Peyote Religion: Spiritual Soul Food

by Leo Mercado


Historical use

Peyote has a long history of use as a medicinal and sacramental herb. Prehistoric trade in and knowledge of the sacred cactus was apparently well established prior to the European conquest of Mexico. At that time, Spanish Inquisitors declared its use to be a punishable crime against God.

As in the case of Teonanacatl, the sacred mushrooms of MesoAmerica, the fact that the peyote religion continues to exist despite centuries of persecution is a testament to its importance in the spiritual lives of many.

Sacred Cactus

Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is a small (less than 12 cm in diameter), round cactus with fuzzy tufts instead of spines. It rarely rises more than an inch or so above the soil surface. The largest part of the cactus is actually underground in the long, carrot-like root. The above ground portion is the "button" which is cut and consumed either fresh or dried. Myths concerning the presence of strychnine in the flesh or fuzz are often circulated in the common lore, but this substance is completely absent from peyote.

Peyote Religion

Most formal peyote ceremonies mix drumming, singing, prayer, and stories as a means of offering thanks and as a way of sharing this blessing with the Creator and their fellow communicants. Deeply meaningful and highly personalized inspirational revelation is often a very important part of the individual's experience. Participants in such peyote "meetings" often grow in empathy and in friendship with the people who have shared the peyote night with them. Lifelong associations are made in this way.

The use of peyote in ceremonies among Mexican tribes was a well established tradition by the time of the European entrance into the new world. This pre-historical religious use eventually diffused into the North American regions. Along with this evangelistic migration came changes in the basic ceremonies associated with peyote.

Mexican peyotism is perhaps best typified by the traditional practices of the Huichol tribe of the Sierra Occidental, along the Pacific coast of Mexico. Annual pilgrimages to ritually hunt the sacred cactus are still a central part of tribal myth and ceremony. A group leader, or Mara a'kame, leads the humble seekers in their mythical quest " find our life", as it has been said. Only peyote gathered in this ceremonial manner is suitable for the spiritual requirements of the tribe. The Cora and Tarahumara are related groups of people who use peyote in religious ceremony. Cora people are known to trade for, or purchase peyote from, their Huichol neighbors, as their own traditions do not require the desert pilgrimage to collect the sacrament.

In the mid 1800's, simultaneous with native genocide, the peyote religion spread north, arriving at a time when indigenous people were badly in need of spiritual uplifting and cultural strength. In the last 100 years, the spread of peyotism has been prolific.

The peyote ceremony which was introduced to the American Plains Indians is a formalized, all-night prayer meeting, usually held in a teepee, hogan, or peyote house especially set aside for that purpose. Christian elements are often significantly present, depending on the particular tribe or group leader. Most of North American peyotism can be properly identified with the Native American Church (NAC), a large group of mostly native believers. There are numerous divisions of the NAC (NAC of North America, NAC of Navajoland, NAC of S. Arizona, etc.), with each division being composed of several local chapters, or moons. Each chapter normally has officers who are trained in distinct clerical functions of the church. The leader of a peyote meeting is known as the Road Chief, or Road Man. This is the person who is charged with the responsibility of overseeing the main elements of the meeting and leading others on the Peyote Road, the way of learning to live life well. Other offices include Cedar Man, Fire Man, Drum Man, and often, Earth Mother. Though ceremonies among different chapters tend to vary slightly, common elements are present in most NAC ceremonies. An eagle bone whistle, various feather fans, water drum, and prayer staff, are a few of the ceremonial items necessary to conduct the prayer meeting. Central tenets of the NAC usually involve avoidance of alcohol, devotion to family, and right living in general.

Probably the most simple and historically primitive form of peyotism is the vision quest, alone in nature. Usually this involves fasting, solitude, and quiet but steady contemplation. Peyote is eaten or consumed as a tea and a vigil is kept until such time as the communicant comes to a sense of physical and spiritual completion. This way of experiencing the personal qualities of the experience sounds very much like traditional stories of the first person who was given peyote by Creator Spirit. Several tribes relate the story of a man or woman lost in the desert. Their wandering leaves them exhausted, starving, and dehydrated. Just at the point of giving up all hope of life comes a voice which instructs them to reach out and take hold of the soft and cool plant which grows just within reach of their outstretched hands. They are then told to eat it to quench their thirst for water, food, and guidance back to their home.

Recommended Reading

One of the best sources of books on this subject is Mind Books - 321 S. Main St., #543, Sebastopol, CA, 95472, USA email: Web:

"The Peyote Book: A Study of Native Medicine", Mount, G. (Ed.), Sweetlight books, 1993

"Straight With the Medicine", d'Azevedo, W., Heyday Books, 1978

"Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians", Myerhoff, B., Cornell niv. Press, 1974

"People of the Peyote" Schaefer, S. and Furst, P., (Ed.), The Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1996

"Peyote Religion: A History", Stewart, O.C., Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1987

"Peyote the Divine Cactus", Anderson, E.F., Univ. of Arizona Press, 1996

"The Peyote Cult", La Barre, W., Yale Univ. Publications in Anthropology, 1989

"Peyote, The Medicine Journal", newsletter of The Peyote Foundation, PO Box 778, Kearny, AZ 85237, USA

"The Sacred Record", The Peyote Way Church of God, newsletter of the Church, Box 7x, Rt 1, Willcox, Az. 85643 USA

"Flowers of Wiricuta: A Gringo's Journey to Shamanic Power", Pinkson, T.S., Wakan Press, 1995


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