Writers, anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, biologists, medical doctors, and many other scholars have written multiple books about Lophophora williamsii, traditional cultures using this medicine, Western medical studies of mescaline, and works of art and literature influenced by it. The list presented here is by no means comprehensive. Below are some of my favorite non-fiction books about peyote, mescaline, or people who use them. I omit some of the earliest historical sources (that are nevertheless interesting!), and focus mainly on contemporary books.
Anderson, E. F. (1996). Peyote: The divine cactus. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.
Even 30 years later, Edward F. Anderson’s book is still, by far, the most comprehensive and informative resource about peyote. It touches on a wide array of topics concerning peyote, from chemistry, biology, and medical uses, to legal aspects, culture, history, and others.
Dry whiskey, divine herb, Devil’s root, medicine of God, peyote; for some people, to use it is to hear colors and see sounds. For many Native Americans, it brings an ability to reach out of their physical lives, to communicate with the spirits, and to become complete. For chemists, pharmacologists, and psychiatrists, the plant is fascinating in its complexity and in the ways its chemicals work upon the human mind.
What is it in peyote that causes such unusual effects? Can modern medical science learn anything from Native Americans’ use of peyote in curing a wide variety of ailments? What is the Native American Church, and how do its members use peyote? Does anyone have the legal right to use drugs or controlled substances in religious ceremonies?
Within this volume are answers to these and dozens of other questions surrounding the controversial and remarkable cactus. Greatly expanded and brought up to date from the 1980 edition, these pages describe peyote ceremonies and the participants’ experiences, and also cover the many scientific and legal aspects of using the plant. Well written, informative, comprehensive, and enlightening, the book will be welcomed by counselors, anthropologists, historians, physicians, chemists, lawyers, and observers of the contemporary drug scene, as well as by interested general readers.
Labate, B. C. & Cavnar, C. (Eds.). (2016). Peyote: History, tradition, politics, and conservation. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
This book explains the role that the hallucinogenic cactus peyote plays in the religious and spiritual fulfillment of certain peoples in the United States and Mexico, and examines pressing issues concerning the regulation and conservation of peyote, as well as issues of Indigenous and religious rights.
Why is mescaline—an internationally controlled substance derived from peyote—given exemptions for religious use by Indigenous groups in Mexico, and by the pan-Indigenous Native American Church in the United States and Canada? What are the intersections of peyote use, constitutional law, and religious freedom? And, why are natural populations of peyote in decline—so much so that in Mexico, peyote is considered a species needing “special protection?” This fascinating book addresses these questions and many more. It also examines the delicate relationship between “the needs of the plant” as a species and “the needs of man” to consume the species for spiritual purposes.
Calabrese, J. D. (2013). A different medicine: Postcolonial healing in the Native American Church. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Joseph Calabrese examines the use of peyote by the Native American Church through a unique combination of anthropological and clinical psychology perspectives.
Drawing on two years of ethnographic field research among the Navajos, this book explores a controversial Native American ritual and healthcare practice: ceremonial consumption of the psychedelic peyote cactus in the context of an indigenous postcolonial healing movement called the Native American Church (NAC). The NAC arose in the nineteenth century in response to the creation of the reservation system and increasing societal ills, including alcoholism. The movement is the locus of a cultural conflict with a long history in North America and stirs very strong, and often opposed, emotions and moral interpretations. Joseph D. Calabrese describes the peyote ceremony as it is used in family contexts and federally–funded clinical programs for Native American patients. He uses an interdisciplinary methodology that he calls clinical ethnography: an approach to research that involves clinically-informed and self-reflective immersion in local worlds of suffering, healing, and normality. Calabrese combined immersive fieldwork among NAC members in their communities with a year of clinical work at a Navajo-run treatment program for adolescents with severe substance abuse and associated mental health problems. There, he had the unique opportunity to provide conventional therapeutic intervention alongside Native American therapists who were treating the very problems that the NAC addresses through ritual. Calabrese argues that, if people respond better to clinical interventions that are relevant to their society’s unique cultural adaptations and ideologies (as seems to be the case with the NAC), then preventing ethnic minorities from accessing traditional ritual forms of healing may actually constitute a human rights violation.
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Jay, M.. (2019). Mescaline: A global history of the first psychedelic. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
A definitive history of mescaline that explores its mind-altering effects across cultures, from ancient America to Western modernity.
Mescaline became a popular sensation in the mid-twentieth century—introduced through Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception—which later was the inspiration for the coining of the word “psychedelic.” Its story, however, extends deep into prehistory: The earliest Andean cultures depicted mescaline-containing cacti in their temples.
Mescaline was isolated in 1897 from the peyote cactus, first encountered by Europeans during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. During the twentieth century, it was used by psychologists investigating the secrets of consciousness; spiritual seekers, from Aleister Crowley to the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; artists exploring the creative process, and psychiatrists looking to cure schizophrenia. Meanwhile, peyote played a vital role in preserving and shaping Native American identity. Drawing on botany, pharmacology, ethnography, and the mind sciences, and examining the mescaline experiences of figures from William James to Walter Benjamin to Hunter S. Thompson, this is an enthralling narrative of mescaline’s many lives.
Huxley, A. (1954). The doors of perception. London, UK: Chatto & Windus.
A, absolute classic, this book describes Aldous Huxley’s personal experience with mescaline. Here, Huxley describes insights and reflections on a mescaline trip and their philosophical and psychological implications.
‘The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out’. Aldous Huxley first took mescaline in 1953, and continued his experiments with hallucinogenic drugs until 1963 when, on his deathbed, he asked for and was given LSD. Huxley explores the effects of the mescaline experience, describing how the drug enabled him to discover a “sacramental vision of reality.” He also discusses the spiritual and moral implications of the experience, demonstrating how negative emotions can transform man’s perceptual nirvana into a “schizophrenic hell.”
Schaefer, S. B., & Peter T. Furst, P. T.(Eds.). (1996). People of the peyote: Huichol Indian history, religion & survival. UNM Press, 1996.
This book contains 18 essays by different contributors, including Wixárika. While most of the book is about Wixárika religion and use of peyote, history, medicine, Indigenous cultural accounts and political issues are explored.
People of the Peyote explores the Huichol Indians of Mexico, who are best known for their worship of the peyote cactus. Ritually harvested each year, the peyote flower plays a central role in most Huichol observances of the annual ceremonial round. The Huichols have been the most culturally persistent indigenous group in Mexico and have maintained their pre-Christian religion with only minimal accommodation to Catholicism. Eighteen essays explore Huichol ethnography, ethnohistory, shamanism, religion, mythology, art, ethnobotany, society, and other topics. The authors, including Huichol contributors, are an international array of scholars on the Huichols and indigenous peoples of Mexico.
Myerhoff, B. G. (1976). Peyote hunt: The sacred journey of the Huichol Indians. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
This book presents a vivid and respectful anthropological participant-observer account of Huichol religion, society and history. In 1970s, B. Meyerhoff was one of the first Westerners to document Wixárika pilgrimage, and she combines personal observations and reflections with anthropological analysis and research.
This book explores the cultural significance of Huichol myths, rituals, and symbols—particularly those pertaining to the sacred unity of deer, maize, and peyote—based on interviews with a Huichol shaman and the author’s own participation in a peyote pilgrimage to the original homeland of Huichol deities and founding ancestors. Pilgrims mystically join the ancient world, a place where divisions dissolve between sexes, ages, leaders and led, men and animals, plants and animals, and men and demigods. This ritual complex is credited with maintaining Huichol natural and cultural orders.
LaBarre, W. (1975). The peyote cult. North Haven, CT: Archon Books.
The Peyote Cult by Weston La Barre (1915–1996) is an outstanding work on peyotism, originating in Weston La Barre’s studies of the use of peyote in the rituals of 15 Native American tribes from the 1930s to the 1980s. The latest, fifth edition is much expanded and updated. This is well-grounded academic work, although it can be quite dry at times.
For half a century, readers on peyotism have devoured La Barre’s fascinating original study, which began when the author, at age 24, studied the rites of 15 American Indian tribes using Lophophora williamsii, the small, spineless, carrot-shaped peyote cactus growing in the Rio Grande Valley and southward. Continuing his research from the 1930s through the 1980s, Weston La Barre reviews topics such as the Timothy Leary–Richard Alpert “experiments” with peyote and other psychotropic substances, the Carlos Castaneda phenomenon, the progress of the Native American Church toward acceptance as a religious denomination, the presumptions of the Neo-American Church, the legal ramifications of ritual drug use, and the spread of peyotism from the Southwest to other North American tribes. This new edition of La Barre’s classic study includes 334 new entries in the latest of his highly valued bibliographical essays on works relating to peyote, not just in anthropology but in a variety of fields, including archeology, economics, botany, chemistry, and pharmacology.
Stewart, O. C. (1987). Peyote religion: A history. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
A very comprehensive, well-researched, but also very readable, historical account of the Native American Church.
In this definitive work—a product of more than half a century of research and close observation—the noted anthropologist Omer C. Stewart provides a sweeping reconstruction of the rise of peyotism and the Native American Church.
Although it is commonly known that the modern peyote religion became formalized around 1880 in western Oklahoma, it had roots in precontact American Indian ritual. Today, it is practiced by thousands upon thousands of American Indians throughout the West.
Long a subject of controversy, peyotism has become a unifying influence in Indian life, providing the basis for ceremonies, friendships, social gatherings, travel, marriage, and much more. As Stewart demonstrates, it has been a source of comfort and healing and a means of expression for a troubled people.
Maroukis, T. C. (2012). The peyote road: Religious freedom and the Native American Church. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
A comprehensive and more recent account of the peyote religion in the USA, this book provides a very interesting review of the history of the NAC, the rituals around peyote, theology, art, and music, as well as the tensions and problems peyotists face. Importantly, the book favors the first-person perspective and contains many interviews with the members of the Native American Church.
Despite challenges by the federal government to restrict the use of peyote, the Native American Church, which uses the hallucinogenic cactus as a religious sacrament, has become the largest indigenous denomination among American Indians today. The Peyote Road examines the history of the NAC, including its legal struggles to defend the controversial use of peyote. Thomas C. Maroukis has conducted extensive interviews with NAC members and leaders to craft an authoritative account of the church’s history, diverse religious practices, and significant people. His book integrates a narrative history of the peyote faith with analysis of its religious beliefs and practices—as well as its art and music—with an emphasis on the views of NAC members. Deftly blending oral histories and legal research, Maroukis traces the religion’s history from its Mesoamerican roots to the legal incorporation of the NAC; its expansion to the northern plains, Great Basin, and Southwest; and challenges to peyotism by state and federal governments, including the Supreme Court decision in Oregon v. Smith. He also introduces readers to the inner workings of the NAC with descriptions of its organizational structure and the Cross Fire and Half Moon services. The Peyote Road updates Omer Stewart’s classic 1987 study of the peyote religion by taking into consideration recent events and scholarship. In particular, Maroukis discusses not only the church’s current legal issues, but also the diminishing peyote supply and controversies surrounding the definition of membership. Today, approximately 300,000 American Indians are members of the Native American Church. The Peyote Road marks a significant case study of First Amendment rights and deepens our understanding of the struggles of NAC members to practice their faith.
Benítez, F. (1977). En la tierra magica del peyote [In the Magic Land of Peyote]. Mexico, DF: Era Edicions Sa
Fernando Benitez is a Mexican author and journalist famous for his writing about the Indigenous people of Mexico. The author provides a beautiful and poetic account of the Huichol pilgrimage, and vividly describes the world where this sacred medicine is at the center.
The Magic Land of Peyote is the first English translation of En la tierra mágica del peyote, which has since been incorporated in the author’s three-volume work Los indios de México.
Swan, D. C. (1999). Peyote religious art: Symbols of faith and belief. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
“Peyote has given me visions,” says Elk Hair, a Delaware peyotist in Daniel C. Swan’s new book, Peyote Religious Art “He [Peyote] gave me visions telling me how to study our existence, how to think right. God taught Peyote to teach his children the good ways, to have good thoughts and clear minds before they leave.” Elk Hair’s narrative is one of many first-person accounts Swan gathered from practitioners and artisans in the Native American Church, whose holy sacrament is the small, spineless cactus, peyote. Combining 77 full color photographs, 32 black-and-white illustrations, and many narratives, Swan reveals the convictions, the faith, and the wealth of spiritual artistry surrounding worship in the Native American Church. Controversial and misunderstood, the ritualized use of peyote by American Indians has long been attacked by non-Indian religious and secular authorities. Despite official efforts to eliminate peyotism as far back as the Spanish Inquisition, and as recent as the War on Drugs, its status in Native American spiritual life has not diminished. Works by self-taught and informally-trained artists make up the diverse traditional and folk arts associated with the peyote religion. Peyote art displays an amazing range of genres, including carving, beadwork, featherwork, metalsmithing, and painting. Swan also explores regalia and accouterments that worshipers cherish and the evolution of symbols across time. Along with previously unpublished first-person narratives by practitioners of the religion and by artists, Peyote Religious Art features art objects from museum collections, works by contemporary artists, and materials from private family collections. Understanding these expressive forms provides invaluable insight into the challenging nature of American Indian life during the twentieth century and into the intertwining of art, religion, and community. Daniel C. Swan is senior curator at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has published numerous articles on the peyote religion among Oklahoma Indians.
Schaefer, S. B. (2015). Amada’s blessings from the Peyote Gardens of South Texas. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
This is a moving biography of one of the key figures in South Texas peyote trade, Amada Cardenas.
Amada Cardenas, a Mexican American woman from the borderlands of South Texas, played a pivotal role in the little-known history of the peyote trade. She and her husband were the first federally licensed peyote dealers. They began harvesting and selling the sacramental plant to followers of the Native American Church (NAC) in the 1930s, and after her husband’s death in the late 1960s, Mrs. Cardenas continued to befriend and help generations of NAC members until her death in 2005, just short of her 101st birthday. Author Stacy B. Schaefer, a close friend of Amada, spent 13 years doing fieldwork with this remarkable woman. Her book weaves together the geography, biology, history, cultures, and religions that created the unique life of Mrs. Cardenas and the people she knew. Schaefer includes their words to help tell the story of how Mexican Americans, Tejanos, gringos, Native Americans, and others were touched and inspired by Amada Cardenas’s embodiment of the core NAC values: faith, hope, love, and charity.
Klüver, H. (1966). Mescal and mechanisms of hallucinations. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Slightly outdated, but still worth a read. Mescal was published in 1928, and at that time, was the only monograph in English about peyote. This was the book that famously inspired Richard Evans Schultes to start his career in ethnobotany.
The cult of the Echinocactus Williamsii (peyotl; mescal) and the remarkable train of phenomena that follow its ingestion have constituted a most fascinating study for many years. Despite the singularity of the symptoms of mescal intoxication, the drug had remained little known until the treatises of Rouhier and Beringer made it familiar to the public. This volume, the work of Heinrich Klüver, was, at one time, the only monograph in English on the subject. Within its pages the author deals with broad aspects of the subject; he has written of the rituals and ceremonies with which the Native devotees have surrounded this plant, which, indeed, they have exalted to divine rank. Klüver also deals with the pharmacology aspect of the crude drug and its constituent alkaloids. The author has devoted the bulk of the monograph to the physiological and, more particularly, the psychological standpoints of mescal intoxication and chronic mescalism. This work is therefore something more than a general discussion of mescal in all its features; it is a most valuable contribution to the psychological aspect of the extraordinary hallucinosis that is so characteristically produced by the drug. Within these pages, we read one of the first careful and detailed analysis of the visual and other phenomena that comprise the peyote intoxication, and we are furthermore given an intimate study of the associated personality changes.
Boyd, C. E., & Cox, K. (2016). The White Shaman Mural: An enduring creation narrative in the rock art of the Lower Pecos. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
The prehistoric hunter-gatherers of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands of Texas and Coahuila, Mexico, created some of the most spectacularly complex, colorful, extensive, and enduring rock art of the ancient world. Perhaps the greatest of these masterpieces is the White Shaman Mural, an intricate painting that spans some 26 feet in length and 13 feet in height on the wall of a shallow cave overlooking the Pecos River. In The White Shaman Mural, Carolyn E. Boyd takes us on a journey of discovery as she builds a convincing case that the mural tells a story of the birth of the sun and the beginning of time—making it possibly the oldest pictorial creation narrative in North America.
Unlike previous scholars who have viewed Pecos rock art as random and indecipherable, Boyd demonstrates that the White Shaman Mural was intentionally composed as a visual narrative, using a graphic vocabulary of images to communicate multiple levels of meaning and function. Drawing on 25 years of archaeological research and analysis, as well as insights from ethnohistory and art history, Boyd identifies patterns in the imagery that equate, in stunning detail, to the mythologies of Uto-Aztecan–speaking peoples, including the ancient Aztec and the present-day Huichol. This paradigm-shifting identification of core Mesoamerican beliefs in the Pecos rock art reveals that a shared ideological universe was already firmly established among foragers living in the Lower Pecos region as long as 4000 years ago.
Zingg, R. M. (2004). Huichol mythology. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.
Best known for their ritual use of peyote, the Huichol people of west-central Mexico carried much of their original belief system into the twentieth century unadulterated by the influence of Christian missionaries. Among the Huichol, reciting myths and performing rituals pleases the ancestors and helps maintain a world in which abundant subsistence and good health are assured. This volume is a collection of myths recorded by Robert Zingg in 1934 in the village of Tuxpan, and is the most comprehensive record of Huichol mythology ever published. Zingg was the first professional anthropologist to study the Huichol, and his generosity toward them and political advocacy on their behalf allowed him to overcome tribal sanctions against divulging secrets to outsiders. He is fondly remembered today by some Huichols who were children when he lived among them. Zingg recognized that the alternation between dry and wet seasons pervades Huichol myth and ritual as it does their subsistence activities, and his arrangement of the texts sheds much light on Huichol tradition.
The volume contains both aboriginal myths that attest to the abiding Huichol obligation to serve ancestors who control nature and its processes, and Christian-inspired myths that document the traumatic effect that silver mining and Franciscan missions had on Huichol society. First published in 1998 in a Spanish-language edition, Huichol Mythology is presented here for the first time in English, with more than 40 original photographs by Zingg accompanying the text. For this volume, the editors provide a meticulous historical account of Huichol society from about 200 A.D. through the colonial era, enabling readers to fully grasp the significance of the myths free of the sensationalized interpretations found in popular accounts of the Huichol. Zingg’s compilation is a landmark work, indispensable to the study of mythology, Mexican Indians, and comparative religion.
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A very extensive and informative read, Sacred Cacti covers the cactus species reported to contain mescaline and their sacramental histories.
Beginning with a look at the realities behind the so-called “war on drugs,” Sacred Cacti then thoroughly covers what is known to date concerning the cactus species reported to contain mescaline, their sacramental histories, published chemistry, growth requirements, and pharmaconautical applications.
It is intended to help both researchers and the reader who is already employing these sacred beings as sacraments and spiritual teachers to better recognize, cultivate, and utilize them.
Not technically a book, Kaktusy Special Issue is a monograph on Lophophora genus. It comprehensively describes the distribution, characteristics, and classification of the genus. In an attempt to resolve some of the taxonomic confusion surrounding Lophophora, the authors propose a division of the genus into two sections and a change of rank. Based on factors like chemical composition, habitats, incompatibility of the species, rib numbers, and morphology, among other factors, a division of the genus into the two sections Lophophora and Diffusae is proposed. The description for each species includes a detailed distribution map showing the range of the species.
Long, C. N. (2000). Religious freedom and Indian rights: The case of Oregon v. Smith. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
The Supreme Court’s controversial decision in Oregon v. Smith sharply departed from previous readings of the First Amendment’s religious freedom clause and ignited a firestorm of protest. This analysis of the case shows why it continues to resonate so deeply in the American psyche.
Slotkin, J. S. (1956). The Peyote religion: A study in Indian-white relations. New York City, NY: Free Press.
This monograph deals with the ethno-history of peyotism. This study looks into the background of the Native American religious beliefs, practices, and rituals revolving around the psychoactive peyote plant.
Art by Marialba Quesada.
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