Peyote and Diabolism in New Spain

Huichol Figure of Elder Brother

Unknown artist, Mexico. c. Late 1800s.

Clay and pigment.

Central American Ethnographic Collection, American Museum of Natural History.

Figure. Place: American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York. Donor: Lumholtz, Carl, Dr..

PROVENANCE: Figure collected by Dr. Carl Lumholtz during a trip to northern Mexico in the 1890s, sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. Acquired by the American Museum of Natural History in 1894 from donor Dr. Carl Lumholtz.

Psychedelic plants are not often associated with religion. Indigenous peoples of the Americas, however, have utilized the hallucinogenic cactus peyote in religious ceremonies for centuries. This figure depicts Elder Brother, known as the god of peyote to the Huichol Indians of Mexico. Though this figure was created in the late 1800s, the use of peyote in indigenous religious practices is believed to have begun as early as 4220 BCE. In the seventeenth-century, peyote practices were interrupted with the arrival of the Spanish in what would be known as New Spain. While peyote practices of most native peoples came under attack by Spanish colonists, the Huichol people escaped Spanish rule by fleeing to nearby mountains. This figure is an important symbol of the indigenous religious beliefs which the colonists feared and attempted to suppress. 

Spanish colonists attributed the psychological effects of peyote to the work of the Devil. Peyote contains mescaline, a compound resembling LSD that places users in a state of altered reality and induces visual hallucinations. While the indigenous peoples believed that these effects were instances of contact with religious figures, the Spanish believed that these visions were about the Devil or came directly from him. Colonists also viewed peyote as a vehicle for idolatry. They concluded that the plant was either treated as a god or as an instrument through which the native peoples worshiped the Devil. Furthermore, the Spanish feared that the indigenous peoples could harness the Devil’s power, which they encountered in their use of peyote, to perform witchcraft in retaliation against colonial rule.

The colonial fear of peyote was heightened with the realization that the cactus could also affect the Spanish people. Not only had Spanish colonists begun to use peyote, but a fusion of Christianity with peyote rituals had also resulted in new syncretic practices. Although Spanish colonists and indigenous peoples alike claimed that they used peyote to see Christian figures, the combination of Christianity with presumed diabolical influence was seen as heresy by leaders of the Inquisition.

The Inquisition’s distaste for the native peoples’ religious use of peyote culminated in the 1620 peyote ban. However, this would not be the last time that a decree regarding peyote use was issued. Throughout the early twentieth century, Christian missionaries still fought to eradicate any remaining peyote use in the United States. In response, Native Americans formed the Native American Church to protect their right to use peyote in religious ceremonies. Peyote was once again banned when declared a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. It wasn’t until 1993 when Native Americans were granted the right to use peyote for religious purposes. Part of what is so notable about the history of peyote is how its perception by Spanish colonists still impacts its sociopolitical status in modern American society.

Works Cited:

Alarcón, Ruiz de, Hernando J. Richard Andrews, and Ross Hassig. Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions that Today Live Among the Indians Native to this New Spain, 1629. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984, 43.

Cervantes, Fernando. The Devil in the New World: The Impact of Diabolism in New Spain. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Curatorial Notes on Figure. Mexican & Central American Ethnographic Collection. American Museum of Natural History. New York, New York. Accessed on December 8, 2018.

Dawson, Alexander. “Peyote in the Colonial Imagination.” In Peyote: History, Tradition, Politics, and Conservation, edited by Beatriz Caiuby Labate and Clancy Cavnar, 43-62. Santa Barbara: Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 2016.

Halpern, John H., Andrea R. Sherwood, James I. Hudson, Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, and Harrison G. Pope. “Psychological and Cognitive Effects of Long-Term Peyote Use Among Native Americans.” Biological Psychiatry, Vol. 58 (2005): 624-631.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia. “Peyote: The Divine Messenger.” Season 2, Episode 2. Produced by Hamilton Morris and Bernardo Loyola. Viceland. December 2017.

Lewis, Laura A. Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft, and Caste in Colonial Mexico. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

MacLean, Hope. “The “Deified” Heart: Huichol Indian Soul-Concepts and Shamanic Art.” Anthropologica 42, no. 1 (2000): 75-90. doi:10.2307/25605959.

“Outlawing of Peyote by the Spanish Inquisition.” In “Peyote and the Mexican Inquisition, 1620.” By Leonard, Irving A. American Anthropologist, New Series, 44, no. 2 (1942): 324-26.

Smythies, J. R. “The Mescaline Phenomena.” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 3, no. 12 (1953): 339-47.