There is a theme woven through the shamanisms of the Upper Amazon — that human beings in general, and shamans in particular, have powerful urges to harm other humans. The difference between a healer and a sorcerer is that the former is able to bring these urges under control, while the latter either cannot or does not want to.

Thus, what distinguishes a healer from a sorcerer is self-control. This self-control must be exercised specifically in two areas — first, in keeping to la dieta, the restricted diet; and, second, in resisting the urge to use the magical darts acquired at initiation for frivolous or selfish purposes. Shamans who master their desires may use their powers to heal; those who give in to desire, by their lack of self-control, become sorcerers, followers of the easy path.

As simple as the restricted diet seems, it is hard to keep. Food without salt or sugar is bland and boring; I have tried to live on just fish and plantains, and, believe me, the craving for salt or sugar can become intense. Commenting on a similar diet among Achuar apprentice shamans, limited to plantains, boiled palm hearts, and small fish, anthropologist Philippe Descola calls it “dauntingly dull.” In order to be a shaman, one Napo Runa elder says, “one has to suffer much with all this fasting.” Thus, la dieta is a form of self-imposed discipline, which makes the apprentice or shaman worthy of the love of the plants.

Secoya shaman Fernando Payaguaje, speaking of the restricted diet kept when drinking yagé, says: “Some people drink yagé only to the point of reaching the power to practice witchcraft; with these crafts they can kill people. A much greater effort and consumption of yagé is required to reach the highest level, where one gains access to the visions and power of healing. To become a sorcerer is easy and fast.” As anthropologist Françoise Barbira Freedman puts it, shamans who master their emotions and aggressive desires use their powers to heal; apprentices who break the rules of their ascetic training become weak, and therefore become sorcerers.

Similarly, a significant part of the initiation process is for the new shaman to demonstrate the self-control which separates healers from sorcerers. Self-control is manifested in resisting the immediate urge to use newly acquired powers to cause harm. Among the Shuar, there is a general sentiment among the people that becoming a shaman — acquiring tsentsak, magic darts — creates an irresistible desire to do harm, that “the tsentsak make you do bad things.” Shuar shamans themselves dispute this. While the tsentsak indeed tempt one to harm, the desire can be resisted; those who “study with the aim to cure” become healers.

Shuar shaman Alejandro Tsakímp describes one of these temptations as the urge to try out the new darts on an animal — “a dog or a bird, anything that has blood.” Once one does that, once one “starts doing harm, killing animals, one cannot cure,” but becomes a maliciador, a sorcerer. Similarly, the Desana believe that sorcery is very dangerous, apt to rebound on its practitioner, and to be used only in narrowly defined circumstances — for revenge on a sorcerer who has killed a family member, for example. Thus it is the novice, the inexperienced, the untrained person who causes sickness — who lacks the self-control imposed by the shamanic initiation, who experiments with evil spells, who uses them carelessly and irresponsibly, just to see if they work.

This self-control is often expressed in terms of regurgitation and reingestion of shamanic power. Anong the Shuar, after a month of apprenticeship, a tsentsak comes out of the apprentice’s mouth. The apprentice must resist the temptation to use this dart to harm his enemies; in order to become a healing shaman, the apprentice must swallow what he himself has regurgitated. Among the Canelos Quichua, the master coughs up spirit helpers in the form of darts, which the apprentice swallows; here, too, the darts come out of the apprentice’s body and tempt him to use them against his enemies; again, the apprentice must avoid the temptation and reswallow the darts, for only in this way can he become a healer.

This self-control is sometimes also put in terms of turning down gifts from the spirits. The spirits of the plants may offer the apprentice great powers and gifts that can cause harm. If the apprentice is weak and accepts them, he will become a sorcerer. Such gifts might include phlegm which is red, or bones, or thorns, or razor blades. Only later will the spirits present the apprentice with other and greater gifts — the gifts of healing and of love magic.

Self-control is thus central. It is difficult to control lust and abstain from sorcery; even experienced shamans must work hard to maintain control over their powers, which are often conceptualized as having their own volitions.The pathogenic objects that are kept within the shaman’s body, often embedded in some phlegm- or saliva-like substance, are also in some sense autonomous, alive, spirits, sometimes with their own needs and desires, including a need for nourishment, often supplied by tobacco. If not fed properly, they can turn on their possessor, or seek their food elsewhere.

The magic darts kept within the chest of a Shuar shaman, for example, are living spirits, who can control the actions of a shaman who does not have sufficient self-control. The magic darts want to kill, and it requires hard work to keep them under control and use them for healing rather than attack. Similarly, the Parakanã of Eastern Amazonia believe that shamans possess pathogenic agents that cause sickness, called karowara. When animated by a shaman, karowara are tiny pointed objects; inside the victim’s body, they take the concrete form of monkey teeth, some species of beetle, stingray stings, and sharp-pointed bones. Karowara have no independent volition; but they have a compulsion to eat human flesh.

In this way, the pathogenic objects hidden within the shaman's body enact the Amazonian belief in innate human aggressiveness. To be a healer is to keep this powerful force in check by great effort.


Why Dogs Do What They Do

The spirits must have planned this, because just after I published a post on two coyote poems, my delightful grandchildren came to visit, and climbed up on my lap, saying, "Grampa, grampa, tell us a coyote story" — all except for Avi, who doesn't say much, because, by the time he gets around to saying something, his two older sisters have already said it.

So I told them a story I first heard at a campfire in the Grand Staircase-Escalante Wilderness. I have since learned that a similar story is told by the great storyteller Johnny Moses, but I heard my version first, and my version is shorter. I said to my wonderful grandchildren, "All right, my moppets, I will tell you the story of coyote and the assholes."

Back when Creator first made the earth, all the creatures were very happy with the new world — its blue skies, clear waters, trees and deserts, lakes and oceans. But they soon noticed that Creator had somehow forgotten to give them assholes. This was not a problem for a few days, but eventually the situation became grave, and all the creatures went to Creator. "Uh, Creator," they said. "We really like your creation and everything, but ... well, you forget to give us assholes, and things are beginning to back up." Creator realized that he had to finish up the creation, so he started to make assholes for all the creatures — big ones, tiny ones, wrinkly ones, bald ones, hairy ones. And he asked coyote to take the fresh damp assholes and hang them up on a line to dry, and then the next day to hand them out to all the creatures.

So the next day coyote took the dried assholes and handed them out to all the creatures, who let out a big ... uh, sigh of relief. Suddenly coyote realized that, in all the excitement, he had forgotten to ask Creator to make an asshole for him. What to do? Then he saw that there was still one asshole hanging on the line. This one belonged to dog, but dog had, of course, found a nice soft patch of grass and had slept through the whole ... uh, entire thing. So coyote stole dog's asshole and put it on.

When dog woke up, and saw there was no asshole for him, his distress increased, and he went to Creator, asking for help. "This will teach you to miss meetings," said Creator. "I can make an asshole for you, but there will be a price." "Anything," said dog. "But please hurry."

So Creator made an asshole just for dog. But to this day, dogs worry about the situation. So now, every time two dogs meet, they have to check each other to make sure each one still has an asshole.

"Thank you, grampa," said my wonderful grandchildren. "We see now why you are so wise."


Two Coyote Poems

Harry Fonseca, When Coyote Leaves The Reservation

Coyote the trickster — generous and greedy, crafty and impulsive, clever and reckless — is not dead yet. Coyote is the great cosmic creator and the clumsy destroyer — as literary critic Franchot Ballinger puts it, "a force of multifarious creative energy." Coyote is killed, chopped up, crushed, and destroyed, yet always comes back to life, sometimes wiser and sometimes not, just like the indigenous peoples of North America who created him. Coyote has the power to alter his appearance, says Ballinger, but nothing alters his personality — deceiving, foolish, lecherous, powerful. In Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller, we find a typical story: A whole bevy of coyotes, in order to steal the picnic baskets of the kachina dancers, make a coyote chain from the top of a cliff, each coyote holding the tail of another in its mouth. All goes well until one of the coyotes farts.

Coyote has become a powerful symbol for many contemporary Native Americans, expressing their heritage, their ability to survive, their own wryly observed foolishness, and the inimitable Indian sense of humor.

Harry Fonseca, Coyote Chief with Cigars

Peter Blue Cloud is a Mohawk, born to the Turtle Clan in 1933, and raised on the reserve in Kahnawake, Quebec, where he lives today. He is the winner of the American Book Award, and is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Clans of Many Nations and Elderberry Flute Song: Contemporary Coyote Tales , from which the poem below is taken.

Growing up on the Kahnawake Reserve, Blue Cloud spoke only Mohawk at home; he was introduced to books in English by his grandfather. He began writing poems and songs as a teenager, and was first published in the journal Akwesasne Notes, where he became poetry editor in 1975. He has worked as an ironworker, logger, carpenter, and woodcutter. His poetry is noted for combining Native American myths with contemporary issues. "Blue Cloud's poems are living proof that the power and beauty of the Old Way cannot be lost," writes poet Gary Snyder. "Blue Cloud does nothing glamorous: he speaks from his own heart and life. He is a true poet, at home in all times, everywhere." He is especially known for his use of the Coyote figure in his stories and poems. The following is his poem Coyote, Coyote Please Tell Me.

Coyote, Coyote, Please tell me
What is a shaman?

A shaman I don’t know
anything about.
I’m a doctor, myself.
When I use medicine,
it’s between me,
my patient,
and the Creation.

Coyote, Coyote, Please tell me
What is power?

It is said that power
is the ability to start
your chainsaw
with one pull.

Coyote, Coyote, Please tell me
What is magic?

Magic is the first taste
of ripe strawberries and
magic is a child dancing
in a summer’s rain.

Coyote, Coyote, Please tell me
Why is Creation?

Creation is because I
went to sleep last night
with a full stomach,
and when I woke up
this morning,
everything was here.

Coyote, Coyote, Please tell me
Who you belong to?

According to the latest
survey, there are certain
persons who, in poetic
or scholarly guise,
have claimed me like
a conqueror’s prize.

Let me just say
once and for all,
just to be done:
he belongs to none.

Harry Fonseca, Shuffle Off to Buffalo

Artist Harry Fonseca was born in Sacramento, California, in 1946, and is of Nisenan Maidu, Hawaiian, and Portuguese heritage. Fonseca's earliest pieces drew from his Maidu heritage — basketry designs, dance regalia, and participation as a traditional dancer. Further, the creation myth of his people, as recounted by his uncle, Henry Azbill, became the source of a major 1977 work, Creation Story, expressing in visual terms the mythic underpinnings of Maidu culture.

His wildly popular Coyote series — begun in 1979, paused, and then revived, rather like Coyote himself — resituated its trickster protagonist into contemporary settings — leather-jacketed hoodlum, dancer in sneakers, cigar store Indian, entertainer dressed as

Harry Fonseca, Coyote Dancer

Uncle Sam. The shapeshifting trickster glimpsed beneath conventional appearances became for Fonseca the image of the American Indian in contemporary society, as well as the image of himself as revelatory artist. Gary Snyder says that Fonseca's "flower-like, bird-like bright dancing images of Coyote and Rose — often placed on the streets of our hard-edged urban world — are a promise like a knife: of sharp truths to come, of new ways to be. I love the wit and play of his art, and the depths of the myth it is founded on."

Fonseca died in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2006, of a brain tumor. An interview with Fonseca can be found here. And the following is a poem he wrote, entitled, of course, Coyote:

Some say that Coyote first appeared on a raft
That Coyote created the world
That Coyote is very old the first one
That Coyote put the stars in the universe
That Coyote fucked up the planets
That Coyote is the giver and taker of life
That Coyote stole fire for the people
That Coyote can change the seasons.

Some say that Coyote dances in a feather cape trimmed with flicker quills
That Coyote plays a flute and is the best dancer around
That Coyote has more clamshell and magnesite beads than you can imagine
That Coyote can make redbud burst into bloom by staring at it
That Coyote wanted to be a falling leaf and tried it
That Coyote was looking for figs and followed a male
That Coyote is a poet
That Coyote is a fool

Some say that Coyote is on the streets and in the alleys
That Coyote lives in L.A. and San Francisco and eats out of garbage cans
That Coyote talks to his asshole and usually takes its advice
That Coyote howls at the moon because it never stays the same
That Coyote doesn’t like change
That Coyote is change

Some say that Coyote wears a black leather jacket and hightop tennis shoes
That Coyote thinks that Rose is a good singer
That Coyote eats frybread peanut butter and jelly
That Coyote will use you if you don’t watch out
That Coyote will teach you if you let him
That Coyote is very young the new one
That Coyote is a survivor

Some say Coyote is a myth
Some say Coyote is real

I say Coyote is
I say Coyote
I say Coyote


Daniel Mirante

Daniel Mirante
Daniel Mirante is a young — thirty years old, which is young to me — visionary artist, author, and researcher fascinated with deep ecology, shamanic traditions, ancient mythology, and the creative process.

In 2000, he founded the well-known Lila website — the word lila means something like cosmic play in Sanskrit — as a creative collective and resource for people exploring what Delvin Solkinson of the Elfintome Arts Collective has called medicine culture — shamanic forms of creativity and healing, including plant-based entheogenic practices. In 2005 he studied the mische technique of oil glazes and egg tempera with Brigid Marlin. Later that year was invited by Delvin to become a collaborating member of Elfintome, which has published his work in a variety of formats.

Daniel Mirante, Hyperdimensional Receptivity (2006)
In July 2006, Mirante exhibited works at the Visionary Art Alliance exhibition at the Synergy Centre in London, and in 2007 was featured alongside other contemporary noetic painters in Laurence Caruana's Visionary Revue. In addition to exhibitions of his paintings, his writings on plants, art, and mysticism have been published in a variety of online and printed publications, including the forthcoming Feminine Mysticism in Art: Artists Envisioning the Divine, edited by Victoria Christian and Susan Stedman, a collaboration of visual works of art by contemporary visionary artists, writers, and musicians from a variety of spiritual traditions.

Daniel Mirante, Pangaian Wilderness (2006)
Mirante's use of the World Wide Web as a way of developing creative collectives is informed by his university training in interactive arts, including website development and virtual reality. He also has a diploma in sustainable community development, and has written articles on low impact buildings and communities published in Green Building magazine.

Mirante says that he is currently gaining guidance and inspiration from ayahuasca and its rainforest traditions; he has worked with ayahuasca in the setting of mestizo shamanism, Brazilian new religious traditions, and solo freeform exploration. Galleries of his ayahuasca-inspired paintings are on display here and here. Of the creative potential of ayahuasca, he writes:
Daniel Mirante, Pangaian Wilderness (2006) (Detail)

I remember being surprised, as I painted, at how organised, totemic forms began to emerge, along with unusual colour combinations that contained something of the energy of the realms I had experienced. Moreover, it soon became apparent that there were prophetic signs within the painting, indicating the deeper meanings of the forces and patterns playing out through the surface appearance of my world..... Art and ayahuasca are both teachers that can reveal that whilst we live on the surface of things, there are yet deep layerings and extensions to our everyday selves. Each being is like a ten-thousand armed, multi-faced, multi-faceted deity, such as those depicted in Indian temple statues and Tibetan thanka cloths. We extend outward across the fields of nature, manipulating and weaving energies in a myriad of realms.

Equally important, Mirante has now taken on the editorial direction of, the seminal ayahuasca website, which he is redesigning as a research project devoted to the botany, ethnography, mythology, arts, music, therapeutic mechanisms, and phenomenology of ayahuasca. Check it out.


Some Announcements

  • The Spring 2008 meeting of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness will take place at the Yale Divinity School from March 19-23, 2008. The theme of the conference, which is being co-sponsored by the Yale Divinity School's Initiative in Religion, Science, and Technology, will be Consciousness and Spirit. You can take a look at the conference program here. There will be scores of presentations; among the many that might be of interest to readers of this blog are Evgenia Fotiou, Transcendental experiences with ayahuasca among western users; Stanley Krippner and Adam Rock, Realism and the shaman’s cosmos; Maria Glowacka, Potentiality or 'spirit': an ethno-linguistic interpretation of Hopi ontology; and Malte Chr. Lyneborg, Philosophy of perception, sacred places, and spirit worlds.

  • The Fourth Annual Conference on Shamanism and Shamanic Practice, sponsored by the Society for Shamanic Practitioners, will be held in Sante Fe, New Mexico, on May 15-18, 2008. Among the preconference workshops will be two of special interest — Enrique Flores, Herlinda Fernandez, Jose Luis Stevens, and Lena Stevens, Healing traditions of the Shipibo, followed by a presentation of a documentary film by Anna Stevens, Woven songs of the Amazon. Additional presentations that might be of interest include Carol Proudfoot-Edgar, Tom Cowan, and Cecile Carson, Shamanism without borders; Stanley Krippner and Sidian Morning Star, Shamanic ecology; and David Cumes, Shamans and the dream time.

  • The very first issue of The Journal of Shamanic Practice: Exploring Traditional and Contemporary Shamanism has been published. The issue contains an editorial by Barbara Tedlock, a guest editorial by Jeanne Achterberg, essays and articles by such experts as Dennis Tedlock and Hank Wesselman, and Marilyn Walker's outstanding interview with Anai, a Tsaatan shaman of the Mongolian taiga. The journal is free to members of the Society for Shamanic Practitioners.

And here are two important events taking place this summer in Iquitos, Peru.

  • Convergence 2008, to be held in Iquitos on July 10 through July 18, 2008, is intended to be an ayahuasca shamanism seminar, retreat, and visionary gathering — as the organizers put it, a little bit of Bioneers, a little bit of Burning Man. The Convergence will offer dialogues, lectures, indigenous art workshops, traditional indigenous and leading-edge music, visionary art exhibitions, and ayahuasca ceremonies. Among the presenters will be artist Pablo Amaringo, Shipibo shamans Guillermo Arévalo and Maria Valera, visionary artist Eric Avondo, anthropologist Jeremy Narby, and many others.

  • The Fourth Amazonian Shamanism Conference will be held in Iquitos on July 19 through July 27, 2008. The conference will be opened by Dennis Mckenna, and presenters will include artist Pablo Amaringo, filmmaker and director Jan Kounen, visionary artists Robert Venosa and Martina Hoffman, author Howard Charing, sound healer Richard Grossman, journalist Peter Gorman, and many others. There will be approximately fifteen indigenous and mestizo shamans giving presentations and offering evening ceremonies.


The War on Coca Leaves

Chuspa, traditional coca bag

Chewing the leaves of the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca) plays a significant role in traditional Andean culture. Coca acts as a stimulant to overcome fatigue, hunger, and thirst. It is considered particularly effective against altitude sickness. It also is used as an anaesthetic to alleviate the pain of headache, rheumatism, wounds and sores. Coca leaf chewing is most common among indigenous communities across the central Andean region, particularly in the highlands of Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru, where the cultivation and consumption of coca is part of the national culture, and where sharing coca leaves is a powerful symbol of social and cultural solidarity. And the consumption of mate de coca, coca tea, is common among all sectors of society in the Andean countries, and is widely held to be beneficial to health, particularly at high altitudes.

Chewing coca leaves

Doris Rivera Lenz, in an interview with Howard G. Charing, says that chewing coca is part of an Andean culture that knows how to make work into a sacred activity. When sharing coca, a mouthful of leaves is carefully chosen from a decorated chuspa, coca bag, and mixed with llipta or ilucta, alkaline lye, while chewing, to release the active ingredients; the lye is often kept in an ishcupuro, a small decorated gourd hung around the neck, and added to the leaves with a small stick. Sharing coca leaves may be a preliminary to the sacred Andean mesa ceremony, and coca leaves play a crucial part in offerings to the apus, inti, and pachamama — the mountains, the sun, and mother earth. Coca leaves are often used for medical diagnosis and divination.

However, the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances classifies coca in Schedule I, along with cocaine and heroin, as substances that are considered particularly unsafe and lacking any medical use. Under Article 7(a), parties to the convention must prohibit “all use except for scientific and very limited medical purposes.” This classification is based primarily on a 1950 study, widely considered to be seriously flawed, which included the coca leaf as “narcotic drug."

Coca leaves for sale in the marketplace

This month, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) — a United Nations monitoring body that oversees the implementation of the UN drug control conventions — has called for the governments of Bolivia and Peru to abolish all uses of the coca leaf, including coca leaf chewing. In its 2007 annual report, the INCB asks Bolivia and Peru to make possessing and using coca leaf criminal offenses — a move that would affect millions of people in the Andes and Amazon. The INCB is heavily influenced by the United States when making and suggesting policy. The 2007 recommendation reads:

Recommendation 7: The practice of chewing coca leaves continues in Bolivia and Peru. The countries in the region are suffering from the illicit manufacture of and trafficking in cocaine. The Board calls upon the Governments of Bolivia and Peru to initiate action without delay with a view to eliminating uses of coca leaf, including coca leaf chewing, that are contrary to the 1961 Convention. The Governments of those countries and Colombia should strengthen their efforts against the illicit manufacture of and trafficking in cocaine. The Board calls on the international community to provide assistance to those countries towards achieving those objectives.

Coca leaf divination

This recommendation has been widely criticized. Famed Amazonian ethnobotanist James Duke and pharmacologist Dennis McKenna, an expert on psychoactive substances, have condemned the proposed ban. The Transnational Institute, a group that studies drugs and conflict in the region, made the following statement: "The INCB, rather than making harsh judgements based on a selective choice of outdated treaty articles, should use its mandate more constructively and help draw attention to the inherent contradictions in the current treaty system with regard to how plants, plant-based raw materials and traditional uses are treated."

Some of the criticisms have been quite blunt. Pien Metaal, a researcher specializing in coca issues at the Transnational Institute, put it like this: “The Board is displaying both arrogance and blindness by demanding that countries impose criminal sanctions on distribution and possession for traditional uses of the coca leaf, which is a key feature of Andean-Amazon indigenous cultures. Isn’t it time for this UN treaty body to get in touch with reality and show some more cultural sensitivity?” And the International Drug Policy Consortium said, "The approach adopted in the report towards this complex and sensitive issue demonstrates a surprising ignorance and insensitivity not suitable for a UN body."

Congresswoman Hilaria Supa Huamán

Even more srikingly, legislators in Peru criticized the recommendation by defiantly chewing coca leaves on the congessional floor. Congresswoman Hilaria Supa Huamán — activist, active member of several indigenous women's organizations, and congressional representative for the Andean capital of Cusco — initiated the protest. "The coca leaf has existed for thousands and thousands of years," she said. "It's part of our agriculture, our food and our medicine. It's sacred." And she added: "The United Nations doesn't know our culture. It doesn't understand our values." Dozens of politicians took handfuls and chewed the leaf during what has been described as "a raucous session."

Jose Garcia Belaunde, the foreign relations minister of Peru, said that Peru's right to chew coca leaves is protected as an Andean tradition. Bolivian President Evo Morales, who rose to power as a leader of coca growers, has pushed to have coca removed from its current classification as a controlled substance.


Some Thoughts on DMT Art

A number of artists have attempted to render the striking visual experiences that occur after ingesting ayahuasca or DMT. In the Upper Amazon, there are both indigenous artists, whose traditional work consists largely of abstract patterns, such as those found on the now well-known pottery, clothing, and other household goods of the Shipibo; and visionary artists, mostly mestizo, whose work is characterized by detailed representations of spirits, trees, animals, objects, and participants in ayahuasca healing ceremonies. These latter works fall almost paradigmatically within what has now come to be called outsider art, sometimes naïve art, and sometimes visionary art — direct, intense, content-laden, narrative, enormously detailed, personal, idiosyncratic, two-dimensional, and brightly colored. While indigenous artists work for the most part in anonymity, their work stigmatized as craft rather than art, the work of mestizo visionary artists has become much better known, largely through the publication, fully annotated and sumptuously reproduced, of the visionary paintings of former shaman Pablo César Amaringo.

Outside the Amazon, artists not born into or raised in indigenous or mestizo ayahuasca-using cultures, including such well-known visionary artists as Alex Grey, Robert Venosa, and Martina Hoffmann, have also rendered visual experiences attributed to the ingestion of ayahuasca or DMT. For want of a better term, I will call this body of work DMT art.

There are some remarkable convergences between DMT art and the abstract representations of the ayahuasca experience in indigenous Amazonian art. The indigenous work on the left, below, by Cashinahua artist Arlindo Daureano Estevão, represents the different worlds of the ayahuasca vision as houses with doors to be entered and paths linking the different contained spaces. This type of design is called nawan kene pua, or stranger's design, since it is a map that keeps one from getting lost in the ayahuasca world. This abstract representation is strikingly reflected in the work on the right, below, entitled DMT, by photographer Peter Kosinski. It is difficult to say whether such convergences are due to acquaintance with indigenous art or to similarities in the visionary experience.

Arlindo Daureano Estevão, Nawan Kene PuaPeter Kosinski, DMT

Similarly, on the left below is a traditional Shipibo woven cloth, whose design represents a sacred pattern derived from a cosmic anaconda whose skin embodies all possible designs. Shipibo shamans employ these patterns to reorder the bodies of persons who are sick. Certain diseases are thought to be caused by harmful, messy designs on the wsick body, which the shaman must magically unravel and replace with orderly designs. After drinking ayahuasca, the Shipibo shaman sees a luminous design in the air. When this design floats down and touches the shaman’s lips it becomes transformed into a song the shaman sings. Different elements of the song relate to different elements of the design; for example, the end of each verse is associated with the end-curl of a design motif. When the patient is cured, the design has become clear, neat, and complete. Again, this abstract representation is strikingly reflected in Vibrata Chromodoris's Emergence, below on the right.

Anonymous, Shipibo Woven ClothVibrata Chromodoris, Emergence

However, most DMT art is representational rather than abstract, and taps into the work of mestizo Amazon visionary artists. The first painting below is by mestizo artist Pablo Amaringo; the remaining pieces are DMT art by artists from outside the Amazon, all working with content recognizably similar to that of Amaringo, although not necessarily in the same naïve outsider style.

Pablo Amaringo, Ayahuasca and Chacruna (Detail) Robert Venosa, Ayahuasca Dream (Detail)
Cyril Lanier, Ayahuasca Vision of the Blue PerfumeMichael Jacobs, Ayahuasca Dream

But even more striking, I think, are two motifs that appear with some frequency in DMT art but not in the indigenous or mestizo artistic traditions. The first of these I will call The Face — that is, a recognizably humanoid face with eyes, a nose, and a mouth, often filling the entire frame, and often constructed from smaller units, either geometric figures or dots. These figures are often described as a being, an entity, or a visitation. For example, Roger Essig says of his painting DMT Entity, below on the right, "This image was inspired from my first unnatural encounter with the spirit molecule. An Entity that seemed extremely real and intelligent appeared before me with terrific precision and speed. It dissipated as soon as I imposed my will upon it."

Alex Grey, Ayahuasca Visitation Roger Essig, DMT Entity

Indeed, The Face often appears in works that are not conceptually about The Face. In Luke Brown's Pineal Feline, for example, below on the right, the titular face is that of a cat, at the bottom center of the painting; what then makes up The Face are floral arabesques and ornamentation of the cat's face, almost entirely buried within — indeed, reduced almost to a decorative adornment of — The Face. Similarly, in Martina Hoffman's La Chacruna, below on the left, The Face decomposes, upon closer inspection, into arabesques, including snakes and elephant heads, elaborated upon the relatively small face of the goddess, in the upper middle of the painting.

Martina Hoffmann, La ChacrunaLuke Brown, Pineal Feline

Sometimes The Face is deconstructed to simpler, rather than more complex, elements. At that point, we can begin to see the basic patterns from which complex Faces are constructed.

Dennis Konstantin, DMT EntityNisvan, Ayahuasca Vision (Detail)

What is interesting here is that underlying The Face is a relatively simple symmetric pattern, not unlike the abstract patterns of indigenous Amazonian ayahuasca art, but here cognitively assembled into a recognizable human face. Perhaps that is why Essig's Face dissipated as soon as he imposed his will upon it; attempting to control the image distracted the perceiver from its imposed structural coherence.

Another recurring motif we can call the wingspread. This is a pattern very similar to the wings of a moth or dragonfly. Below, for example, is a more or less typical moth — actually, the tobacco hornworm moth (Maduca sexta):

Wingspread Moth

We can see this wingspread motif reproduced with increasing elaboration in the following pictures:

Dennis Konstantin Last night I was Astro Dynamic (Detail)Carey Thompson, Diosa Madre Tierra
Danny Gomez, DMT (Detail)Robert Venosa, Yage Guide

Strikingly, this wingspread pattern is often hidden rather than explicit, providing a formal structure rather than any content; look, for example, at the wingspread position of the hands in Alex Grey's Light Weaver, especially in conjunction with, say, Robert Venosa's Yagé Guide, above. The wingspread pattern underlies the purely formal similarity between Mariela de la Paz's Ayahuaska at the Gates of San Pedro and Alejandre Segrégio's Presente Divino. Indeed, sometimes this structure is so deeply embedded as to be difficult to discern, until the pattern suddenly emerges, as with the darker rock formation in Olga Spiegel's Rendezvous.

Mariela de la Paz, Ayahuaska at the Gates of San PedroAlex Grey, Light Weaver
Alejandre Segrégio, Presente Divino (Detail)Olga Spiegel, Rendezvous

The Jungle Cookbook

Small game is a staple in the diet of both mestizo and indigenous peoples in the Upper Amazon. Frequently hunted mammals include large rodents, such as agouti (Dasyprocta fuliginosa) and capybara (Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris); monkeys, especially howler monkeys (Alouatta seniculus) and spider monkeys (Ateles belzebuth); peccary, including huangana, white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), and sajino, collared peccary (Tayassu tajacu); sachavaca, tapir (Tapirus terrestris); and gray and red brocket deer (Mazama spp.). Most hunting for small game is done with a 16-gauge shotgun.

Agouti (Dasyprocta fuliginosa) with edible brain and tongue

Small game is generally gutted but not skinned. Once I was helping my jungle survival instructor, Gerineldo Moises Chavez, field dress an agouti — essentially a large rat. "In North America," I said, "we generally take off the head." He looked at me as if I was crazy. "Lots of good things in the head," he said.

Once gutted, the entire animal is thrown onto a fire. When the hair has been singed, any remaining hair is removed by scraping. Mestizo hunters may then roast the game over a small fire, which can be quite palatable, especially when flavored with albaca, wild basil (Ocimum micranthum), or ajosacha, wild garlic (Mansoa alliacea), which has the additional advantage, hunters believe, of disguising human scent. With some plátano, plantain (Musa paradisiaca), roasted on the fire; some chonta, palm heart; and some huito fruit (Genipa americana) for desert, roast large rodent can be a treat. "You cannot go hungry in the jungle," Moises told me.

In indigenous villages, on the other hand, the carcass is chopped indiscriminately into pieces, put into a pot of boiling water, and boiled like crazy. This is not gourmet cooking. I tried to introduce the Shapra Indians to the idea of a nicely trimmed monkey roast, but they were disinterested. They preferred just to boil the bejeezus out of their meat.

Monkey for dinner

There are, I think, two reasons why small mammals are not skinned. First, there is no use for the skin. Indigenous peoples of the Upper Amazon appear to lack material goods because they can make anything they need very quickly from resources that are ready to hand. I have seen Shapra Indians make a basket out of leaves in just a few minutes, fill it with gathered fruit, carry it back to the village, and simply discard it. It is easier to make the basket than it is to keep it. Second, there is reason to believe that the subcutaneous fat of small game is one of the few sources of fat in the indigenous diet. This may also account for the preference for boiling, which preserves the fat, as opposed to roasting, which does not.

Other small game — birds, tortoises, caimans — is treated pretty much the same way: inedible parts, such as feathers and shells, are removed; everything else is chopped up and boiled. Attractive feathers are kept for making crowns and jewelry; other inedible parts are thrown away.

Scraping off the hair

One exception I have seen has been the drying of peccary hides to be carried downriver to market. I remember spending two days in a speedboat filled with the smell of gasoline in 55-gallon drums and a pile of raw peccary hides decomposing in the heat. Vividly.

Once, when I and a few friends lived among the Shapra and Candoshi Indians, we were eating boiled monkey soup. A friend of mine dipped in, pulled out a wrinkled pale piece of meat, and handed it to me. "Please tell me this is not the asshole," my friend said. I looked at it. I sniffed it. "Yup," I said. "That's the asshole." We discreetly discarded that piece of meat.

The complete one-pot jungle kitchen, with wooden paddle for stirring the soup

When hunting is good, extra meat and fish are smoked and salted. Fish that has been salted and dried in the sun makes excellent pack food for long trips; I recall a memorable snack of smoked salted monkey cheeks. Fariña — coarsely ground dried yuca root (Manihot esculenta) — is the jungle survival food of the mestizos. It is light in weight, easy to pack, and, believe me, a little bit goes a long way. It tastes like the worst breakfast cereal you ever had. Fariña can be mixed with water, lemon, and — if you are on la dieta — sugar, to make what is called shibé, which is a significant improvement.

Suri, the grubs of palm beetles (Rhynchophorus palmarum), are such a special treat that I discuss them separately here. Fishing, especially with the fish poison barbasco (Lonchocarpus urucu), will get a blog post of its own.

I would really enjoy hearing other people's stories of jungle cuisine — with recipes, if possible.


Terry Riley's Peyote Ceremony

Terry Riley

I have always been a big fan of Terry Riley. I still have my original 1964 vinyl pressing of his In C, which burst on the classical music scene like a revelation — minimalist, aleatoric, melodic, haunting. His musical trajectory has carried him beyond minimalism to a sometimes startling eclecticism, but all his music is shimmering, luminescent, and beautiful. My teacher don Roberto Acho spoke of the singing of the plants as being puro sonido, pure sound; Riley writes, in the same sense, pure music.

The Kronos Quartet

Riley's latest work is The Cusp of Magic, a string quartet commisioned by the Kronos Quartet, his long-time collaborators, in celebration of his seventieth birthday. The work showcases his sonic eclecticism, employing the sound of children's toys, peyote rattles, synthesizer, drums, and the instrumental and vocal talents of Wu Man, master of the Chinese pipa, a type of lute. Riley said that, above all, he wanted the piece to be, as he put it, magical. And, indeed, the work takes its title from the summer solstice, and represents all those moments of transition when the world becomes filled with possibility, miraculous, like Riley's music itself, in which, all at once, there is the inimitable sound of a rubber duck.

"It was in my mind all the time," Riley explains, "to have layers in this piece that had different realities and that can be perceived in different ways." He based the opening and closing movements of his quartet on the peyote ceremonies of the Native American Church — an attempt to capture, in his own idiom, the all-night ceremonies of prayer, songs, and meditation, which themselves live on the threshold of the magical world.

Wu Man with pipa

The first section of the work, entitled The Cusp of Magic, inspired by the peyote ceremony, is built on a rhythmically shifting pulse of drum and rattle; the final section, entitled Prayer Circle, returns to the peyote ritual pulse, now without drum and rattle, weaving together the pipa with the string quartet. The Kronos Quartet's violinist David Harrington has said that this section is "one of the great movements that Terry's ever written, and the propulsion that it gets to at the end, you feel like the piece is bounding with joy. The level of variety in feelings and emotions has rarely been equaled, including really thoughtful considerations about the world that we're all a part of right now, about what we're all facing in the future."

Riley has participated in peyote ceremonies, and he intended this section to take the listener similarly from dark to dawn. In a peyote ceremony, each participant contributes a unique song, and all the voices combine to create, through the sacred night, a coherent and transformative experience. Here is how Riley, in the final section of Cusp, presents that ceremony:

Riley says that peyote ceremonies are no longer part of his life. He still keeps sacred plants in his garden, he says, given to him by an Oklahoma medicine man; but they are not there to be ingested. "The plants absorb the music," he explains, "and I absorb their vibes." Reviews of The Cusp of Magic are here, here, here, and here.




A virote was originally a crossbow bolt, brought to South America by the conquistadores. The Spanish term was then applied to the darts shot by the Indians with a blowgun. These darts were made primarily from two sources — from the spines of any of the spiny Bactris or Astrocaryum palms or from any of several Euterpe palms, whose very hard wood is used to make both bows and arrows. My jungle survival instructor, Gerineldo Moises Chavez, could whittle a usable dart from the wood of a Euterpe palm with his machete in less than a minute.

Spiny Astrocaryum palm

All three genera are known rather indiscriminately as chonta, and the term chonta is often used as a synonym for virote. Thus, too, the verb chontear means to cast magic darts at a victim; a chontero is a sorcerer who inflicts harm with magic darts. Euterpe and Bactris species, too, are a primary source of edible palm hearts, also called chonta; palm hearts make a delicious salad. The Shuar term uwishín, shaman, may derive from uwí, the spiny Bactris palm, which they also know as chonta; the Shuar thus often use the term chonta as a synonym for the Shuar word tsentsak, magic dart.

Spiny Bactris palm

The virtually universal method of inflicting magical harm in the Upper Amazon is to project a pathogenic object into the body of the victim. Among mestizos and a number of indigenous peoples this projectile is conceptualized primarily as a virote, a magic dart. This intrusion causes acute and painful sickness, which can kill within a few days. To understand the power of the virote, we can turn to poet César Calvo, who writes that it is a “very small poisoned dart, capable of abandoning and resuming its material shape in order to traverse any distance; any time; any wall, shield, or protection; to nail itself in enemy flesh and to reach the target selected by the sorcerer who gave it form and then animated that form, endowing it with destiny and transcendence.”

Darts in the phlegm of a Shipibo sorcerer (detail from a painting by Pablo Amaringo)

But these pathogenic projectiles can also be — varying in different cultures and under different circumstances — tufts of hair, tiny stones, quartz crystals, fur, insects, beetles, scorpions, snake fangs, stingray stings, the beaks of certain birds, porcupine quills, bats, toads, snakes, monkey teeth, sharp-pointed bones, a piece of a knife, a bead, stinging caterpillars, crystal arrows, or razor blades. A Cashinahua claimed to have seen the muka, the bitter shamanic substance, within the body of a shaman — a small ball of poison, a small piece of a knife, a small wood splinter, a bead.

Insects, spiders, and scorpions in the phlegm of a Cocama sorcerer (detail from a painting by Pablo Amaringo)

These pathogenic objects are kept within the shaman’s body, often embedded in some phlegm- or saliva-like substance. The projectiles are also in some sense autonomous, alive, spirits, sometimes with their own needs and desires, including a need for nourishment, often supplied by tobacco, or a need to consume human flesh. The darts, and their slimy or sticky carrier, are defensive as well as offensive; they can prevent enemy darts from entering the body, or absorb them, acquire their power, or project them back to the one who sent them. The same darts that are used in attack sorcery are most effective in protection against attack. The primary cure for the intrusion of such a magical object into the body is its extraction: the healing shaman sucks it out and disposes of it.

A painting by Pablo Amaringo shows the phlegm of two sorcerers — a Shipibo chontero, who inflicts harm with darts made from the thorns of spiny palms, the fangs of snakes, the beaks of birds, porcupine quills; and a Cocama sorcerer, whose phlegm contains snakes, scorpions, bats, rays, toads, which he sends to inflict harm.

Palm heart (chonta) salad

Among mestizos and other peoples, these projectiles are taken from the phlegm and shot into the victim by blowing with the mouth, either with or without tobacco smoke. Other sorcerers may project them through their arms and out an opening in their hands; or they may be carried by an animal or bird controlled by the sorcerer, given in food or drink, or left on the ground to be stepped on. Yagua shamans keep their darts in their stomach — some claim to have as many as a thousand — and project them by rubbing their arm and shoulder progressively toward their hand; the dart is extracted by blowing with tobacco smoke, propelled with the aid of magic gloves, and carried to its destination by the spirit allies.

Remember that the next time you are eating an expensive heart-of-palm salad.