The Peyote Cult

Book review

reviewed by Morris Edward Opler

This comparative study of the peyote cult is the result of a studious combing of published materials, a survey of all manuscripts which could be located, and fieldwork by the author among fifteen American Indian tribes. It is a closely written monograph studded with footnotes, references, and comment upon points in dispute, and therefore does not make easy reading for the individual who has but a passing interest in the subject. It will be required reading, however, for the student or specialist who wishes to have the most comprehensive and recent summary of that amazing ethnological, historical, psychological, and physiological web which we recognize as the peyote complex.

An impressive feature of the work is its many-sided character. Because the term “peyote” has been so loosely used, and because other plants have been confused with peyote often, the author goes to some trouble to explain the botanical and physiological aspects of the plant and to expose the sources of misunderstanding and erroneous identification. The terms “mescal,” “mescal button,” and “mescal bean” are rejected, the confusion of peyote with the red bean of the mountain laurel is scored, the varied claims of anti-alcoholic, aphrodisiac and anaphrodisiac properties for peyote are properly deflated, and the identity of peyote as the cactus, Lophophora williamsii is satisfactorily established.

Photo of book cover: The Peyote Cult

The Peyote Cult

Weston La Barre

University of Oklahoma Press
334 pages
8 x 5.3 x 0.8 inches

With peyote pro­perly identi­fied and de­scri­bed, Dr La Bar­re proce­eds with his ethno­logi­cal treat­ment. The use of pey­ote aside from the group rite with which we are prone to assoc­iate it is con­sidered: ap­paren­tly it may serve for pur­poses of divi­nation, war, rac­ing, witch­craft, wound heal­ing, and blind­ness as well.

For a com­pari­son of the rites which have grown up about the use of this cactus, the pey­ote cere­monies of Mex­ico, of the Mes­cal­ero Ap­ache (whose rite the author calls the tran­sitional form), and of the Kiowa-Coman­che (taken as typi­cal for the ear­ly Plains) are sing­led out for spec­ial atten­tion. By this reduc­tion to types, areal con­trasts are indi­cated clearly. The es­sen­tial dif­feren­ces bet­ween the Mexican rite, in which hunting, gath­ering, and agri­cul­tural sym­bol­isms play so large a part, and the tran­sitio­nal cere­mony of the Mes­calero, where sha­man­istic riv­alry and doc­tor­ing dom­inate the scene, are par­ticul­arly notice­able.

In the chapter devoted to historical interpretations, attention is called to a pre-peyote mescal bean (Sophora secundiflora) cult in which the red seeds were used in racing and ball games, to cure sickness and to induce exhilaration. While the author is not too explicit about the matter, it is obvious that he believes that this cult did more than a little to set the stage for the ready acceptance of peyote. Dr La Barre sees northeastern Mexico as the center of diffusion of the cult in the modern sense. He believes that it spread to the Lipan Apache and Tonkawa via the Tamaulipecan-Carrizo and that the Lipan introduced the rite to the Mescalero Apache before 1870. The Lipan-Mescalero development, he feels, provided the essential outline of the rite that spread so rapidly through the Plains. Both the Kiowa and Comanche are said to have learned the details of the rite from the Mescalero. From this point on, the picture becomes much more complicated. Primary and secondary influences must be taken into account; different ritualistic schools arise. Dr La Barre sums up his data in a chronological outline of the diffusion of peyote, and, although a number of his estimates and reconstructions have to be punctuated by question marks, the main direction of the movement is greatly illuminated.

The very completeness for which the author has sought makes it difficult to do justice to this monograph in a brief review. In it is offered, for instance, a trait-by-trait analysis of peyote throughout the Plains. The psychological aspects of peyote, the function of peyote as protector, as a super-ego, as the mechanism through which anxieties are dispelled, and as a factor in social control are considered in still another section. By means of a series of appendices a number of technical and special questions relating to peyote are examined,—the chemistry of peyote, for example. An exhaustive bibliography and a number of interesting plates and illustrations round out this timely and scholarly contribution to the literature.

  • American Ethnography Quasimonthly is published by the Intercontinental Institute for Awesome Anthropology and Ethnographic Excellence
  • © 2010, 2011, 2012