A trip into an ancient drug culture

In this job, people offer all sorts of temptations to encourage you to report on their event. Free food. Private tours. Interviews with famous people. Still, it was a bit of a surprise to have Pam Kosty, the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s normally upstanding public information officer, call me with an offer of peyote.

I took her up on the offer, and it was truly a mind-altering experience.

My altered state wasn’t the product of peyote-induced visions, though. Rather, it was due to the hypothermic temperature in the Mainwaring Wing storage room where the Museum keeps the peyote.

The cold storage helps preserve the many fragile items in the Museum’s collection of objects from the Americas, including the Huichol Indian materials that provide the cultural background for the exhibit “Mythic Visions: Yarn Paintings of a Huichol Shaman,” on display at the Museum through March 31. Among these items are several peyote blossoms harvested in 1935 by Robert Zingg, one of the first anthropologists to investigate the Huichols and the source of most of the items in Penn’s collection.

A culturally potent drug

Why is the Museum hanging onto 68-year-old plants? After all, they’ve long since lost their chemical potency. But their cultural potency remains strong, according to Pamela Jardine, the associate curator who selected the items on display in the exhibit.

“For the Huichols, peyote is the core of their experience,” she said. The northwest Mexican tribe’s creation myth harkens back to the sacrifice of a deer in the Wirikuta desert, some 300 miles from the tribe’s current home. According to the legend, the peyote sprang from the deer’s body and antlers.

To this day, deer, peyote and maize—the tribe’s staple foodstuff—make up a holy trinity. “When the Huichols say they’re going on a deer hunt, they’re gathering peyote,” Jardine explained, “and they refer to the consumption of peyote as ‘eating deer meat.’” (The Huichols also hunt actual deer for religious sacrifice, but as the deer population is dwindling in northwest Mexico, bulls now serve as stand-ins.)

The hallucinogenic plant is central to Huichol religion and medicine, and is incorporated into tribal clothing as a design motif. The pilgrimage to the desert area where the sacred peyote grows is a central religious rite all Huichol shamans must perform, although what was once a 21-day trek is now a much shorter bus ride.

Huichol shamans ingest the plant to travel to the other world, where they may communicate with the gods to determine what is causing an illness or why a natural disaster occurred. The visions they see on their journeys often become colorful yarn paintings like those at the Museum, which were created by shaman José Benítez Sánchez.

From religion to art

The Huichols have used yarn as a means of divine communication for centuries, but it was only in the 1960s that they began to produce yarn paintings as objects for the international art market. The Technicolor visions of the paintings, which are made by gluing yarn to a wooden frame, stand in sharp contrast to the simpler, largely earth-toned designs found on the older objects.

As is the case with much indigenous art, the bulk of the profits from its sale went to the middlemen. Sánchez himself has done very well, however, earning enough money to build a new village for his people near the Huichols’ ancestral territory.

Perhaps what is most surprising about Huichol culture is that it has survived intact into the present day, despite the incursion of Catholicism and other Western influences. The way in which shamans like Sánchez and other Huichol yarn painters have turned religious practice into a source of income suggests that the culture will likely endure whatever else we throw at it.

“Mythic Visions” continues through March 31 at the Museum, 3260 South St. For more information, visit www.museum.upenn.edu or call 215-898-4000.

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Originally published on November 13, 2003