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Other Names

Among many African tribes, spirit possession is

both known and culturally encouraged as a sacred

or magical act. There are numerous possession

cults in which special mediums-often or even

primarily women-enter into a state of trance or

ecstasy and allow their bodies to be possessed by a

spirit being. The spirit-whether a deity, demon,

bush spirit, animal spirit, ancestor, spirit of a

deceased person, or something else-speaks

through the body of the enraptured person, who

shouts out oracles and prophecies, can perform

magical healings, and so on (Lewis 1978). The

African possession cults have become established

in the New World in the form of Santeria,

Umbanda, Candomble, voodoo, et cetera. From an

anthropological point of view, the African possession

cults are related to shamanism but must be

regarded as a separate phenomenon (Goodman

1991). Nevertheless, there are a number of parallels

and overlaps, particularly with the cults of

Southeast Asia (van Quekelberghe and Eigner

1996). Also included in spirit possession are such

spectacular practices as dervish dancing, walking

on hot coals, sword swallowing, and transvestitism,

not to mention such mysterious phenomena

as 'automatic writing'" (Lewis 1989,42).

In the literature on possession, it is often

claimed that the state of possession occurs "on its

own" or, at best, in the context of magical rituals,

sacrificial ceremonies, ecstatic drumming ("voodoo

drumming"), and dancing. The literature on possession has a very similar tone to the early

literature on shamanism in that it ignores the

significance of pharmacological stimuli. However,

the use of incense, for example, has been documented

in most possession cults. And psychoactive

plants are clearly used during the initiation

ceremonies of the African voodoo cult in Benin

(Verger 1995). Substantial amounts of the

psychoactive pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium; cf.

Fabiana imbricata, kykeon) are used in the

Brazilian Candomble cult (Voeks 1989, 123, 126*).

In Haitian voodoo, hemp (Cannabis sativa) is said

to playa specific role in triggering possession, and

there are also reports of excessive rum drinking

(see alcohol). ]usticia pectoralis and Cola

acuminata are used in the Afro-Cuban Santeria

cult (Gonzalez-Wippler 1981, 95). It is quite

possible that the use of certain psychoactive plants

or products from Indian ethnoflora was adopted

by the Afro-American possession cults. The

following plants are used to prepare the initiation

drink of the Candomble cult: Ipomoea pescaprae

Sweet [1402] (see Ipomoea spp.), Mimosa pudica

1. and Mimosa pudica 1. var. acerba Benth. (see

Mimosa spp.), Vernonia bahiensis Tol., Hibiscus

sp., Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 1., Mentha sativa 1.,

Ocimum micranthum Willd., Camellia sinensis,

Vismia guinensis Pers., Vismia cayennensis" Pers.,

Urostigma doliarium Miq., Eugenia sp., and

Eugenia jambosa 1. (Fichte 1985, 248).

It was once believed that no use of psychoactive or hallucinogenic plants occurred in Africa or in

its cultures. Only in the past two decades has this

area of ethnobotany come under greater scrutiny

(de Smet 1996*). It can be expected that a great

deal of interesting information will come to light.

The possession cult that serves for divination

and healing in Malawi uses an herbal mixture, a

madzoka medicine, to induce the trance that is

required for spirit possession (madzoka). The

fresh ingredients (presumably in equal parts) are

crushed together, and the resulting paste is rubbed

on the face, arms, and legs and sniffed into the

nose. The trance is said to begin immediately. The

mixture may be sniffed again during the trance

(Hargreaves 1986,27).

In South America, wormseed (Chenopodium

ambrosioides) , a plant introduced from North

America, is used as an additive to coca (see

Erythroxylum coca). Securidaca longipedunculata

is drunk in Mozambique by those who are

"possessed by evil spirits." The powdered root acts

as a potent sneezing powder when inhaled (cf.

Veratrum album, snuffs). The Karanga people

chew the root cortex to treat impotence. During

their religious rites, the Balanta (Guinea-Bissau)

use an aqueous extract from the root (which they call tchunfki) because of its alleged psychoactive

effects (Samorini 1996). The root, which contains

40/0 saponins, tannin, steroidAnabolic steroids are drugs that are structurally related to the cyclic steroid ring system and have similar effects to testosterone in the body. They increase protein within cells, especially in skeletal muscles. Anabolic steroids also have androgenic and virilizing properties, including the development and maintenance of masculine characteristics such as the growth of the vocal cords, testicles (primary sexual characteristics) and body hair (secondary sexual characteristics). glycosides, and

gaultherine, numbs the mucous membranes. The

root was recently found to contain three ergot

alkaloids: elymoclavine, dehydroelymoclavine,

and a new ergoline derivative, called compound A

(Samorini 1996).

The bark of Annona senegalensis contains

substantial amounts of tannin; mixed with palm

oil, it is used as an antidote for poisoning (Assi and

Guinko 1991, 30*). Asparagus africanus, the

African asparagus, is used in Sotholand during

circumcision rituals, when it is rubbed into

artificially created wounds to give an initiate

strength (Hargreaves 1986,30 f.). It is possible that

mixing the four components together may result

in synergistic effects that are psychoactive.

Fichte, Hubert. 1985. Psycholeptica der "Obriga<;:ao

da Consciencia." Curare, Sonderband


Goodman, Felicitas D. 1991. Ekstase, Besessenheit,

Damonen: Die geheimnisvolle Seite der Religion.

Gtitersloh: Gutersloher Verlagshaus.

Gonzalez-Wippler, Migene. 1981. Santeria: African

magic in Latin America. Bronx, N.Y.: Original


Hargreaves, Bruce J. 1986. Plant induced "spirit

possession" in Malawi. The Society ofMalawi

Journal 39 (1): 26-35.

Lewis, loan M. 1978. Ecstatic religion: An

anthropological study ofspirit possession and

shamanism. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin


---.1989. Schamanen, Hexer, Kannibalen: Die

Realitiit des ReligiOsen. Frankfurt/M.: Athenaum.

Samorini, Giorgio. 1996. An African kykeon? Eleusis


van Quekelberghe, Renaud, and Dagmar Eigner, eds.

1996. Trance, Besessenheit, Heilrituale und

Psychotherapie. In Jahrbuch fur Transkulturelle

Medizin und Psychotherapie (1994). Berlin: VWB.

Verger, Pierre. 1995. Del papel de las plantas

psicoactivas durante la inici6n a ciertas religiones

africanas. Takiwasi 3:80-87.

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