Family: Convolvulaceae (Morning Glory family)
Genus: Turbina (=Rivea)
Turbina corymbosa is a large, woody, perennial creeper vine that has thin, heart-shaped leaves and white, funnel-shaped flowers. The plant is thought to be indigenous to Mexico, but it’s also very commonplace in Cuba, as well as on other islands of the West Indies and along the North American Gulf Coast. It also appears in Central America and in the Amazon basin of southern Columbia. The plant requires a tropical climate to thrive and needs to be well watered. It cannot endure any frost.
Identified as the Aztec visionary inebriant oliliuhqui, the plant’s round seeds were found to contain LSA (Lysergic Acid Amides). In the early 1960s, Albert Hofmann isolated the active psychoactive components of Turbina corymbosa (contained in the seeds, the leaves and the roots), which he recognized to be ergot alkaloids, which were closely related to the constituents of Claviceps purpurea and LSD.
Ololiuqui seeds have a long history of use in Central Mexico and have been used ritualistically since Pre-Hispanic times by the Aztecs and related tribes on the level of importance as the sacred mushrooms and the cactus peyotl, all of which have played important roles in their magic and religious ceremonies. Ololiuqui is still used today by certain tribes, such as the Zapotecs, Chinantecs, Mazatecs, and the Mixtecs, all who reside in the remote mountains of southern Mexico in relative isolation, with little or no outside influence of Christianity.
Turbina corymbosa, synonymously known as Rivea corymbosa and, less frequently, as Ipomoea sidaefolia, is identified in Mexico by a number of different vernacular names. The most significant monikers are the Aztec oliliuhqui (“that which causes turns”), ololiuqui (“little gods”), coaxihuitl (“snake plant”) and cuexpalli. The Chinantec refer to the vine as a-mu-kia, huan-mei, and huan-men-ha-sei; the Maya as xtabentum; the Mazatec as no-so-le-na; the Mixtec as yucu-yaha; the Zapotec as bador, badoh, bitoo, kwan-la-si, and kwan-do-a; and in Spanish it is known as flor de la Virgen, la señorita, Benjuco de San Pedro (“vine of St. Peter”), manto, pascua, piule, semilla de la Virgen, yerba de las serpientes, yerba de la Virgen.
An excellent review of the historical, botanical, and ethnological aspects of ololiuqui was given in 1941 by Richard Evans Schultes in his monograph "A Contribution to Our Knowledge of Rivea corymbosa: The Narcotic Ololiuqui of the Aztecs" (). The following information on the history of ololiuqui, its botanical identification and its past and present use have been taken mainly from Schultes' monograph.
Judging from the numerous ancient writers quoted in Schultes' monograph, one is able to conclude that ololiuqui must have been widely and extensively used in the valleys of Mexico in Pre-Hispanic times. In many accounts, ololiuqui appears to have been more important in divinity than peyotl or teonanácatl. In addition, its medicinal use was very extensive. It served as a diuretic, an anti-flatulence aid, a remedy for venereal troubles, a pain reliever, a treatment for wounds and bruises, and as medicine thought to dissolve tumors. It was also believed to assist in women in giving birth. Ololiuqui was deemed to possess a deity of its own, that which could work miracles if properly propitiated to the gods.
Francisco Hernandez, a Spanish physician who between 1570 and 1575 carried out extensive research on the flora and fauna of Mexico for King Philip II of Spain, provided the first descriptive account and detailed illustration of ololiuqui. In his famous "Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus, seu plantarum, animalium, mineralium mexicanorum historia", which was presented in Rome in 1651, Hernandez described and classified ololiuqui under the heading "De Oliliuhqui, seu planta orbicularium foliorum".
An excerpt of a free translation of Hernandez’s 1651 Latin version reads as follows: "Oliliuhqui, which some call coaxihuitl, or snake-plant, is a twining herb with thin, green, cordate leaves, slender, green terete stems, and long white flowers. The seed is round and very like coriander." In this work, Hernandez describes the preparation of ololiuqui in medicine, where one would grind the seeds to a course powder, then add the ground seeds to Spanish pepper and milk. This concoction was drunk to alleviate pain and heal all sorts of ailments, inflammations, and ulcers.”
In modern times, dried or fresh seeds are added to alcoholic beverages such as mescal or pulque (agave), aguardiente (sugarcane liquor), tepache (maize beer, also known as chichi) and balché. Fresh seeds are crushed, added to pulque and then allowed to steep before imbibing.
Hernandez also claimed that Indian priests who would embark on a journey to communicate with the spirit world, would eat ololiuqui seeds to induce a state of delirium during which they were able to receive messages from the supernatural and commune with their gods. He reported that these priests saw visions and went into states of terrifying hallucinations while under the influence of the drug.
Reko described in detail the ceremonial use of ololiuqui in his monograph "Magische Gifte" (). Usually professional soothsayers, or "piuleros,” guide their clients by presenting them with advice while the piuleros are under the influence of the drink “piule” (another name for the decoction of ololiuqui). Sometimes these shaman would also give the ololiuqui drink to their client or patient, who then replies to the piulero's leading questions in the narcotic-hypnotic state induced by the drug, thus revealing facts about their condition; sometimes even diagnosing their own specific illness, for which the piulero then determines the appropriate medicines and course of treatment.
Ololiuqui was used by the ancient Aztecs not only as a potion but also as an ingredient in magical ointments. Literature from the colonial period describes an ointment known as “sacred flesh” that was prepared from the ashes of burned insects, tobacco and ololiuqui seeds. This preparation had many ritualistic uses, although the most practical, and popular, of which was as a topical ointment to treat gout. In addition to the seeds, the leaves and the roots of this plant also have psychoactive properties. They are used for divinatory purposes as well, however the exact preparation for these religious purposes is not known.
It was noted in Spanish colonial literature that ololiuqui was a known inebriant. Terrifying hallucinations were also described in detail, and it was known to deprive one of judgment and make one “act crazy and possessed.” Another use of this drink was to employ it as a “psychic serum” – one would take the drink in order to find things that had been stolen, lost or misplaced and then, while under the influence of ololiuqui, discover where the items were, and/or who took or stole them. The same principle applied to lovers scorned; a man whose wife left him, or a wife whose husband left her, would take the ololiuqui drink to learn the underlying cause of the relationship break-up – often adultery would be discovered this way, with the cheating partner’s lover being identified in the process. This use of ololiuqui seeds still continues today, with only slight variations, among the Zapotec, Mixtec, Mazatec and Mixe peoples.
R. E. Schultes, "A Contribution to our Knowledge of Rivea Corymbosa: The Narcotic Ololiuqui of the Aztecs" - Botanical Museum, Harvard Univ., Cambridge, Mass., 1941.
V. A. Reko, "Magische Gifte, Rausch- und Betäubungsmittel der Neuen Welt” - Ferdinand Enke, Stuttgart 1936.