Portal to the Underworld
On Easter weekend in 1992, Boyd visited Mystic Shelter, about 30 miles east of White Shaman. At the foot of the shelter, her eyes opened wide. Two horizontal stone ledges, one above the other, divided the shallow cave into upper, middle, and lower sections, like a diorama of the shamanic cosmos. About halfway up the rock face, she saw a single red-colored human figure. It bristled with animal fur right above an undulating black line with a gap in the middle. In an outlined space beneath the line was a row of human figures in black.
Here was the whole pattern—the human figure covered in fur, probably the shaman; the arched, wavy line, the serpent dividing earthly and spirit realms; and, at the line’s center, the portal through which the shaman could descend. As for the black human figures beneath the wavy line, they were ancestral spirits in the underworld, Boyd was convinced.
“It’s like a puzzle,” Boyd explains. “You find one piece, then another, and pretty soon all these pieces that didn’t make any sense are falling into place.”
One morning later that spring, Boyd rolled up her pants and waded across the Devils River to Cedar Springs, a horseshoe-shaped site a few miles north of Mystic Shelter (see photo above). Cedar Springs had a cascade of human figures holding spear-throwers and long staffs adorned with feathers. As Boyd scrutinized the paintings, three images, one beside the other, caught her eye. First was a human figure with antlers tipped with peculiar black dots. Nearby was a cluster of fringed black dots with spears sticking out of them. Alongside those were tiny deer figures, also impaled with spears. Her mind raced—she had seen the same group of images at White Shaman.
Again Boyd dove into the ethnographic texts. This time her first clue came from a photograph of a yarn painting by a modern Huichol artist. It depicted a deer with dots on its body and attached to its antlers, just like the curious black-tipped antlers she had seen in the rock art.
The Huichol people are almost unique in the Americas. Protected by the fortresslike Sierra Madre mountains, the group had escaped notice by Europeans when they arrived in the 16th century. Huichol culture remained virtually unchanged, providing a rare 21st-century window into pre-Columbian times.
In the literature, Boyd read of a peculiar Huichol pilgrimage during the rainy season to Wirikuta, a desert plateau they considered their sacred homeland in the northeast. There they collected peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus that helps them contact ancestral spirits in the otherworld.
Boyd was intrigued by the way the Huichol gathered peyote. They stayed low and moved across the plateau holding bows and arrows. It was the same way they hunted deer. To the Huichol, deer and peyote were a single sacred symbol. When one of the pilgrims found a peyote cactus peeking aboveground in the desert, he pulled his bowstring taut and shot an arrow through its center. He was “slaying” the peyote, but he was also slaying a deer. Boyd recalled the speared dots and deer in the ancient paintings. She wondered: Could she find a connection to peyote there as well?
For most of the year, peyote stays hidden below ground; only when it rains does it become visible on the surface. Deer follow the same pattern. During drought in arid environments, deer are absent, but as soon as it rains, they travel great distances to eat sprouting vegetation. Deer, peyote, and rain: The three are all linked.
In an old excavation report Boyd read that archaeologists had discovered remnants of peyote cacti from a site near White Shaman. The peyote, which had been flattened into button shapes and mixed with other plant materials, dated to about a thousand years before the paintings. The molded buttons were proof that the ancient inhabitants of the Lower Pecos had used peyote in rituals.
When Boyd returned to White Shaman, she studied a human figure with deer antlers tipped with black dots. Surrounding him were fringed dots and deer, both with spears sticking out of them.
What had once seemed like an incoherent scramble now appeared obvious. The fringed dots on the wall were buttons of peyote stuck with spears, much like the Huichol peyote hunt in Wirikuta. The deer figure with dotted antlers corresponded to the deer with peyote on his antlers in the modern Huichol yarn paintings. The deeper Boyd delved, the more the mural seemed like a kind of handbook, “a 4,000-year-old instruction
manual for how to properly conduct a religious ritual.”
Next Page: The Story of Creation