Kieri and the Solanaceae: Nature and Culture in Huichol Mythology-By Peter T. Furst

In 1966 Barbara G. Myerhoff and I published an essay entitled, “Myth as History: The Jimson Weed Cycle of the Huichols of Mexico” (1966, 3-390). It introduced a myth we considered to be of considerable ethnological, ethnobotanical and literary interest. We also thought it might have historical implications for religious change in the Huichol past, specifically from a ritual focus on a solanaceous plant to the peyote cactus, Lophophora williamsii. The central theme of the narrative was a contest between the culture hero Kauyumári, who is Deer and whose ally and alter ego is peyote, and his adversary, a malevolent supernatural sorcerer named Kiéri, who in this version was thought to personify Datura innoxia, the western North American species of the genus. I say “thought to be” because an ethnologist named Robert M. Zingg had identified Kiéri as Datura meteloides (since renamed D. innoxia) and called its personification “Jimson-Weed Man” in his book, The Huichols, Primitive Artists (1938).

Zingg’s taxonomy made sense. Datura had been widely employed in divination and therapeutics in prehispanic Mexico, and the genus is still in use for similar purposes among some indigenous groups today, including Pueblo Indians of the southwestern United States. But Zingg turned out to be wrong, or at least only half-right. Early in the 1970s it was discovered that the “god-plant” Huichols identify as the “true,” or “real,” Kiéri, that is, the Kiéri supposedly possessed of supernatural powers for either good or evil, is not Datura. Instead it is a species of Solandra, a solanaceous genus that not only is closely related to Datura but is distinguished by a similar array of tropane alkaloids, notably scopolamine, hyoscyamine, and nortropine, which are capable of doing permanent physiological damage, to the point of madness and even death.

That Zingg (and, insofar as we followed Zingg, Myerhoff and I) had after all not been totally wrong in equating Kiéri with Datura was an even more recent discovery. This insight we owe to a Japanese ethnologist of religion, Prof. Masaya Yasumoto (1996, 235-63), who during several field seasons over the past ten or more years in the Sierra Madre Occidental conducted intensive studies of the botany, mythology, and ritual significance of the Kiéri phenomenon among the Huichols. Yasumoto confirmed the identification of the “true” Kiéri as Solandra. But he also found that some Huichols do not limit the name only to Solandra, but use it as well for both Datura and the more recently introduced Brugmansia (form. Datura arborea, or tree datura), with spectacular trumpet-shaped blossoms similar to those of Datura but shading more to pink than white. Brugmansia is actually a native of Amazonia that was transplanted to Mexico and Guatemala as an ornamental during the colonial era.

One of its popular Mexican names is floripondio, another, more telling one, is arbol loco, crazy tree, said to derive from the intoxicating effects of dew accidentally ingested by people who fall asleep beneath its flowers. Brugmansia does in fact have a well-documented history of use as a ritual intoxicant among some Amazonian Indians, including the Jivaro of Ecuador (Harner 1973). Mexican peasants have discovered medicinal properties in Brugmansia, but, as Schultes and Hofmann warn in their compendium of the botany and chemistry of the “hallucinogenic” flora, Plants of the Gods (1992, 69), experience with Brugmansia in South America shows that uncontrolled or uninformed use can bring on “an intoxication often so violent that physical restraint is necessary before the onset of a deep stupor, during which visions are experienced.”

We owe the corrected taxonomy of the “real” Kiéri first of all to an amateur botanist named Colette Lilly. Mrs. Lilly, who had been living for several years in the Huichol comunidad of Santa Catarina with her cinematographer-husband John C. Lilly Jr., the son of the famous dolphin specialist, was traveling with a party of Huichol women when they pointed out to her a flowering plant they identified as a “like Kiéri.” Its flowers were of the same shape as those of Datura, but they were yellow, not white.

There were other morphological differences as well, so if this was really a “Kiéri,” the Datura identification had to be wrong, for what confronted her here was a well-known viney ornamental popularly known in Mexico as copa de oro, cup of gold — that is to say, a species of Solandra. To make certain, she took samples that were subsequently identified by botanists in Mexico City as S. brevicalyx Standl. This was later revised to S. guttata, but the last word is not in. In any event, it was evidently the latter, and two of its sister species, S. guerrerensis and S. maxima, which the Aztecs had in mind when they told the Spanish of a divinatory and medicinal intoxicant known as tecomaxochitl, lit. “vase[shaped] flower.”

Kiéri as Solandra thus fits no less comfortably into the wider Mesoamerican-Southwestern use, and the mythology, of solanaceous intoxicants as would Kiéri as Datura.

Unfortunately Zingg left no clue as to how he came to identify Kiéri as Datura. As a native of the southwestern United States, with prior field experience in northern Mexico, Zingg was presumably familiar with Datura morphology. That he would mistake a Solandra for a Datura is less likely than that his chief source for Huichol mythology, a gifted narrator named Juan Reál, applied the term “Kiéri” generically to different members of the Solanaceae, much as Professor Yasumoto reported some Huichols do today. The other possibility is that Juan Reál used the adjective -tsa, like, similar to, as in Kiéri-tsa (or, in another pronunciation, xra), meaning that the plant resembles Kiéri but is not itself a real Kiéri.

However Zingg came by his taxonomy, neither he nor we should have called its personification “Jimson-Weed Man.” If his Kiéri was really a Datura, it would have had to be the western species, D. innoxia, or one of its subspecies, not the eastern, Datura stramonium. And it is the eastern variety that came to be known as Jimson Weed, Jimson being a contraction of Jamestown, the seventeenth century English colony in Virginia.

The name originated in an incident involving a party of English soldiers on their way to put down a rebellion led by a Lieutenant Bacon at Jamestown (then James Town), Virginia in the seventeenth century. Robert Beverly (ca. 1673-ca. 1722), in his History and Present State of Virginia (1705), tells the story:

The James Town Weed (which resembles the Thorny Apple of Peru, and I take to be the plant so call’d) is supposed to be one of the greatest Coolers in our World. This being an early Plant, was gather’d very young for a for a boil’d Salad, by some of the soldiers sent thither, to pacify the troubles of Bacon; and some of them eat plentifully of it, the Effect of which was a very pleasant Comedy; for they turn’d natural Fools upon it for several days; One would blow up a Feather in the air; another would dart Straws at it with much Fury; and another stark naked was sitting up in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making Mows at them; a Fourth would fondly kiss, and paw his Companions, and snear in their Faces, with a Countenance more antick, than any in a Dutch Droll.

In this frantick Condition they were confined, lest they should in their Folly destroy themselves; though it was observed, that all their Actions were full of Innocence and good Nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallow’d in their own Excrements, if they had not been prevented. A Thousand such simple Tricks they play’d, and after Eleven Days, return’d to themselves again, not remembering any thing that had pass’d. (Quoted in Schleiffer 1973, 129-130).

The soldiers later claimed they picked what had turned out to have been Datura stramonium under the impression that it was a savory pat herb, but there is a good chance that they had actually learned about its intoxicating effects from local Algonquin-speaking Indians — the original inhabitants of Virginia — who had long used Datura in boys’ initiation ceremonies resembling the toloache (Datura innoxia) rites of California Indians. In any event, the incident passed into history as “Bacon’s Rebellion,” while D. stramonium became Jamestown, or Jimson, Weed.


Word that Kiéri was not Datura first reached me in the 1970s from T. J. Knab. Knab, an ethnographer then employed by the Universidad Autónoma Nacional de México as a linguistic investigator, had spent some time in the same Huichol community, Santa Catarina, where the Lillys were then living. People there, he told me, identified Kiéri not, as had Zingg and we, with Datura, but with a closely related solanaceous species, Solandra, the flowering ornamental Mexicans call copa de oro, after the shape and color of its golden blossoms.

No one who had seen a Solandra in the field, with its yellow flowers in bloom and its long, rangy branches, could mistake it for a Datura, despite its close relationship to the latter. Knab said he had written a paper on the subject that was not yet in print, but that I could use his information. I did so, in a book on which I was then working, Hallucinogens and Culture, published in 1976. I suggested that perhaps there were different Kiéris, one, the “real” Kiéri, identified as Solandra, the other an evil sorcerer whose plant form is Datura, another possibility being that Kiéri might be differentially identified in the five communities that make up the Huichol territory, or simply that there was not just one Kiéri but several (Furst 1976, 136-137).

Knab’s paper on Solandra use and mythology appeared in 1977. There was no doubt that the “real” Kiéri was a Solandra, wrote Knab, but Huichols also distinguish between it and “Kiéri-like” plants, as well as between “good” and “bad” Kiéris, or between good and bad qualities as complementary opposites in one and the same “god-plant.”

I was particularly interested in Knab’s observations on the Kiéri as a dualistic “bad shaman,” i.e. sorcerer, because the myth dictated to Myerhoff and me in 1965/66 by Ramón Medina, a gifted Huichol artist and, then, apprentice shaman, excoriated the personification of Kiéri as unremittingly evil, a dangerous sorcerer who deceives his followers not only with intoxicating words and music but also with his “juices” — or, as we would see it, his tropane alkaloids — into thinking themselves to be birds, capable of flying from the rocks, only to fall to their deaths.

According to Knab (1977, 84), “people seeking certain favors from the /kieli/ god-plant, such as better singing ability, aid on a journey to /wilikuta/ (Real Catorce) where peyote is gathered, more children for a wife, more calves for a man’s cow, skill in embroidery or weaving, and so forth…go to the nearest important /kieli/ god-plant, bearing various small offerings…Many people also bring candles – which symbolize /tatewari/, the god of fire — as well as small bowls of food, small bottle gourds, boules, filled with alcoholic beverage or small votive gourds filled with water from one of the numerous sacred springs in the area.”

That is Kiéri’s positive side. Against this, Knab reported, many Huichols, if not most, have a very real fear of Kiéri’s great powers as a capricious and dangerous sorcerer and avoid the plant and its personification (Kiéri Tewiyari, Kiéri Person) as much as possible.

Hence offerings to Kiéri are as often prophylactic, meant to ward off his nefarious capabilities, as they are petitions for benefits. In fact, much of what Knab had to say about Kiéri as sorcerer dovetailed with Ramón Medina’s myth. In any event, it was becoming clear that whatever Ramón and other Huichols might believe about the plant spirit as an evil and much-to-feared sorcerer, others — or even the same people — regarded him as a powerful, if minor, divine being from whom favors are asked — and expected — in exchange for offerings from the petitioner.

As a matter of fact, both the older literature, notably Volume II of Fernando Benítez’ five-volume Los Indios de México, and the more recent field research of Professor Yasumoto make it clear that whatever else he may be, Kiéri may bestow certain benefits, in particular exceptional skill in playing the violin, even when not directly asked for them.

We cannot be certain, but the functional association Huichols consistently make between a visionary plant that was important to the Aztecs and other Nahuatl-speaking Central Mexican and a stringed instrument that was unknown in Mexico before the Conquest and that may have first reached the Huichols via the nominally Christianized Nahuatl-speaking Central Mexicans the Spanish transplanted into the Sierra Madre Occidental, may have ethnohistorical implications.


The scene now shifts to Bandelier National Monument. The time: summer 1985. Bandelier is a particularly beautiful prehistoric pueblo site in north-central New Mexico, about five miles south of Los Alamos and just over an hour’s drive from Santa Fe, on the eastern flanks of the Jémez mountains. It is a place of considerable beauty and much history, a collection of pueblos, circular semi-subterranean kivas (the Hopi name for the ceremonial chambers of prehistoric and contemporary Pueblo peoples that also symbolize the underworld from which the ancestors emerged into the present world), residential blocks, family masonry and rock shelter dwellings and store rooms, with a continuous record of occupation that lasted a little under five hundred years between A.D. 1070 and A.D. 1550, when the site was abandoned.

Like other members of the Solanaceae, including the Nicotianas, Daturas prefer disturbed soil, and while they are scarce elsewhere in the area, they can been seen in several places adjacent to the ruins at Bandelier. We were photographing one of these spectacular white-flowered shrubs when my wife and colleague, Jill L. McKeever Furst, an art historian with a strong interest in the relationship between natural history and the formation of symbols (cf. McKeever Furst 1995), inquired whether the Huichols identified not just peyote with deer (the two are synonymous and interchangeable in Huichol symbolism), but also made some such connection between Datura and deer.

What made her think of deer? “The plant has antlers,” she said. “Take a good look at it.” Sure enough, sticking out among the new green foliage and showy flowers of the Datura innoxia before us were bleached, dry and leafless branches, dead growth from previous seasons. They did in fact look for all the world like antlers, and for Indian people as preoccupied with deer and deer symbolism as are the Huichols they could well have suggested the forked antlers of the white-tailed Virginia deer.

Her astute observation brought to mind an incident in the charter myth of the peyote pilgrimage as I had heard it from Ramón Medina: after the ancestral peyoteros, the divine kakauyárite, had shot their arrows into the sacred deer (the form in which the first peyote manifested itself to the hunters), the animal began to transform and peyotes sprouted from his body and antlers. The pilgrims ground the antlers up and drank them mixed with sacred water from the springs called Tatéi Matiniéri, Where Our Mothers Dwell. The divine beverage, said Ramón, gave them beautiful dreams.

Could this imagery have originated in pre-peyote Datura use, akin, perhaps, to that of the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico and Arizona? Could the white, antler-like dry branches at Bandelier, though long dead and degraded by exposure to the elements, still contain tropane alkaloids in sufficient strength to be psychoactive, i.e. trigger “beautiful dreams”?

With the permission of the park rangers, we collected a few samples for testing by Robert F. Raffauf, Professor of Plant Chemistry in the School of Pharmacy at Northeastern University in Boston, and a close collaborator of Richard Evans Schultes, the now retired director of Harvard’s prestigious Botanical Museum. Raffauf found the dry sticks to retain some of the compounds of the living plant, though in reduced and attenuated quantities, sufficient, probably, to trigger visions but without the often unpleasant psychic effects and potentially serious physiological damage of which tropane alkaloids are capable (Robert F. Raffauf, personal communication).

Interesting, certainly, and suggestive. But it left unanswered the question whether people ancestral to the modern Huichols actually equated Datura with deer, with or without reference to the antler-like appearance of its dead branches. And then of course there was the vexing problem of Kiéri as Datura vs. Kiéri as Solandra.

At the time of our visit to Bandelier I could think of no explicit equation between either of these two related Solanaceae and deer in any of the narratives Ramón Medina had dictated to Myerhoff or me. On the other hand, there was such a reference in the above-mentioned Huichol volume (Volume 2) of Benítez’ Los Indios de México. Benítez had engaged Ramón as guide and interpreter, as well as principal source of myths, for his travels among the Huichols in preparation for the book.

In the comunidad of San Andrés Cohamiata, Ramón and José Carrillo, a literate Huichol employed as a grade school teacher by the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, the Mexican equivalent of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, gave Benítez considerable information on Kiéri and his role in deer-hunting magic. Kiéri, they told him, could act as supernatural patron of the deer hunt, even as he might also bewitch people and hurl them from high cliffs.

Finally there was, from José Carrillo, one brief, but, as we now know, significant mention of Kiéri alternately becoming a child and a deer and flying far away on the wind to a distant mountain. But, said Carrillo, this only happens in the middle of the night, and only during the months of August and September (Benítez 1968, 282-283).

Still, the questions raised by McKeever Furst’s observation at Bandelier were not to be definitely answered, and in a most unexpected way, until the summer of 1989.

In the meantime, more was learned about Kiéri as a power source for Huichol shamans from Susana Valadez, a graduate of UCLA who, while in the field in the nineteen seventies to study Huichol women’s art for her M.A. in Latin American Studies, had met and married a talented Huichol artist, Mariano Valadez. After receiving her degree, she abandoned an academic career for practical assistance to Huichol people in health and the arts and crafts. During a two-year residence in the Huichol community of San Andrés she had also met a young shaman with the Huichol name of Ulu Temay (Arrow Man or Young Arrow Person), who was suffering from a debilitating fungus infestation that was threatening to destroy his arm and perhaps even kill him. He attributed the affliction, which had failed to respond to the ministrations of an experienced shaman, to divine retribution for having violated a vow of sexual continence during his shamanic training and appeared resigned to his fate.

Susana refused to accept this and went to the UCLA Medical School, where specialists supplied her with a powerful drug over which the victim’s shaman sang a curing song and that did in fact cure him. Together they then initiated a long-term project of recording the complicated and esoteric details of his training as a “wolf shaman,” a specialized, and evidently quite rare, form of Huichol shamanism that may have been more prevalent in the distant past than it is today.

A talented artist, Ulu Temay illustrated his narratives with hundreds of colored drawings. It was in the course of this unique collaboration that he told her about the role of Kiéri (pronounced Kiéli by him) as an ally of shamans who train to receive their power from wolves (more correctly, the “wolf people”). There has been mention also of certain mushrooms, as yet unidentified but possibly fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), wolf shamans take to aid in learning the arts of transformation.

“Kieli is used by shamans and non-shamans,” Valadez wrote (1986:380), “for a variety of reasons: to excel in the shamanic arts, to become good artists, musicians or deer hunters, and for love spells. Different Kieli plants rule over these various powers, and the mara’akámes (shamans) dream about which plants pertain to the desires of each individual.”

However, Kieli will not stand for any sexual relationship outside marriage by either partner after one of them has vowed to it (the plant), a rule that stays in effect until a person completes with the plant for a period of five or ten years. And if an unmarried Huichol pledges himself to this plant, he is obligated to forego all sex until the vow is complete — “often a difficult restriction for the Huichols to maintain, in spite of the benefits.” On Kieli’s psychoactivity Valadez quotes her Huichol friend and consultant as follows:

Many people are afraid of Kieli because it can cause great harm to someone who doesn’t complete as he should. Most people don’t ingest the plant. It’s so powerful that just carrying a piece of the branch in one’s tacuatsi [shaman’s medicine basket] is enough to gain its powers. Those who ingest it suck the milk from the branches and feel ‘drunk’ like with the peyote.

Those who violate the taboos associated with the plant, the Huichol shaman told Valadez, turn into bewitchers who cast spells on people and who soon “will cause so much harm that someone will eventually kill them for revenge.” On the positive side, she was told, a man, or woman, who wishes to become a full-fledged shaman-singer but avoid the hardships of the five or more peyote pilgrimages ordinarily required for “completion” can do so by pledging to Kiéri as his or her patron. To do so would not preclude learning also from the divine peyote cactus, but it would not be the primary teacher.


Medical specialists do, in fact, warn of the dangers of overdosing with the tropane alkaloids present in Datura, Solandra, and other members of the Solanaceae (Ott 1979:66, 68, 72). According to Andrew Weil (1980:168), these can “produce fever, delirium, convulsions, and collapse.

Death may occur in children, the elderly, the debilitated, and any person usually sensitive to the antiparasympathetic effects.” In the abovementioned essay on Kiéri, Yasumoto (1996:244) cites an authoritative Japanese source as follows: “With a large quantity, it (scopolamine) paralyzes the central nervous system” and, “in the end, causes death due to heart failure after frenzied madness” (Sekai Daiyakka Jiten 1988, vol. 28:603).

Yasumoto (ibid.) adds that the phrase “after frenzied madness” appears “to describe the psychological aspect of scopolamine. Andrew Weil, a medical doctor as well as ethnopharmacologist, believes that the psychotropic effects of solanaceous plants such as Datura is due to scopolamine rather than hyoscyamine, and that therefore these solanaceous plants should be regarded as deliriants rather than psychedelics or hallucinogens.”

Indeed, as Weil and Rosen (1983:132) characterize the effects of solanaceous plants like Kiéri and its equivalents, the worlds they take people into “can be frightening, populated by monsters and devils and filled with violent, frenzied energy.” It is also worth citing Michael Harner, an ethnologist with considerable field experience among Amazonian peoples whose shamans employ preparations of Brugmansia as well as Datura: “Solanaceous hallucinogens are so powerful that it is essentially impossible for the user to control his mind and body sufficiently to perform ritual activity at the same time…Furthermore, there is some ethnographical evidence that too frequent use of the solanaceous drugs can permanently derange the mind” (Harner 1973:146, quoted by Yasumoto 1996:250). No wonder that even people who hope for benefits from Kiéri fear the plant or its personification as a dangerous sorcerer!

Fascinating and suggestive as all this was, it still left some crucial questions unanswered. For one thing, there was the old confusion of Kiéri as Datura, dating back to Zingg; for another there were the interesting possibilities, symbolic, historical, and ethnobotanical, raised by the striking resemblance of the dead Datura branches to deer antlers. Or could that have been simply fortuitous, without meaning?


Much of this was to be resolved in August 1989. The place was again Bandelier, and the occasion a visit with friends in Santa Fe, New Mexico, by Guadalupe de la Cruz Ríos, widow of our old friend and consultant Ramón Medina, who had lost his life in 1971 in a fight during ceremonial drinking. I had reestablished contact with this redoubtable elder of a large extended family in 1988, after an interval of seventeen years, Lupe, as she is known to her friends, expressed the wish to visit one of the “old places that belonged to the Indian ancestors.” Her hostess, Ada Browne, and I offered to show her the Bandelier ruins. Lupe, dressed in her Huichol finery for the occasion, beautifully embroidered by herself in the typical Huichol style, asked for candles, cookies, chocolate and cigarettes to leave as gifts to the ancestor spirits.

This is a woman who feels a real connectedness with anything to do with ancestors and their living descendants in the Rio Grande pueblos (the year before she had been an honored guest of the governor of Cochiti Pueblo), and in a sort of spontaneous pan-Indian way unhesitatingly appropriates them as her own. And so it was at Bandelier: confronted with her first Pueblo ruin she began to speak in an awed and respectful hush, except for the times when she prayed loudly in rapid-fire Huichol, e.g. at the Shrine of the Stone Lions, and at greater length and with much emotion on the rim of the sunken circular kiva in Tyuonyi ruin.

As far as she was concerned, this was an ancient tuki, the Huichol name for the native temples in the Sierra that share with the old kivas such features as the circular floor plan, niches, location of the fire pit, and central emergence hole (the sipapu of the Hopis).

As is customary in Huichol temple ritual, Lupe’s fervent prayer was intended to summon to this archaeological kiva all her own ancestor deities, male and female, on whom the Huichol shaman customarily calls to join the ceremonial gatherings in the Huichol tuki, led by the old fire god and divine patron of shamans, Tatewarí (Our Grandfather), the old white-haired earth and creator goddess Nakawé (Lumholtz’ “Grandmother Growth”), and, of course, the culture hero and primordial trickster Kauyumári, the Deer Person who is the principal helper of Tatewarí and, by extension, earthly shamans.

Lupe was quite overcome by the aura of the whole site, and at the conclusion of our visit — made all the more memorable for her when a browsing white-tailed doe crossed the trail right in front of her, stopping briefly with its long rabbit-like ears straight up to listen to her softly singing a little song to it — acknowledged her debt to the ancient inhabitants by depositing, with an emotion-charged prayer chant and tears coursing down her worn face, a lighted candle, cookies, flowers, and cigarettes (in lieu of the customary “Indian tobacco,” Nicotiana rustica) in a little cavity overlooking one of the National Park Service trails.

It was indeed very moving, this palpable communion of an elderly Huichol woman from Mexico — she was then in her early seventies – with the ancient Pueblos for whom she felt such instant kinship.

But for me the high point was her encounter, on the trail that runs past the multi-roomed Long House ruin, with an impressive specimen of Datura innoxia in full flower. Lupe does not see all that well anymore, but when she came close and recognized it for what it was, she first stood stock still, then stepped off the trail and circled the plant to examine it from all sides, all the while speaking to it in Huichol, with respect but no obvious fear, occasionally waving her arms and gesturing to the sun, the cardinal points, and the nearby architectural remains.

Then she turned to me: “Kiéri-xra!” “Is this Kiéri?” I asked. “No, no,” she said, “I told you, Kiéri-xra.” Not Kiéri but “like Kiéri,” similar to the real Kiéri. “It is bad,” she said, “this one.” And: this is the Kiéri about which Ramón told you and Barbara so long ago. The Kiéri of sorcerers, of witchcraft, the one who once appeared to her and Ramón while they were on a pilgrimage to Wirikúta, the sacred land of the peyote in San Luis Potosí, when he tried to mislead her into tasting some of his substance instead of peyote and thereby turn her into a witch, or even kill her.

She had told me about this fearful apparition in 1970, with the pride of one who had withstood the sorcerer’s wiles. “The good shamans shun it, they have nothing to do with it,” she said. “It is only for sorcerers, sorcerers use it to do their evil, to make people ill and to make them crazy, to deceive women. Kiéri Tahuákame he is called, because he is crazy. The bad Kiéri, the drunken one.5 Good shamans use peyote, they follow the peyote. The good Kiéri, he is used to cure people who have been bewitched by the bad Kiéri.

There was to be more from this knowledgeable woman, details of the relationship between the different Kiéris, good and bad, and between Kiéri and the culture hero Kauyumári and peyote — details that, as new information so often does in this kind of research, raised as many new questions as they answered or clarified old ones.

The one question to which she lent some real illumination concerned the putative relationship between Datura and deer. Although they eventually became irreconcilable adversaries, Kauyumári and Kiéri, whatever his taxonomy, were both born as deer. As such they were, according to Lupe, primos hermanos, first cousins, except that Kauyumári was the light deer, the deer of the day, and Kiéri the dark deer, the black deer, deer of the night.

So here she had given us, without any prompting, the connection between Datura that a few years earlier had suggested itself by in the bleached “antlers” of another Datura at Bandelier.

Shaking her head and wagging her finger at the Datura in front of Long House ruin, Lupe said: “He wanted to be as great as Kauyumári. But he could not do it. All his power was for craziness, This is why bad shamans, those who are sorcerers, follow him today.” With that she walked away, stopping once to turn and call out something in Huichol that might have been an invocation or supplication against any harm that might befall her, or us, from the plant, and went on to her chance encounter with the deer and to look for a suitable place for the gifts to her temporarily adopted Pueblo ancestors.

On the drive back Lupe elaborated on the rivalry between the two deer, the deer of the day and the deer of the night, and their respective personifications. “Ramón,” she said of her late husband, “he knew all these things.” And she repeated some of the narrative that dramatized their ancient rivalry, when the culture hero “killed” his adversary with the fifth of five successive arrows, having first “copied” everything the other did and appropriated it for his own, and protecting himself with the divine peyote against the string of diseases the other spewed forth like brilliantly colored streams as he fell and, to all appearances, breathed his last.

But as Ramón had concluded his mythic dramatization of what in historic terms may have been an ancient rivalry between a peyote-based religion and a visionary shamanism focused on one or more solanaceous “entheogens,” ending in the triumph of the former, the bad Kiéri did not really die. Instead he was blown by a wind to a distant rocky place where he again took root and flourished as what Huichols call “the tree of the wind.”


What about the so-called deer of the night, the “black deer” of Lupe’s elaboration of Ramón’s myth? Is this, like the deer of different colors associated with the cardinal points, a construct of the mind? Or does it have a natural model?

The deer species with which Huichols are most familiar, and whose ceremonial hunt was for centuries the indispensable prerequisite for every ritual of consequence, the deer that figures most prominently in myth and cosmology is the white tailed, or Virginia, deer, Odocoileus virginianus.

It is this ungulate with which Huichols identify peyote and their culture hero Kauyumári. Several of its sub-species are found in their environment or in areas which they visit, e.g. on the peyote pilgrimage to the north-central high desert and other sacred places associated with the ancestors and their migrations.

The Huichols lay particular stress on the prominent tail, to the point where one of their principal male ancestor deities bears the name Maxa Kwaxí, Deer Tail, with the ritual kinship designation Tatutsi, Great-grandfather, or, alternately, Tamat(si), Elder Brother. He is also symbolized by a prayer wand made from a deer plume. The deer tail one sees most often among Huichol power objects is light-colored, probably from the subspecies O. virginianus couesi. Another local subspecies, O. virginianus miquihuanensis, has a much darker tail, often entirely black.

The latter could conceivably have served as the natural model for the black deer of Kiéri mythology, were it not for a much more dramatic phenomenon — that of melanism. Though rarer even than albinism, cases of partial melanism in Virginia deer have been reported in North America, specifically from the Adirondacks in New York State and Idaho, and there have even been sightings of bucks with all-black or blue-black coats (Kellogg 1956, 89-90).

There is no reason to suppose that, however uncommon, partially or all-black Virginia deer have not also been observed by Mexican Indians, especially the Huichols, whose visits to sacred places situated from the Pacific coast far inland to the north-central desert, as well as north and south of the Sierra Huichol, take them all over the natural range of different sub-species of Virginia deer. Nor is it insignificant that oddities such as all-white or all-black deer tend to become outcasts, perhaps, one might venture, because instinct tells their fellows that their unusual coloration might draw the attention of predators and thereby endanger the larger family group in which deer customarily move: just so is the drunken, or “crazy,” Kiéri shunned by good people.

All this underscores not only the role of natural history observation and natural modeling in the way people order, interpret and symbolize their intellectual as well as their natural universe, but also of the periodic need to reexamine and, where indicated, amend and correct earlier work in light of new data and insights.

In our original Kiéri essay of thirty years ago, Barbara Myerhoff and I proposed that the epic struggle between Kauyumári and Kiéri might tell us something of Huichol ancestry and religious history. Perhaps, we ventured, Ramón’s narrative framed in the language and imagery of myth a religious reform, during which a solanaceous species with tropane alkaloids that trigger visionary states but also pose physiological dangers, came to be replaced by the far more benign native of the north-central desert, the peyote cactus.

Mescaline is the principal agent responsible for the colorful visions characteristic of peyote ingestion, and mescaline, like the other peyote alkaloids, is structurally related to neurohormones present in the brain that “play an essential role in the biochemistry of psychic functions” (Schultes and Hofmann 1973, 20-21). In contrast, the tropane alkaloids of the Solanaceae possess no such chemical-structural relationships to compounds naturally present in the human body.

Whether the Kiéri of Zingg’s myths, collected in the mid-nineteen thirties, and Ramón’s narrative of thirty years later was the visionary deliriant the Aztecs called toloatzin or tolohuaxihuitl, in other words, Datura, or whether it was tecomaxochitl, i.e. Solandra, is essentially immaterial, for both share a similar chemistry and both have comparable drawbacks. What matters, in the end, is that they have dangerous potential, while peyote does not.

If there was such a “reformation” it would help explain why many, though admittedly by no means all, Huichols hold Kiéri to be, while sacred and one of the kakauyárite, the divine ones of the First Times, an evil sorcerer and dangerous to health and happiness, while peyote is invariably beneficent. For that is the way of the replacement of one religion by another: the sacred beings of the former become the devils of the latter.

Peyote, of course, is native not to the territory in which the Huichols have been living at least since they were first mentioned in the Spanish colonial literature, that is, the Sierra Madre Occidental. Nevertheless, a substantial body of ethnohistoric and circumstantial evidence argues in favor of a long-ago migration westward of a body of Guachichil-Chichimecs from the same high desert to which Huichols travel each year to gather peyote, finally settling in the Sierra Madre Occidental, under the leadership of a charismatic shaman chief (cf. Furst 1996).

This legendary shaman-chief’s name happens to be Maxa Kwaxí, Deer Tail. Tradition has it that this real-life Maxa Kwaxí introduced peyote to the people he found living in the Sierra Madre Occidental. And tradition has it also that the mummified corpse of this culture hero is hidden in one of the sanctified caves in Teakata, the most sacred place in the Huichol country, located in the comunidad of Santa Catarina.

“Ever since the earliest Spanish days,” wrote the well-known Americanist J. Alden Mason sixty years ago, “the Huichols have been regarded as connected with the extinct Guachichil far to the east of the present Huichol territory, and the fact that the latter make long journeys into former Guachichil territory to gather peyote that does not grow in their present habitat affords ethnological corroboration of the close relationship” (1936, 191).

There is equally good reason to make a connection between just such a historic migration and the present-day uneasy coexistence between a limited, if not yet vanishing, solanaceous “cult” in Huichol visionary shamanism, and the far more pervasive fascination with peyote, one that is so central and vital to “being Huichol” that it can be taken as THE cultural marker for this, the most genuinely “traditional,” of Mexican Indian peoples.



1. A different, earlier version of this paper appeared in the Journal of Latin American Lore 15:2 (1989), pp. 155-177.
2. Knab’s use of “god-plant” is interesting, because it fits with Jonathan Ott’s preference for “entheogen” (“god within”), originally coined by R. Gordon Wasson et al, over the value-laden “hallucinogen” for plants employed for visionary intoxication, on the grounds that their indigenous users themselves ascribe the effects to divine powers residing in these species.
3. r and l sound similar in Huichol, but are more like one or the other depending on regional dialect.
4. Valadez is speaking of Solandra, but love magic happens also to be one of the uses to which preparations of Datura are put by Mestizo curanderos and curanderas.
5. See Yasumoto 1996 for a discussion of the “drunken Kiéri”.


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Reprinted with permission from Peter T. Furst, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, U. of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology