With the publication of Aldous Huxley’s mescaline-induced musings in "The Doors of Perception" in 1954, the spiritual and mystical groundwork for the psychedelic revolution of the following decade was laid. But while Huxley’s popularization of drug-induced altered states was to have an enormous impact not just in the 1960s but in the decades since, the drug that started it all has all but vanished.
Mescaline — the psychedelic alkaloid found in only two species of Western hemisphere cacti, the peyote of north-central Mexico and the San Pedro found thousands of feet up the dry side of the Peruvian Andes — hasn’t had a recreational following in decades. As Mike Jay, the author of the just-released Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic, notes, the only place one can find it anymore is occasionally on sites on the dark web along with other exotic psychedelics. As a psychedelic alkaloid, it has been replaced by LSD, which is hundreds of times more potent and thus more user-, research-, and smuggler-friendly.
But, as Jay relates in his highly readable recounting, even before LSD famously popped into existence in 1943, mescaline had been synthesized by German scientists in 1919. Mescaline has been circulating in the medical and scientific communities, as well as among more outrè elements, including mystic cultists and artistic fringe movements, for a century. Before being displaced, mescaline paved the way for the psychedelic wave that LSD rode into the history books.
With ritual use now believed to go back more than 3,000 years in Peru’s Chavín de Huántar — where the San Pedro still grows among the ruins — and back 5,000 years in Mexico, the plant is indeed deeply rooted in indigenous cultures. It has withstood the arrival of the West and may even be profiting from a renewed Western interest in the South American psychedelic circuit thanks to the ayahuasca drug tourism boom.
Although the “devil’s root” was banned by the Inquisition in Mexico — dozens were prosecuted during the colonial era — neither the cross nor the sword could vanquish it. Tribes of Mexico’s remote northwest, such as the Huichol and the Tarahumara, kept peyote traditions alive (and the Huichol have even managed to turn their peyotism and the world-famous art it inspires into a community-sustaining industry).
By the mid-1800s, Apaches whose lands straddled the U.S.-Mexico border and who made raiding forays far south into Mexico brought the peyote ritual back with them and introduced it to the tribes of the plains and the American Southwest. Caught up in the churn of forced resettlement, tribal members mingled like never before on the Oklahoma reservations where they were interned, and the peyote ritual metamorphosized into a pan-tribal sacrament.
Early in the 20th century, Apaches, Comanches, Kiowas and others who swore by peyote moved to formalize its status, founding the Native American Church (the first use of the phrase “Native American” in its modern sense) in 1918 to act as the ritual’s face to white America and the government in Washington. A century later, the Native American Church is thriving, now counting more than 250,000 members and most recently making strong inroads among the Navajo.
And peyote’s Peruvian cousin, the San Pedro, is also thriving. It, too, has benefitted from the South American psychedelic tourism boom inspired by ayahuasca, and it has been cultivated in California for decades now, where neo-shamans are all-too-happy to guide you on an interior adventure. Unlike peyote, San Pedro is still legal in the U.S. — as long as you don’t try to extract the mescaline.
Whether for religious and spiritual purposes or to enhance the derangement of the senses, the mescaline alkaloid has a long and storied history. And it has attracted the attention of some remarkable individuals along the way. Here are seven men who rode Mescalito’s white horse to some strange places indeed.
- Chief Quanah Parker. Born of a captive white woman and a Comanche father, Quanah Parker overcame his half-breed status to become a famed Comanche warrior who rebelled against being forced onto the reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in the 1880s. An adroit politician, Parker very ably maneuvered to protect the traditions of his people while presenting an acceptable face to Washington. As the millenarian Ghost Dance movement roiled Native America in the late 1880s (and led to the Wounded Knee massacre of 250 Lakota men, women, and children in 1890), Parker rejected its radicalism and instead championed the peyote ceremony, becoming the church’s most famed “roadman,” or ceremony leader. While Parker fended off Christianity throughout his life, he portrayed the peyote ceremony not as a challenge to Christianity but as a complement, a stance he deemed necessary to protect the culture and the church. “The white man goes into his church and talks about Jesus,” Parker famously said, “but the Indian goes into his tipi and talks to Jesus.”
- James Mooney. Enthralled from his youth with the romance of the American Indian, James Mooney parlayed his obsession into a career as America’s “Indian Man” as he used positions in the federal government to attempt to protect native cultures from the government’s assimilationist (read: cultural genocide) policies toward the tribes. Assigned to Fort Sill, Mooney attended Ghost Dance ceremonies and shared Parker’s worries that the movement could have disastrous repercussions. In 1891, Mooney became the first white man to participate in the peyote ritual and became an ardent proponent of it before white America. For Parker, Mooney was “the only white man who knows our religion.” He also played a pivotal role in the formal founding of the Native American Church in 1918. But Mooney was also a vital link between peyote and mescaline; an advocate of the cactus’ potential therapeutic uses, he made peyote buttons available to drug companies and academic researchers, leading directly to mescaline’s synthesis in a German lab and its emergence into the world at large.
- Aleister Crowley. James Mooney was the first white man at a peyote ceremony, but British occultist and drug-dabbler Aleister Crowley was the first Westerner to take peyote methodically over a period of years, and the first to use it as a non-native ritual sacrament. Introduced to psychoactive drugs in 1898, this high priest of the Order of the Golden Dawn and author of Diary of a Drug Fiend included mescaline along with alcohol, hashish, “extract of opium,” and fruit juice in the “Cup of Libation” that he passed around at avant-garde parties in London just after the turn of the 20th century. Thanks in large part to Crowley, mescaline began to make its way more broadly into fringe cultural and artistic scenes.
- William Burroughs. The always drug-obsessed Beat icon, long-time heroin addict and author of Junkie and Naked Lunch realized early on that peyote wasn’t covered under the Harrison Narcotics Act and promptly sourced some from Mexico in 1952. As Jay relates, Burroughs says it “felt ‘something like a benzedrine high. You can’t sleep and your pupils are dilated. Everything looks like a peyote plant.’” When Burroughs finally did get to sleep, the peyote gave him nightmares: “Me and about five other chlorophyll addicts are waiting to score on the landing of a cheap Mexican hotel. We turn green, and no one can kick a chlorophyll habit. One shot and you’re hung for life. We are turning into plants.”
- Allen Ginsberg. Burroughs’ fellow Beat auteur also gobbled down the cactus buds after scoring some in Greenwich Village, the epicenter of the New York City Beat scene, in 1952. After pondering the beauty of a cherry tree and “grinning idiotically” as he listened to the music of Tito Puente, Ginsberg decided that “Peyote is one of the world’s greatest drugs. I have to find, among other things, a new word for the universe. I’m tired of the old ones.” Ginsberg continued to use peyote over the next few years as he oscillated between New York and San Francisco. “It was like telepathy, like electricity,” he recalled. “It could turn your eyes into X-rays so that you could see the insides of things.” One 1954 trip in a Nob Hill apartment had Ginsberg staring out at the city in the mist and fog, where the massive buildings of downtown were transformed into the “robot-like skullface of Moloch,” the bloodthirsty Canaanite god “whose eyes are a thousand blind windows.” From this vision derived the central image of part II of the Beat classic Howl, in which his generation was being sacrificed to the idols of money and technology.
- Aldous Huxley. The renowned British author of Brave New World (where the fictional drug soma played a key role) almost singlehandedly made mescaline a household word with the publication in 1954 of The Doors of Perception, which he composed after ingesting 400 milligrams of the drug on “a bright May morning” in 1953. He described the experience as “without any question the most extraordinary and significant experience available to human beings this side of the Beatific Vision.” It was “what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation — the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.” For Huxley, mescaline represented both a potential medical and scientific breakthrough — the working hypothesis was that it might be an unlikely cure for schizophrenia — and an opportunity for profound spiritual experience. Along with Albert Hoffman’s 1943 LSD trip, Huxley’s ingestion of mescaline has become a seminal moment in the psychedelic revolution.
- Carlos Castaneda. The UCLA anthropology graduate student influenced a generation with his publication of The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge and 11 sequels. In the series, Castaneda claimed to have learned the shamanic path of the nagual (a shaman who claims to be able to change into animal form through rituals and experiences with psychoactive drugs) from Don Juan Matus thanks to peyote. Although Castaneda’s work has since been denounced as a hoax, a fraud, and a pack of plagiarism, its influence in the 1970s and beyond was undeniable, and even some of the anthropologists whose work he lifted whole-cloth say that his message of spiritualism and respect for native cultures needed to be heard. Still, the title alone should have been a giveaway: The Yaquis, who lived in the extreme northwest of Mexico, had no history of participating in any peyote rituals.
These are just a handful of the fascinating people who have interacted with the fascinating alkaloid. For those of us interested in the culture and history of psychedelics, Mike Jay has plenty more people to meet and stories to tell. Pick up the book and get the whole story.