Peyote as an Evil Spirit

Collected by Paul Radin

Paul Radin

At every phase of the cult's development [John] Rave had to contend with the hostility of the conservative members of the tribe. The explanation obtained was always the same—that the hostility was due to the fact that the teachings of the Peyote people departed from those of their ancestors and that the Peyote were simply aping the habits and customs of the whites. What seems to have met with the greatest opposition from the older shamans was the denial of the doctrine of reincarnation. The Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul does not seem to have been felt as a substitute at all. One old conservative assured the author that he had long ago prophesied the appearance of the peyote among the Winnebago. He told the author the following: 

(378) "This medicine is one of the four spirits from below, and for that reason it is a bad thing. These spirits have always longed for human beings and now they are getting hold of them. Those who use this medicine claim that when they die they will only be going on a long journey. But that is not the truth, for when they eat peyote they destroy their spirits, and death to them will mean extermination. If I spit upon the floor, the sputum will soon dry up and nothing will remain of it. So death will be for them. I might go out and preach against this doctrine, but it would be of no avail, for I certainly would not be able to draw more than one or two people away from this spirit. Many will be taken in by this medicine; they will not be able to help themselves in any way. The bad spirit will certainly seize them."1

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service   Manuel Almagro Rivas
Peyote Buttons   The Molecular Structure
of Mescaline

Commentary. "this medicine" — peyote is a cactus, Lophophora williamsii, whose range is primarily restricted to northern Mexico, where it is called peyotl (in Nahuatl). The cactus has no spines and forms what are called "buttons," which are harvested for their psychoactive components. Peyote is generally eaten, and occasionally soaked in water which is, after an appropriate period, drunk. It has a bitter taste, and is usually taken as a large capsule in association with a drug like Dramamine in order to suppress nausea. Its active psychedelic constituent is mescaline, which in my youth, in and out of the Army, I have taken myself. Its effects are typical of other psychedelics like LSD and psilocybine, inducing periods of fascination augmented by illusions of ordinary colors becoming iridescent, sometimes accompanied with apparent motion or waving. Higher doses can lead to hallucinations. It is not surprising, therefore, that peyote was used by shamans in a number of Mexican cultures.

Comparative Material. The Apaches had experimented with peyote within the confines of their traditional religion, and were not using it in connection with the Native American Church. Their experience with it in that context led them to abandon its use. The few shamans who continued use it as a shamanistic medicine power were considered to be witches, that is, shamans who used their power to the detriment of society.

The peyote ceremonies were not accompanied by the acceptance of Christian beliefs and practices, and the Mescaleros never became involved in the Peyote Religion (see Slotkin, 1956).2 Instead, the use of peyote was intended to affirm the vitality of traditional religious practices at a time when the impact of reservation confinement contributed to an increased awareness of social and cultural deprivation. Yet antagonisms became so open and bloody that eventually the peyote gatherings were abandoned. The hostilities which became overt during the meetings were ascribed to the peyote. Since its use involved witchcraft practices, its ingestion was equated with the potential for witchcraft. It will be recalled that, in the native conceptualization, power has no intrinsic attribute of good or evil, and can be used for moral or immoral purposes at the will of its human owner. To our knowledge, peyote power is unique among the Mescaleros in that it is uniformly considered to be bad. Some Mescaleros believe that one other power, the owl, is intrinsically evil.3

The differences between Hočąk and Apache religious concepts of the ultimate sources of the peyote's efficacy explains the divergent concepts of how the peyote button came to be an embodiment of an evil spirit.

Links: ...

Stories: about the Native American Church: White Shirt, The Death of Henry Harris’ Daughter, A Peyote Vision, A Peyote Story, The Arapaho Girl, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts.



1 Paul Radin, The Peyote Cult (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution, 1923) 378.

2 L. Bryce Boyer, Ruth M. Boyer, and Harry W. Basehart, "Shamanism and Peyote Use Among the Apaches of the Mescalero Indian Reservation," in Peter T. Furst, Hallucinogens and Culture (Novato: Chandler & Sharp Publishers, 1978).

3 James Sydney Slotkin, The Peyote Religion (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1956).