Ololiuhqui (Rivea Corymbosa) notes by Schultes & Wasson
from Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University,
Vol. 20, No. 6, Nov. 22, 1963, pp. 161-212.
Picietl | Peyotl | Teonanacatl |
Pipiltzintzintli | Ololiuhqui | Tlitliltzen
Picietl, peyotl, teonanactl, and ololuihqui- these were the four great
divinatory plants of Mexico at the time of the Conquest. We give the names in
Nahuatl, the lingua franca of that time, spoken as a mother tongue by the Aztecs
and many other peoples. By 'divinatory' we mean plants that served in Middle
American cultures as keys to knowledge withheld from men in their normal minds,
the keys to Extra-sensory Perception, the Mediators (as the Indians believed)
between men and their gods. These plants were hallucinogens, psychotropic
agents, psychotomimetics, if we must use the only words of contemporary science.
Among the remote monolingual peoples of Mexico these plants continue to this day
playing their divine role. Whenever the Indian family is troubled by a grave
problem, it is likely to turn to one or the other of these plants and consult it
according to the usage prevailing in the region. There were other plants that belong to the same class, and of these more will be said later.
But if we may rely on the number and quality of the witnesses, the importance
that they attribute to these plants, and the strangely moving episodes that they
tell us of the Indians' utter faith in and defense of them--then these four were
The civilization of Europe had known nothing like these novel plants of Mexico,
at least not in recorded history. Similar miraculous powers were attributed, in
a way, to the Elements in the Mass; and the Catholic Church in Mexico was quick
to perceive this, to it, alarming parallel. But belief in the divinity of the
Sacrament called for an act of faith, whereas the Mexican plants spoke for
In a number of situations the record is clear: the friars conceded the miracles
wrought by these agents, but attributed them to the machinations of the Evil
One. Root and branch, the Church strove to extirpate what is called this
superstition, this idolatry of the miracle-working plants. The Church was
unsuccessful; just how unsuccessful can be seen from the fact that these plants
are taken today, throughout the Indian country, in ceremonials invoking the very
name of the Virgin Mary, of the Saints (especially St. Peter and St. Paul), of
The accessories to the rite are sold in every market place, at a special stall,
often in the shadow of the parish church. The miracle-working plants pass from
hand to hand by private arrangement; they are never exposed like ordinary garden
produce. The rite takes place in midnight vigils, sometimes accompanied by
stirring age-old chants in the vernacular. The Indians attending these rites may
include prominent lay officials of the church; rumor has it that in certain
places the priest is the leading curandero.
Let it not be forgotten that the primary use of the sacred plants was and
continues to be religious--and by the same token medicinal. Religion and
medicine have not yet been separated out in many of the Indian communities.
Ololiuhqui -- Rivea corymbosa *(See Note)
The least known in the outside world of our quartet of major Mexican divinatory
agents is ololiuhqui, yet it is perhaps the best known and most widely used
among the Indians of that country. In the race for world attention ololiuhqui
has been a slow starter. Beyond the confines of the Sierra Madre few except
specialists have heard of it, and the bibliography on it is short. But its
properties are as sensational as those of teonanacatl and peyotl. Its identity
was settled in 1941. The enigma of its chemistry was resolved in 1960 when, on
August 18 of that year, Dr. Albert Hofmann read his paper in Australia before an
audience of scientists, many of whom were plainly incredulous, so astonishing
were his findings. (22)
Ololiuhqui in Nahuatl is the name of the seeds, not of the plant that yields the
seeds. The word means 'round thing', and the seeds are small, brown, and oval.
The plant itself is a climber, called appropriately coaxihuitl, 'snake-plant',
in Nahuatl, and hiedra or bejicco by the Spanish writers. It is a morning glory,
and it grows easily and abundantly in the mountains of southern Mexico. Unlike
teonanacatl, it bears seed over months, and the seed can be kept indefinitely
and carried far and wide to regions where the plant itself does not grow.
In Spanish it is commonly known as semilla de la Virgen, and in the various
Indian languages there are names for it that should be carefully assembled by
teams of linguists and then studied for their meanings and associations. In
Oaxaca, only among the Trique of Copala have I found no familiarity with it.
Past experience has shown that for a divinatory plant to enlist the attention of
the outside world two steps are usually necessary. First, it should be correctly
and securely identified. Second, its chemistry should be convincingly worked
out. Richard Evans Schultes settled the identity of ololiuhqui in the definitive
paper published in 1941. (23) It is the seed of a species of Convolvulaccne:
Rivea corymbosa (L.) Hall. hi.
Schultes was not the first to link ololiuhqui with this family, but for decades
there had been disputes over its identity, and since Schultes published his
paper there has been none. The starting point for any student of the subject is
It is not my intention here to tell over again the story told by Schultes. I
will only supplement what he had to say with this observation. In the writers of
the colonial period ololiuhqui receives frequent mention, especially in the
Tratado of Hernando Ruiz de Alarcon. Throughout these references there runs a
note of sombre poignancy as we see two cultures in a duel to death--on the one
hand, the fanaticism of sincere Churchmen, hotly pursuing with the support of
the harsh secular arm what they considered a superstition and an idolatry; on
the other, the tenacity and wiles of the Indians defending their cherished
ololiuhqui The Indians appear to have won out.
Today in almost all the villages of Oaxaca one finds the seeds still serving the
natives as an ever present help in time of trouble.
Tlitliltzen -- Ipomoea violacea
Since the appearance of the Schultes paper in 1941, and apart from the chemical
findings of Dr. Hofmann, there has been only one important contribution to our
knowledge of the morning glory seeds. In 1960 Don Totnis MacDougall published
his discovery that in various parts of Oaxaca, especially in the Zapotec area,
another seed is used exactly as ololiuhqui is. (24) This is the seed of a second
morning glory, Ipomoea violacea L. In Zapotec ololiuhqui is known currently as
badoh; the second seed is badoh negro or badungas, the full Zapotec equivalent
of badoh negro. The black seeds are long and somewhat angular. In Nahuatl they
could hardly be called ololuihqui, since this terms means the 'round things' or
The Nahua must have known them: what then did they call them? We believe the
answer is to be found in Pedro Pence's (sic) Breve Relacion de los Dioses y
Rites de la Gentilidad, Par. 46, where he speaks of ololiuhqui, peyote, and
tlitliltzin, all with the same magic properties. The third, possibly a hapax in
the corpus of surviving classic Nahuatl documentation, is clearly not ololiuhqui,
since both are mentioned in the same sentence as distinct products. The word
comes from the Nahuatl root meaning 'black', with a reverential suffix. May we
not assume that this was the name current in classic Nahuatl for the black seeds
that Don Tomas found in wide use among the Zapotecs in the 1950's? Apparently
there is a further reference to badoh negro in the records of the Inquisition: a
Negro slave who was also a curandero used the term ololiuhqui del moreno, which
Dr. Aguirre Beltran thinks was his way of saying 'black ololiuhqui'. But since
this Negro was obviously a stranger both to Nahuatl and to Spanish, little can
be deduced from his terminology.(25)
Taxonomically, the genus Ipomoea is extremely difficult. The binomial Ipomoea
tricolor has already crept into the limited literature that has grown up in
connection with this second kind of ololiuqui. Inasmuch as some confusion may
result in the use of two names--ipomoea tricolor and I. violacea- we should
point out that, after a study of plant material and the taxonomic history of
these binomials, I am in agreement with the American specialist in the
Convolvulaceae, H. D. House (House, H. D.: The North American species of the
genus Ipomoea in Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 18 C19083 259), that both names actually
refer to one polymorphic species. In this case, then, the older name is Ipomoea
Violacea L. Sp. P1. (1753) 161, which should be used in preference to its
synonym I. tricolor Cav. Ic. P1. Rar. 3 (1794) 5, t. 208.
According to Don Tomas, in San Bartolo Yautepec, a village of the Sierra Costera,
only the black seed is used, but in many villages both kinds are known. The
black is widely regarded as the more potent. In some places the black seed is
called macho,'male', and the men take it; the Rivea seed, known as hembra,
'female', is for the women. The dose is often seven or a multiple thereof--
seven, or 14, or 21; or the seeds are measured in the cup of the hand; or, as
one informant in the Sierra Mazateca told me, one takes a beer-cap full of Rivea
In recent years a number of experimenters have taken the Rivea seeds with no
effects, and this has led one of them to suggest that the reputation of
ololiuhqui is due wholly to auto-suggestion.(26) These negative results may be
explained by inadequate preparation. The Indians grind the seeds on the metate
(grinding stone) until they are reduced to flour. Then the flour is soaked in
cold water, and after a short time the liquor is passed through a cloth strainer
If taken whole, the seeds give no result, or even if they are cracked. They must
be ground to flour and then the flour soaked briefly in water. Perhaps those who
took the seeds without results did not grind them, or did not grind them fine
enough, and did not soak the resulting flour.
The chemistry of the seeds seems not to vary from region to region, and seeds
grown in the Antilles and in Europe are as potent as those grown in Oaxaca. I
have taken the black seeds twice in my home in New York, and their potency is
Don Tomis MacDougall and his colleague Francisco Ortega of Tehuantepec, both old
and excellent friends of Ing. Weitlaner, have given us permission to use their
notes and photographs for this article.
We publish for the first time a map showing the villages in Oaxaca where they
have found the Ipomoea seeds in use, a group of seven Zapotec villages visited
by Don Tomas, and also six villages in the Chatino country visited at my express
request by 'Chico' Ortega in 1962, since we had a suspicion that the black seed
was used in that linguistic area.(27) The area of diffusion is certainly far
wider than these villages, but this is a start.
The black seeds are called variously in the Zapotec country: badoh negro seems
to be the prevalent name. But in the Zapotec dialect spoken in San Bartolo
Yautepec they are called la'aja shnash, 'seed of the Virgin'. In this town
Francisco Jiminez ('Chico Bartolo') took a series of photographs in the course
of a routine vigil.
A relative of his, Paula Jimenez, is a curandera, and she officiated, and also
dictated an account of the steps taken in the rite. We give a paraphrase of what
First, the person who is to take the seeds must solemnly commit himself to take
them, and to go out and cut the branches with the seed. There must also be a vow
to the Virgin in favor of the sick person, so that the seed will take effect
with him. If there is no such vow, there will be no effect. The sick person must
seek out a child of seven or eight years, a little girl if the patient is a man,
a little boy if the patient is a woman. The child should be freshly bathed and
in clean clothes, all fresh and clean. The seed is then measured out, the amount
that fills the cup of the hand, or about a thimbleful. The time should be
Friday, but at night, about eight or nine o'clock, and there must be no noise,
no noise at all.
As for grinding the seed, in the beginning you say,'In the name of God and of
the Virgencita, be gracious and grant the remedy, and tell us, Virgencita, what
is wrong with the patient. Our hopes are in thee.'
To strain the ground seed, you should use a clean cloth--a new cloth, if
possible. When giving the drink to the patient, you must say three Pater Nesters
and three Ave Marias. A child must carry the bowl in his hands, along with a
censer. After having drunk the liquor, the patient lies down. The bowl with the
censer is placed underneath, at the head of the bed. The child must remain with
the other person, waiting to take care of the patient and to hear what he will
say. If there is improvement, then the patient does not get up; he remains in
bed. If there is no improvement, the patient gets up and lies down again in
front of the altar. He stays there a while, and then rises and goes to bed
again, and he should not talk until the next day.
And so everything is revealed. You are told whether the trouble is an act of
malice or whether it is illness.
The photographs illustrate the curandera's account of a ceremony invoking the
divine power of the morning glory seeds. A feature of this recital is the child
who serves the beverage. He (or she) is ritually cleansed, a symbol of purity. I
encountered this practice for the first time in 1960, in the Mixteca, in the
Valley of Juxtlahuaca, when Robert Ravicz and I were looking for survivals of
the mushroom cult.
The mushrooms were to be gathered by a virgin, they were ground on the metate by
a virgin.(28) In 1968, in Ayautla and also in San Jose Tenango, in the Sierra
Mazateca, again a maiden ground the leaves of the Salvia divinorum. Here then is
a general pattern, whether in the Sierra Mazateca, or among the Mixtecs of the
Valley of Juxtlahuaca, or among the Zapotecs of San Bartolo Yautepec, for the
preparation of the divinatory agent, either the seeds of the morning glory or
the mushrooms or the hojas de la Pastora.
(Had we been warned in advance to look for this, perhaps we should have
discovered the same custom in other regions visited in years previous to 1960.)
Suddenly it dawns on us that a deep-seated harmony exists between the role of
the child in preparing the divine agent and the names circulating throughout the
Nahuatl area for the sacred mushrooms themselves: we have found them called los
ninos, 'the children', and las hombrecitos y las mujercitas,'the little men and
the little women', and los senoritos, 'the lordlings'. Marina Rosas, curandera
of San Pedro Nexapa, on the slopes of Popocatepetl, called the sacred mushrooms
in Nahuatl apipiltzin, 'the noble princes of the waters', a singularly
appropriate name, in which the prefix 'a' conveys the sense of 'water'.
And here we revert to the miraculous plant that we think is the Salvia
divinorum, called (as we believe) in Nahuatl pipiltzintzintli, in the records of
the Inquisition dating from 1700. This is obviously related to the name for the
sacred mushrooms used by Marina Rosas. Dr. Aguirre Beltran translates it as 'the
most noble Prince' and relates it to Piltzintli, the young god of the tender
corn. In the accounts of the visions that the Indians see after they consume the
sacred food--whether seeds or mushrooms or plant-- there frequently figure
hombrecitos, 'little men', mujercitas, 'little women', duendes, 'supernatural
Beginning with our maiden at her metate, here is a fascinating complex of
associations that calls for further study and elaboration. For example, are
these Noble Children related perchance to the Holy Child of Atocha, which gained
an astonishing place in the hearts of the Indians of Middle America? Did they
seize on this Catholic image and make it a charismatic icon because it expressed
for them, in the new Christian religion, a theme that was already familiar to
them in their own supernatural beliefs?
The tradition of the doncella at the metate is of venerable age. Jacinto de la
Serna, writing his Manual para Ministros toward the middle of the 17th Century,
said in his Chapter XV:3 about ololiuhqui and peyotl:
"come para algunas medicinas es menester molerlo, dicen que para que haga este
effecto a de ser molido por mano de doncella. Nor is this citation unique. An
Indian afflicted in his nether limbs was told to take pipiltzintintli : (29)
que la Rabia de beber molida por una dancella, desleida en agua tibia, en ayunas,
habiendo confesado y comulgado antes de tomarla y ayunado viernes y sabado y el
dia siguiente beberlo en el nombre de la Santisima Trinidad y de la Virgen de
Guadalupe y de San Cayetano · · Y que el aposento habia de estar muy abrigado,
sin Iuz, ni aire, ni ruido, y que no se habia de dormir, sine estar en silencio
aguardantlo a ver dichas figuras (un viejecito vestido de bianco y unos
muchachos pequenitos vestidos del mismo color) que ellas lo untarian y
desenganarian si tenia remedio su mat o no."
What an extraordinary recapitulation of the salient features of the divinatory
ritual as practiced in Middle America! There is the interweaving of Christian
elements and pagan. There is the maiden grinding the divine element, and the
preparation of the suppliant, confessing and communicating before he consults
the Mediator. There is the sheltered spot--protected from sound and light. There
is the consultation on an empty stomach. There is the clear intimation as to
what one sees: a little old man clothed in white and little boys garbed in the
same. Finally there is the august pronouncement whether the affliction of the
suppliant can or cannot be remedied. All these features are always present,
regardless of the divinatory plant that is consulted.
Perhaps there is testimony far older than the colonial records of the
Inquisition. In the collection of Hans Namuth of New York is a 'mushroom stone'
of extraordinary features.(30) The cap of the mushroom carries the grooved ring
that, according to Stephan F. de Borhegyi, is the hallmark of the early
pre-Classic period, perhaps 3000 B.C. The stone comes from the Highlands of
Guatemala. Out of the stipe there leans forward a strong, eager, sensitive face,
bending over an inclined plane. It was not uhtil we had seen the doncella
leaning over a metate and grinding the sacred mushrooms in Juxtla- huaca in
1960, that the explanation of the Namuth artifact came to us. The inclined plane
in front of the leaning human figure must be a metate. It follows that the face
must be that of a woman. Dr. Borhegyi and I went to see the artifact once more:
it was a woman!
A young woman, for her breasts were only budding, a doncella. How exciting it is
to make such a discovery as this: a theme that we find in the contemporary
Mixteca, and in the Sierra Mazateca, and in the Zapotec country, is precisely
the same as we find recorded in Jacinto de la Serna and in the records of the
Santo Oficio. Again it is precisely the same (if our interpretation of the
silent witness in the New York studio of Mr. Namuth be correct) as in a stone
carving that dates back perhaps 2500 years !
Note by R. E. Schultes:
Although the spelling ololiuqui has gained wide acceptance and is now the
commonest orthography, linguistic evidence indicates that this Nahuatl word is
correctly written ololiuhqui.
There have also recently been suggestions that the correct name of ololiuhqui is
These suggestions arise from two articles which have appeared in the past
several years: Roberty, G.- Genera Convolvulacearum in Candollea 14 (1952)
11-60; Wilson, K. A.- The genera of Convolvulaceae in the southeastern United
States in Journ. Am. Arb. 41 (1960) 298-317.
Roberty separates Ipomoea, Rivea and Turbina, putting the three into different
subfamilies. He keeps in Rivea only one species of India and Ceylon. In Turbina,
he has three species: T. corymbosa (which he states occurs in tropical America,
the Canary Islands and the Philippines) and two other species of Mexico.
Wilson, in a key to the genera of Convolvulaceae in the southeastern states,
separates out Turbina as a genus distinct from Ipomoea. While Turbina is keyed
out as a distinct genus, there is no technical consideration of it in the body
of the paper which follows the key. One must assume, consequently, that Turbina
(as conceived by Wilson) does
not occur in southeastern United States. There is, furthermore, no reference to
the binomial Turbina corymbosa as such. Wilson pointed out that: Generic lines
are difficult to draw in this family, and treatments vary with different authors
depending upon the emphasis placed on the taxonomic characters used ...
The question of whether to use the binomial Rivea corymbosa, or to assign the
concept to Ipomoea on the one hand or Turbina on the other is, in effect, one of
personal evaluation, by botanists, of the importance of characters.
When I first discussed ololiuhqui in 1941 (Schultes, R. E.: A contribution to
our knowledge of Rivea corymbosa, the narcotic ololiuqui of the Aztecs ), I
looked into the problem of the generic position of the concept. I decided that,
if indeed one were justified in separating this concept from Ipomoea, it must be
accommodated in Rivea. The outstanding Argentine specialist on the
Convolvulaceae, the late Dr. Carlos O'Donell, who was spending a year at Harvard
University at that time, worked with me closely in this study and was in
complete agreement. I have studied this problem again in connection with
Wasson's recent work and see no reason to change my opinion.
Furthermore, it is clear that such an authority as the late Professor E. D.
Merrill referred this concept to Rivea, placing Turbina in synonymy under Rivea
and T. corymbosa in synonymy under R. corymbosa.
In view of the fact that such authorities as O'Donell and Merrill elected to use
Rivea corymbosa; that Wilson acknowledges that the entire family is in need of
intensive study and ...all characters must be thoroughly re-evaluated; that
Roberty's article is hardly conservative and actually adds little to our basic
knowledge of the family; and that the ethnobotanical and chemical literature has
accepted Rivea corymbosa--in view of all these circumstances perhaps we might
well continue to use the best known name until a really comprehensive study by a
recognized specialist indicates that it is wrong.