Sorcery as Political Resistance

Napo Runa Indians who regularly go to work for the oil companies often have themselves cleansed with tobacco smoke by a shaman when they return to their villages. They are having themselves healed of wage labor; they are being cleansed of capitalism. This is a small act of cultural resistance, affirming the validity of their traditional values over against those of their white employers.

Shamans are the knowledge-bearers of their cultures, repositories of myths, symbols, and values. The shaman embodies a cultural tradition, and may thus function as a catalyst for cultural resistance against oppression and assimilation.

This should not be surprising. Shamanic power is involved in all community affairs; it is thus inevitably involved in aggression, warfare, and the struggle for political and economic power. Dark shamanism and assault sorcery especially have been viewed as acts of political resistance, and thus as, essentially, acts of cultural healing. A dominant strand in the interpretation of South American shamanism has viewed it as resistance against the brutalities of colonialism, as an indigenous struggle for autonomy in the face of state control, and as a discourse about modernity — gun violence, slave trading, debt peonage, missionaries, epidemic disease, “the white man’s materiality and spirituality.” Sorcery is political.

In this view, shamans play a role in resisting, ameliorating, and influencing the course of colonial contacts and history; they become the source and symbol of an indigenous culture capable of defending itself against colonial power and the national state. As one Putumayo shaman reportedly told anthropologist Michael Taussig, "I have been teaching people revolution through my work with plants."

Sorcery, as a weapon of the weak, may be turned against the colonial oppressor, just as it may be used to enforce internal norms of sharing and generosity. It can function as a form of direct resistance — poisoning, killing, subverting the authority of colonial or oppressive powers. But such resistance may also involve multiple levels of irony. The colonizer, as cultural outsider, projects on the indigenous shaman the colonizing culture’s own presuppositions concerning sorcery and indigenous savagery. In turn, to be effective, the colonized sorcerer must conform to the expectations and presuppositions of the colonizer — indeed, for purposes of resistance, may reinforce and enhance such projections by emphasizing just those features of indigenous sorcery the colonizer finds most gruesome, repugnant, and therefore terrifying. And this is so whether the indigenous attack sorcery is actually practiced or is only an accusation people make against each other.

This is the way Michael Taussig interprets shamanic healing in the Putumayo region of Colombia — as hidden political resistance to the terror and suffering experienced by the Indians during a brutal colonial history. Taussig originally came to Colombia as a dedicated Marxist physician, intending to minister to rural guerillas. While doing this work, Taussig became fascinated by the historical violence in the area — he became, he says, a violence junkie — and intrigued by the fact that the Huitoto Indians, the most oppressed and marginalized people in Colombian society, were credited with possessing magical power, which they then made available to poor white colonists in the form of ayahuasca healing sessions.

This power was in fact, he says, a projection by the white colonizers onto the shamanic other; to the magic already possessed by indigenous shamans, he says, “colonialism fused its own magic, the magic of primitivism.” The shaman then took this projected magical power, this image of shaman as wild man, to use in his own healing practice, which he made available to the civilized colonizer. And the shaman as suffering healer — indeed, suffering under the violence of the colonial state — comported with the official discourse of the colonial church.

Thus the interaction of colonizer and shaman was not a one-way process where indigenous culture was passively acted upon by external forces; nor was the result an organic synthesis or syncretism. Rather the interaction was a “chamber of mirrors reflecting each stream’s perception of the other,” which “folds the underworld of the conquering society into the culture of the conquered, the peon, the slave.” In fact these forces came full circle, with the poor white colonists seeking redemption at the hands of the colonized indigenes; Taussig describes this encounter as one in which an indigenous shaman “heals the pain in the souls of the civilized.” So, through the sweep of colonial history, the colonizers provided the colonized with the left-handed gift of the image of the wild man — “a gift whose powers the colonizers would be blind to, were it not for the reciprocation of the colonized, bringing together in the dialogical imagination of colonization an image that wrests from civilization its demonic power.”

We need to be cautious, however, in applying such a grand narrative to the facts on the ground. Social anthropologist Caroline Humphrey, and expert on Mongolian shamanism, says that the shamanism Taussig describes is uniquely “reactive, absorptive, and frantically hyperaware of colonial powers and technology.” Anthropologist Michael Brown, who studied the shamanism of the Aguaruna of northeastern Perú, says that “society cannot be relegated to the conceptual status of a penal colony without … violating the complex and creative understandings of those for whom we presume to speak.”

Reducing shamanism to political resistance, Brown says, also undervalues the internal complexity of indigenous cultures, which have their own “internal fields of conflict and points of contention.” To the extent that resistance changes the distribution of power, status, and wealth, he says, it may challenge the internal status quo as much as it challenges the power of outsiders. Anthropologist Sherry Ortner puts it this way: “Resistors are doing more than simply opposing domination. They have their own politics.” And indigenous resistance to acculturation may be supported by those nominally the oppressor, for their own reasons — for example, wanting the natives to return to their own environment, safely in their communal houses, rather than living in the city and appointed, say, secretary of education.

Grand narratives of sociopolitical resistance, says medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman, eventually undermine the genuine moral claims of indigenous suffering, and belittle “the personal pains and distress that sick persons bring to shamans, which shamans try to cure.” And we must be careful that, in characterizing the shaman as heroic resistor, we are not — once again — mythologizing the shaman to suit our own projected needs. Far from resisting biomedicine, for example, the Amazonian shaman has adopted its symbols and power; rather than being a static reservoir of tradition, preserving culturally intact knowledge, shamanism has created — as it always has — what Kleinman has called "an actively produced hybrid medicine."

New Studies of Psychedelics

The December, 2007, issue of Scientific American Mind contains an excellent article by David Jay Brown on the resurgence of psychedelic drug research over the past fifteen years. A growing number of studies using human volunteers have begun to explore the possible therapeutic benefits of drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, DMT, MDMA, ibogaine, and ketamine. Here is the lead:

Much remains unclear about the precise neural mechanisms governing how these drugs produce their mind-bending results, but they often produce somewhat similar psychoactive effects that make them potential therapeutic tools. Though still in their preliminary stages, studies in humans suggest that the day when people can schedule a psychedelic session with their therapist to overcome a serious psychiatric problem may not be that far off.

Current studies are focusing on psychedelic treatments for cluster headaches, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), severe anxiety in terminal cancer patients, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcoholism and opiate addiction.

Neuropharmacologist David E. Nichols of Purdue University says that there are at least two possible mechanisms for beneficial actions. "The first simply involves a change in the numbers of brain serotonin 2A receptors. Activation of serotonin 2A receptors by psychedelics causes the number of receptors expressed on the surface of neurons to decrease, a process called downregulation. For some disorders, such as OCD, it may be this receptor downregulation that could be therapeutic.”

“The other possible mechanism," he continues, "is a psychological effect that is harder to define but in some way produces changes in the way the subject perceives pain and distress. Psychedelics seem able to produce a profound cognitive change that provides the patient with a new insight — the ability to see the world from a new perspective — somehow reducing anxiety and raising the pain threshold.”

The article concludes:

Although we are still in the early days of psychedelic therapy research, the initial data show considerable promise. A growing number of scientists believe that psychedelic drugs may offer safe and effective help for people with certain treatment-resistant psychiatric disorders and could possibly help some people who receive partial relief from current methods to obtain a more complete healing.

Frightened and Stolen Souls

Amazonian mestizos believe that it is possible to lose one’s soul, or part of one’s soul, through more or less natural processes; indeed, soul loss through susto, fright, is a relatively common childhood condition. The sickness category of susto is undoubtedly derived from traditional Hispanic medicine; indigenous Amazonian shamanic traditions of soul loss appear to be too distant geographically and conceptually — for example, among the Wakuénai — to have significantly contributed to the idea. Mestizo shamans also frequently use the term manchari for the same condition, presumably from the Quechua manchay, be afraid.

Ricardo Ruiz, I Want You, I Want You, I Won't Chew (1990)

People afflicted with susto, loss of soul through fright, are said to be asustado, or often caido, fallen, since the inducing fright in childhood susto is often considered to have been a fall. Such people commonly lose their appetite and strength; they are listless, restless, depressed, withdrawn, and lacking in motivation; interestingly, the term hombre caido refers to erectile dysfunction. Children with susto have symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, constant crying, and insomnia — very similar to the symptoms of mal aire.

Many adults suffering susto had experienced a sense of inadequacy and helplessness even before the symptoms began; anthropologists investigating this syndrome give us several examples — a man who experienced an attack of susto after an embarrassing accident at work that evoked laughter from onlookers; a woman who suffered an attack after her unfaithful husband, during an argument, hit her with a rock. An epidemiological study of susto reported that asustados differed from controls both in physical symptoms and role stress — that is, loss of appetite, loss of weight, fatigue, and lack of motivation on the one hand, and, on the other, discrepancies between their expectations and their performance in their expected social roles. Poet César Calvo writes that manchari “is a different fear, more difficult than the fear we all know, the one even animals can sense. The manchari enters like a soul into a body, and the person in that body becomes incapable.”

Luis Rodriguez Ricardo, Tiro al Susto (2001)

The concept of susto functions as an etiological category. When a person suffers from certain forms of social dysfunction — listlessness, depression, lack of motivation — family members or a healer search the past for a frightening event that may have caused the soul to leave the body. Thus, when persons believe that they are performing their social roles less adequately, according to their own criteria, than others in the community, the illness category of susto provides an explanatory framework within which to conceptualize their experience and seek appropriate healing. Perceived social and personal failures are attributed to a culturally defined sickness.

One’s soul may not only flee through fright, but also be deliberately stolen by a sorcerer, especially during an ayahuasca ceremony, requiring the intervention of a shamanic healer to call it back into the body. The sorcerer who steals a soul can throw it away, either into space or into tunnels under the earth, often caves in the Andes. If the shaman does not succeed in recovering the hidden soul, the person will sicken and inevitably die.

The cure for both types of soul loss — natural and through sorcery — is for the shaman to call back the soul with the appropriate soul-calling icaro, magical song. But the body must also be cleansed and prepared to receive the wandering soul; hence the use of the foundational triad of mestizo shamanic healing — shacapar, rattling; chupar, sucking; and soplar, blowing tobacco smoke. The shaman sucks from the top of the head, the pit of the stomach, and the temples; the soul returns to the body through the corona, the crown of the head, como un viento, like a wind, my teacher doña María Tuesta told me — except for the lost souls of children, which always appeared to doña María as angels.

Drinking ayahuasca provides the shaman with information concerning the current location of the lost or stolen soul — where it has fled or been hidden away — and the progress of its return in response to the calling song. It may take hours or days for the soul to make the return journey. Don Emilio Andrade tells of singing back a stolen soul. Suddenly he saw a road, and in the center of the road a small shadow. As he sang, the shadow became larger; when the shadow was just six or seven meters away, he saw it was his patient. The soul entered into her through the top of her head, and at that moment she awoke. He continued to blow tobacco smoke on her, until she was completely recovered.

It is important to note that the shaman does not journey to retrieve the soul, but rather calls the soul with song, just as the shaman would a madre or genio, the spirit of a plant, to the place where the shaman is treating the victim’s physical body. Another distinction is also important. When a person is stolen away by the water people, or by a mermaid, it is the person's body which is stolen, not the soul separate from the body; the person has disappeared under the water. Yet here again, the shaman summons the abductors and compels them to return the person they have stolen, often using an icaro the shaman had previously learned from the water people or mermaids themselves.

Byron Metcalf

Byron Metcalf is a drummer, percussionist, and recording engineer who also has a Ph.D. in transpersonal psychology. That's just the beginning.

He has been intensively involved in research on consciousness transformation and spiritual development. He has trained, studied, and worked with shamans and healers from many parts of the world. In particular, he worked with South American shamans from two traditions — don Américo Yábar, an Andean huachumero, and don José Campos, an ayahuasquero currently associated with the Takiwasi Center in Tarapoto.

His music combines shamanic, world, and ambient rhythms, textures, and atmospheres. "My greatest inspirations," he says, "have come from my inner journeys and explorations of expanded states of consciousness where essential truth, beauty, and reality reveals itself."

This music originally grew out of his career in counseling. "It occurred to me that with my drumming background," he says, "I might begin experimenting with some of these ancient shamanic rhythms and techniques, and that perhaps I could use these with some of my counseling clients and in some of the workshops or seminars that I was facilitating. At this point my music and psychology careers started interfacing quite naturally." And he adds: "Drumming is so utterly primal and basic in its nature that in some way, everyone can respond to it in a way that is positive and, often quite transformative."

Metcalf's drumming is not meditative in the traditional ambient-music sense; it is, he says, intended to be traveling music — shamanic, primordial, tribal percussion intended to push the boundaries of reality.

Here are two examples. The first, from the album The Shaman's Heart, is called Raven Medicine:

And the second, from the album Not Without Risk, is called Primordial Recognition:

Metcalf maintains both a website and a MySpace site. Ambient Visions has posted a lengthy interview.


Listening to Dreams

I have always loved being a stranger. Throughout my life, I have loved to wander in strange places, riding a bus filled with goats and chickens to a small village in the hills where I do not speak the language; sitting in a marketplace, in a small restaurant with tin-topped tables, eating something I had pointed to because I did not know the name, watching the trucks move in and out; riding in the rain in a dugout canoe with an outboard motor going pequepequepeque, waiting to be dropped off on a muddy river bank, somewhere else.

That is why I love dreams.

I am always a stranger in the underworld of dreams. I am being talked to in a language I do not speak. I am surprised at every turn by the exotic goods unloaded in the marketplace, the jokes I do not understand, the sudden kindness or treachery of my dream companions, my own capacity for compassion, terror, and rage.

And, perhaps like my own journeys, dreams have a purpose — to make me richer and more human. To that end, dreams are willing, perhaps like my own journeys, to teach me things I do not always want to learn.

All dreams come from the same place, which is, in some sense, me — perhaps the most deeply hidden shadow part, perhaps the most deeply sacred part, but all me nonetheless. On the other hand, the apparent experiencer of the dream, the point-of-view, the one through whose eyes I see the dream, the ego, is the stranger, the butt of the jokes, the outsider, the one to be taught by the sacred shadow how to become a human being.

Therefore, when listening to my dreams, I try to remember three points:

  • All parts of the dream are equally important;
  • All parts of the dream are equally me;
  • Any dream interpretation that flatters the ego is wrong.

To implement these principles, I use four techniques.

The of-me technique. I dream I am in an elevator in the building where I work. The elevator goes up very slowly. Just as I am reaching my floor, the elevator starts to fall. It is going very fast. I awake suddenly. I ask: What is the elevator of me? What is my elevator? I dream I am riding in a bus, holding a beautiful old shotgun in a case, but the wooden stock is crumbling with dry rot. I ask: What is the beautiful-old-shotgun-with-a-crumbling-stock of me? What is my broken shotgun?

The asking technique. I dream I am inside a house, trying to escape some formless terror. I reach the door, pull it open, and there before me is another huge menacing shape, blocking my escape. I wake up full of fear, my heart pounding. So I go back into the dream, or I call up before me the menacing shape in the doorway. I ask: Who are you? What do you want? Will you be my teacher? I say to the shotgun with a crumbling stock: Who are you? What do you want? Will you be my teacher?

The identification technique. I become the menacing shape in the doorway. I ask myself: Who am I? What is my name? Why am I blocking the doorway? How do I feel about this ego who is trying to get past me? I become the bus holding the ego with the beautiful broken shotgun. I ask myself: What is my purpose? Where am I going?

I dream I am running, trying to escape. I have a folding knife in my pocket, which keeps opening up by itself, interfering with my escape. I become the knife. I ask myself: Why do I keep opening up? I reply: I am trying to be helpful; I am trying to be useful, to be open, to be the tool I am meant to be. Ego is the one who, by keeping me in his pocket, is hindering the escape, keeping himself from reaching his goal. So now I must ask: What is the knife of me? What is the part of me that I need to take out of my pocket, open up, and use? What does it mean that this knife-of-me is opening up by itself?

The Martian question technique. I have a dream that takes place in a locker room. I pretend that I am from Mars and do not know the use or function of earth objects such as locker rooms. I ask: What is this thing called a locker room of which you speak? And I reply: A locker room is a place where you change; or, A locker room is a place where you are naked.

I dream I am reading a guidebook entitled Great Diving Down by the Continental Shelf. I ask: What is this earth object you call a shelf? I reply: A shelf is a place where you put things that are no longer useful; you shelve unimportant agenda items. I ask: Then what is a continental shelf? I reply: It is a place off the continental coast where the water suddenly becomes very deep. I ask: And what is this diving you earth people talk about? I reply: Diving means deep sea diving, which means adventure, risk, fear, beauty. And it means journeying inward, diving inside oneself.

Now I talk to the book. I ask: Who are you? What is your purpose? The book replies: I teach people where to find adventure, where to go diving, where there is safe diving and where diving is dangerous. My text and pictures motivate people to dive in unusual places. But to dive in these waters, you — talking to my ego, who is the one asking these questions — you have to be shelved, put aside, become unimportant, before we can journey together into the dark and mysterious depths. But the diving will be great.

Now: Think of what happened to you today, or yesterday. Put it in the form of a story. If this were the story of a dream, then what is it saying to you? What is the meaning of what happened to you today, or yesterday? Is all the world speaking to you — the rock you tripped over, the child who smiled at you, the rain and moon? Are you listening?

This is how we make the world meaningful, and full of mystery.

Beings of the Air

The air, especially at night, is full of souls — souls of the dead, souls of departed and powerful shamans, and what my teacher doña María Tuesta called almas olvidadas, forgotten souls, the wandering spirits of those who were neglected and abused while alive. The wandering and sorrowful soul of a dead person may appear as a being called a tunchi. An evil spirit of the dead, driven by malignancy rather than sorrow, is called a maligno or an alma mala, an evil soul.

The tunchi is a wandering bodiless spirit that cannot be seen, but can be recognized at night by its mournful whistle; as César Calvo says, few have seen it; many have heard it; everyone fears it. A tunchi is the departed soul of a deceased human being; children are taught that a whistle at night is a spirit of the dead. Tunchis may cause sickness, especially the sickness called mal aire, bad air; and the souls of the murdered dead seek revenge. But, although frightening to encounter, mostly tunchis are pathetic creatures, often birdlike, who can be kept away by tobacco smoke. But you must never mock a tunchi, for the infuriated soul will chase you, whistling, so that even the most courageous become panic-stricken, fleeing to madness or death. People in Iquitos may present themselves as skeptical, but, when pressed, everyone has a story about meeting a tunchi — or something that might have been a tunchi.

Sometimes tunchis are those who have suffered a particularly tragic death, especially by drowning; sometimes humanlike ghosts of the drowned can be seen in phantom canoes, moving upriver, back toward their former homes. You can hear them drifting alone in the jungle night, whistling like birds, like sorcerers. This is closely related to a widespread belief in almas que recogen sus pasos, souls retracing their steps — the shadowy souls of the still living visiting, shortly before their death, the places where they have lived. “I saw him walking on the street,” someone will report, “and he was in the hospital dying!”

These beings of the air are often associated with a disease of children called mal aire, bad air — the source of our word malaria. The belief in mal aire is widespread in South America; it occurs, doña María told me, when “something evil passes by” — almas malas, malignos, demonios, tunchis. The disease can be contagious. When adults, out at night, encounter one of these wandering souls, it can touch them as they pass by — a shock, a shiver, an apprehension — and then they can bring the sickness home to their children. When such invisible vaporous malignancies pass by a baby, the symptoms resemble those of susto — diarrhea, vomiting, unrest, fever — not an uncommon childhood syndrome, often diagnosed in North America as a result of the invisible vaporous malignancy called a virus.

There are different types of mal aire. Illness produced by the spirit of a dead person may be called mal aire de difunto. There can be mal aire del monte, evil air from the jungle, and mal aire del agua, evil air from the water. The cure for this sickness is a baño, bath, pungent with flowers and spices. The child should be bathed in this rapidly, doña María taught me, and the baby’s head, soles of the feet, and palms of the hands all sealed with crosses, made with agua de florida.

There is a striking relationship between these wandering souls and nocturnal jungle birds. Take, for example, the ayaymama, potoo (Nyctibius spp.). The name ayaymama reflects the belief that these birds are transformations of children abandoned in the jungle by their mother, and their disconsolate cry asks, Ay ay mama, why have you abandoned me? During the day, the birds perch motionlessly out in the open, on the ends of branches or broken-off stumps, virtually invisible in the jungle, with their mottled brown or gray coloration. At night they hunt flying insects in swooping flycatcher-like flights from their exposed perch.

At night, too, their eyes are highly reflective, and their brilliant eye shine can be seen even at great distances; their cry, heard especially on moonlit nights, is one of the most haunting sounds of the jungle — melancholy and lamenting, a series of loud wailing notes that gradually descend in pitch. The cry starts out loud enough to be startling if you are close; and, as you turn toward this mournful sound, there in the moonlit darkness you see the shining and apparently disembodied eyes.

Dye Plants

Face and body painting have been important parts of Amazonian culture for centuries. Face painting in particular has played an important part in hunting, warfare, and courtship. Traditional designs could designate status and identity. A man's facial paint can give him courage and power; a woman's facial paint gives her ... well, sex appeal. Face painting also played important social roles; among the Shipibo, for example, painting a man's face in traditional designs was a job performed only by women. Here are some examples:

Along with wet charcoal for black marks, two plants have been traditionally used for face and body painting — achiote (Bixa orellana) and huito, genipa, or jagua (Genipa americana).

The bright red spiny achiote fruit contains numerous small red seeds which, when crushed, produce a bright red-orange dye, containing the carotenoid pigment bixin. The leaves have been used to treat skin infections and as a vaginal antiseptic; the red paste may be applied around the ankles as a tick repellant. But the predominant use of the plant is as a dye for cloth, hair, and skin, and — often under the name annatto — as a virtually tasteless food colorant. In Mexican cooking, recado rojo or achiote paste combines annatto, oregano, cumin, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, allspice, garlic, and salt, giving dishes a distinctive flavor and red coloring. Annatto is widely used in Filipino, Latin American, and Caribbean cooking.

Huito is cultivated for its thick-skinned edible fruit, which, when ripe, is made into drinks, jelly, and sherbet and used in ice cream. Cooking the fruit with brown sugar and aguardiente makes a very palatable desert. Huito is rich in manitol, genipin, tannins, and caffeine; the tannins give the juice an astringent effect.

The juice of the immature fruit is clear, but it contains an irioid of genipin which oxidizes to a very dark blue color. This juice is used to decorate clothes and pottery as well as human skin. For example, the Shipibo use crushed huito fruits to put their traditional designs on natural cotton — either undyed or dyed in mahogany bark, which gives the cloth a distinctive brown colour — using a pointed piece of chonta palm (Euterpe spp.) or an iron nail. The paint turns dark blue or black as it is exposed to air.

Once skin has been dyed with huito, the color remains for about two weeks. Indeed, a number of companies have begun offering jagua tattoo paint as an alternative to henna for a semipermanent tattoos.



The bufeo colorado, pink dolphin (Inia geoffrensis), is considered a powerful shaman, which casts spells when it surfaces, perhaps because its blowhole makes blowing and whistling sounds similar to those made by a shaman. Much dolphin behavior supports belief in their intelligence. They are curious, and they will swim near boats and approach swimmers in the water. They will chase a school of fish, allowing fishermen to go upstream and set their nets; the dolphins will then remain on the outside of the nets, easily capturing any fish that escape — a curiously symbiotic relation between humans and dolphins.

Mestizos firmly believe that dolphins seek sexual intercourse with human beings. A menstruating women in a boat is in particular danger; a dolphin will ram her boat and overturn it, dragging her to the river bottom for sexual intercourse, where the woman may drown. Dolphins also turn into human form in order to seduce women and to make children that will later serve them. They appear primarily as fair handsome men dressed in dapper white linen suits and Italian fedoras, who attend parties, buying drinks for everyone, and stealing or seducing women amid the noise, confusion, and dancing. An infatuated woman may disappear, having thrown herself into the river out of her desire to stay forever with her dolphin lover. Thus, too, if a young woman is impregnated and the father is unknown, the pregnancy is often blamed on a nocturnal liaison with a dolphin, who presumably lured the maiden into the water.

But, just as chullachaquis cannot hide their deformed foot, dolphins cannot disguise their blowhole, and always appear wearing a hat; and they will not drink, since being drunk may break the spell and reveal their true identity. Such an interloper may be frightened away by removing his hat and revealing that he is really a dolphin.

In line with the attributed sexuality of the dolphin is the belief that female dolphin genitals are the same as — indeed, more desirable than — those of human females. It is said that no woman can compare with a female dolphin in the passion or skills of sex. Stories are told of men who began to copulate with female dolphins, and found it so pleasurable they could not stop, until first their semen and then their blood was completely drained. Don Agustin Rivas tells how, when he was thirteen years old, he in fact had sex with a dolphin that had jumped into his boat — a dolphin, he says, “with small breasts and pubic hair just like a woman.” He thought the dolphin had jumped into his boat in order to have sex with him; he had heard “that dolphins could be more sexually gratifying than women,” so he took off his pants and had sex with it.

Dolphins are not hunted for food, but for body parts. If a man wears the ear of a dolphin on his wrist, he will enjoy large and lasting erections; the vulva of a dolphin tied on the upper arm makes one irresistible to women; hanging a dolphin tooth around the neck of a child will cure diarrhea; a powder made from the pulverized eye, fat, teeth, or penis of the dolphin may be used to seduce women. A sorcerer can attack a woman using the penis of a dolphin, calling the spirit of the dolphin to inflict on the woman a voracious sexual appetite, which she then alleviates with every available man. The slaughter of river dolphins for these purposes may be endangering the species.

The sexual reputation of dolphins is not entirely unearned. Take a look at this:


Peter Gorman on the Plant Spirits

Peter Gorman, an investigative journalist and long-time expert on Amazonian curanderismo, has an excellent piece today on ayahuasca and the plant spirits. Here is the money quote:

We are not discussing chemicals. Chemicals are zero in this equation. We're discussing the invitation of spirits who can have an important impact on our lives. The meditation and smoking of black tobacco during cooking is probably much more important than any chemical that can be extracted from the plants. Because that 8-10 hour meditation is what invites the spirit of the plants. The plants themselves are not worth much. Their spirits are worth a great deal. And if you are going to invite living beings, beings with intent, will and desires into your physical/ emotional/ spiritual/ soul space, then you'd better be sure you know who they are and how to treat them as guests.

This strikes me as being absolutely true. Read the whole thing.


Two different different plants share the name camalonga or cabalonga, the first term being more common in in Perú and the second in Colombia. The first of these two plants, sometimes distinguished as camalonga negra, apparently may be any of several species in the genus Strychnos, including some that are used in the manufacture of the arrow poison curaré. The second, sometimes distinguished as camalonga blanca, is pretty clearly Thevetia peruviana, the yellow oleander.

Camalonga blanca, yellow oleander (Thevetia peruviana)

In Spanish generally, the word cabalonga refers to the almond-like seeds of the tree Strychnos ignatii, native to the Philippine Islands and China, which are popularly called haba de San Ignacio, St. Ignatius beans. In some parts of Perú, these seeds are worn as amulets, as they are in the Philippines, and the imported seeds are distinguished from the indigenous Amazonian species, cabalonga de la selva, jungle cabalonga. This imported cabalonga is apparently highly valued. The dried pear-shaped fruits containing these seeds are rare and, according to Christian Rätsch, are sold under the table at herb markets for exorbitant prices, with counterfeits sometimes substituted for the unwary.

Seeds of Thevetia peruviana

Interestingly, according to Rätsch, in Mexico, just as in the Upper Amazon, the word cabalonga is used to refer both to Thevetia peruviana and to a Strychnos species, Strychnos panamensis.

Apparently, Colombian shamans prefer to use seeds of plants of the Strychnos genus, while Peruvian shamans prefer to use the seeds of Thevetia peruviana. Peruvian shamans incorporate yellow oleander seeds into a drink, also called camalonga, along with aguardiente, camphor, and white onion or garlic. The drink generally contains two seeds, one male and one female. Although it is sometimes said that camalonga seeds may be added to the ayahuasca mixture, I have not found evidence that this is the case. In Perú, camalongueros are shamanic practitioners who specialize in the use of this camalonga drink.

I do not understand why the two camalongas are given the same name. The plants do not look even remotely similar, and the seeds — the part most often used by shamans — look as dissimilar as the plants. Moreover, the plants contain very different alkaloids, with very different psychophysical effects.

The yellow oleander contains the powerful cardiac glycosides thevetin, thevetoxin, peruvoside, ruvoside, and nerifolin, which are found throughout the plant, but are concentrated in the seeds. Ingesting yellow oleander seeds can cause abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea, dilated pupils, increased blood pressure, dizziness, stimulation of the smooth muscles of the intestine, bladder, uterus, and blood vessels, and a variety of arrhythmias, which can be fatal. Chewing the seed causes a drying, numbing, or burning sensation in the mouth and throat. The sap of the plant can cause skin irritation, sometimes blistering, and the plant has been used as a fish poison.

Strychnos toxifera, a typical plant of the Strychnos genus, an ingredient in the arrow poison curaré

On the other hand, the primary effects of plants of the Strychnos genus are muscular and neurological. The active constituent of these plants is strychnine, which increases the reflex irritability of the spinal cord, resulting in a loss of normal inhibition of the body's motor cells, in turn causing severe contractions of the muscles. Signs and symptoms of strychnine overdose include agitation, apprehension, fear, heightened startle reflex, restlessness, dark urine, muscle pain and soreness, and difficulty breathing, which can progress to rigid arms and legs, jaw tightness, painful muscle spasms, and finally to uncontrollable arching of the neck and back, respiratory failure, and brain death. Death is usually due to asphyxiation resulting from continuous spasms of the respiratory muscles. At very low doses, strychnine may give a sense of alertness, sensory acuity, and wakefulness; indeed, at one time it was widely prescribed in England as a tonic.

Seeds of Strychnos toxifera

I have seen only scant anecdotal evidence that strychnine ingestion causes prodromal dizziness or lightheadedness. Thus, I am not sure what to make of the claim that true cabalonga can be identified by putting a tiny piece under your tongue and experiencing sensations of dizziness within a few moments.

None of the constituents of either type of camalonga has been reported to be psychoactive. Neither appears to be widely used medicinally. Strychnos guiananesis — called comida del venado, deer food — mixed with uña de gato, cat's claw (Uncari spp.), has reportedly been used as a genital wash to treat venereal diseases, but its primary use is as an ingredient in curaré. At Takiwasi, a center in Tarapoto devoted to the treatment of addictions using traditional Amazonian medicine, camalonga — specifically identified as the seed of a plant in the Strychnos genus — is reportedly administered to newly admitted patients for ten days, combined with a sugar-free diet, in a program to detoxify certain unspecifed "energy disorders."

Yellow oleander is used — as you would expect — as a purgative, and the leaves to treat toothache, presumably because of their numbing effect in the mouth. It is also considered an abortifacient, which is probably correct, given its stimulatory effect on the muscles of the uterus.

I would be very interested if anyone has any additional information on this topic.


The Telepathy Meme

When harmine was first isolated from the ayahuasca vine, and before it was identified as the same compound found in Peganum harmala, Syrian rue, it was called, variously, banisterine, yagéine, and, interestingly, telepathine. Apparently it was a traveler named Rafael Zerda Bayón who first suggested, in 1905, both the idea that ayahusca visions were telepathic and the corresponding name telepathine for its active constituent. The name was then used by the Colombian chemist Guillermo Fischer Cárdenas when he actually isolated the compound in 1923. In 1939, it was determined that banisterine, yagéine, and telepathine were all the same as harmine, and that is the name that has been used ever since.

And that probably would have been the end of that, except that American novelist William S. Burroughs ended his first book — originally published in 1953 as Junky, under the pseudonym William Lee — with a brief meditation on yagé. “I read about a drug called yage, used by Indians in the headwaters of the Amazon,” he wrote. “I decided to go down to Colombia and score for yage. . . . I am ready to move on south and look for the uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk.” The last sentence in the book said, “Yage may be the final fix.” Burroughs picked up on the name telepathine — which was, of course, no longer being used — and noted that ayahuasca "is supposed to increase telepathic sensitivity."

Hernando García Barriga, writing in 1958, added to the telepathy narrative. "Savage Indians," he wrote, "who have never left their forests and who, of course, can have no idea of civilized life, describe, in their particular language, and with more or less precision, the details of houses, castles, and cities peopled by multitudes." What — other than ayahuasca-induced telepathy — could possibly be the source of such knowledge? Psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo had similar thoughts in 1967, but in the opposite direction. When he gave city dwellers harmaline — note that this is not the same as harmine, although related to it, and also a constitutent of the ayahuasca vine — they reported that they saw tigers and jungle imagery. Clearly the synthetic chemical had somehow connected Naranjo's subjects mentally to the jungle.

Of course, none of this took into account other possible reasons for these results. As anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff has pointed out, even isolated Indians in 1958 knew a lot about cities, having been told about them by missionaries, soldiers, rubber tappers, traders, and travelers, and having seen pictures in calendars and magazines. And we have no idea what expectations Naranjo's volunteers brought to their experience, although I think we can make a pretty good guess. But so embedded had this meme become that, in 1967, a Haight-Ashbury resident told Andrew Weil that Eskimos given ayahuasca saw visions of huge cats.

Then, in 1971, Charles Lamb published Wizard of the Upper Amazon, which purported to be a transcription of the true story of Manuel Córdova-Ríos, an Iquitos ayahuasquero who claimed to have been kidnapped by Indians, taught their language during group telepathic ayahuasca sessions, and made their chief, finally escaping to become a healer for his urban clientele. The appeal of the tale is archetypal: a civilized person is stolen away by the savage hidden people of the wild places, learns their ways, becomes their chief, and brings their redemptive secrets back to the civilized world.

The reliability of this account has been seriously challenged. But the telepathy meme it contained was passed along by best-selling writer Andrew Weil in his first book, The Natural Mind, published in 1972. Weil was particularly fascinated by the alleged "group vision sessions in which all participants see the same visions" — that is, visions of jungle cats, other animals, enemy tribes, and village scenes — which he took as evidence for the "reality of shared consciousness." Weil was so enthusiastic about Córdova-Ríos's alleged telepathic experiences that he wrote a glowing introduction when the book was, at his suggestion, reprinted as a paperback in 1974. It was not until five years later, in 1979, that Weil traveled to Colombia and tried ayahuasca himself, and was deeply disappointed to find no jungles or jaguars in his visions, and no "telepathic news bulletins of distant events."

Meanwhile, Kenneth Kensinger, a missionary and anthropologist who had worked for many years with the Cashinahua, echoed the narrative of Hernando García Barriga. Several Cashinahua, he wrote in 1973, "who have never been to or seen pictures of Pucallpa, the large town at the Ucayali River terminus of the Central Highway, have described their visits under the influence of ayahuasca to the town with sufficient detail for me to recognize specific sights and shops." And he echoes Manuel Córdova-Ríos as well. According to Bruce Lamb, during a particularly intense ayahuasca session, Córdova-Ríos saw his mother dying; when he returned to the home of his youth, he learned that she had died just as he had seen. Kensinger similarly reports that, after one ayahuasca session, six of the nine participants told him that they had seen the death of his mother's father, two days before Kensinger himself was informed of the death by radio.

And then, in 1981, Peruvian poet César Calvo Soriano wrote a novel of acknowledged genius entitled Las tres mitades de Ino Moxo y otros brujos de la Amazonía, which he based on the story of Manuel Cordova-Ríos. He described how the shaman Ximu telepathically controlled the visions of his young apprentice, “calibrating the hallucinogenic apparitions in the mind of the young man…. The slightest gesture of the old man developed in his consciousness the caresses of an order. Whatever Ximu thought was seen and heard by the boy. They understood each other through flashes of lightning and through shadows, amid slow visions and colors, and Ximu began to confide his patience and his strength.”

So the meme continues, with frequent invocations of the old name telepathine. David Luke, for example, is a parapsychology researcher at the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes at the University of Northampton in England. Interviewed earlier this year by James Kent, Luke spoke about telepathy with ayahuasca, "because ayahuasca is reputedly quite potent in inducing telepathic and clairvoyant experiences. One of the active principles, harmaline, was even called 'telepathine' when it was first isolated from this decoction in the 1920s." Paul Krassner, in his book Magic Mushrooms and Other Highs: From Toad Slime to Ecstasy, says that "shamans say that ayahuasca is 'very telepathic,' and years ago, after also experiencing a ceremony, the first scientist to isolate the psychoactive alkaloid in ayahuasca named the chemical 'telepathine.'"

All of these iterations contain echoes of Bruce Lamb, who wrote, in the introduction to his book on Córdova-Ríos,that ayahuasca "has long been credited with the ability to transport human beings to realms of experience where telepathy and clairvoyance are commonplace. When German scientists first isolated harmaline, an active principle of ayahuasca, they named it 'telepathine' because of this association." And I suppose only a pedant would point out that it was harmine, not harmaline, that was named telepathine, or that Fischer Cárdenas did not name the compound he isolated after his own experience, or that he was Colombian, not German.

What is interesting about this persistent meme is not that it is wrong, but rather that it is, in at least one way, correct, although translated into ill-fitting western clothes. In the Upper Amazon, one of the key features of icaros, a shaman's magic songs, is that they have the ability to modulate the visionary effects of ayahuasca and other psychoactive plants, both for the shaman who is singing the icaro and for a patient or apprentice to whom the shaman has given the medicine. Songs can subir mareación, bring on the vision, or llamar mareación, call the vision; and they can also sacar mareación, take away the vision. The latter can be used benevolently, in order to alleviate frightening visions in a patient, or malevolently, by a sorcerer, in an attack on another shaman, as a means to take away the visionary defenses of the intended victim.

Most important, songs can also modulate the contents of the visions of a patient or apprentice; when my teacher doña María Tuesta tired of my incessant questions, she would tell me, “I will show you,” which meant that I should expect my next ayahuasca visions to give me the answers I was looking for.

So: what the shamans speak about is the magical power of their songs to influence the content of another's visions. Which is, I think, interesting enough for me.



The chullachaqui is a demon of the jungle, known to almost everyone in the Amazon, frightening and pathetic. He is characterized by having one or both feet deformed — either both turned backwards, or one shaped like that of an animal, such as a deer or jaguar; the name is Quechua, meaning uneven feet. The deformed foot is emblematic of his nature: turned backwards, it leaves false tracks; but it cannot be disguised, revealing his identity. He takes on the form of a friend or relative, or of an animal to draw in hunters, and lures people deep into the jungle, where they become hopelessly lost. People thus stolen away he then abandons, makes sick, enslaves, drives mad.

The poet César Calvo pictures chullachaquis as zombie-like creatures — creations of great shamans, sculpted out of the air, or formed from kidnapped children. If a kidnapped child is charged with evil powers, the right foot becomes deformed, self-contradictory — an animal foot when the chullachaqui is in human form, a human foot when in animal form. But there is also a second type of chullachaqui — benevolent, a person of the good, “a deceit in the service of the truth,” with no deformity. In either case, the kidnapped one does not return.

Chullachaqui with a backwards foot (detail from a painting by Pablo Amaringo)

Chullachaquis are also known as yashingo, curpira, shapingo, and shapshico. Two generic terms are also applied to chullachaquissupay, demons, and sacharuna, jungle people. The term sacharuna makes the chullachaqui the land equivalent of the yacuruna, the water people.

Yet there is something sad about the chullachaqui. He dwells alone in the inundated forest, where the chullachaquicaspi tree grows, or under lupuna trees, with which, Calvo says, he has an “indissoluble agreement of love.” He keeps a garden in which he cultivates only sachacaimito, and lives on its fruits. Sometimes he appears, comically, as a small man wearing huge red shoes, red pants, and a hat; he may be challenged to a wrestling match, and one who defeats him will be given good hunting and happiness.

The chullachaqui is also madre del monte, mother of the wilderness, the master of animals; by following the appropriate diet, one can propitiate the chullachaqui, who will grant success in hunting, but punish those who take too many animals. In this, the chullachaqui is like other madres of the jungle — the mothers of the trees, the mothers of the colpas — who protect their domains from foresters and hunters.

There has thus developed, in the last few decades, a new version of the chullachaqui, born out of an increasing awareness of commercial encroachment on the jungle — the chullachaqui as defender of the forest, enemy of lumber and oil companies: he heals wounded animals, and punishes those who cut down the trees and hunt animals out of greed. “The chullachaqui is a protective spirit of the jungle,” says one description, “who can harm or help people, depending on whether they mistreat or respect nature in the jungle.” This new chullachaqui “is generous with those who make rational use of the resources of the forest, but is harmful toward people who invade his space without permission and destroy its plant and animal resources.”

Don Agustin Rivas tells of a jungle encounter with a small man who had an aged face, curved nose, small brilliant eyes, and very small mouth, and was missing one foot. Although the man was dressed normally, don Agustin recognized him immediately as a chullachaqui. Don Agustin expressed his delight in finally meeting a real chullachaqui, and they smoked a pipe together; don Agustin mentioned that he had been having bad luck in hunting lately, and the chullachaqui said, “Those are my animals. You need to ask my permission first, and you have never asked me before shooting an animal. But today you’re going to kill an animal.” Don Agustin suddenly felt dizzy and fell to the ground in a faint; when he awoke, the chullachaqui was gone. Almost immediately, he came across a very large deer and shot it — a perfect shot through the heart.

So, with that background, I think you might find the following interesting:

The Water People

Mestizos in the Upper Amazon have a variety of beliefs about the other-than-human persons who inhabit the hidden realms deep in the jungle and under the water. These beings are often conceived as inhabiting the three realms of air, earth, and water; all of them are dangerous. They are different from the madres or genios, the spirits of plants and animals with whom the shaman interacts, although shamans often seek to enter into right relationship with these beings as well; rather, ordinary people may, to their sorrow, unintentionally and unexpectedly encounter these more-or-less corporeal other-than-human persons.

The yacuruna, the water people, look more or less like human beings, except that they live underwater in beautiful cities, often at the mouths of rivers. Sometimes these cities are described as upside-down mirror images of human cities — that is, like reflections on the surface of the water. Here the yacuruna live in palaces of crystal with multicolored walls of fish scales and pearl, reclining on hammocks of gazelle feathers, under a mosquito net of butterfly wings. These tropes can be extended: the hammocks of the yacuruna are boas, their seats are turtles, their canoes are alligators. In different accounts, yacuruna may be hairy, or have their heads turned backwards, or even have deformed feet, like the chullachaqui.

People stolen away by the yacuruna come in time to resemble their captors: first their eyes and then their head and feet turn backwards. When the transformation is complete, the stolen one has turned into a yacuruna, and can never return. Or the yacuruna may turn around the head of the one they have abducted immediately, so that the person cannot find the way home, but must continue onward into their city under the water.

A hairy yacuruna sits on a boa hammock smoking a pipe (detail from a painting by Pablo Amaringo)

The yacuruna are also great healers, and can be summoned to help the shaman in his work. The yacuruna may teach an abducted person the healing arts and, when trust has been established, turn the person’s head toward the front again, and let the person return to the human world. Similarly, the yacuruna may be the source of shamanic powers.

Belief in powerful underwater beings is found elsewhere in the Amazon. Among the Achuar, the tsunki are male and female spirits who resemble humans and dwell in rivers and lakes, very much like the yacuruna among the mestizos. Tsunki social and material life mirrors that of the Achuar; they are a source of shamanic powers; and they engage in sexual relations with humans. Married Achuar men speak casually about their double life with their human family on the one hand and their adulterous underwater tsunki family on the other.

Among the Shuar, the shamanic power of the water people is made explicit, and they attribute great shamanic power to the tsunki. Indeed, Tsunki is the primordial first shaman, the source of all shamanic power, the origin of knowledge about the use of tsentsak darts, who continues to live beneath the waters in a house made of anacondas, using a turtle as a stool. Tsunki can give to favored shamans a type of tsentsak made of crystal, which are particularly deadly; and he can kill shamans with whom he is angry. It is possible to receive tsentsak directly from Tsunki in a dream or vision, instead of receiving them from a human shaman. It is sometimes said that only those who have had a vision of Tsunki can become a shaman. A Shuar shaman sings, I am like Tsunki. I am like Tsunki. And again: I am sitting with Tsunki.

Tsunki lives in the whirlpools of the remote waterfalls, and appears in the form of a beautiful woman, a water snake, or other water being. Thus there is ambiguity: the term tsunki can refer to the water people generally; to a particular water person, often a seductive female with long hair and large breasts, at least as reported by men; and to Tsunki, the primordial shaman. All of them offer gifts of power.


The Idea of the Wilderness

Can there be such a thing as an urban shaman, or is that a contradiction in terms? To think about that question is to think about our idea of the wilderness.

The wilderness has been an integral part of the American vision almost from the moment that Europeans stumbled across a huge land whose existence they had never even suspected. The idea of wilderness is now the subject of a deeply political debate couched in postmodernist intellectual terms. Is there really such a thing as wilderness at all, or is wilderness merely a social and historically determined construct – and one that is racist and classist to boot? Is the idea of wilderness a modern idea — even more, a modern American idea — without application to traditional indigenous peoples? What value is there in the wilderness?

It is clear to me, anyway, that the value of wilderness is profoundly spiritual, and that what we call shamanism has deep roots in the wilderness, from which it must continue to draw its sustenance. Many of the books below were instrumental in forming that point of view. Many of my copies are bent and stained from being crammed into my backpack, and I present them here unapologetically for your consideration.

  • Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. Well, the crusty old curmudgeon Edward Abbey is dead, and we won't be hearing a voice like his for a long time. When he was young, he worked as a park ranger for three seasons in the Utah desert, living in a beat-up trailer, hanging out with uranium miners in Moab bars, and journeying into the desert in pursuit of his own soul. These essays are typical Abbey – raucous, outrageous, personal, passionate, and fascinating. The desert he loved is largely gone now, despite Abbey's own lifelong rant against the commercialization of the American wilderness. Abbey went on to write other books, most notably the notorious Monkey Wrench Gang, but this early work is perhaps the best introduction to the man, who throughout his life stood as a uniquely independent advocate for the stark landscapes of the red-rock West.

  • Mary Austin, Land of Little Rain. First published in 1903, these poetic studies of the Southwestern desert set terms to our understanding of wilderness that remain important today. Austin describes the desert plants, animals, mountains, birds, skies, Indians, prospectors, and towns, not as a traveler but as a participant. "To understand the fashion of any life," she writes, "one must know the land it is lived in and the procession of the year." One of the earliest American writers to celebrate the harshness and austerity of the desert and its life, Austin is a predecessor to such crusty individualists as Edward Abbey. Throughout, she focuses on how creatures adapt to the desert environment and to each other — including humans, who, like herself, find in adapting to the arid and demanding desert a release of their own soul.

  • J. Baird Callicott, The Great New Wilderness Debate. As all the books in this list attest, the idea of wilderness has been central in shaping not only environmental debates but also the American identity. Recently, the concept has been challenged from several fronts – by postmodernists, who insist that there is no such thing as wilderness, but only a contingent and mutable social construct; and by postcolonialists, who claim that the idea of wilderness is dualistic, ethnocentric, and racist. This book is an excellent collection of writings that both put the debate in context and move it forward. The book starts with the now traditional notion of wilderness – writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Teddy Roosevelt, Sigurd Olsen, setting forth the idea of wilderness as the site of spirituality and redemption. Then J. Baird Callicott, William Cronon, and other postmodern and postcolonial scholars attack this notion as romantic, colonialist, exploitative, and antihumanist; and they in turn are rebutted by Reed Noss, Dave Foreman, and others. Along the way, there are thoughtful essays by such writers as Jack Turner and Gary Snyder. These are all important ideas, significant to all of us who are trying to think through the role and value of wilderness in America and in our own lives.

  • Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The interconnected essays in this Pulitzer Prize-winning collection are far from celebrating a nurturing and comfortable wilderness; they are grittily consistent in exploring both the beauty and savagery of nature. Dillard is no romantic. She writes, for example, ”Nature is, above all, profligate. Don't believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn't it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital.” But there is still a spirit at work in nature, where a cedar tree becomes ”the tree with the lights in it.” Bring this book into the wilderness with you; you will not see things the same way again.

  • Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac. First published in 1949, this book ranks with Walden as one of the seminal books on the relationship of man and nature in America, and is the ancestor of such diverse work as Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire. One part of the book simply describes, from January to December, the monthly changes of the Wisconsin countryside; another collects pieces written by Leopold over a forty-year period as he traveled through the woodlands of the American west; and a final section addresses the philosophical issues involved in wildlife conservation. Throughout the book are Leopold's trenchant comments on our abuse of the land and on what we must do – and how we must change — in order to save it. This is a classic work on our relationship to the land — sensible, ethical, observant, and profound.

  • Barry Lopez, Crossing Open Ground. Barry Lopez is one of our best contemporary nature writers, whose book Arctic Dreams won the 1986 American Book Award for nonfiction. His style is conversational, talking about Aztec aviaries, beached whales in Oregon, the killing of animals in order to study them. He is not programmatic; rather, each essay encourages, in its understated, thoughtful way, a view of nature less as an ecological and more as a spiritual system. Lopez does not rant; he tells stories. He is someone you would want to share a campfire with.

  • John Muir, Nature Writings. John Muir holds a unique place in the history of the American west. He was an explorer, writer, passionate political activist, and eloquent spokesman for the mystery and power of the wilderness. It is largely because of Muir that we have preserved for us today some of our most beautiful wilderness areas. He was one of the first of a long line of American nature writers, and still among the best, with a unique ability to evoke the landscape of Alaska and the American west. This book collects Muir's most important works in a single volume. My First Summer in the Sierra, written in 1911, describes his spiritual awakening in the Sierra region in 1869, when he first encountered the mountains and valleys of central California. The Mountains of California, written in 1894, is a celebration of the high Sierra country, considered a classic evocation of the region's lakes, forests, flowers, and animals. The essays highlight various aspects of his career — his exploration of what became Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks and the Grand Canyon, his successful crusades to preserve the wilderness, his early walking tour to Florida, and his Alaska journey of 1879.

  • Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind. First published in 1967, this is a classic study of America’s changing attitudes toward wilderness, tracing the development of preservationist and environmentalist thought. The book is important as much for its influence as for its content: the Los Angeles Times listed it among the one hundred most influential books published in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Outside Magazine included it in a survey of “books that changed our world,” and it has been credited as being instrumental in the passing of the Wilderness Act by Congress. This is the fourth edition of this highly regarded work, with a new preface and epilogue in which Nash explores the future of wilderness and reflects on its ethical relevance.

  • Max Oelschlager, The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology. The concept of wilderness clearly has changed over time and from culture to culture. This wide-ranging work of intellectual history examines the environmental consequences of those varying conceptions. More than a history of ecological ideas, the book argues for a new relationship to the wilderness; it seeks ”to reverse America's historical process, to urge the wilderness to grow back into civilization, to release the stored energy from layers below us.” The question the book addresses is not only the idea of the wilderness; it is the purpose of civilization.

  • Gary Snyder, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds: New and Selected Prose. This is a collection of twenty-nine essays written by poet Gary Snyder over the past forty years, with thirteen of them written since 1990, the date Snyder published his previous book of essays, The Practice of the Wild, discussed below. The focus here is on bioregionalism – an ecologically based politics in which places like Arizona, California, and Wyoming would give way to Sonoran, Sierran, and Wind River ecosystems governed by freeholders on the land. Fundamental to this vision, whatever you may think of it politically, is an experience common to those who spend time in the wilderness – a profound sense of place. Snyder is a poet, a Buddhist, a scholar of Chinese, a student of Native American myth and story, and, above all, a lover of the wilderness with what one reviewer has called a playful and subtle intellect. Like his poetry, his prose style is direct; reading his essays is like having a conversation with a thoughtful friend who has lived a varied and interesting life. My copy is bent and water-stained from being carried in my backpack.

  • Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild. Snyder – friend of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Buddhist, translator of Chinese, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet – offers nine thoughtful essays that blend his personal Buddhist beliefs, respect for wildlife and the land, and fascination with language and mythic tradition into a ”meditation on what it means to be human.” Once again, all the essays center on the question of place – how we might begin to live in a ”culture of wilderness,” at home in the American landscape, ”actually living here intellectually, imaginatively, morally.” Snyder's hope is that someday we might all be native Americans, at home in our grand place. The essays range from language to mythology and from politics to school curricula. Yet the essays never preach; Snyder's tone is always conversational and direct. As in his other book of essays, A Place in Space, discussed above, reading the book is like talking to an interesting friend.

  • Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Walden, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod. Any understanding of the American wilderness begins with Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau wrote four full-length works, collected here for the first time in a single volume. He was literate, educated, upper class, a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson; and it is easy to forget how much he was, in any sense of the word, a woodsman – physically strong, intimately familiar with the plants and animals, competent in the wilderness. His friend and mentor Emerson said he had an ”oaken strength.” In 1845 Thoreau leased some land owned by Emerson on Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, and lived in a cabin on it for two years, two months, and two days. The experience gave Thoreau the chance to make keen observations on the world around him, and to write Walden, a truly American classic. The book combines natural observation, personal experience, and historical lore; it is about Thoreau himself, about the human relationship with nature, and about what it means to be a free and self-reliant person in a civilized world. The Maine Woods and Cape Cod portray landscapes changing irreversibly even as he wrote. Maine was then a wilderness still largely unexplored by Europeans; Cape Cod was a barren peninsula. His accounts combine close observation, prescient pleas for conservation, and meditations on survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay.

  • Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild. Jack Turner is a passionate, outspoken contrarian on wilderness issues. He dislikes natural resource managers, conservation biologists, environmental economists, park rangers, zoo directors, and environmental activists. Any kind of land management, he says, even the most benign preservation, robs the wilderness of any claim to being wild, and robs those who go there of their chance to experience the spirituality of truly wild places. In other words, the wilderness is being destroyed by the very systems designed to preserve it, which succeed only in turning Yellowstone National Park into a Disneyland with trees. Instead of preservation, he argues for just leaving things alone. Turner is a former academic who is now a mountain guide in the Tetons; he rants against mediated, managed, abstract wilderness, and in favor of connection to the real thing. This is a biting and provocative book, whose value is enhanced by the fact that Turner is largely right.

The Tigress of the Jungle

Apparently a major cultural revolution has been taking place right under my nose, and I didn't even know it was happening. Before we have any further discussion, you absolutely have to watch this:

La Tigresa del Oriente, the creator and lead singer of this video, is the stage name adopted by Peruvian hairdresser and makeup artist Judith Bustos. Her videos on YouTube — of which the above is just a sample — have become wildly popular. The video you just watched, entitled Nuevo Amanecer, New Dawn, had been watched, when I checked this morning, 3,396,779 times. Bustos was born in 1945, so she was 61 years old when she produced and starred in this video. She is now one of the most widely known Peruvian artists in the world.

I am speechless.

Bustos became a cosmetologist in her home town of Iquitos and then moved to Lima, hoping to become involved in show business in some way. Eventually she became a makeup artist at several Lima television stations, a field in which she worked for more than twenty years. She developed the concept and stage act for La Tigresa del Oriente — to most urban Peruvians, the east means the Amazon — in 2002, but it was not, apparently, until 2006 that her YouTube video carried her to her current fame. She is now called the Queen of YouTube by the Peruvian press.

Here is another example. There are lots more where this one came from.

While her vocal range is limited, and her sense of pitch sometimes shaky, Bustos has, according to the Peruvian newspaper Diario La República, signed a contract with Warner México for one year. With the first payment of the contract's royalties she bought her first automobile.

It is easy, of course, to enjoy the campiness of all this. But I can't help looking at those Shipibo villagers and wondering what the Shipibo are thinking. There is, after all, pervasive social discrimination in Perú, which is explained and justified not in terms of race but in terms of cultural differences. This social convention is at the heart of Peruvian racism. Modern Peruvian discourse legitimizes discriminatory practices by appealing to culture.

In other words, Peruvians think that their discriminatory practices are not racist because they connote, not innate biological differences, but cultural ones. Peruvian intellectuals have tended to define race with allusions to culture, the soul, and the spirit, which are thought to be more important than skin color or any other bodily attribute in determining the behavior of groups of people. Indians adhere — or are perceived to adhere — to a different way of life, by their language, their style of dress, and their outlook, and are assigned a subordinate position in society.

Hispanic whites and hispanicized mestizos publicly worry from time to time about the presence of a large mass of indigenous people who are not assimilated into the national life — most notoriously novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, who argued that eradication of Indian culture was the sad but necessary price to be paid for freedom and propserity.

How do we read these videos in that context?


Control of the Spirits

A long-standing debate about shamanism concerns the locus of interaction between the shaman and the other-than-human persons with whom the shaman works — between shamans who travel to the land of the spirits, and shamans whose bodies are occupied and possessed by spirits. Often the debate is expressed dichotomously as a matter of power — between the shaman being “the master of spirits” on the one hand, and the shaman being “the instrument of the spirits” on the other. Graham Harvey, a scholar of indigenous religions, puts it this way — that “there is an almost continual conflict between those who think shamans are, by definition, people who control spirits … and those who think shamans are, at least sometimes, controlled by spirits.”

I think we should subvert this dichotomy at the outset. It is based on dualistic assumptions about power and control: either you have power over the other or the other has power over you; either you are in control or you are out of control. In the Amazon, the spirits — the plants — are powerful and unpredictable. And the relationship between shaman and plant is complex, paradoxical, multilayered, embodied in a recurrent phrase in my teacher doña María Tuesta’s songs, doctorcito poderoso, powerful little doctor, the diminutive indicating warmth and familial affection, the adjective acknowledging power.

The shaman “masters” the plants — the verb for learning a plant is dominar — by taking the plant inside the body, letting the plant teach its mysteries, giving oneself over to the power of the plant. As doña María warned me, ayahuasca is muy celosa, very jealous. To acknowledge that the spirits can be dangerous, and then to speak, as does anthropologist Fiona Bowie, of mastering, taming, even domesticating them, is to gloss over the complex reciprocal interpersonal relationship between shaman and other-than-human person — fear, awe, passion, surrender, friendship, and love.

The dichotomy is also subverted among the Shuar. The tsentsak, magic darts, kept within the chest of a Shuar shaman, are living spirits, who can control the actions of a shaman who does not have sufficient self-control. The magic darts want to kill, and it requires hard work to keep them under control and use them for healing rather than attack. That is why it is considered to be much more difficult to be a healer than a sorcerer: it is difficult to resist the urges of the darts; as some Shuar say, “The tsentsak make you do bad things.” Thus, Shuar shamans are, in a real sense, possessed, but not by the soul of a deceased human person; they are possessed by their own shamanic power, with which they are in continuous interaction.

Aguaruna shamans, too, when they begin to heal, call pasuk to enter into their bodies. Pasuk are the spirits of formidable shamans who live in the forest, enter into the human shaman’s chest, and tell the shaman information about the sick person. While shamans are said to control their pasuk, the extent of this control appears to be variable. Similarly, the Parakanã of Eastern Amazonia believe that shamans possess pathogenic agents that cause sickness, called karowara. When animated by a shaman, karowara are tiny pointed objects; inside the victim’s body, they take the concrete form of monkey teeth, some species of beetle, stingray stings, and sharp-pointed bones. Karowara have no independent volition; but they have a compulsion to eat human flesh. Again, the relationship between shaman and pathogenic agent appears complex, and control is not easily defined.


Shamanism and Conjuring

Early anthropologist Martin Gusinde reports the following performance by a shaman in Tierra del Fuego: “He put a few pebbles in the palm of his hand, concentrated on them, and suddenly the pebbles vanished.” Can anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of sleight-of-hand believe this wasn’t a conjuring trick?

One Siberian shaman showed eighteenth-century researcher Johann Gmelin how he pushed arrows through his ceremonial coat, piercing a bladder filled with blood to give the impression that the arrow had run through his body. Other feats have puzzled anthropologists unschooled in conjuring. Russian anthropologist Waldemar Bogoras watched a Central Alaskan shaman, in broad daylight, wring out a fist-sized stone so that a stream of small pebbles fell from it and piled up on a drum placed below, while the original rock remained intact. Bogoras was convinced it was a conjuring trick, but he could not figure out how it was done, especially as the shaman was stripped to the waist. Such performances demonstrate why shamanism is, in such large measure, a skill to be learned.

Neville Drury opens his book on shamanism by talking about Iban shaman Manang Bungai, who used monkey blood to fake a shamanic battle with an incubus. Drury claims that this is not “true shamanism,” which is “characterized by access to other realms of consciousness.” But, apart from the unseemliness of an outsider anthropologist adjudicating the authenticity of someone else’s tradition, it is worth pointing out that Manang was not a fake on his own terms or in the eyes of the culture in which he practiced. The use of monkey blood in his shamanic performance requires a more subtle analysis than a simple European dichotomy into the authentic and the fake.

One theory we may call the trophy view. Anthropologist Marvin Harris, for example, writes that such conjuring has a persuasive healing purpose, producing the evidence needed for achieving a therapeutic effect, “although from the shaman’s point of view the real business of curing involved the removal of intangible spirit-world realities.” Michael Harner similarly distinguishes between the spiritual essence of an illness, which may appear, in the “shamanic state of consciousness,” to be, say, a spider, and its manifestation, in the physical plane, as, say, a “plant power object” — some twigs, say, which the shaman may hide in the mouth and then display to the patient and audience, who are in the “ordinary state of consciousness,” as evidence that the sickness has been extracted. Lawrence Sullivan says that shamans “must make available to the naked eye what they see in their clairvoyant penetration of the spirit domain. By means of miraculous performances and shamanic miracle plays, the audience is able to see reality reflexively, the way shamans see it.” Dramatic healing performances “provide for the public what ecstasy offers the shaman: a visible encounter with the forces at work on other planes of existence.”

But I am not persuaded by the trophy view. It is based on what we can call a two-realm assumption — that there is a spirit world separate from this world, that there is a shamanic state of consciousness opposed to an ordinary state of consciousness. Like the dichotomy between curing and healing, the trophy theory assumes that the sucking shaman removes nothing really … well, real, an assumption based in a naïve metaphysical dualism. Both don Antonio, an Otomi Indian from Mexico, and don Augustin Rivas, a mestizo shaman from Pucallpa, talk about physical stuff — rotten meat, a metallic object — that appears in their mouths when they suck the sickness from a patient.

Many shamans simply deny this dichotomy. Anthropologist Marie Perruchon, who is married to a Shuar husband and is herself an initiated ushiwín, shaman, puts it this way: ayahuasca “is a plant which has the effect that when you drink it, it allows you to see what otherwise is invisible, and it attracts the spirits. It is not that the ayahuasca takes one to another world, otherwise unreachable; it just opens one’s eyes to what is normally hidden. There is only one world, which is shared by all beings, humans, spirits, and animals.”

The “shaking tent” is a ritual widespread among North American Indians, during which a shaman is tightly bound inside a darkened lodge, the structure shakes violently, the shaman — and sometimes the audience as well — converses with spirits who speak and sing, and the shaman, when light is restored, is revealed to be unbound and sitting comfortably, apparently untied by the spirits.

As professional magician Eugene Burger has pointed out, Native American shamans performing the shaking tent ritual had long been aware of the skepticism of traders and missionaries, and of their assumption that the shaman was responsible for both the shaking of the lodge and the voices of the spirits. Anthropologist Weston La Barre offers such an explanation. “How does the shaman make the séance tent shake?” he asks. “By the same naturalistic means the séance medium makes the table tip.” Now, there are many ways that a professional conjurer could approach such ceremonies, including discussion of the numerous ways in which the effect could be achieved. Burger is more subtle, however, and makes two important points.

First, he notes the numerous tales of the shaking of heavy and stable structures — a lodge with a double row of forty poles set close together, a lodge of sixty poles — with the inference being that such structures would be too solid to be shaken by human effort. There are also tales of frail old men in a lodge which shook for hours, shamans operating in full view, tents shaking while the shaman remained entirely outside, three lodges shaking at once. The point, he says, is that the audience is quite aware of the potential for trickery; otherwise, they would not have told such stories.

Second, there were criteria for distinguishing between fake and genuine performers. An old man confided: “Once when I was a boy I made a lodge and shook it myself. I was trying to do what I had seen done. My father stopped me immediately. He said something bad would happen to me if I played with things like that.” The tent-shaking ceremony could be done only if authorized by the appropriate dreams on how to build the lodge and how to call the spirits; failure to have the dreams, or failure to follow the dream instructions, meant failure in the long run and even illness or death. Burger remarks, tellingly,

But members of the community tried to duplicate the phenomena anyway. Some showed off, and some never had the dreams in the first place. Who were the imposters and charlatans? Those who had not had, and had not followed, the dream. Concern for sincerity was acute. But it was not a concern about the method of shaking the lodge, or about prowess with the method, but concern about vision and discipline.

The problem, of course, is the importation of our own cultural attitudes toward conjuring into our appreciation of the conjuring other. That cultural attitude is not simply that conjuring is bad because it is somehow false. The attitude is that conjuring is about what Burger calls “the adventures of the props in the performer’s hands”— strange adventures that happen to objects.

We tend to see shamanic conjuring as about vanishing pebbles, bloody fluff, the drama of retching and gagging, while that is not what it is about at all. “In the earliest conjuring performances,” Burger writes, “magicians would probably have thought they had failed if people had complimented them on their skill and technique. These early conjurers seem to have believed that skill and technique were to be invisible, so that the mystery was the center of focus.” In modern magical performances, on the other hand, the effects “do not point beyond themselves to an audience member’s actual life in the world; nor do they point to a larger magical universe beyond the boundaries of the performance.”

It is, I think, this mystery that is the core of the shamanic performance. Healing ceremonies do not restore order or resolve contradictions; they do not explain. Indeed, healing performances manipulate spiritual and social power in part by withholding denotative meaning from some of the participants. An Amazonian healing ceremony is rife with uncertainty, ambiguity, obscurity, filled with apparently meaningless elements, with communicative indeterminacy, with mystery. The icaros may be in secret incomprehensible languages, or whistled and whispered; the interactions with the spirits are hidden; the power of the shaman is dangerous and ambiguous.

To the sufferer, participation in the ceremony is not mere experience, forgettable and dull; rather it is an experience, an extraordinary event, fixed in memory as a singular time. It is an acting out of the shaman's world — full of depth and suprise, permeated with meaning. In the shaman's healing, with its active touching and sucking, its sounds and whispers, its penetrating smells and intestinal heavings, its drama, the body becomes the place in which the meaning of the sickness is revealed.