Visionary Eye-Drops

by Giorgio Samorini


Originally published in Eleusis, n. 5, August 1996, pp. 27-32.

In various regions of Black Africa, within magic-therapeutical and religious rites, a peculiar way of giving medicines and "magic substances" is used: they are put into the eyes of the patient or of the person to be initiated, as eye-drops.

One of the best documented cases involves ibama, used during initiatory rites of Bwiti, a religious cult widespread in Gabon and neighbouring countries, and based on ingestion of the visionary plant iboga (Samorini 1995).

During the initiatory rite, the neophyte must eat a huge quantity of powdered iboga root until he/she loses consciousness, with the aim of achieving a "vision" having "revelatory" and spiritual-religious character. When the neophyte awakes from the state of coma (which may last some days and nights running), the kombo - the Bwitist priests - invite him/her to a talk during which he/she must report what he/she saw during his/her "trip in the other world". If the kombo think that he/she has "seen in the right way", they proclaim him/her bandzi, that is, initiated.

Raponda-Walker & Sillians (1962:204) report that among the Fang people in Gabon, the ritual application of the ibama eye-drops takes place immediately after this talk. The ibama is poured drop by drop into the eyes of the new initiate and its sudden effect is that of causing a strong burning sensation. During this instillation the person to be initiated is obliged to look at the sun. Bwitist people affirm that this application "makes the new initiate discover the other world's secrets which are concealed for common mortals".

Stanislav Swiderski, the eminent scholar of the Bwitist religion, initiated in the Dissumba sect, adds that ebama (plural bibama) is used to enhance the visual, auditory and perceptial capabilities of the candidates. The liquid is poured into the new-initiate's eye by means of a funnel made with a rolled leaf of the abomenzan plant (Piper umbellatum L., Piperaceae, cf. Raponda-Walker & Sillans, 1961) and simultaneously another leaf of the same plant is cracked under his/her head "in order to open his/her new thought and let his/her new spirit enter". Being thus "immunized", the initiate is thought to be able to gaze at the sun, "to prove that he/she is now able to look truth in the face without fearing its force" (Swiderski, 1990, V:83).

The use of eye-drops is also found among the communities of Ombwiri, the Gabonese therapeutic rite also using iboga as psychodiagnostic agent. In this case the application of the eye-drops generally causes a vision: "By gazing at the sun the sick persons see blue circles and bubbles. They frequently see a circular door in an infinite space, they catch sight of men dressed in white with raffia hats, bearing lances. This vision is one of the important stages on their path towards recovery, obtained through the spiritual experience of the encounter with the spirits" (Swiderski, 1972:186). In this rite the application of the eye-drops precedes the consumption of iboga.

The burning sensation caused by this eye-drop is devastating and the initiate will have red eyes for several days. Because of this strong and sudden pain, the eye-drop is also called ebama ngadi, "thunderbolt ebama".

The Bwitist rite of the application of ebama underwent an evolution (or perhaps an involution) within the Bwitist initiation. Its execution at the end of the initiation cycle might be a recent introduction. Among some sects this rite is carried out before the vision obtained with iboga and in such cases it would have the aim of facilitating the initiatory vision. For example, among the Mitsogho in Gabon, the eye-drop is given to neophytes immediately after they have taken iboga. In this case it is extracted from the stem of mokusa, identified as Costus lucanusianus J. Braun & K. Schum (Zingiberaceae) (Gollnhofer & Sillans, 1979:745). As André Mary pointed out (1983:239-40) the application of the eye-drop after the vision with iboga has now become a simple physical test during which the initiate must manage to obtain the vision of the thunderbolt, most times after a lighted candle is put near his/her face.

Unfortunately, or perhaps, luckily, in the Bwitist sect where I was initiated - Ndea Narizanga, established only in 1957 - the ibama rite was eliminated, therefore I did not have the chance to experience personally the pains and the effects of this eye-drop (Samorini, 1996).

It is not clear to what extent this eye-drop plays a role in the psychoactive effects experienced during the initiatory rites. We have scanty data on its composition and it would seem that it hes been transformed and may be different according to the Bwitist sect or ethnic groups that use it. What is certain is that it is composed of herbal or, more rarely, animal fluids. Mary (1983:238-9) mentions the juice of the sninegue root, or the juice of the miane bark or the liquid extracted from a big red millipede. Raponda-Walker & Sillans (1962:52) mention a more complicated recipe, completely herbal: juice of Amorphophallus maculatus N. E. Br. (Araceae), juice of Aframomum sanguineum K. Schum (Zingiberaceae), sap of Euphorbia hermentiana Lem (Euphorbiaceae), scrapings of Mimosa pigra L. bark (Leguminosae), and seeds of Buchholzia macrophylla Pax, (Capparidaceae). All these ingredients are boiled and then allowed to clarify.

Despite the fact that the Bwitist rite is syncretistic with Christianity, and is "only" 150 years old, undoubtedly elements of the rite, such as the consumption of the entheogenic iboga and the application of the ritual eye-drops, are part of traditional heritage and are much older. The use of the ritual eye-drops might be a heritage of the archaic ancestor worship, the Bieri, in which a different psychoactive plant, alan (plural melan), Alchornea floribunda Müll-Arg. (Euphorbiaceae, cf. De Smet, 1996) was and still is used. James Fernandez reported that, when the effects of this plant took too long to be felt, eye-drops made of the irritant latex of Elaeophorbia drupifera Stapf. (Euphorbiaceae), called ayañ beyem by Fang people, were poured into the eyes of the person to be initiated: "It seems that this latex takes effect on the optic nerves, producing strange visual states and a general sensation of stunning. It is said that in the past this latex was put on the eyes of slaves and prisoners so as to blur their sight, to stun them and to calm them (Fernandez 1972:242-3). According to S. Galley (1964, cit. in Swiderski, 1981:395-6) it is the infusion of the alan plant (here wrongly identified with the leguminous plant Hylodendron gabunense Taub.) that is used in some cases as eye-drops, besides being swallowed, for the purpose of "causing the neophyte to sleep".

It has already been stressed that the original experts on the effects of iboga are the Pygmies of the equatorial forest and among them too there is a rite of application of eye-drops. Among the group of the Gyeli Pygmies in Cameroons, during nocturnal ceremonies held for the dead (mi-n ‘ku-ta) the witch-doctors give those present eye-drops obtained from the leaves of imperfectly identified plants "to enhance their keenness of sight" (Tastevin, 1935). Among some Pygmy groups of the Central African Republic, to enhance a hunter's keenness of sight, some drops of juice obtained by squeezing the fruit of Vitex congolensis De Wild. & Th.Dur. (Verbenaceae) are made to fall on his eyes: "it hurts, it stings, but then you see better" (Motte, 1980:224-6). The use of eye-drops is again found in a magic-therapeutical rite of a sect of the Harrist Church in Ivory Coast. For some kinds of diseases the Harrist priests pick up some leaves of a Graminaceae, squeeze them and apply the juice on each eye of the patient. These applications cause temporary burning. The patient is dazed for a short time and then stands up, apparently cured (Rouch, 1963:174).

What effects do these eye-drops produce on the human mind? The answer is uncertain and I do not intend to venture upon strained conjectures proceeding from the scant data herein mentioned. At the most, these data raise another question: may an orally psychoactive drug induce the same effects when applied into the eyes as eye-drops? The answer, for which I have been searching for a long time, remains uncertain, except in one case, in which it is affirmative. This is the case of the tropane alkaloids, present in the "hallucinogenic" Solanaceae (thorn apple, deadly nightshade, mandrake, etc.).

During my bibliographic research centered on the medical studies of the past century, I found a report of an accidental poisoning with duboisine (an old name for hyoscyamine), put into the eyes. In 1887, in England, two disks containing duboisine were put on the eyes of a 75 year old man suffering from senile cataract. "After a few seconds the patient started to complain of a slight dizziness, he grew restless and was obliged to sit down. After 20 minutes his pupils were dilated enough to allow the necessary examination. Some minutes later he felt a sense of great weakness, great dryness of the mouth with a very bitter taste. As the patient wanted to go home, on his way he staggered and talked nonsense like a drunk. When he reached home, he was unable to stand up or to recognise the position of objects, certainly due to a paralysis of accommodation and to visual hallucinations. He was put in bed and was seized by unceasing movements: he looked suspiciously under the sheets and behind himself, uttered a torrent of words and of nonsense. He thought he was submerged in deep shadows, in spite of the fact that it was a wonderful summer day" (Martini, 1887:366).

Tropane alkaloids may therefore induce psychoactive effects when introduced into the eyes. Could this be true also for other types of alkaloids, such as the indolic ones (psilocybin, LSD, DMT, etc.)?

Going back to ethnographic reports, I recall also, among some tribes of Guyana (South America), that the practice was common of rubbing the secretion of certain toads on cuts made in the skin or into the eyes, in order to increase keenness of sight during the hunt (Furst, 1972).

Thinking of Greek mythology the tale of the Golden Fleece described by Apollonio Rodio in his Argonautics comes to mind. In the passage IV:156-7 there is the description of how the sorceress Medea sprayed some soporific juniper drops into the eyes of the dragon which kept watch over the fleece.

Also Proclo seems to have known the practice of applying drugs on the eyes to obtain visions and Psello considered it an Egyptian practice (Dodds, 1978:363 and note 4).

Cintinuing and concluding in Egypt, in a papyrus of the IIIrd century B.C. a Mithraic rite is described in which an enigmatic kentritide herb has sacramental value: "If you wish to show (these things) to somebody else, spread the eyes of the person you want (to instruct) with the juice of the kentritide herb together with the juice of roses and (he) will clearly see, in such a way that you will be astonished" (Cepollaro, 1982:40).

Recalling the case of the English man who "got drunk" after the application of eye-drops containing hyoscyamine, the question arises whether some of these magic and ritual operations are and were characterised by psychopharmacological sequellae.

References

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SWIDERSKI S., 1972, L'Ombwiri, société d'initiation et de guérison au Gabon, in: AA.VV., Religioni e Civiltà , Bari, Dedalo, vol. 1: 125-205.

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