How I Became a Sorcerer

We have discussed the idea, widely held in the Upper Amazon, that human beings in general, and shamans in particular, have powerful urges to harm other humans, and that the difference between a healer and a sorcerer comes down to a matter of self-control. And on that there hangs a story.

A while ago, after having returned from my most recent trip to study with my maestro ayahuasquero don Roberto Acho, I was sitting in a training seminar, and I was angry with the facilitator, a man I greatly respect and admire. I was angry for foolish and childish reasons; I felt I was not being paid enough attention.

Suddenly, without any apparent intention on my part, a spider flew out of my mouth — a large, black, hairy spider, about three inches across. The spider flew from my mouth to the face of the seminar facilitator, where it grasped and clung to his cheek, eventually melting into his face. I was taken aback by this. Damn, I said; I didn't realize I was that pissed off. And that would have been the end of it; except that, at the next day's session, the distraught facilitator announced that he had been told that his wife's breast cancer, thought to be in remission, had recurred.

Now, was there any connection between my spider and his wife's illness? Of course not. The spider touched him, not his wife. And the recurrence must have taken place before the spider left my mouth; certainly sorcery cannot be temporally retroactive. Of course there was no connection.

And yet, what I carry away from this experience is still a sense of guilt. I did not cause the harm; I could not have caused the harm. But what happened was a loss of control — my momentary anger, my ego, my envidia, the worst part of me leaping from my mouth in the form of a spider, just like the spiders and scorpions that are projected, in the Upper Amazon, from the phlegm of a brujo, a sorcerer.

From this inconsequential incident, I have learned three things.

First, there really is no going back. Once you walk through the door into the realm of the spirits, you cannot return to any prior state of innocence. As I have said before, 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. When you have begun to realize the porosity of reality; when the world has become magical, filled with wonders, filled with the spirits, filled with meaning; when you have begun to see what was there all along but was invisible to you — then you must accept that your childish anger is, right here and now, as it always was, an ugly spider leaping from your lips, capable of causing great harm.

I have written, here and here, that people in the Upper Amazon consider the darts and other pathogenic objects in a shaman's phlegm to be autonomous, alive, spirits, sometimes with their own needs and desires, including a desire to kill. I now believe that is profoundly true. Our egos are as tricky and autonomous as magical darts. Our envidia, our foolish willingness to destroy relationships of confianza with others, seems to flair up at the slightest provocation. The popular image of the sorcerer in the Upper Amazon reflects this truth: the figure of the evil sorcerer represents all that is the antithesis of proper social behavior. Nobody has the courage to scold a sorcerer, people say, for he would put poison on you and you would die. If you make fun of him, he will kill you; if you are stingy with him, he will kill you; if you refuse to have sex with him, he will kill you. The sorcerer does not eat meat and does not smell any perfume. The sorcerer in fact epitomizes solitary retentiveness and lack of reciprocity — lonely, demanding, querulous, abusive, miserly, and vengeful. Just like my ego.

And that is why self-control is mandatory. Since that inconsequential incident, I have been tempted to try it again — just, you know, to see if it works, just to express my anger, just to be — somehow — powerful. And I cannot do it, ever again.


  1. This is a wonderful, incredible blog! I look forward to every post. Thank you so much for your brilliant writing and insight. It's awesome :)


  2. Me too, I read it all the time.
    Thanks Steve for a really good work! Which no doubt requires so much of the difficult work, the inner one.
    So difficult to have self control! So difficult to distinguish, when your integrity requires to raise your voice, to defend the truth, your place, your people, and when you're using excuses to express that inner violence, that need of attention...

  3. Thanks for your words Steve.
    Being opened up to the spirit-world is dangerous, but it is also a great blessing.
    I do believe the pureness stays, like the dark is as pure as the light, death is pure as snow, it was always there and will always be, yet with the consciousness comes responsibility of what we forward in our (unseen) communication, letting the love and understanding seep in through your beautiful spirit, it will enhance your harmony, beautiful spirits will come to you.

    Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge, I find your words thought-provoking and inspirational.

    Many blessings


  4. I am just happy to be your friend!

    (and in your good side too,he,he)

  5. As I catch up with your old postings, I find incredible (but credible) transformations. You're fortunate that the itsy-bitsy spider (well, maybe not so itsy-bitsy) did not return to haunt you ("This is the wheel of sharp weapons returning full circle upon you for wrongs you have done.") Somehow, you were able to cut the cord of karma on this one. Learning lessons is the most difficult part of life. The temptation to experiment with power is nearly impossible to stop. I read this as a lesson. Thanks.

  6. I am researching psychedelic healing. For me personally this means : resolving our alienation from natural surroundings. As in--western rationalism has indoctrination a mechanistic worldview, and if we are to care and respect nature then that respect needs being inspired and of course natures very plants surely will help in this healing process

    But what you say here--altough i am familiar with it, could put people off.
    For example--wouldn't you say allowing ourselves to EXPRESS anger is a good thing. As long as it doesn't become ingrained. That anger, like any emotion, is an energy. And if you hold it in that in itself can cause you harm. For are we supposed to hold grief in? No that can harm us. Or crying etc

    Psychedelic healing per se surely is the inspiration for blocked energies to flow. So the integration of this for me is NOT self-control as such but a letting flow so that the enrgy can breathe, flow out and then thats that.

    I also dont want to control my sense of humour.........

  7. Muzuzuzus, thank you for your thoughtful comment.

    I think your comment in fact raises two different issues. The first is whether people in the Upper Amazon view human nature — and the attendant need for constant self-control over urges to harm others — as I have described it.

    I think the answer to that is yes. That is how both mestizo and indigenous people seem to look at the world, and this also fits in with what I have elsewhere called the Amazonian tragic cosmovision, and the structuring of relationships with the natural world using a model of predation.

    The second issue is whether or not they are right. I agree with you completely that expressing anger can be — if done properly — a good thing: for example, "I get angry when you are always late to meetings. It means we can't get started, and I feel like my time is being wasted." But I am not at all sure that it is a good thing to express anger by yelling, shouting, cursing, hitting inanimate objects, or fantasizing revenge. All of those things seem to me to increase anger, or at least prolong it.

    And while acute anger can be useful — I have said, in reference to wilderness survival, that anger can save your life — I believe that chronic anger is both addictive and self-destructive.

    I believe that there is a growing body of empirical research that says the notion of "acting out" anger actually makes the anger worse, and that controlling anger, or putting it aside, is a more effective way of dealing with it.

    I am very interested in what you think about this.

  8. Thank you. I really appreciate a kind word. :-)