The Bushman Poison Bulb: Doorway to the Hereafter

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The Boophone disticha, also known as the Bushman Poison Bulb. Photo by Ben-Erik van Wyk

By Heather Dugmore

The advancement of human consciousness can be mapped by our quest to access the landscapes of the spirit and the life hereafter.

This drive has replayed itself out over the millennia – from the ancient Egyptians to the ancient Khoi and Bushmen (San)  of Southern Africa. Both mummified their dead with sacred embalming extracts to keep them intact for the life hereafter.

The best Khoisan example is the 2000-year-old Khoisan mummy that was discovered in a cave in the Baviaanskloof Mountains of the Eastern Cape, not far from Shamwari. The mummy was embalmed with the scales of the Boophone bulb.

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Baviaanskloof Mountains in the Eastern Cape. Photo by Chris Marais

The Khoisan people believed this bulb has the power to transport the dead through the doorway of the spirit to the life hereafter. For this reason it is revered and feared by the Khoisan who regard it as enormously powerful.

We know this, not only from its traditional use, but also from their attitude to this plant. The Khoisan, past and present, have always shared their knowledge of healing plants, but when it comes Boophone they go quiet. They will not discuss its powers or even go near the bulb when they see it growing in the wild.

Compare this to how they respond to other medicinal bulbs – which they readily dig up – and you’ll get some idea of the mystical potency associated with this member of the March lily family. This member that international medicinal plant specialist, Professor Ben-Erik van Wyk, believes might well have been used in traditional Khoisan trance rituals.

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The Khoi or Bushman trance state – recorded on cave walls at Bushmanskloof in the Cederberg. Photo by Chris Marais

“I have studied the trance rituals of the Khoisan people to determine whether hallucinogenic plants were used,” he explained. “While I know that many people believe the trance dances of the Kalahari Bushmen, for example, were and are induced solely by rhythmic chanting and dancing, to me there are strong indications of the use of Boophone.”

He explained how when a woman traditional healer amongst the Kalahari Bushmen goes into a trance, she always has a group of younger women appointed to ‘bring her back’. This is because during the trance she reputedly passes through the doorway between this world and the next. The young women must shake her and even slap her to make sure she comes back.

Boophone is highly poisonous and the line between a trance dose and a fatal dose is extremely fine; absolute precision is required.

The same precision is required in its application as a hunting poison. Boophone’s common name is ‘Bushman poison bulb’. Traditional hunters used this plant in the poison mixture they applied to their arrow tips.

From hunters to healers to the streets of Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and other cities, Boophone appears and reappears across a diversity of cultures and landscapes.

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Heather Dugmore’s popular Muthi and Myths of the African Bush.

Visit any of the traditional medicine or ‘muthi’ markets in South Africa, and you will find traditional healers or ‘sangomas’ using it to psychoanalyse emotional disorders in their patients. The process is called ‘bioscope’.

The healer medicates the patient with a minute quantity of Boophone and then sits them in front of a blank white screen.

Once the medicine has taken effect, the healer asks the patient what s/he sees on the screen (hence ‘bioscope’) in order to analyse their imaginings.

From here the healer induces vomiting in the patient to purge the Boophone, hopefully along with their troubles.

While Boophone is widely used in the treatment of psychological troubles, it also has powerful physical healing attributes and is used by traditional healers to treat circumcision wounds.

It is well known in medical circles that the alkaloids in Boophone are extremely effective painkillers. The scales of the bulb are wrapped around the circumcised penis to reduce the pain as well as to sterilise the wound.

Boophone might also be taken orally as a painkiller in the form of a weak infusion, but the dose could prove lethal if administered by anyone but a highly trained healer.

If there is one truth we have learned as humans it is that life and death are constant companions, connected by an open doorway.

Muthi & Myths from the African Bush (Briza Publications) sells for R149. You can order it from Briza Publications.

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The vast Kalahari – the old Khoisan grounds. Photo by Chris Marais


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