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Home :: Featured Items :: Dream Enhancement :: Xhosa Dream Herb – Silene capensis "Undlela Ziimhlophe"

Xhosa Dream Herb – Silene capensis "Undlela Ziimhlophe"

Click to enlargeIndigenous to the verdant river valleys of the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, this obscure flowering species is regarded by Xhosa diviners as a sacred plant with the ability to induce remarkably vivid and prophetic dreams. There exists very little documentation of the pharmacology of Silene capensis. It is suspected that its oneirongenic or dream-inducing activity is likely due to triterpenoid saponins contained within its roots.

The Xhosa consider the roots of Silene capensis to be among a group of medicinal roots called ubulawu. The exact Xhosa name for the root is Undlela Ziimhlophe which translates as “white paths” or “white ways”. Novice diviners ingest a preparation made from the root and are said to have dreams in which the color white is of significance. For those interested, a very detailed myth surrounding this unique plant follows below.

Diviners prepare the ubulawu root by powdering it, and adding about 1 heaping tablespoon of it to about 1.5 liters of water and then briskly churning the mixture with a forked mixing-stick to produce a head of foam (the mixture will be reused over the next several days). Mouthfuls of the foam are swallowed until the diviner feels bloated or burps up some of the foam. Initiates will usually participate in ubulawu drinking sessions over the course of three consecutive days at the full moon. The foam is consumed in the morning on an empty stomach, and then initiates dance for hours. More foam is had, and then after sharing a meal initiates leave for home. On the following day they share their dream experiences among the group.

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The "River" MythThe following is an excerpt of an article published in Eleusis: Journal of Psychoactive Plants & Compounds, Vol. 4 2000, entitled Root, Dream & Myth: The Use of the Oneirongenic Plant Silene capensis among the Xhosa of South Africa. The article was written by Manton Hirst.

The candidate diviner strips on the river bank and plunges into the water. Significantly, although the novice is “out of his (her) mind”, he (she) is not a potential suicide or accident victim about to drown, but goes into the river “as if by magic”, undressing as though he (she) is “going to swim”. Under the river, the novice encounters a snake, guarding the entrance to a subterranean enclosure. The snake is coiled beside wet, white clay (ifutha), resting on a grinding stone. In another version, the snake is coiled round solid white clay (HAMMOND-TOOKE 1962). If the novice “belongs to the river”, then he (she) smears the white clay on his (her) face and body and passes the snake, which does not harm the novice. However, the snake is also the “Messenger of Death.” It kills people who try to enter but do not belong there or have a complaint against them at home. The snake bites its victim’s eyes, ears and genitals. Having passed the snake, the novice goes through the hole in the ground and enters the enclosure beyond, which is not only like the interior of a thatched Xhosa hut, but also bears a remarkable resemblance to the interior of the diviner’s medicine-hut. On the floor, medicines are spread out on rushes (imizi) - barks and roots, including ubulawu. There is also an old woman, with very long, black hair, who is reputedly half human and half fish. She is “ a fish below the waist” which is a euphemism of respect (intlonipho) for the diviner’s girdle of wild animal pelts. Traditionally, the Xhosa did not each fish, which were classified with snakes (THEAL 1882:16). Likewise, Xhosa diviners abstain (ukuzila) from eating the highly desirable and socially acceptable meat of various antelopes and chacma baboon, for examples, the skins of which are worn in the regalia. The old female diviner is the representative of the ancestors of the agnatic group who initiates diviners under the river. She tells the novice that he (she) has been called by the ancestors to be a diviner. “Go home now”, she says, “heal your people and other people.” Like someone being physically reborn, the novice passes out through the hole in the river bed and returns to the surface of the river. The novice stays there a moment and then sinks down, and this continues for three days. On the third day, when the fermented sorghum beer (utywala) is ready at home, siblings and relatives find the novice, who is covered from head to foot in white clay and to this extent resembles a disinterred corpse (izithunzela). The candidate diviner is accompanied home, where people are already dancing, and placed in a separate shelter, which is called intondo (medicine-hut), containing a tin beaker of frothy white ubulawu. The diviner instructs the novice to drink from the beaker. Afterwards, the novice relates his (her) experiences “under the river” to the diviner.

The myth is a parable of the whole process of becoming a diviner. It contains many references to cultural details already described and referred to in the preceding sections of this paper, from the initial predisposing “trouble” or affliction, i.e. submersion in a river, to the ensuing ritual consequences - the intondo in which the novice is placed at the end of the myth is, in fact, a makeshift grass shelter in which the novice is actually secluded in the intlwayelelo ritual. Although considerably masked by metaphorical language, the myth also contains quite explicit details pertaining to the use of the entheogen and the ensuing experiential effects. The novice in the myth is also the analogue of the entheogen, namely Silene capensis root, which is stripped of its hairy stem and leaves before use, i.e. before “going for a swim” in the water in which the root is churned up. An analysis of a collection of Xhosa traditional nursery tales (iintsomi) reveals that the river, another analogue of the novice, always strips the hero of his apparel, weapons and other belongings and carries them off (THEAL 1882). Not only is the medicine mixing-stick (ixhayi) forked like the bifurcated tongue of a snake, but under the river the novice encounters a coiled snake that resembles the twisted root when dry. The hole or entrance the snake guards, in the myth, is, of course, the hole in the ground from which the root of the plant was removed by the foraging diviner. Remember how Nontando called upon her ancestors by name before removing the root from the ground and then, before covering the hole, sprinkled a few white beads into it. Thus, in the myth, after passing through the hole or entrance, the novice encounters the old woman and all the professional trappings of the diviner, such as the regalia and intondo, in the enclosure beyond. That is the “other world” of the spirits, of death as well as of dreams, which, having visionary import for the dreamer and events in the dreamer’s life, typically occur, during sleep, in the unconscious (FREUD 1913) and are vividly manifested to the novice following ingestion of the root (i.e. “passing the snake” into the enclosure in which the spirit of the old female diviner is secreted). The river, separated and enclosed (like circumcision initiates abakhwetha secluded in the bush, the novice diviner secluded in the intondo in the intlwayelelo ritual or the frothy white ubulawu foam in the tin beaker), is the symbol of the limen or boundary between the worlds - of life and death, of reality and dreams - through which the novice must pass, with the aid of the root-snake, into the world of the spirits and the unconscious beyond (cf. DUERR 1985). The root is mixed with water, the novice ingests the white foam and, in turn, is swallowed by the river of dreams and metaphors that eventually regurgitates the novice back to the surface in much the same way as the novice ingests the foam until he (she) regurgitates some of it. The returning novice, who is found in the water by the river by siblings and relatives in the myth, all white as clay or foam. the “rising and sinking” episode of the regurgitated novice that takes place at the surface of the river in the myth, is an allusion to the ubulawu drinking sessions of novice diviners that typically take place during three consecutive days at full-moon.


Myth, like the sacred root itself, is an effect operating from outside the individual to induce a mind-altering experience within resulting in self-insight and enlightenment. Dreams take place spontaneously in an intuitive world separated from routine reality and enclosed in the individual unconscious. However, dreams like myths and story-tales in general, by and through their narration inter-subjectively come to have significance for people and events in the real world. The root (undlela ziimhlphe; silene capensis) straddles the boundary between the worlds and bridges them through imagery. Not only does ingestion of the root induce dream imagery in the novice diviner, but that is also one of the important topics embedded in the imagery of the “river” myth. Relating images to social facts is the work of the myth, the diviner in divination and ritual addressed to the ancestors. Notably, the plant has a white flower, a rather obvious analogue of the diviner or novice who is closely associated with the ancestral spirits, the river and the liminal colour white, as much as the myth is the analogue of the use of the root and its experiential effects.

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