The San Pedro cactus evolved thirty or forty million years ago in the deserts of South America. Today its native habitat is the barren cliffs of the high Andes, two thousand metres above sea level. In spring, the distinctive green columns produce a large white and yellow blossom, which blooms at night and is pollinated by hummingbirds and bats. Like many plants, the San Pedro cactus converts amino acids into compounds known as alkaloids. The evolutionary purpose of San Pedro’s most famous alkaloid, the psychoactive compound mescaline, is unknown, but humans have been aware of its effects for thousands of years. When boiled down into a brew and ingested, it activates an alternative experience of consciousness.
‘No mind-altering substance has been described more thoroughly and from such a variety of perspectives,’ Mike Jay writes in his new history, Mescaline. Its use in the Americas dates back thousands of years. It was the first psychedelic analysed by Western scientists, and in the early decades of the 20th century the only substance of its kind available to psychologists, writers, artists and philosophers eager to experience chemically induced hallucinations. The word ‘psychedelic’ was coined in 1953, by the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond (in correspondence with Aldous Huxley), in part to describe the experience of taking mescaline. The full spectrum of its effects includes ‘dizziness, fullness in the head, nausea, time distortion, a rainbow sheen of visual trails, hyperventilation, an uncanny sense of double consciousness, physical prostration, auditory hallucinations, ineffable cosmic insights, a lazy euphoria, a pounding heart, scintillating patterns exploding across closed eyelids and the immanent presence of the sacred’.
Jay begins his history in the Chavín de Huántar, a temple in the High Andes of Peru rediscovered by archaeologists in the 1930s. A carved figure in an inner sanctum, ‘snake-haired, sprouting fangs and claws’ and wielding a San Pedro cactus like an upraised baguette, has been dated to 1200 bce at the latest. Archaeologists believe the temple was a gathering place for the ritual ingestion of psychoactive plants at large ceremonies. The motifs and objects suggest that participants ingested not only San Pedro but snuffs containing N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), another naturally occurring psychedelic, and the alcoholic brew known as chicha, and that they may have countered the nausea that often accompanies San Pedro with movement and song. ‘The architecture of the complex seems to have been designed to frame and create a spectacle in which the senses were manipulated by sound, light and spatial disorientation as well as consciousness-altering plant preparations,’ Jay writes. ‘Rushing mountain streams were rerouted to create an artificial watercourse that echoed through the tunnels; conch trumpet shells have been found, and fragments of anthracite mirror that may have bounced light through the galleries along with sound.’
On the other side of the equator, in the high deserts of northern Mexico, the human relationship with peyote, the other cactus family high in mescaline, dates back to the time of Chavín and earlier. In botanical terms peyote is ‘about as different from the San Pedro as a cactus can be’, Jay writes. Its ‘creased, leathery, spineless heads’ grow close to the ground and have the appearance of ‘stones or deer droppings’. Dried peyote cactus buttons found in the Shumla caves of southern Texas have been carbon-dated to 4000 bce.
In the Nahuatl languages the cactus was known as peyotl and was one of many medicinal plants that the Spanish invaders encountered in 16th-century Mexico. The Nahua people (whom the Spanish and, despite recent correction, most English speakers still call the Aztecs) also consumed morning glory seeds, psilocybin mushrooms, preparations of Datura and Brugmansia shrubs, and alcohol. The Spanish took home with them the new world’s ‘sober intoxicants’ – chocolate and tobacco – but didn’t know what to make of the more psychoactive plants. The Nahua ingested peyote and other medicinal plants in private sessions administered by a healer, and to the Spanish the ritual bore a suspicious and confusing resemblance to the Christian Eucharist. According to what survived of the pre-conquest written record, the Nahua believed peyote came from the ‘House of the Sun’, a place the psychoactive plants made it possible to visit.
‘It was a bright world of radiant colour,’ Jay writes, drawing from the lyrics of incantations known as ‘flower songs’: ‘The home of flowers, glittering gemstones, opalescent seashells, perfumes and incenses, and particularly the vibrant, iridescent feathers of birds such as the quetzal, the macaw and the hummingbird.’ The Spanish superimposed their idea of heaven on this place, but unlike heaven the Nahua flower world could be visited while alive. The Spanish also observed that the Nahua attributed clairvoyant properties to peyote, receiving from it guidance about the weather and assistance in finding lost or stolen objects.
Eventually, the Spanish reached a consensus that peyote was the devil’s work. The Mexican Inquisition prohibited it in 1620 and actively prosecuted its use. ‘Hast thou eaten the flesh of man? Hast thou eaten the peyotl? Do you suck the blood of others?’ a 17th-century catechism read. But its use survived where the cactus grew in northern Mexico and where semi-nomadic groups evaded conquest. In 1890, the Norwegian ethnographer Carl Lumholtz recorded it among the Tarahumara people of the northern Sierra Madre (who called it hikuli) and, further south, among the Huichol people, for whom deer, maize and peyote formed an ‘elemental trinity’. Although the San Pedro cactus continued to be consumed in the Peruvian Andes, it was peyote that would first transcend the boundaries of its geographical origins, adopted by the plains Indians to the north and then, in the late 19th century, starting to attract the interest of pharmaceutical companies and chemists.
The trade in peyote beyond its natural habitat is probably as ancient as its use by humans. The buttons were dried in the desert sun and easily transported. The Apache adopted the use of horses in 1680, which allowed them to conduct raids into Mexico, and they seem to have been the progenitors of the peyote religion that spread north into the United States in the 19th century. Its songs have been linked to the Lipan Apache, who in the early 19th century lived at the northern edge of peyote’s natural habitat, near Laredo, Texas, and who may have been the earliest distributors of peyote among the plains tribes. ‘The many Comanche, Apache and Kiowa tales of the discovery of peyote all place it in the distant south,’ Jay says.
By the middle of the 19th century, Laredo had become a hub of the barter-based peyote trade. As the US government forced tribes from their homelands and deported them to reservations, peyote gatherings became a pan-tribal assertion of spiritual resistance. ‘Rooted in ritual practices older by millennia than the United States,’ Jay writes, they ‘opened a path to the survival of Indian identity’. In 1890 James Mooney, a Smithsonian Institution ethnographer who was the first white man to document a peyote meeting, noted the attendance of Kiowa, Comanche and Apache people. Peyote’s greatest advocate at the time was the Comanche leader Quanah Parker, who codified some of the religion’s rites and served as the ‘roadman’, or facilitator of ceremonies, in peyote meetings with the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Pawnee, Osage and Ponca. Both Parker and Mooney believed in peyote’s potential to, as Jay puts it, ‘square the circle of tradition and assimilation’. They shared a strategy for presenting it to white audiences ‘as a medicine and a sacrament rather than an intoxicant, and a companion rather than a rival to the Christian faith in which privately neither of them believed.’ Quanah gave Mooney a fifty-pound bag of dried peyote buttons, which, when distributed, enabled the first scientific trials and early personal experiments, in the US and Europe.
Peyote reached the attention of the pharmaceutical industry in 1887, after a doctor in Texas bought some from a Mexican supplier and published an article in a medical journal about its stimulating effects. Parke, Davis, the US’s leading supplier of cocaine (which it marketed as ‘the most important therapeutic discovery of the age’), was looking for alternative ‘vegetable drugs’ because cocaine’s habit-forming potential was beginning to gain attention. They began marketing a tincture extract of peyote in 1893, recommending its use as a ‘depressant, respiratory stimulant and cardiac tonic’. The first scientific trial was conducted two years later, on a 27-year-old chemist. After eating three peyote buttons, he described ‘a train of delightful visions such as no human ever enjoyed under normal conditions’. But as more people tried peyote, it became clear how unpredictable its effects were. Not everyone experienced ‘visions’, and for some the primary sensation was prolonged nausea. William James, eager to have a mystical experience, instead had a day of vomiting and diarrhoea. The insights into altered states of consciousness he describes in On the Varieties of Religious Experience came from nitrous oxide (laughing gas).
Westerners interpreted the peyote experience very differently from the practitioners of the peyote religion, where the focus was ‘ritual, song and prayer, and to dissect one’s private sensations was to miss the point’. Writers such as Havelock Ellis, who published an essay on his peyote experiences in the Lancet in 1897 (it’s likely that he also administered the substance to his friends W.B. Yeats and Arthur Symons), instead tended to focus on its visual effects. Ellis described ‘the brilliance, delicacy and variety of the colours’ and ‘their lovely and various textures’. Peyote reached Europe in tandem with the X-ray, cinema and electric lights, Jay notes, and ‘nothing delighted the eye of the mescal eater so much as the new electrical sublime.’
The psychoactive ingredient in peyote was identified that same year, 1897, by the German chemist Arthur Heffter. He extracted five distinct alkaloids from the dried cactus and ingested them one by one, monitoring their effects. The most abundant, the compound he named ‘mescaline’, produced effects like those he had experienced after eating peyote buttons. The root word ‘mescal’ was applied in the 19th century to the agave spirit we now call ‘mezcal’, to the red ‘mescal bean’ (Sophora secundiflora, a seed that was ingested by some Mexican groups as a medicine) and to the peyote cactus. It was used, Jay says, as ‘a portmanteau term for all local plant intoxicants’ in northern Mexico and the American Southwest.
In the early 20th century, peyote and mescaline were embraced by mystics, who saw them as a way to stave off the alienation of modernity and what Jay calls ‘the loss of the sacred’ and ‘the tyranny of reason’. Aleister Crowley used peyote in his séances. Frederick Madison Smith, the grandson of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, explored it as a possible means of achieving religious ecstasy. Smith also lobbied against the prohibition of the peyote religion, which had grown since the 1890s and was now attracting opposition. After a bill to prohibit peyote was narrowly voted down in the Senate, representatives of the Cheyenne, Oto, Ponca, Comanche, Kiowa and Apache tribes gathered to sign the charter of incorporation of the Native American Church in 1918, which they hoped would give the peyote religion First Amendment protections. Despite repeated attempts at state and federal prosecution in the decades that followed, the church successfully defended itself until a Supreme Court case in the 1990s rescinded its rights. A backlash to the court’s decision resulted in the 1994 amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which protects the church’s right to peyote in federal law, though attempts at local bans have continued.
In 1919, the chemist Ernst Späth carried out the first laboratory synthesis of mescaline and determined that its chemical formula was 3,4,5-trimethoxyphenylethylamine, a derivative of phenethylamine, a molecule with many derivatives that are psychoactive in humans. Now mescaline could be produced in a lab and administered in precise, injectable doses. It still had no clear medical or psychological application, and continued to produce wildly unpredictable responses in research subjects, regardless of the dose. But there were some patterns. Heinrich Klüver, a German psychologist living in Chicago, published his monograph Mescal in 1928 (it was reprinted in 1966 and far outsold the original edition). Not everyone hallucinated on mescaline, but Klüver determined that most mescaline hallucinations followed a sequence of visual stages and featured groups of repeating motifs: a latticework or filigree that Jay calls ‘the reticulated two-dimensional plane’; the tunnel; the spiral; the cobweb. Many subjects described a phenomenon called polyopia, where hallucinated objects repeated themselves in rows. These visual qualities, Jay writes, ‘seemed to be hardwired into the structure of the hallucinations’ and should be understood as a physiological response to the chemical.
In the interwar period many artists, writers and philosophers began experimenting with mescaline, often with the assistance of their psychiatrist friends. Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, a Polish painter, painted his visions and published a drug memoir called Narcotics: Nicotine, Alcohol, Cocaine, Peyote, Morphine and Ether (1932). Walter Benjamin, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre and Antonin Artaud all gave it a try. In her memoirs Simone de Beauvoir described Sartre being haunted by visions of scuttling crabs for days after his experiment, but Jay writes that Sartre admitted to having first seen the crabs years before trying mescaline. It is doubtful that the drug causes flashbacks, though Artaud’s experiments with peyote did coincide with a psychotic break that eventually put him in an institution.
Jay’s book is as much a literature review as a history, and reading it I was reminded how much I love trip reports, especially when they are written by the big thinkers of their day and not by orthographically challenged teenagers on internet forums (though I like those too). Benjamin did not have a great time on mescaline. It made him irritable. He kept expressing anxiety about the damage Nietzsche’s antisemitic sister would inflict on the philosopher’s legacy and returning to the children’s book Struwwelpeter, announcing, according to his psychiatrist, that he had discovered its ‘secret’. This turned out to be that ‘a child must get presents, or else he will die or break into pieces or fly away.’ Afterwards, Benjamin was ambivalent about the experience. As Jay observes, ‘in Berlin in 1934 there were good grounds for being suspicious of the surrender to the irrational.’
The most famous account of mescaline remains Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, the first book to evangelise about the possibilities of psychedelics to mainstream audiences, especially in the US. Huxley took mescaline in May 1953, at his home in the Hollywood Hills; he was approaching his fiftieth birthday and at a low point in his life. It seemed to lift him out of a depression and he wrote The Doors of Perception with an epiphanic zeal that today reads as both naive and not (our culture holds two ideas of psychedelics at once, that they can be both serious and life-changing, or something you do on a Friday night to get goofy with your friends). Huxley’s famous description of the folds of his grey flannel trousers was an embellishment, Jay informs us (he was actually wearing jeans), and his hope that mescaline would be a cure for schizophrenia turned out to be misplaced. But Huxley did help to normalise the psychedelic experience. He was, Jay writes, ‘an adept of spiritual self-discovery, but also a stand-in for a sober general public to whom, until the arrival of mescaline, all mind-altering drugs had been “dope”, of interest only to bohemians, foreigners and criminals’ – the Michael Pollan of his time.
In the aftermath of The Doors of Perception, the cactus experience appeared in the emerging literature of the Beats and the pages of the New Yorker. Peyote buttons were circulating in Greenwich Village and among anthropology students at major American universities. Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1970), an adventure about the author’s inquiry into ‘mescalito’ at the knee of an elderly Mexican shaman, sold millions of copies (and later turned out to be fiction mixed with borrowed anthropological accounts). Castaneda ‘wrote for a generation that was discovering psychedelics for itself,’ Jay remarks, ‘and offered them a charter stitched from a variety of indigenous traditions that, precisely because it had no actual real-life referent, could be freely appropriated.’
Jay contends that the most consequential mescaline trip of the 1960s was taken not by Hunter S. Thompson, Allen Ginsberg or Carlos Castaneda, but by the biochemist Alexander Shulgin. Administered by a psychologist friend in 1960, it ‘unquestionably confirmed the entire direction of my life’, Shulgin wrote. He went on to rediscover MDMA (Merck had patented the chemical in 1912 but didn’t distribute it) and synthesised more than two hundred psychoactive phenethylamines. I was disappointed that Jay didn’t quote from the mescaline trip report by Shulgin’s wife, Ann, who described taking it in the aftermath of a miscarriage in their co-written memoir-cum-chemistry textbook PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (the title stands for ‘Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved’). I missed it not only because it’s a moving account but because of the almost total absence of female experiences in Jay’s book. The significance of peyote to its contemporary Native American users is also unvoiced, though Jay did interview members of the Native American Church. By way of explanation, he writes that subjective descriptions of the experience of peyote by members of the church are rare, and that ‘non-Western subjects are typically reluctant to share what is considered a private and often highly emotional experience’.
In 1943, Albert Hofmann had discovered the psychoactive properties of LSD, which he first synthesised in 1938. Mescaline and peyote were soon eclipsed, for both scientists and hobbyists, by acid and psilocybin, which delivered more consistent results with fewer physical side effects. By 1971 all three substances had been banned in the US and under the United Nations Convention on Psychotroptic Substances. Synthetic mescaline isn’t a drug people talk about much today, either at parties or at the academic conferences convened as part of the scientific revival of psychedelics. Jay has seen it for sale on the dark web but it seems to be of little interest even to connoisseurs. He sees its inheritance in MDMA, which ‘turned what scientists and psychonauts alike had considered to be mescaline’s undesirable side effects into a delicious “body high” of rushes, waves and tingles’, and came to shape a new kind of ceremony in the form of rave culture. Mescaline remains widely ingested in plant form, however, not only through the peyote meetings of the Native American Church but in ayahuasca-adjacent neo-shamanistic scenes, where San Pedro is sometimes advertised as the ‘grandfather’ to ayahuasca’s ‘grandmother’.
Recounting his own experiences on San Pedro and at a peyote meeting, Jay writes simply and straightforwardly, without any caveats about ‘responsible’ drug use. He had tried San Pedro before with little effect, but on a visit to Peru finally broke through. ‘With the cactus you get the hangover first,’ he writes. Once the physical discomfort passed, ‘honeycombs of green and violet threaded across my vision.’
My own experience with peyote was inconclusive. I now know, having read Jay’s book, that a confusing occasion I got involved in by accident in 2013 was in fact a Native American Church meeting. A friend had invited me to what I thought was a birthday party that would also somehow involve the consumption of peyote. I said yes without inquiring much about the specifics. After stopping at a thrift store to buy a long skirt (I was told I had to wear one) we drove to a farm somewhere in Pennsylvania, outside of which a large tepee had been erected in a muddy field. It was, in fact, someone’s birthday, but it wasn’t a party at all. We waited in a farmhouse until well after dark, then proceeded into the tepee, the women in our long skirts. A fire burned at its centre, and an altar had been set up. The meeting was led by a roadman and was attended by a group of congregants, some of them Native American and some of them appearing not to be, all of them seeming to have more familiarity with the setting and the ceremony than my friend and I had. Many of the participants laid out sacred fans and objects that they carried in lacquered boxes, a tradition that I now understand, from reading Mescaline, traces back to the Comanche leader Quanah Parker. After performing certain rites, the roadman passed around a bowl filled with peyote buttons – fresh ones, not dried. They tasted very bitter, like the world’s worst cucumber, but crunchier. This was followed by a small vessel containing a dried and powdered version of the same thing, served with a spoon. I think I ate three or four buttons, but the psychoactive effects eluded me. Now I see that it may not have been the dose or the potency of the peyote, but my own reaction to the unpredictable cactus. According to Jay, to separate the peyote from the ritual is to miss the point. What I remember, and what may in fact have been a response to the chemical, was getting deeply, profoundly depressed. I felt sympathy reading about Benjamin’s deep irritation during his mescaline trip. I had intruded on a meaningful ceremony that I knew nothing about. I had the estrangement of the non-believer among believers, not that there was any doctrine to adhere to. The night was long. We passed around the drum and the rattle and those who felt moved to sang songs. The peyote went around a second time. In the morning we drove home, smelling like damp ashes.