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St. John USVI Stories: The Werewolf

Datura Stories

The belief that human beings can be transformed into animals is a common theme among different cultures throughout the world. There is a strong correlation between many of these beliefs and joy juice, a bush that is commonly found growing wild in many places on St. John.

Joy juice, also known as datura, jimsenweed, and devil's weed, contains powerful psychoactive alkaloids that can produce hallucinations and delusions indistinguishable from reality, one of which is the delusion of taking the form of some kind of animal.

In 1589, a colleague of Galileo, Giovanni Battista Porta, took part in a study of witchcraft and other controversial religious rituals. He wrote that under the effects of a "magic salve" made of datura and other so-called hexing plants, people dressed themselves in wolf skins and went running about on all fours, howling at the full moon. In all likelihood, rituals such as these led to the belief in werewolves, people who would change into wolves on the night of the full moon. In those days, this belief was so prevalent that during the sixteenth century in Europe over 50,000 people were brought to trial accused of the crime of lycanthropy (being a werewolf.)

The nahaul of Mexico is another example. In rituals that predated Columbus and the European conquest of Mexico, sorcerers used ointments and potions made of datura to become a nahaul, an ancient and dreaded being that possessed the ability to change into a wolf, coyote or other animal. Belief in the nahaul and the use of datura, peyote and other hallucinogenic herbs by brujos or sorcerers persists in Mexico to this very day.

In the 1960s Carlos Casteñeda, who apprenticed with the Yaqui brujo, Don Juan, in Mexico also wrote that datura could be used to transform people into animals and that his teacher, Don Juan, had used datura in his younger days to become a crow, thus enabling him to spy on his enemies.

Similarly, in the Peruvian Amazon, shamans and sorcerers use a datura concoction comparable to the magic salve of Europe to change themselves into jungle animals such as jaguars, tigers and snakes. And in the Brazilian Amazon, an American film crew documented a ritual in which two Amazonian tribesmen, being initiated as shamans, were given a potion containing datura and other psychoactive herbs.

After ingesting the potion one of the initiates became an otter. Crawling about face low to the ground, he made his way to a nearby stream. In a lightning quick motion, he stuck his head into the water and emerged with a fish, which he had caught in otter-like fashion using only his teeth.

The other tribesman became a wild boar. He too went about on all fours and when he came upon a yucca plant, he dug into the dirt with his hands and teeth, exposed the root, and ate it. Although yucca is a common and harmless food for both boars and humans, it is highly poisonous to people if eaten raw. But the man, in his wild boar incarnation experienced no ill effects from the poisonous root. Before he was returned to his human incarnation, however, the shaman, who acted as the spiritual guide during the ritual, carefully cleaned out the initiate's mouth and teeth in order to insure that no remnants of the poison would be present when the animal once again became human.

To those who are tempted to experiment with this plant I offer the following warning: Datura or joy juice is highly poisonous. It can kill or cause permanent brain damage, even in relatively low doses.

As they say on TV: "Do not try this at home!"

By Gerald Singer