Thornapple

(Datura stramonium) Found throughout most of the temperate world, but the fact that native Americans called it White Man's Plant (Sanecki) suggests that it is not native to North America. The capsules were, and, so it is claimed, still are, used in black magic (Summers), and it was certainly considered to be clearly associated with magic, witches, and also in the development of second sight (Trevelyan). In Puritan times, those who grew it in their gardens were in danger of being burned as witches. Significantly, in Maryland folklore, it was said it would unlock any door, if dipped in honey, and used at the proper times and seasons (Whitney & Bullock), a property assigned to any "magical" plant.

In both the old and new worlds, datura seeds (of most of the species) were administered in various ways as love potions (Safford), and the roots were used, too, according to Haining; he says they were burned at the Sabbats in order to excite, and also to overcome, women for sexual motives. Similarly, a 17th century medical report claims that the seeds given to anyone will cause that victim to be at the complete mercy of the practitioner for 24 hours, "and you can do what you like with him; he notices nothing, understands nothing", and will remember nothing (Haining). That sounds very like Voodoo magic, and what was certainly Voodoo practice was to pound the seeds up with the dried head of a snake. The mixture was used "to produce a mysterious and baffling blindness" (Puckett. 1926). The oft-quoted report that English soldiers, sent to Jamestown (hence the name Jamestown-weed, better known as Jimson-weed) to put down the uprising known as Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, gathered young plants of this species and cooked them as a potherb, "the effect of which was a very pleasant Comedy; for they turn'd natural Fools upon it for several days." (Safford).

The seeds were used in divinations, too. For example, there is a gypsy love divination that required nine thorn-apple seeds, ploughed-up earth of nine different places, and water from nine more. With these, the girl had to knead a cake, which was laid on a crossroad on Easter or St George's morning. If a woman stepped first on the cake, her husband would be a widower or older man, but if it was a man who trod on it, the husband would be single or young (Leland. 1891). There is also a record of gypsy divination for a different purpose - to know if an invalid would recover. They put from 9 to 21 seeds on a "witch drum", that is, a tambourine covered with an animal skin marked with stripes that have a special meaning. The side of the drum is tapped gently, and according to the position that the seeds take on the stripes, the recovery or death of the patient is predicted (Leland. 1891). But the gypsies also looked on the seeds as protectors against the evil eye. After a wedding ceremony, it was the custom to throw water over the couple, and to rub them with a bag made of weasel skin. Inside this bag there had to be thorn-apple seeds to give the necessary protection (Starkie). There is even a belief (from Kentucky) that putting the juice in the eyes will make light eyes turn dark (Thomas & Thomas).

Thorn-apple has always been valued for medicinal as well as narcotic purposes. The active principle seems to be identical with atropine, and has been used commercially as a substitute for it (Lloyd). It has long been valued as a pain-reliever in American domestic medicine, in the form of a poultice or ointment made from the pulp of the bruised green leaves, and it was used for the same purpose in Essex at one time. The method there was to cut the top of the fruit off, and pulp the inside, adding vinegar. Inhalation of the fumes brought relief, so they claimed (V G Hatfield. 1994). It was used for rheumatism and headache, bee stings and bruises, and for carbuncle, or any minor skin irritation (R B Browne); warts too can be treated by rubbing the leaves over them, whether the leaves are buried afterwards as a charm, or not (H M Hyatt). Sores used to be treated in Kentucky with "jimsonweed and fat meat on a penny" applied. It would stop the pain (Thomas & Thomas). Gerard talks about the "juice of Thorn-apples boiled with hogs grease to the form of an unguent or salve", to cure "all inflammations whatsoever, all manner of burning or scalding ... as my selfe have found by my daily practice, to my great credit and profit". That was in use in East Anglia until very recently. The green fruit was boiled in pork fat to make an ointment for inflammations, burns and scalds (V G Hatfield. 1994). Alabama women treated bruised or caked breasts by boiling jimsonweed with lard, about half as much weed as lard, and rubbing on the result as hot as possible (R B Browne). In fact, the treatment was quite well known, for King's American Dispensatory of 1852 mentions that a poultice of the fresh leaves bruised, or the dried leaves in hot water, is beneficial as a local medication to "all species of haemorrhoidal tumours" (Lloyd). That ointment was used in veterinary medicine, too. In Ohio and Illinois it is rubbed on the fetlocks of horses for "scratches" (Bergen. 1899). Pieces of thorn-apple, rubbed or bound on the sores, used to be an English cure for galled horses, particularly in Littleport, Cambridgeshire (Porter. 1969).

Minor operations have been performed with the patient under the influence of this drug, as the pain is reduced a little (Sanford), and the seeds have been prescribed as a sedative (Fluckiger & Hanbury). It is used, too in the treatment of Parkinson's disease (Scarborough).

Thorn-apple was put to quite a different use in Africa, where its narcotic properties were employed by the Jagga in trial by ordeal. The potion was prepared by putting two handfuls of a Datura herb (stramonium perhaps, but the exact species is not revealed in the account) into rather less than a pint of water, along with banana blossoms. The litigant would address a solemn magical formula to the herb while putting his right hand into the vessel, and then the mixture was boiled, and eight snail shells full handed to the person to be tested. The plaintiff described the offence, and urged the decoction to make the defendant fall down if he was guilty, but otherwise to spare him. The accused, with the container at his mouth, would assert his innocence and utter a corresponding wish. If any of the liquid dripped, it was taken as a preliminary sign of guilt. After all the potions had been dripped, the defendant was ceremonially taken for a walk, after which various minor rites were celebrated. Finally, the decoction would produce the desired effect of putting the drinker into a trance-like state in which he soliloquised, confessed his guilt or denied it, or vehemently resented the indignity of the test. Only if he made a clear breast of his guilt was he convicted and condemned to pay all the requisite fees. On the following day he would be given an emetic to purge him of the poison, but even so, the effects would probably not wear off for over a month (Lowie).

The American Daturas, and in particular D meteloides, the Downy Thorn-apple, probably better known under its Mexican name, Toloache, assumed great importance in the life of native Americans. Toloache had its medicinal uses, the leaves, for instance, being used to make an anodyne. The seeds, too, were ground and mixed with pitch to help in setting broken bones (Saf-ford). The Californian Indians regarded it as the prime medicament against rattlesnake poison (Emboden. 1979). But the real use of Datura among the aboriginal Californians was as an intoxicant and hypnotic. Yokuts shamans employed it that way, for good purposes, though it was firmly believed that malicious shamans would use it as a poison, mixed with some other, unidentified, herb (Gayton). Similarly, though a piece of the root was often carried about by the shaman, the ordinary Yokuts believed that an evil shaman could make himself invisible by holding this amulet in his hand. Then he could eavesdrop, or poison people without anyone seeing him (Gayton).

A decoction of the plant was given to the young women to stimulate them in dancing, though in some localities only men were allowed to drink it (Driver). It is also used in the ceremonial initiation of young men. Some Apache mixed the root with their corn beer to make it more intoxicating (La Barre), but the plain decoction is usually enough for shamans to reach the state of exhilaration that enables them to prophesy the future or to make supernatural beings visible. The Zunis, too, ascribed the power of second sight and prophecy to this Datura (Safford), as in discovering the whereabouts of stolen objects (Lewin). The Navajo also chewed the root or drank infusions of it to produce narcosis, either as an anodyne during minor operations, or in order to prophecy, or even indulge in witchcraft. They fully recognised the poisonous qualities, and handled it with caution (Wyman & Harris). For Datura can kill, and it can apparently also be administered by an experienced person in such amounts and in such ways to bring about temporary derangement and even permanent insanity - no wonder it has entered the practice of witchcraft (Furst).

Kroeber has given the best account of the cult, known variously as the Jimsonweed, or Toloache, cult, as applied to D. meteloides. In California, it appears to have originated in the coast or island area of the southern region, and to have spread as far north as the Yokuts of San Joaquin Valley. The cult is similar to a secret society in that initiation is a fundamental ceremony. So in some measure, toloache ceremonies are clearly puberty rites, applied in some instances to girls as well as boys. The avowed intent and purpose is to render each candidate hardy, strong, lucky, wealthy and successful (and to have the ability to dodge arrows) (C Grant). The Yokuts boys' initiation centred round the narcotic, and so supernatural, effect of the drug. Initiation was into manhood rather than to membership of any organisation. So the boys' puberty ceremony was given its distinctive character by intoxication. The drug is not only a narcotic but also a hallucinogen, procuring visions, so explaining the tremendous supernatural power ascribed to it. The vision-producing effect would have been enhanced by the preceding ceremony of fasting, when the participants were withdrawn from the public, usually remaining in a separate hut for a six day fast, during which the old men in charge of the ceremony gave instruction to the boys. In the next stage, when the boys had drunk the decoction they were taken away from the village to places where they would not be disturbed, and where older men could watch over them. If a boy vomited his dose of the drug, it was taken as a sign that he would die, and his relatives paid the old master of ceremonies for praying to avert this fate.

The children expected to see an animal in the visions, and they were instructed to place their entire confidence in this animal, when it would defend them from all future dangers. At times they learn from their animal a song which they keep as their own. Also they will not kill any individual of the species they have seen in their vision, a trait reminiscent of totemism. All in all, Emboden. 1979 sums up the uses as providing a trance state for the passage of youth into manhood, or to sustain a person during grief, or to simulate the death and resurrection of the shaman. Only in the trance state can there be a communion between man and god.

The Navajo used jimsonweed for finding thieves or recovering missing property. They would address the jimsonweed and explain why they wanted a piece of its root. Then an offering of turquoise would be made, after which a hole would be dug by the side of the plant, and a piece of root removed. The whole plant was never picked, for to be ritually effective it must continue to live. The owner of the missing property either chewed it or drank some of it in a solution, and then would either achieve trance state, or have a visionary experience or an audible hallucination. In trance state he would wander about and meet the thief or locate the lost articles. In the visionary type the man saw the location of the property or the identity of the thief would be revealed, and in the auditory type voices directed the man to the hiding place (W W Hill).

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