The sacred narcotic lily of the nile: Nymphaea caerulea


A suggestion that certain water lilies might have narcotic properties is found in their frequent use as a motif in funerary art among the Egyptians as well as Mayans. The work of Rands (1953, 1955) traced the New World distribution of water lily motifs throughout Mayan art and made important mythic associations. From the middle of the Classical period until the inception of the Mexican periods, the water lily motif is extremely common and highly varied in its representation. Rands makes the association between this tradition and that in Asiatic art. Although Conard, in his 1905 monograph on the water lilies, speaks of the importance of Nymphaea caerulea Say. (Fig. 1) in a decorative and an emblematic sense, he cannot attribute any mythic associations other than the obvious and does not mention the possibility of water lily cults. He further denies the assertions of earlier writers that the Nymphaeaceae have any real medicinal value or unusual chemical properties. This represents the current status of thought among most ethnobotanists, pharmacologists, and anthropologists. In extending the earlier works of Rands, Dobkin de Rios (1974, 1977) investigated the psychotropic flora and fauna in Mayan culture and noted the frequent use of the water lily motif in association with the toad (Bufo marinus). These toads contain bufotenine in glands located near the tympanum. The substance is released in the matrix of a milky exudate when the amphibian is aroused. Bufotenine is capable of inducing profound hallucinations after breaking the bloodbrain barrier. This led Dobkin de Rios to the assertion that Mayan depictions of the water lily were probably more than decorative and constituted a source for the development of a belief system that could be explained, in part, on the use of the toad and the water lily to alter states of consciousness. This hypothesis met with some hostile reactions from anthropologists, who found such a stylistic approach inadequate, even in light of the amassed evidence. Emboden (1974) touched upon the use of Nymphaea caerulea as a narcotic and has been in contact with Dobkin de Rios concerning the use of the water lily flower as a narcotic. This paper explores the use of water lilies as narcotics in the old world and especially in ancient Egypt. In a future paper coauthored with Dobkin de Rios we will treat transcultural phenomena related to the use of narcotic water lilies in a comprehensive manner. Of the several Mayan sites in which water lily motifs have been found, perhaps the most dramatic are the murals at Bonampak, which are so like some of the Egyptian murals that the similarity is startling. The association of the water lily with the sensory modes pointed out by Rands (1953) is strongly in evidence. In one of the principal Bonampak murals, which I have seen only recreated in the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, there is depicted a dance ritual in which water lilies are associated with the noses and foreheads of some of the dancers. Percussion instruments are played and many of the dancers are masked. Trumpets are being blown as this unexplained ceremony takes place. Diaz (1977) has commented on these depictions and supports the contention that the water lily was used as a ritual narcotic. He quotes from poetry of a ritual nature that is a kind of hymn to the "precious aquatic flowers" and the "flowers that cause vertigo, the beautiful narcotic flowers." The Nahuatl term quetzalaxochiacatl meaning

DOI: 10.1007/BF02907935

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@article{Emboden2008TheSN, title={The sacred narcotic lily of the nile: Nymphaea caerulea}, author={William A. Emboden}, journal={Economic Botany}, year={2008}, volume={32}, pages={395-407} }