Banana

(Musa x paradisiaca) A complex group of hybrids, all sterile and so seedless, so cultivated by planting out side shoots that develop on the old growth. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the banana was the favourite candidate for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Prest). Gerard reported that the Jews "suppose it to be that tree, of whose fruit Adam did taste", and he named it Adam's Apple Tree in consequence.

In fertility cults in West Africa, the banana is an obvious male symbol, with its phallic-shaped fruit. It is often used in the symbolism in combination with the terminal bud, which, with its oval form, stands for the female reproductive organs (Talbot). In Uttar Pradesh, the image of the goddess Nanda Devi is carved from the trunk of a banana tree, and the fruit is a symbol of fecundity - a newly married bride is given the fruit. If a baby is born prematurely, the new-born child is made to sleep each day on a fresh banana leaf (Upadhyaya). Another kind of symbolism is used by some Negrito groups in Malaysia, who use the banana plant in stories to explain man's mortality. When the deity gave to one of the superhumans some "water life-soul" to give to the humans they had made, it was inadvertently lost. So the superhuman borrowed some from a banana plant. This was "wind life-soul" that he then gave to the inert bodies. "Wind life-soul" is a "short" life-soul, whereas what had been lost (the "water life-soul" was a "long" life-soul, and that would have made man immortal, whereas the one that the human beings eventually received was merely borrowed and this provides only temporary life). Some say that not only the life-soul but also the heart and blood were borrowed from a banana plant, and this is supposed to account for the resemblance, in colour and viscosity, between coagulated banana plant sap, which dries to a dark brown colour, and dried human blood (Endicott).

There are one or two superstitions to notice. An American idea, recorded in Illinois, is that dreaming of them is a good sign (Dorson. 1964). Another American belief, if that is the right word, is that you must eat bananas to grow tall (HM Hyatt), which must be homeopathic in origin. And from Britain, there is a divination game, which must be modern, that children play with the fruit. To find out whether a boy is being faithful, the question is put, and the lower tip of the fruit is cut off. The answer is found in the centre of the flesh, either a Y, meaning yes, or a dark blob, meaning no (Opie & Opie. 1959). Clearly, the system can be used to predict the outcome of many other activities, or to solve a problem that requires a simple yes or no answer (Vickery. 1995). There is one extraordinary medicinal use. It comes from Norfolk, from a man who had facial skin cancer. While he was waiting for treatment, a gypsy advised him to rub the cancer with the pith of a banana. It seems that the cancer was cleared up entirely by this means alone (V G Hatfield. 1994).

Banisteriopsis caapi is a tropical American hallucinogen. The narcotic drink made from the bark of this liana is variously known as caapi (or kahpi, which is apparently nearer the original (Furst) ), ayahuasca, yaje, natema, or pinde, according to the area and Indian group using it. In the westernmost part of its range, the bark is prepared in a cold water infusion; elsewhere it is boiled, sometimes for a long time. In parts of the Orinoco region, the fresh bark may be chewed, and perhaps also a snuff may be taken.

Ayahuasca, a Quechua name meaning 'vine of the dead', or 'vine of the souls', is its Peruvian name, and the narcotic has become submerged in the total culture of the people who take it. Partakers often experience a kind of "death", and the separation of body and soul. To some Colombian Indians, drinking the preparation represents a return to the womb; the drinkers see all the gods, the ancestors and the animals. Those who take it "die", only to be reborn in a state of greater wisdom. It serves, too, for prophecy, divination, etc., and to fortify the bravery of male adolescents at initiation. But it may be taken at funeral ceremonies, and, in other contexts, by a shaman to diagnose an illness or divine its cure, or to establish the identity of an enemy (for a description of the proceedings, see Reichel-Dolmatoff).

The effects may be violent and with unpleasant after-effects, especially when the bark is boiled, and certainly when some other toxic plants are mixed in. Nausea and vomiting are almost always early characteristics; this is followed by pleasant euphoria

Banyan

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