Author of the Month

Gary A. David, Author of the Month for October 2009

The Mothman of Pottery Mound:
the Use of Sacred Datura in Ancient New Mexico (cont.)
By Gary A. David

The other figure in basically the same pose has a yellow body and a brown and yellow headdress. This one has star symbols on his wings and a couple of dragonfly symbols beneath him. With his left hand he is grasping a lightning bolt emanating from a bowl balanced on a maiden's head. (She is not seen in this picture, but she is, by the way, holding a macaw in each hand.) Both of the Mothman figures have a coiled or curved proboscis.

Another Mothman mural
Sphinx moth

What prompted the depiction of this strange insect-human hybrid? One of the archaeological interns who originally excavated Pottery Mound and helped to copy its murals has put forth an intriguing theory. In a poster presentation at the Society for American Archaeology conference, March 2005 in Salt Lake City, Utah, independent researcher and anthropologist Paul T. Kay provided some interesting links between the night flying hawk moth (Manduca sexta, also called sphinx moth) and the Datura plant. "There exists a mutualistic relationship in nature between the hawk moth and the Datura plant. ALL of this is related to the widespread ritualistic use of Datura during SHAMANISTIC practices…" [3] The pink-spotted hawk moth (Agrius cingulata) may also have been intended.

Datura wrightii is known as devil's weed, thorn apple, or jimsonweed. The latter term is a corruption of Jamestown weed, after the Virginia colony where Europeans first unwittingly ingested a similar species. This perennial grows throughout the American Southwest in open land with well-drained soil. Its nocturnally blooming, white trumpet-shaped flowers are pollinated by the hummingbird-sized hawk moth, which inserts its long proboscis into the fragrant flower tube to reach the profuse nectar.

Kay furthermore believes that the classic plumed serpent traditionally depicted on ceramics, murals, and rock art is actually the instar, or larva, of this moth. The only problem with this part of Kay's theory, however, is that the 'horn' is at the posterior, not the head. Ancient Pottery Mound inhabitants would surely have known this.

Mural of star-face and horned serpent with feather ruff
Hawk moth larva

Datura is a powerful and dangerous hallucinogen. [4] It has been used both medicinally and ritually for at least 4,000 years in the American Southwest. Ground-up portions of the plant were sometimes employed as an anesthetic or as a salve for wounds or bruises. The Aztecs called it toloatzin, which means "nodding head." This refers to the seedpods but may as well mimic the unconscious head of one who has ingested the psychotropic plant. The Navajo have a folk adage regarding this poisonous tropane alkaloid of the nightshade family: "Eat a little, and go to sleep. Eat some more, and have a dream. Eat some more, and don't wake up."

Symptoms of Datura intoxication include dizziness, flushing, fever, dilated pupils, temporary blindness, dry skin and mouth, difficulty swallowing, tachycardia, heightened sexuality, restlessness, inability to concentrate, idiosyncratic or violent behavior, delirium, visual and auditory hallucinations, sometimes terrifying phantasmagoria, inability to distinguish fantasy from "reality," and amnesia.

Blossom of Datura wrightii
Egyptian hieroglyph for 'star'. Various species of Datura grow in Egypt. Is the morphology of the night-blooming "moonflower" the source for this hieroglyph? Duat, the Egyptian word meaning 'underworld', was also spelled Dat, the root of the word Datura. [5]

Andrew Weil highlights the negative aspects of the plant: "Datura is not a nice drug. Although sometimes classified as a hallucinogen, it should not be confused with the psychedelics. It is much more toxic than the psychedelics and tends to produce delirium and disorientation. Moreover, Datura keeps bad company. All over the world it is a drug of poisoners, criminals, and black magicians." [6]

For the indigenous people of the Andes in Peru, Datura is known as yerba de huaca, or 'herb of the graves'. This is because its use allowed communication with the spirits of ancestors. [7]

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  1. Paul T. Kay: "Ancient Voices…murals and pots speak. DATURA: A Poster Presentation for the 70th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology," [back to text]
  2. CAVEAT-IMPORTANT WARNING FROM A TRUSTED ONLINE SOURCE: "I'd like to point out that there are countless warnings about Datura and reports of horrendous experiences using it throughout this site. More Datura reports fall under the 'Train Wreck' category than any other substance. It is NOT safely used haphazardly. Even with all the warnings and recommendations not to use it, people will continue to do so, often having never read anything about it. Hopefully, the wide variety of information presented here will help some people to take precautions with regard to their safety." [back to text]
  3. R. T. Rundle Clark: Myth and Symbol In Ancient Egypt (Thames and Hudson, London, 1978, 1959), p. 165. [back to text]
  4. Andrew Weil: The Marriage of the Sun and Moon: A Quest for Unity in Consciousness (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1980), p. 166. [back to text]
  5. Ernst Bibra, and Jonathan Ott: Plant Intoxicants: A Classic Text on the Use of Mind Altering Plants (Inner Traditions/Bear & Company, Rochester, Vermont, 1995, originally published 1855), pp. 77-8. Digitized preview at [back to text]

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