photography and words by ALEPH MOLINARI
peyote is a small psychoactive cactus, a sacred plant at the heart of the huichol and tarahumara cultures in the north of mexico. it is one of the oldest- known hallucinogens, used by humans for over 10 millennia. peyote immerses you in kaleidoscopic and animalistic visions on an atomic level, at one with the environment, stones, plants, sky, wind, sounds, and light. with psychonaut tourism on the rise in mexico, this rare, endangered plant and its fragile ecosystem must be protected.
The land of peyote is a millenary ethnobotanical garden located in the sacred region of Wirikuta, a vast desert landscape in the north of Mexico. An area of unparalleled biodiversity, it is home to an astounding variety of flora, including bisnagas, yucas, saguaros, magueys, nopals, mesquites and … peyote.
From time immemorial, peyote has been consumed by the indigenous tribes that still roam these lands. They have used the sacred plant to aid them in hunting, warfare, and trade as well as in their rituals and pilgrimages. This land is their ceremonial center; here you enter the myth and folklore of the indigenous tribes. As you walk through the desert, you can read the remnants of their supernatural idiosyncrasies in symbols scattered throughout the land.
Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is at the nucleus of the Huichol and Tarahumara cultures, permeating their art, religion, society, and rituals. Its name comes from the Nahuatl word “peyotl.” In the indigenous Huichol or Wixárika language, it is known as hikuri, which means “heart of the deer god” (in Huichol mythology, peyotes are the footprints of the sacred deer).
One of the richest referents for paleoethnobotany, peyote is a prehistoric plant, a type of vegetal dinosaur, a botanical fossil. Found in archaeological excavations among the remains of other plants, peyote buttons have been carbon-dated as far back as 8900 BCE. Representations of peyote have also been found on ancient petroglyphs in the Chihuahuan Desert. This makes peyote the oldest known hallucinogenic plant to be used by humans, for over 10 millennia.
The first documented reference to peyote made by Europeans is found in the Florentine Codex, in which the missionary, historian, and ethnologist Brother Bernardino de Sahagún documented the cultural practices of indigenous peoples in the 16th century. When peyote was prohibited by an edict of the Catholic Church in 1620, the tribes who used sacred plants hid in the mountains to continue their rituals and apothecarial practices. With the advent of the mining industry in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Huicholes had to take refuge once again, this time in the mountain ranges in the state of Jalisco. Wirikuta became the sacred ground of the conquered, and the tribes were fated to journey back to the land they had previously inhabited.
In the 1930s, French writer Antonin Artaud, seeking a haven from the ideological prison he had made for himself, went to live with the Tarahumara people. The aim of his spiritual search was to eviscerate his Judeo-Christian beliefs and find a new set of values. A wounded soul, he wanted to escape society and join a primitive culture. While in the north of Mexico, he observed the rituals of the Tarahumara through the lens of a drug-addicted anthropologist. Through his writings, peyote was introduced to the world and became a reference for post-Surrealists, Beat poets, and psychedelic rockers. Later, while in a psychiatric hospital where he received electric shock therapy, he edited his writings on his experiences with the Tarahumara.
Peyote is a spineless globular cactus with ribs on its sides, woolly hairs in its aureoles, and a pale pink flower in the center. Given its small size and unassuming color, it can be difficult to find. Gathering it does not involve looking for the actual plant but for such environmental indicators as textures, colors, the temperature, the terrain, and even the angle of the light and shadows. Finding peyote is about decoding nature; spotting the first one marks the beginning of the ritual, and an altar of offerings is built around it. These offerings can be anything of sentimental value: stones, feathers, shells, a knife, a photograph, tools, coins, etc. Once the altar is created, the marakame (shaman) blesses it, and the journey begins.
The viridescent flesh of the peyote glistens as you peel back its thick reptilian skin. Following the lateral grooves of the plant, the user tears off a segment, eating only one wedge at a time. As the fibers are slowly broken down, mescaline-infused juices drip down the throat and enter the lymphatic system. An acrid, earthy taste fills the mouth as alkaloids are released into the bloodstream. The dosage is the accelerator, a pedal with which you regulate the intensity of the trip. It is a lesson in the present.
For the initiated, there are five types of peyote — white, green, blue, yellow, and red — each inducing a distinct effect that reflects its form and color. A yellow circle, a reddish hue, a singular geometry. The red peyote, or venadito (little deer), takes you down a rabbit hole deep into the tunnels of the self, where you must fully surrender as a flood of green energy envelops you. Then there’s the peyote brujo, also known as jicurí sunamé or tswiri, a stronger variant of the plant, technically in a different genus altogether. Brujo is taken more frequently by the Rarámuri tribes, who hold it in higher regard because of its connection to darker forces. This variant of peyote is taken only by advanced shamans who wish to confront the night within. With brujo, it’s possible to get lost in the desert, to find oneself balancing on the edge of a cliff or dancing in a pit of snakes. All rationality is left behind, and images emerge from the depths of the shadows.
The journey begins with the transformation of the landscape. Surfaces light up, and the outline of the terrain sharpens. A soft glow envelops the world, and a secret fractal geometry enters the real. The world is beyond meaning and concept, not filtered through the usual gates of perception. The theoretical and categorical become pure poetry.
In the intensity of this inner voyage, there is only the flow of the absolute present. Ultraviolet colors and glistening patterns manifest with every exhalation. Inner cathedrals appear. Biomorphic formations dance in an endless interplay of light and color. Scintillating prisms and razor-like threads of light cross the mind’s eye, endless passages into the labyrinth of the subconscious.
Surrounded by nature, you become a god incarnated. You are part of everything, and (the) everything is part of you. The body, this vehicle we arrived in, disappears. There are no more boundaries between the inner and outer self. You can see with your eyes closed. You can hear every movement: a flapping wing, a slithering snake, a subtle gust of wind. The landscape becomes a symphony.
Then you lie down. Peyote provides a physical connection to the spiritual realm and an entry into the Earth. You feel its pulsating magnetism. You begin to feel the tendrils of life below, the flow of energy in the deep strata. Iridescent veins of copper and quartz traverse the subsurface. The same conductive elements that comprise the circuitry of our communication devices are also part of the planetary matrix that connects nature.
Pulled from the interior world of visions, you look up toward the light of the flames. As our ancestors gathered around the hearth, so the peyote ritual coalesces around the campfire.
In pre-Hispanic culture, fire is the force that reigns supreme; it is the generator of life on this planet. Through the fire, you enter the Huichol cosmogony, with its symbols and archetypes. In the pit of its transformative power, fire manifests supernatural shapes, divine and monstrous forms — deer, eagles, snakes, scorpions, skulls — all in an alchemical dance of combusting matter.
You feel the impulse to stand up and wander. As you walk out from under the canopy of the mesquite tree, the landscape unfolds before you, and the sky reveals itself in previously unseen detail. Suddenly you find yourself standing on top of a planet, looking out onto the vast expanse of the universe. The Milky Way glows in its nebulous state.
Falling stars blaze from their distant quarters. Countless points of light connect into moving constellations, and you feel the planet rotating under your feet.
Looking out into the cosmos from this planetary platform, you contemplate the potential of space exploration. What sacred plants might we find on planets in distant galaxies? What sacred alien botany awaits us? Life, in its myriad forms — minerals, bacteria, plants, insects, animals, each in an evolutive line — offers gateways to other dimensions. By ingesting them, we enter into a spiritual symbiosis with the cosmos that envelops us. We are made of the stuff of stars.
Peyote is part of an ancient world view that sees humans as part of an intricate relationship between natural and supernatural realms, between deities and nature, which is why this sacred plant should only be consumed with the indigenous tribes who are connected to the land and its traditions.
This unassuming cactus is a metaphysical key that allows us to commune with our deeper selves and the environment we are part of. The sophisticated natural technology of this xerophyte can open new territories of ecological awareness.
A sacred plant, it must be protected. Over the past two decades, the peyote population has been declining steadily and has been completely decimated in some regions, the victim of exotic flora traffickers, rising psychonaut tourism, and self-proclaimed shamans who provide a hallucinogenic fix for spiritual passersby.
In our perpetual desire to consume, we have lost our connection to the land. As a result, the ecophysiology of peyote is severed; the interrelationship between the normal physical function of an organism and its environment has been broken. It’s difficult to conceive that after 10 millennia of human use, peyote is at risk of being eradicated. Its precious ecosystem is under increasing threat from mining interests, industrial agriculture, and overharvesting for commercialization. What will happen when the custodians of these lands are kicked out again, this time by a new form of conquest? Will unfettered capitalism eviscerate the biodiversity that allows us to commune with divinity? It is up to us, collectively, to treat these plants as what they really are: sacred. With its extinction in sight, peyote has to be protected, perhaps even to the point of foregoing it. Is our personal enlightenment worth the eradication of a species?
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