Shamans and Herbalists

Mestizo shamanism of the Upper Amazon is closely associated with plant healing; indeed, anthropologist Françoise Barbira-Freedman speaks of vegetalismo as a syncretic mix of herbalism and shamanism. In this regard it is different from other Amazonian traditions, where shamans and herbalists occupy separate social and cultural niches. Shuar shamans, for example, have traditionally not used or prescribed plant medicine; such knowledge is widely distributed, especially among women, and herbal remedies have usually been tried before consulting a shaman in any event. Anthropologist Michael Harner, who worked with the Shuar in the 1950s and 1960s, is unequivocal: shamans, he says, never use herb remedies. Similarly, Aguaruna shamans are generally called in when a patient has already failed to respond to herbal remedies or commercial medicines.

The Cashinahua of the Purus River classify shamans into two groups — the dauya, the one with medicine, who kills and heals through the use of medicinal plants; and the mukaya, the one with bitterness, who heals and kills with the help of the yuxin, spirits, using a bitter substance called muka, which is the materialization of yuxin power. Among the Shipibo-Conibo, the raomi, herbalist, usually female, who works with the plants alone, is distinguished from, and has lower status than, both the onanya and meraya, shamans who work with plant spirits in their healing. Thus don Basilio Gordon, a Shipibo shaman, uses no physical plants in his healing practice. “If you know the icaro of a plant,” he explains, “you don’t need to use the plant.”

Similarly, among Arawak-speaking peoples in Guyana and the Venezuelan Amazon, there are several levels of shamanic specialization. At the lowest level is the biníji, who prepares medicines with plants and water; one step above is the makákana, the blower who cures by blowing tobacco smoke; then the uyúkuli, who cures by sucking; and then the sibunítei, who cures by dreams and divination.

Among the Desana, there are two sorts of traditional healer — the yee, jaguar-shaman; and the kumu, blower of spells. The yee derives his powers — including the ability to turn into a jaguar — from contact with spirits after ingesting hallucinogenic snuff, and cures by seeing the sickness inside the patient’s body, blowing tobacco smoke, massage, and sucking out the pathogenic objects from the body and spitting them away. The kumu cures by the inaudible recitation of highly formalized therapeutic spells over a liquid the patient then drinks, or over a plant that is then rubbed onto the patient’s sick body part. The liquid or plant gives the spell a material support and transfers it to the patient.

These disparate functions — preparing plant medicines, sucking out pathogenic objects, blowing tobacco smoke, singing icaros over medicines — are combined by the vegetalista, the mestizo healer.

The distinction between shaman and herbalist, however, is not universal. Among the Baniwa of Brazil, for example, shamans deal with manhene witchcraft — inflicted through secret poisonings — both by sucking out the poison, which then appears as monkey or sloth fur, and by recommending plant medicines, usually various types of root that counteract the gastric effects of the poison. César Zevallos Chinchuya, a Campa shaman, uses herbal remedies that do not differ from those used by other adults in his area.

And, among the Cashinahua, the distinction is not really as simple as presented above: plants themselves are imbued with and vehicles of yuxin, spirit matter and energy, in just the same way as the shaman is filled with materialized yuxin power.

And elsewhere, too, the distinction seems to be dissolving, under the influence of mestizo practices. Shuar shamans today, especially those who live near larger jungle population centers, increasingly incorporate Hispanic healing techniques from the mestizos — the use of Tarot cards for divination, cleansing with eggs and candles, and the use of herbs. Indeed, the Asociación Tsunki, a shamans’ organization within the Federación Shuar, has recently offered courses in Shuar and Achuar traditional medicine, open only to uwishín, shamans, which have included training in gathering plants and preparing plant medicines.


Prestige and Hierarchy

There is an often unspoken hierarchy among mestizo shamans. There is, first, a relatively informal ranking based on length of practice, the number and length of dietas, the number and types of plants that have been mastered, and the number and quality of icaros in their repertoire. Icaros become increasingly prestigious as they incorporate words from indigenous languages, unknown archaic tongues, and the languages of animals and birds; the more obscure the language, the more power it contains — and the more difficult it is to copy.

Additionally, prestige is acquired by association with indigenous traditions, on the one hand, and with western biomedicine, on the other. The former is based on the mestizo assumption that jungle Indians are the ultimate source of shamanic knowledge and that any powers acquired directly from them are of particular value. The latter is based on the social status of urban biomedicine, and is manifested in the use of imagery involving hospitals, surgical scrubs and masks, medical procedures, and spirits dressed as doctors and nurses. Reference to these two sources of prestige may be found in the way my teachers don Roberto Acho and doña María Tuesta would dress for their ayahuasca ceremonies — don Roberto wearing a crown of feathers and a shirt inscribed with Shipibo Indian designs; doña María wearing a long white coat, like that of a doctor.

The Banco.  A mestizo healer of the greatest power and repute is often called a banco, bench, seat. Bancos are credited with remarkable abilities, such as being in two places at once. A banco has the power to fly with speed and skill, has acquired powers of healing, and can transform into all sorts of animals — alligators, boas, dolphins, and birds; a banco puma is able to change into a jaguar.

To become a banco, one must diet for more than forty years; that is why most bancos are old, and most never leave their place in the jungle. The term can be combined with terms for shamanic specialties and subspecialties: a shaman can be a banco ayahuasquero, banco tabaquero, banco sananguero.

The term banco appears to be a loan of the word banku used among the indigenous Quichua, Lamista, and Shuar for particularly powerful shamans. Among the Napo Runa, the bancu is said to be the most powerful kind of yachac. The supai, spirits, reside within him; it is from these spirits that the shaman derives his power; he is their seat. Among the Canelos Qhuichua, a banco is a “living seat” for the souls of ancient shamans; among the Lamista, a banku is a powerful shaman who keeps the souls of powerful shaman ancestors in his yachay, magical phlegm. The Shuar say that bankus — who, they say, do not exist any more — were those shamans who could be possessed by the spirit of a dead person and let it speak through their mouths.

Among mestizos, it is said that when bancos go into trance they need three apprentices to take care for them, to blow tobacco smoke on their feet, back, and crown of their head. It is during this trance that the banco can summon the spirits of the dead, who speak with the shaman, who is lying face down within a mosquito net. The dead then tell the shaman how they died, and the shaman can convey this information to the bereaved family.

The Muraya.  Another status term found among mestizo healers is muraya. There is little consistency in the use of this term. Don Agustin Rivas gives a status hierarchy beginning with muraillo, then muraya, then alto muraya, then altomando muraya, and finally banco, the highest level of knowledge, which requires a diet of a full year, living alone in the jungle with no sex and eating only rice and plantains, and occasionally monkeys from the jungle. Don Agustin “graduated” to alto muraya in a dream about his teacher don Ramon, and to altomando muraya in a special ceremony. The term muraillo appears to be an -illo diminutive of muraya; the sequence thus is little muraya, high muraya, high command muraya, and banco.

Just as the term banco appears to have been borrowed from the Shuar, Lamista, and other indigenous peoples, the term muraya appears to have been borrowed from the Shipibo-Conibo word muraya or meraya. Some consider the term muraya to be the ordinary Shipibo-Conibo term for shaman or brujo; more likely, the term muraya or meraya refers to a special class of shaman distinguished from — and held in higher esteem than — the ordinary ayahuasca healer, called onanya. Literally, the term onanya means one who knows and meraya means one who meets. One Shipibo shaman, when asked whether he was an onanya or meraya, replied that, when he was young, he could disappear within his mosquito net, change into a jaguar, or have a double who could travel great distances, and thus was a meraya; but now that he had lost these powers through age, he was an onanya.

The term meraya thus seems to indicate a set of powers very similar to those of the banco. Strikingly, one Shipibo woman, not herself a shaman, says that the meraya have now all disappeared, but that they could be possessed by the souls of dead people, who would speak through the meraya’s mouth several months after their death to name the sorcerers who had killed them. There is thus reason to believe that the meraya — like the banco —was distinguished from other shamans by giving voice to the dead and by providing a home for the souls of powerful dead shamans.

The Sumi.  The term sumi or sume is used primarily to refer to a master shaman who has the ability to go at will into the underwater realms. Thus Pablo Amaringo says that sumis are those able to go under the water; a sumiruna is “capable of entering the water as if it were the easiest thing in the world.” This is an important skill. The other-than-human persons who live under the water — the yacuruna or water people and the mermaids — are often viewed as having great knowledge of healing and magic songs, which they may be willing to share with an intrepid shaman. In addition, these beings are sexually voracious and may kidnap humans for sexual purposes; a shaman must be able to compel them to give up their captives, often using icaros learned from the underwater beings themselves. It is not clear to me where the term sumi comes from. The term sumiruna — that is, sumi person — is often used synonymously.

Don José Celso tells a story of how he almost became s sumi. While he was drinking ayahuasca, a gigantic boa came to devour him; but he hesitated to enter ther creature’s mouth. If he had, he says, the boa would have vomited him into the underwater world. The artist Elvis Luna, commenting on a painting he made of mermaids, says that the mermaids are celebrating because soon a newly kidnapped man will be brought to their world. “They enchant the man with their sublime singing and their beauty. The moment the man is taken underwater the mermaids encircle him as part of his welcome to their world.” But the man they have abducted is in fact an apprentice shaman; he has just two days to establish a relationship with the mermaids in order to get their blessings, their spiritual knowledge. And during these two days he must be rescued by a sumi, a specialized shaman of the water who is monitoring the apprentice. “If two days have passed and he is not rescued,” Luna writes, “the man will experience an eternity in every day that he is underwater.”

Don Francisco Montes Shuña speaks of his uncle, don Manuel Shuña, a banco sumi, who could live and work in the water realm with the mermaids, and who in fact had a sexual relation with a mermaid who taught him many things; and of his grandmother, Trinidad Vilces Peso, a sumiruna who had control over the spirits of the water, could enter the aquatic realms, and transform into a fish, and who died at the age of 108 to become a doctora for the dolphins.

There is no real clarity among mestizos about the relationship of the terms banco, muraya, and sumi. The term banco appears to be the most general; indeed, one can be a banco muraya or a banco sumi, meaning a muraya or sumi of the highest level. Pablo Amaringo relates these three terms to the mastery of the three realms of earth, water, and sky, but does not consistently maintain this distinction.



Documentary Educational Resources produces, distributes, and promotes ethnographic and documentary films from around the world. Among their offerings is a film by Georges Payrastre and Claudine Viallon entitled Brujo (Shaman), an exploration of shamanism and curing among the Mazatec of Oaxaca, Mexico, and among two groups of Maya Indians in southern Mexico and Guatemala. María Sabina, you will recall, was a Mazatec healer.

The film is divided into three sequences. The first, filmed in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, shows Diego, a shaman, cure a woman on whom a spell has been cast. The cure takes place partly in a church and partly in the mountains, where a sacrificed chicken is used to bring back the ailing woman's spirit.

The second sequence moves to Oaxaca, where a Mazatec shaman, her husband, and her patient consume hallucinogenic mushrooms. The cure, which takes place in darkness, involves a simple song — the mushroom's "voice" — and dance, flowers, and the rubbing of tobacco on both the patient and the shaman's husband.

The final sequence takes place in the Chiapas highlands of Mexico. The filmmakers encounter shaman Miguel, who brings them to his family home in a mountain hamlet beyond Chenalho. There he undertakes to cure filmmaker Claudine Viallon of a migraine, using candles, eggs, and incense. Miguel also discusses his conceptions of the soul, death, and transmigration.

The producers have posted an eight-minute sample of the first sequence:

Shamanic Specializations

There have been relatively few investigators who have studied the healing practices of the mestizos in the Upper Amazon. All of them — anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna, medical anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Ríos, and Jacques Chevalier, an expert in social anthropology and political economy — have characterized the healers they worked with as shamans. And, indeed, my teachers don Roberto Acho and doña María Tuesta have been perfectly comfortable being called — and calling themselves — chamánes. This differs markedly from the attitude of many indigenous peoples in North America, who object strongly to having their traditional healers called shamans, as a term imposed from outside by the dominant culture.

Of course, in all likelihood the term chamán has only recently been introduced into mestizo professional classifications. Mestizo healers generally call themselves not shamans but vegetalistas, curanderos, médicos, curiosos, empíricos. The term brujo, sorcerer, is today often used pejoratively, to refer to a person who uses shamanic power to harm others — for money, for revenge, or just out of spite. Don Agustin Rivas Vasquez, a mestizo shaman from Tamshiyacu, says, “Back then the word shaman wasn’t known, only now we know the word. Earlier we were all brujos, some doing good and some doing evil.” Indeed, to the extent that the term brujo connotes power, shamans may embrace it; one shaman in fact advertises himself in the newspaper, proudly, as el unico brujo que tiene pacto con el diablo, the only brujo who has made a pact with the devil.

Many mestizo shamans refer to themselves as vegetalistas — that is, those who have received their power from the vegetales, the plants. The boundaries of this term are uncertain. According to Luna, this term distinguishes vegetalistas from such other healers as oracionistas, prayer healers, and espiritistas, spiritist healers. Chevalier opposes vegetalismo to brujería, sorcery. Followers of the Brazilian new religious movements use the term vegetalismo to refer to both mestizo and indigenous ayahuasca shamanism in the Upper Amazon, in contrast to their own practices. Among mestizos in the Upper Amazon, the term is often used to distinguish mestizo shamanism from that of indigenous peoples.

Other of these terms are used as well. César Zevallos Chinchuya, a Campa healer, calls himself a médico. Doña María and don Roberto describe themselves as curanderos, healers, which they oppose to brujos, sorcerers. Don Francisco Montes Shuña, on the other hand, uses the term curandero not as opposed to brujo, but to indicate a mestizo healer as opposed to an indigenous one.

Indeed, perhaps most often used are terms referring to a practitioner's specialty or subspecialty, just as we might more readily describe a biomedical practitioner as, say, a pediatrician rather than generically as a doctor. Such terms indicate the teacher plants with which the shaman has undertaken la dieta and with which the shaman has formed a special relationship.

Throughout the Upper Amazon, the three most important psychoactive plants are mapacho, toé, and ayahuasca — that is, nicotine, scopolamine, and dimethyltryptamine, which embody the primary functions of protection, power, and teaching. Thus, there are three primary shamanic specialties, based on which of these plants the shaman uses to diagnose sickness and to contact the healing and protective spirits — tabaquero, toero, and ayahuasquero.

Primary Shamanic Specialties

Then there are what we can call subspecialties:

  • paleros use the bark and resin of palos, large hardwood trees
  • sanangueros are expert in the use of a heterogeneous group of plants called sanango, especially chiricsanango (Brunfelsia grandiflora)
  • camalongueros use the seeds of the camalonga, yellow oleander (Thevetia peruviana), usually dissolved in aguardiente
  • catahueros use the resin of the catahua tree (Hura crepitans)
  • perfumeros are experts in the use of fragrant plants as well as commercially prepared colognes, such as agua de florida
  • ajosacheros use drinks made from ajosacha, wild garlic (Mansoa alliacea)
  • tragueros use trago or aguardiente, distilled fermented sugar cane juice
  • encanteros use magic stones

These subspecialties frequently combine with primary specialties: a shaman can be, say, a palero ayahuasquero or a perfumero ayahuasquero. None of this is exclusive; ayahuasqueros smoke mapacho, tabaqueros ingest toé. On the other hand, don César Zevallos is a toero, and he sees the specialties as rivals. Ayahuasqueros are his mortal enemies, he says; ayahuasca is a creeping bush, and toé is a small tree; they cannot mingle. He also considers the catahuero to be his dangerous enemy, since catahua is used to kill rather than heal. Such descriptions are, in my experience, unusual.

Other commonly used terms with the –ero suffix indicate what we can call shamanic practice areas — for example, pusanguero, a maker of love potions; curandero, a healer of sickness; shitanero, a practitioner of shitano, sorcery; hechicero, a caster of evil spells; chontero, a sorcerer who inflicts harm with magic darts. These practice areas are independent of plant specializations: a chontero might be, say, an ayahuasquero or a tabaquero; a tabaquero might be both a curandero and a pusanguero. Still, some subspecialties and practice areas tend to go together: a perfumero, for example, is likely to be a pusanguero.

I'm glad I was able to clear that up.


Animist Sculpture

While visiting one of my favorite websites, Bioregional Animism, and its accompanying blog, I saw some striking sculpture by Martin Bridge, an artist and teacher who lives in western Massachusetts. His website shows the range of his work — scultpure, installations, drawings, paintings, theater design, book illustration. He is a mask maker and a drummer, one of the founders of the Ritual Arts Collective, and he is a second-generation art teacher, head of the Visual Art Department at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter High School, where he teaches Visual Art and Theater Design and Production.

His artwork is largely at the service of his animism and its expression in ritual; his masks, for example, are designed not for display but rather to be used in ceremonies, especially at festivals such as Burning Man and Spiritfire. His work, he says, strives to celebrate the sacredness inherent in nature, the power of place, consciousness in all things, and it seeks to cultivate a sense of mystery and magic in our experience of the world. Bridge sees the theater in particular as a space within which to synthesize a variety of artistic forms and bring them into a living experience. His work in visual communication in the theater has greatly influenced his work in communal ceremonies, where visual elements serve as a means of focusing ritual intention.

Here are some examples of his work:

Watchers. Created for the first Spiritfire Festival as represenations of the unseen beings around us — the ancestors and spirits of place. Guardian. Influenced by two pieces by Bridge's great uncle and father, and completed for his daughter immediately following her birth.
Forest Spirit. Mask made of wood, stone, fiber, wire, beads, and horsehair.Masks for the Burning Man Festival.


The Tragedy of Maria Sabina

In 1955, banker R. Gordon Wasson, an amateur connoisseur of mushrooms, was introduced by the Mazatec shaman María Sabina to the ancient teonanácatl — the Psilocybe mushroom, called ‘nti-ši-tho in Mazatec, Little-One-Who-Springs-Forth. María Sabina called them her saint children. Wasson was deeply impressed by his mushroom experience. He speaks of ecstasy, the flight of the soul from the body, entering other planes of existence, floating into the Divine Presence, awe and reverence, gentleness and love, the presence of the ineffable, the presence of the Ultimate, extinction in the divine radiance. He writes that the mushroom freed his soul to soar with the speed of thought through time and space. The mushroom, he says, allowed him to know God.

Wasson’s description falls effortlessly into the language of ecstasy, awe, soul flight, the Divine Presence, the knowledge of God — the same stock of European concepts from which Mircea Eliade drew. But María Sabina herself could not understand any of this. She says: “It’s true that Wasson and his friends were the first foreigners who came to our town in search of the saint children and that they didn’t take them because they suffered from any illness. Their reason was that they came to find God.”

And none of it, of course, had anything to do with the indigenous uses of the mushroom, whose purpose was to cure sick people by, among other things, making them vomit. And she adds: “Before Wasson nobody took the mushrooms only to find God. They were always taken for the sick to get well.” To find God, Sabina — who considered herself a Catholic — went to Mass.

When Sabina ingested the mushrooms, the mushroom spirits would show her the cause of the sickness — for example, through soul loss, malevolent spirits, or human sorcerers. “The sickness comes out if the sick vomit. They vomit the sickness. They vomit because the mushrooms want them to. If the sick don’t vomit, I vomit. I vomit for them and in that way the malady is expelled.” And she would then be able to cure the patient through the power of her singing. Sometimes the spirits told her that the patient could not be cured.

Wasson had clearly come to Mexico anticipating a religious or mystical experience, and now he had one. Indeed, he had lied to get it. He knew that the mushroom ceremonies were for curing sickness or finding lost objects, and he told Sabina — as well as other Mazatec healers — that he was concerned about the whereabouts and wellbeing of his son. He later admitted that this was a deception in order to gain access to the ceremonies.

Like Wasson, the influx of North Americans who followed him to her village were not seeking the cure of sickness; they were seeking enlightenment. “Some of these young people sought me out for me to stay up with the Little-One-Who-Springs-Forth. ‘We come in search of God,’ they said. It was difficult for me to explain to them that the vigils weren’t done from the simple desire to find God, but were done with the sole purpose of curing the sicknesses that our people suffer from.” She laments: “But from the moment the foreigners arrived to search for God, the saint children lost their purity. They lost their force; the foreigners spoiled them. From now on they won’t be any good. There’s no remedy for it.”

While Wasson was climbing the mountain of spirit, seeing Sabina as a saint-like figure, a spiritual psychopomp, “religion incarnate,” María Sabina dwelled steadfastly in the valley of soul, healing the sick, vomiting for them, expelling their sickness, living her own difficult and messy life — until Wasson’s spiritual bypass destroyed the power of her mushrooms.

This is what her poetry was like:

Because you gave me your clock
Because you gave me your thought
Beacause I am a clean woman
Because I am a Cross Star woman
Because I am a woman who flies
I am the sacred eagle woman, says
I am the Lord eagle woman, says
I am the lady who swims, says

Because I can swim in the immense
Because I can swim in all forms
Because I am the launch woman
Because I am the sacred opposum
Because I am the Lord opposum

I am the woman Book that is beneath the water, says
I am the woman of the populous town, says
I am the shepherdess who is beneath the water, says
I am the woman who shepherds the immense, says
I am a shepherdess and I come with my shepherd, says
Because everything has its origin
And I come going from place to place from the origin.

And here is Sabina singing, in a recording made by Wasson in 1956:

Ethnopoetic theorist and poet Jerome Rothenberg has put together a collection of Sabina's songs translated into English, along with biographical and interpretive essays, as part of the Poets for the Millennium series. There are excellent reviews of the collection by poets Nathaniel Tarn, Hank Lazer, and Heriberto Yépez.


Hallucinogens in North America

In the preceding two posts, I have argued that there is little convincing evidence that shamans outside the extended culture area of the Upper Amazon have ever used hallucinogens in their shamanic work; and, in the immediately preceding post, I argued against the belief that shamans in Siberia used the fly agaraic mushroom Amanita muscaria for shamanizing.

There is also, I believe, little evidence for the shamanic use of psychoactive plants or mushrooms among the indigenous peoples of North America. As among the Khoryaks, non-shamans may attempt to emulate shamans by using psychoactive plants or mushrooms that shamans themselves do not use. For example, among the Chumash and other indigenous peoples in south central California, it can be important to acquire a dream helper, not just for shamans but for ordinary people as well: falcon helps gamblers, bobcat can help hunters, otter can make one a good swimmer, roadrunner helps midwives. Sometimes a dream helper appears in an ordinary dream; this is especially true of shamans, whose powers first appear in dreams during childhood. Conversely, to obtain a dream helper, common people rely heavily on Datura, which plays only a marginal role in the acquisition of shamanic power.

Keewaydinoquay Peschel

There are similar problems with the claimed fly agaric use by shamans among the Anishinaabeg — often called the Ojibwe — of the Great Lakes area. The claim, first put forward by R. Gordon Wasson in 1978, rests entirely upon the testimony of a single person, an Anishinaabe herbalist and university-trained ethnobotanist named Keewaydinoquay Peschel. She claimed that she herself had been initiated into the shamanic use of the mushroom, and had herself used the mushroom three to five times a year for the past fifty years. She prepared a birch bark scroll containing a legend of how the mushroom came to the Anishinaabeg, which, Wasson said, evidenced its shamanic use.

There are some significant problems with this claim. There is no description of fly agaric use in any detailed ethnography of Anishinaabeg shamanism. When she first met Wasson, Keewaydinoquay apparently was living a solitary and unhappy life, spending much of her time alone on an isolated island; in any event, it is difficult to say to what extent she was, at that time, integrated into Anishinaabeg culture.

R. Gordon Wasson

Further, Keewaydinoquay admitted that many Anishinaabeg were in fact strongly opposed to the consumption of fly agaric; indeed, her own revered teacher of herbalism, a woman named Nodjimahkwe, apparently knew about the mushrooms and prohibited her student from eating them. Moreover, versions of the legend told by other Anishinaabeg differ substantially from that given by Keewaydinoquay, including versions that prohibit the eating of any mushrooms at all.

Indeed, the mushroom legend itself, even as retold by Keewaydinoquay, contains little that would connect its use to shamanizing. The story tells how the Anishinaabeg discovered the mushrooms, and points out that those who use the mushroom are happy and pure, while those who do not are worried and unhappy. Although the mushroom reveals the supernatural and other knowledge to those who use it, the story provides no reason to believe that those who reportedly used the mushroom were shamans in any sense.

Further doubt is cast on the claim by the fact that Wasson and Keewaydinoquay were, apparently, lovers, or at least enmeshed in a highly charged personal relationship — one that seems, from her letters, to have been deeply important to Keewaydinoquay. And both derived ancillary benefits from this relationship: Wasson helped Keewaydinoquay obtain a doctorate in anthropology, a teaching position, and the publication of her writings on ethnomycology by the Harvard Botanical Museum; Keewaydinoquay gave Wasson an apparently idiosyncratic account of Anishinaabeg hallucinogen use that happened to be consistent with his theories. In the absence of confirmatory evidence, it is probably fair to view this account with caution.

Hallucinogens in Siberia

In the previous post, I claimed that hallucinogenic plants and fungi have been used in shamanism only in a particular culture area, radiating out from the Upper Amazon, primarily westward into the Andes, northward into Central America and Mexico, and eastward into Brazil. Claims to the contrary — that hallucinogen use underlies most shamanisms both diachronically and synchronically — often turn on the purported use of the hallucinogenic fly agaric mushroom Amanita muscaria by Siberian shamans.

This focus is frequently based on three assumptions — that Siberian shamanism is somehow older and its recent practice somehow purer than shamanisms found elsewhere; that Siberian practices since, say, the seventeenth century, when they were first observed by Europeans, therefore represent shamanic practices dating back tens of thousands of years; and that these ancient practices, carried into the present day, include the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms.

It ought not be necessary to point out that, by the time the first European travelers brought home descriptions of Siberian shamanism, it had already been influenced by centuries of contact with Buddhism, Islam, and Russian Orthodox Christianity. And there is reason to doubt the widespread use of hallucinogenic mushrooms even in contemporary Siberian shamanic practice.

The ascription of Siberian shamanic performances to the use of psychoactive substances was apparently first made in 1939, by Swedish academician Åke Ohlmarks, who pointed specifically to the hallucinogenic fly agaric mushroom which, he claimed, was used by shamans all across Siberia. The idea was extended by Hungarian scholar János Balázs, who suggested that Siberian shamans generally had depended on psychoactive substances for trance induction.

This claim was opposed by Anna-Leena Siikala, an expert in Northern Eurasian shamanism, who asserted that hallucinogens were not “essential to or even a vital factor in the shaman’s trance technique.” And the claim does appear inflated, for several reasons. Fly agaric use has been attributed only to two relatively small regions in Siberia, and the number of shamans reported to use the mushroom in shamanizing has been small.

Ronald Hutton, an unusually insightful and levelheaded historian, has reviewed the Siberian material. He points out that Balázs counted among psychoactive substances such things as inhaling steam, smudging with aromatic herbs, smoking tobacco, and drinking alcohol. “None of these cases can be treated as very convincing,” Hutton writes. “At best, all these substances seem only to have enhanced an effect created far more obviously by the dynamics of the performance itself.” As far as fly agaric is concerned, Balázs relies on a report by Finnish ethnographer K. F. Karjalainen that Khant shamans along the Irtysh and Tsingala rivers used the mushroom to induce trance; but Balázs neglected to quote the comment by the investigator that this seemed to be a recent and inessential technique. Hutton notes other inconsistent reports — that the Selkups used to eat the mushrooms before performing, but now did so only rarely; that, among the Kets, shamans would eat fly agaric, but in order to prove they could eat poison and survive, not to shamanize; that shamans among the Enets sometimes used the mushrooms.

Over against this material, Hutton cites other studies, including a comprehensive study of shamanism among the Khants and Mansi, which concluded that eating mushrooms was one option out of many trance induction techniques, including drumming, dancing, smoking, and staring at a candle; and one of the Khoryaks, which reported that ordinary people took fly agaric in order to attain visions like those of shamans, who apparently did not need it.

Hutton concluded that Siikala was right — that “drugs were not the central features of North Asian shamanism that they have been in South American ritual practices.”

In this regard, Shaman's Drum magazine published a report of an informal mycological field trip to Kamchatka, which speaks of meeting an eighty-two-year-old shaman, Tatiana Urkachan. The shaman was willing to lecture her visitors on the correct use of fly agaric for healing and intoxication, but she insisted — tellingly — that she never ingested the mushroom herself, for she was too powerful a shaman to need it.

There is also a practical matter. Small doses of fly agaric mushroom produce mild euphoria, suppression of fear, and feelings of increased strength or stamina; doses large enough to cause hallucinations — which in fact occur only rarely and sporadically — are physically incapacitating, with effects including drowsiness, confusion, muscle twitches, loss of muscular coordination, and stupor. It is difficult to see how a shaman could put on a physically demanding shamanic performance under such circumstances. Indeed, the mushrooms have been more widely used outside of shamanism — to get a glimpse of what the shamans see, to prepare for all-night bardic performances, to alleviate the fatigue of heavy labor, or for recreational inebriation at weddings and feasts.

The Hallucinogen Culture Area

Mestizo shamans are recognizably part of a larger Upper Amazonian religious culture area, characterized by a number of common features — the use of psychoactive plants; the presence of magical substances kept within the shaman’s body; notions of sickness as caused by the intrusion of pathogenic objects projected by malevolent others; the ambiguity of shamanic ability to do both good and evil; the central sacrality of tobacco; the acquisition of songs from the spirits; the use of songs for the creation of both medicines and poisons; a focus on healing with the mouth through blowing and sucking; and the importance of singing, whistling, blowing, and rattling in both healing and sorcery.

Travel and exchange has occurred throughout the Western Amazon since long before the arrival of Europeans. What seems to the unfamiliar eye to be a vast undifferentiated landscape is in fact threaded with riverine highways navigable over long distances in dugout canoes. In addition to efficient canoe transport, indigenous people in the Amazon have always been able to cover long distances on foot, even carrying heavy loads, with remarkable speed. Anthropologists Blanca Muratorio and Michael Taussig have both provided nineteenth-century paintings and engravings that show indigenous porters carrying heavy burdens through the jungle highlands, including white men wearing frock coats and Panama hats, sitting on chairs strapped to the porter’s back.

Cultural exchange has been facilitated by trade throughout this area, dating back to pre-Columbian times, in such products as pita fiber, gold, salt, cotton, cinnamon, tropical fruits, and feathers, by rules of exogamy that require taking a bride from a village that speaks a different language, and by herbalists, traveling far distances, collecting medicinal plants from the Pacific coast to the lowland jungle, setting their blankets in the small markets, covered with their roots and stems, bark and leaves.

The process of cultural exchange was accelerated by European colonization, when missionaries forced indigenous people to live together in reducciones, regardless of their tribal distinctions, so they could more easily be converted and controlled; and in particular by the rubber boom, where indigenous and mestizo people from the entire area, bound together by slavery and debt peonage, were transported long distances and put to work together as rubber tappers. This process of interchange continues today in the urban slums of Iquitos and Pucallpa, and in smaller Amazonian towns, as well as in the Peruvian army, in which local healers, thrown together with distant practitioners, have traditionally been able to exchange ideas.

The shaman has always been a node in this interethnic network of social relations. Shamans seek to gain power from a variety of sources, including other ethnic groups. Shamans from some ethnic groups have reputations as being particularly powerful, or particularly skilled in certain areas of specialization. such as love magic or sorcery. Indeed, in the Amazon, most groups view others as being more powerful shamans than themselves. As one Amazonian Indian has put it, jokingly: wherever you go, the great brujos are elsewhere.

While all shamans are competitors, who may at any moment find themselves locked in mortal combat, they are also pan-Amazonian in outlook. Shamans from different ethnic groups may care for each other’s patients, train each other’s apprentices, and exchange visions, songs, knowledge, and power objects, such as stones or feather crowns. An Achuar shaman, for example, traditionally had to undergo apprenticeship with established shamans in different locations. Such communication among shamans has been maintained for centuries.

Even though mestizo shamans are very individualistic, there is also a network of relationships among them, which may include transmitting new information or knowledge. Anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna notes that such shamans often know others who live many kilometers away, and especially those that live in the city have a communication network with those living in remote areas of the forest. One reason for these networks is that shamans are subject to magical attack by more powerful shamans, and one attacked may turn for protection to a shaman more powerful still.

This Upper Amazonian culture area is in turn the hub of a larger culture area — radiating westward across the Andes, northward as far as the Mazatec and Huichol cultures of Mexico, and, within the last ninety years, further north into the Native American Church and eastward into the new religious movements in Brazil — uniquely characterized by the use of psychoactive plants and mushrooms in the practice of shamanism.

And let me be clear about what I mean by uniquely. Despite numerous claims to the contrary, I do not believe there is any convincing evidence that hallucinogens have been important in the practice of shamanism anywhere outside this extended Upper Amazonian culture area. This claim is controversial, and I will try to justify it over the next several posts.

R. Gordon Wasson’s well publicized discovery — it was a front-page story in Life magazine — that Mazatec shaman María Sabina still used the ancient psychoactive mushroom teonanácatl in her healing rituals unleashed an abiding fascination with the use of psychoactive substances in religion generally and shamanism in particular, further fueled by the remarkable popularity of the early works of Carlos Castaneda. To what extent is the central use of psychoactive plants and mushrooms unique to this extended Amazon culture area or common to shamanisms throughout the world?

This question is both historical and geographical. Diachronically, to what extent, if any, have psychoactive plants or mushrooms played a role in the origin and history of shamanism? And, synchronically, to what extent, if any, do psychoactive plants or mushrooms play a role in contemporary shamanic practice outside of the Amazon culture area?

Putting aside the rather ill-tempered work of Alice Kehoe, who renders all shamanism drug-free simply by refusing to call South American religious specialists shamans, the answer to both questions is, I think, that there is little persuasive evidence that psychoactive substances have played any significant role in shamanism outside this particular South American complex.

For example, North American indigenous religions are bound together by several overlapping cultural forms — the sweat lodge, the sacred pipe, the shaking tent ritual — but I have seen little to indicate that the use of psychoactive plants or mushrooms was ever traditionally one of them, except for the Native American Church, which is in many ways a northerly extension of Huichol peyote use. This difference between North and South American indigenous practice is particularly striking, since both culture areas share a belief in the central sacrality of tobacco, yet nowhere in North America do we find the use of tobacco as a hallucinogen, as we do in South America.

Interestingly, in Michael Harner’s seminal anthology Hallucinogens and Shamanism, all of the contributions concern hallucinogens within this South American culture area and the Native American Church, with the exception of one speculative piece on the role of Solanaceous plants in European witchcraft. In fact, Harner himself, in promoting his concept of core shamanism, stresses the fact that, although he was inspired by the Conibo and Jívaro Indians, it was North American Indians — the Winton, Poma Coast Salish, and Lakota Sioux — who taught him how to practice without the use of psychoactive plants.

Similarly, in Peter Furst’s anthology Flesh of the Gods: The Ritual Use of Hallucinogens, all the articles except three focus on the same culture area. The three exceptions are an article by Wasson on the identity of the Indo-Aryan soma, which he believes was fly agaric; a piece on the use of marijuana in a variety of cultures; and a discussion of the use of eboka and other drugs, including marijuana, in the Bwiti cult in Gabon. None of the cited pieces in either of the anthologies makes a persuasive case for the importance of psychoactive plants or mushrooms in any shamanic tradition outside the South American culture area we have described.


What Are Spirits?

Each doctor, each vegetal que enseña, each species of teaching plant has what mestizo shamans call a madre, mother, or genio, genius, or espíritu, spirit, or imán, magnet, or matriz, matrix. Informally, we generally translate all these terms simply as the spirit of the plant. In addition, mestizo shamans have a wide variety of protective birds and animals and plants, which we call, too, something like protective spirits. Yet, as Graham Harvey points out, those who are willing to argue endlessly about the meaning and applicability of the term shaman often refer to spirits as if everyone knows what the word means — as if, he says, “the word were self-evidently universally understood, and the beings universally experienced.”

So: what do we know about these spirits?

In many ways, they act very much like imaginary objects. First, spirits lack the sensory coherence of real things. That is, primarily, spirits cannot be touched, unlike real things, although they can often be heard and occasionally be smelled; although, in fairness, perhaps I should add that I have felt spirits — for example, rubbing my head — but never been able to touch them. Second, spirits are, unlike real things, not public, in that other people, in the same place at the same time, do not see the same spirit objects or persons I see. This point can be disputed by claims to the contrary, or by a claim that shamans, at least, can perceive the ayahuasca visions of others; but, as far as I know, these claims have not been well tested. Third, the behavior of spirits is unusual; spirits appear and disappear suddenly and unpredictably, fade away gradually, and transform themselves in ways inconsistent with the generally recognized behavior of real things. Fourth, the appearance of spirits may be significantly different from that of real objects and people. For example, the spirit of the ayahuma tree often appears as a person without a head, contrary to the normal appearance of real people, at least living ones. And the spirit of a particular plant may appear in an entirely different form at different times— for example, as male or female, old or young, with one or several heads — unlike real objects and people, who are generally fairly consistent in appearance from meeting to meeting.

On the other hand, spirits appear to have many of the qualities of persons — self-awareness, understanding, personal identity, volition, speech, memory. They are autonomous; they come and go as they wish; they may unilaterally initiate or terminate a relationship with a human. They can provide information or insight that the recipient finds surprising or previously unknown. They may have relatively consistent personalities — helpful, harmful, callous, malicious, indifferent, or tricky. Relationships with spirits may be demanding, dangerous, and exhausting, just as with humans.

Anthropologists have often expressed their puzzlement at this combination of attributes by asking dichotomously whether the spirits spoken of by their indigenous informants — and sometimes experienced by the anthropologists themselves — are or are not real.

The classic anthropological answer is no. Nineteenth-century anthropologist Edward Tylor coined he term animism to define the essence of religion as "the belief in spirits" — that is, as a category mistake made by young children and primitives who project life onto inanimate objects, at least until they reach a more advanced stage of development. Anthropologist Michael Winkelman, who has done research on shamanism and psychedelic medicine, similarly considers spirits to be simply a “metaphoric symbolic attribution” — that is, the incorrect attribution of “mind qualities like those of humans to unknown and natural phenomena … exemplified in anthropomorphic attribution of humanlike ‘mind’ characteristics to gods, spirits, and nonhuman entities, particularly animals.”

However, a number of contemporary anthropologists now contend that the answer is yes. Richard Shweder proposes that we “start with the assumption that malevolent ancestral spirits do exist and can get into one’s body, that they are experienced, and that the cultural representation of their existence and person’s experience of their existence lights up an aspect of reality that has import for the management of the self.” Jenny Blain, who is both an anthropologist and herself a neoshamanist seiðworker, protests against turning spirits into “culturally defined aspects of one’s own personality, not external agents.” Such reductionism is, she says, “part of the individualization and psychologizing of perception that pervades Western academic discourses of the rational, unitary self.” Anthropologist Felicitas Goodman maintains that spirits are real beings who seek communication with humans. “Ritual,” she says, “is the rainbow bridge over which we can call on the Spirits and the Spirits cross over from their world into ours.” Edith Turner is a prolific advocate for the simple reality of spirits: “I saw with my own eyes a large gray blob of something like plasma emerge from the sick woman’s back. Then I knew the Africans were right. There is spirit stuff. There is spirit affliction: it isn’t a matter of metaphor and symbol, or even psychology.”

Carl Jung

But the experience of spirits as autonomous personalities — what Terence McKenna has called alien intelligences or organized entelechies — ought to be taken as subverting this naïve dichotomous ontology. Indeed, so should any metachoric experience — hallucinations, lucid dreams, out-of-body experiences, active imagination, eidetic visualization. We have already discussed metachoric experiences and their common features — their presentness, detail, externality, and three-dimensional spacefulness. To this we may now add one more — that, in any metachoric experience, one may be confronted by autonomous others.

Indeed, Carl Jung's description of the other-than-human persons encountered in active imagination is strikingly similar to the shaman's experience of encountering the plant and animal spirits. These beings, Jung says, know things and possess insights unknown to the person encountering them; they “can say things that I do not know and do not intend.” The encounter is a dialogue — a conversation between me and something else that is not-me — “exactly as if a dialogue were taking place between two human beings.” These persons possess autonomy, independent knowledge, the ability to form relationships — “like animals in the forest," says Jung, "or people in a room, or birds in the air.” They “have a life of their own.”

James Hillman

Psychologist James Hillman says that this "living being other than myself ... becomes a psychopompos, a guide with a soul having its own inherent limitation and necessity.” When we actively confront these other-than-human persons, respond to them with our own objections, awe, and arguments, then, as Ann and Barry Ulanov put it, we “come to the breath-stopping realization of just how independent of our conscious control such images are. They have a life of their own. They push at us. They talk back.” They are, says Hillman, “valid psychological subjects with wills and feelings like ours but not reducible to ours.”

The naïve dichotomous metaphysics takes as normative a particular set of experiences characterized by sensory coherence, predictability, and consistency. Experiences that are not normative by these criteria are either dismissed as mistakes or else normalized, reified, turned into stuff, into — as Richard Robinson used to put it — gaseous fauna.

James Hillman takes a very different approach. He does not reify the imaginal; rather, he mythologizes reality. He calls this soul-making. The act of soul-making is imagining, the crafting of images:

Soul-making is also described as imaging, that is, seeing or hearing by means of an imagining which sees through an event to its image. Imaging means releasing events from their literal understanding into a mythical appreciation. Soul-making, in this sense, is equated with de-literalizing — that psychological attitude which suspiciously disallows the naïve and given level of events in order to search out their shadowy, metaphorical significances for soul.

The human adventure, Hillman says, “is a wandering through the vale of the world for the sake of making soul.” And what is soul? “Soul is imagination,” he says, “a cavernous treasury … a confusion and richness, both … The cooking vessel of the soul takes in everything, everything can become soul; and by taking into its imagination any and all events, psychic space grows.” And soul is “the imaginative possibility in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image, and fantasy — that mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical.” The question of soul-making is this: “What does this event, this thing, this moment move in my soul?”

Hillman calls this seeing through — the ability of the imagination’s eye to see through the literal to the metaphorical. Re-visioning is deliteralizing or metaphorizing reality. The purpose is to make the literal metaphorical, to make the real imaginal. The objective is to enable the realization that reality is imagination— that what appears most real is in fact an image with potentially profound metaphorical implications. Thus, says Hillman, soul is “the imaginative possibility in our natures … the mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical.” “By means of the archetypal image,” he writes, “natural phenomena present faces that speak to the imagining soul rather than only conceal hidden laws and probabilities and manifest their objectification.”

So Hillman speaks of personifying not as a category mistake but rather as a “basic psychological activity — the spontaneous experiencing, envisioning and speaking of the configurations of existence as psychic presences,” as a mode of thought “which takes an inside event and puts it outside, at the same time making this content alive, personal, and even divine.” Personifying is “a way of being in the world and experiencing the world as a psychological field, where persons are given with events, so that events are experiences which touch us, move us, appeal to us” — a way of imagining things into souls." If Hillman's personifying, seeing through, soulmaking becomes a way of engaging with the world, a relational epistemology, then it is verging upon a genuine and nonreductive animism, one in which the world has become magical, filled with wonders, filled with the spirits.


Protective Spirits

Once you begin la dieta, once you drink ayahuasca, once you begin to form relations of confianza with the healing plants, the world becomes a more dangerous place.

Sorcerers resentful of your presumption will shoot magical pathogenic darts into your body, or send fierce animals to attack you, or fill your body with scorpions and razor blades — especially while you are still a beginner, before you gain your full powers. Even experienced shamans under the influence of ayahuasca are vulnerable to attack by envious or vengeful sorcerers. Poet César Calvo says that drinking ayahuasca makes one into "a crystal exposed to all the spirits, to the evil ones and the true ones that inhabit the air." Such transparency is perilous.

This is also true when a shaman is drunk or asleep. Elder shamans may sleep surrounded by apprentices, to be protected from such attacks. Very often these struggles take place in dreams; shamans who lose this dream battle may never wake up. My teacher doña María Tuesta was attacked this way during her sleep, when magic darts were shot deep into her throat and chest, so that she could not sing her protective songs.

So there is a need for constant protection. Anything that protects from an attack — animal protectors, magical birds, spiny palms, fierce Indians, suits of armor, fighter jets — is called an arcana, probably from the Quechua arkay, block, bar, rather than from the Latin arcana, secrets. And that is why, at the start of every healing ceremony, my teacher don Roberto Acho, with greater or less elaboration, constructs a wall of arcana around the site — “a thousand feet high," he says, "and a thousand feet below the earth” — to protect himself, and his students, and all who are in attendance.

Spines of the chambira (Astrocaryum chambira)

A shaman has many means of protection from the intrusion of pathogenic objects projected by enemy sorcerers. First among these is the shaman's mariri, the rarified phlegm that rises from the shaman's chest into the throat, nourished by ayahuasca and mapacho, and which serves to absorb the darts, the sickness, the phlegmosity, the scorpions and toads that the shaman sucks from the patient's body. whose power is then assimilated by the shaman, or projected back upon the one who sent them.

Similarly, the strong sweet smells of tobacco, camphor, cologne, mouthwash, and disinfectant protect the shaman and the shaman's patients, since they attract the healing and protective spirits and keep away the pathogenic projectiles, the animal surrogates, the detestable breath or tobacco smoke of the sorcerer. This is the protection the shaman gives to patients, after extracting a dart, by blowing tobacco smoke over and into their bodies. And a shaman must constantly maintain these defenses. Don Francisco Montes Shuña says that a shaman must blow tobacco smoke in three directions — front, right, and left — every four hours, even during the night. At the very least, the shaman must have songs and tobacco ready to be deployed in case of a sudden attack.

Spines of the pijuayo (Bactris macana)

Shamans also acquire protective spirits, often powerful birds or animals. The animals and other spirits that protect the healer are the same as those that carry out the destructive will of the sorcerer. Shamans accumulate a large number of these protectors, who are called in at the beginning of the ayahuasca ceremony, but who also accompany the shaman, ready to leap into action if an attack is imminent. All these protective spirits are summoned or activated by singing their icaros, called icaros arcanas; the spirits may be given by one’s teacher, or appear to one in an ayahuasca vision or a dream. Some may be kept in the shaman’s chest, embedded in the magical phlegm.

Particularly valued as protector plants — because often used in sorcery — are the spiny or thorny palms, whose spines are used by brujos as their virotes, magic darts. Of these palms, used as both weapons and arcana, doña María and don Roberto refer frequently to four — the chambira (Astrocaryum chambira), huicungo (Astrocaryum murumuru), pijuayo (Bactris macana), and huiririma (Astrocaryum jauarii) palms. Other spiny palms invoked for sorcery and protection — and portrayed in a painting by Pablo Amaringo — include the inchaui (Syagrus tessmannii), pona (Socratea exorrhiza), inayuga (Maximiliana spp.), and huasaí (Euterpe spp.). The term chonta is applied, somewhat indiscriminately, to spiny palms in the genera Astrocaryum, Euterpe, and Bactris.

Guacamayos, macaws, doña María's fierce protectors

A sorcerer can send animals as spies, and especially can talk to birds in their own language; that is why a healer must know their language as well. Don Rómulo Magin, for example, is fluent in the language of búhos, owls, who are powerful sorcerer birds; their language, I am told, sounds like this: oootutututu kakakaka hahahahaha.

The sorcerer talks to the bird, and puts his own soul into the bird; then the bird carries the sorcery to the victim, shooting darts from its beak. When sorcery is conveyed by one of these birds, I was told, the victim’s hair falls out, the skin roughens, and the victim begins to look like the bird. Such an attack is particularly dangerous: even if a healer succeeds in sucking out the darts projected by the bird, the sorcery can send the bird more darts to project into the victim, and thus keep the victim continually sick. Thus, one should be careful any time one sees one of the birds associated with such sorcery, for one might well be the target of a magical attack.

The animal ally of a sorcerer can also be the ally of a healer. Such birds are often predators, such as gavilán, hawks (Accipitridae), and búho, owls (Strigidae), or are notable for plumage or particularly piercing or unusual cries — for example, the manshaco, wood stork (Mycteria americana), cushuri, cormorant (Phalacrocorax spp.), camungo, horned screamer (Anhima cornuta), jabirú, jabiru (Jabiru mycteria), sharara, aninga (Anhinga anhinga), guacamayo, macaw (Ara spp.), trompetero, trumpeter (Psophia spp.), or chajá, crested screamer (Chauna torquata).

Birds of sorcery (left to right: camungo, manshaco, jabirú, cushuri)

Shamans acquire a variety of animals as protectors. Don Roberto said that he had two protectors of the earth — the boa negra, black boa, and otorongo, tawny jaguar; and two of the water — the yanapuma, black jaguar, and the yacuruna, the water people, magical and sexually seductive spirits who live in great cities below the water. At my coronación, initiation, don Rober gave me, along with his phlegm, two protective animals, one each of earth and water — two jaguars, a tawny and a black.

Usually one’s first protective animals stay with one for life, with additional protectors added over time to one’s armamentarium as one progresses. When I first met doña María, she asked me whether, as a norteamericano, I had ever seen a bear. She had seen, she said, a polar bear — or at least an oso blanco — in a movie on television. In fact, doña María had two bears, one black and one white, as protector animals. She told me that the bear had become her protector before she had ever seen it on television.

One of doña María's first protective animals was the aquila, in this case probably the Andean condor, rather than any of the various Peruvian species of eagles. She acquired her protective animals when she first drank ayahuasca; the animals were, she said, like “soldiers of ayahuasca.” These protectors grow in power as one smokes mapacho and drinks ayahuasca, tobacco infusions, and agua de florida. Her protectors always accompanied her; she could see them there with us while we talked.

Her protectors thus included wolves and two bears, black and white, and two forms of boa constrictor — the boa negra, black boa, and boa amarilla, yellow boa. Her protectors also included several types of bird — condors, owls, timelitos (an unidentified small shore bird), and especially guacamayos, macaws. In one of her earliest ayahuasca visions, two macaws had come and sat on doña María’s shoulders, and spoke to her in the Inca language; from that time on, she knew, these macaws would be her protectors.

So, whenever doña María started to work, she told me, the macaws came and landed on her head and shoulders, to protect her. The animals “take care of me spiritually.” If someone was about to attack her, the animals would preemptively strike on her behalf — the attacker crushed by her boas and clawed by her ferocious birds. I once asked doña María if this was consistent with pura blancura, her pure white path. She gave me one of her looks. “We are gentle people,” she told me. “But sometimes we show our claws.”

These animal protectors can form complex protective barriers. Don Celso Rójas, when dealing with sorcery, has, among other animals, a condorpishcu, a little white bird with a red neck, flying about his head to warn him of an attack; a lion on his right shoulder, a black jaguar on his left, and an elephant before him; a shushupi, bushmaster, around his neck; and a school of piranha.

Protectors may take human form as well. The protectors of don Agustin Rivas are Indians, armed with bows, arrows, and darts, wearing feathered crowns, with eyes in the back of their heads. They are, he says, cruel, vengeful, and very protective; even though he himself has no intentions of harming anyone, his protectors punish with sickness or death anyone who threatens or hurts him. Don Emilio Andrade has a large Brazilian black man armed with daggers, who follows his enemies and locks them into dark tunnels in the Andes.

Indeed, protectors may be angels with swords, tree spirits with guns, a warplane that bombs and destroys the shaman’s enemies. Luis Panduro Vasquez has songs of protection he calls icaro de electricidad, icaro de candela, icaro cubrir con la manta, icaro como un sombrero de piedra icaros, respectively, of electricity, of fire, to cover with a blanket, and like a hat of stone. Among doña María's protectors were, of course, Jesucristo, Jesus Christ, and Hermana Virgen, the Virgin Mary.

There is a distinction made among various sorts of cuerpo, body. A cuerpo dañado, harmed body, is a body attacked by sickness and sorcery; a cuerpo sencillo, ordinary body, is one currently unaffected by sickness but without protection; a cuerpo preparado, prepared body, is one protected by plants, and especially by mapacho, tobacco smoke, blown over the body and into the body through the top of the head; and, strongest of all, a cuerpo sellado, sealed body, sometimes called a cuerpo cerrado, closed body, is one protected by an arcana, that prevents any penetration, that resists attack by sorcery.


A Death in the Jungle

In the late 1990s, my teacher doña María Tuesta was employed from time to time to do healing ceremonies for ayahuasca tourists at a lodge about two hours by boat from Iquitos. There she worked alongside a well-known ayahuasquero whom we will here call don X.

Among mestizos, accusations of sorcery are not infrequent, and can have serious consequences. Although I knew don X personally — indeed, I was living with him in his jungle tambo during part of this period — the constraints imposed by the relationship of confianza I had with doña María and her friends prevented me from asking him for his side of the allegations against him. Hence his anonymity.

Now, don X had a son whom he had trained as an ayahuasquero, and who was able to pick up occasional employment at the lodge when doña María was unable to attend. According to doña María and her friends, don X decided that, if doña María could be eliminated, the way would be open for his son to take her place in the relatively lucrative business of healing gringo tourists. So don X attacked doña María with virotes, sending the magic darts deep into her chest and throat, causing her to suffer a serious stroke.

The attack took place at the tourist lodge, at night, when doña María was sleeping. She tried to get out of bed to urinate, but, when she got up, she fell to the floor, partially paralyzed, unable to move. She cried for help. One worker came, but he was not strong enough to move her. Eventually, with the help of the gringo owner, she was lifted back onto the bed. “She was just like dead weight,” the owner later told me. “It was all I could do to get her up to her bed myself.”

Doña María spent the next six weeks in the hospital, slowly recovering from her stroke. She had originally resisted hospitalization, because she believed the injections she would be given there would kill her. She felt herself to be lost. “Where will I find help?” she thought. Throughout this period, she heard a wicked mocking brujo laugh — the voice, she realized, of don X.

When she returned home, she was cared for by a Cocoma shaman named Luis Culquitón Rocca, who was able to remove a few of the virotes, and who took care of her for six months. Her maestro ayahuasquero, don Roberto Acho, had gone away to his chacra, his swidden garden in his native village, and so was not available, but sent her medicine from afar. Although she recovered slowly from her stroke, she was unable to drink ayahuasca. She was thus cut off from the very sources of her protection; indeed, part of the cleverness of the attack was to separate her from her protecting spirits by making it hard for her to drink ayahuasca.

The problem was that María continued to work with don X. She did not tell anyone that she had recognized his mocking laugh. Don X, as brujos do, allegedly concealed his malevolence under the guise of concern and sympathy. The virotes in her throat kept María from being able to sing at the healing ceremonies. “See, she can’t sing,” said don X to the lodge owner. “She is still too weak. You need to bring in my son.”

Finally, after six months, don Roberto returned, and sucked out the remaining virotes, but María continued to be weak. After her stroke, she says, her brain was “blank,” and all the power she had received from ayahuasca was taken from her. She lost her visions, she could not drink ayahuasca — yet, she says, her spiritual power remained, because that came from Jesucristo and Hermana Virgen. “Whatever happens,” she told me, “you must keep going forward. Never give up.”

Slowly, she began to drink ayahuasca again. As she drank more and more, she began to recover some of her powers. Yet, at the same time, she continued to work with don X, who actively suppressed her ayahuasca visions with his secret songs. Indeed, one of the ways a sorcerer attacks another shaman is by using an icaro to darken the visions of the victim. I do not know why María continued to work alongside the one she believed to be her attacker — perhaps concern over accusing a well-known ayahuasquero, although, over time, she let the identity of her attacker be known; perhaps bravado, a demonstration of her own fuerza; perhaps — and this seems to me most likely — a demonstration of the forbearance she prized as part of her practice of pura blancura, the pure white path.

In July of 2006, doña María died of complications resulting from the stroke. She continued her healing work, especially with children, to the end.

Plant Knowledge

Among ribereños in the Upper Amazon, there is a body of traditional lore regarding both the uses and the administration of a relatively large number of Amazonian medicinal plants. My jungle survival instructor, Gerineldo Moises Chavez, who made no claims at all to being a healer, knew dozens of jungle plant remedies, including insect repellants, treatments for insect bites, snakebite cures, and antiseptics.

Most ribereños know, for example, that the latex of the sangre de grado tree (Croton lechleri) can be used to stanch wounds and stop bleeding, both internally and externally; that an infusion of the leaves, bark, or roots of chiricsanango (Brunfelsia grandiflora) can be used to treat fever; that chuchuhuasi (Maytenus macrocarpa) is a male potency enhancer; that the latex of the ojé tree (Ficus insipida) is an emetic; and that a drink or poultice made from jergón sacha (Dracontium loretense) can be used to treat snakebite.

Several compendia of such lore have been published — for example, by the prestigious Instituto de Investigaciónes de la Amazonía Peruana — containing scores of plant descriptions, which organize plant knowledge widely distributed among ribereños. While mestizo shamans claim to have learned the uses and administration of their medicinal plants from the plant spirits themselves, it is also true that their uses of the plants are, in most cases, consistent with widespread folk knowledge about the plants.

My teacher doña María Tuesta, for example, was familiar with hundreds of plants, their indication, their preparation, and their application. Walking with her in the jungle was like walking with a plant encyclopedia. She was constantly pointing to the plants by name, giving their uses and their various methods of preparation and application. This knowledge came almost entirely from her own experience — that is, she said, from what the plants themselves had taught her — and from studying with other plant healers.

Doña María was, for all practical purposes, illiterate; for example, she was unable to read a menu at a restaurant in Iquitos. I spent an afternoon with her going page by page through the 105 plants described in the text Plantas medicinales de uso popular en la Amazonía Peruana. She could begin to sound out the popular names of plants in the text until she could match the name with the plant illustrated on the same page, and then complete the name of the plant from memory. Where the name listed in the text was unfamiliar to her, she had difficulty sounding it out. But once she had identified the plant, primarily from the illustration, she would give me a lengthy discourse on its qualities, preparation, and medicinal uses.

There were two striking features of this exercise. First, doña María knew every plant in the book. Second, the descriptions she gave of the medicinal uses of the plant largely matched the descriptions given in the book, which she could not read. Thus, despite the visionary sources of her knowledge, her use of plant medicines was generally consistent with popular plant medicine as practiced throughout the mestizo community.

Consistent with her perception of herself as open-handed with her knowledge, doña María was a vociferous proselytizer for the traditional uses of medicinal plants. In July, 1997, for example, she was invited to speak at a forum on the sexual and reproductive rights of women under the auspices of the Red Nacional de Promoción de la Mujer, the National Network for the Advancement of Women, held at the Universidad Nacional Amazonía Peruana in Iquitos, to address the birthing and care of children. She was one of six women invited to speak to an audience consisting mostly of young mothers.

María had worked not only as a healer but also as a comadrona, midwife, and she demonstrated basic natal care, including how to bathe a baby properly, and, of course, the use of plant medicines — in particular, cordoncillo, the shoestring pepper (Piper aduncum), traditionally used as a tea and as a vaginal wash after birth, in order to flush out excess blood.

In November 1991, having heard about it from a friend, doña María signed up for a course, offered by the Associación de Médicos de Naturismo Práctico Tradicional de Loreto, intended to be a curso de actualización y nivelación de médicina tradicional, a refresher and overview of traditional medicine. María took the course in order to gain credentials for her healing, and in the hope that she would learn new things helpful to her work. “This is what I do,” she said, “and I wanted to learn more.” The course was free, met twice a week for two hours in the evening, and lasted for two years, until October 1993.

The course, it turned out, was significantly below María’s level of knowledge. Other students, she said, would sit quietly and listen; but she — and this is eminently consistent with her personality — would actively tell what she knew about plant use and preparation, staying on in the course in order to help the other students learn. The teachers, in fact, actively encouraged her participation, she told me, saying that she should be the one teaching the course, because of her knowledge of traditional medicine.

The key to healing with plants, according to doña María, is not only to know which plant can heal which conditions but also to understand the proper way to prepare the plants for use. After a month of trying to teach me plant identification, giving me the names and uses of more plants than I could possibly remember, she said to me, “We have all these plants here, cures for all sorts of diseases; now that you have learned about them, you must learn how to prepare them.” What I needed to learn I would learn, over time, from the plants themselves, she said; the way for me to learn is to “continue on, and all will be shown to you.” This was typical doña María. When I would say I couldn’t learn any more, she would scold me. “Study, study, study,” she would tell me. “Follow, follow, follow.”


The Chacra

Chacra planted with rice and plantains adjacent to mature forest

Of central importance in ribereño life is the chacra, the swidden or slash-and-burn garden. This is true also of many Amazonian peoples, for whom gardens — and garden magic — are a central feature of the domestic economy. A chacra is made by clearing an area of forest, burning the felled trees and other vegetation, clearing the movable remaining vegetation and reburning it, and then planting yuca, manioc, cassava (Manihot esculenta), plátano, plantain (Musa paradisiaca), and other cultivated plants and trees such as beans, palms, pineapples, papaya, and mango. After several years, when the nutrients derived from the ash have been exhausted, the garden is abandoned to become new growth jungle, and a new garden is created. Such gardens frequently demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of ecological interrelationships among domesticated and wild plant species.

Yuca is a staple crop for small swidden agriculture and a primary source of carbohydrate in the Amazon. All yuca roots contain a poisonous cyanogenic glycoside. The two kinds of yucadulce, sweet, and brava, bitter — differ in how this chemical is distributed. Sweet yuca can be eaten simply by peeling off the bark and boiling the root. In bitter yuca the poison is spread throughout the root, and must be extracted before consumption; this is done by peeling and grating the root, and then squeezing out the poisonous juice in a long mesh sleeve that serves as a yuca press. The two varieties are not clearly different in shape or color, so they can be difficult for the unsophisticated to tell apart. Often it is simply a matter of knowing which type was planted; but, in addition, sweet yuca has two easily removable skins, a thinner outer one and a thicker inner one, while bitter yuca has a single skin which is difficult to remove.

Yuca, manioc, cassava (Manihot esculenta)

Among indigenous peoples of the Upper Amazon, cooked yuca is thoroughly chewed by the women and spit into a pot, where it ferments into masato, a virtually universal recreational drink, regularly offered in hospitality and not to be refused. Drinking masato — and it really is as awful as it sounds — is so common that a wife will make her husband his own masato bowl, which he carries with him when visiting friends or neighbors. When I was living with the Shapra Indians, I knew I had been accepted when I was given my own masato bowl to carry with me.

Plátano, plantain (Musa paradisiaca)

Plátano, another staple source of carbohydrate, is eaten boiled or fried. Although sometimes called banano, these are plantains, not bananas. For reasons I do not understand, the people among whom I have lived in the Amazon call bananas manzanos, apples, or manzanitos, little apples. It is surprisingly difficult to find bananas in villages in the Upper Amazon. Plantains are distressingly common, eaten at almost every meal. Roasted plantains are tasteless and dry, and I got really tired of them; fried plantains are generally more palatable, but may be forbidden during la dieta. It was a great treat when someone would bring a bunch of sweet bananas in from the jungle.

Shamans not infrequently plant their own sacred and healing plants, primarily ayahuasca, chacruna, toé, and mapacho. Don Rómulo Magin, for example, had a large bush of sameruca growing in his front yard, which he would use to prepare his ayahuasca drink. Almost all the shamans in Colombia use ayahuasca vines that are deliberately planted for their use in healing ceremonies.

Culebra borrachero (Methysticodendron amesianum)

Indeed, all the forms of toé in the Amazon are considered to be cultivars. Ethnobotanist Wade Davis points out that the grotesque forms of many of these cultivars, generally called borrachero in Colombia, “are caused by viral infections. The Indians note that the varieties breed true and that each has quite specific pharmacological properties that can be manipulated by the shaman.” These borrachero cultivars are given distinct names — munchiro borrachero, culebra borrachero. Indeed, a small tree containing high concentrations of scopolamine, Methysticodendron amesianum, may not be a distinct genus at all, but rather a highly atrophied form of toé — the result of a viral infection or mutation recognized and cultivated for its psychoactive effects.

A chacra is a cleared space, limpia, clean, just like the ubiquitous soccer field or the wide clear path leading into the village from the riverbank — plantless, the result of human action, nonjungle. On the other hand, the monte is, to the mestizo, the place of least human cultural interference, the place of jungle spirits and wild Indians. They are wild because they live away from the rivers and out of contact with riverine commerce, in the center of the jungle; they are naked and they eat their food raw and without salt. In short, they live with a minimum of cultural mediation between the jungle and themselves. Indeed, one regional dictionary defines the word monte as despoblado, unpopulated, deserted, as if there was no one in the jungle at all.