Gordon Wasson Writes About Lophophora Williamsii (peyote)

Publication Year: 
1993

Image retrieved from www.mushroomsfmrc.com on March 22nd 2014.

The history of peyotl, known to science as Lophophora Williamsii (Lem.) Coulter, has been utterly different but equally spectacular. A cactus, it is by that fact exclusively a New World plant, native to the arid regions of northern Mexico—to Coahuila, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, and Queretaro. Presumably the plant in colonial times grew only in the north, but its use extended south as far as the state of Oaxaca. Today the Indians of central and southern Mexico seem to know it no longer. But the Indians of the north still consume it in their religious ceremonies, and it is extending its range, inching its way northward from tribe to tribe in the Plains area until it has now finally reached Canada. In the same spirit of blind misunderstanding that actuated the Church in colonial Mexico, there are elements in the North American community that would invoke the police and courts to stop a practice that gives spiritual solace to our surviving Indian population.
On a different cultural plane, peyotl made its bow in the great world in 1888, when the toxicologist Louis Lewin of Berlin published the first paper attempting to classify it botanically and describing its sensational qualities. He was followed by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell (1896) and Havelock Ellis (1897), men who commanded wide attention in the English-speaking world. These papers served to alert the scientific and learned world to a new order of vegetable product, and opened the sluice-gates to an astonishing flow of discussion and experimentation. Though a booster dose was hardly needed, Aldous Huxley gave the theme a new dimension when he published his The Doors of Perception in 1954 and Heaven and Hell in 1955.
The bibliography on peyotl is enormous: one North American anthropologist, Weston La Barre, has dedicated an important part of his professional life to keeping up with it and chronicling current developments. The question presents itself seriously whether the output of articles can be laid solely to the scientific interest of a strange drug, or whether supplementing this there is a subjective effect that compels those who have eaten the plant to embark upon a mission to make known what they have experienced.
Peyotl (which has commonly been eroded to 'peyote') is a Nahuatl word. Alonso de Molina in his Vocabulario (1571) gives its meaning as capullo de seda, o de gusano, 'silk cocoon or caterpillar's cocoon,' which fits well the small woolly cactus that is its source. This is probably the explanation. Others cite a number of similar words in Nahuatl that invoke splendor or illumination. May these words not be secondary, having been born of the splendor of the visions that peyotl gives? For reasons that seem to have sprung from popular confusion, the English-speaking population of the Southwest came to call the dried peyotl 'mescal buttons.' Lewin, Mitchell, and Ellis, by their use of the term, fixed this grievous misnomer in the English language. Later, when the active agent came to be isolated, the chemists called the alkaloid 'mescaline', thus compounding the mistake. 'Mescal' comes from the Spanish of Mexico mezcal, derived in its turn from Nahuatl mexcalli, the name for the agave, maguey or century plant from which pulque is made, which, when distilled, yields mezcal. Mezcal has nothing to do with 'mescal buttons' or 'mescaline'. This confusion is the lexicographers' nightmare, as can be seen in many English-language dictionaries where erroneous citations are given under the respective meanings of the word.
On the other hand there is an important mejicanismo that has largely escaped the lexicographers: piule, a generic name in mexico for the hallucinogens. J. J. Santamaria traces it to Zapotec, in my opinion on insufficient grounds. I have heard it applied to hallucinogenic mushrooms among the Zapotec-speakers of the Sierra Costera, at San Augstin Loxicha: piule de barba, piule de cheris these being distinct species of such mushrooms, or simply piule. Does it not stem from peyotl, thus peyotl/peyutl=>peyule=>piule? As Dr. Aguirre Beltran has shown us, in early colonial times peyotl was in use in Oaxaca. The present-day currency of the word among some monolingual Zapotecs might come down from that period.

pp. 165-167 The Psychedelic Reader Edited by Timothy leary, Ralph Metzner and Gunther M. Weil (1993)

Gordon Wasson
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