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Peyote and Huichol Worldview: The Structure of a Mystic Vision PDF Print E-mail
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Books - Cannabis and Culture
Written by Barbara Myerhoff   


Huichol woridview, in many respects, constitutes a cultural inflection of what appears to be a highly regular human production: the mystic vision. Among the Huichols, a worldview is elaborated, based on their use of peyote. Cultural expectations for their hallucinogenic experiences combine with a recurrent, possibly pan-cultural mystic vision, which provides the touchstone for their woridview. This woridview emphasizes on overarching a total unity, in human relations, in man's relations to his natural and supernatural world, in his understanding of his history and ultimate destiny. Though distinctively Huichol in flavor, the content and form of the vision is basically familiar from many cultural contexts. The Huichol case offers us a fuller understanding of the mutual influence of culture and hallucinogens, and provides an excellent example of the operation of a hallucinogen in a totally sacred context.

Huichol worldview, in several important features, represents a cultural inflection of what appears to be a highly regular human production: the mystic vision. If dreams and myths are structured, as Freud and LéviStrauss have indeed demonstrated, should it come as a surprise to find that one of the most private, subtle, ineffable, mysterious, and elusive human experiences — the mystic vision — is also structured? Somehow it does, for it is easier by far to deal with cultural regularities in matters of an instrumental nature, pertaining to subsistence and survival, environmental requirements, and similar events where utility and efficiency dictate a fixed number of possible alternatives. In the realms of the imagination of metaphysics, the arts, religion, in areas which are not so clearly rational undertakings, we expect more variation than uniformity. Our explanatory concepts are taxed when we find specific similarities in very different cultural settings where history and diffusion cannot be evoked. We may then fall back on old concepts, such as memory traces, collective-unconscious, instinct, racial memories and the like or on the as-yet incomplete formulations about universal characteristics of the human mind and human nature. Most anthropologists have had to content themselves with descriptions of social processes, short of earlier hopes for the discovery of genuinely lawful regularities. These days, only the intrepid take up problems of psychic unity and common human experience, though these issues, if hazardous, are among the most important and interesting.

From this perspective, recent studies on the relationship between hallucinogenic drugs and religion may be regarded as a significant development in the attempt to enlarge our understanding of universals in human social phenomena. Osmund (1957), Shultes (1963) and Wasson (1969) have demonstrated that the origins and history of religion are inseparable from the use of psychedelic plants. More recently Aaronson and Osmund (1971), Pahnke (1966), Watts (1971), and Dobkin de Rios (1975) have developed typologies which draw our attention to the highly regular factors in psychedelic drug experiences. Watts, Pahnke, and Marsh (1965) have been concerned specifically with isolating the effects of a drug experience which appear to be the same as those associated with the mystical vision, the "Fourth Way," as it is called in the Mandukya Upanishad, the way that is not waking dreaming or dreaming sleep; it is "pure unitary consciousness, wherein awareness of the world and of multiplicity is completely obliterated. ... It is One without a second" (Mandukya Upanished 1957). In this paper I shall describe the Huichol version of "The Fourth Way."

The Huichols provide a fine example of this experience; more than that, they provide a case in which the mystic vision is extended and elaborated into a worldview, much of which is explicable by reference to their peyote use. That hallucinogenic drugs produce regular experiences is now established: how these Indians use those experiences interests us. It would be an oversimplification to say that peyote directly causes Huichol world-view to be what it is. Peyote use produces the raw material which is built into a system of thought, a Weltanschauung. The individual peyote-eater's expectations precede and profoundly influence his perceptions and interpretations of his visions. But these expectations are not random; they are shaped by the regularly recurring results of eating peyote. Thus do culture and individual interlock.

Peyote is the touchstone for the Huichol worldview. In the basic psychedelic experience, we find the source of much of their version of the ideal — in human relations, in man's relations to his natural and supernatural world, in his understanding of his history and ultimate destiny.3


The Huichol Indians realize the climax of their religious life in Wirikuta, a high desert plateau several hundred miles from their mountain homeland, conceived of as their sacred land of origin. There is reason to believe that Wirikuta represents a historical as well as mythical site of Huichol beginnings.5 In Wirikuta, the First People, quasi-deified ancient ancestors, once dwelled in harmony and freedom as nomadic hunders. According to their traditions, they were driven out, into mortality, into a life of sedentary agriculture in the Sierra Madre Occidental. Yearly, small groups of Huichâls, men and women, young and old, are led by a shaman-priest, the mara'akame, in a return to Wirikuta to hunt peyote.

In order to reenter this sacred land they must be transformed into the deities. The complex cluster of ceremonies and rituals which prepares them for this return includes a ritual wherein the mara'akame dreams their names, the names of the Ancient Ones, and thus determines the pilgrims' godly identities. The peyote hunt pilgrimage is a return to Paradise, for Wirikuta is the place where as they say, "All is one, it is a unity, it is ourselves." There, before time began, they "find their lives," and for a while dwell in primordial unity until the mara' akame leads them back into ordinary time and life. The climax of the pilgrimage is the hunting of peyote.

For the Huichols, peyote, as a sacred symbol is inseparable from deer and maize.6 Together, deer, maize and peyote account for the totality of Huichol life and history. The deer is associated with their idealized historical past as nomadic hunters. The maize stands for the life of the present-mundane sedentary, good and beautiful, utilitarian, difficult and demanding. Peyote evokes the timeless, private, purposeless, aesthetic dimension of man's spiritual life, mediating between former and present realities, and providing a sense of being one people despite dramatic changes in their recent history, society and culture. Through the capture of peyote a series of unifications takes place in Wirikuta.

The actual pilgrimage lasts several weeks. Each step along the way is highly ritualized and in retracing the steps of the Ancient Ones, the pilgrims or peyoteros perform numerous actions attributed to the First People at specific locations, and reenact the feelings and attitudes as well as behaviors of the deities. They rejoice, grieve, celebrate and mourn appropriately as the journey progresses. They do so as a profoundly integrated community For the hunt to succeed they must pledge their entire loyalty and affection to each other and their mara'akame. Unless they are in complete accord, their venture will fail and they will not find the peyote. The journey is very dangerous. One may lose his soul, conceptualized as a fuzzy thread (kupuri) which connects each peyotero to the deity who gave him life. As the mara'akame Ramón Medina Silva stated it, each pilgrim must give his complete heart to him and to the others, for the mara'akame to be able to protect them from the danger of soul-loss. Such trust and intensity of affection cannot be sustained in the ordinary social world and when the peyote hunt has ended, it is dissolved. The unity and its dissolution are symbolized by a ritual in which each pilgrim makes a knot in a cord which the mara'akame keeps during the journey. When the pilgrimage has been completed, the cord is unknotted and the unity is terminated. In a statement of great sociological acumen, Ramón Medina Silva said, "It is true that I receive my power from Tatewari, Our Grandfather Fire, but I could not use the power without the complete trust of my peyote comrades."

As the deities, the pilgrims endure many privations, They forego or minimize human physiological needs as much as possible: sleep, sexual relations, excretion, eating and drinking are actually or ritually foresworn during this period, for these are activities of humans not gods.7 In becoming the gods, the pilgrims are cleansed of their mortality, symbolized by sexual relations. Ritually they confess to all illicit adventures; even children must participate, and even the mara'akame. After this confession, they are reborn and renamed and the godly character so received is maintained throughout the pilgrimage.

Sometime before reaching the sacred land, everything is equated with its opposite and reversed. The known world is backwards and upside down8: the old man becomes the little child; that which is sad and ugly is spoken of as beautiful and gay; one thanks another by saying "You are welcome," one greets another by turning his back on him and bidding him goodbye. The sun is the moon, the moon the sun. It is said:

When the world ends, it will be like when the names of things are changed, during the peyote hunt. All will be different, the opposite of what it is now. Now there are two eyes in the heavens, Dios Sol and Dios Fuego. Then, the moon will open his eye and become brighter. The sun will become dimmer. There will be no more difference. No more man and woman. No child and adult. All will change places. Even the mara'akame will no longer be separate. That is why there is always a nunutsi (Huichol, little baby) when we go to Wirikuta. Because the old man the tiny baby, they are the same.

These oppositions, like the godly identities, like the hunt of the peyote, are not merely stated, they are enacted. For example, the old man does not gather firewood in Wirikuta; it is not fitting work for a baby.

Primeros, those making their first peyote pilgrimage, have their eyes covered on arriving at the periphery of Wirikuta so that they will not be blinded by the glory and brilliant light of the sacred land. Only after proper preparation, which involves a kind of baptism with sacred water by the mara'akame and a description of what they may expect to see when their eyes are bared to the sight of Wirikuta, is it safe for their blindfolds to be removed.

In Wirikuta, the party camps and begins to search for the peyote, which is tracked by following his deer tracks. Once sighted, the mara'akame stalks the peyote-deer and cautiously, silently drawing near, he slays it with his bow and arrow. Blood gushes upward from it in the form of a rainbow of rays.9 With his sacred plumes, the mara'akame gently strokes the rays back into the body. The peyoteros weep with joy at having attained their goal, and with grief at having slain their brother; his "bones," the roots of the peyote plant, will be cut away and saved, to be buried in the brush so that he may be reborn. The peyote is removed from the earth, the resultant cavity surrounded with offerings. Then the cactus is sliced by the mara'akame and he gives a segment to each of the peyote companions. Following this, a pilgrim acting as the mara'akame assistant, in turn, administers a segment of the peyote to his leader.

This moment marks the fulfilment of the highest goal in Huichol religious life. Unity has been accomplished on every level. The social distinctions among humans have been obliterated: male, female, old, young have been treated and have behaved as if they were the same. The otherwise profound distinctions between mara'akame and his followers is deliberately abolished when the former becomes one of them by receiving the peyote from their hands. The separation of the natural and the supernatural order has been overcome, for the peyoteros are the deities. The plant and animal realms have likewise merged, as the deer and the peyote are one. And the past and present are fused in the equation of deer-maize with the peyote. All paradoxes, separations and contradictions have been transcended. Opposites are each other. Time itself has been obliterated, for Wirikuta is not only the world as it existed before Creation but it is also the world that will reappear at the end of Time, after this epoch has been completed. Ramón stated this explicitly in saying, "One day all will be as you have seen it there in Wirikuta. The First People will come back. The fields will be pure and crystalline... One day the world will end and that beauty will be here again."10 Thus past and future are the same and the present but a human interlude, atypical and transitory, a mere deviation from the enduring reality represented by Wirikuta. This is a foretaste of Paradise and eternity."11

Speaking as an outsider, the most encompassing fusion which takes place in Wirikuta can be described as what Geertz (1965) has called a merging of "the lived-in order and the dreamed-of order." The attainment of the this dream in reality arouses genuine ecstasy in the peyoteros. There are no visions on this occasion, for only a small amount of peyote has been consumed. The rest of the day is spent in gathering more peyote to be eaten later. On the evening following the ritual slaying and token consumption of the first peyote each pilgrim draws into himself, seated with his companions around him before the fire, and eats several segments of his best peyotes. It is generally a quiet affair, and the first release the pilgrims have had from the intense camaraderie and demanding conformity to ritual prescription that have characterized their behavior up to this point. Now each one is alone in his inner world. For it is not the custom, as the Huichols say, to talk of one's visions. Ramón explained it this way:

One eats peyote and sees many things, remembers many things. One remembers everything which one has seen and heard. But one must not talk about it. You keep it in your heart. Only oneself knows it. It is a perfect thing. A personal thing, a very private thing. It is like a secret because others have not heard the same thing, others have not seen the same thing. That is why it is not a good thing to tell it to others.

It is merely said that ordinary people see beautiful lights, lovely vivid shooting colors, little animals and funny creatures. There is no purpose, no message: they are themselves.12 Each man's experience is his own, and only the vaguest references are made to this part of the ceremony. The visions are always good. The experience can only be happy or even joyous if one has followed the mara' akame and done all with a pure heart. There is no nausea, no terror.13

Only the mara' akame has routinized visions. His are concerned with lessons and messages from Tatawari. He sees Tatawari in the fire and communicates directly with him. Thus the mara'akame brings back information from other worlds, information of value and meaning to his people. The Huichol mara'akame undertakes a magic flight to help his people understand the regions of the unknown, in classical shamanic fashion. But ordinary folk need not be concerned with such cares; for them peyote brings only extravagant, purposeless beauty and release into the realm of pure aesthetic and spiritual delight.

Peyote visions of ordinary pilgrims are gratuitous. And because peyote produces experiences which are only uniform in being consistently pleasant, it brings to each man who takes it something unpredictable, irregular, spontaneous, and unstructured, though still within safeguards and limits. It permits an experience which is not completely routinized, neither is it dangerous or likely to lead to individual or societal disruption. Peyote constitutes that part of man's life which is private, beautiful, and unique. As such it constitutes that part of religion which has nothing to do with shared sentiments, morals, ethics or dogma. It is within the religious experience but separate from it, and in some philosophical systems, such experiences are considered the most elevated and most intensely spiritual available to man, providing liberation from structure, within structure, allowing for a voyage into subjectivity, into the unknowable, within a fixed framework. Here one sees peyote as the Huichol provision for that dimension of religious experience which can never be routinized and made altogether public, that sense of awe and wonder, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans without which religion is mere ritual and form. It is the ecstatic and enormous moment when the soul departs, flies upward and loses itself in the other reality. The darkness explodes into dancing colors. The Huichol pilgrim knows he has nothing to fear, his flight will not last, he can fling himself into it with immunity. He is safeguarded by the wealth of Huichol tradition, ritual, symbol, and mythology, and the certain knowledge that the mara'akame is guarding him, that he is pure in his heart and is one with his comrades. He hears them chatting and singing quietly throughout the night. Gentle laughter and fragments of peyote songs and stories are the ground-base, a cushion on which he can ride, easily wafting upward, then touching down, rising once more. The religious culture of peyote can be thought of as a strong resilient net which allows for greater and greater ascent and freedom.

What does the peyotero actually see? Here is the mara'akame's description of an ordinary vision and his contrasting description of his own didactic vision of Tatawari.

And then, when one takes peyote, one looks upward and what does one see? One see darkness. Only darkness. It is very dark, very black. And one feels drunk with the peyote. And when one looks up again it is total darkness except for a little bit of light, a tiny bit of light, brilliant yellow. It comes there, a brilliant yellow. And one looks into the fire. One sits there, looking into the fire which is Tatewari. One sees the fire in colors, very many colors, five colors, different colors. The flames divide — it is all brilliant, very brilliant and very beautiful. The beauty is very great, very great. The flames come up, they shoot up, and each flame divides into those colors and each color is multicolored — blue, green, yellow, all those colors. The yellow appears on the tip of the flames as the flame shoots upward, And on the tips you can see little sparks in many colors coming out. And the smoke which rises from the fire, it is also looks more and more yellow, more and more brilliant.

Then one sees the fire, very bright, one sees the offerings there, many arrows with feathers and they are full of color, shimmering, shimmering. That is what one sees.

But the mara'akame, what does he see? He sees Tatewari, if he is chief of those who go to hunt, the peyote. And he sees the Sun. He sees the mara'akame venerating the fire and he hears those prayers. like music. He hears praying and singing.

All this is necessary to understand, to comprehend, to have one's life. This we must do so that we can see what Tatewari lets go from his heart for us. One goes understanding all that which Tatewari has given one. That is when we understand all that, when we find our life over there.
Wirikuta is not less magnificent than the pilgrims had been led to expect in the stories which they had heard throughout their lives. Yet after gathering sufficient peyote to take home and plant in house gardens and use throughout the year, they leave Wirikuta precipitously. It is said, "It is dangerous to remain." Not a moment of lingering is permitted and the pilgrims literally run away, following the mara'akame beyond the boundaries of the sacred area as speedily as their bundles and baskets of peyote permit. They leave behind their offerings, their deity names, the reversals, their intense companionship and all physical traces and remainders of Wirikuta. Spines from cactus, bits of earth, dust, match sticks, cigarette stubs, pieces of food, all that was part of, or was consumed or used in Wirikuta, is emptied and scraped and shaken into the fire; the things of the present world and the things of the sacred are kept rigidly apart.14

Returning to ordinary reality, the pilgrims are left grief-stricken, exhausted and exhilarated by the experience. An enormous undertaking has been accomplished, they travelled to Paradise, dwelled there as the deities for a moment and returned to mortality. In their lifetimes, they have achieved the most total and complete intention of religion: the experience of entire meaning and coherence in the universe. If, as Bertrand Russell suggested, a minimal definition of religion consists of the relatively modest assertion that God is not mad, the maximum definition of religion might be said to be the insight and knowledge of utter harmony and meaning, the participation in the alleged coherence of the cosmos. It is not merely that the distinction between appearance and reality is blurred; it is that they are the same. It is impossible to find a better way to put it than the Huichol's own description of the peyote hunt and the pilgrimage: "It is one, it is a unity, it is ourselves." Through the mara'akame and peyote, the pilgrim has found his place in the divine scheme of things; he is of the divine and the divine is in him.


There is a remarkably large area of agreement among scholars and writers of differing persuasions concerning the nature of the mystical experience. Various terms and interpretations are given of course, but the area of overlap remains relatively stable, whether the phenomenon is called transcendent, peak-experience, poetic vision, ecstatic or mystical; whether it is described in religious or secular terms; whether it is induced by drugs, occurs spontaneously; or is facilitated by techniques which produce biochemical bodily changes (altered respiration, fasting, special diets, flagellation, sensory deprivation, rhythmic behaviors such as drumming, chanting, dancing, physical exercise, and so forth). As previously mentioned, several writers, intrigued by the obvious relationship between religion and psychedelic drugs, have suggested typologies for common constituents of the mystical and the psychedelic experience. I have found several of these to be especially useful: Dobkin de Rios (1975); Pahnke (1966); Watts (1971); Aaronson and Osmund (1971). (Nearly all acknowledge their debt to those giants of religious and mystical phenomenology, William James (1935) and C. G. Jung (1970).) I have drawn upon these schemes selectively in analyzing the Huichol peyote hunt as an excellent example of the mystical experience elaborated into a worldview.

The most significant theme in the peyote hunt is the achievement of total unification, on every level. This sense of unity is the most important characteristic of the mystical experience according to Pahnke (1966). He distinguishes between internal and external unity, the former refers to the loss of the ego or self without a loss of consciousness, and the fading of the sense of the multiplicity of sense impressions. External unity consists of the disappearance of the barriers between self and object." Pahnke puts it d's follows:

Another way of expressing this same phenomenon is that the essences of objects are experienced intuitively and felt to be the same at the deepest level. The subject feels a sense of oneness with these objects because he "sees" that at the most basic level all are a part of the same undifferentiated unity. The capsule statement "...all is One" is a good summary of external unity. In the most complete experience, a cosmic dimension is felt, so that the experiencer feels in a deep sense that he is a part of everything that is. (1971: 149).

This most fundamental experience of unity is termed "the panhuman yearning for paradise" by Eliade (1954; 1960). Paradise is the archetype for the primordial bliss which preceded Creation. The feelings accompanying this condition are characteristically cited as beatitude, peacefulness, bliss, blessedness, a sense of melting and oceanic flowing into the totality.16 Many explanations have been offered for this yearning toward Paradise. Freudian interpretations conceptualize it as a desire to return to the womb, or as the wish never to have been separated from prenatal dependence. Jungians see it as a form of uroboric incest, a reluctance to individuate and take on the demands of adulthood, for after Creation man must be born, die, suffer, feel pain and confusion. He works, struggles, is vulnerable and ultimately alone, in short, he is mortal. The dangers of attempting to reenter Eden are couched in many idioms. The Huichol say that one may lose his soul in Wirikuta, his kiipuri may be severed. It may be called the loss of ego, rationality, volition or sanity. The thread of consciousness is felt as fragile in the mystical experience. The awareness of danger and transcience are regularly cited as part of the mystic vision. This is most dramatically portrayed when the peyoteros run out of Wirikuta, struggling against any temptation to remain or linger inordinately in the sacred realm. This is the explicit recognition that ecstasy cannot be a permanent way of life.

Also regularly mentioned are feelings of brotherly love and camaraderie that are more intense than everyday feelings of friendship and affection. Turner (1969) has suggested that it may be called communitas; Buber (1965) referred to it as Zwischenmenschlichkeit, the I-Thou intimacy which knows no boundaries, when men stand alongside one another, naked, shorn of the guidelines and expectations of role and persona, a seamless, skinless continuity which is the most intense kind of community conceivable. Watts calls the feelings between those who undertake the mystical voyage together "a love which is distinctly eucharistic, an acceptance of each other's natures from the heights to depths" (1962 : 51). Among the Huichols this is conceptualized, symbolized and ritualized elaborately and explicitly. The knotted cord binds the peyoteros together, the bonds cannot and should not be carried back to regular social life. No mutual expectations are generated among the peyoteros, no corporate groups formed on the basis of having shared the journey to Wirikuta. Just as the things of the sacred land and the home are separated by leaving behind that which belongs to Wirikuta, so are the human connections undone after the peyote hunt. As Durkheim (1915) told us long ago, the sacred by definition is awesome and separate. Pahnke (1966) too says that the drug-induced mystical experiences he studied were regarded as sacred and not of the everyday realm. The mara'akame aids the Huichols in relinquishing ecstasy and shows them that they must leave it behind for another year. Communitas, like internal and external unity, is also an experience of wholeness, a form of flowing together, the all is One manifested in social relationships»

Transcendence of time and space is cited by Pahnke (1966) and others as one of the most universal constituents of the mystical experience. Space does not appear to be treated with special significance by the Huichols on the peyote hunt, except that it is clear that the usual spatial categories do not obtain. The entrance to Wirikuta is through crashing rocks and is known as the Vagina. Transit through these portals is perilous and shamans must typically pass through such dangerous doorways in the course of their magical flights.18 Clearly, Wirikuta is not in everyday space.

More significant is the notion of time during the peyote hunt. Mythic time prevails. The single moment contains all that was and will yet be, history is obliterated and the present is elongated to imply the beginning and the end of the world. The seamless flow into which the peyote pilgrim slips is eternity and it is a stable feature in mystical visions.

Also significant is the manner in which the individual dwells and behaves and recognizes himself in the sacred realm. Knowledge of this is provided by the ritualization of reversals on the peyote hunt. Several distinct purposes are served by this feature of the pilgrimage. It is not a simple matter,to know how to act in Paradise; being named a god is one thing, acting like a god for a while is more difficult. How does one remain in character for an entire day or evening or even for weeks? How does he treat his fellow deities, surely not by following dictates of ordinary norms. The upside-down quality of life in Wirikuta serves as a kind of mnemonic, providing a base metaphor by which the pilgrims can coordinate their behaviors and attitudes and understand at every moment exactly what is transpiring. If the sacred realm is just the opposite of the real world, one can picture it in detail, relate to it very concretely and precisely, but not just any metaphor will serve. The utilization of the reversals, as we have seen, is a way of stating that despite appearances, indeed all is One. Not only are differences and multiplicities of form illusory, but things which appear to be the very opposite of each other are shown to be identical, to be completely interdependent, to be part of each other. Subject-object, left-right, male-female, old-young, figure-ground, saint-sinner, police-crim mal – all are definable only in terms of each other. Paradoxes are resolved in this experience; formulations which tax the rational mind to its limits are managed comfortably and with lucidity. The deer, peyote, and maize are one. The Holy Trinity in Christian religion is not unfathomable from this perspective. A logic prevails but not the Aristotelian logic which holds that A cannot be B.19 Eliade has called this the coincidentia oppositorum and regards it as the eschatological image par excellence. Indeed it occurs in countless societies, in folklore, and in the worlds of dream and imagination, always suggesting the mystery of totality,

The formula coincidentia oppositorum is always applied when it is necessary to describe an unimaginable situation either in the Cosmos or in History.... It denotes that Time and History have come to an end — is the lion lying down with the lamb, and the child playing with the snake. Conflicts, that is to say opposites, are abolished; Paradise is regained." (1962:121).

Watts (1971) refers to this feature as awareness of polarity, Pahnke (1966) as paradoxicality; both agree with Eliade that it is essential to the mystical vision.

Ineffability is consistently cited as part of this vision. The experience is essentially non-verbal.29 In spite of attempts to relate or write about the mystical experience, mystics insist either that words fail to describe it adequately or that the experience is beyond words. "Perhaps," Pahnke suggests, "the reason is an embarrassment with language because of the paradoxical nature of the essential phenomenon" (1971). More than embarrassment, genuine impossibility is the reason for the failure of language according to Jung (1970, first published in 1946). In this discussion of archetypal symbols of wholeness such as the Cross, Jung states:

[The Cross] is given central and supreme importance precisely because it stands for the conjunction of opposites. Naturally the conjunction can only be understood as a paradox, since a union of opposites can be thought of only as their annihilation. Paradox is a characteristic of all transcendental situations because it alone gives adequate expression to their indescribable nature.

Another interpretation for the ineffable nature of the mystic vision may be added to that of paradoxicality. As poets have always known, in order to evoke an intense emotional response, effective symbols must be ambiguous to a degree. This has been called the multi-referential feature of symbols by Turner (1967, 1968). The broad spectrum of references embraced by symbols permits one to find in them particulars sufficiently personal to illicit a subjective response. Discussion of ecstatic experiences with full details and specifics would make it clear to those within a mystical community that each person's vision is somewhat distinct. It is more important for each to have his own intense and private experience and at the same time a sense of sharing it with others.21 Specific language would diminish sense of communitas among the Huichol pilgrims, and this is said in so many words by the mara'akame. "It is like a secret because others have not heard the same thing, seen the same thing."

Finally one of the recurring explanations of the power of drugs is their ability to loosen social cognitive categories. Conceptualizations are socially provided and given in language. One of the sources of wonder and ecstasy in the mystic experience is the direct perception of the world, without the intervention and precedence of language and interpretation. Huxley (1963) calls this "perceptual innocence"; H. G. Wells spoke of it as providing the Doors in the Wall; for Meister Eckhart it was discovering the Istigkeit of objects; Huxley (1954) quotes Goethe on the futile, mediocre and foppish nature of speech. "By contrast, how the gravity of Nature and her silence startle you, when you stand face to face with her, undistracted, before a barren ridge or in the dissolution of ancient hills." We look at the world through a "half opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact into the all too familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction." The mystic experience is not verbal precisely because it takes one back behind the word, or more accurately, before the word, to the stunning immediacy of sense data.22 The Huichol are surely right when they say that it is not good to talk about one's visions.


It would be misleading to discuss peyote only in connection with Wirikuta for it is a part of ordinary Huichol life as well, and is used on many occasions. One of the most significant features of peyote use among the Huichol is its integration within the society and culture. This is especially relevant from the perspective of contemporary American youth culture in which drug use by comparison is haphazard and promiscuous; with few exceptions, although psychedelic drugs may produce similar visions, these are not integrated into a system of meaning which may be regarded as a worldview.23

Among the Huichol, peyote itself is called "very delicate," and generally regarded as sacred. But to be sacred it has to have been gathered in the proper fashion, that is, under the leadership of a mara'akame in Wirikuta. Peyote purchased in Mexican markets is not sacred, according to Ramón; here are his comments on the matter: "That other peyote, that which one buys, it did not reveal itself in the Huichol manner. One did not hunt it properly, one did not make offerings to it over there [in Wirikuta]. That is why it is not good for us." In order to be sure that they always have a supply of peyote from Wirikuta, the Huichols plant some which was brought back from the peyote hunt in their gardens. As Ramón says: "When we bring it back we plant it at home, in a little earth. Any amount you bring back you can plant near your house so that it lives. In the dry season one plants it, one waters it a little with care and there it is. Then one has it whenever one wants it."

The references to "that other peyote" which may be purchased, is explained by Huichol ethnobotanical classification which specifies the existence of two kinds of peyote, "good and bad." 24 They are very similar in appearance and only an experienced person, usually a mara'akame, can be certain of collecting the good kind. One may accidentally purchase the bad kind, called tsuwiri. The results of eating tsuwiri are indeed terrible: "If one eats one of those, one goes mad, one goes running into the barrancas, one sees scorpions, serpents, dangerous animals. One is unable to walk, one falls, one often kills oneself in those barrancas, falling off the rocks." (These effects are similar to those attributed to Datura.) The hallucinations described due to eating tsuwiri are conventional: a common one is the experience of encountering a huge agave in the desert, thinking it is a woman and making love to it.

Eating tsuwiri instead of peyote may occur not only as a result of mistaken identity; it may be a supernatural sanction, punishment for going to Wirikuta without prior confession. It was said that: "...if one comes there not having spoken of one's life, if one comes not having been cleansed of everything, then this false hikuri (peyote) will discover it. It is going to bring out that which is evil in one, that which frightens one. It knows all one's bad thoughts." It is not merely a matter of the tsuwiri reading one's thoughts, it is that those who have not confessed honestly or completely will probably behave differently. The pilgrim who knows that he has lied to his companions will eat his peyote in secret "because he does not have good thoughts, he knows he has not spoken honestly with his companions." When such a person hunts for peyote, he will find the tsuwiri which "only has thé appearance of peyote," and when he returns to his companions after his harrowing visions, the mara'akame knows at once what has occurred. The man must then confess and he will be cleansed by the mara'akame.

Like maize, peyote can "read one's thoughts" and punish one for being false or evil. The peyote rewards or punishes a man according to his inner state, his moral deserts. The sanction is immediate, just and certain, a most effective regulator of behavior in a small, well-integrated society.

Peyote is eaten or drunk ritually only during dry season ceremonies, but it may be eaten casually at any time of the year. It is also used medicinally for a multitude of problems, eaten to relieve pain, made into a poultice and applied to wounds. It may also be taken for energy, endurance, or courage. In fact it is a panacea.25 When it is eaten or drunk ritually, it is usually in quantities insufficient to obtain visions, and in this context must be regarded as having the specific symbolic purpose of achieving a kind of communion with the deities.

Peyote eating for the purpose of experiencing a vision thus constitute but one relatively narrow part of a larger set of purposes. It is nonetheles quite an important part, though more for the mara'akame than for ordina ry folk. When peyote is eaten for visions, non-ritually, it is in a relaxec and convivial atmosphere, much in the manner of the Westerner's use oi liquor. In a discussion of this non-ceremonial use of peyote, Ramón said:

Later, during the rest of the year, one eats it when one wants to. If one has planted some peyotes there by one's house, one eats it. One eats it at the cerenonies or one eats it when one wants to. If you want to catit, you eat it. And if you do not want to eat it, you don't. And if someone asks you for some, if you have it to give, you give it. If you don't, you don't. One eats it like medicine or for whatever purpose one wants to eat it. If one feels weak, if one feels tired, if one feels ill, if one needs strength, then one eats it. That is how it is —if you have it you eat it, if not, then not.

Concerning the first experiences of peyote, which occur early in life, Ramon said the following:

The first time one puts the peyote into one's mouth, one feels it going down into the stomach. It feels very cold, like ice. And the inside of one's mouth becomes dry, very dry. And then it becomes wet, very wet. One has much saliva then. And then, a while later one feels as if one were fainting. The body begins to feel weak, it begins to feel faint. And one begins to yawn, to feel very tired. And after a while one feels very light. One feels sleepy, but he must not go to sleep. He must stay awake to have his visions.

In at least one context peyote may be used prophetically. A very young child may be given a small amount of peyote and if he finds it pleasant tasting this may be a sign that he would make a good mara'akame. The interpretation of the taste of peyote is itself an interesting matter; the Huichols insist that peyote is "sweet," "chew it well," they tell each other, "it is sweet, like tortillas." This may be a reversal brought back from Wirikuta, for it is clear that though no one vomits from eating peyote, neither is it savored. Huichols eating peyote look like anyone else with a mouth full of peyote: their faces reveal a gamut of grimaces. They suck in their cheeks their eyebrows go up and down in a manner most uncharacteristic of their usual facial composure. The shockingly sour taste of the cactus seems to call forth these reactions despite the official descriptions of peyote as delicious.

Cleansing the peyote is not elaborate; the roots may be cut off and the dust and earth brushed away. The little tufts of hair on the top, called the eyebrows of the peyote (tsinurawe) are especially delicate and are eaten always. It is said that different peyotes have different flavors, textures, and colors, and in Wirikuta, one of the pleasurable events is comparing peyotes and discussing their aesthetic attributes. Peyotes most valued are those of five segments, five being the Huichol sacred number. In fact, these are often strung together as a necklace and may be used to adorn the deer horns of Tatawart. Peyote is often addressed affectionately, called "ti peyote" (our peyote), and even spoken to in baby talk. Often its beauties are likened to states in the growth of maize. "It is new, it is soft like the ripening maize, how fine, how lovely."

The first peyote eaten in Wirikuta is touched to the forehead, eyes, breast, voice box, cheeks before being eaten. Other times this is not done. Peyote brought out of Wirikuta is carefully packed into baskets in concentric circles from the bottom up, so that it will not be jostled en route, for, as it is said, it is delicate and the trip is long.

Peyote may be eaten fresh, or dried, ground and drunk. It may be taken along on trips and given as a gift to a host, to eat or plant. It is sometimes traded for various items with other Indians, especially the Cora and Tarahumara, who regard Huichol peyote as very desirable. It is always in demand, and its presence is essential throughout the year, since all major religious ceremonies require the presence of peyote, maize and deer meat or blood. The ceremonies constitute an interlocking cycle. The peyote hunt is preceded by the drum and calabash ceremony and followed by the deer Mint; evidently substitutes for deer meat and blood are acceptable, but this is not true for properly gathered peyote.

As an artistic motif, peyote is no less important. As Lumholtz (1900) has shown, peyote is a theme with numerous variations in embroidery and weaving. It provides a key source of inspiration.


Perhaps in the present context the most significant lesson of the Huichol use of peyote is a fuller understanding of a hallucinogenic drug in a sacred context. Peyote produces certain biochemical changes which are to some degree uniform in their effects. What is done with these effects, what meanings they are given, how they are integrated and eleborated into a context of significance, and coherence and beauty, is what concerns the anthropologist. Simply stated, we see peyote used as a means. Clearly, its effectsper se are valued but what a relatively small part of the entire picture they are. It would be a profanation to discuss Huichol peyote use in terms of kicks and highs and escape and the other terms which describe the goals of individualistic drug-taking outside of an integrated cultural setting. Peyote is woven into every dimension of Huichol life. It is venerated for its gifts of beauty and pleasure. But this is in reality a Durkheimian kind of projection; it is the Huichol venerating their own customs and traditions, the sense and pattern of a way of life which uses this little plant, this part of its natural environment so wisely and so well.

1 Fieldwork on which this article is based was conducted during 1965 and 1966, and was partially funded by a Ford International and Comparative Studies Grant administered through Professor Johannes Wilbert of the University of California, Los Angeles, Latin American Center. My colleague, Professor Peter T. Furst, worked with me in Mexico and collaborated in subsequent interpretations of the data. Many of the Huichol texts were translated by Professors Joseph E. and Barbara Grimes. I acknowledge gratefully this assistance, and especially that of the late Ramón Medina Silva, Huichol mara'akame, his wife Guadelupe, and the Huichols who shared so much of their time, their knowledge and their lives. Ramón led the peyote hunt on which Furst and I participated in 1966; to my knowledge this was the first time anthropologists had an opportunity for firsthand observation of this event. Fuller ethnographic description of the Huichols is available in the works of Zingg (1938), Lumholtz (1900, 1902), Myerhoff and Furst (1966), Furst (1967, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1972a, 1972b) and Myerhoff (1970,1974). Journalist Benitez has written extensive firsthand accounts of the peyote hunt.

2 Peyote, botanically known as Lophoro Williamsii, called hikuri by the Huichols, is a hallucinogenic cactus which grows in the high central plateau of northern Mexico in the area between the Sierra Madre Oriental and Sierra Madre Occidental.

3 Huichol worldview may be understood as a combination of several layers of belief: the mystic vision, classical shamanism, and a hunting ideology. Many features typically associated with the latter include the continuity between man and animal; the belief that the animal (deer-peyote) is reborn from its bones; the deer as the mara'- akame's familiar spirit; the shamanic flight through dangerous passages to the other world; the shaman's access to direct knowledge of supernatural realism, and so forth. This theme is discussed in more detail in Myerhoff (1974).

4 The peyote hunt is described here in the ethnographic present. Certainly there are variations between peyote hunts, depending on a great many factors, such as different composition of the party of peyote pilgrims, mara'akame leadership, and the like. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that this is a highly stable event. See for instance, the reports in Lumholtz, Zingg, Furst, and Benitez (1968).

5 For a detailed treatment of the ethnobotanical, mythical, archeological and cultural historical evidence which supports the interpretation of Wirikuta as an historical site of Huichol origins, see Furst and Myerhoff (1966).

6 Fuller discussion of the symbolic significance of the deer-maize-peyote complex can be found in Myerhoff (1970).

7 Gods are also unmotivated, according to Maslow (1970). In his descriptions of "peak-experiences," that is in states of ecstasy, human beings may become non-striving, non-wishing, asking less for themselves, becoming more unselfish. "We must remember that the gods have been considered generally to have no needs or wants, no deficiencies, no lacks and to be gratified in all things. In this sense, the unmotivated human being becomes more god-like" (1970:176). Such a condition of unselfishness is requisite to the unity among peyoteros required for the peyote hunt. The occurrence of a theme of rebirth, as mortals or deities, is reported also in the LSD studies of Grof (1972).

8 The Huichol theme of opposites fusing in general, and in particular, the old man becoming the child appears in at least one other psychedelically-induced mystic vision: "This theme recurs in a hundred different ways — the inseparable polarity of opposites, or the mutuality and reciprocity of all the possible contents of consciousness ... in this new world the mutuality of things is quite clear at every level. The human face, for example, becomes clear in all of its aspects — the total form together with each single hair and wrinkle. Faces become all ages at once, characteristics that suggest age also suggest youth by implication; the bony structure suggesting the skull evokes instantly the newborn infant" (Watts 1965:40).

9 The importance of blinding light, flashing colors, and the general intensification of visual imagery is of course a constant in psychedelic experiences, and indeed the presence of the divine is most commonly signified by dazzling luminosity. Visual imagery is highly stable and fixed sequences occur, according to Kluver (1966) and Marsh (1965), among others.

10 The significance of the fields being crystalline may be underscored here. Watts (1970) reminds us that crystal is characteristically used to signify that which is pure, enduring, abstract, and spiritual. Among the Huichols, important ancestors are transformed into rock crystal afterlife. Crystals stand not only for that which is permanent and lifeless but also signify the enduring unity underlying the multiplicity of shifting forms, again a standard component of mystical and psychedelic visions. Comments Watts, "The cosmos is seen as a multi-dimensional network of crystals, each one containing the reflections of all the others, and the reflections of all the others in those reflections" (1970: 212-213).

11 Lévi-Strauss (1966) discusses how time and history are altered or abolished in mythology. In myth and ritual, and in what Lévi-Strauss calls "savage thought," man attempts to grasp the world all at once, as a synchronic totality. Savage thought differs from scientific thought in that it does not distinguish the moment of observation from the moment of interpretation. It attempts to integrate synchronic and diachronic events into one system of meaning. This bracketing of the present by the very beginnings and the ultimate end, wherein all is implied, foreshadowed, somehow contained in the present, is exemplified precisely by the Huichol's treatment of time in Wirikuta.

12 The year before the peyote hunt, in which I participated, before I understood the need for secrecy, Ramón had given me some peyote and watched over me while I had my vision. Afterwards, I attempted to elicit from Ramón an explanation, or interpretation of what I had seen. It took me some time to understand his reluctance as he attempted tactfully to lead me away from questions about meaning or observations about how beautiful it had been. We continued in this fashion for a while until at last he said, "It means itself — no more." I was reminded of this in reading the following from Watts: "The bud has opened and the fresh leaves fan out and curve back with a gesture which is unmistakably communicative but does not say anything except, 'Thus!' And somehow that is quite satisfactory, even startlingly clear. The meaning is transparent..." (1965:33-35).

13 There is one regular exception to this. When peyote is eaten by one who has not properly prepared himself, truly confessed or gathered "good peyote" under the direction of a mardakame, conventional bad visions are said to occur. This is discussed below.

14 For a discussion of the significance of observing boundaries between sacred and profane regions, of which this is a clear instance, see Mary Douglas (1966).

15 Watts reminds us that essential to the psychedelic experience is the "vivid realization of the reciprocity of will and world., self and not-self." This puzzles us "from the standpoint of ordinary consciousness: the strange and seemingly unholy conviction that 'I' am God. In Western culture this sensation is seen as the very signature of insanity. But in India it is simply a matter of course that the deepest center of man, atman, is the deepest center of the universe, Brahman." Watts calls this the mode of inclusive consciousness, in which "the feeling of self is no longer confined to the inside of the skin. Instead, my individual being seems to grow out from the rest of the universe like a hair from a head or a limb from a body, so that my center is also the center of the whole" (1965:63).

16 Images of flowing and blending occur consistently in mystic experiences, as demonstrated by Laski's (1961) content analysis of ecstatic imagery.

17 Turner has considered in detail the matter of communitas as part of the religious experience. See especially The ritual process (1969).

18 Furst (1972b) describes the Huichol version of the dangerous passage through the Clashing Clouds. Eliade (1964) elaborates on the significance of the Symplegades theme in shamanic flights.

19 Heraclitus rather than Aristotle provides us with the logic in terms of which to conceptualize fusion and unity in his philosophy of universal flow and continuity.

20 The problem of verbal descriptions of psychedelic experiences, and of all the important events and images of the individual's inner world are treated more fully by Krippner (1971) in his article on "The effects of psychedelic experience on language functioning."

21 Krippner (1971) gives an example of the use of language not to describe psychedelic experiences but to signal other users "that one understands." "This language is as much a sign of 'togetherness' and `belongingness' as it is a device for communicating the content of an experience. Descriptions signify not what the user has 'seen' but that he is a particular kind of person or a fellow member of an important in-group" (1971 :230).

22 In Western tradition, the pre-verbal understanding of the immediacy of sense data is symbolized by the innocence and freshness of the child, whose acquiescence to culturally-provided interpretation is incomplete. The theme appears in the peyote hunt in the form of the presence of the nunutsi, and the death of the pilgrims as mortals and rebirth as deities, who like children, are symbols of innocence and non-worldliness. Rites of confession, purification, or atonement usually precede or accompany the shedding of mortality. This ritual among the Huichols has been described in terms of the confession preceding the peyoteros and departure of Wirikuta.

23 Possible exceptions are found in the philosophical statements about social and psychological implications of psychedelic drugs elaborated by Robert Alpert, Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey. One of the best descriptions of the development of a subculture with at least a nascent worldview based on psychedelic experience is provided in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid acid test (1969). In Wolfe's interpretation of Kesey and his followers, the number of features which resemble Huichol worldview is striking. The book is a description of an essentially religious pilgrimage inspired by drug-induced visions and the pilgrim's quest for a new way of being. The theme of communitas is central, described as "being on the bus." The ineffable nature of the vision is recognized and referred to as "The Unspoken Thing." Imagery of flow and blending abounds. The search for a pattern of totality and unity occurs prominently. Ordinary time is obliterated as "synchronization" replaces the temporal order. The theme of paradoxicality is found here too, in the search for meanings within the meaningless, and patterns within the chaos.

24 Furst (1972b) has identified bad peyote as Arioscarpus retusus, a member of the same cactus subtribe as Lophoro Williamsii.

25 Furst (1972b) reports on recent research which suggests that peyote does indeed exhibit antibiotic activity.


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Our valuable member Barbara Myerhoff has been with us since Tuesday, 21 February 2012.