Culture, Art and Healing in the Huichol Community – Mexico
Descendents of the Aztec, the Huichol number about 18,000, most of whom live in the sierra of Jalisco and Nayarit in Mexico. Having withstood the Spanish Invasion, they are still striving to keep their culture alive and viable, despite the ever increasing physical and cultural encroachment of their Mexican neighbors. Peyote plant is a focal point for their ceremonies, and their colorful beadwork and yarnwork reflects a reverent and symbiotic relationship with nature.
RITUAL AND ART
The homeland of the Huichols is remote. It is protected from the outside by the difficult access to its communities in remote parts of the Sierra Madre Mountains in the states of Jalisco and Nayarit. Due to the isolation of its villages, the people have until recently managed to resist all but the most minor modifications from western sources. As a result, their art - synonymous with religious devotion - has remained in tact and intensely personal.
The word, Huichol, derived from Wirrarika, is the original name of these indigenous people. It means soothsayer or medicine man. The medicine man is the shaman who links the community with the "other world" from where their creativity pours forth as a gift from their deified ancestors to be given back as offerings to the gods.
Because the Huichol believe God has given them everything including their talents and abilities, pilgrimages are made every year by families as well as single individuals, young and old, to the sacred land of Wirikuta to hunt the Blue Deer (peyote). They bring with them offerings in return for the gift of making art and entering the priesthood. The ceremonial offerings include pictures, masks and candles and are considered material forms of prayer.
The Huichol believe their deified ancient ancestors, the First People, once dwelled in Wirikuta and were driven out into the Sierra Madre Occidental to now live a mortal agrarian existence. The Wirikuta desert is located to the northeast of the present Huichol communities. The pilgrims, led by a mara'akame (shaman) to cleanse the way, travel 600 miles round trip to re-enter the sacred land.
During the trip, they perform a series of rituals and ceremonies to transform themselves into deities. At different locations, they adopt more and more of their divine identities and assume the feelings and attitudes attributed to the First People.
If the ceremonial thoughts and actions are properly performed, the peyote will be found and "slain" with a bow and arrow. A slice of peyote will be given to each of the "peyoteros" who will then have their own personal visions. They will talk to God, receive instructions about how to proceed and will, thereafter, sing, cure, or create.
This moment of the sharing of the peyote is the fulfillment of the highest goals in Huichol religious life. They have traveled to paradise, transformed themselves into deities, communed with the gods with whom they don't stay long, and then return as mortals.
From the ecstasy of that experience the artwork of the people is born. In the Huichol culture, there can be no art without religion or religion without art. Religion is not a part of life. It is life. The gods are everywhere including the trees, hills and lakes. Even the lowly stone has a soul. These intensely religious people immerse themselves throughout their lives in this awareness through ritual and the execution of sacred symbols.
Art is the people's means of direct communication with the deities. It is meant to ensure prosperity, health and fertility, and bountiful crops. Its application promotes the general welfare of the community and is always functional as well as beautiful.
"Jicuri", the peyote plant is prominent in Huichol art. It is the plant of life that promotes harmonious relations with the gods. Sometime it's represented as the original ear of corn because both carry the colors of white, yellowish green, red and blue. Sometimes it's represented as antlers, which is a symbol of the first jicuri. All three representations hold the same meaning in Huichol myth and are interchangeable in symbolic meaning.
Another prominent symbol in Huichol art is the serpent. Because it protects corn and peyote, it is one of the most powerful animals in the Huichol cosmogony. Four female deities are represented by the serpent: Rapabiyema, the blue serpent, who lives in the south. Kapuri, the white serpent, who lives in the north. Sakaymura, the black serpent, who lives in the west. And Vaaliwa'me, the earth mother and red serpent, who lives in the east.
The Huichol people are a culture in transition as modern life encroaches upon their traditional ways. Many have migrated to cities such as Tepic and Guadalajara; others struggle with poverty, land-invasion and illness caused by pesticides in tobacco plantations where many find work as day laborers.