Huichol art, a matter of survival III: Motifs and symbolism

articles Culture & Arts

Ronald A. Barnett ©

Mexican History

In Parts One and Two, we looked at certain aspects of Huichol art as it is found on the market today, especially the question of its “authenticity” and the commercialization of traditional Huichol religious symbolism and decorative art. We touched on some of the better known artistic creations, such as the colourful yarn or bead paintings and the Huichol cross or “Eyes of God,” as it is popularly, if not entirely correctly, known. As mentioned previously, Huichol art is even more prolific today than it was during the years 1890 to 1898 when Carl Lumholtz, the Norwegian explorer and ethnographer, first visited the Huichol and recorded their symbolic and decorative art in such remarkable detail that we are able to make direct comparisons between Huichol art then and now. The major difference is that today Huichol artisans have a much greater variety of imported and commercial materials with which to work, but many traditional designs and functions have been preserved to the present day.

Huichol decorative art includes graphic representations of nature, animals, and ritual objects, such as candles used in offerings, usually with some religious connotation. The butterfly motif is reminiscent of Itzpapalotl (the Obsidian Butterfly), a principal deity of the classical Aztecs, whom the Huichols claim as their ancestors. The eagle symbol is particularly important. Traditionally, there were seven eagles represented in Huichol religion. Werika Wimari, the mother eagle, resides in the centre of the sky or in the region of the dead. She and the eagles Tusha and Ralú together form a trilogy in the centre of the sky. Four other eagles occupy the four cardinal points. The eagles are important because their feathers impart special powers to the shaman. The eagle (or the hawk) flies high and so sees everything. Without the muwieries (sacred prayer arrows) of eagle or hawk feathers, the shaman has no power. Other motifs include sun and moon, often shown as a double face, sun and moon facing each other (on ceramics, etc.), and other natural objects. One original yarn painting shows the shaman on his pathway upwards to the Otherworld beset by lightning bolts and other obstacles as he goes in search of the crystal spirit of a departed shaman. Such religious symbolism is found on embroidered costumes, side bags, and in yarn paintings, especially the deer, the maize, and the peyote motifs.

The deer motif is quite common. Traditionally, deer deities are very numerous and very significant. Tamatz Kayaumari (“Our Elder Brother Deer Tail”) is the chief deer, lord of the animals. He has two brothers. The elder, Ushikuikame, sits at his right side, the younger, Watemukame, on the left. The trilogy of the three deer brothers is paralleled in real life by the presence of the mara’akame flanked by his two assistants. A few years ago I attended a curing ceremony at Canacinta near Ajijic, which reflected this motif. The chief mara’akame (shaman-priest) sat in his shaman’s chair holding the muwieris and chanting, while his assistants took up the chorus when he rested or ate some peyote. During the ceremony, the assistant mara’akame explained to us (in Spanish) that the head shaman was reading the book of life of the patient, searching for the cause of the illness and its cure.

Maize or native corn for tortillas is of primary importance as a major food supply but it is also central to Huichol religious belief, for it was Watakame (a deer deity), the sower or clearer of the fields, who first taught agricultural methods to the Huichol. The maize is thought of as having a nature or “essence” of its own, like that of a human being. It is therefore a source of much metaphysical and speculative thought amongst Huichol shamans and wise men. It is also a common motif in yarn paintings.

Peyote is represented as round peyote buds on yarn paintings. The sacred cactus, which is gathered annually in the deserts of San Luis Potosí, is the magical elixir that binds together the deer, the maize, and peyote. Peyote is both plant and animal, and so transcends all boundaries. Through its use, the mara’akame receives his visions, which he passes on to the people in his songs and chants. The deer-maize-peyote complex symbolizes the entire life cycle of the Huichol people; it represents the continuity of life on all its historical, cultural, and religious levels. Each symbol within the Trinity is an aspect of the other, so that the maize requires deer blood in order to grow, the deer cannot be sacrificed until after the peyote hunt, which in turn leads to the most important event in the Huichol religious calendar, the Hikuri Neirra or Peyote Fiesta. Peyote is to the Huichol religion what coffee is to Islam, tea is to Buddhism, and wine is to the Eucharist of the Catholic church. For the Huichol, Dios Hikuri — the Peyote God — is beyond time and space, free of sex or gender, existing only in and for itself. Long ago, the Huichol discovered for themselves that we humans need a strong sense of the past, meaningful work or activity in the present, and a means of release or escape into a world beyond time and space in order to preserve our sanity. This is the essential meaning of the deer-maize-peyote complex.

Lumholtz left us not only detailed descriptions of the clothes the Huichol wore at the end of the 19th century, but also photos of these ancestors of the modern Huichol. In those days, Huichol men dressed more simply and less ornately than now. In place of the pantalones of today, the men wore long shirts made of coarse cotton cloth or woven from wool, often decorated with embroidery, the legs left bare. The shirt was held in place by long artistically woven wool or cotton waistbands. Richer ones wore two or more one on top of the other. A small shawl or neckerchief of cotton cloth, richly embroidered with red and blue thread and a wide band of red flannel at the lower edge was thrown over the shoulders. As today, the men wore pouches made of cotton or wool, worked in various elaborate designs. Two or three such bags hung from the shoulders with one special pouch suspended in front of and below the waistband for tobacco, flint and steel for striking fire, etc. Other small, strictly ornamental pouches were worn in front of the waistband. Generally only the men wore handmade straw hats. Today Huichol men cover their legs with loose-fitting pantalones, often very elaborately embroidered. They still carry the intricately woven pouches but not the small frontal pouch for flint and steel that Lumholtz described. They use matches like the rest of us. The women wore short skirts and cotton cloth tunics, sometimes nicely embroidered. Huichol women today dress much as they did in Lumholtz’s day, except they have more colourful commercial cloth and yarn available with which to work their designs.

I can do no better here than repeat my friend Gregorio’s words delivered in front of the calihuey (god house) in 1992: “Our ancestors left us with various things. The clothes they wore were made of wool. They did not wear pants, only long woolen shirts. Nowadays there are many more materials available and we dress much more elegantly. But everything remains as it was.”

In Part Four we shall conclude our survey of Huichol symbolic and decorative art and offer a personal assessment of the chances of the survival of the Huichol language, religion and culture in the modern world.

Published or Updated on: April 1, 2009 by Ronald A. Barnett © © 2009


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