Religious Beliefs. Religion permeates all aspects of life, and most Huichol make no real distinction between the sacred and everyday worlds. For the Huichol, religion is life itself. Following these beliefs and rituals, they petition the deities for sun and rain for the crops, successful deer hunts, fertility, good health, and protection from the dangers of the natural and supernatural worlds. The gods in the Huichol pantheon embody and personify nature in all of its manifestations, with the oldest being Takutsi Nakawé, Grandmother of Growth and Germination, who created the world, and Tatewari, Grandfather Fire. The large company of deities includes the sun, rain, wind, ocean, earth, and deer. Votive offerings, artistically rendered, are made as visual prayers to the deities and communicate innermost Huichol needs and desires. Peyote ( Lophophora williamsii ) has a strong presence in Huichol culture. The Huichol make annual pilgrimages to the sacred peyote land, Wirikuta, in the San Luis Potosí desert. Peyote's psychoactive properties enable participants to see bright, colorful visions that are interpreted as personal communications from their gods. Huichol look upon peyote, which is identified with the deer, as a sacred gift; its consumption is highly ritualized and serves as a unifying force among community members. Some Christian elements have entered into Huichol religious beliefs, and certain Christian ceremonies are observed. The amount of Christian influence varies. In some communities, there is a relatively minor degree of syncretism between the two religions.
Religious Practitioners. The core of Huichol existence lies in the hands of the shamans, known as mara' akames. Through five to ten years of intensive training, these men (and sometimes women) acquire knowledge as healers, priests, and diviners. In their dreams, they perceive the causes of illness and environmental instability and the actions to be taken in such cases. Their dreams also instruct them in the performance of major ceremonial functions. They summon souls into the bodies of newborn babies and follow the souls of the dead to send them off to the other world. Shamans who sing travel with their animal messengers to the many worlds in order to communicate with the gods on behalf of the family and community.
Ceremonies. The annual cycle is divided into wet- and dry-season temple ceremonies and activities. Ceremonies for rain and planting of crops take place around the summer solstice. Harvest ceremonies occur close to the fall equinox. Deer hunting and the peyote pilgrimage ensue, completing the cycle. Ceremonies usually last at least two days and nights, during which shamans sing extensive myth cycles with the help of two assistants. When the gods' presence is known, animals are sacrificed to provide them blood, which embodies the life force, and ritual food. Ceremonies also take place in the center of the community and at family ranchos.
Arts. Art is an important part of the traditional Huichol way of life. Through art they express materially their innermost feelings. The designs, which are meticulously embroidered on a shirt or brightly colored bag, or woven into a wide wool belt, are symbols representing their gods and the sacredness of nature. Peyote visions are the source of many of these designs, which are used to decorate ceremonial objects, guitars and violins, gourd bowls, and feathered arrows and for face painting. The contemporary yarn paintings are a relatively new development and are intended for outside consumption. They are unmistakably a form of storytelling, and many designs incorporate elements from Huichol folklore, mythology, beliefs, and rituals. Other kinds of commerical art include beaded earrings, necklaces, gourd bowls, masks, and embroidered and woven textiles.
Medicine. Illnesses and diseases can result from various causes: not completing ritual vows, dissatisfaction on the part of the gods, revenge taken by the souls of animals or plants for poor and reckless treatment when alive, sorcery, soul loss (especially among children), evil winds, and the return of ancestors who have not been properly propitiated. To diagnose an illness, a shaman undergoes a period of dietary restrictions and he or she dreams for several nights, during which time the patient is treated daily. The shaman sweeps the patient with feathered wands, sucks out foreign objects from the patient's body, and sprays holy water from his or her mouth onto the patient. When the cause of the illness is known, the shaman instructs the patient's family in the appropriate rituals and offerings that must be carried out. If the patient is extremely ill, a shaman will perform a ceremony in which he or she sings through the night to discover the reason for the patient's poor health. Herbs are still used extensively; however, knowledge of these medicinal plants and their lore is not as widesread as it once was. Owing to the introduction of numerous foreign diseases, most Huichol have adopted Western medicine into their traditional practices. Shamans will bless the medicine before it is administered and may work their healings in conjunction with Western doctors.
Death and Afterlife. Upon death, the soul of the individual retraces its life, following a path into the underworld, where it is faced with trials and tribulations that are a consequence of the actions of the individual while living. If a person has had sexual relations with a non-Huichol, his or her soul is banished to a corral around which stampeding mules or horses eternally run in circles. If the soul has lived a more pure life, it eventually reaches a temple of the dead in the west, where it dances to unwind itself from the thread of life. Five days after the death, the shaman and family hold a ceremony to bid farewell to the soul. The shaman then helps the soul reach the other world in the sky to join the souls of the previously deceased. Five years later, a special ceremony is performed in which the shaman captures the soul in the form of a rock crystal, which is cared for upon the altar in the family shrine. It is anointed with sacrificai animal blood and offered food during family ceremonies.