Native American peyote: can it be useful in ceremonies?
I was recently asked about the “hallucinogen cactus with psychedelic properties” so I thought I
would write a post about it 🙂 What we are talking about here is the Native American peyote. I know that not everyone might agree on the use of peyote and I am still not fully sure where I personally stand on it. Just being honest. But let me make it clear here that I am going to be discussing the use of peyote during Native American ceremonies, not the recreational use of peyote, which is prohibited (not that this stops people…).
What is peyote?
Peyote, or lophophora williathemsii, is a spineless cactus found in southern states and Mexico.
Unlike a regular cactus, peyote does not bloom regularly, but when it does it produces a pink fuit that is edible. You can see it on the right. The part that is used for consumption are the top buttons that grow on top of the roots. Like the ones below. Peyote contains mescaline, a naturally occurring psychedelic alkaloid. Hence why some people will use it in a recreational way as an hallucinogen. As the mescaline content is higher in dried peyote, it will more often be used in that form by recreational users.
Interestingly, peyote is used to deter predators. How you ask as it has no spines? Well think about it. It contains mescaline, which will make animals who eat it sick. Animals will have a severe allergic reaction to mescaline, deterring them from ever touching or eating peyote again. Today, wild peyote is an endangered species. It grows in cultivated form but its slow growth and over cultivation made it sparse in the wild.
History of the peyote
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact arrival of peyote and when it was first used. Some will say it was there for 2 millennia prior to the arrival of Europeans, while others will place its arrival as early as 3780 BC. So we are working with a range of quite a few years here! However, some recent support, in the form of archeological discoveries, support the latter estimated arrival date. Indeed, specimens of peyote were found in dry caves and rock shelters in Texas, in a context suggesting its use in ceremonies. it was also found in a region corresponding to present day Mexico.
With the arrival of the Europeans arrived the controversy surrounding peyote. Indeed, at the beginning of the 16th century, a Spanish chronicler by the name of Fray Bernandino de Sahagun, documented its use by the Native people (Sahagun was devoted to the culture). He noted his observations of peyote and its use, stating that the cactus would provide visions, which could be scary or enjoyable, lasting 2 to 3 days. Peyote was also taken by people who had long physical journeys ahead of them (walking long distance) or even to give them fighting power, as the peyote would help them sustain and give them the courage to fight as they would not feel fear, hunger or thirst (I hope they still kept hydrated as otherwise dehydration might have added to the visions).
Although Sahagun presented pretty objective observations of peyote and its effects, other Europeans explorers were more suspicious, referring to it as the diabolic root. As some who observed peyote users have more terrifying visions, were frightened by its use. I cannot say that I blame them for being scared but it seems like peyote then became associated with evil. Missionaries and explorers condemned those who had used or use peyote, associating the practice with devil worshiping and cannibalism (!). In an effort to convert the Native Americans, they were routinely asked if they used peyote and those who were “caught” using it, would be “disciplined” (especially with the arrival of the Inquisition).
Over time, some of the southern local tribes died out during the 18th and 19th century and the knowledge of the use of peyote during ceremonies also died down. Tribes of the MidWest tried to revive the use of peyote with limited success (as an attempt to revive traditional practices). Soon, authorities were on the case and sought to ban the use of peyote, and other spiritual rituals such as the Ghost Dance.
In 1965, the American Medical Association (AMA) research showed peyote to be habit forming and was thus added to a list of banned psychedelic substances. However, the AMA ruling allowed peyote to be used within religious rituals/ceremonies. Let’s then look at its use in ceremonies.
Peyote in Native American ceremonies
For centuries, peyote has been used in ceremonies, prayer ceremonies, by Native Americans across the globe. Although ceremonies do vary from tribe to tribe, like many ceremonies, the peyote prayer ceremony is conducted in a circle with a medicine man leading with songs and prayers. Peyote is ingested in a liquid form during ceremonies (grinding the flesh to extract the juice). The peyote juice is passed around in either a gourd or another container. Although I have not tried peyote myself, from what I could read, it does not seem like the taste is liked by many. Further, oftentimes people who are not used to drinking peyote will get physically sick. Indeed the mescaline it contains often leads to vomiting. So one has to think twice here before deciding to go for it…
Why would one attend a peyote ceremony if it tastes horrible and makes you throw up? Combined with the rhythm of the drum and the singing, peyote consumption leads to that trance like state in which one can get visions. Some swear that the clarity they obtain from the visions they got was life changing. Some say that, when in that trance like state, they were able to communicate with ancestors, see their destiny, and see where they needed to go in their life. Therefore, some got answers or help in their soul searching from their peyote experience. While others got terrifying visions they never wish to go through again.
So is it worth it then? Well, in most ceremonies, I find one obtains some sort of clarity. I have found myself in a semi trance like state in ceremonies just from the rhythmic drumming. It calms you down and allows you to just “be there”, not thinking about anything. So I can see how that would open up the door for peyote trances and visions. I think this has to be an individual and personal decision, and it has to be done in a safe space with a medicine man (as opposed to one’s basement alone). My reticence comes from working in the field of addictions and mental health and seeing the effects of mind altering substances on some people. That’s my bias I guess you could say but it does not mean that I do not see how it can be relevant in a ceremonial context.
Have you ever tried peyote? Anyone wants to share their thoughts? Comment below!