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INTRODUCTION PDF Print E-mail
Written by Weston La Barre   
Monday, 03 January 2011 00:00

THE PEYOTE CULT

INTRODUCTION

PEYOTE (Nahuatl, peyotl) or Lophophora williamsii Lemaire, is a small, spineless, carrot-shaped cactus growing in the Rio Grande Valley and southward. It contains nine narcotic alkaloids of the isoquiniline series, some of them strychnine-like in physiological action, the rest morphine-like. In pre-Columbian times the Aztec, Huichol, and other Mexican Indians ate the plant ceremonially either in the dried or green state. This produces profound sensory and psychic derangements lasting twenty-four hours, a property which led the natives to value and use it religiously. Peyote is not, however, the same as teonanacatl, as Safford believed; the latter is a narcotic mushroom which likewise had a Mexican distribution. The term "peyotl" is also used in Mexico to designate other cacti and non-cacti, some of which, like peyote, are reputed to have aphrodisiac and other properties.

Physiologically, the salient characteristic of peyote is its production of visual hallucinations or color visions, as well as kinaesthetic, olfactory and auditory derangements. Psychiatrists have used it (experimentally) with unsatisfactory results in producing temporary psychosis, and therapeutically its use has been similarly disappointing because of the uncertainty of action of the antagonistic alkaloids of pan-peyotl. First, exhilaration is produced by the strychnine-like alkaloids, followed by profound depression, nausea and wakefulness, and finally, under the influence of the morphine-like alkaloids, brilliant color visions are produced, which last for several hours. There are no ill after-effects, and peyote is not known to be habit-forming. These properties have led to a number of non-ritual uses by natives for prophesying, clairvoyance, finding lost objects and the like, as well as empirically for the cure of all manner of illnesses.

In Mexico peyote was used seasonally in an agricultural-hunting religious festival, preceded by a ritual pilgrimage for the plant. Participants danced all night around a fire to the rasp-music of the shaman, as they ate the drug in this tribal celebration. Since about 1870 the cult has spread to the United States, particularly in the Plains, where nearly all groups use it. In the Southwest transitional region peyote became deeply involved in shamanistic rivalries and witchcraft, and in the Plains with war. A pre-peyote narcotic, the "mescal bean" (Sophora secundiflora) had there prepared the way for its introduction. The Plains cult is like the warriors' societies of earlier times in some respects. The Kiowa, Comanche and Caddo were the chief agents of the spread of the cult throughout the entire Plains region to southern Canada and parts of the Great Basin. The standard ritual is an all-night meeting in a tipi around a crescent-shaped earthen mound and a ceremonially-built fire; here a special drum, gourd rattle and carved staff are passed around after smoking and purifying ceremonies, as each person sings four "peyote songs." Various water-bringing ceremonies occur at midnight and dawn, when there is a "baptism" or curing rite, followed by a special ritual breakfast of parched corn, fruit, and boneless meat.

The Caddo-Delaware John Wilson had peyote visions that led him to modify the altar and ceremony; this new form has spread to the Caddo, Delaware, Quapaw, Osage and others. Wilson was one of a long line of Indian prophet-messiahs, and his "moon" has been somewhat exploited economically. The Oto teacher, Jonathan Koshiway, founded a Christianized version of peyotism which spread to the Omaha, Winnebago and others. An organization of confederated tribes known as "The Native American Church" grew out of Koshiway's "Church of the First-born" (which latter spread to Negro groups also). The cult has had considerable legal difficulties.

Praying and doctoring in meetings, and occasionally public confession of sins, are the major means for the liquidation of life-anxieties of this profoundly functional cult's many present-day communicants. In the following pages we shall attempt to delineate the history of the study of the cult, the various botanical questions surrounding peyote, its physiological action and the various ethnological, psychological and historical questions involved in its diffusion.

First of modern students to describe the peyote rite was James Mooney, who visited the Kiowa, Comanche, Tarahumari, and "a number of other tribes, among them the Mexican tribes of the Sierra Madre, and as far south as the City of Mexico." But at his'ideath he had published no further study of peyote; ethnographers of the period were in general concerned with preserving complete records of older native cultures, and ignored or paid scant attention to the modern cult of peyote. Mooney himself gave little notice to the rite in his monographs on the Cheyenne and the Kiowa,' although at the time he was undoubtedly the authority on the subject.

Wissler, for example, barely mentions the peyote cult.3 Indeed, in its role of modern destroyer or supplanter of older native religions, peyote was even a matter of concern' and annoyance to some ethnographers Lumholtz, with wonted thoroughness, published considerable data on Huichol and Tarahumari peyote in 1898 and later, and Kroeber in 1902 wrote a chapter on Arapaho peyote which has remained a model for later investigators.'

It remained for Paul Radin, however, in his studies of Winnebago peyote,' to point out to ethnographers an engrossingly interesting, but widely ignored, religious cult which was growing and spreading before their very eyes. Since the appearance of his papers in the years following 1914, the ethnographic literature on peyote has grown considerably, due importantly to the impetus Radin gave such studies. Lowie devoted a chapter partly to peyote in his book Primitive Religion; Rouhier paid some attention to ethnographic questions in his pharmacological monograph on peyote; and Wagner wrote a short comparative paper based largely on the Comanche and Huichol cults. Petrullo's Diabolic Root was devoted entirely to Delaware peyotism.7

No comparative treatment of the peyote cult of the order of Mooney's on the Ghost Dance, Lowie's on Plains societies, or Spier's on the Sun Dance had ever been made when Dr. Maurice Smith of the University of Oklahoma began his studies. The unfortunate death of this investigator, however, prevented the finishing of his work, of which only a short paper' has seen publication. But studies of the peyote cult in individual tribes, both published and in manuscript, have multiplied to such an extent since the time of Kroeber's and Radin's studies that the time appears ripe to attempt an integrated comparative treatment of the religon.

1 Mooney, A Kiowa Mescal Rattle, 64-65; Mescal Plant and Ceremony (from which dates the medical and pharmaceutical interest in peyote); statement in Peyote, as Used in Religious Warship, 58.

2 The Cheyenne, 418; Calendar History, 237-39.

3 The American Indian, 376.

4 Skinner, Material Culture, 42-43; Societies of the Iowa, 693-94,724-

5 Lumholtz, Tarahumari Dances; Huichol Indians; Explorations en Mexique; Symbolism of the Huichol; Unknown Mexico; Kroeber, The Arapaho, 398-410.

6 Radin, Sketch of the Peyote Cult; The Winnebago Tribe, 388-426; Crashing Thunder.

7 Lowie, Primitive Religion, 200—ao4; Rouhier, Monographic du Peyotl; Wagner, Entwicklung und Verbreit, ung; Petrullo, The Diabolic Root.

8 Smith, Mrs. Maurice G., A Negro Peyote Cult.

Last Updated on Sunday, 09 January 2011 17:44
 

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

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