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.
PERMALINK to: Prestige and Hierarchy
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