Turbina corymbosa and Ipomoea spp.
According to Wade Davis, Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD, discovered that “the active principles of ololiuque [Turbina corymbosa] were two indole alkaloids, lysergic acid amide and lysergic acid hydroxyethylamide, compounds that he already had sitting on the shelves of his lab.”
About this and other members of the Convolvulaceae family, Schultes and Hofmann write in their indispensable work Plants of the Gods (1998): “As with the sacred mushrooms, the use of the hallucinogenic Morning Glories, so significant in the life of pre-Hispanic Mexico, hid in the hinterlands until the present century.”
Fagetti’s research on the combined ground seeds of Ipomoea violacea (Semillas de la Virgen) and Datura stramonium (San José) used in healing ceremonies in Huajuapan de León, Oaxaca, Mexico is based on fieldwork she carried out there in 2010. The results, which include raw and genuine transcriptions of dialogues between an octogenarian Mixtec preparer of potions and people with illnesses, definitively confirm the persistence of ancestral indigenous plant-knowledge (even if it is syncretized with certain Christian elements, as was the case in the 1950s with María Sabina and her healing mushrooms).
Fagetti makes it clear that the preparer of the ground seed mixture (ingested as a drink and applied topically) is not so much a healer as a listener who tries to understand what the plants have ordered. The trance produced by the seeds along with other powerful applied vegetal materials such as the leaves of Brugmansia allows the sick person to understand the origins of the illness and engage in self-healing. The seeds are considered to speak and make the patient speak as well, these two voices coming together as a first person plural (“We”) with divine visionary powers.
Although the Amerindian ritual use of Turbina corymbosa remains shrouded in mystery and the subject of much speculation, García Quintanilla and Eastmond Spencer make significant contributions to understanding the properties of this plant among contemporary Maya midwives in Pixoy, Yucatán who use this plant (that they call X-táabentun) containing ergonovine with its oxytocic characteristics to induce childbirth. Their ancestral knowledge allows them to administer exactly the right dose at exactly the right time.
In this same exemplary article, the authors link the mythic narrative associated with Turbina corymbosa to death and rebirth, a fitting origin for this plant used to bring new life into the world. As Mayan oral tradition has it, there were once two sisters: Uts Colel was considered good, and Xkeban who was viewed as a sinner due to the way she freely lived her sexual life, though her close and loving relationship with all plants and animals was widely known. Xkeban died and when she was found days later, people discovered that her body exuded a marvelous perfume and that the animals defended her even from the flies. Those who walked with Xkeban’s body to bury her also took on her pervasive fragrance. Soon, springing from her grave were the flowers of the first X-táabentun plant, Turbina corymbosa. Xkeban had escaped from the Lords of Death in the underworld and was reborn as an emblem of fertility in the form of the plant that helps women as they give birth. The supposedly good sister Uts Colel is said to have died a virgin and was famous for the pestilent smell that surrounded her always in life.
The commercially-available honey liqueur from Casa D’Aristi, Xtabentún, is advertised as “inspired” in an original Mayan drink, but it is no longer made from honey produced by stingless Melipona bees nourishing themselves exclusively on the flowers of Turbina corymbosa. Is it possible that this honey had psychoactive properties and had ceremonial uses as the basis of an ancient beverage? Were the seeds of T. corymbosa added to the fermented drink of the Lacandon Maya baalche’? For now, these questions remain unanswered.
Jan Elferink, a Dutch medical biochemist and researcher of ancient Amerindian ethnobotany, discusses how the Aztecs prepared a potent psychoactive bitumen called teotlaqualli, whose main ingredients included ololiuqui, tobacco and the ashes of different types of charred poisonous animals. The Nahuatl name of this thick black unguent means “divine food” and was used to cover the skin of the priests or even the emperor himself to facilitate the strengthening of the spirit and communication with the gods before performing human sacrifices according to the prevailing religious rites.
Fagetti’s work on Ipomoea violacea and Datura stramonium as well as the research on Turbina corymbosa by Alejandra García Quintanilla and Amarella Eastmond Spencer appear in an impressive dossier published by Cuicuilco: Revista de ciencias antropológicas on the ritual use of entheogens among a variety of indigenous groups in Mexico. This issue (53) is a must-read for Spanish-speakers.