Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Americas

The Americas 

by Arden Decker

Pipe with bluebird (Mexico, ca. 1100–ca. 1400); tobacco and other substances were smoked to induce hallucinognic states or illness as a way to gain supernatural empowerment. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of the Art Museum Council in honor of the museum’s 25th anniversary, Photograph © 2006 Museum Associates/LACMA)

In general, the use of alchemy and magic throughout North, Central, and South America is tied to a variety of social functions, including healing, harming, divining, and religious or ritual use. Prior to the Spanish conquest practitioners of alchemy and magic (witches, sorcerers, healers, and shamans) were not viewed with the negative connotations that are sometimes associated with those who practiced magic in Europe. It is useful to keep in mind that in these various cultures the manipulation of plant properties and the use of magic did not belong to a realm that was separate from religion or society at large. In fact, they played an important role in the reinforcement and continuation of cultural identity and religious beliefs. Most medieval American cultures believed that the entire natural world was animate and the line between human and supernatural realms was not ridgedly defined. Because plants are highly perishable, there is little physical evidence of the use of alchemy, though some visual representations do exist. While much of what is known concerning the use of alchemy and magic is gathered from colonial era chroniclers and explorers, we also have learned much about these practices through the contemporary people who continue to utilize them to this day.

Role of magicians and witches

Although their names and specific roles varied and often overlapped, most practitioners of alchemy and magic were believed to possess supernatural powers and knowledge that enabled them to control or manipulate situations and the natural environment. Witches were believed to be able to alter the acts and welfare of others in both positive and negative ways. Witches could be elders, leaders, curers, or sometimes even an ordinary person. The Aztec (ca. 1300–1521 c.e.) of central Mexico believed that witches and shamans had the special ability to transform into an animal alter ego called the nagual (also spelled nahual). By calling upon the nagual, the practitioner was able to vicariously perform acts against others. In Maya cultures (ca. 1800 b.c.e.–1530 c.e.) shamans often were called upon to capture “lost” animal spirits or the alter ego of a person. Shamans were particularly important within most American cultures because they served as leaders and intermediaries of the human and spiritual realms. More specifically, shamans possessed the ability to pass through the various supernatural levels. Both men and women could become shamans, thereby suggesting that both sexes held religious and political power. The role of curers and healers was more specific. Some engaged in a general practice of healing sicknesses, while others were specialized in treating certain types of illnesses or conditions. Often they worked as ritual healers of ailments brought on by the gods, witches, or sorcerers. The tradition of using plants in magical and ritual ceremony is long, and it is believed that shamans in North America engaged in such practice as early as the Paleo-Indian Period (ca. 13,000–ca. 8000 b.c.e.); it is commonly held that these traditions were brought over by Paleolithic peoples from Asia. Plants were used as remedies for medical issues; as master herbalists, shamans, curers, and healers all engaged in such use. In more extreme cases, witches, curers, healers, and shamans entered into ecstatic trances in order to perform magic. Hallucinogenic plants that were believed to help the person or the soul travel into supernatural realms often aided this process. Natural elements, such as leaves, seeds, or barks, were commonly believed to be magic or sacred owing to their unique effects. Some plant elements were used alone, while others would be combined and mixed with additional ingredients to enhance specific effects. The sophisticated knowledge of plant properties among contemporary indigenous groups in North, Central, and South America indicates a longtime study of hallucinogenic and medicinal plants. It has been suggested that the use of magical plants often allows members of a society to find validation of their culture and history as they participate in rituals and ceremonies passed down for generations. It is necessary to mention that such plants were not used for recreation, as they were considered to be highly sacred and were employed only for ritual purposes.

In medieval Mesoamerica the use of psychotropic mushrooms was a longstanding part of magical or ritual practice. The Huichol Indians of north-central Mexico have continued such practices since pre-Columbian times, and it is believed that such mushrooms also were used by Classic and post- Classic Maya in shamanistic ritual. There is strong evidence to support the use of the peyote cactus in southwestern North America and western Mexico, including funerary art depicting the plant. The use of morning glory seeds called oloiuqui by the Aztec was also prevalent in Mesoamerica. The colonial- era historian Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590) wrote about the Aztec use of oloiuqui mixed with honey in ritual practices. The seeds of the Sophora secundiflora plant, known as red beans or mescal, have been found at archaeological sites dating before 1000 c.e. in both Mexico and Texas, and they have the longest record of use throughout Native American cultures. It is believed that these seeds were used for divination purposes. The use of members of the Datura family of plants also was widespread throughout the Americas. As a psychotropic plant, it was highly valued by the Inca (ca. 1450–1532 c.e.) for its intoxicating effects and was particularly important for sorcery and curing.

In both North and South America the magical properties of tobacco were often exploited. Tobacco would be ingested through chewing, licking, and smoking, or it could be absorbed through the skin. Tobacco and other plants, such as members of the pea family, were often smoked or made into snuffs, which would be inhaled, usually through the nostrils, to achieve the desired hallucinogenic effect. In South America the state of sickness brought on by ingesting large amounts of tobacco was believed to aid the practitioner in achieving supernatural empowerment. In its most potent state, tobacco use was thought to cause paranormal vision in the shaman. It also helped the shaman perform psychiatric healing and to embark on vision quests. Columbus and his men recorded the use of snuff among the Taino peoples inhabiting their first point of contact, the island named Hispaniola.


The San Pedro cactus has been used for more than 3,000 years by cultures living in South America, and it is still in use today. There is visual evidence that cultures understood the sacred nature of this plant as early as the Chavín culture (ca. 900–ca. 200 b.c.e.), which used the plant as a decorative motif in their art. This very thin, column-shaped cactus is used for healing and in witchcraft, suggesting that the plant possesses both healing and potentially destructive powers. One way that San Pedro cactus is still utilized today is in a cure that involves combining the plant with tobacco leaves, sugar candy, lime, cane alcohol, and perfume to create a mixture full of symbolic power. The concoction would be used as a curative drink to heal various illnesses.


Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Asia

Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Europe

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