Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Wacky Weeds and the Waggery of Nature

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.”
-William Blake

"...keep them under confinement, and destitute of all society for several months, giving them no other sustenance but the infusion, or decoction, of some poisonous, intoxicating roots...thus they unlive their former lives, and commence [to be] men by forgetting that they ever have been boys..."
-Robert Beverley

How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resigned...

-Alexander Pope

Sometimes psychedelia pops up where it is least expected.



I would be more than hesitant to consume any part of the plant Datura stranomium, cheap thrills or not.  But some people ingest it and survive.  I found not one but two instances of such a thing from the early years of the Virginia colony. 

A Colonial Fighting Farce

In The History and Present State of Virginia (1705), Robert Beverley eavesdrops at the doors of perception and reports on the highs and lows of adventures with Jimson Weed.  In 1676, conflict in Virginia erupted with Bacon's Rebellion and soldiers were sent in to tamp down the unrest. However, one group of hungry soldiers from Jamestown foraged for wild greens despite their apparent deficits in plant identification:

The James-Town Weed (which resembles the Thorny Apple of Peru, and I take to be the Plant so call'd) is supposed to be one of the greatest Coolers in the World. This being an early Plant, was gather'd very young for a boil'd Salad, by some of the Soldiers sent thither, to pacific the Troubles of Bacon; and some of them eat plentifully of it, the Effect of which was a very pleasant Comedy; for they turn'd natural Fools upon it for several Days:

One would blow up a Feather in the Air; another wou'd dart Straws at it with much Fury; and another stark naked was sitting up in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making Mows at them; a Fourth would fondly kiss, and paw his Companions, and snear in their Faces, with a Countenance more antick, than any in a Dutch Droll.

In this frantick Condition they were confined, lest they should in their Folly destroy themselves; though it was observed, that all their Actions were full of Innocence and good Nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallow'd in their own Excrements, if they had not been prevented. A Thousand such simple Tricks they play'd, and after Eleven Days, return'd to themselves again, not remembring any thing that had pass'd. 



And that is how the "James-Town Weed" earned its name, shortened later to "Jimson Weed."  Supper turned into an 11 day trip to Neverland.  Actually, when used properly, it created the antithesis of Neverland. 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Among the native people of the colonies, the coming of age ceremony for young boys involved a drink called wysoccan, a drink containing Jimson Weed.  The objective of the huskanaw ritual was "taking away the memory...to release the youth from all their childish impressions."  As early as 1612, Captain John Smith (1580-1631) described this rite of passage.  Again, from Beverley's 1705 work:

The Indians have their altars and places of sacrifice. Some say they now and then sacrifice young children; but they deny it, and assure us, that when they withdraw their children, it is not to sacrifice them, but to consecrate them to the service of their god. 

Smith tells of one of these sacrifices in his time, from the testimony of some people who had been eye-witnesses. His words are these:

"Fifteen of the properest young boys, between ten and fifteen years of age, they painted white; having brought them forth, the people spent the forenoon in dancing and singing about them with rattles. In the afternoon, they put these children to the root of a tree. By them all the men stood in a guard, every one having a bastinado in his hand, made of reeds bound together. They made a lane between them all along, through which there were appointed five young men to fetch these children: so every one of the five went through the guard to fetch a child each after other by turns; the guard fiercely beating them with their bastinadoes, and they patiently enduring and receiving all, defending the children with their naked bodies from the unmerciful blows, that pay them soundly, though the children escape. All this while the women weep and cry out very passionately, providing mats, skins, moss and dry wood, as things fitting for their children's funeral. After the children were thus past the guard, the guards tore down the tree, branches and boughs with such violence, that they rent the body, made wreaths for their heads, and bedecked their hair with the leaves.

"What else was done with the children was not seen; but they were all cast on a heap in a valley as dead, where they made a great feast for all the company.

"The Werowance being demanded the meaning of this sacrifice, answered, that the children were not dead, but that the Okee or devil did suck the blood from the left breast of those, who chanced to be his by lot, till they were dead; but the rest were kept in the wilderness by the young men, till nine months were expired, during which time they must not converse with any; and of these were made their priests and conjurers."


John Smith - he's checked into countless motels since then


How far Captain Smith might be misinformed in this account, I can't say, or whether their Okee's sucking the breast, be only a delusion or pretence of the physician, (or priest, who is always a physician,) to prevent all reflection on his skill when any happened to die under his discipline. This I choose rather to believe, than those religious romances concerning their Okee. For I take this story of Smith's to be only an example of huskanawing, which being a ceremony then altogether unknown to him, he might easily mistake some of the circumstances of it.

The solemnity of huskanawing is commonly practiced once every fourteen or sixteen years, or oftener, as their young men happen to grow up. It is an institution or discipline which all young men must pass before they can be admitted to be of the number of the great men, officers, or cockarouses of the nation; whereas, by Capt. Smith's relation, they were only set apart to supply the priesthood.

The whole ceremony of huskanawing is performed after the following manner:

The choicest and briskest young men of the town, and such only as have acquired some treasure by their travels and hunting, are chosen out by the rulers to be huskanawed; and whoever refuses to undergo this process dares not remain among them. Several of those odd preparatory fopperies are premised in the beginning, which have been before related; but the principal part of the business is, to carry them into the woods, and there keep them under confinement, and destitute of all society for several months, giving them no other sustenance but the infusion, or decoction, of some poisonous, intoxicating roots; by virtue of which physic, and by the severity of the discipline which they undergo, they became stark, staring mad; in which raving condition, they are kept eighteen or twenty days.

During these extremities, they are shut up, night and day, in a strong inclosure, made on purpose; one of which I saw belonging to the Pamunky Indians, in the year 1694. It was in shape like a sugar loaf, and every way open like a lattice for the air to pass through... In this cage, thirteen young men had been huskanawed, and had not been a month set at liberty when I saw it.

Engraving from History of Virginia, based on John White painting, depicting a priest and a conjurer.  In the background is the huskanaw pen described by Beverley.

Upon this occasion, it is pretended that these poor creatures drink so much of that water of Lethe, that they perfectly lose the remembrance of all former things, even of their parents, their treasure, and their language. When the doctors find that they have drank sufficiently of the wysoccan, (so they call this mad potion,) they gradually restore them to their senses again, by lessening the intoxication of their diet; but before they are perfectly well, they bring them back into their towns, while they are still wild and crazy, through the violence of the medicine.

After this, they are very fearful of discovering anything of their former remembrance; for if such a thing should happen to any of them, they must immediately be huskanawed again; and the second time, the usage is so severe, that seldom any one escapes with life. Thus they must pretend to have forgot the very use of their tongues, so as not to be able to speak, nor understand anything that is spoken, till they learn it again. Now, whether this be real or counterfeit, I dont know; but certain it is, that they will not for some time take notice of any body, nor anything with which they were before acquainted, being still under the guard of their keepers, who constantly wait upon them everywhere till they have learnt all things perfectly over again. Thus they unlive their former lives, and commence men by forgetting that they ever have been boys. If, under this exercise, any one should die, I suppose the story of Okee, mentioned by Smith, is the salvo for it; for, (says he) Okee was to have such as were his by lot, and such were said to be sacrificed.

Now this conjecture is the more probable, because we know that Okee has not a share in every huskanawing; for though two young men happened to come short home, in that of the Pamunky Indians, which was performed in the year 1694, yet the Appomattoxs, formerly a great nation, though now an inconsiderable people, made a huskanaw in the year 1690, and brought home the same number they carried out.



I can account no other way for the great pains and secrecy of the keepers, during the whole process of this discipline, but by assuring you, that it is the most meritorious thing in the world to discharge that trust well, in order to their preferment to the greatest posts in the nation, which they claim as their undoubted right, in the next promotion.

On the other hand, they are sure of a speedy passport into the other world, if they should, by their levity or neglect, shew themselves in the least unfaithful.

Those which I have observed to have been huskanawed, were lively, handsome, well timbered young men, from fifteen to twenty years of age, or upward, and such as were generally reputed rich.

I confess, I judged it at the first sight to be only an invention of the seniors, to engross the young men's riches to themselves; for, after suffering this operation, they never pretended to call to mind anything of their former property; but their goods were either shared by the old men, or brought to some public use; and so those younkers were obliged to begin the world again.

But the Indians detest this opinion, and pretend that this violent method of taking away the memory, is to release the youth from all their childish impressions, and from that strong partiality to persons and things, which is contracted before reason comes to take place. They hope by this proceeding, to root out all the prepossessions and unreasonable prejudices which are fixed in the minds of children.

So that, when the young men come to themselves again, their reason may act freely, without being biased by the cheats of custom and education. Thus, also, they become discharged from the remembrance of any ties by blood, and are established in a state of equality and perfect freedom, to order their actions, and dispose of their persons, as they think fit, without any other control than that of the law of nature. By this means also they become qualified, when they have any public office, equally and impartially to administer justice, without having respect either to friend or relation.


All in the Family

Beverley (1673-1722) was a brother-in-law of the wealthy Virginian William Byrd, II (1674–1744), author of The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina and also The Secret History of the Line between Virginia and North Carolina (which was the R-rated tell-all about the survey party that laid out the borderline.)   For more on the incomparable Billy Byrd, see Pig in a Puppy (4/19/08). ... in which he announces

"The truth of it is, the inhabitants of North Carolina devour so much swine's flesh, that it fills them full of gross humours."


William Byrd, II

Datura Initiation in Carolina

Robert Beverley was also the contemporary of John Lawson (1674-1711) whose accounts of life in the Carolina backcountry were published in A New Voyage to Carolina (1709). Lawson had has own stories of the hallucinatory "husquenaugh" practices.  His full account appeared here 8/24/09 in Sex, Drugs and Rockahomine,  Part Two.  Here's an excerpt:

They give them Pellitory-Bark, and several intoxicating Plants, that make them go raving mad as ever were any People in the World; and you may hear them make the most dismal and hellish Cries, and Howlings, that ever humane Creatures express'd; all which continues about five or six Weeks, and the little Meat they eat, is the nastiest, loathsome stuff, and mixt with all manner of Filth it's possible to get.

After the Time is expired, they are brought out of the Cabin, which never is in the Town, but always a distance off, and guarded by a Jaylor or two, who watch by Turns. Now, when they first come out, they are as poor as ever any Creatures were; for you must know several die under this diabolical Purgation. Moreover, they either really are, or pretend to be dumb, and do not speak for several Days; I think, twenty or thirty; and look so gastly, and are so chang'd, that it's next to an Impossibility to know them again, although you was never so well acquainted with them before.

I would fain have gone into the mad House, and have seen them in their time of Purgatory, but the King would not suffer it, because, he told me, they would do me, or any other white Man, an Injury, that ventured in amongst them; so I desisted.



They play this Prank with Girls as well as Boys, and I believe it a miserable Life they endure, because I have known several of them run away, at that time, to avoid it. Now, the Savages say, if it was not for this, they could never keep their Youth in Subjection, besides that it hardens them ever after to the Fatigues of War, Hunting, and all manner of Hardship, which their way of living exposes them to.

Besides, they add, that it carries off those infirm weak Bodies, that would have been only a Burden and Disgrace to their Nation, and saves the Victuals and Cloathing for better People, that would have been expended on such useless Creatures.

The Waggery of Nature

But back to Robert Beverley.  It would appear that he had a mischievous sense of humor. Beverley relates the story of finding a wildflower that he does not identify, but that I would guess to be the Pink Lady Slipper.

About Two Years ago, walking out to take the Air, I found, a little without my Pasture Fence, a Flower as big as a Tulip, and upon a Stalk resembling the Stalk of a Tulip. The Flower was of a Flesh Colour, having a Down upon one End, while the other was plain. The Form of it resembled the Pudenda of a Man and Woman lovingly join'd in one. Not long after I had discover'd this Rarity, and while it was still in Bloom, I drew a grave Gentleman, about an Hundred Yards, out of his Way, to see this Curiosity, not telling him any thing more, than that it was a Rarity, and such, perhaps, as he had never seen, nor heard of.



When we arrived at the Place, I gather'd one of them, and put it into his Hand, which he had no sooner cast his Eye upon, but he threw it away with Indignation, as being asham'd of this Waggery of Nature. It was impossible to perswade him to touch it again, or so much as to squint towards so immodest a Representation. Neither would I presume to mention such an Indecency, but that I thought it unpardonable, to omit a Production so extraordinary.


Is it just me, or does Robert Beverley (ever so slightly) resemble the famous hippie-flower-gun barrel guy?



Datura Rites in California

Datura initiation rites similar to huskenaw occured among many native North Americans.  In "Creation in Light of Luiseno Religion" Sam Gill writes of the ceremony practiced by indigenous people of southern California:

Intoxicated by the datura, the youths were assembled around a fire and given a display of the magical powers of the adepts.  These were performances in a shamanic style in which all manner of mortal wounds were seemingly suffered, often self-inflicted ones, with the wounds then being miraculously healed. 

While the effects of datura were felt only during one night, the initiates continued to fast for a period of days.  Three days after drinking the datura brew, the youths were taken to a pit in which a net representing the Milky Way had been placed, along with three stones forming a crude human shape. 

The Milky Way is the spirit to whom human spirits go when human beings die.  The initiates had to enter the pit and leap from stone to stone.  A misstep or fall presaged an early death...Crossing the Milky Way expressed the Luiseno wish that, upon death, their spirits would be free from the earth and go to be caught in the net which is the Milky Way.




Datura has been, and remains, in the top tier of sacred plants worldwide. 

Used in a variety of ways and for different purposes, it has served a major role for Hindus, Aztecs and Carlos Castaneda, among others.

From an ancient Aztec herbal


How to Create a Zombie

Canadian ethnobotanist Wade Davis has examined its use in Haitian "zombification" procedures.  From a 2004 news report:

The story begins in 1962, in Haiti. A man called Clairvius Narcisse was sold to a zombie master by his brothers, because Clairvius refused to sell his share of the family land. Soon after Clairvius "officially" died, and was buried.

However, he had been later secretly unburied, and was actually working as a zombie slave on a sugar plantation with many other zombies. In 1964, his zombie master died, and he wandered across the island in a psychotic daze for the next 16 years. The drugs that made him psychotic were gradually wearing off.

In 1980, he accidentally stumbled across his long-lost sister in a market place, and recognized her. She didn't recognise him, but he identified himself to her by telling her early childhood experiences that only he could possibly know.

Dr. Wade Davis, an ethnobiologist from Harvard, went to Haiti to research this story. He discovered how to make a zombie. First, make them "dead", then make them "mad" so that their minds are malleable. Often, a local "witch doctor" secretly gives them the drugs.

He made the victim "dead" with a mixture of toad skin and puffer fish. You can put it in their food, or rub it on their skin, especially the soft, undamaged skin on the inside of the arm near the elbow. The victims soon appear dead, with an incredibly slow breath, and an incredibly slow and faint heartbeat.

In Haiti, people are buried very soon after death, because the heat and the lack of refrigeration makes the bodies decay very rapidly. This suits the zombie-making process. You have to dig them up within eight hours of the burial, or else they'll die of asphyxiation.

The skin of the common toad (Bufo bufo bufo) can kill - especially if the toad has been threatened. There are three main nasties in toad venon - biogenic amines, bufogenine and bufotoxins. One of their many effects is that of a pain-killer - far stronger than cocaine. Boccaccio's medieval tale, the Decameron, tells the story of two lovers who die after eating a herb, sage, that a toad had breathed upon.




The other half of the witch doctor's wicked potion comes from the pufferfish, which is known in Japan as "fugo". Its poison is called "tetrodotoxin", a deadly neurotoxin. Its pain-killing effects are 160,000 times stronger than cocaine. Eating the fish can give you a gentle physical "tingle" from the tetrodotoxin - and in Japan, the chefs who prepare fugo have to be licensed by the government. Even so, there are rare cases of near-deaths or actual deaths from eating fugo. The toxin drops your temperature and blood pressure, and puts you into a deep coma. In Japan, some of the victims recovered a few days after being declared dead.

Back in Haiti, once you've got the zombie-in-waiting out of the ground, you make them mad, by force-feeding them a paste made from datura (Jimsons Weed). Datura breaks your links with reality, and then destroys all recent memories. So you don't know what day it is, where you are and, worst of all, you don't even know who you are. The zombies are in a state of semi-permanent induced psychotic delirium. They are sold to sugar plantations as slave labour. They are given datura again if they seem to be recovering their senses.


Life on the sugar plantation.  Who knew that the BBC was ever this raunchy!

Datura (Jimsons Weed, Angel's Trumpet, Brugmanisa candida) contains the chemicals atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine, which can act as powerful hallucinogens in the appropriate doses.

They can also cause permanent memory loss, paralysis and death.

The person who applies these chemicals to a victim has to be quite skilled, so that they won't kill them. There is a very small gap between appearing-to-be-dead, and actually being dead.


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