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.