The Diabolic Root

The earliest hallucinogenic cactus depicted in ancient American art is a tall, columnar member of the Cereus family, Trichocereus pachanoi, the mescaline-containing San Pedro of the folk healers of coastal Peru (Sharon, 1972). San Pedro has been identified in the funerary effigy pottery and painted textiles of Chavin, the oldest of a long succession of Andean civilizations, dating to ca. 1000 BC, and also in the ceremonial art of the later Moche and Nazca cultures, which gives this sacred psychedelic cactus of western South America a cultural pedigree of at least 3,000 years.

But the most important, chemically and ethnographically most complex, hallucinogenic member of the cactus family—in terms of its history, the popular, scientific, religious, and legal attention it has drawn, and its cultural utilization from early times to the present—is a small spineless North American native of the Chihuahuan desert, Lophophora williamsii, better known as "peyote."

Despite its relatively restricted desert habitat, extending from the Rio Grande drainage basin in Texas southward into the high central plateau of northern Mexico between the eastern and western Sierra Madre mountains, to the approximate latitude of the Tropic of Cancer, peyote was held in great esteem over much of ancient Mesoamerica, where its earliest artistic representation—in mortuary ceramics found in western Mexico—dates to 100 BC-AD 200. It is still highly valued by many Indians, and for one indigenous population, the Huichols, it stands as it did in pre-Hispanic times at the very center of a shamanistic system of religion and ritual that has remained uniquely free of major Christian influences.

Finally, the divine cactus of the Huichols and of earlier peoples has evolved into the sacrament of a new religious phenomenon, the pan-Indian peyote cult which, born out of profound spiritual and sociocultural crisis in the nineteenth century, spread northward from the Texas border as far as the Canadian Plains. Now it is incorporated as the Native American Church, with an estimated 225,000 adherents. Its remarkable history, and that of the long struggle of Indians, anthropologists, and civil libertarians to win legal status for peyote in the face of scientifically absurd and constitutionally questionable state and federal narcotics laws, is documented by La Barre in The Peyote Cult. First published in 1938, this classic anthropological work has been repeatedly brought up to date and republished, most recently in 1969 and again in 1974.* In this chapter and the next, I will attempt from personal experience to convey something of the form and the meaning of "peyotism" in an aboriginal Mexican setting that certainly contributed, if it was not ultimately ancestral to, its North American manifestation.

* The anthropological literature is rich in North American peyote studies, outstanding among them the writings of Omer C. Stewart on Ute and Paiute peyotism, David F. Aberle's The Peyote Religion among the Navaho (1966), and J. S. Slotkin's The Peyote Religion (1956). The latter is especially interesting because Slotkin, an anthropologist, himself joined the Native American Church of North America and became one of its elected officials. His book was intended, he wrote (1956:v), as a "documented exposition of Peyotism for Whites, from the Peyotist point of view." For public support by anthropologists for religious freedom for Indian peyotists see, for example, La Barre etal., "Statement on Peyote," in Science (1951:582-583).

Photo 2 Lophophora williamsii. Peyote in flower; cultivated material from the Rio Grande of Mexico.

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