Furst, Peter T.

Furst, Peter T. – Anthropologist specializing in shamanisms, hallucinogens, and art, especially the use of peyote by and art of the Huichol (Wixáritari) in Mexico. Furst is professor emeritus of anthropology and Latin American studies at the State University of New York at Albany (where he previously chaired the Department of Anthropology) and a research associate with the University of Pennsylvania Museum. His edited volumes Flesh of the Gods (1972) and Hallucinogens and Culture (1976) raised awareness of the institutionalized, cross-cultural use of entheogens (rather than dismissing entheogen use as socially aberrant or peculiar), and Furst was elected foreign fellow by the Linnean Society for his work on sacred plants.

Furst’s initial ethnographic fieldwork took him to Warao country in the Orinoco Delta of Venezuela. With his colleague Barbara Myerhoff, he was the first non-Huichol to undertake the pilgrimage to Wirikùta to harvest peyote. Furst encouraged the Huichol, who were producing votive objects (carved gourds lined with beeswax and decorated with brightly colored wool yarn and beads) to work on new “narrative” works consisting of yarn on beeswax fixed on flat plywood. In this way, he brought Huichol “yarn paintings,” and the shaman-artist Ramón Medina Silva in particular, to a broader audience, with the article “The Art of ‘Being Huichol’” (1978), of particular significance. In addition, the recent volume Visions of a Huichol Shaman (2003), the catalog of an exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 2004, champions the work of the leading Huichol artist José Benítez Sánchez, known for the curvilinear style he pioneered in the 1970s.

In a long-running dispute between Furst and Jay Fikes, the latter questions the legitimacy and accuracy of Furst and Myerhoff’s ethnographic work on the Huichol, as well as their “Western” influence on Huichol “tradition.” In Carlos Castaneda: Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties (1993), Fikes argues that Furst helped Castaneda to fabricate descriptions of rituals by exaggerating or misrepresenting such practices as waterfall jumping and peyote enemas, thereby assisting Castaneda’s literary celebrity and furthering Furst’s and Myerhoff’s careers as experts on Huichol shamanism. Furst’s response— that Fikes is a “paranoid,” “overprivileged white anthropologist”— is equally highly charged. Furst and Fikes accuse one other of attempting to destroy the other’s reputation and career. The legal wranglings are not resolved at the time of writing.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007