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What is Nierika?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Feb 26, 2024
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The nierika is a form of spiritual art used by the Huichol people. The modern nierika consists of pieces of colored yarn affixed to a round or square backing, in ornate symbols or images culled from the spirit world. In recent years the nierika has made its way to cities in Mexico, and from there to the outside world, and has captivated people with its profound beauty and intricacy.

The Huichol are a native group found in Western Mexico in the Sierra Madres. They number roughly 7,000, and more than half of the population has migrated to the cities of Mexico since the 1960s. The Huichol have a rich oral tradition, and have resisted acquiring the culture of the West, retaining their own distinct language and religious traditions.

The worldview of the Huichol is deeply shamanistic, and from childhood most Huichol are taught to communicate regularly with the spiritual world. This communication takes place through strong ritualism and a beautiful use of symbols. The nierika is the most visible of this symbolic communication with the spirit world.

Nierika is not only used to describe the actual physical artifact, but is also the Huichol word for deity. Nierika adorn all sorts of sacred spaces in Huichol life, from the temples to sacred caves to the xiriki shrines each house has. Traditional nierika can take many different forms, with each having different roles. A nierika may be either square or round, with holes in the center. Square nierika are considered prayer mats for the ancestors, while the more common round nierika are seen as invoking an ancestor or god.

One traditional type of nierika is known as a namma. In Spanish these were often known as ojo de dios, or God’s Eyes. The God’s Eye consisted of a lattice of sticks which were woven with yarn, with an eye in the middle. Namma were constructed so that god would look out through the hole in the center upon a supplicant as he prayed.

In the 1960s the traditional nierika began to become more elaborate, both with the introduction of more colorful yarns, and a desire on the part of migrant Huichol to make a living in their new city homes. In 1962, in Guadalajara, a number of large-format nierika were displayed, giving the general public their first view of this amazing form of spiritual art. The first public nierika were fairly simple, and done in a relatively traditional style. Over the years, these nierika became more and more complex, eventually reaching the status they have today, where the finest examples are displayed in museums as fine art.

The nierika makes use of symbols and images from the Huichol myth structure. The Huichol use peyote ritualistically to better glimpse the spirit world, and from these quests bring back pictures of the spiritual plane to display in their nierika art. Nierika are a constant reminder of the spiritual nature of reality, which the Huichol see as an unending expression of prayer and grasping towards the divine. Peyote is gathered as an expression of this prayer, it is ingested as a form of prayer, the spirit world is traversed in prayer, the nierika is crafted with prayer, and it exists as a prayer made physical.

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