Among many African tribes, spirit possession is both known and culturally encouraged as a sacred or magical act. There are numerous possession cults in which special mediums—often or even primarily women—enter into a state of trance or ecstasy and allow their bodies to be possessed by a spirit being. The spirit—whether a deity, demon, bush spirit, animal spirit, ancestor, spirit of a deceased person, or something else—speaks through the body of the enraptured person, who shouts out oracles and prophecies, can perform magical healings, and so on (Lewis 1978). The African possession cults have become established in the New World in the form of Santería, Umbanda, Candomblé, voodoo, et cetera. From an anthropological point of view, the African possession cults are related to shamanism but must be regarded as a separate phenomenon (Goodman 1991). Nevertheless, there are a number of parallels and overlaps, particularly with the cults of Southeast Asia (van Quekelberghe and Eigner 1996). “Also included in spirit possession are such spectacular practices as dervish dancing, walking on hot coals, sword swallowing, and transvestitism, not to mention such mysterious phenomena as ‘automatic writing’ ” (Lewis 1989, 42).
In the literature on possession, it is often claimed that the state of possession occurs “on its own” or, at best, in the context of magical rituals, sacrificial ceremonies, ecstatic drumming (“voodoo drumming”), and dancing. The literature on possession has a very similar tone to the early literature on shamanism in that it ignores the significance of pharmacological stimuli. However, the use of incense, for example, has been documented in most possession cults. And psychoactive plants are clearly used during the initiation ceremonies of the African voodoo cult in Benin (Verger 1995). Substantial amounts of the psychoactive pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium; cf. Fabiana imbricata, kykeon) are used in the Brazilian Candomblé cult (Voeks 1989, 123, 126*). In Haitian voodoo, hemp (Cannabis sativa) is said to play a specific role in triggering possession, and there are also reports of excessive rum drinking (see alcohol). Justicia pectoralis and Cola acuminata are used in the Afro-Cuban Santería cult (González-Wippler 1981, 95). It is quite possible that the use of certain psychoactive plants or products from Indian ethnoflora was adopted by the Afro-American possession cults. The following plants are used to prepare the initiation drink of the Candomblé cult: Ipomoea pescaprae Sweet  (see Ipomoea spp.), Mimosa pudica L. and Mimosa pudica L. var. acerbaBenth. (see Mimosa spp.), Vernonia bahiensisTol., Hibiscus sp., Hibiscus rosa-sinensis L., Mentha sativa L., Ocimum micranthum Willd., Camellia sinensis, Vismia guinensis Pers., Vismia cayennensis Pers., Urostigma doliariumMiq., Eugenia sp., and Eugenia jambosa L. (Fichte 1985, 248).
“There are hardly any publications about the inebriants of the Afro-American religions. It is practically unknown that in Candomblé, when the conventional initiation drink is not sufficient to subdue the consciousness of the novice, a type of brainwashing is carried out . . . so that the conditioning of the initially wild-appearing trance can take place. If the orisha, the god, does not appear because the novice is consciously following the ritual, then the novice is given a drink of cold water in which a few leaves have been soaked. Witnesses attest that immediately and without exception, the novice falls into a deep stupor, the god possesses him in trance, and the initiation can be completed.”
“PSYCHOLEPTICA DER ‘OBRIGAÇÂO DA CONSCIENCIA’ ”
Madzoka medicine consists of four plants:
It was once believed that no use of psychoactive or hallucinogenic plants occurred in Africa or in its cultures. Only in the past two decades has this area of ethnobotany come under greater scrutiny (de Smet 1996*). It can be expected that a great deal of interesting information will come to light.
The possession cult that serves for divination and healing in Malawi uses an herbal mixture, a madzoka medicine, to induce the trance that is required for spirit possession (madzoka). The fresh ingredients (presumably in equal parts) are crushed together, and the resulting paste is rubbed on the face, arms, and legs and sniffed into the nose. The trance is said to begin immediately. The mixture may be sniffed again during the trance (Hargreaves 1986, 27).
In South America, wormseed (Chenopodium ambrosioides), a plant introduced from North America, is used as an additive to coca (see Erythroxylum coca). Securidaca longipedunculata is drunk in Mozambique by those who are “possessed by evil spirits.” The powdered root acts as a potent sneezing powder when inhaled (cf. Veratrum album, snuffs). The Karanga people chew the root cortex to treat impotence. During their religious rites, the Balanta (Guinea-Bissau) use an aqueous extract from the root (which they call tchúnfki) because of its alleged psychoactive effects (Samorini 1996). The root, which contains 4% saponins, tannin, steroid glycosides, and gaultherine, numbs the mucous membranes. The root was recently found to contain three ergot alkaloids: elymoclavine, dehydroelymoclavine, and a new ergoline derivative, called compound A (Samorini 1996).
The bark of Annona senegalensis contains substantial amounts of tannin; mixed with palm oil, it is used as an antidote for poisoning (Assi and Guinko 1991, 30*). Asparagus africanus, the African asparagus, is used in Sotholand during circumcision rituals, when it is rubbed into artificially created wounds to give an initiate strength (Hargreaves 1986, 30 f.). It is possible that mixing the four components together may result in synergistic effects that are psychoactive.
The African annona is a component of the possession medicine that has psychoactive effects. To date, nothing is known about any possible psychoactive activity for this plant. (Copperplate engraving from Meister, Der Orientalisch-Indianische Kunst- und Lust-Gärtner [The Oriental-Indian Art and Pleasure Gardener], 1677)
Mexican wormseed (Chenopodium ambrosioides) is highly esteemed in folk medicine, especially for its anthelmintic and abortifacient properties. In Africa, it is one of the ingredients of an allegedly psychoactive preparation said to induce possession states. The plant has not been reported to have any psychoactive effects. It is possible that it reacts with the other ingredients or exerts a synergistic effect.
Fichte, Hubert. 1985. Psycholeptica der “Obrigaçâo da Consciencia.” Curare, Sonderband 3/85:247–48.
Goodman, Felicitas D. 1991. Ekstase, Besessenheit, Dämonen: Die geheimnisvolle Seite der Religion. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus.
González-Wippler, Migene. 1981. Santería: African magic in Latin America. Bronx, N.Y.: Original Products.
Hargreaves, Bruce J. 1986. Plant induced “spirit possession” in Malawi. The Society of Malawi Journal 39 (1): 26–35.
Lewis, Ioan M. 1978. Ecstatic religion: An anthropological study of spirit possession and shamanism. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books.
———. 1989. Schamanen, Hexer, Kannibalen: Die Realität des Religiösen. Frankfurt/M.: Athenäum.
Samorini, Giorgio. 1996. An African kykeon? Eleusis 4:40–41.
van Quekelberghe, Renaud, and Dagmar Eigner, eds. 1996. Trance, Besessenheit, Heilrituale und Psychotherapie. In Jahrbuch für Transkulturelle Medizin und Psychotherapie (1994). Berlin: VWB.
Verger, Pierre. 1995. Del papel de las plantas psicoactivas durante la inición a ciertas religiones africanas. Takiwasi 3:80–87.