Male Female Symbolism and Acculturation

The mushroom of the origin myth is a white fungus with a large cap that is sometimes consumed in the Bwiti cult and that also plays a role in herbal concoctions. No psychoactive properties have been reported, but the mushroom has not been studied ethnobotanically or chemically.

Fernandez points out several important elements in the myth. First, it clearly identifies the eboka plant with the deep forest and the Pygmies as an agent of transition that enables the people to pass from the familiar village deep into the dark and mysterious forest that holds the secrets of death (recalling that the Fang themselves once made the traumatic transition from the open savannah lands to the north into the equatorial rain forest). Second, there is the universal image of the cave as the place of death and rebirth. Third, the story of the discovery of eboka by the wife emphasizes the crucial role of women in the cult. While in the MBieri curing cult women are dominant, in Bwiti men and women have an equal place. However, the cult directs itself to the female principle of the universe: Nyingwan Mebege, author of procreation and guarantor of a prosperous life. Fernandez also notes that Bwiti eboka is the left-hand plant—the left side of the chapel is female—while the phallic mushroom stands at the right, or male, side, repeating the directional juxtaposition of eboka and mushroom at the entrance to the mythic cave of death and rebirth.

Finally, Fernandez draws attention to a certain eucharistic implication of the planting of parts of the Pygmy who upon his death became eboka:

This makes the consumption of the roots an act of communion with the Pygmy—originator of the cult who had been chosen by Zame and brought to heavenly abode. Hence we have in the eating of eboka a eucharistic experience with similarities to Christian communion. How much of this is a syncretism with Christianity and how much is original with the Fang is difficult to say. One can suspect more of the former. For not only do members of Bwiti practice communion, employing eboka instead of bread, but they also boast of the efficacy of eboka over bread in its power to give visions of the dead. Some of the more Christian branches of Bwiti, not fully cognizant with the origins legend, even speak of eboka as a more perfect and God-given representation of the body of Christ! (p. 247).

This syncretistic view of the meaning of eboka is strikingly similar to what we find today in Mexican mushroom rituals (see Chapter Seven) which likewise blend Christian with traditional Indian elements and identify the mushroom with Christ. But I rather suspect that there is more to the eucharistic implication than just Christian acculturation. In the first place, the origin myth in which a dismembered Pygmy transforms into the sacred hallucinogenic plant is essentially similar to the Colombian Indian tradition of the Yaje Woman and her baby, whose dismembered body becomes Banisteriopsis caapi (see below). This myth is certainly not influenced by Christian beliefs, any more than is the Huichol story of peyote as the transformed flesh of the ritually slain deer deity (see Chapter Ten). Again— the manner in which on the peyote hunt the first peyote—the flesh of the slain deer god—is divided and distributed to his companions by the officiating shaman cannot but recall the Eucharistic "Take, eat, this is my body." Yet there is little question that the Huichol ceremony is pre-European and that its eucharistic element is no more "Christian" than was the communal eating of the dismembered body of the transubstantiated "god-impersonator" in the sacrificial rite of the Aztecs. Indeed, this act of ritual cannibalism reminded some of the early Spaniards so uncomfortably of the rite of the Eucharist that they tried to explain it away as vile distortion of Christian communion by the Devil himself!



Figure 1 Banisteriopsis caapi Harmaline and Related Alkaloids

Hallucinogenic harmala alkaloids (harmine, harmaline, harmalol, and harman), which belong to the beta-carbolines, were originally isolated from an Old World perennial Peganum harmala, or Syrian rue. Syrian rue, the traditional source of the characteristic red dye of Turkish carpets, is at home in the Mediterranean and central Asia, but it has several close relatives in the southwestern United States and Mexico, of which none, so far as is known, has ever been employed hallucinogenically. Nor do we know of any deliberate psychedelic use of Peganum harmala, even though the plant is a very old folk remedy of whose intoxicating potential Arab physicians and folk healers of the Orient must surely have been aware since antiquity (Schultes, 1970:576).

Figure 2 Banisteriopsis rusbyana

Syrian rue is actually only one of at least eight plant families of the Old and New Worlds in which harmala alkaloids are now known to be present. Botanically the most numerous and culturally the most interesting of these is Banisteriopsis, a malpighiaceous tropical American genus that comprises no less than a hundred different species, of which at least two, B. caapi, discovered and named by Spruce in the mid-nineteenth century, and B. inebrians, and quite possibly others, such as B. muricata, are the basis of the potent hallucinogenic ritual beverages the Indians of Amazonia call, depending on the local language, by such terms as caapi (more correctly, kahpi or gahpi), mihi, dapa, pinde, natema, yaje, etc. In Quechua, the language of the Incas of pre-Hispanic Peru and of millions of Andean Indians today, the drink is eloquently called ayahuasca, meaning "vine of the souls," a term that has been adopted also by some non-Quechua Indians east of the Andes. Yaje (or yage) is a Tukanoan word widely employed in the northwest Amazon, and for the reason that by far the best anthropological analysis ever written on the complex mythological, symbolic, and social meanings of the Banisteriopsis drink in the aboriginal world comes from the Tukanoan Desana of Colombia (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1971, 1972), that is what we will call it here.

According to Schultes (1972a:38), the earliest chemical studies were probably carried on B. caapi, and it is this plant also of which Louis Lewin wrote in the 1920's, when the first psychotherapeutic experiments with an extract of harmala alkaloids were carried out in Germany. Originally a number of Banisteriopsis alkaloids were described under such names as telepathine, yageine, and banisterine, but all these were eventually identified as harmine, which is contained, along with harmaline and d-tetrahydroharmine, in the bark, stems, and leaves of B. caapi and B. inebrians. These psychedelic alkaloids have been found to be amazingly long-lived—much more so than those, for example, in the sacred mushrooms of Mexico. Pieces of the stems of the type material of B. caapi which Spruce collected in Brazil in 1851, and which were eventually deposited in England after first being lost in the Brazilian wilderness for nearly a year under conditions that hardly favored preservation, were recently submitted to laboratory tests at Schultes's suggestion, to see how much, if any, of the active principles had been retained. To everyone's astonishment, they were found to contain—after 115 years!—practically the same concentration of active harmine as did material that had been freshly collected. Harmala alkaloids have also been isolated from Cabi paraensis, another malpighiaceous genus that has many uses in Brazilian folk medicine, but here again no deliberate intoxicating use is known.

In addition to the two principal species of Banisteriopsis from which yaje is known to be made, there is still another that figures in this complex, B. rusbyana, whose stems and leaves, oddly enough, do not contain the beta-carboline alkaloids characteristic of B. caapi and B. inebrians but instead yield tryptamines, a pharmacological phenomenon to which we will refer again when we get to the problem of hallucinogenic snuffs. For the moment let it be said only that the way the Indians use B. rusbyana suggests that long before the advent of modern chemistry, they discovered for themselves that the alkaloids of certain plants require the addition of others to become psychedelically effective.

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