Datura A Hallucinogen That Can Kill

There is another hallucinogenic plant in the mythology of the Huichols, anthropomorphized as Kieri Tewiyari, Kieri Person, whose special powers and relationship to the Sun deity are acknowledged with offerings of prayer arrows and other gifts. However, if Kieri (pronounced ki-yeri) is used at all, it is only rarely, in secrecy, and is generally disapproved. For many Huichols regard Kieri as a dangerous sorcerer whose effects, unlike those of peyote, may cause permanent insanity and even death.

Kieri, whose story "from ancient times" is recited by shamans especially in the context of the peyote ceremonies, grows in remote and rocky places in and about the mountainous Huichol country, with a prominent cluster of sharp rock pinnacles, rising precipitously at the edge of Cora territory in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental, generally thought to be his proper home. It is said that Kieri established himself at this formidable redoubt—which, incidentally, also served as a last bastion of armed Indian resistance against the Spaniards in 1722—after his defeat by the deer god and culture hero Kauyumarie.

What does this Kieri look like? In his plant form, say the Huichols, Kieri has white, funnel-shaped flowers and spiny seed pods. With the enchanting music of his violin he lures the unwary and bids them taste of his leaves, his flowers, his roots, and his seeds. But whoever obeys his wiles suffers insanity or death: people bewitched by Kieri will believe themselves to be birds, for example, able to fly from the highest rocks, but unless they are saved by a shaman with the aid of peyote and Kauyumarie, they will dash themselves to death below. Or, if they heed Kieri's urgings and eat more and more of him, they will fall into a deep sleep and never awaken, because only the shaman knows in what manner to deal with such a sorcerer. Nevertheless, one must respect Kieri for his supernatural power, and when one encounters him one should deposit the proper offerings, such as prayer arrows, and when one passes his rocky abode in the distance, one should make appropriate ritual gestures in his direction. The peyote pilgrims whom we accompanied to Wirikuta in 1968 did in fact hold a special ceremony when they came within sight of the aforementioned rocky pinnacles in Nayarit, including the burning of candles (as miniature effigies of the fire deity), and propitiatory chants and gestures toward Kieri's dwelling place.

Conventional wisdom has long held that Kieri is Datura inoxia (meteloides). Robert Zingg (1938) identified it as such, and the descriptions of the plant collected by Barbara G. Myerhoff and myself in 1964/1966 accorded with most of its salient characteristics. These included, in particular, funnel-shaped flowers and the spiny seed pods from which "thorn apple," one of the popular names for two species, D. inoxia and D. stramonium, is derived (Furst and Myerhoff, 1966:3-39; 1972:53-106). ("Extract of Thorn Apple" is also the name under which medicinal Datura preparations were bottled and marketed by the Shakers in the nineteenth century). The identification of Kieri as Datura now appears to have been correct only for part of the Huichol country. While it accords with the probable ultimate origins of the ancestral Huichols in the Southwest, where Datura continues to play an important role, especially among the Zuni, according to Timothy Knab (personal communication), a field worker in anthropological linguistics, Huichol informants in the region visited by him attributed the name Kieri to a species of Soiandra, a genus closely related to and resembling to some degree the Daturas and probably chemically similar to them. While Soiandra use in a strictly ceremonial context has not been previously reported, M. Martinez (1966) identified hueipatii, said to have been a narcotic used in central Mexico at the time of the Conquest, us Soiandra guerrerensis .* The same Mexican scholar, who also authored a classic modern work on medicinal plants. Las Plantas Medicinales de Mexico (1959), notes that S. guerrerensis is still employed by some Indians in the state of Guerrero.

Although they make offerings to the plant, call it the "real Kieri," and express great awe, if not indeed fear, of it, no Huichols today appear to be using Soiandra medicinally or hallucinogenically. But the mythic descriptions of the powers of Kieri to bewitch and transform are too specific not to be based on actual experience, presumably at some time in the past. If Kieri is Datura in one part of the rugged Huichol country and Soiandra in another, or if, as well may be the case, there are two Kieris, in the main potentially malevolent, one manifesting himself in Datura and the other in Soiandra, we are confronted with the phenomenon of a supernatural being who manifests himself in the same culture in two related but distinct solanaceous species. But considering that Datura and Soiandra share similar potentially dangerous chemical properties, that would perhaps not be so strange.

Figure 10 Datura. Two species, as depicted in the sixteenth century Aztec herbal known as the Codex Badianus.

* I am indebted to Timothy Knab (personal communication) for drawing my attention to this reference.

The early chroniclers reported that the Aztec priests administered to those to be sacrificed an herbal anodyne, so that they did not feel the pain. Although the Aztec name for the unidentified plant was not one of those used for Datura, some botanists and pharmacologists have thought it might nonetheless have been a Datura, whose effects are known to be analgesic. But there was no certainty, and the real identity of the mysterious narcotic has remained in question since the sixteenth century. If Solandra turns out to possess the same analgesic properties as its close relative Datura, the mystery of the elusive hallucinogenic yauhtii may at last have been solved.

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