Peyote Intoxication: Some Psychological Aspects of the Peyote Rite*

Walter Bromberg & Charles L. Tranter

Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, vol. 97, pp. 518-527, 1943

Medical interest in the cactus plant, Lophophora Williamsii, commonly called peyote, is rather recent, although its use for medicinal and ritualistic-religious purposes among the Plains Indians and the Indians of the Southwest has been known to missionaries and anthropologists for many years. The fact of its spread among the Indians during the last two decades in the west and the growing influence of the particular socio-psychological effects of the drug on the culture, economy and social welfare of the Indians themselves, is the occasion for this discussion. Legal restrictions on the use of peyote in 11 Western states has not decreased its use in the slightest. In 1929, the 70th Congress in establishing United States Narcotic Farms, included marihuana and peyote as "habit-forming" drugs which would make its users eligible for admission to these government hospitals.

Since 1560 (La Barre) when a narcotic cactus called Peitol was described by Spanish monks as being used ritually in Mexico, peyote has attracted the attention of explorers, naturalists and anthropologists. Its introduction to this country occurred about 1870. La Barre has traced its spread from the Aztec and Tarahumari in old Mexico, to the Mescaleros and Kiowas and Comanches on the border and in Texas, thence to the Cheyennes in the Plains country and finally to the Utes, Navajos and Piutes and others in the mountain states of the Southwest. Its use has generally been associated with religious ritual which follows the pattern of dogma of the Native American Church, chartered in Oklahoma in 1918. This church prescribes the use of the peyote button as the sacrament in ceremonies compounded of Christian and native Indian elements.1 At the same time, its ancient value as a restorer of [518] health is highly esteemed. Peyote is used in treating diseases ranging from tuberculosis, diabetes, cancer of the liver (La Barre), to fracture of the leg: as a panacea for spiritual and physical ills Father Peyote is regarded as far transcending "white man's medicine". From the standpoint of therapeutics, peyote has a mild, non-specific, and uncertain analgesic effect. This effect apparently varies greatly with the belief and personality of the user and is worthless compared to the medications now available to the medical profession.

The plant peyote, is a small, greenish cactus called Lophophora Williamsii and Anhalonium Lewinii, the young and older plant respectively. It is not to be confused with the sacred narcotic mushroom of the Aztecs, Teonanacatl (Schultes), marihuana or Indian hemp containing the drug cannabis (Bromberg, 1939), nor with mescal, the name applied to the brandy called Pulque or Mescal Beer or mescalli distilled from the plant Agave (Schultes). Mescal Button is a commonly accepted but incorrect name for peyote. The chemistry of peyote has been worked out: at least nine alkaloids have been derived from the plant: Anhaline (C10H15ON), Anhalonimine (C11H15O3N), Mescaline (C11H17O3N), Anhalodine (C12H17O3N), Anhalonine (C12H15O3N), Lophophorine (C13H17O3N), Pellotine (C13H19O3N), Anhalinine and Anhalidine (La Barre).

The pharmacology of Peyote has been well studied. An attempt was made also to ascertain the specific effect of each alkaloid. Of theoretical significance is the fact that the color visions so conspicuous in peyote intoxication are mainly due to mescaline: lophophorine is the most toxic fraction. The use of the whole button with all its alkaloids produces in the laboratory and in the religious ritual, physical, mental and visual phenomena of a universal type. The findings of Prentiss and Morgan agree with that of all scientific investigators-Dixon, Klüver, Havelock Ellis, Beringer, Fernberger, etc., who used alkaloids and the whole drug. The former state that peyote intoxication is a disturbance, characterized by an incessant flow of visions of infinite beauty, of both color and form, often followed after a time by the seeing of monsters, grotesque faces, and gruesome shapes. During the intoxication there are dilatation of the pupil, muscular relaxation and some slowing of the pulse. Loss of sense of time, anxiety, sweating, partial anaesthesia, weakened heart's action. Great muscular relaxation, wakefulness, and in some cases nausea and vomiting also have been noted, but no distinct alteration of the respiration. After a time feelings of religious exaltation, ennoblement and other-worldliness may appear.

The physiological and psychological effects on Caucasian experimenters agrees with those reported by individual Indians of many [520] tribes. Indian users agree that the novice often experiences terrifying visions, whereas the experienced user is cognizant of no such sensations. An interesting literature has grown up around laboratory experiments with mescaline: Weir Mitchell, Havelock Ellis, Wertheimer and Bleuler and others have used mescaline hoping to approximate the disintegration states of schizophrenia experimentally. The unpleasant physiological effects and the frightening emotional reactions (feelings of disintegration) are accepted by the Indians during its ritual use as part of the "peyote way". What the religious adherents of peyote strive for is the state of ideal contentment, of euphoria and "harmony" described as following the unpleasant effects.

Two distinct types of reactions occur then in the same individual peyote user. One is featured by nausea, anxiety, a feeling of bodily change with fear of dissolution, frightful visions: the other, a feeling akin to religious peace and contentment, and euphoria. This peculiar succession of anxiety-producing and contentment-producing feelings can be said to be characteristic of peyote intoxication. Prof. E. B. Putt of the North Dakota Agricultural College reported from his experiments:

"After taking the first mescal button I experienced after about 5 minutes a feeling of well-being and a gradually increasing acuteness of visual perception ... The third button produced the first alarming symptoms. I ate half of that button and attempted to walk across the room . . . there was a truly remarkable muscular weakness in my legs . . . It then required the greatest effort of the will on my part to force myself to eat the other half of the third button. My nervous agitation became extreme . .. after smoking but a few moments I became composed . . . the tremulous movement of my hands ceased and I felt at peace with the world."2
A Winnebago Indian reports similar experiences:

"After I took the medicine about 3 hours I began to feel weak-feels like my blood would stop running and my heart moves very slow, and when it nearly stops I begin to see things. I am half-dead, I guess, and I see everything moving around me ... After this I began to feel good and happy.. I was happy all night and I waked just before daylight but I laughed all the time..."3
Description of users and experimenters alike demonstrate the close resemblance of peyote effects to the sensations derived from smoking marihuana. One of the authors (W.B., 1934) reports on the effects on several experimenters after smoking 1 to 3 marihuana cigarettes, that panic, fear of death, anxiety associated with restlessness was experienced; followed within a few minutes by calmness, euphoria and a "vivid sense of happiness". [521]

Prominent in reactions to both these drugs is the fear consequent upon the feeling of bodily distortion, the result of changes in proprioceptive perceptions, probably cerebral, induced by the drug. The change in time perception is also a factor in the emotional disturbance initiating the intoxication of both marihuana and peyote. Not only is there distortion of body perception but there is damage to what Schilder has called the "body-image", the picture we carry in our minds about our bodies in terms of sensations and perceptions. To feel fit, as we say, means that the physical processes of the body are in order. If there is infection or disease of a part of the body, or some drug or toxin is active, our perceptions of a part of the body is disturbed: we do not feel "right". The body-image is invested by the ego, with a flow of emotion, called narcissism, or self-love. A change in perception of parts of the body through drug or disease, necessarily is reflected in the narcissistic investment of the ego in our body image. Hence the changes brought about in our perception of our bodies, acts as a trauma to the ego and may produce anxiety and discomfort which at times mounts to panic with fear of dissolution. It is this anxiety that peyote users describe at the onset of the intoxication. Thus a Winnebago Indian describes his experiences:

"One time when I ate 36 beans I just felt as if I could throw my arms out and my arms left me, went off in the air, and I felt I was going all to pieces. Everybody that I saw looked so much bigger: their faces were large."
When to the anxiety provoked by changes in perceptions of the body, are added visual hallucinations of peyote, the extent of the fright reaction approximates panic. The same Indian quoted above told of another episode of intoxication:

"After I ate some peyote I felt good, then I began to see a big bunch of snakes crawling all around in front of me. I asked Oliver if he heard kittens. It sounded as if they were right close to me and then I sat still for a long time, and I saw a big black cat coming toward me, and I felt him just like a big tiger walking up on my legs towards me, and when I felt his claws I jumped back and made a sound as if I was afraid."
Visual hallucinations have been remarked by everyone in contact with peyote users. Many of them are zooscopic and distinctly reminiscent of delirium tremens. The vividness of the visual hallucinations, their tendency to movement, fragmentation and rapid change all suggest that visual perception in the peyote user undergoes disintegration.

An Indian reports of his visual perceptions:

"After I had taken 12 beans of peyote, I saw a mountain with roads leading to the top and people dressed in white going up these roads. I got very [522] dizzy and I began to see all kinds of colors and arrows began to fly all around me."
The "peyote way" described as a broad highway to the skies, could well be a combination of drug-induced physiological changes and a dramatized image. In studying the experimentally induced, sensory images of normal subjects and the hallucinations of alcoholics and patients with organic brain disease, Schilder and Bromberg observed that hallucinations were formed on the basis of disintegrated perceptions, especially in the field of visual and tactile sensations. The disintegration of after-effects of a sensation of touch for example, is similar in quality, in normals when compared with hallucinations of touch of alcoholics. In both the after-affects of sensation and the hallucinated image, elongations, curving, fragmentation, and movement tendencies were common. Evidence was at hand that the vestibular apparatus was influencing these distorted perceptions. Experimentally they obtained increase of these tendencies by vestibular stimulation in the Barany Chair. The same characteristics found in peyote hallucinations, as well as the dizziness so commonly reported, may well be due to vestibular irritation of the drug. What is to be stressed beyond the cerebral action of the drug on the perceptions, is that strong emotional reactions are provoked by the consciousness of these disintegration products. Recall for instance the panic of the alcoholic patient when he "sees" and "feels" mice running over his body.

It is to be expected then, in view of the universal anxiety reactions under peyote, that these states of apprehension may attain the intensity of a psychotic picture. Such a case was observed by one of us (C. L. T.) of a Piute Indian, 45 years of age, who fractured his left leg which was placed in a cast. Friends induced him to take peyote to speed the healing. Presently, he was using large amounts of the drug and four months after onset, he was brought to the County Jail, shrieking, crying, laughing, singing and irrational. His over-activity was suggestive of a native dance but his productions were unintelligible mutterings. Improvement followed in two weeks.

The tendency to suppress emotional expression, common among Indians especially in the remoter portions of the country, may well account for the paucity of acute or prolonged psychotic reactions observed. Authorities of the U. S. Public Health Service4 report that no cases of peyote psychosis or peyote intoxication have applied for treatment to the government narcotic hospitals. There are obvious facts in explanation of this also-the reluctance of the Indians to bring peyote to the attention of medical authorities, distance factors and so on. [523]

Unquestionably the duration and intensity of attacks of anxiety produced by peyote has a relation to the personality of the user. A Lipan Indian (quoted by La Barre) stated this point succinctly:

"If a fellow is not scared ... he will surely have a good time. A fellow who is afraid of it just gets dizzy and frightened. He sees things that frighten him."
Sometimes the experiences are strongly reminiscent of terror dreams and as such incline one to search for unconscious reasons for the reactions, beyond the question of perception of distorted body images and visual hallucinations. Contact with the inner psychology of the individual Indian, is on the whole difficult in the mountain states. The indifference manifested toward many aspects of white culture and civilization is reflected in the Indian's own disinclination toward introspection and probing into their sensations and feelings. Anthropologists (Steward, Ethnography) who have noted this, think it may be related to the lack of training in children in habits of discipline and the disregard of the cultural ideal of intellectual curiosity, so prized among the whites. Another factor making the understanding of the inner life of the Indian difficult, is his predilection for externalizing his feelings in terms of nature in graphic and dramatic form.

This latter circumstance presents problems in psychological work among the Indians, but since it occurs in story-telling it also affords a clue. Myths and folklore are rich sources of expression of the unconscious of a group. In examining Piute myths (Steward, Myths) one is impressed by the high value given supernatural experiences, especially where they are interpreted as contributing power to the individual. In the autobiography of a vigorous, old Piute (Steward, Paiute Autobiographies), he prefaces the story of his life and exploits by saying:

"When I was still a young man, I saw Birch mountain in a dream. It said to me: "You will always be well and strong. Nothing can hurt you and you will live to an old age." After this Birch mountain came and spoke to me whenever I was in trouble and told me that I would be all right. That is why nothing has happened to me and why I am so old."
In the myths of the famous Coyote cycle, power and skill in hunting, conceived of as given to certain fortunate ones by nature, are emphasized as prized attainments. Although Coyote in the epic cycles, is amusing as a trickster and tolerated indulgently, he carries for the collective Indian mind the wish for power bestowed on them by nature. In the myth, "Coyote, Wolf and the Deer", the former says:

"Now brother, you know I am a great hunter. I am better than you are, there is nobody that can beat me hunting ... I am a great hunter, I am the leader..."
In time he convinces the Wolf and Deer that he is endowed by nature as a superior hunter. [524]

These ambitions reflect the practical necessities of life but they also serve as a defense against the ever-present threat to the Indian, namely the threat of death. The persistence of these fears of death and starvation, is stimulated by the realities of life in areas prodigal in natural resources. Nevertheless it points, as in myths of all peoples, to deep anxieties against which fantasy erects defenses in the form of fabulous heroes, giants and good fairies. In practical tribal life, "powers" are conveyed to certain individuals, medicine-men or shamans (Opler). But this is a restricted gift. The essence of the Peyote religion is the conferring of power by Father Peyote on all its adherents; power to cure illness, bad habits (alcoholism and gambling), and idleness. The power of peyote is derived from nature-the giver of all things. One variant of the story of the Peyote religion, given by Sammy D.5 a Piute leader illustrates this point:

"A long time ago Indians were fighting: they killed each other and one woman was left from the tribes. She walked over the Desert-there was no food nor water: she was almost starved. Then a voice was heard from the sky. It was Jesus, and said, "Look down at this thing (pointing to Father Peyote, a large peyote disc) and you will get food and drink." She walked over a hill and on the other side she found water-it was her food from the skies, and the voice said this, peyote, was her food."
This legend implies secondarily, another source of anxiety, to the Indian-danger to the life of males and their physical salvation by women, i.e. the Peyote Woman. Thus in the epic called the Flood (Steward, Paiute Autobiographies) the story starts as follows:

"Drake and Duck lived together. Something kept killing Drake, but every time he was killed, Duck found herself a new mate. Drake was killed by Hawk. After Drake had been killed many times, Duck became very angry. She went off to the ocean, swallowed it, and brought it back in a little bag. The story continues to relate the coming of the great flood, how the Indians were preserved, etc."
Throughout the Owen's Valley Piute myths runs the theme of the original mother, who was a castrating, destructive female. In the Coyote cycle, the central character, the prankster Coyote is only able to circumvent the destructive female, pictured with vagina dentata through his own shrewdness and selfish egotism. For example the story of "Origin of the Piute" (Steward, Myths) Coyote who:

"lived alone... and spent his time hunting rabbits" changed himself into human form to have dinner with a woman whom he found in the hills and had been following all day over mountains and across lakes. He noticed that while they ate, she threw bones under the table and he could hear a crunching sound as if something was being chewed. [525] After the dinner the woman accepted Coyote as her husband and they went to bed. He was afraid to have intercourse with her, but determined to try. He knew that he would have to be careful. He made an attempt and then, as he quickly withdrew, he heard the snap of teeth. He said, "that was close!" He tried again and the same thing happened. He thought of a certain brush with hard knotty wood which is used for cooking fish. He said, "I'll use that and fool her." He changed his penis into a stick of this brush and tried again. This time she caught all her teeth in the brush and he ripped them out. Then he went over to his mother-in-law and did the same thing. After this, all was safe and he spent a pleasant evening there ... The woman became pregnant at once ... While coyote was playing the woman gave birth to many children."
This reflection of anxiety in the sexual field among men of the group, may well refer, by displacement, to a stern, harsh Mother Nature. It must be observed that an animal, Coyote, is the one to vanquish the mother of the world with her vagina dentata. Thus the myth furnishes us with a view of the dynamics by which the harsh realities of life are to be met: through an alliance with the unlimited power of the supernatural, which flows through animals, trees, mountains and celestial bodies. The significance to our study of this expression of basic anxiety in the form of castration fear, deeply imbedded and as deeply repressed, is the motive force it furnishes for the acceptance of peyote as an instrument to make life tolerable by allaying unconscious anxieties.

We are in a better position now to possibly understand some of the reasons why peyote is accepted by Indians of the Southwest as an "Indian Religion". Father Peyote, and the Peyote Way lend power to the individual which he would not otherwise possess. It represents a merging of the power of nature and the supernatural and as such is more specifically of Indian character. Peyote is a defense against the human fear of destruction and of oblivion, of an exclusivistic type: the peyote religion may serve the secondary purpose of hiding inferiority feelings and anxieties from the public view, that is, the white man's view. In this way apologists such as Petrullo can say that peyotism ''permits the Indian to reestablish some harmony between themselves and the world and God", and that peyotism is a constructive way of life that lets him express himself as an Indian. Peyote provides the additional psychological advantages on one hand, of minimizing anxieties arising in the individual and out of the culture, and on the other, of supplying a method of compensation through spiritual-naturalistic values in which the concept of physical and mental power is prominent. Peyote as with all drugs is taken because it produces a change in the feelings and emotions of the user. Thus sedatives allay anxieties, restlessness, alcohol reduces the sharpness of frustration, morphine and [526] heroin ease the pain of isolation, marihuana, by producing otherworldly sensations, neutralizes the frustrations of his life. So peyote acts not so much to support a cultural drive, but as an anodyne to ease the pain of conflict which the clash of cultures engenders. In this sense Peyotism as spiritual therapy implies a negative attitude towards emotional problems. To seek to gain permanence for a culture by the repression of conflicts through narcotics and mysticism is not a "constructive" way of life!

In view of this, we may try to understand why peyote can bestow on its devotees the ideal state of contentment so regularly reported. Several reasons appear: in the first place it may be that there is a primary effect of peyote on the cerebrum causing euphoria. It is the view of many physiologists that the drug has a direct effect on the thalamus of the brain stimulating a feeling of well-being, the psychic aspect of which is contentment and exaltation. In the second place it may be that the cessation of anxieties due to body-image distortion induced by the drug in its initial phase, relieves the user, makes him feel euphoric by contrast. This explanation although attested to by many Indians, is probably only true in certain individuals. A third and powerful force is that of suggestion: the religious atmosphere, the air of peace and fraternity, the borrowings from the Christian service and ideology, the drama of the Peyote Way conceived as a road leading into the sky, are all operative on the devotee during the ceremony. The fourth factor is the exclusivistic form of the peyote religion with its accent on the aboriginal notion of supernaturalism as the source of human power. Peyote religion, with its concrete dramatization of the transmission of power from nature and the gods to man is the means by which Indian adherents have been able to deal with their inner reactions of anxiety and so on, arising out of the need to adjust to a changing life. It is the internal changes in their psychological economy, discarding some old values and recasting others that stimulate the emergence of older basic anxieties. In this dynamic sense peyotism represents not so much the "emergence (Petrullo) of a specific Indian culture, as a technique to attain inner security in grappling with a new culture, of whose benefits they are not yet convinced.

This study implies certain practical considerations for those who are interested in the physical and spiritual welfare of the Indian. It has been seen that peyote, in its psychological aspects, is related to basic anxieties for survival and that, it furnishes a tie to nature with the promise of power to combat life's problems for the individual Indian user. It has been seen also that the physiological effects are such as to evoke anxiety which soon gives way to euphoria; here the personality of the individual [527] user and the cultural orientation are factors. A potent influence in the religious use of the drug is the promise of power which is implicit in Father Peyote. This promise contains many psychological elements of a particular ethnic derivation. It is because of these traits introjected into the peyote cult in its widest sense that peyote carries the influence it does. In view of this it is apparent that the focus of attention could well be on the central emotional constellations in the Indian which allow peyote to be invested with such omnipotent force by its adherents. This basic human function of projection of feelings to inanimate objects or institutions needs to be understood by any band of individuals interested in elevating the lot of the Indian for the opportunity for the educational work among the Indians is in direct proportion to their receptivity. The removal of rationalizations, projections and evasions of real problems, physical and psychological, must occur before sounder beliefs can be inculcated.


*Read before the Western Regional Conference, Home Missions Council of North America, Stewart, Nevada: June so, 1942.

1) Hearings of the Subcommittee of the Committee on Indian Affairs, 75th Congress at Sante Fe, New Mex., U. S. Govt. Print. Office, Wash., D. C., 1936, p. 18257.

2) Hearings, Subcommittee of the Committee on Indian Affairs, p. 18269.

3) Ibid., p. 18264.

4) Personal communication.

5) Personal observation.


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