AUNTIE ETHA’S COW-LIP TEA: An Early Case of the Use of a Coprophilous, Possibly Entheogenic, Fungus in African American Folk Healing
Ron Hall and Denver Moore’
written by ©P.D. Newman
The psychedelic, psilocybin-rich species, Psilocybe cubensis, is a coprophilous mushroom. This means that it can only subsist in the wild upon the dung of certain animals, especially cattle. While native to Cuba (hence cubensis), this fantastic fungus has been documented in a number of southern states, including Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, and even as far north as Oklahoma, Virginia, and West Virginia—albeit rarely in these latter three. The species is also found in Hawaii. It was in the state of Louisiana, however, amidst its humid cattle fields and dank, swampy marshes, where African American sharecropper, Denver Moore—then just a boy—first underwent what may be an early example of psilocybin mushroom use in North America.
As the book says, Ron Hall and Denver Moore’s New York Times Bestseller, Same Kind of Different as Me—an amazing true tale of a modern-day slave, an international art dealer, and an unlikely woman who brought them together—is a story filled with hardship, betrayal, and the brutality that lines the hearts of some men. But, it’s also a story of hope and perseverance, mottled throughout with thought-provoking anecdotes about black life in the Deep South in the 1950s. Descended from African American slaves, Denver Moore was raised on a scorching southern plantation near the alligator-riddled, mosquito-infested swamps of Louisiana. Having very few monetary resources, Moore was blessed to have an incredibly resourceful wise woman of an aunt, a Conjure woman—called Auntie Etha—who, with the aid of traditional African American folk remedies, was able to help the Moore family make the most of an often difficult situation. Moore recalls,
Lookin back on it, I think Auntie was what you might call a spiritual healer, like a ‘medicine man,’ cept she was an elderly woman. […] Big Mama made me go show my respect and also to help Auntie gather up the fixins for her medicines.
She used to take me with her down by the swamp where she’d be gatherin up some leaves and roots. […] ‘Now Li’l Buddy, this here’s for takin the pain out of a wound,’ she’d say, pullin up a root and shakin off the earth. ‘And this here’s for pneumonia.’
[…] She had a room in her house with a big table in it covered with jars in all kinda sizes.
‘See them jars?’ she told me one time.
‘In each of em, I got somethin for anything that happens to you.’
[…] She had some kinda spiritual thing goin on in that house. Every time I went in there, she made me sit on a little stool in the same spot, even facin in the same direction, like she didn’t want me to mess up whatever voodoo she had goin on in there.
Moore’s charming description of Auntie Etha clearly betrays her as a practitioner of Hoodoo, known in the Mississippi Delta as a “Rootwork” or “Conjure,” even going so far as to evoke the term, “voodoo,” in his account.
Hoodoo, a traditional African American spirituality that arose from several West African traditions as the same were imported into the New World, may not be stranger to psychoactive plants. For instance, while not entheogenic itself, one of the most common charms carried by Conjure practitioners is the root ball of the Ipomoea jalapa vine, referred to as a “High John the Conqueroo” root. Some species of Ipomoea (morning glory), such as Ipomoea tricolor and Ipomoea corymbosa, are possessed of the hallucinogenic compound, ergine, also known as d-lysergic acid amide (LSA)—a close cousin to Albert Hofmann’s “problem child,” lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25). In 1938, Ipomoea corymbosa (formerly Rivea corymbosa), for example, was discovered by American biologist, Richard Evans Schultes, to solve to problem of the identity of the ancient Mexican hallucinogen, Ololiuqui. The formidable effects of Ololiuqui were noted in the colonial document, The Florentine Codex, from the 16th century:
It inebriates one; it makes one crazy, stirs one up, makes one mad, makes one possessed. He who eats of it, he who drinks of it, sees many things that will make him afraid to a high degree. He is truly terrified of the great snake that he sees for this reason.
Francisco Hernandez, the famous Spanish physician, also discussed Ololiuqui in his book, Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesarus:
When the priests of the indians wish to commune with the spirits of the dead, they eat these seeds to induce a delirium and then see thousands of satanic figures and phantoms around them.
Ergo, there was already a history of the Native use of hallucinogenic morning glories in the Americas long before the arrival of African slaves. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean they learned of jalapa through Native Americans.
Before going any further, it is important to note that some African cultures are known to be in possession of their own rich, entheogenic traditions—independent of the export of African slaves to the New World. The Bwiti cult found among the Puna, Mitsogo, and Fang tribes in Gabon and Cameroon, for instance, employ the inebriating root bark of the West African shrub, Tabernanthe iboga, in their lively initiations. Like the “High John the Conqueroo” charms cherished by Southern practitioners of Hoodoo in North America, iboga is harvested from the roots of the shrub, linking the Bwiti cult, at least in spirit, to the black “rootwork” of Southern Hoodoo—a tradition whose own roots are to be sought in the religious practices of the Bantu of the former Kingdom of Kongo in west-central Africa. In fact, when iboga was first documented by the West, English traveler and author, Thomas Edward Bowdich, reported that,
The Eroga, a favourite but violent medicine, is no doubt a fungus, for they describe it as growing on a tree called the Ocamboo, when decaying; they burn it first, and take as much as would lay on a shilling.
While this Englishman is no doubt in confusion regarding the identity of iboga, his observation suggests that some species of fungus was sacred to the Indigenous of the area. And, indeed, a tree fungus, known as tondo, was in fact central to the construction of nkisi statues, whose “kondu gland”—a hollow chamber in the belly of the statue—held samples of the unidentified specimen. One Bantu nganga, making an offering of the mushroom to the spirits, referred to tondo as “the key that opens everything.” The Kongolese and African American practice of surrounding the gravesite of a loved one with inverted plates and saucers, often resting atop poles or sticks, was believed to imitate the appearance of mushrooms around the burial. According to one source, this curious form of grave decoration was meant to recall and old Kongo play on words: tondo / matondo. For, in Bantu, the word for mushroom (tondo) is similar to the word for “to love” (matondo).
To return to the Americas, Schultes also identified the Aztec psychedelic, Teonanácatl, as belonging to the Psilocybe genus. But, Denver Moore’s would appear to be the first account of the possible use of a psilocybin mushroom within the context of Conjure, as the same was practiced by African American slaves in the Deep South. Many Hoodoo practices continue to be shrouded in secrecy. So, it may be impossible to determine just how far back this tradition among African Americans extends. But, as the famous Tennessee Hoodoo practitioner, Doc “Wash” Harris, founder of the infamous Saint Paul Spiritual Holy Temple in Memphis—inappropriately known by locals as “Voodoo Village”—once said in an interview with the Commercial Appeal in 1984,
God told the black man and the Indian somethings he didn’t tell nobody else.
One of those things may have concerned the powerful effects of a particular species of dung-loving mushroom.
Reminiscing about his great, wise Auntie, Moore briefly continues,
Aunt Etha took care of our bodies and souls. Mostly we never got very sick, but when we did, my auntie sure ‘nough had the cure: Somethin she called ‘cow-lip tea.’
Now cow-lip tea was brown and thin, kinda like the Lipton tea the Man sold at his store, but a durn sight more powerful. Cow-lip tea come from them white toadstools that sprout outta cow patties. […] That’s where cow-lip tea got its name. ‘Cow’ from the cow patties and ‘lip’ from the Lipton. Least that’s what Aunt Etha always told me.
The way you make cow-lip tea is you get the toadstools […] and grind em up in the sifter. [You] put it in a rag and tie a knot on top. Then you add a little honey to a boilin pot and drop that rag in the water til it bubbles up and turns good and brown. Now you got cow-lip tea.
If I was sick, Aunt Etha’d always make me drink a canful.
‘All good medicine tastes bad!’ she’d say, then put me in the bed underneath a whole pile a’ covers, no matter whether it was summertime or wintertime. In the mornin, the bed’d be soppin wet and the sheets’d be all yella, but I’d always be healed. I was nearly grown before I figured out what I was drinkin.
This historical narrative is simply amazing. Psilocybin mushrooms weren’t brought to the attention of the broader West until 1957, with the publication of the paradigm-shifting photo essay, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” in LIFE magazine by R. Gordon Wasson—the “father of ethnomycology.” Moore’s account is at least contemporaneous with Wasson’s publication. But, considering that this particular treatment was likely a timeworn tradition handed down to Auntie Etha by her own teacher(s), it is very probable that this particular use of the fungus went back much earlier than the time of Moore or his Auntie Etha. While no psychedelic effects were noted by the author, the mere fact the mushroom tea was administered in a medicinal context, to treat a sick boy, is highly significant. For, the Mazatec ceremony to which Mexican curandera, María Sabina, invited Wasson, the same wherein the psilocybin mushrooms were ingested, was also explicitly medicinal—velada being the traditional name given to the mushroom healing vigils carried out by Mazatec “shamans.” Moreover, if Moore was administered Auntie Etha’s tea while suffering a high fever, any psychedelic effects—including hallucinations—may have simply been attributed to the symptoms of the contracted illness.
Importantly, Moore’s account is not the sole evidence of the use of entheogenic concoctions in the practice of Hoodoo. Over twenty years before the experience described in Same Kind of Different as Me, African American author, Zora Neale Hurston, in her 1935 classic, Mules and Men, revealed her own experience with what is quite clearly a powerful yet unnamed hallucinogen.
…I had to fast and “seek,” shut in a room that had been purged by smoke. Twenty-four hours without food except a special wine that was fed to me every four hours. It did not make me drunk in the accepted sense of the word. I merely seemed to lose my body, my mind seemed very clear. […] Maybe I went off in a trance. Great beast-like creatures thundered up to the circle from all sides. Indescribable noises, sights, feelings. Death was at hand! Seemed unavoidable! I don’t know.
While Hurston’s report does not mention hallucinogenic fungi specifically (or any other substance for that matter), the obvious psychedelic nature of her account is a good indication that entheogenic plants were not unknown to Hoodoo practitioners such as Denver Moore’s Auntie Etha.
Denver Moore passed away in 2012, so we were unable to interview him concerning his spectacular narration. But, it is our hope that Moore and his Auntie Etha would have been proud to know that their legacy not only lives on, but it may change the narrative as we know it regarding both the history of ethnomycology and the practices of Hoodoo and folk medicine among African Americans living in the Deep South.
P.D. Newman is an independent researcher located in the southern US, specializing in the history of the use of entheogenic substances in religious rituals and initiatory rites. He is the author of the books, Alchemically Stoned: The Psychedelic Secret of Freemasonry, Angels in Vermilion: The Philosophers’ Stone from Dee to DMT, and the forthcoming title, Day Trips and Night Flights: Anabasis, Katabasis, and Entheogenic Ekstasis in Myth and Rite. The Secret Teachings of All Ages (TV Series documentary) 2023.
Theurgy: Theory and Practice: The Mysteries of the Ascent to the Divine by P.D. Newman, published by Inner Traditions, Bear & Company will be available on December 5, 2023