From Earth We Are One
The peyote plants are tiny psychedelic cactus that last for months after they have been harvested. Consuming them mitigates hunger, thirst, and fatigue. It can induce vivid hallucinations, often referred to as visions, and it has amazing cleansing powers. Peyote is also considered a bringer of luck, of long and prosperous life, and is often seen as a shielding entity, a sort of demi-god.
Its users become exalted under the influence of the psychoactive plant. Indians describe the trip in the following way: “A man may suddenly jump up from his seat, talk loudly, wave his arms about as if wanting to fly, then sit down again. On the whole, the majority are happy, the only after effects being a feeling of great depression.”
The first Europeans to reach the New World encountered a world that for them seemed out of place for numerous reasons. When they first discovered peyote, it provoked controversy, persecution, and was quickly abolished, although this mystic cactus played a key role in the life of an entire culture – both as a medicine and ritualistic element.
The Spanish conquistadores were afraid of peyote because of its so called “satanic trickery”, and this poorly judged idea has recently been adopted by local governments and various religious groups. Despite all this, the plant was never entirely removed from the sacred grounds of the Indians of Mexico, its usage continuing to spread to the North American tribes in the last hundred years as well.
But what’s so special about this wooly Mexican cactus that people call “the prototype of the New World” hallucinogens?
But how old is the Peyote cult actually? According to an account of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, an early Spanish chronicler, the mystic plant has been known to the Chichimeca nomads and the Toltec culture for at least 1890 years before the Spanish conquistadores arrived. This means the sacred plant has a known history of more than two millennia.
Carl Lumholtz, the Danish ethnologist who studied the shamanic ways along the Indians of Chihuahua, supported the idea of peyote history extending far beyond the two millennia barrier imposed by known accounts. He discovered that ancient ritualistic carvings conserved in lava rocks from Mesoamerica bear the symbol utilized in the Tarahumara Indian Peyote ceremony, revealing that peyote rituals have their roots far stretched into the past.
Sahagún describes peyote from the perspective of a chronicler who spent most of his adult life together with the Indians of Mexico. His observations were not made available to the public until the ninth century, over 200 years after his death. He depicts the use of Peyote in ceremonies held by the Chichimeca of the primitive desert plateau of the north:
“There is another herb like tunas [Opuntia] of the earth. It is called Peiotl. It is white. It is found in the North Country. Those who eat or drink it see visions either frightful or laughable. This intoxication lasts two or three days and then ceases. It is a common food of the Chichimeca, for it sustains them and gives them courage to fight and not feel fear nor hunger nor thirst. And they say that it protects them from all danger.”
The Chichimeca were not the only ones to use peyote. It grows in many desolate areas of Mexico, and its hallucinogenic properties are likely to have been discovered by various other native tribes.
A complete description of the mystic cactus was given by Dr. Francisco Hernández, the personal physician of King Philip II of Spain, who was sent to learn about Aztec medicine. His ethnobotanical report talked about peyote or ‘peyotl’ – as the plant was called in the Nahuatl dialect of the Aztecs, as a sacred plant with numerous usages:
“The root is of nearly medium size, sending forth no branches or leaves above the ground, but with a certain woolliness adhering to it on account of which it could not aptly be figured by me,” Hernández wrote.
“Both men and women are said to be harmed by it. It appears to be of a sweetish taste and moderately hot. Ground up and applied to painful joints, it is said to give relief. Wonderful properties are attributed to this root, if any faith can be given to what is commonly said among them on this point. It causes those devouring it to be able to foresee and to predict things,” he concluded.
The psychedelic cactus has been used in religious ceremonies mainly because of the intense biological activity it provides – varying from a sense of well-being to other vivid hallucinations that accompany the effect. Native Americans envision it as a ‘messenger’ that’s allowing the individual to communicate with the Creator.
For them, peyote is ‘God’ personified into a plant, the oneness that’s providing them answers through visions of the future and past. As an old Indian once told an anthropologist:
“God told the Delawares to do good even before He sent Christ to the whites who killed him. God made Peyote. It is His power. It is the power of Jesus. Jesus came afterwards on this earth, after Peyote. God (through Peyote) told the Delawares the same things that Jesus told the whites.”
Using peyote as a medicinal cure for treating different ailments, some Indians consider that, if used accordingly, it can substitute any medicine produced by the western people. Because of its healing properties, it quickly gained fame and spread across the United States. The Peyote cult is a medico-religious group that uses peyote in every ritual performed by its members.
However, Native American medicine is slightly different than the aboriginal concept and that of Western medicine. Some societies with limited access to western way of thinking tend to believe in a supernatural interference when it comes to illnesses and even natural death. They believe that God plays his part on every human, and that peyote is the best remedy for any problem that may occur.
Recent observations reveal that there are two types of medicine among the tribes: one with physical consequences (a toothache or intestinal problems), and the alternative medicine where the medicine man enters different states of altered consciousness to communicate with the spirits allegedly causing the wrongdoings. This shamanistic state is obtained through peyote and other hallucinogenic herbs.
The Peyote religion experienced a rapid growth in the US because of the many benefits it provides, the most notable being the ease of obtaining peyote supplies, lack of federal restraint, ease of transportation using a car or postal communication, and most importantly, the continuity of a ceremonial practice that’s keeping people in close contact with nature and help them not subdue to Western culture and practices.