
I shook. Then the two lords of the plant appeared. I also heard the sounds of many other spirits, who threatened me and wanted to deny me the power of the shahuán-peco. When I became unconscious, the four lords of the plant threw me around the four corners of the world like a ball. I no longer felt my weight. When I was close to death, the large, shining jaguar ani ino came and sucked out my blood and carried me far away. In this way, the shaman learns to fly through the air on his own and to see things from above. In the cloud villages, he meets with the spirits that support him in therapy. During the shahuán-peco visions, the shaman sees the people in their true nature, he sees their true intentions, and he sees them naked. (Gebhart-Sayer 1987, 212*)
Another Shipibo shaman clearly recalled his initiation with the plant:
Shahuán peco is stronger than charin pecó. Oh, how strong it is! You can hardly stand it—it is much stronger than ayahuasca! Once you have drunk shahuán peco, you see all people naked. Then a man comes, a nai yoshin(heavenly spirit); he holds an empty book in his hand. He holds it before me. A pino (hummingbird) comes and draws quené (designs) in the book with its beak. I still possess this book! I open it up and look at the quené. The pino comes, and I sing with him. I open the book every night—this is why I sing so well! (in Illius 1991, 123)
The statement that shahuan peco is considered more highly effective than ayahuasca is worth noting, for the Shipibo are renowned for preparing an especially potent ayahuasca.
Unfortunately, we have no information at all about the botanical classification of this “parasitic plant with small leaves.” It may possibly be a Bromeliaceae. There are reports that one species of Tillandsia is used as a psychoactive substitute for peyote (Lophophora williamsii).
Illius, Bruno. 1991. Ani Shinan: Schamanismus bei den Shipibo-Conibo (Ost-Peru). Ethnologische Studien, vol. 12. Münster: Lit Verlag.
In Cambodia, shlain is a name for both a tree and its product. The very hard wood of the shlain tree is light colored, almost white. It is shaved, mixed with hemp (Cannabis indica, Cannabis sativa), and smoked. The addition of shlain to the hemp clearly increases the effects of the THC and makes it somewhat more psychedelic. The wood has been tested many times with success, but unfortunately its botanical identification is still uncertain. It is, however, possible that it is Strychnos nux-vomica. In Cambodia, a traditional cough medicine is made from dried kancha (hemp herbage), which is chopped up on a board made from nux-vomica (Strychnos nux-vomica) wood. Mixed with small pieces of the wood (which contains strychnine), the resulting product is then smoked (Martin 1975, 67).
Martin, Marie Alexandrine. 1975. Ethnobotanical aspects of cannabis in Southeast Asia. In Cannabis and culture, ed. V. Rubin, 63–75. The Hague: Mouton.
In ancient times, silphion was a renowned medicinal plant, apparently with psychoactive effects. Its botanical identity has been completely lost (Dioscorides 3.84). In modern times, it has been proposed that it might have been food of the gods or devil’s dung (Ferula asafoetida L.); it may also have been Ferula moschata (Reinisch) Kozo-Polj. [syn. Ferula sumbul (Kauffm.) Hook. f., Euryangium sumbul Kauffm.], a purportedly hallucinogenic plant (Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 368*; cf. incense). It may even have been a species of bracket fungus (Laricifomes officinalis [Vill. ex Fr.] Kotl. et Pouz., Polyporus officinalisFr., Boletus laricis Jacq.; cf. “Polyporus mysticus”):
Bracket fungus. Agarikon is regarded as a root, similar to that of silphion, however it is not close to the surface like silphion, but completely lax. (Dioscorides 3.1)
A remark by Dioscorides concerning silphion’s effects upon glaucoma is reminiscent of the effect of hemp (Cannabis indica, Cannabis sativa): “It induces sharp-sightedness and dispels the beginnings of glaucoma when it is rubbed in with honey. (3.84)
It has been suggested that the ancient silphion plant is now extinct. The genus that bears its name, Silphium L. (Compositae), is with certainty not identical to the ancient healing plant, nor is Thapsia silphium [syn. Thapsia garganica L. var. silphium] (Umbelliferae) (cf. Dierbach 1833, 213*).
The original soma plant has not yet been identified with certainty. Cf. soma on pages 792 ff.
The ancient literature contains descriptions of several species of strychnos, of which the fourth, strychnos manikos (“the strychnos that makes one wild”), must have been a potent psychoactive plant (Theophrastus, Dioscorides, Pliny). Many philologists and botanists have attempted to uncover the botanical identification of strychnos manikos, interpreting it variously as Atropa belladonna, Datura stramonium, Solanum spp., Strychnos nux-vomica, Withania somnifera, and Physalis spp. (Baumann 1982, 111*). It is possible that the name strychnos was a catchall term for psychoactive plants.
A piece of wood from the trunk of the Cambodian shlain tree. When ground, it is said to potentiate the effects of hemp.
This hallucinogenic plant, found in the Amazonian lowlands of Peru, is a vine “whose leaves are black on top, yellow underneath.” It is said to have effects similar to those of ayahuasca but also to produce visions by itself. The shamans of the Shipibo-Conibo Indians regard it as a “master of the healing arts” (Gebhart-Sayer 1987, 340*). The shaman ingests two grated roots with water each night for ten nights. The visionary experience follows the tenth administration. The few known reports of experiences suggest that the effects are very much like the visions produced by ayahuasca (Gebhart-Sayer 1987, 206 ff.*) as well as the effects of shahuan peco.
“Sheen of the Ocean”
This Indian plant with visionary powers was described by Democritus in a lost work. Pliny paraphrases:
The thalassaigle is found on the River Indus and is thus called by another name, potamaugis [“river sheen”]; whoever drinks of it becomes insane, whereby strange faces hover in front of him. (24.164)
It is possible that this information refers to soma, which was drunk in the Indus Valley.
“Messenger of the Gods”
Pliny wrote the following about this plant, which has been neither identified nor even interpreted:
The theangelis comes from the mountains of Lebanon in Syria, from the Dikte Mountains of Crete, and from Babylon and Susa in Persia; when drunk, it imparts magicians with the ability to prophesy. (24.164)
Pliny, basing his account upon the report of his informant Democritus, notes:
The theombrontion grows 30 schoine [app. 166.5 km] away from Choaspes, is the color of the peacock, and has a wonderful scent; the kings of Persia drink it for all physical ailments and to protect themselves from inconstancy of the mind and the sense of justice; because of its powerful effects, it is also called semnios [“the exalted” or “the sacred plant”]. (24.162)
This description suggests that this plant had a tonic effect upon the brain. Theombrontion was also an ingredient in a fertility-promoting mixture known as hermesias (“drink of Hermes”) that also included pine nuts, honey, myrrh (cf. incense), saffron (Crocus sativus), and palm wine (24.166). The name theombrontion may have been a corruption of theos, “god,” and bromios, “food.”
The theombrontion plant has sometimes been interpreted as Aeonium arboreum (L.) Webb et Berth. [syn. Sempervivum arboreum L.] (Crassulaceae).
Tila is actually the Spanish name for the linden (Tilia spp.), which has mild sedative effects (cf. diazepam). Since the linden is not indigenous to the Americas, the European name was applied to American plants. Thus, in Cuba, Justicia pectoralis is called either tilo or tila. Numerous plants are known in Latin America as tila. In southern Mexico, an as yet unidentified plant is also called tila. Its fruits, which resemble the large fruit capsules of Turbina corymbosa, are referred to as flor de tila, “linden flowers.”A tea made from these flowers is used in folk medicine as a tranquilizer and nerve tonic. This plant may be identical with or related to Tilia mexicana Schlechtend. (Tiliaceae) (Argueta et al. 1994, 1337*).
There is a sacred mountain in Iran known as Kohi-Gabr, “mountain of the fire worshippers.” In ancient Persia, before the advent of Islam, the fire worshippers were the people who would ritually drink haoma(cf. Peganum harmala). A ruin at the peak of the mountain is thought to once have been a Zoroastrian fire temple (cf. Ephedra spp.):
Concentrated magical essence has remained in this place, and an army of especially gifted genies dwells there. It is said that the “power” causes people who wish to approach the spot to shrink back. . . . Stories relate how those who climbed Kohi returned as madmen or cripples or wasted away. (I. Shah 1994, 153*)
We do not know what really transpired on this mountain. But it was associated both with other places of power and with certain psychoactive substances:
These fruits of an as yet unidentified plant are sold in Mexico under the name flores de tila, “linden flowers.” They are said to have narcotic effects.
Not far from this place, there are other mountains that are also linked to magical concepts. Here the fire-worshipping magicians once made offerings of fruit to placate certain spirits and to entice them into captivity so that they would obey their commands. Anyone who wanted to have a wish fulfilled would write it down and place it in a bowl filled with fruit, which the magicians would then take up the mountain. At the peak of one such mountain grew the tobo tree, the tree of eternal bliss. It is said to resemble the tree that stands at the right side of Allah in paradise. Good fairies carry the great sufferings and fears to this place, where they are purified so that the sufferers will be freed from their afflictions. (I. Shah 1994, 153 f.*)
The tobo tree is presumably some type of psychoactive plant that was identified with the tree of knowledge.
“Trees with Special Fruits”
Herodotus (ca. 500–424 B.C.) was a Greek historian and the father of ethnography. In his Histories, he provides us with the following story from Assyria:
Of the River Araxes [= Jaxartes/Syr Darja], some say that it is larger than the Istros, others that it is smaller. Numerous islands are said to lie within it, about the size of the island of Lesbos, and these are inhabited by people who dig out all kinds of roots in the summer and nourish themselves from these, but in winter they live from the fruits of trees, which they collect and store after they have ripened. They also have other trees that bear very special fruits. When many people have come together, they light a fire, sit around it in a circle, and throw these fruits into the fire. When the smell of the burning fruits enters their noses, they become inebriated like the Greeks from their wine. They throw more and more fruits into the fire, so that they become more and more inebriated and finally jump up to dance and to sing. This is what is said about the way they live. (2.202)
The “fruits” being burned here as an incense sound suspiciously like female hemp flowers (Canabis indica, Cannabis sativa) and the ritual like that of the associated Scythian purification ritual. Their true identity, however, cannot be proved.
The Yecuana Indians of southern Venezuela are said to have used a magical plant called woi, apparently for psychoactive purposes. The botanical identity of this plant is completely unknown (Schultes 1966, 298*).