At this point it may be interesting to consider briefly the sacred rites with which the Indians have surrounded the mescal plant. These rites have been vaguely known for a very long time and were referred to by early travelers, like Hernandez and Sahagun. Father Ortega, on account of its hallucinatory properties, named it Raiz diabolica, devil's root.
The first reliable account of its use in modern times was given by Mr. Mooney from his experience of the Kiowa Indians on the Kiowa Reservation in Indian Territory. The religious ceremonies of these Indians usually take place on Saturday night; the men, having obtained a supply of the drug which is brought by traders from Mexico, seat themselves in a circle round a large camp fire within the tent. After prayer, the leader hands each man four buttons. One of these, freed from the tuft of hairs, is put into the mouth, thoroughly softened, ejected into the palm of the hand, rolled into a bolus and swallowed. Ten or twelve buttons are thus taken at intervals between sundown and 3 a. m., with the accompaniment of occasional prayers and rites. Throughout the ceremony the camp-fire is kept burning brightly and attendants maintain a continual beating of drums. The Indians sit quietly throughout, from sundown to noon of the next day, and as the effect wears off they get up and go about their work, without experiencing depression or unpleasant after-effects. On the day following they abstain, from ritual reasons, from using salt with their food. These and similar rites have become the chief religion of the tribes of the southern plain, to such an extent that the Christian missionaries, unable to grapple with the mescal cult by spiritual weapons, fell back on the secular arm and induced the government authorities at Washington to prohibit mescal under severe penalties. Nevertheless its use still persists.
Although the propaganda of the mescal cult among the Indians of the United States has thus been highly successful, it is fairly clear that much of its primitive religious significance has here been lost. We may understand how this is when we know that the Kiowa Indians are immigrants from the south; they come from the Rio Grande, and it is from the Rio Grande that they still obtain their mescal. Mexico is the chief home alike of the mescal plant and of the mescal rites in their primitive purity. It is to Mexico that we have to turn to realize their primitive significance.
As used by the Indians of the Nayarit Sierra in the province of Xalisco, mescal (or peyote, as it is here commonly called) has been described by Diguet. Mescal is regarded by these Indians as a food of
- Léon Diguet, Nouvelles archives des missions scientifiques, Vol. IX., 1899, pp. 621-625.