Ancient Maya “Poison Bottles”

Comments on four ancient Maya “Poison Bottles”  in the William B. Guynes  collection.

by Carl de Borhegyi

Above are two of the four Late Classic  period (A.D 600-900) Maya ceramic jars, commonly referred  to today as  Maya “poison bottles”,  in the William B. Guynes collection.

It has been suggested that these tiny ceramic jars were used  for the sole purpose of holding tobacco.  On the other hand, I will demonstrate that these tiny jars, which I would argue are too small to hold tobacco, most likely contained a narcotic mushroom based powder used in smoking cigars.  I base my theory on the iconography of these tiny jars, and on the esoteric scenes these poison bottles commonly depict of Underworld deities, ballplayers and Underworld portals.

The tiny ceramic jars have been called “poison bottles”  because they generally depict scenes of ballplayers, and Underworld gods such as  God L, God K,  and the Mexican goggled-eyed god Tlaloc.  The poison bottle above from the William B. Guynes collection, depicts an elderly bearded god that scholars have identified as God L  based on the deity’s trademark Muan-bird headdress.  The identity of this elderly god  remains uncertain, so scholars still call him by the name  of God L,  a name suggested by Schellhas (1904).  God L has been classified as both a Merchant God, and God of the Underworld. God L is  depicted above  inside  a four-lobed symbol scholars call a quatrefoil.  The quatrefoil symbol which goes back to Olmec times, represents a divine portal, a sacred entrance or opening into the Underworld.

I believe the connection of mushrooms with these so-called “poison bottles”  lies in our further understanding of God L  as a Venus God as well as ruler of the Underworld.  God L’s most common attributes  as God of the Underworld  as well as the Evening Star aspect of Venus, are his “were-jaguar”  features.  Under the influence of the hallucinogen, the “bemushroomed” acquires feline fangs and often other attributes of the jaguar, emulating the Sun God in the Underworld. This esoteric association of mushrooms and jaguar transformation was earlier noted by ethno-archaeologist Peter Furst.

The Maya God L can also be identified by his trademark Muan-bird headdress, which can be seen depicted above on the poison bottle.   I  propose that the bird on God L headdress is a young harpy eagle, linking God L with his Mexican counterpart  and ruler of the Underworld, Quetzalcoatl.  Both represent the Morning Star aspect of Venus.  The assumption that the poison bottles were used to contain tobacco  likely derived from images of God L  smoking a cigar.

According to archaeoastronomer  Susan Milbrath there have been several  unpublished studies linking the image of God L smoking a cigar with comets, (Palenque’s Temple of the Cross), and in one case, the passage of Halley’s comet in A.D. 684.

Quoting Milbrath, (1999, p. 251),

“Although God L is clearly a Venus god, his cigar could represent a comet”.

The planet Venus was the celestial object of greatest interest to the ancient astronomers of Mesoamerica, and I have linked mushroom worship with Venus, Quetzalcoatl-Tlaloc worship (BREAKING THE MUSHROOM CODE).  It is likely that Venus was in many ways more important than the Sun.  As the Morning Star associated with the dawn, Venus was the Awakener, and harbinger of the new born sun (a young harpy eagle) , known as the Day-bringer. Time was measured in Venus cycles after Maya astronomers observed that Venus rises in the same spot every eight years as the Morning Star on the day Ahau, and that  five sets of 584 days, that is 2,920 days, equaled 8 solar years or 5 repetitions of the Venus cycle, identified in the Dresden Codex.

Spanish chronicler Fray Bernardino Sahagun was probably the first to record the Aztecs use of mushrooms in his famous Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espana, written between 1547 and 1582.  Know as the Florentine Codex, the 12 volumes are now located in the Laurentian Library in Florence where it may have been sent to be judged by the Spanish Inquisition.

In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, the general word for mushrooms was nanacatl and that the intoxicating species, the Psilocybe mushroom, was called teonanacatl, a term Sahagun gives us, teo-, or teotl, meaning god, that which is divine or sacred, “the flesh of god” (Wasson, letter to Borhegyi, June 23, 1953).

Sahagun wrote that the Indians gathered mushrooms in grassy fields and pastures and used them in religious ceremonies because they believed them to be the flesh of their creator god. The friars who reported the ceremonial use of psychogenic mushrooms were sparing with their words and inevitably condemnatory in their description of mushroom “intoxication.” They were, in fact, repulsed by the apparent similarities of the mushroom ceremony to the Christian communion.

Fray Sahagun states in Book 9 that Aztec merchant groups known as the pochteca, which translates to ” priests who lead,” were devout followers of the god Quetzalcoatl under his patron name of Yiacatecuhtli or Yacateuctil, Lord of the Vanguard.  Maya archaeologist J. Eric S. Thompson named the god Ikal Ahau or Black Lord, as the god of death among the Tzotzil Maya (Orellana,1987:.163).

A passage from book 9 reads:

“the eating of mushrooms was sometimes also part of a longer ceremony performed by merchants returning from a trading expedition to the coast lands. The merchants, who arrived on a day of favorable aspect, organized a feast and ceremony of thanksgiving, also on a day of favorable aspect. As a prelude to the ceremony of eating mushrooms, they sacrificed a quail, offered incense to the four directions, and made offerings to the gods of flowers and fragrant herbs. The eating of mushrooms took place in the earlier part of the evening. At midnight a feast followed, and toward dawn the various offerings to the gods, or the remains of them, were ceremonially buried.”

The “poison bottle” on the left, both of which are from the William B. Guynes,  collection, depicts a figure that looks to me like a merchant, painted black, wearing a bird headdress, holding a walking staff and wearing a backpack.  The poison bottle above on the right depicts what looks like a Teotihuacan inspired design.

Above is another Late Classic “poison bottle”  from the William B. Guynes,  collection, depicting a  formulaic inscription on each side known as the Primary Standard Sequence (PSS). The deity portrayed on the front is the Mexican god Tlaloc.  Tlaloc can be easily identified by his trademark goggled eyes, handlebar mustache and jaguar fangs.  Although generally associated with rain, lightening and water, he also is deeply connected with death and decapitation in the Underworld and most likely represents the Evening Star aspect of Venus.

In Maya iconography the god Tlaloc is predominantly associated with warfare.  Maya inscriptions tell us that the movement of the planet Venus and its position in the sky was a determining factor for waging a special kind of warfare known as Tlaloc warfare or Venus “Star Wars.” These wars, waged against neighboring city-states for the express purpose of taking captives for sacrifice to the gods, thus constituted a form of divinely-sanctioned “holy” war.

Fray Sahagun, also suggested that the Chichimecs and Toltecs consumed the hallucinogen peyote before battle to enhance bravery and strength.  Hallucinogens taken before the ballgame or before battle likely eliminated all sense of fear, hunger, and thirst, and gave the ballplayer, or warrior a sense of invincibility and courage to fight at the wildest levels.

Photograph © Justin Kerr

The gold Aztec figurine, above, depicts an Aztec warrior with a mushroom hanging from the end of his nose, thereby linking mushrooms with “Tlaloc warfare” or “Venus star-wars”.  Note that the warrior holds a shield depicting the “quincunx”, a Mesoamerican Venus symbol identifying the four cardinal directions of the universe and its cosmic center, the sacred portal into the spirit world.

In summery I propose that the so called Maya “poison bottles”  like the four depicted above in the William B. Guynes collection did not contain tobacco as many scholars would have you believe, but most likely they contained  a powdery form of narcotic mushrooms, based on the iconography of Underworld portals, and Underworld deities, like Tlaloc and God L. and of merchants who were known to have supplied the ancient Aztec and Maya elite with sacred mushrooms.

Photograph © Justin Kerr

Maya vase K4932 from the Justin Kerr Data Base, depict three merchants, painted black emulating God L, and carrying walking staffs.  Just like the Aztec merchants known as the pochteca as well as the Nonoalco merchants, the three merchants depicted above  appear to be carrying large bags over their shoulder (transparent bag) filled with what I believe are (cultivated?) sacred mushrooms .

Photograph © Justin Kerr

Above is a Late Classic Maya vase painting (600-900 C.E.) from highland Guatemala.  I believe that this complex scene may represent a passage in the Quiche Maya Popol Vuh, in which the Hero Twins smoke cigars in the underworld. That the two smokers standing at the far right are smoking hallucinogenic cigars is clearly suggested by the mushrooms that the artist has encoded on their robes and in their mushroom-inspired headdresses.

Psilocybin Mushrooms Encoded In Ancient Maya Art

Spanish chroniclers recorded that the Aztecs, at the time of the Spanish Conquest, revered three different kinds of narcotic mushrooms. The Spanish chroniclers who reported these mushroom rituals were repulsed by what they perceived to be a devil-inspired misinterpretation of the Holy Eucharist.,

The Toltec /Maya vessel above is from Quintana Roo, Mexico, Postclassic Maya, 1200-1400 C.E.  The vessel depicts the image of a diving god, wearing the familiar guise of the harpy eagle, attributes that link this diving deity to Quetzalcoatl as the Morning Star and god of Underworld resurrection.  I would argue strongly that the objects in the hands of the diving god Quetzalcoatl (Kukulcan in Yucatec Mayan) are the severed caps of psilocybin mushrooms, and do not represent, as other scholars would argue, balls of incense. The removal of the head of the mushroom or mushroom cap is a symbolic reference to ritual decapitation in the Underworld. The idea that Quetzalcoatl was in direct opposition to human sacrifice is simply not true. He was the god of self-sacrifice. Wasson writes that the stems of sacred mushrooms were removed and the mushroom caps consumed ritually in pairs prior to self-sacrifice.

Much of our understanding of Mesoamerican religion has been pieced together from Spanish chronicles and prehispanic and Colonial period manuscripts called codices. Unfortunately, for our understanding of the role of mushrooms in this religion, the Spanish missionaries who reported these mushroom rituals were repulsed by what they perceived to be similarities to holy Christian communion.  As a result, they made no attempt to record the rituals in detail and banished all forms of mushroom use.

Spanish chroniclers recorded that the Aztecs, at the time of the Spanish Conquest, revered three different kinds of narcotic mushrooms. This reference led me to a Wasson pamphlet in which he wrote that he had found this information in a guide for missionaries written before 1577 by Dr. Francisco Hernandez, physician to the king of Spain (Wasson, 1962: 36; see also Furst, 1990 ed., 9)

One of the Spanish chroniclers named Jacinto de la Serna, 1892 (The Manuscript of Serna) described the use of sacred mushrooms for divination: “These mushrooms were small and yellowish (Psilocybin mushrooms) and to collect them the priest and all men appointed as ministers went to the hills and remained almost the whole night in sermonizing and praying” (Quest for the Sacred Mushroom, Stephan F. de Borhegyi 1957). Serna in 1650 pointed out that the Aztec calendar was called the “count of planets”. Serna writes that the people of Mexico “adored and made more sacrifices to the sun and Venus than any other celestial or terrestrial creatures”, and that it was believed that twins were associated with the sun and Venus (The Manuscript of Serna).

Above left, is a closeup image from a page in the Codex Mendoza, an Aztec codex created just after the Spanish Conquest. The page shows tribute collected by Aztec civil servants from the province of Tochtepec.  Included in the tribute were psilocybin mushrooms which the Aztecs called Teonanacatl, meaning “Flesh of the Gods.” The enlarged image of a two-handled vessel containing sacred psilocybin mushrooms (second image from left on next to bottom row) shows the mushrooms emerging from what appears to be the Fleur-de-lis emblem.

There is plenty of evidence in Mesoamerican mythology linking the many avatars of Quetzalcoatl, Jaguar-Bird-Serpent, to the duality of the planet Venus. Archaeologist Eduard Seler was the first to link feathered serpent imagery to the planet Venus and Quetzalcoatl and Seler believed that the jaguar-bird-serpent image was associated with war and the Morning Star (Milbrath).  In Aztec mythology the cosmos was intimately linked to the planet Venus in its form as the Evening Star, which guides the sun through the Underworld at night, as the skeletal god Xolotl, the twin of Quetzalcoatl.  As the Morning Star, Quetzalcoatl’s avatar was the harpy eagle.  Among the Quiche Maya, Venus in its form as the Morning Star, was called iqok’ij, meaningthe “sunbringer” or “carrier of the sun or day.” (Tedlock, 1993:236).

We know from the early chronicles that Quetzalcoatl (known in the Maya area as Kukulcan and Gucumatz) was a Toltec ruler, and was apotheosized as Venus according to archaeoastronomy expert Susan Milbrath (177).  Quetzalcoatl in the Mixteca-Puebla codices is also identified with Venus. Quetzalcoatl’s mushroom ritual of underworld jaguar transformation and Tlaloc Venus resurrection was so scared that, if one gave one’s own life in sacrifice the act emulated Quetzalcoatl, himself (Wauchope, Ekholm and Bernal, p.323).

Above, an image from the Codex Ríos, shows a deity who, although apparently bearded,  has been identified as the Aztec goddess Mayahuel, goddess of the maguey plant. The codex, a Spanish colonial-era manuscript now in the Vatican library (also called Codex Telleriano-Remensis), is attributed to Pedro de los Ríos, a Dominican friar who worked in Oaxaca and Puebla between 1547 and 1562. The codex itself was likely written and drawn in Italy after 1566. Based on the beard and mushroom headdress, the deity probably also represents an aspect of Quetzalcoatl, the god who bestowed sacred mushrooms to mankind and instructed humans on how to perform sacrifices in exchange for the gift of fire and immortality. Note that his crown consists of a stylized fleur-de-lis from which emerge three sacred psilocybin mushrooms.  Note also that two probable psilocybin mushrooms emerge from the fleur-de-lis emblem within the drinking vessel held in his right hand. The implication is that the vessel contains a psilocybin-based Soma beverage .

In Mesoamerica, as in the Old World, the royal line of the king was considered to be of divine origin.  Descendents of the god-king Quetzalcoatl and thus all kings or rulers were identified with the resurrected Sun God, and the Maize God of Mesoamerican mythology.

Many of the images I studied involved rituals of self-sacrifice and decapitation in the Underworld, alluding to the sun’s nightly death and subsequent resurrection from the Underworld by a pair of deities associated with the planet Venus as both the Morning Star and Evening star. This dualistic aspect of Venus is why Venus was venerated as both a God of Life and God of Death.  It was said that (The Title of the Lords of Totonicapan, 1953 third printing 1974, p.184), they [the Quiche] gave thanks to the sun and moon and stars, but particularly to the star that proclaims the day referring to Venus as the Morning star.

Mushrooms were so closely associated with death and underworld jaguar transformation and Venus resurrection that I conclude that they must have been believed to be the vehicle through which both occurred. They are also so closely associated with ritual decapitation, that their ingestion may have been considered essential to the ritual itself, whether in real life or symbolically in the underworld.

Ethno-mycologist Robert Gordon Wasson believed that the origin of ritual decapitation lay in the mushroom ritual itself.  In a letter to my father, Mesoamerican archaeologist Stephan de Borhegyi he writes:

“The cap of the mushroom in Mije (or Mixe) is called kobahk, the same word for head. In Kiche and Kakchiquel it is doubtless the same, and kolom ocox is not “mushroom heads”, but mushroom caps, or in scientific terminology, the pileus of the mushroom. The Mije in their mushroom cult always sever the stem or stipe (in Mije tek is “leg”) from the cap, and the cap alone is eaten. Great insistence is laid on this separation of cap from stem. This is in accordance with the offering of “mushroom head” in the Annals and the Popol Vuh.  The writers had in mind the removal of the stems”.

“The top of the cap is yellow and the rest is the color of coffee, with the gills of a color between yellow and coffee. They call this mushroom, pitpa “thread-like”, the smallest, perhaps 2 horizontal fingers high, with a cap small for the height, growing everywhere in clean earth, often along the mountain trails with many in a single place. In Mije the cap of the mushroom is called the “head” “kobahk in the dialect of Mazatlan. When the “heads are consumed, they are not chewed, but swallowed fast one after the other,  in pairs.” ( June 7, 1954, MPM archives)

In summary, the mushroom imagery I found encoded in pre-Columbian art, occurred with such frequency and in such indisputably religious context that there can be no doubt as to their importance in the development and practice of indigenous religion.

For more on mushroom and Venus imagery in pre-Columbian art read, BREAKING THE MUSHROOM CODE:   by  Carl de Borhegyi