Peyote (mescal button) is best known for its hallucinogenic properties. This small, spineless cactus has a large quantity of mescaline which can cause euphoria, hallucinations, depersonalization, and psychoses. It is not physically addictive and does not produce life-threatening symptoms unless there are preexisting conditions that its ingesting aggravates. It does contain hordenine which increases blood pressure. The hallucinogenic tea made from peyote is bitter and causes nausea.
It has traditionally only been ingested as part of religious ceremonies and therefore hasn’t developed into a recreational drug in Mexico. Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is known as hikuri in Huichol, the language indigenous people in the state of Nayarit. Other names for the Lophophora williamsii include kamaba by the Tepehuán in Durango. The Tarahumara in Chihuahua use the term honanamé. The Cora call this plant houatari. The Nahuatl word peyotl which is the word peyote is derived from roughly translates as “silk cocoon” or “caterpillar’s silk” referring to the white wooly strands found on the top of the plant.
Among the Huicholes, Cora, and Tarahumara, the plant is sacred. Yearly pilgrimages are taken by the Huicholes by devotees to the desert area in San Luis Potosi where the peyote grows.
Peyote has been used medicinally for thousands of years in Mexico, possibly as far back as 5,700 years ago. Peyote remnants have been found in a burial cave that dates back to 810 to 1070 CE in Coahuila, Mexico.
Peyote was used prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Bernardino de Sahagún described the hallucinogenic effects of peyote in his work Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España in 1558. He wrote “There is a plant that recalls the truffle; it is called peyotl, it is white in color and is produced in the northernmost regions of the country. Those who eat it see surprising and laughing things. This drunkenness lasts two or three days, and then it goes away. This plant is commonly consumed by the Chichimeca; It supports them and gives them courage for combat, sheltering them from fear, thirst, and hunger. The use of this drug was in the hands of the fortune-tellers and witches, and especially of the wearers of charms.“
As its use was tied so closely to religion, the Catholic priests sent to convert the native Mexicans were determined to stop its use completely lest the souls of the new Christians be contaminated. The Spanish Inquisition prohibited peyote use in Mexico in 1620. A confessional from 1760 contains the questions “Have you killed anyone? How many have you killed? Have you eaten the flesh of man? Have you eaten peyote?” implying that murder, cannibalism, and peyote use were on the same grievous sin level.
Traditionally, peyote is also used in rural areas of Mexico to treat fever and as a general cleansing of both body and soul. Thin slices of the cactus are soaked in water, but not boiled, which is then drunk by the person with a fever. Sunstroke is also treated with sliced pieces soaked in water. However, in this case, the water and slices are placed in a glass and then poured over the person’s head.
There’s more to this little cactus then hallucinations. Peyocactin is an antibiotic derived from the peyote cactus effective against 18 different penicillin-resistant bacteria. Extracts from the Lophophora williamsii have also been shown to stimulate the immune system. Hopefully, further research will be done on this medicinal plant in the future.
Note: Although peyote is not illegal in Canada nor in Mexico, it is limited in use in the United States to religious ceremonies. In the U.S. it is considered a controlled substance. Lophophora williamsii is an endangered species and should not be harvested in the wild.
Interested in natural remedies? Uncover herbal remedies from traditional Mexican sources for healing and wellness in the Exploring Traditional Herbal Remedies in Mexico series.