PEYOTE CULT (Religious Movement)

The term ‘Peyote Cult’ was first coined early in the twentieth century to describe the use of peyote amongst the Winnebago, and later applied to peyote use among other tribes and the Native American Church (NAC). The word ‘peyote’ is a variation of ‘peyotl’, the Nahuatl (Aztec) term for the cactus lophophora williamsii, native to Mexico. It contains many alkaloids, but the main psychoactive ingredient is mescaline. Another psychotropic cactus is San Pedro (trichocereus pachanoi), which grows in the mountains of Peru. Other psychotropic plants are found in the Amazon rainforest, of which the best known in the West is ayahuasca or yage. Peyote and other plants are important ingredients in native ceremonies throughout the Americas, as well as within contemporary Shamanism.

The Native American Church (NAC) (see Native American religion) began using peyote ritually in the early twentieth century, although archaeologists have discovered that the ritual use of peyote and San Pedro in Mexico and Peru goes back thousands of years. The first Europeans to encounter and describe the peyote ceremonies were Spanish missionaries in sixteenth-century Mexico. From the outset, the response was uniformly hostile; it was seen as the ‘devil’s tricks’, giving rise to ‘diabolical visions and evil heresies’, and users were persecuted by the Holy Inquisition for nearly two centuries. This negative view is still prevalent amongst local government, the police, religious leaders, and even some Native Americans. The use of mescaline-containing plants is illegal, except for registered members of the NAC in the United States and certain tribes in Mexico. In Europe, plants containing mescaline are illegal for everyone. The NAC obtained legal recognition of their ceremonial use of the plant in the USA in the 1978 Act of Religious Freedom.

Two main themes are common to rituals using psycho tropic plants. First, powerful visions are associated with mescaline, illustrated in native art such as the celebrated wool yarn pictures of the Mexican Huichol Indians. These often depict the spirits of the cactus and power animals, especially eagles, deer, and jaguars, as well as numerous tribal and ancestral spirits. One well known spirit is Mescalito, a mischievous, imp-like apparition seen as the soul of peyote. Native shamans or curanderos (medicine men) claim to be able to prophesy or contact spirits for information under the influence of mescaline. The other major use is for healing, and a wide range of curative powers are claimed for these plants, provided they are used sacramentally under the guidance of a healer. These powers account for the appeal of psychotropic plants within Western spirituality, where their use is seen as a fast track to spiritual experience and knowledge.

Traditional ceremonies have strong regional variations. The NAC typically starts with a purification process such as a sweat lodge, after which a circle is formed, perhaps inside a tepee. A medicine man (or woman) presides, assisted by a ‘keeper of the fire’ and other helpers. The carefully-tended fire is in the centre of the circle, and participants sit straight-backed, looking into it. Dried peyote is passed around on a tray, dosage being normally the choice of the individual. Another important part of the ceremony is the passing round of the sacred tobacco pipe. Participants may only speak if holding the pipe, or sometimes a ‘talking stick’. The ceremony is very orderly, continuing for over twelve hours, during which participants are requested not to leave the circle. Mexican and South American Indian ceremonies are usually much less formal, as noted by even the earliest seventeenth-century commentators. The medicine man is often a musician, accompanied by other musicians. After the peyote is passed around, the circle group dances all night. Again, strong tobacco is an important feature. Ayahuasca ceremonies are generally more austere with little ritual. After ingesting ayahuasca, participants lie down in the dark and let the plants do the work. The ayahuasquero functions mainly as a medicine man, working also with healing songs called icaros.

In modern times, the main central American tribes maintaining the tradition are the Cora, Huichols and Tarahumara, whose ceremonies are still mainly unchanged. In Peru, while many curanderos conduct traditional ceremonies, others have been influenced by Christianity. There are various ‘churches’ in Brazil combining ayahuasca with Christian ritual. The two best known are Santo Daime and the Uniao do Vegetal, which have branches world-wide. As with tribal use but unlike secular and New Age groups, these churches emphasize communal worship more than individual spiritual experience.

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