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Written by Weston La Barre   
Sunday, 09 January 2011 00:00


The connotative etymological implications of the term "peyotl" become valuable when an understanding of its wider denotative applications is sought. In Hernandez' original description, Lophophora wiiiiamsii is called "Peyotl Zacatensi, seu radice molli et lanu-ginosa"i—that is to say, the whitish flocculence which gains the plant both its Aztec and modern botanical names, is again pointed out in Hernandez' Latin synonym, "soft and lanuginous root."

But Hernandez distinguished two peyotes, "Peyotl Zacatensi" and "Peyotl Xochi-milcensi," 2 the latter not even one of the Cactaceae, and one wonders at the classification until the plant is botanically described :

This peyote, a rather excellent medicine, has a heavy round root covered with woolly rootlets, in addition to other roots which resemble acoms, because of their form and size, growing out in every direction . . . . It has few stems . . . with yellow flowers at their extremities.

From even this brief characterization it is clear that the term "peyotl" was extended to this non-cactus (later identified as Cacalia diversifolia or C. cordifolia)3 because of its balanoid lanuginous roots. The latter species is sold in the drug markets around Guadalajara, Jalisco, as "peyote"; specimens from Alvarez, San Luis Potosi, locally known as "cachan," are valued as an aphrodisiac and remedy for sterility, the rhizic-orchic pubescence of the plant being evidently viewed in terms of sympathetic magic.

Dr. Alfonso4 applies the term peyote or piote further to Cacalia sinuata, La Llave, and Etchevarria coespitosa Dec., the former Compositae, the latter one of the Crassulaceae. One of the Compositae, Senecio spp., ranging from Cerro del Pino to the Valley of Mexico is thus described:

The tap-root is tuberous-ovoid, size of a small hen's egg, a little curved above, carrying almost all [its bulk] in the heavy extremity .... All the surface is covered with a nap formed of long matted hairs of the color of cannel, and a number of long roots.

The "Peyote of Tepic" (Senecio hartwegii) is smaller and more globular than the above, and contains no alkaloid, the gluey, sticky sap having no effect on the dove or the rat. 'The "Peyote of Querétaro" (Echinocactus turbinatus Henning), said to be distinguished from Anha/onium only by the spiral disposition of the hair-pencils, is a common form of Lo pho, phor a williamsii.

In the case of all these non-cacti to which the term peyote has been applied, the plants have exhibited descriptively either a lanuginous or pubescent surface-nap, or balanoid, orchitic, or nut-like root-nodules, and in some cases both; in one case there was a cocoon-shaped pod in addition. But Schultes' lists other "peyotes" which may not fit this explana-tion: Compositae: Senecio calophyllus Hemsl., S. Hartwegii Benth., S. ovatiformis Sch. Bip., S. Petasitus DC and Cacalia spp. (e.g., C. cordifolia HBK); Leguminosae: Rhynchosia long& racemosa Mart. & Gal.; and even one of the Solanaceae, Datum meteloides DC.

All the above are non-cacti, but many Cactaceae have also been called "peyote." These include: Anha/onium Englemannii Lem., A. prismaticum Lem., A. furfuraceum Wats., A. pulvilligerum Lem., A. areolosum Lem., Lophophora williamsii Lem., Ariocarpus fis-suratus (Englm.) K. Schum., Astrophytum myriostigma Lem., A. asterias (Zucc.) Lem., Pelecyphora aselliformis Ehrenb., and Strombocactus disciformis DC. The diminutive "peyo-tillo" has been applied to Dolichothele longimamma Britton and Rose, and Solisia pectinata Britton and Rose.'

1 Hernandez, in Safford, Aztec Narcotic, 295; Peyotes, Datos para Estudia, 204.

2 In simpler Mexican cultures, peyote was in the hands of shamans; this other peyote appears to derive its name from the priests of a certain class in the higher Aztec culture: "According to some authorities, the highest grade of these native hierophants bore among the Nahuas the symbolic name of 'flower weavers,' Xochimika, probably from the skill they had to deceive the senses by strange and pleasant visions (Xochimilca, que asi
mavan los mui sabios encantadores)" (Torquemada, in Brinton, Nagualism, 298).

3 A specimen in Mooney, Peyote Notebook, 56, was so identified. Schultes viewed this and identified it as C. cordifolia which in addition has cocoon•shaped pods. Cf. the use of Lophophara as an aphrodisiac.

4 Alfonso, in Rouhier, Monographie, 3; SantoscoY, Nayarit, 32. Schultes (Peyote and Plants Used, 135) lists Cotyledon caespitosa Haw. as a Crassulaceous "peyote."

5 Peyotes, Datos para Estudia, ut, 2o6, zo8. This non-cactus "peyote" of Tepic may have been the false clue leading Rouhier to believe an earlier range of peyote into Tepic.

6 Schultes, Peyotes and Plants Used, 135. The Reko etymology preferred by Schultes (p. 136) so far as botan-ical evidence goes derives peyotl from Aztec pi- (small) and -yautli or (herb with narcotic odor or action), making "peyotillo" a double diminutive. Schultes has accepted, at the instance of the present writer, the thesis that Cacalia spp. might well enough fit the "velvety, cocoon-like" etymology, but argues nevertheless that "this etymology does not seem to explain the application of the same name to the great array of plants which possess no soft or silky parts whatsoever." Schultes is undoubtedly right on this point in terms of descriptive botany; yet may not some items be included in our lists illegitimately? Arthalonium prismaticum Lem., for example, is called hikuli, not peyote, and is only partly its terminological equivalent. And does the "little nar-cotic" etymology explain all these instances?

7 Urbina, in Harms, Ober das Narkotikum, 31; Schultes, op. cit., 135.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 18 January 2011 18:44

Our valuable member Weston La Barre has been with us since Sunday, 09 January 2011.

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