- The use of hallucinogens is not universal to shamanisms, but many shamans, especially in South America, engage with culturally recognized plants as other-than-human persons in intimate relationships that enable powerful visions. Datura is one such entheogen, a variety of the Solanaceae (potato) family (which also includes deadly nightshade, henbane, tobacco, and mandrake) with a range of species widely distributed globally (common names include jimsonweed, devil’s apple, thorn apple, devil’s weed, stinkweed, and moonflower). Use of the plant to induce visions is focused on the Americas, especially Mexico and the American Southwest, with speculation that many Central American cultures were familiar with datura’s hallucinogenic properties. Most famously but erroneously, the shamanic use of datura was promoted by Carlos Castaneda in his Don Juan mythos—yet Edward Spicer, an anthropologist and a specialist in Yaqui culture states: “I know of no information or reference concerning Yaquis using Datura.” Ingestion is, however, prevalent in South America where various “tree daturas” (Brugmansias) are used in ayahuasca and San Pedro brews. Datura ingestion is held to produce the effects of transformation into animal form and spirit flight. As such, datura use has been linked to European folklore on werewolves, and Michael Harner and other scholars attribute the riding of Medieval witches on broomsticks to datura use in the witches’ salve or brew. Chas Clifton counters such claims as a misreading of a literary motif rather than as ethnographic historical data; that is, witches are identified in narratives as people who can fly, and evidence can be provided for the inadequacy of entheogen explanations.The active hallucinogenic constituents of datura are the tropane alkaloids, especially hyoscyamine, scopolamine, and atropine, which are concentrated in the seeds. These alkaloids have a stimulating effect on the central nervous system (e.g., increasing heart rate) while simultaneously depressing the peripheral nerves (e.g., dehydration of mucus membranes), producing a period of agitation and visions often followed by a prolonged sleep. Overdose is fatal, so shamans who engage with the plant have sophisticated recipes for managing dosage.
Historical dictionary of shamanism. Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis. 2007.