COMMON NAMES: Apepe, Lolha’ (Mayan, ‘flower of the water’), Naab (Mayan), Nikte’ha’ (Mayan, ‘flower/vulva of the water’), Nukuchnaab (Mayan, ‘large water lily’), Quetzalxochiatl (Aztec, ‘Quetzal feather flower’), Saknaab (Mayan, ‘white water lily’), Sol de Agua (Spanish, ‘sun of the water’), U K’omin (Lacandon), Xikinchaak (Mayan, ‘the ear of the rain god’)
The white water lily, or Nymphaea ampla, grows a thick rhizome and has long-stemmed cordate leaves. The white flowers jut up about four to five inches above the floating leaves. The plant occurs throughout the Mayan lowlands in southern Mexico. It is also found growing wild on the higher elevated lake plateaus of Chiapas. The plant commonly grows in the natural wells and limestone caverns near Merida in the northern Yucatán, and in Lago Peten Itza in Guatemala, and is said to occur in Brazil. Its rhizome may be split and multiplied, and thrives when placed in a pond with drainage or in slow-moving water (Ratsch 1998, 396).
TRADITIONAL USES: The white water lily is a very common subject in Mesoamerican art. The rain god Theotihuacan was often depicted with water lily leaves, buds and flowers – most often in his mouth. This has caused some ethnomycologists to interpret these images of water lilies as representations of entheogenic mushrooms (Emboden 1982).
There are many graphical iconic examples that lead one to the conclusion that Nymphaea ampla was used as an additive to the balche’ drink used in religious ceremonies by priests and in shamanic ritual ceremonies by shamans, which are described below. It has been reported that the flowers were used as a narcotic inebriant with opium-like effects during the first half of the twentieth century in Brazil. Throughout the 1960s, white lily flowers are said to have been used as a recreational drug (Emboden 1979).
The water lily was often portrayed in an iconographic context in the art of the classic Mayan period. One may interpret these appearances of the water lily in a variety of ways. In essence, there are three motifs: Water lilies sprouting from the backs of crocodiles, powerful jaws grazing the surface while swimming in the water; the head of the “earth monster,” around which water lilies are entwined; and jaguars (the animal symbol of the shaman), either wearing the stalks and buds of water lilies as head ornaments, or dancing with water lilies. The association between the water lily and the jaguar is especially common during the Mayan period (Rands 1953).
The water lily is often found depicted on ceramic vessels in images of prophetic scenes from the underworld or other worlds. The main use for these containers is believed to be the delivery of the magical, ceremonial concoction known as the balche’ drink of the priest or shaman. Balche’ is the potion which helps the holy man transform into a spirit animal in order to travel to other worlds (Emboden 1979)
Also portrayed, though less frequently, is the transformation of tadpoles, with the tadpole changing form to become a toad. The shaman undergoes a similar transformation when manifesting the animal alter ego. In some depictions, the toad is seen in human form, offering libations to the jaguar; these libations may consist of balche’, to which the water lily appears have been added, which invokes shamanic ecstasy and makes the shaman’s transformation easier (Emboden 1979).
There is a Mayan hieroglyph known by the name “Jaguar-Water Lily” which has played an important role in the deciphering of the Mayan writing system. In all likelihood, the jaguar-water lily depicts a transformed shaman. In the American tropics, the jaguar is the most important shamanic animal, and is considered identical to the shaman (Coe 1973).
A very famous glyph from the classic Mayan period depicts a jaguar, apparently inebriated, swimming in a lake alongside Mayan symbolic text which reads: “Water Lily – Jaguar – His Naugal – Seibel – Alau”; loosely translated this means “The lord of the city of Seibel has the water lily as his nagual.” “Naugal” in Mayan refers to a shaman’s animal transformation, “alau” means lord and “uay” means magic and transformation (Coe 1973).
This uay glyph may indicate that the shaman was transformed into a jaguar by means of the potent balche’ drink and is traveling in another reality. The iconographic element of the water lily may be interpreted in numerous ways, all related: as a symbol for the balche’ drink, the water in which the inebriated jaguar swims, the inebriation itself, or the alternate reality. The water lily is also depicted as a ritual scepter, oftentimes hovering over balche’ vessels (Coe 1973).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The dried buds and flowers of N. ampla may be smoked alone or in smoking blends. One to two buds is said to be an effective psychoactive dosage. The fresh rhizome may be eaten raw or cooked. Eating an entire rhizome has been documented to produce a mild sense of euphoria. Many reports from modern-day Yucatán describe the use of the plant for ethnomedicinal purposes (Ratsch 1998, 396).
MEDICINAL USES: The water lily is described and called upon in many Mayan medical rituals for the healing of ulcers and skin diseases dating back to the colonial period. The plant is also used as a cardiac sedative in Afghanistan (Voogelbreinder 2009, 247). N. ampla has a beneficial sedating and pain relieving effect, making it valuable for those suffering from anxiety, insomnia, and other nervous disorders.
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The effects of N. ampla when prepared as a tea or decoction and ingested are said to be much like those of the opiate apomorphine. White lily actually contains aporphine, which is closely related to apomorphine, differing only in the lack of two hydroxyl groups. It is very likely that this can be transformed into apomorphine through processing, storage, or through one’s own metabolism. There are many who report feelings of floating and euphoric sensations after ingesting a potion made from the white water lily. Large doses may cause vomitting (Emboden 1979).
Coe, M.D. The Maya Scribe and His World. New York: The Grolier Club, 1973.
Emboden, W.A. “Nymphaea Ampla and Other Mayan Narcotic Plants.” Mexicon 1 (1979): 50–52.
———. “The Mushroom and the Water Lily.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 5 (1982): 139–148.
Rands, R.L. “The Water Lily in Maya Art: A Complex of Alleged Asiatic Origin.” Anthropological Papers, Smithsonian Institution BAE Bulletin 34, no. 151 (1953): 75–153.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.