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.


  1. Awesome. Thank you for this. First time I've seen it all in one place.

  2. Steve,
    Do you have more information about the term "curioso"?
    I'm curious. :)

  3. The term "curioso" is indeed a curious one. :-) The word can have negative connotations; but in this case I think it connotes a scholar, investigator, inquirer. I too would be grateful for any additional information.