Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Peyote - Call Of The Shaman

For over three thousand years, hikuri has been consumed by Mexico's native tribes.  Most notably the Huichol and the Tarahumara or Rarámuri.  Hikuri is the name of a cacti that is known more by its Nahuatl name peyotl or peyote.  Its scientific name is Lophophora williamsii, and the use of the plant is a pillar in the Tarahumara and Huichol tradition.  

Deep along the Sierra Madre mountains in the Chihuahuan desert, in the sacred land of Copper Canyon or La Barranca del Cobre, the peyote cati grow wild among the scrub, especially where there is limestone.  It flowers pink blossoms from March through May, and sometimes as late as September.  The cati take up to four years before a small "button" can be seen just below the dirt's surface.

Most societies today prohibit the use of this cacti that when ingested, produces a hallucinogenic effect, and the plant contains psychoactive alkaloids, particularly mescaline.  But the native indians of Mexico have been drinking the very potent wine made from the plant.  As per their belief,  it is the way to enter the spirit world and summon the gods.

The Tarahumara believe in everlasting life after death and in the existence of benevolent and malevolent beings.  Among the benevolent are the sun, the moon, the shaman, the serpents and the rocks that provoke rain and control the animals which they hunt.  Included in the malevolent are the beings which they consider from the underworld that cause all death and natural disasters.  Their communal rituals are an essential part of their culture.  They celebrate victories, animal hunting, and their harvesting and they praise the sun and the moon.  

In the Huichol tradition the peyote is identified as the spirit of the blue deer and they make an annual  pilgrimage on a long and difficult trek in search for the venerated plant.  To return to Wirikuta is to return to paradise.  To obtain the Peyote is to obtain Hikuri, which if translated to Spanish or English it would be "heart of the Deer God".  The Deer God is known as Tatewari and it represents the God of fire, the Grandfather God.  

One such ritual is the ingestion of the peyote.  For the Tarahumara the peyote was the Hikuri, the spiritual being seated to the right of Father Sun.  It was a plant so potent that it had four faces, and it percieved life in seven dimensions, and the plant could never be allowed to rest inside the houses of the living.

According to legend, the elders, met in the Sierra Mountains to discuss the situation in which they were.  Their people were sick, there was no food, no water, no rains came and the land was dry.  They decided to send four of their strongest men in the hunting community into the desert, with a mission to find food.  Each one represented a life element: earth, wind, fire, and water.  
The next morning they began their mission into the desert, each carrying his bow and arrow.  They walked for days until one afternoon a big and fat blue deer jumped from the shrub.  The young men were tired and hungry, but when they saw the deer, they started running behind him without loosing sight.  The deer saw the young men and felt pity for them.  He let them rest for the night and the next day he woke them early to continue with the chase.  

Weeks passed, and the young men were still chasing the young deer, until they reached Wirikuta (desert of San Luis Potosi and the sacred road of the Huichol).  They were right outside on the hillside of the region of Las Narices, where  a spirit of the land dwells.  They followed the deer and noticed the deer run in that direction.  They swore that he had gone there, but when they looked for him he was nowhere to be found.  

Suddenly one shot an arrow that landed in a large deer figure formed in the dirt where peyote plants grew.  The plants glistened in the sun like emeralds all facing the same direction.  The young men were confused by what they had seen and proceeded to cut the plants that formed the figure of the deer (marratutuyari) so that they could take them back to their village.  

After days of walking, they reached the Huichol Sierra where the people were waiting.  They presented the plants to the elders and told them of their experience.  They shared the peyote (hikuri) among the people, especially among the sick.  The villagers noticed that the rains came and calmed their thirst, their hunger was satisfied and they were cured from their ills.  

Since then on, the Huicholes and Tarahumara people venerate the peyote that at the same time is considered deer and corn, their guiding spirit.  Every year the people of these desert mountains make their pilgrimage into the high altitudes following the same route in search of the peyote cacti, maintaining this tradition from the Huichola Sierra all the way to Wirikuta.  Their mission is spiritual in commune with the gods. 

Carl Lumholtz, a Norwegian ethnologist studied the Indian tribes of Chihuahua and discovered that a symbol employed in the Tarahumara Indian peyote ceremony appeared in ancient ritualistic carvings preserved in Mesoamerican lava rocks dated over 3,000 years ago.   

In his writings Unknown México: Explorations in the Sierra Madre and Other Regions, 1890-1898 he recorded one account:  

"According to legend, they could find the plant as they heard its song thru the desert.  The hikuri never stops singing, even after being collected.  A native of the region told a story, as it happened one day, while returning to the desert he tried to use the sack of the hikuri he had collected, as a pillow to rest on for the night, but the singing of the hikuri was so loud that he could not sleep."

"Once the hikuri was collected, they were dried on jute, and then ground on a metate (a flat stone used for grinding corn and seeds) into a thick liquid the color of ochre.  A large fire was lit, with the firewood pointing to the east and the west.  Seated to the west of the fire, a shaman would trace a circle on the dirt and inside the circle he would draw the symbol of the world.  He would place on the cross a peyote button  and then it would be covered with an inverted squash which would amplify the song of the peyote that pleased the spirit of the plant.  The shaman would wear an adornment on his head made of plumes, which would reveal the wisdom of the birds to him and prevent the malevolent winds to enter into the circle of fire."

"Afterwards, the peyote was shared from hand to hand between men and women that were dressed in white cloths and bare footed.  After ingesting the peyote a ritualistic dance was performed that lasted until morning.  At the first sign of sunlight, the shaman and his people would stand up facing east and they bid farewell to the spirit with the arms of the hikuri, the spirit that had descended carried on wings of a green dove."

Para Español


  1. What a fantastic insight into the ritual of the peyote. I traveled to the Barranca del Cobre in hopes of attending a ritual, but unfortunately I probably did not travel at the right time of harvesting.

    Leslie Richardson

  2. A great read. I have not done peyote in years. Good to know the history.

  3. Dear Jesus, the legends are fascinating, but at the same time peyote has provided amazing medicine for hundreds of years. We have a lot to learn from the ancient cultures. Thanks for reading.

    1. Thanks for sharing this very interesting article. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  4. Thank you Leslie for your comment. The best time to visit La Barranca del Cobre is in December. This is the time when the hunt for the peyote is most active.

  5. It is very interesting the way cactus is used in so many different ways by the Mexican people.

  6. Peyote is to this day overharvested. If you decide to try peyote, learn the correct procedure for harvesting. From what I have read the Huichol Indians wish "we" would just stay away because of how we see peyote as just another drug and snatch the plants out of the ground with no concern to replenish the supply. Peyote is sacred to them. Who can blame them for their dislike of "peyoteers".

  7. Midnight, you are correct in the over harvesting of peyote. One issue is the lack on knowledge on how to cut it. If the peyote is cut at the base of the root, then the plant will regenerate. But if it is cut too deep, then the roots are severed and forever damaged. The plant simply dies. As it is very slow in it's growth, sometimes entire crops are taken and not allowed to regenerate. One main concern is when it is not respected and taken for recreation and profit. Thank you for your comment and concern for conservation and respect for this sacred plant.

  8. The "Medicine", as we refer to is to be respected. Read the Viaje al pais de los tarahumaras in which Antonin Artaud tells how he was cured from his opiates addiction up in the sierra. He also speaks of the patterns of symbols primordial to creation he saw in everything. As well, he relates the ritual of the kings of Atlantis as described by Plato to the ritual he witnessed at the Tarahumara. They would drink the blood of the bull and leave the head facing the east and dance all night until the sunrise. What was most mind boggling was that they wore crowns made with mirrors. The medicine is to be used with upmost respect never mixing it with drugs or alcohol (only tobacco). in a ceremony, and with privacy. Too bad Calderon offered the Wixarica nation to protect them and now has alowed the Canadians to ruin the sacred area. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-iRlno_KO1U&feature=player_embedded#!

    Love your work Leti!


  9. Gonzalo,
    Thanks for the insight on the work of Antonin Artaud, I will check it out. It is true that when governments take over things which should be left alone, it just ruins things.