Peyote, Shamanistic Vision and Art… The Huichol Indians of Mexico

Huichol work of art representing the journey to gather Peyote. Photo by  Curtis Mekemson.

Peggy and I bought this Huichol yarn art painting several years ago. Yarn is pressed into beeswax to make the painting. This piece represents the Huichol’s annual journey to the sacred mountain of Wirikuta to gather peyote, which is central to their religion.

My fascination with indigenous art was piqued again on our recent trip to Mexico. The Huichol Indians, one of the last tribes in North America that has preserved pre-Columbian cultural traditions, are noted for their brightly colored bead and yarn art.

You can’t miss their work as you stroll down the streets and through the markets of Puerto Vallarta. What most casual visitors don’t realize, however, is that the art incorporates shamanistic visions inspired by peyote. Each piece provides an insight into the religion and mythology of the Huichol.

For example, the round buttons in the center of the painting above represent peyote. Just to the left of the peyote is the plant solandra, also with hallucinogenic qualities. The deer serve as intermediaries with the gods and the eagle serves as a messenger. Below the deer on the right is maize. To the left of the maize is what I believe is a prayer arrow with eagle feathers attached and to the left of that another arrow that has been shot into the base of a peyote plant. The wiggly lines represent communication that is taking place– between everything.

The Huichol, as they are known in Spanish, or the Wixaritari, as they call themselves, live in the Sierra Madre Occidental Range of Mexico. Each year, representatives of the tribe make a journey of several hundred miles to the sacred mountain of Wirikuta in central Mexico where they gather peyote.

Peyote is a small cactus with psychoactive alkaloids, particularly mescaline, which can create hallucinogenic reactions similar to those created by LSD. (If you’ve been around for a while, you will immediately think of Timothy Leary and the 60s.)  Effects include alterations in the thinking processes, sense of time, and self-awareness. Colors are said to appear brilliant and intense. Synesthesia, where senses interact, may also occur. An example of the latter is seeing colors when listening to music.

Peyote photo taken by Curtis Mekemson in Mexico.

The peyote plant is a small, spineless cactus that contains mescaline, a hallucinogenic drug. 

Huichol Shamans use the peyote to enter a trance where they communicate with the gods of the Huichol people. The shamans then make small yarn paintings known as Nierikas that represent the visions they experienced. The paintings are left as offerings to the gods in caves, temples and streams.

The Nierikas serve as the foundation for the Huichol art found in Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara, and other urban locations. We have bought several pieces of the art, as has our daughter, Tasha. Our favorite Huichol artist for small bead art, Ernesto, maintains a table along the Rio Cuale. This year he took time to let our grandson, Cody, press some beads into a piece he was working on.

Ernesto shows lets our grandson Cody press beads onto a gourd covered with beeswax. (Photo by Ethan's mom, Natasha.)

Ernesto shows our grandson Cody how to press beads onto a gourd covered with beeswax. (Photo by Ethan’s mom, Natasha.) 

Huichol woman works on a bead art sculpture in Mexico. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

In this photo, a Huichol woman works on another bead art sculpture.

Beaded Huichol art. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Beaded Huichol art can range in size from these small pieces created by Ernesto to much larger sculptures such as the deer shown below. Beaded art, like the yarn art, includes symbols of the Huichol Indians’ religion. The salamander, with peyote buttons marching down its back, helps bring rain.

Photograph of Huichol deer by Curtis Mekemson.

I’ll conclude today’s blog with several examples of Huichol yarn art which demonstrate the vibrant colors and spiritual figures seen by shamans while in trance.

Huichol art representing shamanistic visions. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Deer person in center represents a shaman.

Deer people representing shamans in Huichol art. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Huichol yarn art photo by Curtis Mekemson.

NEXT BLOG: I hope you are enjoying this journey into Mexico. I will be taking a break from blogging over the next couple of weeks to celebrate the season. Peggy and I would like to wish each of you Happy Holidays. –Curtis

18 comments on “Peyote, Shamanistic Vision and Art… The Huichol Indians of Mexico

  1. Once again, another unique experience from somewhere else in North American and I guess Central America now with Mexico. I always look forward to your great site. Keep it coming. Takes me place that my body can no longer handle.
    Thanks for the enjoyment.

  2. Great photos and post Curt. I’ve always admired the incredibly colorful art in Central and South America, but until this post, didn’t realize the origins of the fantastic color combinations. We saw lots of colorful tapestries on our trip to Peru, and carvings in Oaxaca. Do you think these are shamanic as well? I particularly like the bead art. It’s some of the most complex I’ve seen. Happy Holidays to you and Peggy! ~James

    • Happy holidays to you and Terri as well, James. I truly enjoy your blog. I suspect there is shamanic influence in much of the art of Central and South America but don’t know if it as focused as the Huichol. Curt

  3. This is a wonderful post. Thanks for sharing this beautiful artwork with us. The references to shamans and peyote bring to mind Carlos Castenada’s The Teachings of Don Juan, which I read many years ago.

    • As I responded to Bill, Lynne, I once read several of Casteneda’s books about his experiences with Don Juan. The fact they took place in the wilderness resonated in my mind. They also introduced me to meditation. –Curt

  4. That rain-bringing salamander can come live with me just any time.

    The art is beautiful. The yarn art reminded me of the Kuna Indians’ molas. So much creativity, and such color. As for the beading – just magnificent. It’s impossible to prefer the beading or the yarn art. They’re both wonderful. Thanks for sharing the photos with us.

    • Glad to share. As always. Peggy lived for a while in Panama and our house is filled with molas. 🙂

      Belief systems fascinate me. If the salamander can bring rain, why not! Remember the large spirit trees in Liberia and how you would often find offerings at their base?

      And I agree on the challenge of choosing one art form over the other in terms of bead and yarn work. The Huichol do a beautiful job with both. I found the fact that both are created by pressing the beads/yarn into beeswax very interesting. –Curt

  5. First of all, thank you for reminding me the spelling is “piqued”, not “peaked”. It is hard to break old habits.

    Secondly, reading about the peyote plant was surprising. I wonder how long it will be until the cartels cultivate that, too. The artwork, too, is so extensively colorful… Is that a result of the plant usage?

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