San Pedro - Botanicals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

San Pedro

(Trichocereus pachanoi)

San Pedro is a ribbed night-blooming cactus also known as achuma, huachuma, and giganton. It grows from sea level up to altitudes of 3000 meters in South America from Ecuador to Bolivia.

San Pedro is Spanish for St Peter, the saint who holds the keys to the kingdom. San Pedro contains the potent alkaloid mescaline. It possesses a psychotropic, consciousness-altering effect and has historically been used to enter or view the spirit world. It is used as a diagnostic tool for curanderos (Latin American shamanic healers) to enable the diagnosis of illness and determination of the needed cure. Under the influence of San Pedro the shaman may battle ferocious animals, communicate with spirits or travel between realms.

Based on representations on pre-Columbian pottery, San Pedro has probably been used for at least one thousand years and possibly for three thousand years or even longer. The first written descriptions appeared shortly after the arrival of the Spanish within the context of the Inquisition. Seventeenth-century priests wished to eliminate pagan practices of which San Pedro was seen as being integral. To persist in San Pedro’s use was to defy the new order and the new religion and thus to be branded as a witch. Because San Pedro is not administered without strict rituals and expert supervision, it was understood as a witch’s tool. Eliminating the plant eliminates the presiding practitioner’s role, stripping her of function and respect.

Its use was never eradicated however. Social scientists, ethnobotanists, and chemists now find San Pedro fascinating and it has been intensely studied for over 50 years. It is still used by Peruvian curanderos. It is most frequently administered as part of a psychotropic infusion, meaning that there may be a lot of other stuff in the brew, too. These are sophisticated rituals that require both spiritual knowledge and botanical expertise; San Pedro is not a toy for laypeople to play with. Both benevolent and malevolently oriented practitioners create these potions, although obviously with different motivation.

Infusions are ingested as a component of spiritual and magical ritual. In other words, consumption of the beverage isn’t believed sufficient. It’s only part of a process, broken down into steps that must be completed properly. Plants must be gathered and prepared ritually. The brew is ritually prepared, too, with spiritual ritual incorporated at every stage.

This is not a mechanical process. Rituals are required to enable the spirit of San Pedro to interact with human spirits. This is reminiscent of other indigenous American rituals featuring ayahuasca and peyote, leading one to wonder whether once upon a time there weren’t similar rituals, similar complex brews for Amanita muscaria or henbane.

San Pedro is also consumed within supervised ritual. It is traditionally believed that if the consumer is not prepared by the ritual leader (curandera, shaman, witch) who opens and closes portals as needed, then the person under the influence of San Pedro is left vulnerable to magical attack, because these are not oneway portals…