Magic and the Millennium: A Sociological Study of Religious Movements of Protest among Tribal and Third-World Peoples

By Bryan R. Wilson | Go to book overview

13
The Peyote Cult--An Introversionist Movement?

INTROVERSIONIST religions respond to the world by withdrawing from it. The world is alien and irredeemable. The sectarians can do nothing for it, worldly men will do nothing and God has already fore-ordained history. All that good men can do is to gain salvation by leaving the world and cleaving to God. The faith takes man out of the world into a private realm, a protective community, insulated from the tensions of life in the wider society. In western Christendom this response has been made effective by severe ethical injunctions against association with the world, by strong avoidance regulations, sometimes reinforced by vicinal segregation and withdrawal into closed communities. Lacking the strength of rigorous socialization and the internalization of puritanical moral rules, such as has been the inheritance of many Christian groups, and usually without the opportunity to remove themselves to a new social context, new religious communities among less-developed peoples use the distinctiveness of their rites as an insulation from the world. Drugs are not infrequently one means of withdrawal, and their use as stimulants, sedatives, or hallucinogens is found in various religious movements (the Ras Tafarian use of marijuana, and the Bwiti use of ibiota, are examples). In the Peyote cult, the principal object of ritual, and virtually of devotion, is the small cactus button (Lophophora williamsii Lamaire) from the consumption of which the movement takes its name.

The exact properties of peyote, a succulent turnip-like cactus from which the tops are used, and which grows in southern Texas and northern Mexico, have been disputed.1 The drug is not addictive, but

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1
Peyote was originally thought to be a narcotic drug and an intoxicant, with harmful properties: Robert E. L. Newberne and Charles H. Burke, Peyote: An abridged compilation from the files of the Bureau of Indian Affairs ( Haskell Institute, Lawrence, Kansas, 1925). These opinions have subsequently been modified. In mature plants there are nine alkaloids and both strychnine-like and morphine-like properties which are somewhat antagonistic in action, according to Omer C. Stewart, "'Washo-Paiute Peyotism. A Study in Acculturation'", University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 40, 3 ( 1944), pp. vi and 63-142 (p. 63). For an account of recent research on the pharmacological aspects of peyote, and on its medical and psychiatric aspects, see Weston La Barre, "'Twenty Years of Peyote Studies'", Current Anthropology I, 1 ( January 1960), pp. 45-60. For a discussion see Caroll G. Barber , "'Peyote and the Definition of a Narcotic'", American Anthropologist 61 1959), pp. 641-5, and the correspondence that followed, ibid., 62 ( August 1960), pp. 684-9.

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