San Pedro-- an introduction to the cactus of four winds http://robinflynn.blogspot.com/2008/10/chapter-four-introduction-to-cactus-of.html by Robin Flynn San Pedro is the Christianized name given to the psychoactive cacti within the Trichocereus genus. This family of columnar cacti is native to the dry eastern mountains of the Andes. Of this genus Trichocereus pachanoi or Trichocereus peruvianus are used as plant-spirit medicines. These are known by the indigenous names Huachuma (Andean), Achuma (Bolivia), Aguacolla and Giganton (Ecuador). There is a wealth of lore around this ancient and magical plant. It is said to be the “Cactus of the Four Winds,” the cactus of vision that opens the gateway to heaven. This night blooming cactus is the most ancient and revered of plant teachers in Northern Peru and is referred to by Andean people of today as the “maestro of maestros” which “enables the shaman to open a portal between the invisible and visible worlds for his or her people… Its Quechua name is punku, which means “doorway” (Heaven/Charing 2006: 92.) In this chapter I will discuss the known bio-chemical structure of Huachuma, its history, current use, and some of the lore and controversy surrounding the plant. The Active Chemistry of Huachuma Huachuma is usually prepared for ingestion through a decoction process. The photosyntheic outer layer of the cactus contains most of the active bio-chemical constituents. Once the spikes are removed the cactus is sliced down each of the ribs (ranging from 4-9). The white pulpy interior is discarded, used in topical politices or made into soap, and the inch thick green skin is cubed and boiled for 3-12 hours. This thick, dark green viscous tea is then drunk at the beginning of a ceremony. The effects of the Huachuma tea can last anywhere from 10-15 hours. The nausea and purging associated with Peyote (another entheogenic cactus) is mild or non-existent. Purging is rare but does happen. The flavor of the brew, like that of Ayahuasca, is tolerable the first few sessions and then becomes more and more disagreeable. Although I have read some reports from individuals online who have eaten the cactus raw, this seems most unpleasant and sure to produce nausea. A plant preparation called contrachisa is made from the outer skin and used to induce purging by some maestros in order to clean out spiritual toxins and “make room for San Pedro so the visions will come” before the tea is given (Heaven/Charing 2005: 94.) San Pedro contains a number of alkaloids, including mescaline (0.21 - 1.8%), anhalonidine, anhalinine, hordenine, tyramine, 3-methoxytyramine, and a number of phenethylamines (3,4-dimethoxyphenethylamine, 4-hydroxy-3-methoxyphenethylamine, 3-hydroxy-4,5-dimethoxyphenethylamine, 4-hydroxy-3,5-dimethoxyphenethylamine.) Although it is not known what the precise role of every one of these is within the consciousness altering effects and medicinely beneficial qualities of the cacti, the effect of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For San Pedro is a true medicine that gains its power from a rich diversification within its bio-chemical structure. As mentioned, one of the synergistic alkaloids found in the Huachuma cactus is mescaline. In 1897 mescaline was first isolated and identified by Arthur Heftner, and synthesized by Ernest Spath in 1919 (www.erowid.org.) This is the main alkaloid responsible for the visual and consciousness expanding effects of San Pedro. Mescaline is identified with increasing acuteness of the senses. Colors become brighter and more vivid; textures sing out in newfound gradation. There is a visual alteration that comes in the form of patterned imagery. I have seen honeycomb grids, much like the actual structure of the molecule, sweep through my vision, living things seeming to emit bio-photonic light in undulating waves. All things breathe. Communication occurs across time and space. A sense of complete oneness with creation and others in the ceremony is married with a deep sense of empathy for inanimate and living things. Found in San Pedro, phenethylamines are both a naturally occurring compound found in both the animal and plant kingdoms, are produced in the deep tissues of the human brain, and can be sythsized. Phenethylamines are quite a famous family of chemicals in the counter-culture of our times. Alexander Shulgin, a chemist and pharmacist, developed hundreds of combinations of synthetic phenethylamines. Among the most famous of these is MDMA (N-Methyl-3,4-methylenedioxy-A) also known as “Ecstasy.” Less well known combinations one hears rattled off by “experienced travelers” include MDA and 2C-B. In the book PIHKAL- A Chemical Love Story, co-authored by Alexander and Ann Shulgin, there is an extensive listing of all the phenethylamines explored by Shuglin. Only one of San Pedro’s constituents is mentioned in this book, 3,4-dimethoxyphenethylamine, and it was found to have an insignificant effect on consciousness. Perhaps this was due to 3,4-dimethoxyphenethylamine being studied in isolation rather than in combination with other alkaloids found in San Pedro. Another one of these alkaloids in San Pedro is anhalonidine, which produces low levels of sedation and sleepiness without sleep (Shulgin 1972: lecture.) Another, hordenine suppresses the appetite through stimulating a release of norepinephrine. This is an excitatory hormone that stimulates the nervous system, and helps the body burn fat (Schweitzer/Wright 1938: article.) This could be the element responsible for the usual lack of hunger for the first 6-8 hrs after drinking Huachuma. Hordenine has also been shown to inhibit the growth of several strains of staphylococcus bacteria that are resistant to penicillin. This bacterium causes an infection commonly known as Staph, which is a serious, potentially fatal condition that preys on individuals with weak immune systems. It is most often contracted in hospitals after surgery. More research needs to be done on the application of San Pedro in helping the body fight of this malicious infection. This is the information found by western science through the process of studying the isolated constituents of the cacti. The shamans of South America have used it for centuries to help diagnose and treat illness, heal a myriad of health issues: alcoholism, mental disorders, fungal infections, fevers, regulating blood pressure, urinary track infections, as well as removing witchcraft. Poultices of the stem are used externally to treat skin infections of all types and dandruff because it is anti-microbial. It also helps to reduce scarring. My own observations have shown Huachuma to be a diuretic, cleansing the blood by a rapid detoxification of the kidneys through the urine, as well as soothing and balancing the nervous system. Therefore it is important while under the effects of the plant; to maintain a good balance of electrolytes, blood salts like magnesium, potassium and calcium. When participants do not adequately hydrate themselves while on Huachuma, they can experience the effects of dehydration at the end of a ceremony, this can include headaches and muscle cramps. The shaman that I worked with in Peru made a point to always have us drink lots of limeade and water throughout the day, as well as eat chocolate, nature’s most abundant source of magnesium. Fresh limejuice enhances water, giving it vitality through living enzymes, vitamin C, and trace mineral nutrients which aide in detoxification. I noticed that taking San Pedro while staying hydrated and eating proper nutrients helped balance unfriendly yeast bacteria in my system. Candida had been an issue for me since taking pharmaceutical antibiotics and birth control in my teens. I also lost the desire to drink alcohol after my first five sessions. Preparation for Ingesting Huachuma In contrast to Ayahuasca, Huachuma has relatively few preparatory restrictions prior to ingestion. Pork is to be avoided at least a week prior to ingestion and as long after as possible (as with Ayahuasca.) This meat, according to a maestro I worked with in Peru, is spiritually dirty and the plant-spirits dislike it. It contains heavy, toxic energy that makes the medicine less effective. Pigs eat just about everything, including their feces and the dead remains of there own kind. Pork, as all meat, transports parasites and the environmental toxins that the animals were raised in directly into the body, as well as all of the stress hormones the animal produced during slaughtering. In Shamanism there is no differentiation between the physical toxicity of a substance and its spiritual toxicity. The day of the ceremony one should eat a light breakfast, if anything at all. The timing of ingestion is dependent on the lineage of the shaman. Within the lineage of the shaman I worked with the ceremony is started mid-day, so that one experiences the balance of light and dark, and the transition between the two at sunset. The work of Douglas Sharon and Wade Davis indicates that the shamans of the sacred lagoons at Huancabamba hold exclusively night ceremonies (Davis 1998: 8.) The ceremony is opened and closed at the curing altar or “Mesa.” The Mesa consists of a cloth placed on the ground upon which the shaman places objects of power and significance. The composition of each mesa is as individual as the shaman, and the arrangement of these items differs from ceremony to ceremony (Trout 2005: 114.) The totem items placed on the cloth guide and aide the shaman in healing and are called artes. Carved staffs, crystals, and rocks from specific Apus (mountain spirits) or holy sites, feathers, bones, carved figurines, and any other object of great personal or symbolic power can be an artes. Maestro shaman Juan Narvarro said: "The artes bring magical qualities to the ceremony where, under the visionary influence of San Pedro, their invisible powers may be seen and experienced. The maestro’s mesa, on which these artes sit, is a representation of the forces of nature and the cosmos. Through the mesa the shaman is able to work with and influence these forces to diagnose and heal disease. (Heaven/Charing 2005: 93)" History of Huachuma Usage This is a plant-spirit medicine that has been in unbroken use in Peru since at least 1400 b.c.e. (some say the site is as old as 3500 b.c.e.) when it was used as the main sacrament at the Andean site of Chavin. This peaceful, artisan culture produced masterpieces of carved art portraying anthropomorphic beings, especially animal-human hybrids, holding Huachuma. Its depiction is found in cultural iconography spanning thousands of years and miles. "Shrouded in mystery, the cult of Chavin arose from an oracular shrine, a temple of stone which cradled and then brought forth a new belief, a spiritual conviction of unknown character but of such immense authority and power that within a century its worship had spread north and south, encompassing all the central Andes and reaching west as far as the sea. (Davis 1998: 5)" The Nazca culture (300 b.c.e. - 800 b.c.e.) and Paracas culture (750 b.c.e.- 100 b.c.e.) both highly developed coastal cultures, decorated their ceremonial and burial ceramic vessels with its spined image. The famous Nazca mummies were buried with Huachuma coming out of their shoulders; “symbols that the deceased would be born again out of darkness, just as the cactus blossom emerges in the early hours before dawn” (Davis 1998: 7.) Huachuma was used by the Lambayeque culture (800 b.c.e. - 1200 b.c.e.) in lunar rites and still to this day is harvested in some parts of Peru by women during the full moon (Trout 2005: 106 & 110.) The Moche culture also referred to as the Mochica, of Northern Peru, used Huachuma in elaborate ceremonies involving hundreds to thousands of people. From the profusion of its depiction we can assume that it was exceptionally culturally significant to virtually all-coastal cultures of northwestern South America. I refer to my experiences at some of these sites and go into greater depth on their history in the following chapter, which documents my own experiences with the plant-spirit medicine. The Catholic conquistadors and their priests condemned Huachuma, like Ayahuasca and virtually all-indigenous entheogens, as a product of the devil. Its perceived diabolical nature once again justified the “god-given” right of the oppressors to force Christianity on the natives, steal their land, and persecute any individual or group that did not conform. It is interesting though that the few written accounts by Europeans of the use of Huachuma by Indians briefly note its medicinal qualities while calling it a product of evil. The 1653 account of Father Benrabe Cobe shows the bias against the cactus: "This is the plant with which the devil deceived the Indians of Peru in their paganism, using it for their lies and superstitions. Having drunk the juice of it, those who drink lose consciousness and remain as if dead; and it has been seen that some have died because of great frigidity to the brain. Transported by this drink, the Indians dreamed a thousand absurdities and believed them as if they were true…. One can use its juice against fevers…(Trout 2005: 108)" An ecclesiastical report from Spanish arrivals in Peru said: "That the shamans “drink a beverage they call Achuma which is a water they make from the sap of some thick and smooth cacti…as it is very strong after they drink it they remain deprived of their senses, and they see visions that the devil represents to them. (Shultes/Hoffman/Ratsch 1992: 166)" Another Christian missionary had this to say about the brew: "It is a plant with whose aid the devil is able to strengthen the Indians in their idolatry; those who drink its juice lose their senses and are as if dead; they are almost carried away by the drink and dream a thousand unusual things and believe that they are true. The juice is good against burning of the kidneys and, in small amounts, is also good against high fever, hepatitis, and burning in the bladder. (Attributed to Christian Ratsch by www.mescaline.com)" I imagine that there had to be a few inquisitive and adventurous Old World individuals who participated in these indigenous ceremonies and had positive experiences. These accounts were obviously not recorded for they would be proof of idolatry and thus justification for torture and possibly death under the inquisitional Catholic overlords. The research I have undertaken so far suggests that as an entheogen Huachuma is unique in the way that the indigenous people of Peru have merged its spiritual qualities with those of the catholic figure St. Peter or San Pedro who holds the keys to heaven. This is no doubt a response by the indigenous people to the violent suppression by the Church of anyone even suspected of not completely embracing its doctrine. I found this creative response by the people to be indicative of the deep importance this plant-teacher played in the lives of Andean people. Even in the present Christianized mythology of this area, there is a legend told that God hid the keys to Heaven in a secret place and that San Pedro (St. Peter) used the magical powers of a cactus to find this place so the people of the world could share in paradise. The cactus was named after him out of respect from his Promethean intervention on the behalf of men. (Heaven/Charing 2006: 92) The modern use of San Pedro (as well as Ayahuasca by mestizos) among South Americans is an amalgamation of pagan and Christian elements. A wide pantheon of deities is often invoked within ceremonies. I observed this as a motto of “the more help the better.” Huachuma is called the “Cactus of the Four Winds”. The number four is very sacred to the indigenous cosmology of the Andes, as well as to many people and cultures all around the world. It is associated with the four directions, the winds or spirits that each direction houses, and that are always called upon during ceremony. The Incan empire was also divided into four regions of earth. From Cusco, a sacred city and the heart of the empire, a road departed in each direction (http://www.ayahuasca-shamanism.co.uk/Huachuma-SanPedro.htm). The four-ribbed Huachuma is seen as the most sacred and magical of the cacti. These are very rare, and finding one is an auspicious act. The San Pedro shaman Juan Navarro said in an interview with Heaven and Charing in Plant-Spirit Shamanism: "San Pedro helps the maestro see what the problem is with his patient before any of the healing begins. The cactus is a powerful teacher plant. It has a certain mystery to it and the healer must also be compatible with it. It won’t work for everybody, but the maestro has a special relationship with its spirit. When it is taken by a patient it circulates in his body and where is finds abnormality it enables the shaman to detect it. It lets him know the pain the patient feels and wherein his body it is. So it is the link between the patient and the maestro. It also purifies the blood of the person who drinks it and balances the nervous system so people lose their fears and are charged with positive energy. (Heaven/Charing 2006: 94)" Current Status of Huachuma Study and Use Due to its beautiful white night blooming flowers, whimsical green columns, and ability to grown in colder climates, San Pedro, is often grown as an ornamental cactus. One can find various members of the Trichocereus genus at home and garden stores all across the United States, Canada, and Europe. Mescaline, like DMT, is illegal and classified as a schedule one substance under the Federal Controlled Substances Act. It is not, however, illegal to grow or sell mescaline-containing cacti. If the plant is in a dried or powdered form it could potentially be illegal if police could prove that the intent of the owner is to ingest it. This is a gray area of the law. So far there have been no cases brought to court against Huachuma use. I find it important to note at this time that San Pedro, as well as Ayahuasca and Peyote, have never been linked to a verifiable death. Even the use of synthetic mescaline in large doses, up to 8 grams, has shown no harm to normal people. "Mescaline containing cacti poses NO risk (other than legal), either in terms of health or psychiatric well being to any normal, or even half way sane, individual who uses them knowingly and voluntarily. (Original Italics)(Trout 2005: 26)" Mind-altering substances such as mescaline and LSD were used in experiments by psychiatrists and the US government on institutionalized mentally ill people, as well as by Nazi doctors in German concentration camps (www.erowid.org.) This unethical use of mind-altering substances often produced great fear and anxiety in the test subjects. I have met people who were unwittingly “dosed” at parties with LSD or marijuana and all remarked on the extreme sense of vulnerability, fear, and dislocation that came with the experience. This is where set and setting become of great importance to the overall experience of anyone entering any altered state. If one does not take into account factors such as mental state and environment (people, place, and weather) there is a higher likelihood of having an unproductive experience. The ceremonial use of Huachuma as a plant-spirit medicine offers great potential to people who are seeking help with a variety of emotional and physical ailments. The most important of these in my mind is addiction recovery. Huachuma has been used in Peru to overcome alcoholism and drug addiction (Mabit 2006: article). A close friend of mine reported that after two ceremonies she no longer desired cocaine, a substance that she had been addicted to for 3 years and the use of which was severely harming her relationships. She has been cocaine free for over six months at this point. In a culture where addiction is rampant (to alcohol, food, food additives, cigarettes, TV, shopping, pharmaceuticals and illegal drugs) we in the west are sorely in need of solutions. These solutions do not just have an effect on individual lives by improving health and relationships, but on the planet, for they are connected to our consumption patterns, stagnant lifestyles, and disabling apathy that are enabling governments and big business to rape the earth and rob the inheritance of future generations. The potential of engaging this plant in a ceremonial context to help heal the Western mind is huge. I will end this chapter with a short anecdote. While in Peru I met a woman from South Africa who owned a guesthouse and restaurant in Cusco. We became acquainted while I stayed at her hostel. She was an abundant source of information about local shamans and had been training with a Huachuma shaman in the area for over a decade. She had a wealth of knowledge about how to brew, grow, and travel with the cactus. An experience she shared about Huachuma opened my heart and eyes to the wild possibilities that this plant-spirit medicine holds. I will paraphrase her story. One of her twin sons had been diagnosed with a severe form of cancer. He was not open or interested in non-traditional approaches. After a couple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, the cancer still thrived. This was a process that happened over a couple years and by the time she insisted that he come to Peru and see what the shamans could do, he was willing to try anything. After just one Huachuma ceremony he began feeling better and when he to the doctor a month later there was no sign of the cancer- none! In telling this she was very sincere and believes that it was the spirit of this cactus that saved her son’s life.