Santa Rosa and the ritual use of sacred plants among indigenous peoples

Mexico possesses, thanks to its biodiversity, a large number of plants, cacti, and mushrooms that share psychoactive principles. Find out more.

Santa Rosa and the ritual use of sacred plants among indigenous peoples
In this image, a man can be seen performing a ritual act. Photo by Jimmy Salazar / Unsplash

In the world some plants contain diverse psychoactive principles that - from the point of view of science - produce changes in perception, inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness. Since ancient times, these perceptions and visions out of the ordinary have generated -for the peoples who experimented with these plants- mental images that have shaped their vision of the world.

Mexico possesses, thanks to its biodiversity, a great number of plants, cacti, and fungi that share the same characteristics. Those who have known about their qualities since before the Spanish conquest are the native peoples. For them, these endemic species, which during colonial times were demonized by the evangelizing friars and later considered "drugs", are sacred plants. We call them "sacred plants" because they have a ritual function; they were and are used in a specific context. For divination: they are consumed by ritual specialists when they need to determine the origin of an illness or a problem afflicting a person.

They are used for healing: to know the procedure to follow to recover health. Even the healing process takes place during the same session, that is, the ritual specialist or the patient perceives voices and/or sees certain characters who speak to him/her and instruct him/her on how to proceed to restore health. This practice is generally confined to the private and family sphere. A third reason why they are used is that they favor communication with the sacred: in this case, those who consume the sacred plants are the specialists, who act as intermediaries between the divinities and they are faithful and therefore have a public and collective ritual use.

Through the visions and sensory perceptions generated by the consumption of sacred plants, which are generally ingested directly or as potions in which they are mixed with other ingredients, communication, and direct contact is established between the person and the divinities, or between the divinities and the community through an intermediary, the shaman.

To highlight the content of ecstatic experiences that have a sacred character and a specific purpose of communication with divine entities, and to distinguish them from those that for the common people are experiences of a playful and recreational nature, several scientists, in the 1980s, coined the neologism: entheogen, which refers to the ability of plants, cacti, seeds and mushrooms to bring about the revelation of God for those who commune with them. In fact, in general, those who appear, speak, and manifest themselves during the entheogenic trance are the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, or some entity venerated by that people.

In the 16th century, as a result of the Spanish conquest, Mesoamerican religious manifestations were considered idolatry and the Church concluded that the experiences induced by the sacred plants were the product of the Devil's intervention, and the Holy Tribunal of the Inquisition condemned those who used them.

The most important sacred plants

The evangelizing friars made them known in their works and we know that many peoples use them today. The knowledge concerning their use has remained despite their prohibition, thanks also to the fact that they were kept hidden. These are the most important today:

  1. Peyote (Lophophora williamsii), used by Huicholes, Coras and Tarahumaras (Nayarit, Jalisco, Durango, Zacatecas and Chihuahua), known as peyotl in pre-Hispanic times.
  2. Mushrooms (Psilocybe caerulescens; Psilocybe mexicana Heim; Stropharia cubensis), were used by the Mazatecos of Oaxaca, and called Teonanácatl, "meat of the gods", in pre-Hispanic times.
  3. Seeds of the grass of the virgin (Turbina corymbosa), used by the Mazatec (Oaxaca) and Nahua (Guerrero); called badoh by the Zapotec (Oaxaca). Formerly, the seeds were named ololiuhqui, 'round thing'.
  4. Seeds of the herb of the virgin (Ipomoea tricolor), used by Mixtecs (Oaxaca); the Zapotecs call it badoh negro and the Mayans, x'táabentun. It was known in pre-Hispanic Mexico as Tlitliltzin, "negrito" or "divine renegrido".
  5. Seeds of the herb of San Jose (Datura stramonium var. Godronii), used by the Mixtecs of Oaxaca mixed with the seeds of the Grass of the Virgin (Ipomoea tricolor).
  6. Tobacco (Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tabacum), was used by the Mazatecos and known by the name of Quauhyetl.
  7. Xka pastora or Hierba de la pastora (Salvia divinorum), used by the Mazatecos and probably known as Pipiltzintli in pre-Hispanic Mexico.
  8. Hueytlacatzintli (Solandra guerrerensis), used by the Nahua and by the Mixtecs of Guerrero; the latter name it yoo itandoso, "flower that speaks beautifully" or "flower that grows on high".
  9. Santa Rosa (Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica) used by the Otomi (Hidalgo, Puebla, State of Mexico, Tlaxcala).

By showing the sacred plants that are currently used by the native peoples, it is important to emphasize that their knowledge and ritual use dates back more than five centuries ago. They are the plants that have helped people in the most difficult moments of their lives when they face an illness, a conflict or have suffered losses caused by natural catastrophes.

Sacred plants have substituted for doctors and medicines, which are not always within reach, and when they are, they sometimes fail to cure, because the indigenous population still suffers from illnesses that are only recognized by their traditional medical systems.

For this reason, they are considered "medicine", as a last resort to treat diseases that have not yielded biomedical treatments. The set of sacred plants is part of the heritage of indigenous peoples, and it is the duty of all of us to safeguard this knowledge, like other inalienable rights: as part of the right to wellbeing, health, and good living.

Santa Rosa (Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica)

It is in this broad context that we must speak of the use of Cannabis indica or sativa by an original people, the Otomi, who are perhaps the only ones to use it. It is probable that before the arrival of hemp in New Spain, the Otomi used other entheogens, such as peyote, some Datura, or the herb of the virgin. Until a few years ago the toloache was used, but the virtues of the Cannabis, surely, propitiated its substitution.

This sacred plant, named in Spanish Santa Rosa, is considered a deity that is part of the Otomi pantheon. It is probable that the name, inspired by Santa Rosa de Lima, was introduced by the evangelists. The fact is that, currently, the ritual consumption of Santa Rosa is widespread in Puebla and Hidalgo. It has always been used by the bädi, the ritual specialist, for divinatory purposes, as is the case with other entheogens, and once it has been taken, the Santa Rosa is the one who "investigates" what illness the patient is suffering from and explains how it should be cured.

Likewise, it is consumed in the propitiatory or reparation rituals, called costumbres, which are celebrated in houses, hills, churches, and sanctuaries to ask for rain to guarantee good harvests; and to thank the sacred powers, the "Antiguas" or "Ancient Ones", not only for all the goods granted: corn, beans, all kinds of vegetables and fruits but also for health and work. In the customs, Santa Rosa is consumed by the bädi and the godmothers.

During the trance that the plant produces, the same Santa Rosa and other Ancient Ones, such as the President, who is the "owner of the world", the Grandmother of the Earth or the Mother of Water, become present when they occupy the body of these specialists, and thanks to this, they speak, sing and dance. They scold those present when they have forgotten to entertain them with food and drink, which the spirits also need. They express their gratitude when they have received their offering.

Otomi people celebrate their customs

In the custom, the most genuine feelings and the most significant emotions of the Otomi people are expressed, uniting everyone around a single purpose: to ensure the continuity of existence, renewing the alliance with their creators and benefactors through the offering. Through the abundant gifts placed on the table, the altar, the Otomi pay for life, for the strength, known as nzaki, that their deities grant them.

This fact is fundamental and of great importance, because the continuity of the universe depends on the giving and receiving, on the alliance with their gods: that there is enough rain, that there is food, that there are no misfortunes and natural catastrophes, and the Otomi when they ask, they ask for the whole world, not only for themselves! The Santa Rosa, the Cannabis, achieves all this: it brings people together, gives them confidence for the future, gladdens their hearts, dances, sings, eats, and drinks, and through the rite, they experience union with their gods.

As long as its use is restricted and circumscribed to their localities, or the places of pilgrimage where the Otomi celebrate their customs, it does not generate conflicts. The problems have arisen from the moment when there has been the need, on the part of some bädi, to take it with them to perform consultations and healings in other places, such as Mexico City, because many Otomi -for decades- have had to leave their villages and migrate in search of work to support their families.

Even far away, people keep their vision of the world and suffer from the same illnesses, face different kinds of problems and require the help of a ritual specialist. So when the bädi moves away from their community, they become criminals and risk being arrested by corrupt police who extort money from them and threaten to put them in jail.

The discussion around the regulation and decriminalization of Cannabis, then, must take into account not only consumption for medical and recreational purposes but also its ritual use by the Otomi people, so that ritual specialists are allowed to transport and consume it according to the traditional use it has been given. Likewise, it is necessary to extend this recognition to other native peoples who also have their sacred plants.

Certainly, the geographical areas where sacred plants are used have been reduced in the past, due to the persecutions suffered by the native peoples in the colonial period. However, for some, they continue to be a resource to overcome life's crises.

Sacred plants are part of their culture and should be protected as endemic species; traditional use and knowledge should be preserved, not only for the good of the people but for the good of all of us, thanks to the great potential that entheogens have to treat depression, addictions and some diseases.

Therefore, not only should their use be decriminalized, but the stigma that categorizes sacred plants as "hallucinogens" and "drugs" should be removed to place them in the place they deserve.

Source: Fagetti A. and Reinoso Niche J. La Santa Rosa and the ritual use of entheogens among indigenous peoples. Elementos 115 (2019) 23-27.