Huichol Religion

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HUICHOL RELIGION . The twenty to twenty-five thousand Huichol-speakers of the Sierra Madre Occidental are the only sizable indigenous population in Mexico whose aboriginal religion survives with only minor Spanish additions, and almost none of the syncretistic adaptations to Christianity typical of the rest of Mesoamerican Indian cultures. The first missions in Huichol country were established in 1722. More than two and a half centuries later Spanish Roman Catholicism is evident only in the addition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Jesucristo, and some saints to the extensive native pantheon of male and female nature deities. The Huichol have also added nominal baptism practices; feast day celebrations of the respective patron saints of the five independent, self-governing comunidades that make up the mountainous Huichol homeland; and observance of portions of the Christian ritual calendar to their ritual life. The celebration of these holy days is accompanied by recitations and dramatic enactments of a Christian myth cycle so drastically altered to conform to the native worldview that it resembles the New Testament only in broad outlines.


In contrast, in the native ceremonial round and in prayers, the Huichol deities have retained their ancient names, personalities, and associations, rather than having become identified with Christian supernatural beings. Some Huichols believe that the Virgin of Guadalupe is really Our Mother Young Eagle Girl, a female sky deity who usually takes the form of a bicephalic eagle; on the other hand, few Huichols have followed the neighboring Cora, and other Indian peoples, in identifying Jesucristo with the indigenous solar deity. The supernaturals are addressed in kinship terms, prefaced by the pronoun ta ("our"): for example, the fire god Tatewarí ("our grandfather"); the sun god Tayaupá ("our father"); the whitehaired old earth and creator goddess Tatutsi Nakawé ("our great grandmother Nakawé"); Tamátsi Kauyumari ("elder brother Káuyumarie"), the trickster / culture hero who manifests himself as deer; another deer deity, Tamátsi Maxa Kwaxí ("elder brother deer tail"); the corn goddess, who also personifies the earth made fertile by rain, Tatéi Utuánaka ("our mother"; lit., "our aunt"); and so forth. Female deities personify rain, water holes, lakes, ponds, maize, and squash. Agricultural, human, and animal fertility and fecundity are also personified by female deities, who are often depicted as snakes in ceremonial art. Many of the male deities are associated with the dry season, the hunt, and game. Some male and female deities function as owners of animal or plant species. The divine cactus, peyote, is personified as Sacred Deer, Master of the Deer, in a system of interdependent and interchangeable symbols that, since the shift from hunting and gathering to slash-and-burn agriculture, has also come to include maize. As a group the deities, or divine ancestors, are variously called kákaima or kakayaríxi (apparently archaic expressions that convey the sense of "gods" or "greater spirits"). Female deities are collectively known as tatéima ("our mothers"). Tatewarí is the most prominent deity in the western part of the Huichol territory, and in the eastern part it is Father Sun. The fire deity is also the first shaman, who, with grandmother Nakawé, put the world in order in the "first times," and is often addressed simply as Maraʾakáme (mara'akáme is the Huichol term for shaman or singer). Charismatic shamans may be identified with Tatewarí, as is the leader of the peyote pilgrimage. Probably as many as one-third to one-half of the adult Huichols, particularly the men but also some women, are sufficiently schooled in the sacred traditions to function as low-level shamans who are able to divine, conduct curing rites, and communicate with ancestral deities through chants, prayer arrows, symbolic designs of wool yarn and/or beads and beeswax, decorated gourd bowls, and food and drink offerings. To practice the higher level of shamanic and priestly activity, a person must gain community consensus and prestige and trust sufficient for him or her to have assumed successful leadership of at least five peyote pilgrimages.

Sacred Spaces

Beyond the local rancho, ritual centers on the large circular sacred house or temple, tuki or tukípa in Huichol, with the meaning of Big House. Several of these tuki or tukípa are found scattered through each of the five comunidades. They contain a doorway that faces east, a fireplace that represents Tatewarí, an altar, a hole in the center of the floor and another below the roof (from which subterranean gods, divine ancestors, and celestial spirits may emerge), sacred paraphernalia, prayer offerings, a low bench along the interior wall, and sometimes a squared, hollowed-out log that serves as a foot drum, whose sound is intended to alert subterranean ancestors and supernatural beings and to invite them to participate in the ritual.

Individual ranches have a sanctuary, called xiriki, that is constructed like the dwellings of the Huichol; the sanctuary houses carved stone and wood images of supernaturals, personal ceremonial paraphernalia, bows, arrows and deerskin quivers that are used on the peyote pilgrimage, an upright log drum with deerskin head, snares for ceremonial deer hunting, a supply of peyote, clay pots for the ritual maize beer (nawá) and so on. The most important occupant of the sanctuary is the urukáme, which is a small rock crystal tied in a sacred bundle to the shaft of a hunting-arrow-like prayer arrow and that represents a deceased ancestor, usually a shaman. This miniature medicine bundle functions as supernatural guardian of the ranch community, who gives spiritual and practical counsel to the ranch elder or family shaman.

Numerous shrines associated with one or more deities are located in and around the Huichol territory, most prominent among them the great cave of Teakáta, home of the old earth goddess and other important deities, in the comunidad of Santa Catarína. Other shrines as far away as the Pacific coast and Lake Pátzcuaro, south of Guadalajara, also draw Huichol pilgrims with offerings to such local deities as Tatéi Haramára, divine personification of the Pacific Ocean. A whole series of shrines lies along the three-hundred-mile pilgrimage route to Wirikúta, the Huichol name for the sacred homeland of the divine peyote cactus, Lophophora williamsii, híkuri in Huichol, just north of the Tropic of Cancer in the high desert of the state of San Luis Potosí.

Peyote was prominent in Aztec religion and divinatory curing, and is still important to several Indian populations of northwestern Mexico. But nowhere does it play so central a role in religious ideology and ritual as among the Huichol. The mythic charter of the Huichol peyote "cult" has a historic ring: in ancient times a group of divine male ancestors, who later become the principal deities, calls on the great maraʾakáme Tatewarí to cure them of a variety of physical and spiritual afflictions. He diagnoses their ills as having been caused by their separation from Wirikúta, home of the sacred Deer Peyote in the distant north-central high desert, and by their failure to follow the ancestors in hunting and consuming the divine cactus that lives there in the form of deer. He orders them to abstain from sex, salt, food, and drink and leads them on a pilgrimage so lengthy and arduous that some fall by the wayside. Along the way, within sight of the distant sacred mountains of Wirikúta, they are saved from death by thirst by female deities, who meet them with lifegiving offerings of water at a place of desert springs called Tateimatiniéri ("where our mothers dwell"). From there the male and female supernaturals proceed to Wirikúta, where, under the leadership of the great shaman, they track and slay the sacred deer. Peyote sprouts from the deer's antlers and his body transforms into peyote. They grind the antlers with sacred water from the desert springs, and when they drink the mixture they experience visions that restore their health and help them "find their life."

Huichol are enculturated as infants into the sacred geography and meaning of the peyote pilgrimage during an annual first fruits ceremony, in which the family shaman "transforms" the infants into hummingbirds and, to the beat of the deerskin drum and the chanting of the peyote tradition, leads them on a magical flight to Wirikúta and back. The myth becomes reality during the dry season when small groups of Huichol set out for Wirikúta under the leadership either of an experienced mara'akáme or one still in training. The pilgrims assume the identities of the ancestral deities who made the first vision quest, their leader becoming Tatewarí, Grandfather Fire. The three-hundred-mile pilgrimage is a journey back in time and space to the Huichol's sacred origins, where ordinary language and time are reversed, sand becomes water, night day, and the oldest man nunútsi ("a baby"). For novices, who are blindfolded until they reach the sacred female springs, the pilgrimage serves as symbolic birth and initiation rite into the mysteries of the peyote medicine. Along the way, the pilgrims acknowledge the stopping places of the divine ancestors, and the most solemn and emotion-charged of the rites is reserved for Wirikúta and the first peyote to come into view. As in the myth, peyote is deer; thus, the plant is literally shot with arrows. Each party of pilgrims forms at least a temporary society of hikuritámete, that is, a community of veterans of the peyote hunt that disbands at the conclusion of the ritual. In former times the hikuritámete may have functioned as a shamanistic medicine society similar to those of North American Indians. Following a solemn communion-like meal of the first peyote, the pilgrims scatter to collect híkuri for their own individual vision quests, and large quantities are harvested for future use.

Notwithstanding the emphasis on peyote as the divine psychoactive substance, there survive among the Huichol remnants of a former use and veneration of Solandra, a class relative of datura. Personified as the supernatural sorcerer Kieri, Solandra has its own myth cycle with historical overtones and prayer offerings similar to those given to peyote. So far as is known, however, no actual use of the solonaceous Solandra or datura survives among the Huichol, as it does, for example, among the Native American populations of the Southwest.


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Peter T. Furst (1987 and 2005)