The early friars who led the evangelization of Mexico were familiar with these plants and flowers. In the Florentine Codex, Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, a Franciscan friar, included an extensive catalogue of the hallucinogenic plants used in indigenous rituals. Sahagun's immediate motivation for paying such close attention to these may have been providing evidence of the evils they produced in Indian behavior, but he left an interesting and informative record for posterity. An excellent online article documents this history. http://www.erowid.org/psychoactives/history/history_article3_psychoactives_in_precolumbian_mexico.pdf
It is interesting that hallucinogenic plants were, in places, depicted on the walls of monasteries and other colonial religious buildings. The most notable example is the 16th century Augustinian monastery of the Divine Savior in Malinalco, Mexico, located 115 km southwest of Mexico City. The murals on its cloister walls were painted to represent Paradise, which in the Aztec understanding, the understanding of the artists who executed the murals, was a garden filled with plants and flowers. These artists painted the plants they knew, and it just so happened that these included hallucinogenic plants.
|Clositer mural, Malinalco, MX|
|Cloister mural, Malinalco, MX|
Another prominent structure in which there is documented evidence of depicted hallucinogens is in the Casa de Dean, Puebla MX which was the residence of a clergyman, the Dean of the Puebla Cathedral. This structure was discussed in the recent post of this blog (March 2, 2014).
|Mural, Casa de Dean, Puebla, MX|
The main question is why representations of hallucinogenic plants were permitted in Church-related buildings. Did the friars supervising the work of the Indian artists not recognize these plants? Maybe yes and maybe not. Although catalogues of psychoactive plants existed at that time, likely not all the clergy were aware of or had access to them. Or, perhaps the friars knew, but had decided it was not worth fighting about. There are many instances in the colonial period of the friars giving leeway to their indigenous converts just so they would remain within the church. This could be one of them. No one can know for sure and there does not seem to be anything concrete written about it.
There were groups of trained indigenous painters who traveled around painting murals in colonial era sites. If such a group were instructed to paint a mural of Paradise they would, of course, depict plants familiar to them which would include psychoactive ones. These were the local plants they knew and a lot of them just happened to be hallucinogens.
There might have been something else going on in the psychology of these colonial era indigenous artists; a recent experience of mine in Xochimilco suggests a possibility. Xochimilco, which is right outside of Mexico City, is known for its "floating gardens" and numerous small barges decorated with flowers that take people along the picturesque canals. I ran into a man there who was painting a panel for one of these boats. Laughing, he pointed out the center flower in this panel and told me it was an opium flower. Painting it there was his private joke, his way of "pulling one over" on unsuspecting viewers.
|Barges in Xochimilco|
|The Artist with facial features distorted to protect privacy, Xochimilco, MX|
|Opium Poppy Flower, Xochimilco, MX|
Maybe something like this was going on with the native painters of colonial era murals. Remember that they were painting for Spanish overlords who had imposed their religious system, Christianity, on them. What better way to reclaim a sense of self and pride than to paint plants connected to their old religion on the walls of unsuspecting friars? Of course, this may not have been their motivation, at all. Perhaps they were just routinely representing the plants that grew around them, but it is an interesting possibility to consider.