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, 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 pre-eminent.

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 themselves.

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 Our Lord.

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 Schultes’s paper.

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 ‘pellets’.

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 seed.

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 and drunk.

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 undeniable.

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 she said.

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 dwarfs’.

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 Turbina corymbosa. 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.