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Visionary Cactus Guide


" The white man goes into his church house and talks about Jesus; The Indian goes into his tepee and talks to Jesus." J. S. Slotkin

The Indians once believed, and still do, that Peyote is a God, or at least a messenger of the Gods, sent to communicate directly with the individual worshiper.

( BP = before present )

[ 10,000 BP ]

In several Northern Indian tribes, the Peyote ceremony is descended from the mescal bean ceremony. The mescal bean is the highly toxic seed of the Sophora secundiflora tree. The odd thing is that other than Cacti, the mescal bean tree is about the only other thing that blooms in that part of the desert. It is also associated with Peyote in that both species often are found growing together. There is evidence that the mescal bean has been used as an oracle for upwards of 10,000 years. Its use was however very dangerous, as just eating a little too much would have very fatal consequences. One quarter to one half seed would be roasted by the fire until yellowish brown. It was then consumed causing a sleepy delirium that lasted three days. (Not really my idea of a party)

Fortunately the Peyote ceremony has completely replaced the use of the mescal bean. Do not confuse the bean with Peyote, or the mescal plant which is a Maguey (source of pulqua liquor). All three are separate and unrelated entities. Some Peyotists still use mescal beans as amulets.

[ 6000 BP ]

Legend has it that Peyote was discovered when a lost, and starving man came across it in the deep desert. A voice was heard to emanate from the plant, saying that it was good and should be eaten. The man ate of the bitter, unpalatable plant, regained his strength, and returned to his village bearing this divine gift, and relating his adventures.

[ 3300 BP ]

Engraved stone carvings of a figure holding Cacti were found in Chavin, Mexico.

[ 3000 BP ]

Archeological evidence points to Peyote being used ceremonially for at least 3000 years. Still psychoactive specimens of Peyote have been recovered from dry caves and rock shelters as far North as Texas after 3 millenia. It has even been suggested that Peyote use is more ancient still. A symbol used by current day Tarahumara Indians is similar to ancient ritualistic lava rock carvings found in mesoamerica. San Pedro representations have been found on Moche and Chimu ceramics, as well as Nazca urns.

[ 2700 BP ]

A ceramic snuffing pipe in the form of a deer with a Peyote in its mouth was found in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. In the Huichol culture, deer, maize and Peyote form a holy trinity.

[ 2200 BP ]

It has been suggested that San Pedro has been cultivated as a crop in Peru around this time period.

[ Ca. 1550 ]

Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, an early Spanish chronicler, estimated that the Chichimeca and Toltec Indians used Peyote at least 1890 years before the arrival of the Europeans. Sahagun lived with and studied the indigenous Indians from 1499 to 1590.

[ 15th - 17th century ]

Persecution of Peyote began soon after the Spanish invaders conquered the indigenous peoples. The European ecclesiastics were very intolerant of any cult but their own and soon tried to crush native beliefs, subjecting the Indians to unspeakable tortures and acts of barbarism. ( sounds kind of like the drug wars of the late 20th century ) In an all too familiar attempt to erase knowledge, the Spanish oppressor engaged in " an orgy of unparalleled destruction, burning thousands of Aztec documents and other items".

To the narrow, Christian minds of the invaders, Peyote was associated with the bloody Aztec sacrificial rites and condemned as " Riaz diabolica" (the Devils root). Several seventeenth century Jesuit priests stated that the Indians used Peyote medicinally and ceremonially. They reported that the inebriated Indians "would see terrible visions".

When the hysteria of witchcraft peaked in Europe, it was not long till it spilled over into the conquered territories. In an all too familiar attempt by the Church to break the will of the people, the Holy Office of the Inquisition imposed the first drug law in the new world. Peyote was formally denounced as an act of superstition on June, 29th 1620 as a source of divining, and foretelling future events.

The Spanish persecutors, under the aegis of the Catholic Church, made every effort to totally stamp out Peyote use, subjecting the Indians to floggings, beatings, cruel tortures and even death if they persisted. One account states that as a continuation of three days of torture, a disobedient Indian had his eyes gouged out. The self-righteous Spanish then cut a crucifix into the flesh of his chest, and turned loose starving dogs to dine on his innards.

[ 18th century ]

As late as 1760, the Catholic church still equated Peyote with cannibalism. Some of the questions asked of converts was, hath thou eaten of the flesh of man? Hath thou eaten of the flesh of Peyote? Dost thou suck the blood of others? Dost thou call upon demons for aid?

After bearing two centuries of savage oppression, and the decimation and breakup of mesoamerican civilization, the Peyote ritual was driven underground, to be silently preserved in the Chihuahuan desert. No anthropologists ever bothered to investigate or observe a Peyote ritual until well in the 1960's.

It is believed that the contemporary ceremonies of the Huichol, Cora, Yaqui, Tepecano and Tarahumara are close to the original format used during pre-Columbian times.

Traditionally, Peyote has been used to treat ailments, in shamanic rituals, and even in games. The Tarahumara consume Peyote prior to engaging in 20 or 40 mile long foot races.

[ 19th century ]

Modern scientific pharmacological studies of Peyote started in the late 1880's. In 1887, Parke Davis & Co. began to distribute dried Peyote buttons. In 1888, botanist Paul Hennings published a report on Lophophora chemistry, leading to other investigations. The principal active ingredient (mescaline) was first isolated in 1897 by a German chemist, A. Heffter. In 1892, the German explorer Lumhotz described ceremonial Peyote use among the Huichol and Tarahumara, and sent samples to Harvard for Botanical analysis.

During the later part of the 1800's, at the close of the Indian wars, Indians brought back knowledge of Peyote from raids on Mexico. As a part of the "ghost dance", Peyote use spread quickly among the Indian tribes of America after 1880. Indian prophets like Quanah Parker added Christianity to traditional beliefs and formed the basis of the Peyote ritual practiced today.

[ 20th century ]

Ernst Spath was the first person to create mescaline synthetically, in his laboratory in 1919. The last extensive study of mescaline's effects was Der Meskalinrausch ( The Mescaline High), published in 1927. Studies of Peyote and mescaline lay almost dormant until Aldous Huxley experimented with it in 1953, and later wrote The Doors of Perception. This controversial book sparked a mass of interest, helping start the Psychedelic revolution.

It was first discovered in 1945 that Cacti other than Peyote contained mescaline when San Pedro was found to be used by Indians of Ecuador. In 1950, Tricocereus pachanoi was analyzed and discovered to contain 1 - 2% mescaline, dry weight.

Mescaline was used around this time in early experiments into chemically induced psychosis, hence the archaic name of hallucinogens developed, psychotomimetic. It was also studied widely for the treatment of alcoholism, neurosis and other mental disorders, until the discovery of LSD. I personally find it interesting that at least 2500 years ago, the two widely separated cultures of Northern Texas and the South American Andes, embraced mescaline at about the same times. Even though neither culture had any contact with the other, and the fact that Tricocereus and Lophophora look nothing alike, both cultures developed a shamanistic use for their respective teacher plants.