Culture Clash

Witch Woodcut

The arrival of a new breed of savant in New Spain (Mexico) in the Seventeenth Century provides a near-perfect example of the reductionism that shapes the view of the colonizer towards the colonized - "prejudice" would be another way of putting it. Conquistador Catholics, already sensitized to heresy by the blows of Protestant reformers, arrived in the New World predisposed to find the devil's work in the practices of yet un-Christianized natives. The devil was God's alter ego in the black-and-white schema of their faith. The new Administration had no choice but to root out devilish practices where they found them, and turn native ways to those of the "true" religion.

The Richard Schultes paper "A Contribution to Our Knowledge of Rivea Corymbosa: the Narcotic Ololiuqui of the Aztec" (Botanical Museum of Harvard University, Cambridge, 1941) was a landmark publication for more reasons than one. It provided a definitive identification of the sacred morning glory seed ingested by Zapotecs and other indigenous people Schultes mentions. As a side benefit, the author translated portions of neglected texts by Conquistador botanists and similar texts - the story does not vary - by their more recent counterparts. Here are passages on the fall-out from ingesting potent morning glory seeds written from the standpoint of the culturally alien:

 (1629) "Those things which I have mentioned [i.e., springs, rivers, mountains, ololiuqui, etc.] have their deities. Ololiuqui ... deprives those who use it of their reason... The natives communicate in this way with the devil, for they usually talk when they become intoxicated with ololiuqui, and they are deceived by various hallucinations which they attribute to the deity which they say resides in the seeds..."

(1590) "... then they did put to it a certain seed being ground which they call ololiuqui, whereof the Indians make a drink to see visions, for that the virtue of this plant is to deprive man of sense... By means of this ointment, they become witches and did see and speak with the devil. The priests being slobbered with this ointment lost all fear."

The devil-idea was still going strong in 1878: "... they place the mixture before their gods, saying it is the food of the gods, for which reason they call it divine food; and with this unction, they become witch-doctors and commune with the devil."

That morning glory seeds were ambrosia of the gods was taken seriously by those who understood the divine purpose. (1892) "These seeds ... are held in great veneration ... They place offerings to the seeds ... in secret places so that the offerings cannot be found if a search is made. They also place these seeds among the idols of their ancestors .... The natives do these things with so much respect that when some transgressor of the law who has the seeds in his possession is arrested and is asked for the paraphernalia which are used in taking ololiuqui ... or for the seeds themselves, he denies vehemently that he knows anything about the practices. The natives do this not so much because of fear of the law as because of the veneration in which they hold the seed ololiuqui. They do not wish to offend ololiuqui with demonstrations before the judges of the use of the seeds and with public destruction of the seed by burning."

Schultes does not wish to, but the visitor may like to add, "May I too hold the sacred in the same respect!"

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