Pilgrimage and Peyote in Mexico and Central America

Peyote (Lophophora williamsii). Photo from Wikimedia Commons


Pilgrimage and Peyote in Mexico and Central America

by Rebecca Lazarou

From women's reproductive health, to politics, relentless law, and dealing with death these essays summarise many aspects of indigenous use of entheogens from Mexico and Central America. This section's three essays discusses the close relationship local groups have with select plants and the consequences of misunderstanding.

I: Fertile grounds? - Peyote and the human reproductive system

This essay covers the use of hallucinogenics for increasing fertility, pregnancy, and even birth. With these practises being largely unheard of in Western culture this essay was particularly mind-blowing to read.

The hallucinogen in focus here is peyote. It is a cactus revered as a spiritual tool by the Huichol, due to its hallucinogenic properties. Historically deemed the "devils root" by the Spanish missionaries, this plant has a vast array of medicinal uses due to its complex phytochemistry, and is still used today by groups across the Americas.

Dr Stacy B Schaefar is a cultural anthropologist who had the honour of participating in peyote pilgrimages with the Huichols of the San José temple. She spent decades with Huichol family members, forming kinship ties as a godmother to various children in the family and accompanying them during their domestic and religious traditions.

On her first pilgrimage she noticed that various women joining her were between two to eight months pregnant. Studying to become shamans, all of them were consuming large quantities of peyote and experiencing no problems during childbirth delivering healthy babies. One of the women explained that shamans protected the babies in rituals palpating the woman's stomach, healing with power wands, dreams, prayers and offerings to the Gods.

The active compound of peyote is a molecule called mescaline, which can block the transmission of impulses in the central nervous system affecting how the brain processes signals. Mescaline affects the limbic system which is the region in the brain controlling emotions such as: love, hate, joy, sadness, and clarity of thought. It mimics the functions of other compounds known to affect emotions such as serotonin, adrenaline, noradrenaline, and dopamine.

So how does peyote affect the fetus? Experiments done on animals showed that mescaline could cross the placental barrier, but the fetus does not receive as high of a dose as the mother. If this affects their cognitive development or perceptions of the world cannot be confirmed. However, the Huichols say that babies who received peyote in the womb are more predisposed to becoming shamans, and there seems to be no adverse effects reported.

Parallels with ayahuasca and pregnancy

Similar to peyote, the entheogenic brew of ayahuasca is consumed by some during pregnancy. It is also consumed by the mother during giving birth as well as those involved in the process, and even the newborn gets a drop in the mouth.

Ayahuasca stimulates serotonin receptors (in particular 5HT2), induces vasoconstriction in the uterus which decreases blood loss, and induces contractions. Meanwhile, this sacred brew opens a portal for mothers to be in direct communication with the spiritual beings in which they believe.

A mother describes her experience of this:

"I started to ingest the liquid at 7 in the morning, and from there took another dose every half hour... I felt the contractions accelerate quickly; I had never felt that before, and by two in the afternoon, already suffering a lot, the mirações (visions) gave me relief [from pain]...

At that moment I had a vision of Our Lady giving me the cup and saying:

'Take it, my daughter, it is your last dose.'

Believing what I saw and heard, I grabbed the cup and drank. Right afterwards I entered into labor, and the baby began to 'crown.' The time had arrived, and Marco, who was singing the hymn 'Sol, Lua, Estrela,' wanted to help me, but it depended all on me...the Daime achieved true miracles in women's childbirth. I saw that all the spirits who were helping me turned and looked at the spirit that would incarnate in the baby, a burst of light lit up everything and the baby cried, I felt an indescribable happiness, was in harmony with all the world, floating on clouds of light." pg 228

The influence of peyote on reproductive hormones

Many people do a peyote pilgrimage in the hope of increasing their fertility. In her research Schaefar personally experienced unexpected menstrual bleeding numerous times along with many other local women, who were understandably puzzled. She spoke to midwives and scientists specialising in women's reproductive health who explained that the reproductive hormones are indeed affected by compounds found in peyote.

To quote Schaefar, "The integration of Western science and indigenous empirical knowledge is crucial to advancing our understanding of the world. They have developed and fine-tuned a complex, elaborate worldview which allows people to heal and thrive. In all of these actions they expand their understanding of consciousness and human existence." pg 231

Further research which respectfully listens and incorporates this indigenous knowledge would better our own outside understanding of the complex nature of "being human".

False Peyote (Lophophora diffusa). Photo from Wikimedia Commons

II: Mescal, peyote, and the red bean: A peculiar conceptual collision in early modern ethnobotany

When one thinks of mescal they might think of a liquor and dancing the night away in Mexico. However, historically the word "mescal" has also been used, confusingly, in reference to three different plants all culturally significant to some indigenous groups in the southern regions of North America. In tracing and redefining the history of "mescal" and the plants entangled with it, this paper aims to highlight and eradicate the present plant blindness for a more enlightened future. This is a challenging feat with the raunchy symbolism, confusion, and stigmas left after the social movements of 1960's America. Keeper Trout's paper was based on extensive archival research of newspapers, scientific publications and government documents and explores some of the ways these plants affected society.

Mescal is often confused with the Latin American liquor from the agave plant -- mezcal. Indeed, Trout notes that agave, the Nahuatl word for which is "metl", is the original mescal (Trout 2018: 234-5). Puritanical propaganda, as well as government overreach, however, have meant that peyote, frijolillo and agave have overtime all been referred to under the same name, "mescal". Put simply the name mescal came to be applied to various intoxicants, peyote, the red bean, as well as the liquor. To add to the confusion in plant classification there are common names, synonyms, homonyms, and Latin binomials: peyote, Lophophora williamsii, maguey, agave, and the red bean, Dermatophyllum secundiflora. Later on, the name "mescal" came to be applied to the latter two plants as they had reputations for being intoxicants, while the mezcal spelling became associated more specifically with the agave liquor.

Peyote was always revered as a sacred spiritual tool in Native American religion. A complex human-plant relationship that early missionaries and the U.S. government could not stand, lead to efforts to eradicate it. There was religious, political and scientific bullying to get this sacred religious tool excommunicated from native culture. Missionaries went as far as to campaign for legislation against use of the plant, as prohibitionists saw political power in peyote being perceived as dangerous. The mindset early on by those in power over native groups was that if you cut people off from what they perceive to be their sacred nature, you can cut people off from their culture and thus they are easier to indoctrinate with Western values.

In time, Native Americans rightfully campaigned for their own churches, which was met with backlash. Herbert Walsh in 1920 said, "there would be nothing to prevent setting up in any of our cities a pagan temple, with prostitutes offering themselves under the name of religion as ministers to lust." pg 240 At a time when colonialism was raging, empathy and understanding was negligible and replaced instead with righteous law, violence, and ignorance.

Leading anthropologists and ethnobotanists began campaigning for the legitimacy of the plants use. However, in the 1920's annual report the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Cato Sells, stated that "scientific investigation of the nature of this narcotic drug shows conclusively its dangerous effects... medical scientists say that peyote has no medicinal value and if habitually used results in derangement physically and mentally." pg 240

Despite the government and public being very divided on the topic, after decades of campaigning the prohibitionist movement gained victory in America banning the sale of all drugs and alcohol including peyote.

III: Reflections on the peyote road with the native american church - Visions & cosmology

However, it seems that after millenia of ceremonial use the indigenous people were not about to surrender so simply. Though native spiritual practises were severely diminished due to persistence and organization amongst the native people they did not vanish entirely. The courageous efforts of remaining groups fighting for their spiritual rights eventually led to the formation of the Native American Church (NAC) in 1918. With support of dedicated anthropologists, ethnobotanists, ethnologists, pharmacologists and psychiatrists the right to use peyote for ceremonial use was permitted in 1969.

Ceremonial Use of Peyote

The use of peyote is the oldest religious practise on the North American continent dating back between 3660 and 3780 BCE. It is also speculated that practices extend back to 10,000 years. Peyote is even seen as an object of worship and prayers are devoted to it--nonreligious use is seen as blasphemous. Native American belief systems embrace a unique cosmology and communication with the spirit of all life on earth. This essay highlighted that once a person embraces this way of living and communicating, "...it provides inspiration, direction and omens that become important guide posts in our lives." pg 260

So... what is a peyote experience like?

The author Jerry Patchen, who also played a key role with the NAC in peyote legalisation provides a fascinating account of his many experiences with peyote whilst representing the Native Americans as an attorney for four decades. He states, peyote produces a "profound connection with and appreciation for those around you, Nature, all life and the environment. Peyote produces an astonishing mental clarity and elevated conscious awareness... Ecstatic experiences reliably occur in Peyote meetings, fostered by the drumming, the gourd, the singing, the colours, the fire, aromatic cedar and the whole sacred process."

Visions are often projected with peyote use for example Jerry Patchen saw an image of Christ. If he was Jewish it may have been Abraham, if he was a physicist it may have been energy, an Amazonian may have seen a Jaguar. Interestingly a divine image was projected to ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna as photosynthesis. It seems the subconscious projects images around certain emotions and associations that are meaningful to an individual, confirming experiences as "spiritual experiences".

"Spirit communicates with image, but spirit is not the image" - The Cedar Chief Anthony pg 277

Jerry Patchen had a remarkable and profoundly spiritual experience at his best friend Rutherfords funeral.

"Suddenly, Rutherford appeared bigger than life. 'Son, don't be upset. Don't be sad. This is just another lesson that I am teaching you about life, this process of life.' As he completed this communication, array of tremendously powerful energy about 8 inches in diameter streamed down from his chest into my chest. It was the most joyful and exhilarating moment of my life. I completely understood the process of life. This life wisdom was radiated into every dimension of my being. I experienced a sure knowing that we are all an interconnected, inseparable, and eternal unity of all that is, was, or ever will be. We are all part of an inseparable whole. I was elated. I was at the funeral of my dearest and closest friend, and I was experiencing ecstatic joy and appreciation for life. It was an unimaginable divine paradox" pg 276 The stories collected and peoples' experiences recounted are just a small insight into how culturally meaningful this plant is. This research hopes to highlight that this plant holds much importance despite its stigmas, and something so highly benevolent within communities is surely worth keeping and examining with curiosity.


Trout, K. (2018) Mescal, Peyote and the Red Bean: A peculiar conceptual collision in early modern Ethnobotany. In Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs, Volume II. Santa Fe, NM: Synergetic Press. Pp.234-256.