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Luis Eduardo Luna - Vegetalismo Shamanism Among the Mestizo Population of the Peruvian Amazon (Stockholm Studies in Comparative Religion)-Almqvist & Wiksell Internat. (1986)

Doctoral dissertation
for the doctor's degree in humanities
at the University of Stockholm,
to be publicly examined in English
in room 7, house D, Frescati
on Thursday, June 5, 1986 at 10 a.m.
Luis Eduardo Luna
Department of Comparative Religion, Stockholm 1986
ISBN 91-22-00819-5
In the Amazonian provinces of Peru indigenous shamanistic
practices are preserved among the mestizo population. Practitioners who call themselves vegetalistas (from which the
term Vegetalismo may be formed) believe that certain plants,
which they call doctores (plant-teachers) have spirits from
which knowledge about this and other worlds may be gained,
if these plants are ingested under certain conditions involving sexual segregation and a diet that may extend from six
months to several years. Several of these plants have pychotropic properties, or contain important biodynamic compounds.
Two of these plants, Banisteriopsis caapi (Spruce ex Griseb.)
Morton and Psychotria viridis Ruiz & Pavon, are used in the
preparation of ayahuasca, a psychotropic brew with the aid of
which vegetalistas contact the spirit world in order to
diagnose and cure illnesses. Other plant-teachers may also be
added to the basic ayahuasca preparation.
This book presents information about shamanic initiation,
and of the spirit world of vegetalistas. Shamanic knowledge
and power transmitted to the neophytes have two principal
manifestations: 1) magic melodies or icaros which are learned
from the spirits and used to perform various shamanic tasks,
and 2) a magic substance received from the spirits and
carried by vegetalistas in their chests, and which is used in
the extraction of magic darts or virotes, shot by evil sorcerers, and which are believed to be one of the causes of
illness. This book also provides information about ayahuasca
sessions and the ideas held in the Peruvian Amazon about illness and its treatment.
Chapter 1.
The term "mestizo"
Ayahuasca and the plant-teachers
Methodological considerations
A survey of the scientific literature
Organization of the material
Chapter 2.
2.1. The Peruvian Amazon area.................................
2.2. Iquitos and Pucallpa. Historical and
socio-economic considerations
2.3. Religious background of the area
2.4. Tribal Amazonian shamanism: main characteristics
2.5. Vegetalismo and vegetalistas: Amazonian
mestizo shamanism
2.6. The informants
Chapter 3.
3.1. Shamanic initiation
Don Emilio's account
Don Jose's account
Learning from an ant spirit
Commentaries on the accounts
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation
3.3. The use of psychotropic plants in the Americas
3.4. Ayahuasca: An overview
3.5. Tribal uses of ayahuasca
3.6. Learning from the plants
3.7. The plant-teachers
Chapter 4.
4.1. Spirit world
The Chullachaqui
The Sachamama
The Yakumama
The Yakuruna
The Sirena (mermaid)
The Bufeo Colorado (pink river dolphin)
Plants leading to the underwater world
The Tunchi
Christian elements
The Inca motif
4.2. The concept of arkana
4.3. The helping spirits
Chapter 5.
5.1. The magic melodies or icaros
5.2. Icaros and plant-teachers
5.3. Function of the icaros
5.3.1. Icaros for calling the spirit of a person,
plant or animal
5.3.2. Icaros to modify the effect of ayahuasca
and other plant-teachers
5.3.3. Icaros arkana
5.3.4. Icaros for healing
5.3.5. Huarmi icaros
5.3.6. Other kinds of icaros
5.4. The magic phlegms
5.5. The dichotomy good vs vegetalista
Chapter 6.
6.1. Etiology of illness
6.2. Diagnosis of illness
6.3. Illness as a magic dart: A case study
6.4. Extraction of the magic dart: Treatment
6.5. Doctor shopping: The case of Doña Rosa Teco
6.6. Soul-loss
6.7. Illness produced by spiritual beings
6.8. Love magic
6.9. Herbal baths
Chapter 7.
7.1. ayahuasca sessions
7.1.1. An ayahuasca session in the home
of Don Emilio
7.2. The role of ayahuasca: visions vs. cleansing
7.3. Shamanic journeys
Appendix I
Indian tribes that use or used Banisteriopsis based
narcotic beverages
Appendix II
Vernacular names given to Banisteriopsis based narcotic
Appendix III
Musical transcription of magic melodies or icaros
"Pues la Ayahuasca encierra toda la ciencia y el arte
del médico aborigen o del curandero popular que se
sirve de aquélla. A ella acuden en demanda de sabiduría, sea por aliviar el dolor de sus semejantes o
descubrir lo desconocido y alcanzar la esencia de las
cosas. " (Gabriel del Castillo 1963: 88)
There is no doubt that shamanism is quite the vogue today. The
words shaman and shamanism are no longer obscure terms used
only at scientific meetings by a handful of specialists. We are
witnessing an explosion of literature on shamanism, both
scientific and popular, in the West. These terms are, in
fact, being used so much, and in such a broad sense, that they
will probably soon lose all significance -there is already
enough debate in scientific literature about the elements
implied in these terms, the geographical location where "real"
shamans exist -or existed-, and in what cases these terms can
be applied.
There has been a similar explosion of literature dealing with
psychotropic plants and mind-altering compounds, partly a consequence of the discovery -some would rather say "rediscovery"of mind altering substances by the Western world, with all its
economic, social, cultural, religious and political implications (cf. Grinspoon & Bakalar 1979: 56-88; Weil 1972: 39-72;
Furst 1972:vii-xvi). In the past twenty years many books and
articles have been published dealing with the ritual use of
psychotropic plants by indigenous people. Because these plants
are nearly always used in a sacred context, the connection
between shamanism and the use of psychotropic plants is selfevident.
I first became interested in the shamanic use of psychotropic
plants in November 1971 when meeting the American ethnobotanist
Terence McKenna in Florencia, the capital of Caquetá, my native
province, in the Colombian Amazon area. McKenna was at that
time searching for information about an indigenous psychotropic beverage best known in Colombia under the Tukano name of
yagé, and in Ecuador and Peru under the Quechua denomination of
ayahuasca, which is used by a number of tribes of the Western
Amazon, the Orinoco Plains and the Pacific Lowlands from Panama
to Ecuador.
Although born in the Amazon area, I had had relatively little
exposure to Amazonian life and way of thinking. I received most
of my basic education in Bogotá. In 1965, when I was seventeen
years of age, I moved to Spain, where I studied Spanish philology at the University of Madrid. In November 1971 I was having
holidays in Colombia after an absence of seven years. When I
met Terence McKenna I had never heard about yagé. But I soon
realized that many people in Florencia, including my father,
knew about yagé, and about its association with the jaguar,
which I later learned is an element in shamanism among several
Amazonian tribes (cf. Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975).
My father and several other people mentioned to me the name
of Apolinar Yacanamijoy, an Ingano Indian I had vaguely heard
about since my childhood, but without paying much attention to
it -the nature of our educational system makes us much more
interested in what is happening in Europe or in North America than in what is at our own door-step. Don Apolinar lived
near Yurayacu, at that time a small settlement, which could be
reached from Florencia only by walking about 12 hours along a
jungle path from the town of Belén de los Andaquíes.
I went several times to a house where Don Apolinar used to
spend the night on the rare occasions he went to Florencia. In
January 1972 I finally met him for the first time. He told
me that if I wanted to learn about yagé, there was only one
way: To stay with him some time and to follow a special diet he
would prescribe me. Unfortunately, I had to return to Europe to
finish my studies in Madrid and did not return to Colombia
until seven years later.
I spent the summer of 1973 at McKenna's home in Berkeley,
where I was exposed to the bewildering Californian cultural and
intellectual life. Among the books that came into my hands were
two anthologies, edited by Peter Furst (1972) and Michael
Harner (1973) on the role played by psychotropic plants in
shamanism and Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff's book on Desana
mythology (1971). I wrote to Dr. Reichel-Dolmatoff, who kindly
replied to my letter. He wrote to me that if I really wanted to
undertake any serious research on yagé in the future, I had to
try to get some interdisciplinary education. Back to Europe -I
had recently moved to Norway-, I took courses in chemistry,
ecology and linguistics, while at the same time I was lecturing
on Spanish and Latin American Literature at the Institute of
Romanic Languages of Oslo University. In 1979 I got a teaching
post at the Swedish School of Economics and Business Administration in Helsinki/Helsingfors, and for the first time I was
able to afford to do field work.
In the summer of 1980 I went to Yurayacu to see Don Apolinar. I simply took a bus, since Yurayacu was already connected
through a road to Florencia. I found a very old man dismayed
by the destruction of his garden of magic plants by ignorant
colonists, who did not distinguish one plant from another. He
agreed that I could spend the summer of 1981 with him, although
he warned me that he thought he was going to die soon. I prepared myself for this trip consulting Prof. Åke Hultrantz, Head
of the Institute of Comparative Religion of Stockholm University, who was generous with his time in instructing me about what
things to look for when I would be with Don Apolinar.
In May 1981, when I was about to leave for Caquetá, I got
news of Don Apolinar's death. I was advised by Terence McKenna
to travel to Iquitos (3°50s 73°15w), a city of nearly 300, 000
inhabitants in the Peruvian Amazon, where I could study the use
of ayahuasca among mestizo practitioners. He gave me the names
of several practitioners he had heard about a year before, including the name of Don Emilio Andrade Gomez, whom he had never
I arrived in Iquitos in June, 1981, where I met Don Emilio
and other plant-specialists or vegetalistas, which is the main
term by which these practitioners call themselves). After some
hesitation I decided to concentrate on the person of Don
Emilio, charmed by his eloquence, his humbleness and his
wisdom. Don Emilio has ever since been my main informant and
friend, and I owe him my deepest gratitude.
So far, I have carried out five periods of field work, during
the consecutives summers of 1981-1985. I have spent several
weeks each summer with Don Emilio, documentating on tape and
film his practice, attending ayahuasca ceremonies as a participant-observer, and collecting medicinal plants. I also spent
considerable time with Don Jose Coral More, a friend of Don
Emilio's, who lives in a small chacra (swidden garden) 18
kilometers from Iquitos and an hour and a half's walk from Don
Emilio's house. I have also attended ayahuasca sessions and
interviewed several other practitioners in Iquitos, in Pucallpa
(the second city of importance in the Peruvian Amazon, on the
river Ucayali), in Puerto Maldonado (Department of Madre de
Dios, near the borders on Brazil and Bolivia), and along the
river Maniti, between the cities of Iquitos and Leticia (Colombia). In July 1984, thanks to a kind invitation by Brazilian
anthropologist Clodomir Monteiro da Silva, I was also able to
spend a week in Rio Branco, State of Acre, Brazil, among
members of the Colonia 5000, a rural-urban religious group
which uses ayahuasca as a central sacrament. Monteiro da Silva
wrote his M.A. thesis on this subject (1983).
My five periods of field work yielded nearly 180 hours of recordings of interviews with vegetalistas, magic chants and
ayahuasca sessions, material which I am still organizing. I
also took several hundred slides and completed an ethnographical film (Don Emilio and His Little Doctors, 1982). When I
began serious examination of scientific literature on Amazonian
shamanism, I realized that many of my observations had long
since been accurately reported. But I have also become aware of
the fact that, with a few exceptions, little attention has been
paid to shamanic practices among the mestizo population of the
Amazon, simply because most scholars working on Amazonian
shamanism have devoted their efforts to the study of Indian
tribes. This work is an attempt on my part to summarize what I
have learned about a subject that deserves more attention, and
that, I hope, will occupy several years of my life.
During these years I have had the privilege of meeting many
scholars, whose work and advice have greatly helped me in my
research. First of all, I wish to thank Prof. Åke Hultkrantz,
who from the very beginning has guided me in my studies on
shamanism, and who finally accepted me as his student. I also
wish to thank Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, of the Botanical
Museum of Harvard University, and Dr. Bo Holmstedt, of Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, for their enthusiastic inspiration. Dr. Timothy Plowman and colleagues of the Field Museum of
Natural History, Chicago, have helped me with the identification of botanical material, and Dr. Ilkka Kukkonen, Head Curator of the Botanical Museum of Helsinki University, has supported the transport and preservation of voucher and living
specimens. I also wish to thank Drs. Stephen and Christine
Hugh-Jones and Dr. Françoise Barbira-Freedman, for their
hospitality and positive criticism during my visits to Cambridge. I am specially indebted to Terence and Dennis McKenna,
who during years have helped me with good advice and intelligent conversation. I also wish to add the names of Jean Pierre
Chaumeil, Anthony Henman, Jean Langdon, Elizabeth Kramer,
Carlos Pinzón, Guillermo Arévalo, Sinforiano Rodríguez Doldán
and Clodomir Monteiro da Silva, for the interesting conversations on shamanism and ayahuasca. Many people made my work in
Peru possible. In Lima I wish to thank Dr. Alejandro Camino,
Dr. Fernando Cabieses, Dr. Baldomero Cáceres, and the staff of
CAAP (Centro Amazónico de Aplicación Práctica). In Iquitos I am
indebted to Pedro Felipe Ayala, Dimitri Eftyvoulos, Armando and
Germana Alba, and Gunther and Juanita Schaper for their hospitality and great generosity. Thanks also to Dr. Franklin
Ayala and colleagues of the Herbarium Amazonense, who have
always been most helpful to me, to Alfonso Padilla for transcribing into musical notation some of Don Emilio's icaros, to
Pekka Hako for printing the music, and to Valericio Leppe for
drawing the map. I am particularly indebted to Gurli Barck, who
spent so much effort revising the manuscript.
My greatest thanks are of course to my friends the vegetalistas of the Peruvian Amazon, who have been so patient with me,
and who have accepted me with boundless generosity. Here my
thanks go to Don Emilio, Don José, Don Celso, Don Alejandro,
Don Fidel, Don Sergio, Don Miguel, Dona Dolores, Doña Rosa, Don
Ruperto, and to Misha, Vichín, Alí, and Jorge. Thanks also to
Pablo Amaringo Shuña, for allowing me to reproduce some of his
paintings in this book.
Field work during the summer of 1983 was partially financed
by Norges almenvitenskapelige forskningsråd (NAVF), Oslo, and
by Donnerska Institutet för Religionshistorisk och Kulturhistorisk forskning, Turku/Åbo, Finland. The latter institution also
contributed to my travel expenses during the summer of 1984. I
also received financial travel aid from The Welcome Trust,
London, for spending one month of bibliographical research at
the library of The Welcome Institute for the History of Medicine. I wish to thank The Swedish School of Economics and
Business Administration of Helsinki/Helsingfors for providing
me with institutional support and for allowing me to pursue
my outlandish interests.
May, 1986
1.1. Scope
In this book it is my intention to give an account of shamanism
as it is practised by some individuals among the mestizo population of the Peruvian Amazon area. My work is based on the
reports of a handful of practitioners, my deductions as a participant-observer during five periods of field-work, and the
examination of the scientific literature available on this subject.
I will present the ideas held by these practitioners about
shamanic initiation, their use of psychotropic plants, which
they considered their true "teachers", their rapport with plant
and animal spirits, the way in which shamanic power is accumulated and used, the role of magic chants in shamanic tasks, and
the view my informants have of health and illness. I will also
provide some botanical information about the plants involved
and describe healing sessions and ceremonies in which these
practitioners ingest ayahuasca, a psychotropic beverage, the
composition and distribution of which I will also briefly discuss.
I will begin by establishing the way in which I am going to
use such terms as shaman, mestizo and plant-teacher, and by
outlining the special angle(s) from which I am going to tackle
this study and the methodology I have applied. I will then proceed to give a survey of the scientific literature which
already exists on this subject. I will finally present the disposition of the material I am going to discuss before entering
into detail.
1.2 Shamanism.
The focus of this book is on shamanism. The definition of such
terms as shamanism and shaman have been the subject of considerable debate in scientific literature. In fact, many books
and articles on shamanism begin with a discussion about the
specific characteristics of shamans, and to what geographical
areas these terms can be applied (cf. Eliade 1964: 3-6; Siikala
1978:11-17; Chaumeil 1983:10-21; Merkur 1985:10-40; etc.).
I have purposely avoided a discussion which has already occupied the minds of so many researchers, simply by adhering
myself to the ideas of one particular scholar, Prof. Åke Hultkrantz, to whom shamanism is a religious configuration, which
he defines as
"a semiindependent segment of an ethnic religion in
which all beliefs, rites and epic traditions correspond to each other and make up an integrated field,
often with the exclusion of beliefs, rites and traditions which play a role in another segment of the
same religion. A nuclear feature of the religious
configuration is what social anthropologists call the
"belief system", i.e. the coordinated, interrelated
chain of religious beliefs that constitutes the basic
motivation of the segmentation." (Hultkrantz 1978:
Hultkrantz gives the following definition of
"The central idea of shamanism is to establish means
of contact with the supernatural world by the ecstatic experience of a professional and inspired intermediary, the shaman. There are thus four important
constituents of shamanism: the ideological premise,
or the supernatural world and the contacts with it;
the shaman as the actor on behalf of a human group;
the inspiration granted him by his helping spirits;
and the extraordinary, ecstatic experiences of the
shaman." (Hultkrantz 1978:11).
In this book I am going to refer to a supernatural world
which is explicitly and implicitly presupposed in the practice of my informants. It will also become clear that it is
by getting in contact with this spirit world that they acquire
their knowledge, their power and the helping spirits which will
assist them during their future practice. As for a human group
on behalf of whom they contact the spirit world, this is not,
of course, a perfectly defined community as is a tribe, or an
ethnic group, but it is, nevertheless, quite concrete, and in
this human group, practitioners, as the ones I am going to present here, play an important role. The fourth element, the
"ecstatic experience of the shaman", is largely achieved by the
use of psychotropic plants, which are ingested during the initiation and during special ceremonies, and which are an all
important element in their normal practice.
For the above reasons -and I hope that this will become clearer later on-, I believe that the use of the term shaman, when
referring to these practitioners, is justified. In the following I will, however, use the term vegetalista, which is one of
the most frequent autonominations of the shamans I have been
working with. This term would mean to any person not familiar
with the belief system of these practitioners an "expert in the
use of plants" (vegetales). This term indicates, however, not
so much the fact that they frequently use plants in their practice, but refers to the origin of their knowledge: it comes
from the spirit of certain plants (vegetales), which are the
shaman's real teachers.
The term vegetalista should not be confused with that of herbalist, which denotes a person knowledgeable in the use of medicinal plants. All vegetalistas are usually also herbalists,
in that they know a great deal about medicinal plants and frequently use them. But not all herbalists may be called vegetalistas.
1.2. The term "mestizo"
The term mestizo presents its difficulties. The Webster Dictionary (1981) gives two acceptations of this word: 1) a person of
mixed European and non-Caucasian stock, and specifically, one
of European (as Spanish and Portuguese) and American Indian
ancestry. 2) A completely acculturated Central or So. Indian.
According to the first acceptation, the term is relative,
because it covers a spectrum: practically every Peruvian would
be a mestizo, and the term would therefore be too general. The
second acceptation, on the other hand, is too specific, and
does not reflect any longer the actual situation of the Amazon,
where there have been several generations of racial intermixture. A similar confusion is found in Brazil with the term caboclo. Originally this term was applied to deculturated Indians
living in villages. This term is now applied to people with a
racial mixture of white and Indian, who have a generalized Indian culture rather than specific ethnic groupings.
In the following I am going to use the term mestizo as a social and cultural, rather than as a racial term. Among vegetalistas there are people who could, probably, pass as Europeans
(Spanish, Portuguese or Italian), and also those that would
racially be indistinguishable from people belonging to some
ethnic groups. But they all have the fact in common that Spanish is their mother tongue, while ideologically they operate,
naturally, in various degrees, within the large and diffuse
Upper Amazon cultural complex1.
All my informants are born in the Amazon area, and are of
considerable age (all over 60 years old). They represent perhaps "old" mestizo traditions, with a closer proximity to an
Amerindian Amazonian body of ideas, in contradistinction to
traditions brought to the area by more recent immigrants from
the highlands and from other parts of Peru.
In her study of ayahuasca use in Iquitos Dobkin de Rios (1972:
54, 141) has used the term cholo, meaning a "civilized Indian,
a term of derogation used to described dark-skinned jungle
transitional population". In my experience this term is used
in this area to denote somebody of Amazonian physignomy who
lives like a mestizo. The term cholo or cholita (referring to
women) is used in an affectionate way among equals, but can be
insulting if used by a socially superior person about an inferior. I am going to avoid to use this term as a social category.
Although, of course, I have limited my work to a handful of
informants, they do not represent an isolated or marginal phenomenon. Practitioners like those I deal with in this book are
probably to be found in the whole of the Amazon area, not only
in Peru, but also in the Amazonian territories of Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia. They play a very important role in these societies and contribute substantially to
the medical care of both the rural and urban population.
1.3. Ayahuasca and the plant teachers.
All my informants have in common the use, either occasional or
regular, of ayahuasca, with the purpose of diagnosing and/or
curing illnesses, or of performing other shamanic tasks such as
communicating with the spirits of plants, animals and human
beings -dead or alive-, travelling to distant places, finding
lost objects, divining, etc. This beverage, whose use has been
reported under different names in many parts of the Orinoco
plains, Pacific lowlands and Amazonian rain forest, both among
native and mestizo populations, is in this area made by concocting a malpighiaceous jungle vine, Banisteriopsis caapi (Spruce
ex Griseb.) Morton, and the leaves of a small tree, Psychotria
viridis Ruiz & Pavon (Rubiaceae). Other plants are also used as
additives, and, as we will see, are of considerable importance
in the process of shamanic apprenticeship.
The plants involved in the preparation of Ayahuasca belong to
a class which vegetalistas call doctores, because it is their
belief that these plants possess spirits from which they learn
medicine, and from which they receive the magic phlegm and the
magic chants or melodies, which, as we will see in chapter 5,
are the principal tools in the shamanic practices of vegetalistas. Many of these plant-teachers are used as additives of
ayahuasca, because it is through ayahuasca that the spirits of
these plants can be contacted and manifest their curative properties.
1.5. Methodological considerations
From the very onset of my research, my attitude during the gathering of the material has been that of a participant-observer. I presented myself as somebody who was interested in ayahuasca, but not only concerned, as other gringos2, with taking
the beverage for having the experience, but as a potential
apprentice. I am aware of the dangers of such an approach. Stu2
ln the Peruvian Amazon this term not only applies to North Americans or Europeans, but even to people coming from Lima, who
through their clothes and behaviour reveal that they do not
belong to the Amazon area. Although physiognomically I am a
mestizo, I am considerable taller than the people of that area
(I am 182 cm.), and that alone makes me quite often also a
dying a subject such as shamanism, one becomes extremely involved, and it happened to me that I found myself many times identified with the shamanic quest, while at the same time I tried
to keep an objective look by the systematic gathering of data
through notes, recordings, photos and collection of voucher
specimens. I know that there are colleagues who look with suspicion at such an approach. Jean Pierre Chaumeil (1980: 9)
points out that there is the danger of having an incomplete and
static view of the phenomenon (I do not pretend, of course, now
to possess a "complete" view of Amazonian mestizo shamanism).
The fact that I was not able to spend more than between 5 and 8
weeks every year doing fieldwork, and that during the long and
cold winters in Finland I could keep a certain distance to the
concrete events and dedicate my time to the structuration of
the data and to the examination of scientific literature, has,
I hope, contributed towards a balanced view of the subject of
my study.
During my first period of field work I concentrated on one
single informant, Don Emilio Andrade Gómez, whom I visited very
often, sometimes every day, during a six-week period. I showed
a genuine interest in his work, and progressively gained his
confidence and even affection. I observed healing sessions,
participated in ayahuasca ceremonies, and even took the beverage several times. I did not hide from him the fact that I was
systematically gathering information. I worked with a tape recorder, and photo and film cameras. Don Emilio was all the time
aware of my work, and he was extremely cooperative. During the
second, third and fourth periods of field work, I expanded my
examination to other practitioners, some of whom were introduced to me by Don Emilio himself. During the third period, I
literally lived one month with one vegetalista, Don José Coral,
following the prescribed diet for shamanic initiation. During
the fifth field work I had the occasion to interview practitioners living in Pucallpa, and was lucky to meet Pablo Amaringo,
a painter and ex-vegetalista, whose work has opened to me new
roads for future research, as he is able to present in a plastic way visions which my other informants can only describe in
Because the focus of my work is on shamanism, I have found
that participating in
ayahuasca sessions and taking the brew
-which, as anyone who has ever taken it knows, is a far from
pleasant experience-, and following all the prescriptions all
this has been a very effective and not very intrusive way of
establishing an easy working relationship with vegetalistas.
Quite often the most interesting information was conveyed to me
just after an ayahuasca session.
I also had the opportunity of having long talks with some of
the patients, in which I learned about their religious ideas,
about their concept of illness and health, and of course about
the social and economic conditions in which they live.
Altogether, I collected about 180 hours of recordings, which
can basically be divided into three categories (cf. Hultkrantz
1973:15-16): a) tape recording of ayahuasca ceremonies, b) tape
recording interviews with the shamans and their patients, c)
tape recording of stories and talks between the informants. For
gathering the latter material, I often left the microphone open
while going away, so that I could later analyse the content of
those conversations, and prepare new inquiries.
I am dealing with a religious phenomenon which has no written
texts or epic oral tradition which would preserve the fidelity
to a body of ideas. My work is based on individual formulations
of religious ideas. As Hultkrantz (1973: 18) has pointed out,
the formulation of the belief system of any culture varies from
individual to individual, and it is often vaguely formulated
and has contradictions. This is particularly so, when dealing
with shamanism, in which there is no dogma nor doctrine, but is
a matter of practice, interpretation and inspiration -we will
have the occasion to elaborate on this problem-. On the other
hand I wish to point out that I found vegetalistas to be especially articulate when describing religious phenomena, a gift
which is perhaps true of shamans in general, because one of
their tasks is precisely to memorize large bodies of ideas, and
to transmit to their community information acquired in supernatural realms. By working with several informants I was able to
compare the information conveyed to me. Quite often their ideas
were in perfect agreement. Sometimes not completely: This was
especially true in the descriptions of their visions and their
helping spirits, which often were highly individualistic. In
the following I will sometimes indicate which of my informants
said what. Most often, however, the picture I am presenting is
a composite of their collective views.
I will use mainly a monographic perspective. In some cases,
however, I will draw comparative material from other sources,
especially from studies of Amazonian shamanism. This information will be provided mainly in the footnotes. My approach will
be synchronic, as I do not yet possess reliable historical data
on the development of the phenomenon of vegetalismo among the
mestizo population of the Amazon area.
1.6. A survey of the scientific literature
Although there is a comparatively large bibliography dealing
with the botany, chemistry and pharmacology of ayahuasca -and,
to a lesser extent, with that of other Amazonian psychotropic
plants-, the literature on the use of these plants by mestizo
practitioners in a shamanic context is scarce. Most of the literature dealing with shamanism in the Upper Amazon area has
its focus on particular ethnic groups. Very little systematic
work has been done on the religious ideas of the mestizo population in general, and even less on mestizo shamanism.
Several Peruvian scholars have touched upon this subject in
investigations on folk medicine and folk psychiatry. In 1962
Oscar Ríos wrote a 70-page- monography on ayahuasca. After a
historical survey of the first Westerners who reported the use
of ayahuasca among Indian tribes, the first chemical investigations of the active principles of ayahuasca, and some of the
local names given to these beverages among various tribes, Ríos
reproduces part of Spruce's account of the use of this beverage
among a tribe of the Vaupés (1908: 413-425), and of Reinberg's
observations among the Zaparo, and others. Ríos adds only one
page about the use of ayahuasca among the mestizo population,
emphasizing the idea that it is through the brujo's (wizard's)
suggestion that patients visualize, when taking ayahuasca, the
persons they believe have caused their illness.
Ríos summarizes then Villavicencio (1858), Reinburg (1921),
and Koch-Grunberg's (1908: 952-982) reports on their self-experimentation with the beverage, and Pennes & Hoch (1957) and
Naranjo's (1965) description of the clinical effects of harmine, one of the alkaloids present in Banisteriopsis caapi (see
3. 3. ). The rest of the monography is dedicated to the botany and
pharmacology of ayahuasca. The emphasis of Rios's work is on
experimental psychiatry, and more concretely, on the possibilities of using the pure active compounds present in ayahuasca in
the study of possible biochemical mechanisms underlying psychical disorders and their application in psychotherapy.
In 1962 Gabriel del Castillo wrote his Bachelor's thesis on
the effects of intoxication with ayahuasca using samples of the
beverage gathered in Iquitos. Unfortunately, until this moment,
I have been unable to get a copy of his work, and therefore I
cannot comment on it. In 1963 the same author published an interesting paper which, to my knowledge, is the first dealing
directly with the use of ayahuasca among the mestizo population
of the Peruvian Amazon. Del Castillo gives a brief botanical
description of Banisteria caapi (the name given to this plant
by Spruce, later assigned to the genus Banisteriopsis), and a
detailed account of the preparation of the beverage by an ayahuasquero of Iquitos. He correctly observes the importance of
the diet during the shamanic training, the different "kinds" of
ayahuasca (see 3. 3. ) the ayahuasqueros distinguish, according
to the content of the visions elicited by the beverage, and
then gives an excellent summary of the main functions of the
use of the beverage among the mestizos (p.94), together with a
brief description of the ceremonies in which it is ingested. He
then makes observations about the physiological and psychological effects produced. Castillo also indicates that it is for
reasons of health that people take ayahuasca. I do not know
whether Castillo continued his investigation on this subject.
So far, I have not come across any other of Castillo's publications.
In 1965 Oscar Ríos, together with M. Hernandez, M. Lemlij and
F. León, published a paper reporting a pharmacological and clinical study on harmine, extracted from Cabi paraensis, and ayahuasca, prepared by a curandero from Iquitos, which they administrated to 32 individuals in a very controlled situation.
They carefully registered the physiological and psychological
effects -such as alteration in perception, in consciousness, in
the thought process and in emotions-, and applied Rorschach
tests to some of the individuals before and after the ingestion
of the preparations.
Psychologists and psychiatrists, such as Carlos Alberto Seguín, Moisés Lemlij and Mario Chiappe became interested in
what has been labelled as Psiquiatría Folklórica (Seguín 1979:
13), and since 1965 they have produced a series of articles
(some of which have been republished recently: cf. Seguín 1979;
Chiappe et al. 1985), about local healers in several areas of
Peru and their use of psychotropic plants, including ayahuasca.
They present both valuable descriptive and analytical material.
Their emphasis seems to be mostly on healing, and especially
from the point of view of psychotherapy. There are interesting
observations about the conceptions and local nomenclature of
culture-bond illnesses, and about cultural determinants of the
hallucinatory experience. As sources for the study of more esoteric aspects of mestizo shamanism, such as initiation and
transmission of shamanic power, their work is limited by the
fact that they deal comparatively little with the religious
aspects, and there is no attempt to study the vegetalistas'
worldview from a wider Amazonian perspective. The ethnobotanical information is scarce, and unfortunately, sometimes inaccurate.
The American anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Ríos collaborated with Seguín and Chiappe, and did field work first on practitioners using the San Pedro cactus in the coastal area of
Northern Peru, and then in Iquitos, among ayahuasca practitioners, mainly in the community of Belén, an urban slum in the
southern section of the city. Dobkin de Ríos published a number
of articles on ayahuasca healers (1969a, 1969b, 1969c, 1970a,
1970b, 1971a, 1971b), and in 1972 a monography, in which she
condenses most of the ideas on the subject she had expressed in
earlier publications.
In her book Dobkin de Rios presents historical data about
Iquitos, and a sociological analysis of Belén. She describes
ayahuasca sessions, discusses concepts of illness and witchcraft among her informants, presents several case studies of
patients suffering from one misfortune or other, and finally
discusses the role of ayahuasca in healing, especially in psychotherapy. There is a great deal of valuable information in
her work. From the point of view of the study on shamanism,
however, there are serious gaps. There is no mention, for example, of the yachay or mariri, a magic substance which is essential both in upper Amazonian tribal shamanism, and among mestizo practitioners (at least I have not yet met any vegetalistas
who does not claim to possess this magic phlegm), and which is
underlying the concepts of healing and witchcraft. The pervasive role of magic chants or icaros, not only during ayahuasca
sessions, but in all aspects of shamanic practices, is not sufficiently stressed, and there is no profound enquiry about shamanic initiation, the importance of the diet and the acquisition of shamanic knowledge. From the ethnobotanical point of
view, there is very little information about plant use. Dobkin
de Rios does not mention collecting plant material, or, in case
she did collect, the herbariums where voucher specimens are
Since the publication of her book on ayahuasca, Dobkin de
Rios has made other contributions to the subject of folk healing in the Peruvian Amazon area (1977, 1981a, 1981b). Particularly interesting is a paper (1984) in which she shows the development of Don Hilde, a practitioner living in Pucallpa, who
has put aside much of his ayahuasca practice to enter a mystical organization called Septrionismo de la Amazonía, formed in
1968 by an urban middle class mestizo. The aim of the organization is to achieve coherence and unity between religious and
moral values and science. This paper shows the religious dynamism which exists in the Amazon area, and presents a very good
example of the spiritual development of some vegetalistas
towards new practices through the incorporation of new religious elements.
F. Bruce Lamb, an American forester, who arrived in Peru in
1962 to undertake a forest survey in the Amazon area, met in
Iquitos Don Manuel Córdoba-Ríos, a vegetalista of great reputation for his knowledge of medicinal plants and for his success
as a healer. In 1971 Lamb published Wizard of the Upper Amazon.
The Story of Manuel Córdoba-Ríos, an embellished account of how
Cordoba Ríos had been captured by a group of Huni Kui (Amahuaca) Indians when he was 15 years old, how he had been initiated
to ayahuasca and was groomed by the old chief to succeed him.
For seven years he lived with the Indians and acquired his
knowledge of jungle lore. He finally escaped, and eventually
went to live in Iquitos, where he put his knowledge of the
jungle to good use.
Lamb's book was severely criticized by the anthropologist Carneiro (1980), an Amahuaca specialist, on the grounds that the
tribe described by Córdoba Ríos presented many traits, including the role of the chief, population patterns, clothes, utensils, hunting techniques and a method of disposing of the dead,
which could not possibly be Amahuaca. Carneiro concluded that
Cordoba Ríos' story was probably not true.
César Calvo, a Peruvian writer, in a novel I will comment
upon in a moment (1981:216-219), presents another version of
Manuel Cordoba Ríos' abduction by the Amahuaca, at the age of
13; This book is also partially based on talks with Cordoba
Ríos. In Iquitos I heard a completely different story about Don
Manuel from Dr. Gunther Schaper, who has lived in Iquitos for
more than 50 years, and who also knew Don Manuel personally.
I think that it is important to differentiate between the
knowledge a vegetalista possesses, and the way he claims to
have acquired it. Cordoba Ríos' story is not unique. I have met
vegetalistas who tell similar -although less dramatic- stories.
Most practitioners are perfectly aware of the fact that their
knowledge has Indian sources, and it is part of their status to
claim direct access to these sources. The most important is,
however, that the knowledge which is reflected in Don Manuel's
story seems to be genuine. Lamb's book has for me corroborated
many of the ideas I have learned from my informants, and in
some instances, has contributed to my understanding of several
In the summer of 1985 a second book by F. Bruce Lamb was published, Rio Tigre and Beyond. The Amazon Jungle Medicine of
Manuel Cordoba, a continuation of Wizard of the Upper Amazon,
which is, in my opinion, an important contribution to our knowledge of Amazonian shamanism. Although Lamb's book is not an
ethnographical work, as he himself points out, it presents very
interesting material, especially about the use of chants in the
modulation of ayahuasca visions. In this second book there is
also a large appendix, in which Don Manuel's Materia Medica is
reported. 81 species, many of them with tentative identifications, and their uses are mentioned. For me this was particularly valuable, since I have also gathered ethnobotanical information about many of these plants.
It has also been very rewarding to examine the work of several Peruvian writers, whose work is based on a deep knowledge
of the folklore and the life of the people of the Amazon area.
I want to mention the collections of short stories by César
Huamán Ramirez (1983) and Ulyses Reátegui (1983, 1984). César
Calvo's novel, Las Tres Mitades de Ino Moxo, based, as I just
mentioned, on the person of Don Manuel Cordoba Ríos, a vegetalista of Iquitos, and other practitioners of the Peruvian Amazon, deserves particular attention: Apart from its literary
beauty, this book is very rich in information about the practice of the shamanism of that area. César Calvo was born in
Iquitos, and seems to reveal a reliable knowledge of the folklore of the Peruvian Amazon.
As a point of comparison, it has been very interesting for me
to examine Charles Wagley's book Amazon Town. A Study of Man in
the Tropics (1953, 1976), and particularly its companion book
by Eduardo Galvao Santos e Visagens. Um estudo da vida religiosa de Itá, Baixo Amazonas (1976), a simplified Portuguese version of his Ph.D. dissertation presented at Columbia University) under the title The Religion of an Amazon Community: A
Study in Culture Change, which was not available to me when
I was writing the central chapters of this book. Both Wagleys
and Galvao's monographies are based on field work carried out
in 1948 in a little Brazilian Amazonian town of the Lower Amazon.
Galvao's object of study is the function of the religious
life of the town within the social structure of the community
as a whole. He presents a historical account of the various
demographic components of the population of the Amazon area,
and the various elements present in the religion of the caboclos (cf. 1.2., p.15) (Iberian popular Catholicism, Amerindian
and even African beliefs). He also presents descriptive material about religious fraternities, local beliefs in supernatural beings inhabiting the forest, lakes and rivers, shamanic
practices (pajelança), and the impact threat various social and
economic changes which have occurred in the last decades -such
as urbanization- have on the religious life of the people.
Although my study is more specific than Galvaos, in that I
concentrate on shamanism, not on the religious life of the population as a whole, I noticed, with surprise, how much there
still is in common between the religious life of the little
Brazilian town he studied almost forty years ago, and that of
comparatively large contemporary urban centers such as Iquitos
and Pucallpa.
In this book it has not been my intention to make a systematic comparative study between Upper Amazon Amerindian and mestizo shamanism. However, I have often referred, mostly in the
footnotes, to scientific literature on shamanism among ethnic
groups of the cultural area in question. I interpolate information on shamanism from the work of Jean Pierre Chaumeil (1982a,
1982b, 1983) among the Yagua, Chevalier (1982) among the Campa,
Whitten (1985) among the Quichua of Ecuador, Françoise Barbira-Freedman (former Barbira-Scazzochio)(1979) on the Lamisto,
Harner (1973) and Karsten (1964) among the Jívaro, Roe (1982),
Gebhart-Sayer (1982, 1986) and Guillermo Arévalo (1986) among
the Shipibo, Baer (1979, 1984) among the Matsigenka, and Bellier (1986) among the Maihuna. Many of my informants' ideas
are clearly a reflection of ideas present among these groups.
It has also been valuable for me to examine the work of Reichel-Dolmatoff on the Desana, Stephen and Christine Hugh-Jones
on the Barasana, Irving Goldman on the Cubeo, and Jean Langdon
on the Siona. All these Tukano groups use yagé, and have common
cultural elements with the groups mentioned above, who live
closer to the area where I have been carrying out my field
In 1983 Jaime Regan, an American Jesuit and anthropologist,
published a two-volume book on the religion of the farmers and
the poor workers of the Peruvian Amazon area, sharing Catholicism as an element of their culture. This work presents a large
amount of first-hand information gathered by a hundred interviewers in virtually all the areas of the Peruvian Amazon. The
material, arranged according to themes, is perfectly localized
geographically and is followed by commentaries by the author.
Regan's work is certainly an important contribution to the
understanding of religious ideas and attitudes among a great
part of the population of the Amazon, and it gives a rich
source material for future investigations. In the interviews
reproduced, I was glad to find confirmation about the widespreading of many of my informants' religious ideas.
There are several features in common between the practices of
the vegetalistas of the Amazon region, and those of other areas
of Peru, most notably those using the San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi). I have decided, however, to leave such a comparison outside the scope of this book.
1.7. Organization of the material
In the next chapter I will present a general background of the
Peruvian Amazon area considering Iquitos and Pucallpa, the two
major urban nuclei of this region, from a historical and socioeconomic point of view. I will then make brief comments about
the religious background of the area, and present the main characteristics of Amazonian shamanism, based on Métraux's stu23
dies. I will discuss the role of vegetalistas in general and
present my informants.
Chapter 3, 4 and 5 deal with various aspects of shamanic initiation. In chapter 3 I will present some accounts of initiation and discuss the conditions in which it takes place, in
particular the diet and sexual segregation, which are considered necessary in order to become a vegetalista. Before discussing the concept of "plant-teacher", which is crucial in the
practice of shamanism in the Amazon area, and providing information about the main plant-teachers, I will present a brief
survey of the botany, chemistry and uses of ayahuasca, the main
psychotropic preparation used by the vegetalistas of that area.
Chapter 4 deals with the spiritual world of vegetalistas. I
will present the most important spirits which still play an
important role in their cosmovision. I will also discuss the
concept of arkana, which includes all the defences needed by
the vegetalista when dealing with healing and the supernatural
world, and the helping spirits with the aid of which vegetalistas diagnose and cure illness.
Chapter 5 deals with the magic chants or melodies (icaros),
and the transmission and use of the yachay, a magic substance
which the vegetalistas have in their chest and which has an
important function both in healing and in causing harm. Icaros
and yachay are the two most important gifts of the spirits,
which allow the vegetalista to carry out his practice.
In chapter 6 I will discuss the concepts of health and illness held in this area. I will present case studies in which
the two main causes of illness, illness as an intrusion of a
magical dart, and illness as soul-loss are discussed. I will
also deal with various forms of love magic, which are an important part of the tasks of some vegetalistas.
In the final chapter I will present a detailed information
about an ayahuasca session, and discuss the double role of ayahuasca as a hallucinogen and as an agent for cleansing body
and soul.
2.1 The Peruvian Amazon area
In this chapter I am going to present a brief survey of the
setting where I conducted my research, the Peruvian Amazon, and
introduce my informants. I will begin by giving some general
data about the Amazon, and some historical and socio-economic
considerations about Iquitos, where I have gathered most of my
material, and to a lesser extent about Pucallpa, where I also
did some field work.
Peru, a country of 1 285 215 Km 2 , has 54% of its territory in
the Amazon area. This area is located within a larger geographical unity, the Upper Amazon Basin, which comprehends the
network of rivers that drain the tropical forest east of the
Andes and flow into the Amazon River until the mouth of the Rio
Madeira (Lathrap 1970:22-23).
There is a geographical and ecological differentiation between the forest on the steep eastern slopes of the Andes, between 400 and 1000 meters above sea level, with heavy rainfalls,
and a great contrast in the temperatures between day and night
(between 14° and 32° centigrates), and the tropical forest on
the floor of the Amazon Basin, situated between 80 and 400 meters above sea level, with hot temperatures (between 24° and
40° centigrates), high humidity and violent rains (cf. Rumrill
Four departments of Peru (Loreto, San Martín, Ucayali, and
Madre de Dios) lie completely within the Amazon area, while
eleven other departments have part of their territories covered
by tropical rain forest.
Numerous Indian tribes belonging to various linguistic families, lived -and several still live- in this area. Lowie (1948:
1) points out that their cultural complex contrasted markedly
from that of the Andean civilizations by lacking architectural
and metallurgical refinements, their diagnostic features being
the cultivation of tropical root crops, the construction of
effective river craft, the use of hammocks as beds and the manufacture of pottery.
The second feature, the effective use of canoeing among certain tribes, which allowed them to spread their art and customs
over enormous distances, combined with natural conditions, pro25
duced, according to the same author, the remarkable levelling
of culture in this area. Other factors, such as the generalized
custom of taking a bride from another settlement, irrespective
of linguistic affinity (Lowie 1948:29), and the necessity of
trading among distant tribes or villages for the purpose of
obtaining essential raw materials (Lathrap 1970:32) contributed
to this levelling of culture. We may even say that syncretism
was thus built into the system.
The arrival of the Europeans considerably accelerated the
process of interchange, by breaking down the integrity of particular tribal or ethnic groups. The missionaries forced Indian
groups of different traditions to settle in large villages (reducciones), where they could be evangelized and controlled more
easily 3 . During the rubber epoch (1880-1914), Indian tribes,
simply considered as labour force, were enslaved, forced to
migrate and compelled to work together, irrespective of their
cultural differences. Later, with the advent of urbanization,
the process of interchange continued in the urban slums of
Iquitos, Pucallpa and other Amazonian towns.
The economic frontier created by the exploitation of rubber
had disastrous results for indigenous population, as entire
ethnic groups disappeared as a result of disease, malnutrition,
slave-raids, forced labour and the unwarranted cruelty of the
rubber collectors (Chirif 1983: 187). Today ethnic groups represent only about 20% of the jungle population, and about 2.5% of
the total population of the country, which amounts to approximately 20 million people. According to Wise (1983), there are
still 63 surviving ethnic groups.
Only a little more than 10% of the country's population live
in Amazonian territories. Many of these people live along the
flood plains of the Amazon and its major tributaries, where
recent alluvial layers of soil are rich in nutritive materials.
They go in for subsistence farming, and exploit the rich fishing resources, or have their chacras (swidden gardens) along
the roads recently opened in various parts of the Amazon.
During the last few decades the Amazon area has witnessed a
great demographic
expansion due to various colonization programs as an effort from the part of Lima to integrate these
territories with "the nation". Two cities, which until not many
years ago were small towns, have experienced enormous growth:
Iquitos and Pucallpa.
The Jesuits, for instance, between 1640 and 1768 established 152 reducciones gathering along the Ucayali and Huallaga rivers 56. 000 christianized Indians, and in the upper Napo
66. 000 (Costales & Costales 1983: 191).
2.2. Iquitos and Pucallpa. Historical and socio-economic
The city of Iquitos (3. 45s 79. 11w) is located on the left bank
of the Amazon, between the mouths of the Nanay and Itaya rivers. It has its origin in Jesuit missionary activities in the
territories between the rivers Tigre and Napo, in the first
half of the 18th century, particularly those that were carried
out on the river Itaya by the Jesuit Maroni in 1729. The original population belonged to the Yameos. After the independence
of Peru in 1821, the settlement was consolidated with native
Christian people of several other tribes, among them Mayoruna,
Pebas and Omaguas.
In a census carried out in 1847, Iquitos had 150 inhabitants.
The introduction of steam boats in the Amazon was to change the
destiny of many Amazonian settlements. Iquitos became the principal river harbour in the Peruvian Amazon area. In 1864 a commercial line went upstream to Yurimaguas, in the Huallaga, and
downstream to Tabatinga, in Brazilian territory (see Barcia
García 1983:9-23). One of the consequences of the great demand
for rubber in Europe and the United States after the discovery
of the vulcanization by Goodyear in 1839 was that the Amazonian territories were soon the object of foreign capitalist
interests. When F. W. Up de Graff, an American adventurer,
arrived at Iquitos in 1899, it was already a small town of
about 2 000 inhabitants:
"Iquitos sprang from the necessity for a receiving
and distributing center for rubber and merchandise
respectively for the Upper Amazon system, corresponding to Manaus and Para for the Lower." (Up de Graff
Iquitos became a cosmopolitan center of trade, where English
pounds of gold circulated along with the national currency.
Communication with Lima, the capital, was however very difficult, due to the distance and topography. During the so called
"rubber boom period", from 1880 to 1914 (San Roman 1975:124),
thousands of tons of rubber left Iquitos, and at the same time
the area was inundated with Western products, especially from
England and the United States. In 1910 the export of rubber
exceeded 4 thousand tons. But the development of large rubber
plantations in Malaysia, Burma, India, Indochina and Africa,
first by Great Britain, and then by Holland, Belgium, France,
Germany and the United States (Barcia García 1983:63), and the
First World War (1914-1918), caused the collapse of the Amazonian rubber industry. Thousands of workers returned from the
jungle, increasing the population of Iquitos, Yurimaguas, Requena, Nauta, Contamana and other urban nuclei (Barcia García
In the twenties other Amazonian products, such as balata
(Manilkara bidentata), leche caspi (Couma macrocarpa Barb. Rodr.), precious wood and resins, and live animals (especially
ornamental fish) became the object of intense exploitation.
Many people were engaged in this kind of jobs, usually through
a debt-peonage labour system or habilitación. The export of
skins of wild animals, such as caymans, boas, peccari, sajino
(Tayassu tajacu), jaguars and otters was carried out almost to
the point of the near extinction of some animals, such as the
white cayman (Caiman sclerops) and the otter (Ptenorura brasiliensis)(cf. Villarejo 1979:173-176; Chirif 1980:188). In the
thirties gold and oil were found in the area of Pachitea.
In September 1932 a group of Peruvian civilians took the Colombian town of Leticia by force. A war with Colombia was the
result of this action, which was supported by the government in
Lima. A consequence of this event was the militarization of the
zone, and the forced recruitment of soldiers among the Amazonian population. In the military camps people from distant
areas of all the Amazonian territories and other parts of Peru
met. Local healers forced to join the army met each other, and
were able to exchange ideas. Through my informants I have come
to realize that shamanic practices continued even within military camps in Amazonian territories.
The Second World War was again to bring changes to the Amazon. In 1941 Japan rapidly advanced through South East Asia,
from where most of the rubber used in the Western world came
Old Amazonian jungle tracks were reopened in search of
rubber and jebe fino, attracting immigrants from the rest of
the Peruvian territory.
In November 1971 oil was discovered in the Río Tigre, and a
new period of expansion occurred, bringing about a demographic
explosion. Iquitos plays a central role in the administrative,
economic and cultural life of northeast Peru. It continues to
attract immigrants, not only from jungle settlements in Amazonian territories, but also from other areas of the country.
With them have come their traditional beliefs and practices,
and this city and its vicinity are a rich field for gathering
ethnological and folkloristic information.
Pucallpa, the second largest city of the Peruvian Amazon
(about 170. 000 inhabitants), is the capital of the newly
created department of Ucayali (detached from the department of
Loreto in 1980). It is connected with Lima by the Federico Basadre road (843 Km), allowing active trade with the rest of the
country. Pucallpa was also built as a post of rubber distribution. It is situated 148 meters above sea level. In spite of
its size, it has poorly developed public services and almost
no industry, except for lumbering, and a very successful beer
factory. Due to its location, however, it may well happen that
in the future Pucallpa will play a more important socio-economic role than Iquitos.
On the lake of Yarinacocha, near Pucallpa, there is the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), an American institute connected with the Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT), which has
played an active -and controversial- missionary role among Indian groups of the Peruvian Amazon.
The economy of the region is extractive in nature, and mainly
oriented to the supply of external markets (Chirif 1980: 185).
There is nearly no reinvestment of capital in the area. Wages
are low, and there is great mobility among the population, who
follow the ups and downs of the demand for given products, and
it is dispersed after their exhaustion. All my informants, for
example, have had many different jobs in various areas of the
Amazon. This great mobility is yet another factor which contributes to the legalization of cultural traits that exists in the
whole of the Peruvian Amazon area (cf Hvalkof & Aaby 1981).
In Iquitos and Pucallpa 50% and 25% of the population respectively live in shanty-towns, many of them landless peasants who
have migrated from other areas of the country encouraged by
the dominant sectors which in this way avoid modifying the national structure on which their power is based. Many of these
peasants have very little knowledge of the Amazonian environment (Chirif 1980: 189). The prices of food and other goods are
very high, compared with those of other cities of Peru. Also
the price of the transport of agricultural products from the
chacras to the city, either by river or by road, is high. It
seems to me that there is a progressive pauperization of the
population. The demographic pressure on the Amazon is causing
great changes. 5. 7% of the forest of the Peruvian Amazon has
been destroyed, and the prognosis is that by the year 2000
15. 2% of the jungle
(ca. 12 million ha.) will have been
cleared out, with unimaginable climatic, ecological and social
Both Pucallpa and Iquitos have airports. There are daily regular flights connecting Lima-Tingo María-Pucallpa and Iquitos.
Three times a week there are flights that connect Iquitos with
Leticia (Colombia)/Tabatinga (Brazil) and Manaus, Brazil.
2.3. Religious background of the cultural area
The population of the Peruvian Amazon has been subject to an
active missionary activity since the arrival of the Spaniards.
During the 17th and 18th centuries several religious orders,
most notably the Jesuits and Franciscans were very active. I
already mentioned the reducciones (nucleated settlements) established by religious orders, which had dire consequences for
the Indian population in terms of epidemics, forced labour,
and the disruption of their traditional way of life. The evangelization was, nevertheless, very effective, and Christian
elements penetrated deeply into the Amazonian population. Various admixtures of folk Catholicism, which came primarily from
the missionaries themselves, were transmitted by people who
lived in missions, and who assimilated Catholic ideas and interpreted them according to their own traditions. According to
Stephen Hugh-Jones (personal communication), the Barasana of
Vaupés (Colombia), although their missionization is very recent, knew a lot about Christianity when the missionaries
arrived. Their knowledge did not come directly from the missionaries, but from people of other Indian groups who had told
them. This can be applied, with all probability, to Indian
tribes all over the Amazonian territories.
Regan, in his study of the religion of Amazonian people
(1983: II: 165-166), recognizes the uniformity in the religious
beliefs of the whole population of the Amazon area, and the
juxtaposition and re-interpretation of elements due to the mutual influence of popular Catholicism and autochthonous Amazonian religious ideas. Most of the mestizo population are still
nominally Catholic. However, there is an increasing influence
of various Protestant sects, such as Adventists, Pentecostals,
Evangelists, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc., and the Catholic Church
is progressively losing the power it once held. Dozens of syncretic cults are appearing, including messianic-millenarian
movements which incorporate Tupi-Guarani, Catholic and Protestant religious
elements (cf. Regan 1983:II:129 ss; Clastres
Popular Catholicism still remains an important religious element among many of the practitioners of these new groups, as
also among vegetalistas (all my informants declare themselves
Catholics, but none of them go to church). Catholic elements
are not always syncretically amalgamated, but coexist hand in
hand with Amerindian ideas. As Galvao observes, beliefs and
Catholic institutions and those of Amerindian origin serve different objectives and complement each other as parts of a religious system (Galvao 1976:5). As we will see later, when I describe an ayahuasca ceremony conducted by Don Emilio, the Christian element is the main frame within which the ceremony is
conducted. But once the invocations to Christ and the Virgin
end, the vegetalista is dealing solely with the traditional
Amazonian spirit world.
2.4. Tribal Amazonian Shamanism: main characteristics.
In order to discuss what vegetalismo is, I have, obviously
first to refer to an indigenous shamanic tradition and also
to acculturation factors.
Let us first see what the principal characteristics of tribal
Amazonian shamanism are. I will try to summarize Alfred Métraux's ideas (1967) on this subject.
Métraux begins by noticing how the functions, techniques and
attributes of the shaman (he also uses the French term magicien, and the term piai, of Tupi and Carib origin) are remarkably uniform among all the forest tribes of Guayana and the
Amazon Basin. Métraux remarks how in this area shamanism is a
profession almost exclusively masculine. Female shamans play an
important role only among few tribes. Shamanic powers are acquired either by a personal vocation, by supernatural election
or sometimes it is inherited. In some cases the neophyte is
elected by the spirit of his dead father, or by that of another
relative -which also may be classified as inheritance-. The
circumstances of the shamanic vocation may vary, including the
sudden apparition of an ancestor or an animal spirit, or the
occurrence of some sort of psychosomatic crisis.
The piai derives his supernatural powers from his contact
with the spirits, which may happen directly as a result of inspiration, or after a period of initiation under the direction
of a teacher. During the period of initiation the neophyte has
to be in isolation, follow certain food prescriptions and live
in celibacy. He must take infusion of the bark of certain
trees, drink tobacco juice and vomit, in order to get in touch
with the spirits. Under the effects of tobacco his spirit can
fly in order to see and discover things. The neophyte has to
obey the instructions of a spirit, and listen to the chants
that the spirit whispers to him, so as to master all the secrets of magic (among the Indians the poetic and musical inspiration is often interpreted as the product of communication
with the supernatural world).
The power of the piai is often conceived either as an invisible, though concrete, magic substance, or as a series of objects, such as thorns, arrows, fragments of quartz, which he
carries about him. He possesses helping spirits, which are
sometimes identical with his magic weapons. His influence depends on the number of spirits under his control. His principal
function is to cure illness in sessions that include massages,
blowing smoke, and suctions in order to extract the illness,
which takes the form of various pathogenic objects. Among his
tasks are the prediction of future events, the interpretation
of omens, preventing the elements harming people, the procuring
of good hunting, the distribution of magic force among those
that need it, and the organization and presiding over religious
ceremonies and dances. The piai has an ambivalent personality
in that he is able to cure, but also to harm. But above of all
he is the person who uses, for the benefit of his community,
the superior power of the spirits and diverts their wrongdoings
(Métraux 1967: 82-86, 100-101).
2.5. Vegetalismo and vegetalistas: Amazonian mestizo shamanism
Mestizo shamanism is a direct continuation of shamanism as it
is found among ethnic groups. It is still an integral part of
peasant religion. As we will see in detail in chapters 4-6,
many of the traits of indigenous shamanism persist, essentially
unchanged, among the mestizos. One may wonder at the mechanism
of the transmission of this body of ideas from the ethnic
groups to mestizos. When I questioned Don Emilio about the origin of his tradition of ayahuasca use, he told me that the caucheros (rubber collectors) had discovered it. He is probably
right, because during the rubber epoch -and in subsequent
years, when other Amazonian products were extracted-, mestizo
people, often working in remote areas far from any medical facilities, had to resort to Indian shamans in case of illness or
accident, and curious mestizos actually learned directly from
Indian sources. We must remember, though, how vague the term
mestizo is, in that it covers anything from acculturated Indians to various mixtures of white and Indian, including people
coming from other regions of the country. Shamanism has probably always been practised more or less openly among Amazonian
peasants depending on the external pressure exercised by the
local authorities and the Church.
The emphasis of mestizo shamanism is on healing. We must bear
in mind, though (see 6. 6. ), that the idea of healing also includes the manipulation of spiritual forces in the alleviation
of financial and emotional problems.
A similar emphasis in shamanic activities on healing has been
observed among acculturated tribes. Angelika Gebhart-Sayer
(1986) writes the following on the Shipibo-Conibo of the Ucayali, which may also be applied to other Amazonian ethnic groups:
"As a result of their impetuous acculturation, the
shamanic activity of the Shipibo/Conibo Indians was
robbed of the bulk of its public functions and reduced to the therapeutic sessions in which ayahuasca
serves as a diagnostic and inspirative vehicle. "
Several types of practitioners are found among the mestizo
population, denominated collectively as curanderos (healers) or
empíricos. A Vegetalista, as we saw in the introduction, is the
person who has acquired his knowledge from a plant, and who
normally uses this plant in his diagnosis and sometimes also in
healing his patients. Among vegetalistas there are several
specializations, according to the main plant used. Camalonguero
is the person who uses camalonga (unidentified)4, tabaquero the
one who uses mainly tobacco, toero the person who uses toé
(Brugmansia suaveolens), a powerful psychotropic plant, palero,
the practitioner who has learned from palos (big trees), catahuero the person who uses catahua (Hura crepitans), and ayahuasquero the person who uses ayahuasca. Of course, the same
person may master several of these plants5 A vegetalista may
also be called maestro, doctor, médico, and often simply viejito (old man) or abuelito (which perhaps can be translated as
dear grandfather). The term banco is also often heard. It seems
that this term is applied to vegetalistas of great knowledge,
but I have not been able to establish what his distinctive features are. It seems to me that it is applied in various ways by
The seeds of this plant are widely used not only in the Amazon
area, but also in other areas of at least Peru, Colombia and
Ecuador. None of the people I have questioned about this plant
has even seen it. They all agree that it comes from the sierra
(the montaneous area) of Peru.
Carneiro (1982:349), who worked with a Campa toero, writes that
"the ayahuasquero is the mortal enemy of a toero and is in
constant conflict with him". This seems to be contradicted,
however, some pages later (372), where we learn that also Zeballos use ayahuasca for the diagnosis of illness. I have never
heard of enmities of this kind between different types of vegetalistas. In fact, quite often toé is added to the ayahuasca
different people. According to Don Emilio and other people,
banco is a practitioner who lies down facing the floor, enters
into trance, and the spirits descend upon him. Banco in Spanish
means "bench". Banco would then be a "seat of power for the
spirits" (Barbira Scazzochio 1979: 180; Whitten 1985: 15). I have
never witnessed such a practice, but it seems to me to be related to some sort of spirit possession similar to that which I
am going to describe in Don José's practice.
The term brujo (wizard) is often used to refer to vegetalistas in general, and it has a despective connotation. My informants use this term only to refer to practitioners who do harm.
The word hechicero is also often used as a synonym of brujo. We
will see later (cf.... ) that these terms are relative, because
there is no sharp distinction between good and evil vegetalistas.
Besides vegetalistas there are other types of practitioners
of whom, at the moment, I have only vague ideas. As far as I
know, there are no studies which clearly differentiate the
practices of vegetalistas from those called oracionistas (who
mainly use prayers and encantations in their practice), perfumeros (who practise a sophisticated sort of "aroma therapy"),
espiritualistas (who deal with spirits) and seem to follow an
amalgam of European and African traditions, etc.
The Peruvian psychiatrist Carlos Alberto Seguín (1979:27-31)
(see 1.6), writing about local healers under the label Psiquiatría Folklórica, distinguishes between medicine-man, curandero,
charlatán and curioso. It would carry too far to enter into a
detailed discussion about all his distinctions. Charlatán is
defined as the practitioner who does not believe in what he is
doing and is only interested in material gains exploiting the
credulity and the needs of the people. Curioso is reserved for
the person who has some limited knowledge of traditional therapeutical recipes. But it is the distinction between medicineman and curandero which I would like to discuss briefly. According to Seguín the medicine-man operates within his own culture, while the curandero operates in Westernized societies,
far from the original, popular culture; the medicine-man has an
official status, while the curandero lacks, and, besides, he
is despised by the established society; legally the former contributes to the creation and obedience of the laws, while the
latter is persecuted; the medicine-man is integrated, the curandero is marginated; the motives of the medicine-man are religious, social and vocational, while the curandero's motives
are vocational and humanitarian.
This distinction between medicine-man and curandero is not
always so drastic in societies like those of the upper Amazon,
where there is a continuum between the medicine-men of tribal
groups and the acculturated Indians, and the curandero of the
mestizo population. In this book we will see that the techniques used in the healing practices of mestizo curanderos (I
believe that Seguín would place the vegetalistas I have been
studying in this category) are nearly identical with some of
the techniques used by tribal shamans. The distinction is,
thus, social. But even social categories are relative. For
instance vegetalistas are perhaps despised by established society, but some of them enjoy high social status within their
immediate operational environment, and I think they care very
little for what the distant authorities and rich minority think
of them. They are marginated from the point of view of the dominant society, but are often very much integrated in their
communities, often more than the medical doctor of rural areas
or urban slums, who has little idea of the practical problems
of everyday life among the people they are supposed to attend.
Finally, I do not see why Seguín disregard the curandero's religious religious motives. I think that more subtle distinctions have to be worked out in order to account for the variety
of practitioners operating in Peru -and for that matter in many
other countries with similar conditions6.
As I indicated above (see 1.3.), all my informants have the
use of ayahuasca in common. I am not going to use the term ayahuasquero when referring to them, because they all say that
have also learned from other plants. They usually use the term
vegetalista when referring to one another (I will deal specifically with ayahuasca and other plant teachers in the next chapter).
I would like to make a few more observations before I present my informants. Something that has always struck me when
meeting vegetalistas is their physical strength, good health
and sound minds. In fact, I have sometimes thought that they
are perhaps among the brightest individuals in their community.
I have always been very impressed by their general knowledge,
not only of their particular practice, but also of many other
things. They are often great story tellers, have artistic talents and possess an extraordinary memory. This is in agreement
with similar observations about shamans in other parts of the
world (cf. Eliade 1964: 30), and do not reinforce the idea of
the shaman as a psychotic and unbalanced person, which is still
Seguín also distinguishes between medicine-man and shaman. According to him, two characteristics differentiate a medicineman from a shaman: 1) The shaman usually performs his healing
activities out in the open or where he is needed, while the
medicine-man does so only in the place where he lives and where
he receives his patients. 2) the shaman is possessed by spirits, while the medicine-man has to recur to "magic techniques"
and to the use of plants, minerals or animals in his therapeutic treatment. I find this distinction unnecessary. Shamans/
medicine-men operate out in the open, in their homes, or
wherever they are needed. It all depends on the circumstances.
Secondly, a shaman may be possessed by a spirit and still, as
part of the treatment of his patients, use medicinal plants or
other preparations (in fact this is the case of one of my informants). Seguín does not explain in what way the "magical
techniques" of the medicine-man differ from those of the shaman. I think that it is more useful to adhere to a more general
definition of shaman as that of Hultkrantz (see 1.2.).
occasionally found in literature7.
The people's attitude towards vegetalistas varies. Many
people, especially the well-to-do, regard them with a mixture
of curiosity, fear and scorn. Among the poor there is often
great respect. However, among the clients the vegetalistas one
may find people belonging to all social classes, including the
Although vegetalistas are often highly individualistic, there
is, nevertheless, an informal network of relationships between
them, which may include the transmission of new information or
knowledge. Vegetalistas often know others who live either in
the immediate vicinity or at times even many kilometers away.
Most probably there is a large network of communication linking
vegetalistas living in the city with those living in remote
areas in the forest. The nature of their endeavour make vegetalistas subject to supernatural attacks or rivalries from those
responsible for the illness they are intending to cure. As a
result of these struggles, they may also become the subject of
magic illnesses, which in turn need magic treatment by more
powerful shamans7. It even seems that there are large networks
of healers across region boundaries, and even frontiers. The
Peruvian anthropologist Elizabeth Kramer kindly invited me to a
San Pedro cactus session in Lima conducted by one of her informants. He showed us a sack of perhaps 100 different plants collected from various parts of Peru and Bolivia, including the
highlands and the jungle. It shows that there is an extensive
interchange of information across geographical areas and cultural traditions. This is in accordance with the spirit of shamanism. The shaman is the man who transcends the boundaries of
society and goes outside, where there is power. The most powerful shamans are often those that get some secret weapon from a
distant group. This, of course, encourages syncretism.
A lengthy and interesting discussion on the psychology of shamans is found in Merkur 1985:10-40.
In a study of folk healing in southeast Colombia, Michel Taussig (1980:237) makes the following observation, which may also
be applied to the vegetalistas of Iquitos:
"All folk healers require the services of a healer
more powerful than themselves, because a healer is
always likely to be stricken with sorcery as part of
the profession of magical medicine. In attempting to
heal victims of sorcery, a healer is liable to become
attacked from the same source that afflicted the patient, usually another medicine man, and this may
prove more than the healer can cope with alone. This
is one of the leading reasons why a network exists
among practitioners, and why it has a subtle hierarchical form extending from less to more powerful healers"
All my informants are men. This does not mean that there are
no female vegetalistas. I heard about a few, but I had no occasion to meet them. I have always had very limited time for
doing field work, and I preferred to concentrate on few informants. It is usually considered that a women will not be ready
for shamanic initiation during her fertile age. It is after
the menopause that a woman may pursue the shamanic quest.
I believe that my informants represent a case of transitional shamanism, located half-way between indigenous shamanism
and the new practitioners that are now emerging in the urban
centers, and who incorporate more "modern" elements (European
esoteric traditions introduced in the Amazon during the 19th
and 20th centuries). Also from an economic point of view they
are between two different economic systems: a subsistence economy (they all have their chacras) and market economy.
Vegetalistas are to be found among the mestizo population,
practically the only reliable repositories of the Amazonian
worldview. The Christian churches, and particularly the various
newly arrived Protestant sects present in the Amazon, take good
care to suppress their converts' animistic ideas and prohibit
them to take part in ayahuasca sessions.
2.6. The informants
Don Emilio Andrade Gómez
Don Emilio was born in Iquitos in 1918. His father, D. Antonio
Andrade, was born in Pucallpa and worked as second machinist on
board one of the steam boats which connected various Amazonian
towns of Brazil, Colombia and Peru and transported people
working in the extraction of balata and jebe fino.
He describes his father as a stout bewhiskered gentleman
wearing a beard, and his mother as being a cholita (of Amazonian physiognomy)8, whose features he inherited.
During his childhood his parents lived in various settlements along the river, following the ups and downs of the economy of the area, which in turn followed the prices of Amazonian raw materials in Europe and the United States. When Don
Emilio was ten, his parents separated. He stayed with his mother in Iquitos where he went to school for the first time.
When he was twelve or fourteen, his father took him to the Upper Ucayali, where he learned the behaviour of many animals,
how to fish with harpoon and with bow and arrow, and how to
hunt. After some time (several months, perhaps a year), they
returned to Iquitos, where Don Emilio could complete four years
of basic education (Don Emilio reads and writes very well).
The term cholo is used in several ways in the Amazon area. As a
sociological term, cholo is a non-Indian. But in the way it is
used by many people in the rural areas, it means just having
Amazonian features, and is often used in an affectionate way.
When he was 14 years old, and while working by the Amazon
river, near the mouth of the Napo river, he was given ayahuasca
for the first time. He followed, as he was told to do, the rigorous diet and sexual abstinence which are prescribed for an
optimal effect of the medicinal properties of the brew, and
which vegetalistas follow when they want to "learn" from the
plant. It was not Don Emilio's intention to become a vegetalista. But this time he was "chosen" by the plant, who taught him
magical chants and the use of medicinal plants.
During the time he was in the army, he was sent to the Güepi,
the northernmost outpost of the Peruvian Amazon by the Putumayo river. Even there he continued taking ayahuasca in sessions
attended by commissioned officers and soldiers from other parts
of the Peruvian tropical rain forest. After the completion of
his military service he moved to Quistococha, a small settlement of perhaps 300 persons, about 12 kilometers south-west of
the city of Iquitos, where he married Dona Lucía Gálvez. They
got eleven children. For years he worked in the exploitation of
various jungle products, such as barbasco, rubber, balata,
gold, and the extraction of wood. In Quistococha he held for
some years the office of teniente gobernador (a local government representative responsible to the sub-prefects of provinces).
He still lives near Quistococha. A busy road that will eventually connect Iquitos with Nauta passes in front of his home.
Patients and clients from Iquitos can get to his home by using
a truck service five or six times a day. His wife died in December 1982. He has a small swidden garden, where he grows yuca, pineapple and other fruits, but not enough to sustain himself. Two days a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, he devotes himself to the treatment of patients and the preparation of herbal
baths for good luck in work and love.
Don José Coral
I met Don José Coral through Don Emilio in May 1983. I had decided that in order to learn about shamanic initiation, I myself
would follow the diet prescribed for one month, which was all
the time I had available. Don Emilio told me that it was not
convenient for me to stay at his home during that period as his
house was situated by the road, with a lot of noise and people
coming and going -his many patients or clients. He told me then
that he knew a good ayahuasquero, Don José Coral, who lived
about four kilometers away, near a locality called Pena Negra.
There Don José had his chacra (swidden garden) and he was sure
to accept me as his apprentice. We went to see him. I found a
man very different in complexion from Don Emilio. He was rather
tall, of a very strong constitution, but less articulate in the
expression of his ideas. He told me that he was seventy-five
years old, but he looked no more than sixty. He had a piece of
land where he cultivated maize, plantains, bananas, sweet manioc, pineapple, peanuts and other plants. Don Emilio presented
my case to Don José, who agreed that I could stay with him during the month of July of that year.
Don Emilio Andrade and Don José Coral
Don José was born in a small settlement in Yurimaguas on the
left bank of the Huallaga river in 1909. When he was seventeen
he took ayahuasca for the first time, because of a great pain
he had in his stomach. The twentieth time he took the brew,
spirits, which he calls murrayas, appeared in his visions. They
told him that they live "at the end of the world", using as
their only food the flower of tobacco. They removed a magic
dart he had in his stomach.
After working as a collector of several jungle products such
as leche caspi, rubber, ornamental fish, etc., he made his chacra near Pena Negra, 18 kilometers from Iquitos. He was married
twice. Both of his wives and his five children died, according
to Don José, due to the attack of evil sorcerers. Today he
lives with Dona Dolores Vásquez Balbarán, 52 years old. They
have no common children. He supports himself primarily by his
work on his plantation. Occasionally sick people are brought to
him. His patients are allowed to stay at his home for as long
as several months, or until they are fully recovered.
On the first of July I moved to Don José's chacra. I was
accompanied by two young men, Jorge, aged 20, Don Emilio's
youngest son, and Alí, aged 21, a good friend of Jorge, living
with his parents and brothers very close to Don Emilio's land.
They both wanted to follow the diet with me, after I offered to
pay any expenses we might have during that period. Don José
accepted me without any reserve. His humble house, consisting
of only two rooms, very primitively built, even by the region
standards, was soon overcrowded. Jorge, Alí and I occupied the
front room. Don José and his wife occupied the little back
room, separated by a door from our room. That very same day two
more persons came to enlarge the community: an old couple in
need of treatment was accepted by Don José. The woman showed a
very bad infection in her face with several abscesses both
outside and inside her mouth. She was sixty years old and very
weak. She was hardly able to talk or eat. Her husband had a
less serious infection in his nose, which was very swollen and
had been like that for many months. They had both been treated,
without improvement, in one of the hospitals of Iquitos.
Another woman, Dona Rosa Teco, arrived some days later. She
was in great pain, and could hardly move, suffering of what
appeared to me as a severe rheumatic disease. We all lived in
one room during the month I spent with Don José. During that
time I was able to learn a great deal about Don José's practice, and about his patient's worldviews.
Don Santiago Murayari
I met Don Santiago on Don José's plantation. Apparently they
have known each other for a long time. He came to participate
in one of our ayahuasca sessions during the time I was following the diet. I didn't pay much attention to him at- first.
He talked in a very soft voice, and he was difficult to
approach in the beginning. But during the ceremony he underwent
such a change that I realized he was a very different person
from what I thought. According to Don José, Don Santiago's father, now dead, had been a great ayahuasquero. Don Santiago did
not become a vegetalista until he was fifty years old. I don't
know why he did not practise medicine earlier. It seems that
ayahuasca did not affect him. But then he followed six months
of diet. Then suddenly the spirits appeared in his visions and
took possession of him. They were the spirits of vegetalistas
who had gone to the underwater world. In fact, they were the
product of the union of a man and a mermaid (see later 4.1.5.).
It is with the help of these spirits that he now performed shamanic tasks. Don Santiago came to visit Don José when we had
already been there for over two weeks. The woman with the infection had not shown any signs of improvement, and Don Santiago asked Don José's permission to cure her. The next ten days
it was Don Santiago who treated the lady, and twice he prepared
the ayahuasca brew.
Don Celso Rojas
I met Don Celso in May 1983 through Don Pedro Felipe Ayala,
an Argentinian resident of Iquitos for many years and very interested in ayahuasca. Don Celso received me in his home in
the city of Iquitos, where he lives with his second wife and
several of their children. He allowed me to ask him questions
and to tape his answers.
Don Celso was born in a small settlement on the upper Tapiche
river in 1905. When he was thirty he suffered a serious lesion
in his left leg, which developed a suppurating abscess resistant to treatment. After nearly three months of suffering he
was forced to travel to Iquitos in order to find medical assistance. After four months in hospital, the doctor told him that
his leg should be amputated. He refused to permit this and went
back to his home. He had previously heard about the curative
power of ayahuasca, and decided to try it. During the next
three years he did not eat any salt, sugar or pork, nor did he
approach his first wife or any woman. After six months of ingesting ayahuasca once a week, a little bird appeared in his
visions. It looked at his leg, and saw that it was covered by
maggots. The little bird carried them away and ate them, and
when it had finished it disappeared in the ayahuasca pot. From
that moment he noticed a considerable improvement in his leg.
The spirits of the plants started to appear in his visions and
taught him medicine, but prohibited him to practice during a
two-year period. His wife died during that time. He started to
practise medicine actively in 1941. He now lives in Iquitos and
has a second house where two days a week -Tuesdays and Fridayshe drinks ayahuasca and cures sick people. This is his main
source of income. He is a man of strong constitution and great
vigour. I visited him five times and gathered from him very
interesting information. I never participated in any of his
curing sessions, though.
Don Alejandro Vásquez Zarate
I also met Don Alejandro also through Pedro Felipe Ayala, in
May 1983. He was born in 1920 near Santa Clotilde by the Yavarí river, a tributary of the Amazon. When he was ten years old
his family moved to Puca Barranca on the Napo river, where he
was introduced to ayahuasca at the age of seventeen by an Indian -he did not know the tribe-. He followed a diet for two
years, and learned medicine from the spirits of the plants.
After working for years as a collector of various jungle products, he moved to Iquitos in 1973, wishing to give his children the opportunity of a better education. Today he drinks
ayahuasca only occasionally when sick people are brought to
him. He works in a hardware store and has never supported himself by the practice of medicine, in spite of considering himself a good doctor.
Don Sergio Freitas
I met don Sergio, aged 42, through a taxi driver, who gave me
his address. He invited me to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony. He is the youngest of all the vegetalistas I have met.
Don Sergio represents another type of practitioner, a transitional case between a rural and an urban practitioner. I visited him only twice, but was able to interview him for several
hours. He says he belongs to the Rosacrucian Temple. His ideas
differed much from those of Don José, Don Emilio and Don Santiago, and were more in accord with those of other practitio40
ners I met in Iquitos. I decided to leave this other type of
practitioners for a future work.
In the summer of 1985, and through phytochemist Dennis McKenna, I met other practitioners in Pucallpa. I gathered considerable material, but I have not yet had the time to analyse it
thoroughly. The general ideas are very similar, but they also
represent a variety of practitioners more linked with urban
life, which is reflected in the forms their helping spirits
take and their shamanic journeys. Among the people I met in
Pucallpa was the painter Pablo Amaringo, who opened to me new
roads of future research. He practised as a vegetalista for
five years, but then stopped for fear of the spirits. "Los espíritus se me pegan muy fácilmente" (the spirits get attached
to me too easily), he says. He has an remarkable photographic
memory and is able to paint not only very beautiful jungle
landscapes in which every plant and animal can be identified,
but is also able to recall his visions during the time he took
ayahuasca and practised medicine. I have illustrated this book
with a few of his paintings. I am now planning a book in which
several of his paintings of ayahuasca visions will be analysed
in detail, and which will show the extraordinary complexity and
heterogeneity which is found in the spiritual world of some
modern practitioners.
I do not claim that the informants I have been working with
are unique or special. There are probably dozens of practitioners like Don Emilio and Don José. I find it very dangerous to
elevate one practitioner to a pedestal and pretend that he represents something more legitimate that the others. I made the
choice to remain a longer time with Don Emilio because of his
humility, the affection he showed for me and the clarity of his
thoughts. Visiting him year after year has been most rewarding.
I had the opportunity to go through my notes and interviews,
and reformulate my questions in order to illuminate aspects of
his practice that I had not understood previously. Shorter visits to many other practitioners have shown to me that there is
enough common ground to make certain generalizations. However,
mestizo shamanism is the product of the syncretism of the shamanism found among several Indian tribes and European religious
traditions. Each practitioner is in a way unique, in that he
has integrated those elements that he found valid in his practice. There are notable differences between practitioners living in the rural areas, those that have moved recently to the
cities, and younger practitioners who have developed their
skills with a greater impact of urban life.
All my informants have had an intimate contact with the
jungle. They all claim to have been very good mitayeros (hunters), they know the flora and fauna of the Amazonian environment and are very much influenced by this setting. When they
were young the Amazonian environment was more intact than it is
today. Many of the plants and animals they were familiar with
have now disappeared from the vicinity of the cities. The process of deforestation cannot be stopped. But they still have
their chacras, and remain to a certain extent linked with the
forest. But they all also have a prolonged exposure to city
life with all that it involves.
Don Emilio crushing the stems of Banisteriopsis caapi
Don José Coral blowing tobacco on the ayahuasca pot
3.1. Shamanic initiation
In this and in the next two chapters I am going to deal with
shamanic initiation. In this chapter I will consider the conditions that must be fulfilled in order to become a vegetalista,
the diet and sexual segregation. I am also going to discuss the
concept of plant-teachers, and to present general information
about ayahuasca and about some of the plants that are considered plant-teachers. In chapter 4 I will deal with the spirit
world of the vegetalistas, and in chapter 5 with the transmission of shamanic power in the form of magic chants or melodies,
and magic phlegm.
Although culturally vegetalistas have a very strong influence
of Amazonian cosmology, and the prescriptions they follow in
order to become vegetalistas conform closely to those found
among some Indian tribes of the upper Amazon, they do not identify themselves nor their ancestors with any specific tribal
group. There is no concrete community or social group backing
and supporting their initiation, nor is there any public ritual
in which they are officially recognized as vegetalistas. Their
initiation is a matter of personal choice or individual vocation. It seems that there is a gradual recognition on the part
of the community -and on the part of the vegetalista himselfthat he is endowed with shamanic powers.
In the end of the preceding chapter I mentioned some of the
circumstances in which some of my informants took ayahuasca for
the first time. Both Don José Coral and Don Celso Rojas did it
in order to find a cure for an illness they had. In the case of
Don José, it was a magical illness, a magic dart shot by an
evil practitioner. Don Celso did it to cure himself of a bad
infection in his leg, which the doctors wanted to amputate.
These examples correspond to a certain pattern apparently common in the Amazon, of how one becomes a vegetalista. One gets a
terrible illness. The Western doctors are not able to cure it.
The person either goes to an experienced vegetalista, or takes
ayahuasca by himself and gets cured. In the process of being
cured the person acquires certain powers and becomes a healer.
I have heard stories nearly identical with those of Don José
and Don Celso from the mouths of several vegetalistas. A similar story is presented by Regan (1983:2:20): A man had an in43
fection in his ear. In the hospital they gave him injections
and tablets without any effect. The doctor said that he had to
remove his ear. He went to a vegetalista, who gave him ayahuasca, catahua and lupuna colorada (all plant-teachers). He followed a diet for a certain time. In his visions he saw the person responsible for his illness. He was cured, and at the same
time learnt how to heal others.
3.1.1. Don Emilio's account.
The following is an abbreviated account of how Don Emilio began
to take ayahuasca, and how he gradually began to practise. This
information was gathered during several interviews. Don Emilio
is an eager narrator and story-teller. Instead of interrupting
him all the time in order to get precise information on the
questions I had prepared, I let him talk. This was often rewarding. Many interesting details about his socio-economic circumstances emerged in his free narration, which in turn have
helped me to understand the particulars I was primarily interested in.
"I had a neighbour whose name was Juan Hidalgo Nina.
He was a corporal of the security guard. He suffered
badly from asthma. Not even in Lima could the doctors
cure him. He only got "calmantes" (analgesics), and
was getting worse all the time. But then his sister,
Eloisa Rios, told him to ask for two or three months
of leave in order to visit a vegetalista called José
Benavides Sánchez, who lived somewhere down the river. In fact he got leave, bought all that he would
need -rice, soup, kerosene, salt, tobacco and other
things-, hired a canoe, and left. I went with him on
his second visit to that man. I was fourteen and
worked building palma houses and gathering wood for
construction work. I earned 15 soles a month.
One afternoon, at about half past four, I saw several people arriving from the bank of the Amazon
river. I asked Esteban, a nephew of the patient:
"What are those people going to do?" "Hush!. They
are going to take ayahuasca", he said. "Don't they
get tired sitting there for hours with so many mosquitos buzzing around them?", I asked. "They are used
to it. Besides, they don't feel any discomfort,
because it is as if they were watching a film", he
said. "And what about this ayahuasca", I asked. "It
is a little bitter, like beer", he said.
Two or three times they gathered to take ayahuasca. I watched everything without uttering a word.
Among these people there was an old woman called Veneranda Vásquez. She knew very much, not only about
ayahuasca but about other plants as well. She had
followed the diet prescribed. One night she asked
me: "Emilio, when you were living in Iquitos, didn't
you ever go to the cinema?" "Yes, I did", I answered.
is just the same thing. Besides, you will cure
body. And if you want to see your father or moor girlfriend, you can see them in mareación (in
I approached the circle formed by the people. In
the center was the ayahuasca pot. The maestros asked
me whether I was going to take the purga. "Yes", I
said. "The woman here has invited me." "Very good.
Take your chance. You won't have to pay anything. If
you take this brew and follow a diet, you will
cleanse your tubería (intestines), and you will learn
many a thing.", they said. I received a little bowl
with the brew and gulped it down. I waited about ten
minutes. Then Don Juan Nina asked me: "Are you mareado" "No, I don't see anything", I said. I drank
another bowl of the concoction, and ten minutes later
yet another. I did not see anything. Meanwhile the
others were singing or throwing up. One of those present, Don Salvador, an old man, said: "Do you want
to know why this young man does not see anything?".
"Why?", asked Dona Veneranda Vásquez. "It is because
his stomach is very dirty: it is full of the essence
of all sorts of species, like garlic, and pepper, and
also of pork and other things. Only by following the
diet will he be able to see something."
The first three times I took ayahuasca I did not
see anything, but I continued being on a diet. The
fourth time I saw something. That made me believe
that it was indeed true what they said. The fifth
time I took the brew I really had a vision. I saw
luxurious cars, huge boats, helicopters, airplanes,
trains and people of all kinds. I liked it. But in
the beginning I felt that my face was turned backwards. I felt that all my body had changed. I wanted
to scream. But the maestro told me to remain silent:
"It is worse if you scream", he said. Then he took
his cachimbo (a large pipe), told me to lie down, and
blew smoke over me. He then sucked the pit of my stomach three times, and again blew smoke over me. Then
I calmed down. I saw an old woman coming to sing near
me. At times she waved a handkerchief.
She told
me: "You have to listen carefully, my son. This is an
icaro. You can heal with it. You have to follow a
diet: You must not eat pork, sweets, salt, pepper.
And you must not sleep with a woman. Ayahuasca likes
you. You are going to learn from it."
Don Emilio told me that he stayed in that place for four
months, following the diet. It was during this time that he
learned his icaros or magic melodies. In other interviews Don
Emilio affirms that he followed the diet for three years. He
told me that in the beginning he very seldom treated patients.
Only after he settled down in Quistococha, and because people
insisted that he was an effective healer, did he decide to dedicate two days a week to his patients.
I have been reconstructing Don Emilio's autobiography, and
there is no room, really, for three consecutive years in total
isolation, which he considers the ideal length of time to
become a good vegetalista. I think that a factor that has to be
taken into account is that my informants are not always presenting me with their own experiences. I have a distinct feeling
that some of the episodes they told me happened to them, do
not, in fact, correspond to personal experiences. They rather
correspond to ideal models that are implicit in the cosmology
of that cultural area, a body of knowledge that is tacitly accepted as plausible, and which is repeated again and again.
This is also reflected in their stories. In a collection of
tales about the Quichua-speaking communities of the Napo river,
edited by Mercier (1979), I found several of the stories Don
José Coral had told me had happened to him or to somebody he
knew personally. Vegetalistas are often great story tellers. I
later understood that references to neighbours or to "a woman
or a man I met in such and such a place" are simply narrative
devices probably used in the entire cultural area 9 .
3.1.2. Don Josefs account
When I questioned Don José about how he became a vegetalista,
he told me that he did not get his knowledge from a vegetalista, but from spirits. For several months he prepared and took
ayahuasca alone. Then spirits, which he calls muerrayas, came
into his visions to teach him 1 0 . He said that one of these spirits was a yakumama (mother of the water) (cf.4.1.3.), a huge
boa living in a cocha (ox-bow lake) called Achual, which was
able to adopt human form. Two more spirits, he says, belong to
the underwater world. Their names are José Manuel Murayari and
José Arirúa, and they are the offspring of a human being and a
mermaid (cf. 4.1.5.). Three others, Antonio Keroseres, and José
Ichipuruna, and Manuel Arirama he characterized as "just spirits". The latter, he told me, was an old man who lived in the
Upper Maranón.
He discovered that he could cure when a very sick woman asked
him to heal her. He tried. Only twice did he suck the place
where the illness was, and the virote (magical dart) came out.
After that he began to practise medicine.
After listening to so many stories, I have come to realize that
among the devices used to make a story credible there are indications about the location -such and such a river-, at a certain hour, a certain type of dialogues. A study of the structure of oral narrative in this area would probably yield interesting results.
The term muerraya is found among certain Indian tribes (cf.Steward & Métraux 1948:542; Chevalier 1982:354).
During ayahuasca and healing sessions Don José calls through
icaros his various spirits, one after the other. They come and
sit on the top of his head, and take possession of him
Learning from a n a n t s p i r i t
During my visits to the Peruvian Amazon I have talked about
ayahuasca not only with vegetalistas but with many other people
who have had direct experience of the brew. I could not resist
the temptation of summarizing here an account of a sort of shamanic initiation of a person whose name I am not allowed to
disclose. He is a well-educated man of about 35 born in the
highlands. I find his story not only fascinating, but also illuminating because it is a good contribution towards understanding what is experienced by neophites when they follow the
rules associated with shamanic initiation in this cultural
area. His story:
When what I am going to tell you happened, I had already taken ayahuasca many times. I did it with an
old man in the area of the Yavarí River and then in
Pucallpa and other places by the Ucayali and the Putumayo rivers. I was 22 years old. I was like you. I
was always asking here and there where there were
people who knew about plants. Usually the best vegetalistas are those who live far from the cities,
because they like the solitude.
I used to go fishing and hunting along the Nanay
River and its tributaries. In a little town called
San Antonio, where the last of the Iquitos Aucas
still live, I met an old woman who was said to know
very much about plants. She had married a man, who
soon after had become the best hunter among the Iquitos Aucas, because this woman taught him how to take
herbal baths before hunting, so that his body might
acquire the smell of the jungle, and the animals
would not run away.
I arrived in that town during the carnival. Just
after the carnival, the old woman died. The people
there followed the traditions. They danced around an
aguaje palm, and then put fire to it, and cut it
down. There I learnt a legend. They said that in the
beginning the earth was a desert. There was only
one little oasis with a palm tree of aguaje ll . One of
Mauritia flexuosa L.f., an arborescent palm which grows in
swampy areas of the forest. The flesh around the seeds is
edible, and highly appreciated by Amazonian people (cf.Vickers
& Plowman 1984:25).
the warriors of the tribe had a dream in which he saw
how ayahuasca should be prepared. He took ayahuasca,
and in his visions he understood that he should cut
down the aguaje palm. He painted his body, and danced
around the palm tree. As the palm was falling down,
it became bigger and bigger. The main trunk became
the Amazon, and the branches its tributaries.
The people around the body of the old woman were
telling stories. From time to time they mourned her
with icaros. Somebody told me that in that area there
lived an old man who was a great banco (a very good
vegetalista). I listened to the stories. Then I decided together with other people to take a boat to
the River Chambira, which is located in a highland
forest, which is the reason why the level of the river fluctuates very easily. It is enough if it rains
heavily for one day, then the river grows forming
lakes here and there. We left the boat in the main
river, and took small canoes to fish, each person for
himself. When the night comes, one usually sleeps in
a canoe. It is safer because of the animals that are
out there. I did not tie up the canoe well enough,
and when I woke up early in the morning, I realized
that the canoe had been taken by the river. I was
concerned, of course, but I knew that I was not far
from the main river, and besides, I had my fishing
rod, and I could manage. I tried to find my way out.
But hours passed, and I could not find my way back, I
was lost in the labyrinth of small lakes.
Suddenly, in one of the lakes, I saw a man fishing.
I came closer, and asked him where the main river
was. He indicated the way to me. When I was paddling
away, the man called me by my name. I became very
frightened. Many thoughts crossed my mind. I wanted
to flee, but I calmed down and returned to the man. I
asked him: "Do we know each other?" "Yes, I know
you." And then the old man told me many things about
my life, and that he knew that I was interested in
ayahuasca. He invited me to come back to the same
place to meet him some days later. I accepted.
I returned to San Antonio and told the people there
about my encounter with the old man in the river.
They said that this man was the person they had told
me about, that he was a great vegetalista. He was
called by the people
El Profeta Daniel. They said
that he had great knowledge.
I sold all the fish I had, bought a lot of food,
and went with all that to the appointment. Don Daniel
said that we did not need any of those things I had
bought. We paddled for one whole day. After that we
hid the canoes and walked three days in the jungle
until we arrived at a very beautiful place, one of
those called supay chacra, which is a very powerful
place (cf.note in 4.1.1.). We made a thatched shelter, and we stayed there for days. I was a little
impatient. I asked him: "When are we going to drink
ayahuasca?" "The moment will come", he said. A month
passed. During that time he taught me many things
about the jungle and about his ideas about life and
death. During all that time I had many dreams, and I
used to tell them to Don Daniel.
About three months later he said that it was time
to take ayahuasca. We collected the vine and the
leaves of chacruna. He boiled the two plants for 24
hours, until the extract from the plants became a
paste. He then asked me: "What animal has impressed
you most during all this time we have been here?"
"The isula", I said (isula is a large ant). We took
ayahuasca. He began to dance and to perform magnificent jumps, which were completely disproportional for
his age. I began to feel the effects of ayahuasca. I
felt a pain in my back, like something cold advancing
through my spinal cord until it arrived at my head.
Then I felt something like an explosion, and saw myriads of colours. Then I felt an itching descending
down to my feet. Suddenly I saw myself sitting in
front of me. I became afraid, but then Don Daniel
shook his schacapa (the rattle) on top of my head,
and I felt that I was travelling very fast in the
dark, until I arrived at a place which was illuminated. I looked around. Then I saw a circle of snakes
around me. I took up a posture of defense as Don Daniel had taught me. Then I saw an isula behind the
circle of snakes. I then realized that the isula was
not bigger than the snakes, and that they were in
reality earthworms, and that I had become small. From
the ant came a sort of energy that calmed me down,
and I also saw that something was irradiating out of
me. We communicated in some sort of visual threedimentional language. The ant invited me to ride and
to visit its home.
When the ant was ascending to the tree where it
lived, a sticky substance came out of it, which
helped it to climb. I later learned that to this
substance dust and pollen are adhered, and with time
it becomes an ayahuasca vine, if the ant is an ant of
knowledge. If it is a common ant, it becomes a támishi vine, which is very resistant, and widely used in
the jungle in the construction of houses.
The ant told me many stories in this three-dimensional language. It told me that thousands of years
ago the ants were intelligent beings. Then there were
big catastrophes, colliding asteroids that destroyed
their cities. The ants became smaller and smaller and
lost all their intellectual qualities and their imagination and became like robots.
For three months I lived between two realities.
Sometimes I was with the ant, and sometimes with Don
Daniel. But it became quite normal for me to shift
between these two worlds. For me they were equally
real. To be with the ant was like being with a
One day the ant told me: "Let us fly". I said: "But
neither you nor I have wings". It said: "Not only
with wings can you fly". I climbed on its back and
the ant jumped from the tree, and we glided down and
landed softly on the ground. The ant gave me a last
look, and its abdomen opened, and from there a tiny
chacruna plant emerged.
Don Daniel told me that it was time for me to go
back to my world. He said that we would meet one day
in the future. So I came out from the jungle after
six months.
There are several interesting elements in this story. First,
the idea of an animal-teacher, which we also have in Don Jose's
account of his initiation. During my first field work I met a
young man who had been dieting, and asked who his teacher was.
"A hawk", he said. Unfortunately at that time I was not aware
of the importance of his answer, and I did not question him
at length. We will see later (cf 4. 1. 9. ) that certain animals
may become helping spirits of the vegetalistas. Another interesting element in A. A. story is the idea that the ants were
once intelligent. This is in agreement with indigenous Amazonian ideas, according to which in primordial times animals
"were people". A third interesting element is the long preparation before ingesting ayahuasca. The idea is that the body has
to acquire olor a monte (the smell of the jungle), so that a
human being is able to approach animals without danger, and
in this way learn from nature (one must bear in mind that the
spirit world of Amazonian people is intimately tied up with the
flora and fauna of the environment in which they are living).
It belongs to the story that A. A. had a motorcycle accident
some years later in which he fractured his leg badly. The
doctors told him that he had to be in plaster for at least six
months. When a month had passed, the old man came to his home,
took the plaster away, and cured him with medicinal plants.
A. A. has never practiced medicine. He is now married and lives
in the vicinity of Iquitos.
3.1.4. Commentaries on the shamanic initiation
As I mentioned earlier, I have heard several cases of persons
who have become vegetalistas during the process of being cured
of an illness. As far as I have understood, these illnesses
have always been of physiological character. Even in the case
of magical illness -for instance the intrusion of a magical
dart-, the physiological consequences of the illness were
stressed: great pain, swollen limbs, etc., not psychological
disturbances. With this limitation in mind, Eliade's observa50
tion (1964:31) that shamans "if they have cured themselves and
are able to cure others, it is, among other things, because
they know the mechanism, or rather, the theory of illness"
could be applied to these cases.
A second observation is that learning from the plants does not
imply that the person will become a healer. It seems to me that
what has moved some vegetalistas to follow the prescriptions
associated with the ingestions of plant-teachers was more a
philosophical quest -the desire to learn, to understand- than a
humanitarian vocation. Learning how to heal is part of the
knowledge acquired during initiation, not the primary goal.
The vegetalistas learn directly from spirits. The function of
the senior shaman, when present, is to protect the novice during his apprenticeship from evil spirits and sorcerers, and to
instruct him about the diet and prescriptions to be observed.
However, the spirits of the plants are those who teach him the
magic melodies and the use of medicinal plants. These ideas are
in accordance with those of certain Amazonian tribes such as
Apinaye, Conibo,
Yaruro, etc., as has been observed by Métraux
3.2. The diet and Sexual Segregation
Food restrictions or fasting and sexual segregation are common elements in shamanic initiation, both in the Old and in the
New Worlds. Fasting is found among the Tungus, the Buryat and
other Siberian people (Eliade 1964:43), among the Caribou (Rasmussen 1930) and Netsilik Eskimos (Balikci 1970:225), the
Kwakiutl of Northern Vancouver Island (Trueblood et al.
1977:62), the Ojibwa (Trueblood et al. 1977:108), the Carib
(Eliade 1964:129), etc. Food restrictions and sexual segregation are also found among many Amazonian tribes such as the Cubeo (Goldman 1963:264), the Campa (Chevalier 1982:346), the
Yanomamo (Donner 1984:200), the Panobo (Tessman 1930:116), the
Lamisto (Tessman 1930:229), the Shipibo (Karsten 1964:202),
All my informants stress the necessity of following a strict
diet, sexual segregation and sexual abstinence during the period of apprenticeship, because only by following these pres12
"Among the Apinaye shamans are appointed by the soul of a relative, which puts them in relation with the spirits; but it is
the latter that impart shamanic knowledge and techniques to
them. " (Eliade 1964: 83). "The apprentice shaman of the Conibo
of the Ucayali receives his medical knowledge from a spirit. To
enter into relations with the spirit the shaman drinks a decoction of tobacco and smokes as much as possible in a hermetically closed hut." (Métraux 1944:204) (Quoted by Eliade 1964:83).
"In the Apapocuva Guaraní tribe, the prerequisite for becoming
a shaman is learning magical songs, which are taught by a dead
relative in dreams." (Métraux 1944:205).
criptions will the spirits of the plants reveal themselves to
the neophyte, either in visions or in dreams, and he will then
be able to "learn" from the plants.
In some cases the spirits themselves appear to the neophyte
and prescribe the duration and character of the diet. A minimum
duration of six months is generally recognized as necessary,
but it may be prolonged to several years. My informants have
told me that they have known vegetalistas who have followed the
diet for twelve years (the Spanish term "dietar" refers not
only to the diet, but to all the conditions prescribed for
"learning from the plants"). The diet can be broken after a
certain period of time -for instance after six months- and
re-assumed later. In fact, learning from the plants, once a person has been initiated, is an open process which can be reinitiated at will. From time to time vegetalistas renew their
energies and expand their knowledge by following the diet during shorter periods.
During the diet, Don Emilio explains, different plants present themselves to the initiate, "a querer ensenar", (willing
to teach). The length of the diet determines the knowledge and
power of a shaman. During this time the novitiate gets to know
different plants which will be symbolically incorporated in his
body, giving him such properties as strength to resist heavy
rain, wind and floods.
The ideal diet consists of cooked plantains, smoked fish and
sometimes carne de monte (the meat of certain jungle animals).
Rice and manioc seem to be accepted by some ayahuasqueros. No
salt, sugar or any other condiments, fats, alcohol, pork,
chicken, fruit, vegetables or cold beverages may be ingested
(cf. Dobkin de Rios 1973:70; Chevalier 1982:346; Luna 1984b:145
etc.). The most important food prohibition, repeatedly stressed
by all the shamans I have met, is the avoidance of pork. Sexual abstinence, isolation -in the case of men, total separation from fertile women-, and certain requirements of ritualistic character are also necessary. The food must be prepared
either by a premenstrual girl or a postmenopausal woman. All
other contact with women should be avoided.
I have not found clear reasons for the prohibition of certain
animals as food. No doubt it must have its origin in native
food taboos whose context has been forgotten. According to my
informants the following fish can be eaten: Sábalo (Brycon melanoptherum, B. erythopterum), boquichico (Prochilodus nigricans), bujurqui (Mesonauta insignis; Heros appendiculatus),
anashúa (Crenicichla johanna), tucunaré (Cichla monoculus),
sardina (Triportheus angulatus, T. elongatus), paco (Colossoma
bidens), gamitana (Piaractus brachypomus), corvina (Plagioscion
auratus, P. squamosissimum), paiche (Arapaima gigas), palometa
(subfamily Myleinae, including Mylossoma sp.), carahuasú (Astronotus ocellatus) and fasaco (Hoplias malabaricus). Certain
birds such as panguana (Crypturellus untulatus), pucacunga (Penelope jacquacu), perdiz and pava may be eaten, and certain
reptiles such as lagarto blanco (Caiman sclerops) and several
species of boa (Boidae Fam.). On the other hand, the following
animals must not be eaten during the diet: mammals, such as sajino (Tayassu tajacu), huangana (Tayassu pecari), sachavaca
(Tapirus terrestris), motelo (Testudo tabulata), huapo negro
(Pitheca monachus), huapo colorado (Cacajao calvus rubicundus),
coto (Alouata seniculus), choro (Lagothrix lagothricha), maquisapa (Ateles paniscus chameck, Ateles paniscus belzebuth), mono
negro and mono bianco; certain birds such as guacamayo rojo
(Ara macao), paujil (Mitu mitu) and trompetero (Psophia leucoptera); certain reptiles such as shushupi (Crotalidae Fam.) and
jergón (Bothrops atrox); finally certain species of fish, such
as pana (Serrasalmus sp., including S. natterei, S. rhombeus)
and zúngaro (collective term for large catfishes of the Pimelodidae) family (Kullander, personal communication)13. A complete list would imply such knowledge of the fauna of the region as I have not yet acquired.
I believe that the maintenance of some sort of altered state
of consciousness seems to be part of the learning process. A
minute study of the diet might be relevant.
Don Emilio says: "Sobre esa dieta entra una sabiduría que
se puede curar por intermedio de los icaros, se llama la fuerza
del vegetal que nosotros llamamos al doctor. Otros le dicen al
papatúa" (I:112).
Food restrictions are also followed used during the preparation of important remedies, love potions, and other shamanic
tasks, and before and after the ingestion of ayahuasca and
other plant-teachers 1 4 . The patients, when using certain
plants, also have to follow a diet. The idea is that certain
food, such as pig, farm chicken, certain species of fish, cold
beverages, etc. espantan a los vegetales (make the plants
escape). The action of plants is thought to last a certain period of time. If the diet is followed, the action of the plants
persists. If the diet is broken, the action of the plants is
dimished until there is no effect at all.
All these food restrictions must be seen in connection with
similar practices among Indian tribes. For example among the
Shipibo of the Ucayali young girls have to go through initia-
I am indebted to Dr. Sven Kullander, of the Naturhistoriska
Riksmuseet, Stockholm, for the identification of the various
species of fish, based on their common names. Dr. Kullander has
been doing field work in the same area in which I have conducted my research.
Similar practices have been widely reported among Indian
tribes. For example among the Jivaro, fasting and sexual
abstinence is part of the preparation of arrow-poison (Karsten
tion ceremonies that also imply food restrictions (Karsten
1964: 186) 1 5 . According to Stephen Hugh-Jones (1979: 90) among
the Barasana, a Tukano group of the Vaupés, coca, tobacco, tobacco snuff, yagé (ayahuasca) and beer are treated as
"anti-food", i. e. substances which must not be consumed at the
same time as ordinary food. The same author adds: "All of these
substances, except beer are produced and consumed only by men
(and old women) and all except beer are associated with nighttime, the sacred time where men do not consume normal food. " 1 6 .
Some of the plant-teachers are extremely "jealous". If the
diet is broken, they may punish the offender by causing an illness or even by killing him. This is expressed by saying that
the plants cutipan. The verb cutipar comes from the Quechua
verb kutichiy, which means "to return", "to give back" (cf.
Park et al. 1976: 58). According to Regan (1983: 1: 114) the verb
cutipar among the Lamista is used in several contexts. For
instance when a man marries the sister of his brother-in-law,
it is said that the latter le ha cutipado (has given him back a
sister). Cutipa is also the practice of planting a manioc plant
immediately after another plant has been extracted. Finally,
when the father of a new-born child eats the meat of certain
animals, or kills them, the animals may cutipar the baby, by
causing him an illness, or causing the baby to acquire one of
the animal's characteristics. There are similar ideas among the
vegetalistas. A lupuna tree may cutipar a person by making his
stomach swell up, to become like certain protuberances that
these trees often have on their trunks. It is said that people
that "break the diet" (quiebran la dieta, an expression which
also includes sexual abstinence), are sometime covered by
stains. These ideas, in fact, correspond to the same paradigm
by which, when a vegetalista takes a certain plant and follows
the diet, he acquires certain positive characteristics of these
Several times I have heard from various vegetalistas stories
in which a person breaks the prescribed continence one or two
The young girl, confined to a hut called púshuba, "a house of
has to observe not only silence but also a strict
diet: "She is forbidden to eat meat, especially that of swine,
and big fish like the gamitana and paichi, but she is allowed
to eat small fish of the kind most frequently caught in the
river or in the Lake Yarinacocha. She is also forbidden to eat
Indian pepper, salt, and sweet things, but is allowed to drink
masato (manioc beer)" (Karsten 1964:186).
Similar diets are also observed by practitioners and their
patients of the Coast of Peru (cf. Chiappe et al. 1985:634)
Eduardo, a curandero who uses San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus
pachanoi) recommends the following food restrictions after ingesting the San Pedro beverage: "not to eat any food that contains hot pepper, salt, animal fat, or grease, or anything that
'entangles'; for example, foods that grow on climbing vines,
such as beans, peas, lentils, etc. " (Sharon 1978:44).
days before he should complete the period of diet and segregation, which correspond to a certain plant-teacher. It is said
that women are particularly attracted by men following the
diet. Again, all these stories seem to follow a pattern which
is repeated again and again, as if it were true.
3.3. The use of psychotropic plants in the Americas
Before entering into a discussion on ayahuasca, it is convenient to give a brief survey of the psychotropic plants used
ritually in the Americas.
The number of plants known to be used as inebriants by human
beings is about 150, 90 to 100 species of which are hallucinogens; most of them are found, and many of them still in use, in
the New World (Schultes 1 9 6 7 : 3 6 ; S c h u l t e s & H o f m a n n
This uneven distribution of the use of psychotropic plants in
favour of the New World has been intepreted by La Barra (1970)
as a possible survival in America of an essentially Paleo-Mesolithic Eurasian shamanism connected with fly agaric cults which
survived in Siberia until the present century, and which was
carried out of Northeastern Asia by early big-game hunters
(cf. Furst 1976: 2-3; Wasson 1968).
Whatever the reason may be (and it is probably a very complex
one) it is certainly intriguing that the people of the Americas should show such exploratory sophistication in discovering,
within a vast flora, plants that produce profound changes of
consciousness. Even more intriguing is the fact that these
plants seem to have been always used in a sacred, not in a recreational context, with the purpose of communicating with the
spirit world so as to obtain supernatural powers. As Furst
(1976: 16) has remarked, "the magic plants act to validate and
reify the culture, not to some temporary means of escape from
it. " The attitude towards these plants of the Europeans who
arrived in the New World was, however, very different. For the
Spanish missionaries who arrived since the beginning of the
discovery and colonization of the Americas these plants were
used by the natives as a means of communication with the devil.
No wonder the Spaniards put all their efforts in eradicating
such pagan customs. Reichel-Dolmatoff (1975:5) writes:
"The early missionaries were, of course, well
acquainted with demon worship and animal familiars.
No matter how strange and fantastic the New World and
its inhabitants might have appeared to them, these
men coming from devil-ridden Europe immediately recognized the old pattern of summoning of spirits by
sorcerers, of diabolic possession and strange voices,
of uncouth visions of ghostly beings." 17
For a collection of testimonies on psychotropic plants
mentioned in the Spanish chronicles, see Guerra 1971.
It is not my intention to make a detailed survey of the
plants used in a shamanic context in the Americas, nor to speculate why these plants should fascinate the people in the New
World so much. There is already a vast bibliography on this
subject18. If we focus our attention for a moment on the Orinoco and Amazon basins, we shall find that among many perhaps
even most of the tribes inhabiting these regions preparations
made of one or several psychotropic plants played -and still
play- a central part in their religion, and in their cultural
We may recall the use of various kinds of snuffs: in open
savannah country, snuffs were prepared of Anadenanthera peregrina (L) Speg, A. colubrina (Veil) Brenan (cf. Wassén and
Holmstedt; Wassén 1965, 1967; von Reis 1967; Schultes & Hofmann
1980:140-152); in the rain forest, several species -with various admixture plants- of Virola (V. calophylla, V. calophylloidea, V. theidora, V. elongata, V. cuspidata, V. rufula)
snuffed by Bora, Witoto, Puinave, Kuripako, Guayabero, Cubeo
and many Tukano groups of the Vaupés (Cf.Schultes 1969, 1979;
Schultes & Hofmann 1980: 122- Reichel- Dolmatoff 1975: 21-24;
McKenna & Towers 1985: 36); some groups (Witoto, Tukano, Mirana,
Rossigaro) use the powdered leaves of coca (Erythroxylon coca) (cf. Uscategui 1954: 280-86; Plowman 1984: 90; Hugh-Jones
1979:201-204; etc.) 19 .
Infusions -or other preparations- made of various plants have
also been reported to be used by some Indian groups: Tetrapteris methystica R. E. Schultes, is used by the Makú on the Rio Tikié, in northwesternmost Brazil (Schultes & Hofmann 1980:183);
Brugmansia suaveolens (H. et B. ex Willd) Bercht. et Presl is
used among several tribes of the Amazon, along the Pacific
coastal area of Colombia and Ecuador, and in other areas. Other
plants of this genus (B. aurea, B. sanguinea, B. arborea, B.
versicolor), all cultigens, are used in the Andean region
(Schultes & Hofmann 1980: 264-278). Various species of Brunfelsia (B. grandiflora, B. chiricaspi, etc.) are also widely used
in the westernmost Amazon area of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru as
hallucinogens (Schultes & Hofmann 1980: 279; Plowman 1973). In
the section dedicated to the plant-teachers (cf.3.7.) I will
present other plants which may be proved to contain psychotropic compounds.
I want simply to refer to some of the basic books on the subject, which have vast bibliographies: Schultes & Hofmann 1980;
Furst 1972, 1976; Harner 1973; Efron, Holmstedt & Kline 1979;
Emboden 1979; Ott 1976; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975; Völger & Welck
1982, etc.
A recent study on ritual enemas and snuffs in the Americas (De
Smet 1985), contains a comprenhensive bibliography.
3.4. Ayahuasca: An overview
Perhaps no psychotropic preparation is as complex etnographically, botanically and pharmacologycally as ayahuasca, a brew
made of a malpighiaceous woody liana of the genus Banisteriopsis, usually with the addition of one or more additives. Ayahuasca (from Quichua aya = dead person, spirit; waska = vine),
is used and plays a central role in the religious and cultural
lives of numerous tribes in the Northwest Amazon, the Orinoco
Plains and the Pacific Lowlands of Panama, Colombia and Ecuador. In appendix 1 I have listed 72 ethnic groups belonging to
20 different linguistic families, who use Banisteriopsis based
preparations. Ayahuasca is known under many different common
names, such as yajé or yagé, caapi, natem and Santo Daime (in
recent cults in Brazil). In appendix 2 I have listed alphabetically about 40 different common names. These two lists are
not exhaustive. They are, nevertheless, indicative of the wide
spreadning of the use of psychotropic preparations based on
Banisteriopsis species.
There has been confusion in the identity of the Malpighiaceae
which are used in the preparation of ayahuasca. Three species
of the genus Banisteriopsis, Banisteriopsis caapi, Banisteriopsis quitensis, and Banisteriopsis inebrians has been reported
as being used in the preparation of the brew, usually depending
on the country of collection. Bronwen Gates, in her monography
on the genus Banisteriopsis (1982:112-114) has concluded that
biologically the variation represented by B. caapi, B. inebrians and B. quitensis is best treated as one species, known
by the oldest name, Banisteriopsis caapi (Spruce ex Griseb.)
Morton. According to Davis & Yost (1983:190-191), the Waorani
shamans of Eastern Ecuador prepare a drink of Banisteriopsis
muricata (Cav. ) Cuatrecasas, which they call mii. This is the
first record of the use of this species. Gates (1986) has examined collections of B. muricata in Peru, and has found that
the local name ayahuasca is sometimes cited. The same author
indicates that B. muricata (synonymous with B. argentea) is
closely related to B. caapi and may contain, as this species,
harmala alkaloids.
Among the additives reported to be added to Banisteriopsis
caapi in the preparation of ayahuasca there is another malpighiaceous vine, long identified as Banisteriopsis rusbyana.
Bronwen Gates (1979) has shown that this ayahuasca additive,
used by the Kofán under the name ocó yagé (Naranjo 1983: 184)
and by the Ingano and Kamsá of Sibundoy Valley as chagrupanga
(Bristol 1965:211, 1966:126-130), is correctly known as Diplopterys cabrerana (Cuatrecasas) Gates.
Richard Evans Schultes (1954) reported the use in Amazonian
Brazil of a new species of the malpighiaceous genus Tetrapteris
-Tetrapterys methystica R. E. Schultes- in the preparation,
without admixture, of the drink called caapi, possessing biodynamic effects. According to Anderson (cf. Gates 1986) this
plant is best included within the variation represented by the
widespread variable species Tetrapterys styloptera Adr. Jussieu. Another malpighiaceae, known under the name of Cabi para57
ensis (Ducke 1943), and now Callaeum antifebrile, was used in
Brazil for healing and divinatory purposes under the name
cabi. Bronwen Gates (1986) has done a careful taxonomic comparative study of all these plants which will be very useful for
anthropologists and ethnobotanists working in the field.
Banisteriopsis caapi contains the beta-Carboline alkaloids
harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine (Hochstein & Paradise
1957; Deulofeu 1967). Harmaline has been reported to be hallucinogenic (Naranjo 1967, 1973) at oral doses of 4 mg/kg. Six
new alkaloids were later isolated from B. caapi by Hashimoto &
Kawanishi (1974, 1976), but in such low concentrations (0.0070.0001%) that it is unlikely that these compounds contribute
significantly to the pharmacological activity of ayahuasca
(McKenna et al. 1984:196).
Diplopterys cabrerana, the plant used as an additive in Sibundoy Valley, the Kofán of Ecuador and Colombia, the Huambiza
of Peru, and other areas of the Upper Amazon, contains N,
N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT)(Poisson 1965; Pinkley 1969a:535; Der
Marderosian, Pinkley & Dobbins 1968). The same alkaloid is present in Psychotria viridis Ruiz & Pavón, a Rubiaceae used as an
additive by the Kofán, by the Cashinahua and other tribes of
eastern Peru and Brazil (Der Marderosian et al. 1970; Prance
1970), by members of Colonia 5000 and UDV in Acre, Brazil (Monteiro 1983), and by vegetalistas all over Peru (Del Castillo
1962: 73-74; Ayala 1978; Luna 1984a, 1984b). Another Psychotria,
P. carthaginensis, has been reported to be used as an additive
(cf. Ayala 1978) and has proved to contain even larger quantities of DMT (Rivier & Lindgren 1972: 121). The reason given
everywhere for adding either D. cabrerana or P. viridis to B.
caapi is to enhance and sustain the visions. The vegetalistas I
have been working with insist that without the chacruna (the
local name of P. viridis) ayahuasca does not work. The same has
been reported by Rivier & Lindgren (1972: 103) to be said in the
Purus area, where this plant is used by the Culina and by several groups of the Panoan family. In Colonia 5000 it is said
that the uasca (B. caapi) gives a força (strength) to the beverage, while the chacrona (P. viridis) gives a luz (light).
Chemical analyses of B. caapi and P. viridis and of the brew
made with these plants in the Purus area were carried out by
Rivier & Lindgren (1972), showing the presence of harmine, harmaline, tetrahydroharmine and DMT. Similar work was done by
McKenna, Towers & Abbott (1984) with eight ayahuasca samples
gathered among vegetalistas in Iquitos, Pucallpa and Tarapoto,
showing the same alkaloids, but an order of magnitude greater
than in the previous work. These authors found little variation
in the constitutents of brews made by different ayahuasqueros.
DMT has been shown to be orally inactive in doses exceeding
1,000 mg, presumably due to its deamination by monoamine oxidase (MA0)(cf. McKenna & Towers 1984:351). The chemical analyses carried out on ayahuasca show that the amounts of betaCarbolines present in a normal dosage of ayahuasca are well
below the levels required for hallucinogenic activity. On the
other hand it has been confirmed that ayahuasca is an extremely
effective inhibitor of MAO in vitro, and the degree of inhibi58
tion was directly correlated with the concentration of betaCarbolines. These experiments give support to the mechanism
that has been proposed to underlie the activity of ayahuasca:
The beta-Carbolines would protect the DMT from deamination by
MAO and render it orally active (McKenna, Towers & Abbot 1984:
195). The fact, however, that there are several reports of the
use of Banisteriopsis caapi without any admixtures complicates
the picture considerably20
The pharmacological interest in ayahuasca is not limited to
its action on the Central Nervous System. In the next section
we will see that among several Indian tribes ayahuasca is considered a medicine per se. Harmine, the alkaloid which is found
in larger concentrations in Banisteriopsis caapi, in the twenties attracted the attention of several German medical doctors.
In a historical survey of the ethnopharmacology of intoxicating
compounds, Bo Holmstedt (1979:3-32) made an account of Beringer's experiments, which showed that the action of harmine was
not limited to the extrapyramidal system, and also of the use
of harmine by Beringer, Lewin and Schuster (1929) and Halpern
in the treatment of patients suffering from postencephalitic
Rodríguez and Cavin (1982) observed that tropical plants used
by South American natives produce an array of isoquinoline and
tryptamine-related alkaloids that are not only hallucinogens,
but powerful emetics with a wide range of other biological activities, including antimicrobial and anthelmintic properties.
They propose the hypothesis that psychoactive indole and isoquinoline alkaloids are effective antagonists of the neurotransmitters of the neuromuscular system of helminths, inhibit
protozoan parasites and were selected by indigenous plant doctors for their medicinal value. In fact, antihelmintic action
on parasitic ascarid worms by harmine and harmaline has been
observed, and various harman derivatives are also active
against Protozoa (trypanosomes, amoebae)(Pletscher et al. 1960)
This is in accord with the emetic and purgative properties of
ayahuasca, which is also used for cleansing the organism of all
sorts of "impurities". I have also heard vegetalistas insistently say that ayahuasca is effective against paludismo (malaria).
Spruce (1908:415) wrote, for example, that as far as he
could make out Banisteria (previous name of Banisteriopsis)
without admixture was used among the Guahibos, Zaparos, and
other tribes, of the Uaupés. The same author reports that the
Guahibos, on the savannas of Maypures, not only drink the infusion but chew the dried stem, and it is used in the same way by
all native dwellers on the rivers Meta, Vichada, Guaviare,
Sisapo, and the intervening smaller rivers (Spruce 1908:423).
Richard Evans Schultes (personal communication) was told by Indians living in the vicinity of Araracuara, in Colombia that
they smoked the leaves of a plant that he identified as Banisteriopsis caapi.
Ayahuasca has attracted the attention of ethnologists, ethnobotanists, anthropologists, pharmacologists, neorophysiologists, psychologists, artists and travellers21. But it still
presents many unresolved problems, both from the point of view
of the social sciences as from that of natural sciences. In
spite of the fact that the bibliography connected which ayahuasca runs well into 200 references (cf. Luna 1986), there
are, so far, very few monographic studies.
3.5. Tribal uses of ayahuasca
If we now turn to the use of ayahuasca among ethnic groups,
we shall find that its importance is paramount among many
tribes. Ayahuasca is one of the plants used for getting in contact with the spirit world (which among several tribes is equivalent to getting in touch with the primordial world, the world
of the ancestors). Ayahuasca is itself considered a powerful
spirit being, by means of which knowledge and power may be acquired. Knowledge of this and other worlds, of past and future
events. It is believed that ayahuasca helps to explore the natural environment, its geography, flora and fauna. It allows
shamans to diagnose illness, to find its cause-natural or supernatural-, and to find a remedy for it. With the help of ayahuasca they can find game, discover the plans of enemies, find
lost objects, communicate with distant relatives, travel in
time and space. Ayahuasca is among several tribes considered to
be responsible for the artistic skills of the people. It dictates the ornamental designs of their habitation, utensils and
body painting, it helps to visualize and memorize their myths,
chants and dances. Ayahuasca is for many tribes a great teacher
and a spiritual being.
Richard Evans Schultes (1982: 206) summarizes in the following
way the importance of caapi (ayahuasca) among Indian tribes:
"Probably no other New World hallucinogen -even peyote- alters consciousness in ways that have been so
deeply and completely evaluated and interpreted. Caapi truly enters into every aspect of living. It
reaches into prenatal life, influences life after
death, operates during earthly existence, plays roles
There are numerous reports of Westerners who have taken ayahuasca and described its effects (Villavicencio 1858; Spruce
1908:420; Koch-Grünberg 1909:318; Reinburg 1925:25-42; Brüzzi
1962:230-2; Burroughs & Ginsberg 1963; Turner 1963; Bristol
1966:133; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1972:89-93; Dobkin de Rios 1972:
126-128; Rivier & Lindgren 1972:111; McKenna & McKenna 1975:8598; Ayala & Lewin 1978; Deltgen 1978/79: 77-78; Harner 1980:124, etc.). Summarizations of the use of Banisteriopsis based
beverages among various tribes, the botanical distribution of
plants used and the pharmacology of ayahuasca are to be found
in Reinburg 1925:17-32; Maxwell 1937; Ríos 1962; Friedberg
1965; Deulofeu 1967; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1980:25-42; Schultes
1982; Naranjo 1983:47-92; etc.
not only in health and sickness, but in relations
between individuals, villages and tribes, in peace
and war, at home and in travel, in hunting and in
agriculture. In fact, one can name hardly any aspect
of living or dying, wakefulness or sleep, where caapi
hallucinogens do not play a vital, nay, overwhleming,
A detailed survey of the role
tribes would be a large enterprise.
quotations from scholars who have
this matter, before I enter into a
of plant-teachers.
of ayahuasca among Indian
I will simply present some
given special attention to
more general concept, that
Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, who has done extensive research
about hallucinogenic plant use among several ethnic groups of
Colombia writes the following about the function of caapi among
Tukano of Vaupés:
Recognizing that the individual must pass from one
dimension of existence -or cosmic plane- to another
to communicate with the spiritual or invisible world,
the Tukanos take caapi to effect this transport. The
trip represents to them the process of birth and
breaking through the wall that separates the two cosmic planes and signifies, according to anthropological studies, the rupture of the placenta. Drinking
caapi is often interpreted as returning to the "cosmic uterus". Since they insist that they sometimes
come to know death while under the influence of the
drug, the Tukanos consider the return to the cosmic
uterus as an anticipation of death which permits contact with the divinity or visitation with the source
and origin of all things (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975).
According to Jean Langdon (1979b:78),
"?uko (ayahuasca) activates the Siona's power to see
into the other realm in order to understand the real
reality behind events and to influence forces to help
maintain a state of well-being."
Melvin L. Bristol summarizes as follows the reason why the Sibundoy of Colombia take biaxii (ayahuasca):
"Biaxii intoxication is sought for a variety of reasons outside the medical sphere. A Sibundoy separated
from his family while travelling may take it to relieve his loneliness and, as he says, transport himself to their midst. Or he may be anxious to know who
is gossiping about him during his absence. The location of a lost object, he believes, can be revealed
by intoxication. It would appear that anxiety states
can be better defined, or 'para conocer', 'to perceive, to experience, to know through familiarity, to
learn', the native's way of expressing in Spanish the
drug's ability to "expand consciousness", especially
in the visual realm. In this connection, and perhaps
in others ways as well, biaxii helps the Sibundoy "to
learn how to live" (Bristol, 1966:123-124).
Angelika Gebhart-Sayer (1986), in a study on the role of ayahuasca visionary designs of the Shipibo-Conibo in therapy,
writes the following:
Under ayahuasca influence, the shaman perceives, from
the spirit world, incomprehensible, often chaotic,
information in the form of luminous designs. He then
"domesticates" this information by converting it into
various aesthetic notions: geometric patterns, melodies/rythm and fragrance which play a key psychological and spiritual role for both the patient and society. Only through this mediating step the awesome
and incomprehensible become an applicable corpues of
shamanic cognition suitable for the mundane village."
According to Kensinger (1973:13) the Cashinahua
"drink ayahuasca in order to learn about things, persons, and events removed from them by time and/or
space which could affect either the society as a
whole or its individual members."
According to Plutarco Naranjo (1983:108), the Jívaro women take
natem at a special ce lebratón called nua tsankuo in order to
contact Nunkui, the goddess of fecundity, who instructs them
how to sew and harvest, how to domesticate animals -especially
hens and pigs-, how to make objects of clay and how to take
care of children.
Many more examples could be given to show the paramount importance of ayahuasca among Indian tribes. Ayahuasca reveals
"the real world", which is the word of spirits, from where all
knowledge derives. Let us now go back to the vegetalistas, and
their idea of ayahuasca and the relation of ayahuasca with
other plants with similar qualities.
3.6. Learning from the plants
Among the vegetalistas of the Peruvian Amazon there are ideas
similar to those of the various ethnic groups concerning
ayahuasca and other plants. They say that ayahuasca is a doctor. It possesses a strong spirit and it is considered an intelligent beings with which it is possible to establish rapport, and from which it is possible to acquire knowledge and
power if the diet and other prescriptions are carefully followed. Ayahuasca belongs to the class of plants with madres
(mothers), a term also found among the Shipibo (1964:82), the
Lamista (Barbira-Scazocchio 1979), the Campa (Chevalier 1982: 346), the Yagua (Chaumeil 1983:74-90), etc. Chaumeil (1983:33),
for example, writes that Alberto Prohano, a Yagua shaman living
by the Marichin river, told him that the spirits of the plants
are the only teachers ("l'unique chemin de la connaissance").
Among ethnic groups plants possessing special properties,
such as narcotic, poisonous (for killing fish or for the use as
arrow poison), medicinal plants, or very important food, are
particularly endowed with spirits. I tried to find the criteria
among the vegetalistas to determine which plants were considered as doctores.
I found that in the vegetalistas' reports plants they call
doctores or "vegetales que enseñan" (plants that teach) either
1) produce hallucinations if taken alone, 2) in some way modify
the effects of the ayahuasca brew, 3) produce dizziness, 4)
possess strong emetic and/or cathartic properties, or 5) bring
on especially vivid dreams.
Quite often a plant has all these characteristics or some of
them. I was somehow perplexed about how to find the right way
of questioning my informants about the plant teachers. If I
use, for instance, the Spanish verb marear (to make you dizzy),
for example: Don Celso, marea esta planta? (Don Celso, does
this plant -when taking it- make you dizzy?) The answer could
be: "Yes, it is a good medicine", or "Yes, in your dreams the
spirit of the plants presents itself to you", or "Yes, it makes
you throw up everything", or "Yes, it teaches you", or "Yes, it
makes you see beautiful things", or finally "Yes, if you combine it with ayahuasca". Similar answers were given to me when
I put the questions differently, like, Don Emilio, es esta
planta doctor? (Is this a plant teacher?) or Don Alejandro,
tiene madre esta planta? (Does this plant have a "mother"?).
This set of associations is interesting indeed. As we saw
earlier (3.4.), the association of psychoactive plants with
emetics and vermifuges has been pointed out by Rodriguez and
Cavin (1982). The association between dreams and hallucinations
is a common theme in shamanic literature. As far as I understand, all psychoactive plants are considered potential teachers. I once asked Don Emilio if he had ever taken the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis, which is common throughout the region
on cow dung. He answered positively: Bonito se ve. Dietándole
debe enseñar medicina (You see beautiful things. If you follow
the diet it might teach you medicine). Similarly, Don Santiago
wanted to know whether he could use the same mushroom in medicine. He told me that he intended to mix it with ayahuasca in
order to study it.
The informants I worked with do not agree as to whether all
plant teachers produce visions. According to Don Alejandro, all
the plants that have "mothers" marean (make you dizzy). This
implies that there are plants without "mother", with which Don
Celso and Don Emilio do not agree. Don Celso says: "The mother
of the plant is its existence, its life". Don Emilio affirms
that all plants, even the smallest, have their "mother". Some
of the plant teachers produce visions only when associated with
ayahuasca. Others produce only una mareación ciega (a blind
dizzyness), in which you do not see anything22. other plants
teach only in dreams.
During the period of apprenticeship the vegetalista is confronted with the task of memorizing a large body of information
concerning plants, animals, medicinal recipes, magic chants and
melodies, etc. The vegetalistas attribute to ayahuasca and the
plant-teachers not only their ability to recall such information, but insist that the plants themselves teach them about
the flora -which, as it is well known, is particularly rich in
the Amazon- and fauna. Also the magic chants, as we will see in
chapter 5, are learned from the plants. Some of these chants
are in Quechua, Cocama, Omagua or other Indian languages, and
they claim that ayahuasca teaches them the languages23.
The idea that ayahuasca has the effect of increasing the intellectual and artistic skills is quite common among vegetalistas. When I questioned Pablo Amaringo, the painter, about how
he had learnt his art, he referred to ayahuasca. A similar
answer I got from Agustín Rivas, a well known sculptor of Pucallpa, who is also a practising vegetalista. During my visit
to Colonia 5000, near Rio Branco, in the Brazilian state of
Acre, they told me that some of the people there had been
According to Chiappe et al. (1985:72), the curanderos of Iquitos distinguish between plants that produce mareación (dizziness) and visión (hallucinations). It is possible that some
vegetalistas make this distinction. In my experience, however,
mareación includes both, dizziness, like that produced by drinking tobacco, and hallucinations, like those produced by ayahuasca.
In Lamb's account on Don Manuel Cordoba Ríos, Don Manuel tells
how he had been given Nixi honi (ayahuasca) for the first time
by the Indians that had captured him. He said:
"After spending the night in the forest sharing
strange visions with my captors, it became noticebly
easier for me to understand the meaning of their previously unintelligible language. It was still many
months before I learned to speak with any fluency,
but I began to understand most of what was said to me
after our first seance in the forest." (Lamb
On another occasion (p.32), Don Manuel says that the
chant was sung by the old man who prepared the brew:
Nixi honi, vision vine / boding spirit of the forest
origin of our understanding / give up your magic
power / to our potion / illuminate our mind
bring us foresight / show us the designs / of our
enemies / expand our knowledge / expand our understanding / of our forest.
taught to play musical instruments by Santo Daime (ayahuasca).
In Iquitos I met several practitioners who, during ayahuasca
ceremonies, recite long prayers they know by heart. They also
claim that it was due to ayahuasca that they were able to memorize whole books of prayers.
The knowledge the vegetalistas have of medicinal plants is
also attributed to ayahuasca and the plant teachers. This is
also in accord with the beliefs of some ethnic groups. Among
the Campa, for example,
"Healing practices require more than
the absorption or application of a herbal remedy: the individual must also comply with a series of precisely defined prescriptions and proscriptions. Herbal recipes do not suffice in
bringing about improvements in health, and it is only in so far
as they are part of a list of instructions revealed by the
plant-mother that they have effects on the patient's condition.
Medical information is not transmitted soley from parents to
children, or from knowledgeable healers to less informed laymen; it also originates from the mother of the plant, and is
communicated through dreams and hallucinations produced by the
absorption of the appropiate herbal potion. Patterns emerge
within these varying directives and many recipes are commonly
used, but this does not entail any rigid uniformity in the preparation or application of medicinal concoctions (Métraux
1967:83)." (Chevalier 1982:346).
Don Emilio pouring the finished ayahuasca brew
into a bottle
Ayahuasca is a tool for studying the properties of other
plants. If a vegetalista wants, for instance, to see what effects certain plant has, he will add a few leaves of this plant
to the brew during its concoction. By perceiving the changes
caused by the additive to the basic preparation, and especially
by interpreting the information conveyed during the visions,
the properties and application of the plants are studied. This
information is also conveyed during the dreams during the following nights 24 .
In this way, they say, they have recognized the medicinal properties of many plants. Knowledge of the great plant-teachers
and of many medicinal plants comes, of course, from los antiguos (the ancestors). I have been surprised that among the medicinal plants they use there are also plants introduced by the
Europeans. There are, I suppose, only two explanations. Either
knowledge of these plants derives from herbal knowledge that
the Spaniards and Portuguese might have brought with them to
the Amazon and other areas, or the vegetalistas found the medicinal properties of these plants by themselves, either by using
a method like the one I just presented -if it works-, or
through other kinds of experimentation. Nothing can be said, of
course, until a comparative study of herbal knowledge of Old
World plants introduced into America has been carried out on
both sides of the Atlantic, and, especially, until we have some
kind of understanding as to what these people are really
talking about, when they say that the plants themselves reveal
their properties.
A very good example of how
perties of an unknown plant
vided by Bristol (1966) in
bia. Bristol's conclusion is
ethnic groups learn about the prowith the help of ayahuasca is proa paper on the Sibundoy of Colomas follows:
"In this determination through Banisteriopsis intoxication of
the medicinal uses of a previously unknown plant, we see a most
interesting mechanism for the expansion of the Sibundoy materia
medica. Not only are new plant drugs thus introduced, but there
can be little certainty that the use of new drugs will be restricted to situations for which drugs are already available.
Through chance, operating within the supertitious nature of
Sibundoy beliefs, it is entirely possible that a new drug would
become associated with disease symptoms previously untreatable.
This role of narcosis expanding the native pharmacopoeia
neither leads to the conclusion that most of the Sibundoy drugs
were discovered in this way, nor does it suggest that any drugs
so discovered are likely to have a less therapeutic value than
drugs discovered in other ways by primitive peoples. Nevertheless, it would seem that a substantial increase in the number
of medicinal plants available to a culture implies at least a
slight increase in that small number which are therapeutically
effective. The use of Banisteriopsis by Sibundoy medicine-men,
not only as an emetic and purge, but even more generally to
investigate medicine and disease, may be seen as leading ultimately to an improvement of tribal health." (p.135-6).
3.7. The plant-teachers
Don Emilio told me that because ayahuasca is a vine, it needs
strong trees where to climb. That is why other plants such as
chullachaqui-caspi, huairacaspi, ayahuman, are added to ayahuasca, so that one becomes as strong as these trees. A vegetalista who has only taken tobacco and ayahuasca is,
in fact,
only an ayahuasquerito (a poor little ayahuasquero), subject to
many dangers.
I will name some of the plant-teachers. I consider this information highly provisional, as I still have many local names
to collect, and I still have plants which have not been identified. Most of these plant teachers have also medicinal properties. I do not add this information here, as I hope to include
it in a future publication. Many of the plant-teachers contain
important biodynamic compounds (cf. McKenna, Luna & Towers
1986). Some of them have never been studied. Many of the plantteachers are added to ayahuasca. Some are taken by themselves.
I have not yet been able to carry out long periods of field
work, so I have not been able to search systematically for all
the ayahuasca additives, nor to collect more specimens of
plant-teachers. Information about the spirits associated with
each plant specifically is very scarce. There is an enormous
task which I believe has to be carried rather soon, as much of
this knowledge is being lost.
Here a list of some of the plant-teachers which have been botanically identified (cf. Luna 1984b):
1. Abuta (Abuta grandifolia (Mart.) Sandwith. Used as a p l a n t —
teacher and as a medicinal plant for pulmonary illness, for
gastric cancer and for malaria (tercianas) by Don Manuel Pacherras, in Puerto Maldonado.
2. Amaciza (Erythrina poeppigiana (Walp.) O. F. Cook (amaciza)
3. Ayahuman (Couroupita guianensis Aubl. )(Det. T.Plowman,
1983). From Quechua aya = spirit, dead person, and huma = head.
This tree has large round fruits attached directly to the trunk
of the tree, which is the reasons why it is called ayahuman.
Its spirit has no head, because it is left there on the trunk.
The bark is cooked together with the ayahuasca beverage. It is
also used to fortify the b o d y . It r e q u i r e s 30 days of
diet. According to Don Emilio it teaches both medicine and hechiceria (witchcraft). The fruits are given to hens for food
and as a remedy for plague.
3. Bellaco caspi (Himantanthus sucuuba (Spruce) Woods (Soukup
1970: 153). Used in the extraction of the magic dart or virote.
4. Bobinzana (Calliandra angustifolia Spruce
Used in love magic (cf.5.2.).
(Soukup 1970: 56).
5. Capirona Negra (Capirona decorticans Spruce (Williams 1936).
6. Catahua (Hura crepitans L. (catahua) (det. T.Plowman, 1982)
According to Don Emilio it is a very strong doctor and a dangerous one. If the diet is not followed perfectly, it might
kill you. It is a strong purgative (cf.5.2.).
7. Caupuri (Virola surinamensis (Rol) Warb.
guez, 1982).
(det. W.A. Rodri-
8. Chacruna (Psychotria viridis). The most important additive
used by vegetalistas. They recognize several types of chacruna,
according to the location of the dolmatiae, small glands that
are located at the back of the leaves. If the dolmatiae are
along the central spine, then they are good for mixing with
ayahuasca. If they are located near the edges of the leaves,
they are used in witchcraft: the dolmatiae are then used as
virotes or magic darts to cause harm 2 5 . Vegetalistas believe
that an strong ayahuasca is prepared with chacruna having exclusively four dolmatiae or five dolmatiae.
9. Chiricsanango (Brunfelsia grandiflora) D. don ssp. schultesii Plowman (det. T. Plowman, 1983), used as an additive to
ayahuasca among practitioners of Iquitos (Schultes & Hofmann
1980: 279). 30 days of diet are compulsory. A psychotropic plant
used by several Amazonian tribes.
10. Chuchuhuasi (Maytenus ebenifolia) Reiss (det. T.Plowman,
1983). Taken by the Lamisto shaman apprentices of Peru a few
weeks after having ingested ayahuasca (Tessman 1933:289).
11. Chullachaqui-caspi (Tovomita sp.)(det. T. Plowman, 1983)
Four pieces of bark are cooked together with the ayahuasca
brew. 30 days of diet are compulsory. Then the body becomes as
strong as "the wheel of a car".
12. Clavohuasca (Tynanthas panurensis (Bur.) Sandwith)(personal
communication, Herbarium Amazonense, Iquitos).
13. Cumala (Virola sp. Aubl.
14. Ficus insipida Willd. (Doctor ojé) (Encarnacion 1983:59).
It is considered a powerful plant-teachers (cf.5.2.).
15. Hiporuru (Alchornea castaneifolia (Willd. ) Juss (det.
T.Plowman, 1983). The bark may be added to the ayahuasca brew.
16. H u a c a p ú ( V o u a c a p o u a a m e r i c a n a ( A u b l . )
1970:368). The bark of this tree may be added to the ayahuasca
17. Huairacaspi (Cedrelinga catanaeformis Ducke (Soukup
1970:74). It is a big tree about 80-90 meters tall and two meters of diameter.
It is a tree able to withstand violent
One informant told Chiappe (1979:105) that the "little spears"
(the dolmatiae) are there to protect the person against the
bad effects of ayahuasca.
stormss, lightning, and strong winds without snapping. It is a
strong arkana (defense)(cf.4.2.). May be added to the ayahuasca
brew. 30 days of diet are compulsory.
18. Huancavisacha (unidentified). It is used as an ayahuasca
admixture. Two drops of the juice which results from grinding
this vine are added to the ayahuasca preparation. According to
Don José Vasquez Hidalgo, a vegetalista living in Pucallpa, it
produces strong mareación. It is considered a doctor able to
teach about the underworld. Eight months of diet are required.
19. Lupuna (Chrorisia speciosa. Before: Ceiba pentandra L.
(personal communication, Herbarium Amazonense, Iquitos. Before:
Troclilia tucacheana. A very strong doctor. If one does not
follow the diet, it is like catahua: it might kill you. Some
vegetalistas consider this spirit of this tree an evil sorcerer. It is also associated with rain.
20. Mucura (Petiveria alliacea L.) (det. T. Plowman, 1982).
21. Ñuc-ñuc pichana (Scoparia dulcis L.)(det. T.Plowman, 1982)
22. Raya-Balsa (Montrichardia arborecens (det. T.Plowman,
1982). For visiting the underewater world (cf.4.1.07.)
23. Remo caspi (Pithecelobium laetum (Poepp. & Endl.)(According to Williams 1936 as P.laetum Benth.). This is a large tree
from which oars are made (that is the reason for its name: remo
in Spanish means oar). This is, according to Pablo Amaringo,
the way one takes remo caspi:
A piece of the bark is removed, and a hole is made in the trunk
of this tree. A little bowl of tobacco juice is placed in the
hole, and the bark is put back to cover the hole. Some mud is
used as cement in order to keep the hole sealed. Eight days
later, the person who is going to take the beverage will go
alone to the tree very early in the morning. He will open the
hole and take out the bowl with the brew, which by then will
have changed its consistence looking like some kind of corn
pap. When looking into the bowl, he will see all sorts of animals: anacondas, dolphins, monkeys, insects, worms... If he is
afraid of drinking it and does not do so, he will surely die.
The beverage is so strong that he will lose consciousness for
twelve hours. During that time the plant will teach him many
things. Pablo Amaringo told me that his grandfather had taken
remo caspi in this way.
The idea is very interesting, because it implies that the properties of the plant will be transferred to the tobacco juice
left in its interior. This information was given to me at the
end of my last period of field work, and I have not been able
to check this information with other vegetalistas. However,
something was reported by Rafael Karsten among the Shipibo of
the Ucayali,26 but
1964: 202-203)
lupuna tree
24. Renaco (Ficus sp.(renaco). For visiting the underwater
world (cf.4.1.07.).
25. Sacha-Ajos (Mansoa alliacea (Lam) A. Gentry (det.T.Plowman,
983). Used, among other things, for herbal baths for good luck
26. Suelda con Suelda
T. Plow man, 1982)
(Phtirusa pyrifolia HBK Eichler)(det.
27. Tahuarí (Tabebuia heteropoda (DC) Sandwith. It is a tree
strong like iron ("es un palo como fierro"). A diet is required.
28. Tangarana (Triplaris surinamensis var. chamissoana Meisn.)
(det. T.Plowman, 1983). According to Don Alejandro, the shoots
of this tree may be added to ayahuasca when chacruna (Psychotria viridis is not available. The mother of tangarana is the
ant which lives symbiotically with this tree.
29. Toé (Brugmansia suaveolens) (Willd. ) Brechtold & Presl.
Used as an admixture to Banisteriopsis (Schultes 1980:270). Two
or three leaves of toe are required to see the witch who has
caused harm to a patient.
30. Uchu-Sanango (Tabernaemontana sp.)(det. T.Plowman, 1982)
Other plant-based preparations
The concept of "doctor" is also extended to certain preparations commercially available throughout the Amazonian provinces
Rafael Karsten writes:
"A special role in the magical art of the wizard is played
by the lupuna tree mentioned above. The evil demon (joshín)
animating this tree, and particularly active in its poisonous sap, acts as his most important assistant spirit in
working evil. For this purpose, the wizard first prepares
some tobacco medicine by crushing some tobacco leaves and
thoroughly mixing them with saliva. This is put into the
small ornamented clay pot called the ronkon, which, together with the ceremonial tobacco pipe, forms his most important
equipment. Then, during the evening, he makes a deep cavity in
the stem of the lupuna tree, so that the poisonous sap begins
to flow. The clay pot containing tobacci juice is fastened in
the cavity in the stem of the tree, covered with bark, and left
for the night. During the night the demon of the tree will
allow its poison to run down into the clay pot, and when the
wizard arrives in the morning the poisonous medicine is ready
to be used for magical purposes."
of Peru. These are: 1) Alcanfor (camphor), a cristallized organic compound extracted from Cinnamomum camphora, and widely
used in folk medicine all over Latin America. 2) Timolina, a
substance, apparently made of plants, which is used as a
perfume. 3) Creolina, a strong disinfecting substance easily
Steel and flintstone (pedernal) may also teach. A piece of one
of these minerals -or both together- are placed in water,
sealed, and left there for eight days. After this time the water is drunk, and the diet is followed. It is believed that the
spirit of these minerals appear in dreams to teach magic melodies. 40 days of diet.
The flintstone is used by to witches in order to kill. In order
to defend oneself against pedernal one has to take "la purga,
el acero y cinco gotas de caucho" (ayahuasca, steal and five
drops of rubber)
In the next chapter we will deal with the spirit world which
is accesible to vegetalistas by ingesting ayahuasca and some of
the plant-teachers mentioned.
Ayahuasca visions
On the left an electric eel and a jaguar protecting the session
In the center the Yakumama and other spirits of the underwater
world. In the sky a UFO, and near the participants in the session
extraterrestial medical doctors.
4.1. Spirit world
The spiritual worlds of the vegetalistas seem as complex and
heterogeneous as is indeed the society in which they are living, with its various cultural traditions.
The cosmology of the vegetalistas is immersed in the general
animistic Amazonian religious background of the various Indian
tribes that existed, and still exist, in the Amazonian territories. Nature is animated by spiritual powers which assume theriomorphic and anthropomorphic nature when communicating with
human beings.
Most of the population of the Peruvian Amazon live in small
settlements along the rivers in close contact with nature. Even
people living in large cities such as Iquitos and Pucallpa, are
still in communication with rural life. Many people have their
chacra (swidden garden) not far from the city, or have relatives living in rural settlements. Many alternate the rural
with the urban life, or have only recently moved to the city.
Only the thin layer of the upper middle class and upper class,
many of them coming from the coast or the sierra, lead a life
which is almost entirely dissociated from natural surroundings.
The belief in spiritual beings living in the jungle, in the
water, and to a lesser extent, in the air, and which interfere
with the lives of human beings, often in a negative way, is
still firmly established. Amazonian people were -and still aresubject, often in a violent way, to new social and economic
institutions, to new religious ideas, and to new technology.
These changes certainly have made a great impact on the spiritual world of Amazonian people, who, with great plasticity,
have incorporated into their world view a host of spirits of
various appearance, depending on the degree of assimilation of
foreign influence.
Spirits may adopt the form of various animals -often of extraordinary proportions-, Indian or mestizo shamans, black men,
foreign entrepeneurs, rubber bosses, princesses from Western
fairy tales, angels with swords from Christian iconography,
armed officials, famous deceased Western doctors, etc. or even,
as can be seen in some of Pablo Amaringo's paintings (see photo
on opposite page), extraterrestial beings from distant planets
and solar systems.
No doubt, when studying the cosmology of the vegetalistas one
is often confronted by seemingly unconnected elements, the
ruins of buildings that must have had a degree of coherency.
Reading the anthropological literature I have had moments in
which I have envied colleagues working with Indian groups, because there the elements seem to fit -or at least they make
them fit so nicely.
I am here going to present some of the most important spiritual beings which today are of importance in the cosmology of
the area, and which the vegetalistas may contact during their
initiation, and, in their later practice, during their visions
and dreams.
4.1.1. Chullachaki
The most important spirit of the jungle, known to nearly every
one in the Amazon, and still the subject of many stories, which
are often told in a nervous humoristic way, is Chullachaki.
Chullachaki is a male spirit which is also known under several
other names: Yashingo, Sacharuna (from Quechua sacha = jungle,
and runa = person), Curupira, Shapingo, Shapshico or simply
The Chullachaqui and a lonely hunter he has led astray
(painting by Pablo Amaringo)
Supay (devil in Quechua) 27 . Don Emilio described him as an evil
spirit that lives in the jungle, often in places where chullachaki-caspi (Tovomita sp., Guttiferae), a stilt-rooted tree
abounds. According to Calvo (1981:37), he likes to be under
lupuna trees. Valdizán & Maldonado (1922:11-12) writes that
he is said to live in the center of the huge renacales -inundated forest where the predomiant plant is renaco (Ficus sp.)-,
where he sleeps in a hammock made of alligator skin, suspended
to the trees by cords made of snakes. He is said to have a
chacra in which he cultivates only sacha caymito (Deroia hirsuta, tentative identification), a small tree, the fruits of
which are his food (cf. Reátegui 1984:65) 28 .
Rafael Karsten (1964:197) has reported this being among the Napo and Bobonaza Indians of eastern Ecuador, and among the Shipibo of the Ucayali, under the Quechua name Sacharuna. He
writes that it may be an idea common to all forest tribes in
western South America. Otto Zerries, in his comprehensive monography on the spirits of the wild and the spirits of the forest
(Wild-und Buschgeister) among South American Indians, summarizes Koch-Grünberg's (1920:323-4) characterization of the Corupira as follows:
"Demnach ist der Corupira sowohl der Schutzgeist des Wildes als
auch der Wälder, der diejenigen straft, die das Wild vernichten
wollen und solche belohnt, die ihm gehorchen oder deren er sich
erbarmt. Er ist es, der dem Jäger das Wild verbirgt oder es ihm
in den Schuss führt, der die Geheimnisse der Wälder bewahrt,
die Heilkräfte der Pflanzen zeigt und die Erzeugnisse der Waldes spendet. Er erscheint als geheimnisvoller und mächtiger
Geist in verschiedenen Gestalten und Stimmungen, bald fantastisch sonderbar, gebieterisch, bald böse, grob, dreist, oft
zuvorkommend und freundlich, ja sogar gutmütig, mitleidig,
schwach, dumm und leicht zu täuschen. Auch kann er dankbar sein
für das Gute, das man ihm tut, legt aber immer Bedigungen auf,
deren Nichterfüllung verhängnisvoll sein kann. Meist tritt er
als kleiner Mann auf, von drei Fuss Höhe, kahlköpfig, aber am
ganzen übrigen Körper mit langen Haaren bedeckt, mit nur einem
AUge, mit blauen oder grünen Zähnen, grossen Ohren, mit Beinen
ohne Gelenke, die Füsse immer nach rückwärts gebogen und von
aussergewöhnlicher Körperkraft. Er wohnt in der Tiefe des Waldes in hohlen Bäumen. Er ladet die Leute ein, im Walde zu
wohnen, ahmt alle Vierfüssler und Vögel nach und täuscht so den
Jäger, der glaubt, das Wild zu verfolgen, währen er dem Waldgeist nachläuft. (... )" (Zerries 1967:9-10).
This plant produces what seems to be a natural herbicide, so
that nothing grows within a radius of one meter around its
trunk. Where there are several of these small trees near each
other, it looks as if they were purposely being taken care of,
because no vegetation grows between them. Local people call
these places supay chacra (the plantation of the devil), and
they are associated with Chullachaki.
This being has one or both of his feet turned backwards, often resembling that of a goat, a dog, a deer, a tiger or some
other animal (Chullachaki in Quechua means "uneven foot") (cf.
Valdizán & Maldonado 1922:12; Kuckynski Godard 1947: xxii;
Wagley 1976:225; Huamán Ramirez 1985:349). He may adopt human
form (often that of a close relative of the person he encounters), or that of certain animals in order to lead astray a
lonely hunter (cf. Kuczynski Godard 1947: xxii; Calvo 1981: 47;
Regan 1983: 1: 90; Huamán Ramírez 1985:345- 362). When people
walk alone in the jungle, they sometimes hear the Chullachaki
thudding against the trunks of the trees with his strange foot.
Sometimes he makes sounds that resemble shots, indicating that
you have entered his territory 29 . He has also control over metereological phenomena. If the person insults the Chullachaki
aloud a storm will gather within few hours, endangering the
life of the imprudent person. Sometimes the person will become
very ill: he will begin to tremble, to vomit, to foam at the
mouth, and he will have convulsions. An encounter with this
being may also cause madness (cf. Valdizán & Maldonado 1922:
11-12; Kuczynski 1947: XXII). According to Don Emilio, singing
the icaro del flautero pishcu, a magic melody inspired by a
bird that makes a long and beautiful nest in which it enters
when there are heavy rains, is the best way of protecting
oneself against this being.
By following the appropiate diet,
the friend of Chullachaki, which can
will punish those who hunt too many
testimonies about this being is found
it is possible to become
give hunters luck. But he
animals (a collection of
in Regan 1983: 189-197).
César Calvo (1981:34-35), in his novel on Manuel Cordoba Ríos
and other brujos (witches) of the Amazon area, writes that
there are two types of chullachaki: the evil ones, which have a
tiger or deer foot, and the good ones, which exactly resemble a
human being, and are "created" by powerful shamans. Shamans
that are not able to create a chullachaki abduct children and
enchant them to put them at their service. The children forget
their own personality and become chullachakis. If shamans use
them for causing harm, the right foot of these children is gradually deformed until it becomes like that of a deer or tiger.
If the enchanted chullachaki appears like an animal, the right
foot leaves the footprints of a boy, a woman or a man, depending on the size of the animal. The Chullachaki seeks the
friendship of human beings, but first it is necessary to defeat
him in combat. He will then give the person good land, large
families, happiness and wisdom. The first time he is seen without the help of ayahuasca he appears as a small man wearing
huge red shoes, red trousers, a shirt, scarf and hat. But later
Richard Spruce, the English botanist, was for years puzzeled
by solitary shots in the jungle, attributed by the Indians to
Yamadu, Munyia or Curupira, until he found that this noise was
caused by the sudden fall of a palm-trunk, the soft interior of
which had been eaten away by termites (Spruce 1908:438-444).
he may take the form of any animal (Calvo 1981:37-38)30.
4.1.2. Sachamama
(Painting by Pablo Amaringo)
This being has also been reported from the Amazonian towns of
Brazil. Wagley (1976: 235) writes the following:
"The most famous of the forest spirits, however, is
the Curupira, a small man-like creature whose feet
are turned backward. Curupiras live deep in the forest, from which their long shrill cries are often
heard. They are said to be especially fond of rum and
tobacco. They attract hunters deeper and deeper into
the forest, until they are lost and never return. The
Curupira can imitate a man's voice. They call out a
rubber gatherer or a hunter who believes the voice to
be that of a companion and thus is drawn off his
See also Galvao 1976: 72-74. For an historical survey of this
belief in the Brazilian Amazonas, see Camara Cascudo (1983:
Another animal spirit which is also the subject of many stories, is the Sachamama. The sachamama (mother of the jungle)
is supposed to be a huge boa of 50 meters or more that is believed to stay in the same place for many years. Vegetation
grows on its body, so that it may easily be taken for a fallen
tree. It is believed that it is able to hypnotize and devour
any animal or human being that crosses a clearance that it
makes in front of its head (cf. Huamán Ramirez 1985:61-66).
According to Pablo Amaringo, the Sachamama can be invoked by a
vegetalista through the appropiate icaro, and used as arkana or
defense against an evil witch (cf.4.2.). The vegetalista calls
her in such a way that it comes from behind his enemy. When the
vegetalista attacks from the front, the witch, when backing,
falls into the open fauces of the animal and will be devoured
by it. In order to be able to use the Sachamama in this way,
the vegetalista has to abstain from salt and follow a rigurous
diet in an isolated place for three years. During this time he
will learn the icaro of the three stones: the flintstone, the
magnet and the piedra de encantar (stone of enchantment), which
I have not identified.
The hypnotic power of
the S a c h a m a m a is
thought to be like a
rainbow that attracts
a n i m a l s and h u m a n
b e i n g s towards the
mouth of the animal
and protects it from
approaching dangers.
The vegetalista, when
able to master the
spirit of the Sachamama through the above
mentioned icaros, acquires some of its
powers, which are manifested during the
visions and dreams as
flames that are suspended on the top of
the head of the vegetalista.
Pablo Amaringo says that the icaro de la Sachamama is also
used for curing snake bites, because the Sachamama is the
"mother" of all snakes. Nobody should leave the house while the
vegetalista is healing with the help of this icaro: snakes are
attracted by the icaro and may attack.
4.1.3. Yakumama
The underwater world presents an special fascination to Amazonian people, which is not strange, considering the climatic and
geographical situation of the area, and the paramount importance of rivers and their adjacent ox-bow lakes as a means of
transportation, for food, and the tremendous changes that occur
in the jungle during the rainy season. At least among the mestizos I have been working with, the underwater world seems to
have more importance than the jungle, and much more than the
world of the air, which is practically devoid of spirits, except for the tunchis or spirits of the dead (cf.4.1.08.),
which, in fact, are to be considered more as spirits of the
night than of the air. Heaven is, of course, where Jesus, Mary
and the saints dwell but has little practical connexion with
the jungle and the underwater world, except as the supreme protection in cases of great danger, in which the traditional
arkana does not work.
The counterpart of the Sachamama is the Yakumama, the great
anaconda. The Yakumama (Quechua = mother of the water), also
known under the Cocama name of Pirahua, and the Shipibo name
of Acorón, is a huge water boa which is believed to live on the
bottom of rivers and lakes. It has eyes like the headlights
of a truck. When it moves it forms enormous whirlpools that can
engulf a boat. It attacks people who navigate during the night
in solitary places. It is believed that it can transform itself
into a large steam boat full of people singing and screaming,
and which people take for a real boat, until it suddenly dissapears (cf. Reagan 1983:I:174-175). This belief has also been
documented in the Brazilian Amazonas (cf. Moraes 1926: 84-85).
According to Luis da Camara Cascudo (1983:129), it may come
from the first contacts the Indians had with white people. Every river and lake has its "mother", which is believed to be
a great snake. When the Indians saw the first boats, they perhaps thought that it was one of the metamorphoses of the Great
Snake. On the other hand, the association of the anaconda with
a boat is found in ancient myths among several Amerindian
tribes. Among the Desana, a subgroup of Tukano Indians that
live in the rain forest of Vaupés, in the Colombian Northwest
Amazon, the anaconda is compared with pamurí-gahsíru, the canoe
in which mankind arrived (Reichel Dolmatoff 1971:63). Similar
associations are found among the Canelos Quichua of Ecuador
where amarun cánue (anaconda canoe) is the term for this being
(see photo in Whitten 1985:67). Among the Napo Indians, a similar being is called by the name of Yaku-lancha (from Quechua
yaku = w a t e r ,
1979: 282) 31 .
The Yakumama, like the Sachamama of the jungle, has power
over the elements, and may produce rain, floods and tempests 32 .
4.1.4. Yakuruna
The yakuruna (from Quechua yaku = water, and runa = people) are
believed to be inhabitants of the water. They are sometimes
described as hairy people that abduct human beings and take
them to their underwater world. Other people say that they look
exactly like normal human beings, except that their faces look
towards their backs (Huamán Ramirez (1985:21), or they may have
deformed feet (Regan 1983:176). They live in beautiful cities
often located in the mouth of the rivers.
Yakuruna are associated
and sometimes even identified with
other inhabitants of the water, such as bufeos (river
dolphins), mermaids and yakumamas (see below). The world of the
yakuruna is described in beautiful metaphoric ways. Entering
the water is like entering a mosquito net. Small dolphins are
the police of that world; large dolphins are the authorities.
The hammock of the yakuruna is a boa, its bench a charapa (a
turtle), the alligators are their canoes, and pink dolphins
their horses and messengers, etc. (cf. Galvao 1976 (1952): 6667; Dobkin de Rios 1972:81; Regan 1983:176; Huamán Ramírez
1985:27-28). This is also the world where the mermaids dwell
(see later), ready to seduce the voyagers, who have to avoid
their enchantments, otherwise they will never return to earth.
Being able to travel under the surface of the water and remaining there for days is considered to be one of the characteristics of a great shaman (cf. Wagley 1953:227). Many vegetalistas report that they are able to travel in the water world
(cf. Calvo 1981:263-264), and are said to be able to bring back
people abducted by the yakuruna. They have to do it as soon as
possible, because when a person is taken to the underwater
world, he gradually changes into a yakuruna. None of my infor31
Upp de Graff (1923:217), in his account of his travel through
Jivaro territory, writes the following: "Yacu-mámam possesses
the power of changing from a tapir to an anaconda, from an
anaconda to a frog. His haunts are the rivers and streams, and
he brings on destructive floods or beneficial showers at will.
Thus these three animals are never molested by the Jívaros, for
fear of the anger of Yacu-mámam."
The water boa plays a central role in pluvial rituals perfomed
by numerous tribes of the upper Amazon, such as the Yagua,
Huitoto, Bora, Omagua, Cashibo, etc. (Girard 1958: 46, 99, 180,
273). According to a myth, the boa Noi mura had the virtue to
transform itself into human being to copulate with an Ocaina
girl called Amena Kog(oe)n (ibid. 133).
mants claim to be able to bring back people stolen by the yakuruna, or even travelling with their bodies in the underwater
world, but maintain to have known practitioners who were able
to do so. The underwater world is not very different from ours.
In their descriptions of that world vegetalistas stress not the
jungle environment, as one would expect, but objects from Western civilization: such as buses, taxis, airplanes, etc. 33
Don Emilio told me that when a man has been abducted by the
yakuruna, ayahuasca is prepared, adding to the preparation two
leaves of campana toé (Brugmansia suaveolens). Under the
effects of the brew, the shaman sings the icaro del ninacuru.
Ninacuru is, according to Don Emilio, an insect whose eyes look
like the headlights of a car. The shaman becomes like one of
A vegetalista forcing two yakuruna to bring back
an abducted child while people are watching. Dolphins and water boas form a circle around the yakuruna
(Painting by Pablo Amaringo)
In a healing session described by Gebhar-Sayer (1986) the Shipibo shamans descend to the bottom of a lake to recover the
woman's caya (spirit), using an airplane densely covered with
designs. See also Regan 1983:I:144.
these insects, penetrates the underwater world, and searches
until he finds the man, who is embracing a yakuruna, a woman
of the water world. Once the shaman knows where the man is, he
returns to earth. He begins to follow a diet for several days,
and invites a shaman friend to take ayahuasca with him, adding
once more two leaves of toe and a few drops of perfume. They
travel together to the underwater world. While the friend is
singing the icaro de la sirena (icaro of the mermaid), to call
the attention of the yakuruna, the shaman calls the man. By
blowing smoke on the yakuruna she is unable to see or hear anything. The man is taken out of the water. He cries, and wants
to go back to the underwater world. The shaman takes a crucifix
and puts it on the chest of the patient. He wakes up, looks
around, sees his family, and then slowly regains his senses. In
order to be sure that he will not go back to the underwater
world, ten pieces of the bark of ayahúman (Couroupita guianensis Aubl.) are crushed, water and a little camphor and perfume
are added. The shaman sings the icaro del ayahúman on the preparation, and the man is rubbed down with it. The spirit of
renaco came (Ficus sp.) is also called, and the spirit of the
man is firmly tied with the spirit of the tree. The icaro del
caucho (rubber tree) is also sung, in order to be sure that the
man will not run away again. The icaro of huaira caspi, another
tree, is sung on the top of the head of the man, to prevent an
evil wind from throwing the man into the water. After a month,
the man fully recovers his senses. He does not remember anything of what happened to him. He will not be allowed to go
fishing again, in order to prevent him from being taken by the
4.1.5. La sirena (the mermaid)
When the Spanish and Portuguese arrived in the Amazon area in
the 17th and 18th centuries, along with many other mythological beings, they took with them the belief in beautiful females
living in the sea, half-women, half-fish, who enchanted and
seduced men with their sweet songs. This idea is still found
among the Amazonian mestizo population of today, where it is
firmly established 3 4 . But it has merged with Indian beliefs
in female beings living in the water, and who may fall in love
and seek intercourse with human beings. In order to find a
partner they are able to transform themselves into human
beings, but at night they turn into boas, thus revealing their
true nature (cf. Mercier 1979:94; Naranjo 1983:186)35. The Spanish term Sirena (mermaid) then came to cover both the European
On the relationship between sirenas, love magic and string instruments in the Andean region of southern Peru, see Torino
The power of mermaids to transform themselves into full women
is also found in European folklore, which records marriages
between mermaids and human beings (cf. Encyclopedia Britannica
VI:808 (1982 edition).
and the Amazonian female water being 36 .
During my field work I heard many stories of mermaids both
from vegetalistas and from the mouths of fishermen who claimed
to have seen them. This is, in fact, one of the favourite subjects touched upon by vegetalistas during the hours of talks
that usually preceed -or follow- ayahuasca sessions in the rural rural areas (see later, Cap.6). According to Don Emilio,
among the mermaids there are both fair and blue-eyed creatures
and cholitas (of Indian physiognomy), all of them very beautiful. They are keen on good-looking males from our world, and
often fall in love with them. The chosen ones have to take good
care when they travel by boat, or when fishing, because they
are in constant danger of being kidnapped by a mermaid.
Mermaids, however, are often invoked in ayahuasca sessions.
They appear singing beautiful icaros, sometimes accompanied
by string instruments. They are the key of mastering the underwater world with its various beings, because through their icaros or magic chants, they have power over the Yakumama, the Yakuruna, and the Bufeo Colorado (pink river dolphin)(cf.4.1.6.).
If the sirenas teach a vegetalista their icaros, he will also
be able to have power over the underwater world.
The offspring of a mermaid and a human being may become a
powerful vegetalista. Both Don José Coral (cf.3.1.2.) and Don
Santiago Murayari told me that when they take ayahuasca and
cure, among the spirits they call there are vegetalistas who
live under the water and whose mothers were mermaids.
During ayahuasca sessions I have often heard a wish to see
sirenas during the visions, a suggestion greeted by some amuse36
I do not share Dobkin de Rios's opinion (1972:82) when she
writes that "No doubt belief in the siren dates from European
contact during the rubber epoch". Torino (1983:111) has indicated that the idea of a being -part human and part fish- did
exist at least in the early coastal culture of Paracas. The
same author, basing his opinions on Andean colonial art and the
musical lore suggests that "a pre-Columbian mythical or religious figure predisposed the indigenous people to the rapid and
widespread acceptance of the Greco-Roman mermaid" (id. p.113).
Concerning the Amazon, I believe that the role the mermaids
play in the underwater world suggests an amalgamation of Amazonian and European traditions. But even if we accept the exclusive European origin of this belief, it had to occur before the
rubber epoch between 1880 and 1914 (San Román 1975:124).
As Wagley has pointed out (1953:225), European colonists and
missionaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries believed in werewolves, witches and demons, and their own view
of the supernatural world was in many respects similar to that
of the natives. At the time of colonization, the Spanish term
sirena was probably the closest word found to denote Amazonian
female magic beings living in the water.
ment from the other people present. Mermaids are sometimes invoked by the vegetalista when performing love magic (cf.5.6.).
The rapport of Amazonian people with the mermaids is ambivalent: they are extremely seductive, but also dangerous.
4.1.6. Bufeo Colorado (pink river dolphin)
There are two species of river dolphins in the Amazon river
and its tributaries: the black (Inia geoffroyensis), and the
pink dolphin (Stheno tucuri). The black dolphin is considered a
harmless, or even benevolent animal. The pink dolphin, on the
other hand, is the subject of many tales. It is at the same
time considered as an animal and as a spirit very much feared
by Amazonian people 37 .
The bufeo colorado or pink river dolphin is believed to seek
sexual intercourse with human beings. It can transform itself
into a human being, often a fair and handsome man who looks
like a gringo (a white foreigner), and who attends parties in
order to seduce women and take them to his underwater world
(cf.Camara Cascudo 1983:139; Huamán Ramírez 1983:37-43; Reátegui 1983:40-43; Regan 1983:I:145, 178-182) 38 . It is especially attracted by menstruating women. Sometimes pregnant women
attribute their pregnancy to the pink dolphin. The offspring of
a dolphin and a woman is sometimes said to be a monstruous
creature (cf. Karsten 1964: 198; Reagan 1983). There are also
many stories of people who claim they have made love to female
dolphins, either transformed into women, or in their animal
shape (cf. Calvo (1981: 25; Huamán Ramírez 1985: 167-171; Regan
According to Regan (1983:I:184), the dichotomy black dolphin/
pink dolphin is interpreted by some people as a bad gringo or
foreigner vs. a good cholo (person with Amazonian physiognomy.
See footnote 1 on page 15).
According to Irene Bellier (1985), among the Maikuna (Orejones)
the world of the water is divided into two areas, one of them
dominated by the dolphin, which is identified with the white
man, while the other is the area of a Maikuna spirit.
The belief that pink dolphins may abduct women is firmly established in the Amazon area. For an illustrative example, see
Dr. Ulises Reategui's interesting short story Cushushca Yushin.
Bufeo Colorado (1983), based on a case that is supposed to have
happened in Pucallpa, where he has his surgery. On the last
page this book has a photograph of the document that one of
the persons involved in the story presented to a notary public
so as to certify its veridity.
1983:I:180-181) 3 9 . people who have sexual relationships with
dolphins are said to become slowly ill. They may also have an
irresistible desire to throw themselves into the river or lake
to seek their partners.
Rafael Karsten (1964: 197) writes that the dolphin is regarded
both by the Indians and the mestizos of the western Amazon
area as a powerful sorcerer, and it is therefore feared 40 .
Among the Omaguas and other tribes the pink dolphin is believed
to be a shaman which, when out of the water, is able to kill
people like a black shaman (Tessman 1930:58).
According to Wagley (1976:238-239), almost the entire body of
the dolphin may be used for some magical or medicinal purpose:
the skin is used to treat snake bites or the wound of a sting
ray; a tooth of the dolphin hung around an infant's neck will
cure diarrhea; the dolphin's ear made into a charm to be tied
around the wrist of a child will guarantee good hearing; the
fat is used in a preparation for rheumatism, and the meat is
thought to be a specific cure for leprosy, etc. (cf. Karsten
1964: 196). Out of the external lips of the genitals of female
dolphins shirimpiare (shamans) make bracelets for good luck in
Huamán Ramirez, in fact, writes that he had to remove a fainted comrade from a sleeping female dolphin with which the man
had had sexual intercourse. It is believed that men feel an
intense pleasure and are sometimes unable to separate their
bodies from the dolphin.
Karsten writes: "The origin of this belief, which is likewise
common to all tribes in western South America, is to be sought
in the peculiar puffing sound which this animal produces when
it comes to the surface of the water to take a breath." (id.).
Roe (1982:168) adds the following commentary:
"Among groups like the Jívaro and the Shipibo, where sorcery
consists of witch doctors blowing magical 'darts', sometimes
over great distances, into the body of his victim, it seems
perfectly logical to fancy that the dolphin is also bewitching
people when it surfaces. This is because, when it opens its
blowhole to expel old air and take in new, the dolphin makes
the same blowing and whistling sound that sorcerers make when
they bewitch their victims. When the dolphin's well-known propensity for deliberately following close to canoes paddled by
people is taken into account, it is easy to see how such a
harmless animal could have acquired such an evil reputation.
Subjectively there is no sound more haunting than the humanlike
booming cough of dolphins when they breath at night in the
moon-bathed waters of a tropical forest lake."
love 41 (cf. Dobkin de Rios 1979:113).
Don Alejandro told me that there are vegetalistas who are
able to harm a woman with the spirit of the pink dolphin. By
removing the penis of a dolphin it is possible to call its spirit during a special session. The spirit of the dolphin is
attached to the spirit of the woman. The victim is seized by
insatiable sexual appetite, which she will try to mitigate by
making love with any man she can get hold of (cf.Karsten
1964: 197-198; see also Dobkin de Ríos 1972:81, for a similar
report). Another informant told me that something similar happens when a person is given to eat the fat of a dolphin (cf.
Huamán Ramírez 1985:224-227).
According to Don Alejandro, only through an appropriate icaro
is it possible to neutralize the evil effect of the spirit of
the dolphin. Don Emilio says that the illness produced by the
fat of the dolphin is cured by soaking 125 grams of tobacco
in water for some hours, and giving it to the patient to drink.
The tobacco drink produces intense vomiting and diarrhea which
will cleanse the organism and eliminate the cause of the illness.
Angelika Gebhart-Sayer (1986) writes that the "nutria (Pteronura brasiliensis Zimmermann), the dolphin and the dog are
despised by the Shipibo-Conibo because they do not have definite rutting seasons. They can be seen mating relatively frequently -a repulsive behavior also said to cause the bad smell
of these animals." Neino, the nutria, "is driven by insatiable
longing to seek sexual intercourse with human beings in their
dreams", which is extremely harmful if not fatal for humans.
Children resulting from the respective union have white skin
and white hair (id.).
All these beings mentioned above present common characteristics, and it is obvious that they are not perfectly delineated.
Quite the opposite, there is confusion as to their distinctive
features. As we saw, the theme of transformation is common:
dolphins, mermaids, chullachaki, yakuruna, they may all suffer
metamorphoses, and may become human beings at will. Mermaids
are sometimes identified with the yakuruna. The physical characteristics of chullachaki and yakuruna are often mixed: they
may both have their feet turned backwards. The same happens
with people kidnapped by these beings: they gradually become
The bones of a bird called tanrilla (unidentified) are also
used in making love charms. If somebody looks through one of
these bones, as if it were a telescope, at the person he/she
loves, and follows a certain diet, this person will fall in
love with the one who looks through the bone. But if he/she is
discovered by the person whom he is looking at, the magic will
return against the user of the charm (Dobkin de Rios 1979:112;
Chevalier 1982:385).
like their kidnappers.
The relationship with the underwater world seems to have an
erotic quality. Angelika Gebhart-Sayer (1986), in a study on
the Shipibo-Conibo, writes that "it is often the ultimate goal
of a malignant spirit to live permanently as man and woman with
the afflicted person's soul, rather than to devour or destroy
it.". The great danger consists in forgetting this world, and
never being able to come back. Perhaps this is reflected in
the belief that the feet and/or face of the people will look
backward: the person is changed, so that he will no longer care
for this world 42 . I have noticed that this idea of one's face
looking backwards is also found in the descriptions of some of
the vegetalistas' patients, when they describe situations in
which they were afraid of becoming mad. This idea is also found
in Don Emilio's descriptions of his first real mareación with
ayahuasca. He was terrified, because he felt that his head was
turning and looking backwards. Don Emilio told me of a case in
which a witch transformed a person into a demonio (a devil),
whose face looked backwards. Feeling that the head and/or feet
pointed in the opposite direction may be a way of indicating
that the person is attracted towards the "other" world, incurring the danger of definitively forgetting this world (which
would be the same as becoming mad).
4.1.7. Plants leading to the underwater world
Certain aquatic plants are believed to be the means by which it
is possible to visit the underwater world. One of them is raya
-balsa (Montrichardia arborecens Schott), which grows on lake
shores. It is believed that if the shoots of these plants are
ingested and a six month diet is followed, this plant will
teach the person how to travel under the surface of the water.
Don Emilio says that a teacher and two disciples are required,
because there is always the danger of being seduced by mermaids
and of never returning. Another plant that it is ingested with
the same purpose is renaco (Ficus sp.), a plant that grows on
inundated soil sometimes occupying miles and miles where nearly
no other plant grows. Don Emilio mentioned to me a third plant,
called punga (unidentified), the bark of which is also used for
visiting the underwater world.
4.1.8. The tunchi
When a person dies, his spirit is believed to wander about at
night here on earth. It emits a characteristic bird whistle,
and roams about in the jungle and near cementeries, frightening
people. It may also cause illness (cf. Dobkin de Rios 1973:
79-81; Burga Freitas 1980:69; Chevalier 1982:389; Regan 1983: 1:
This brings to mind an experience which is often reported by
people who have taken psychedelics: The fear of not being able
to "come back", of becoming mad.
173-204, etc.). It may take a human-like or birdlike form. The
most common name given to such a spirit in the Peruvian Amazonas is tunchi 43 . similar ideas are found among some of the ethnic groups of the area. For example when a Campa dies his soul
may join the god spirits if he was sufficiently good in his
life time, or may become a malevolent qhost (shirétsi, "unpossessed soul"), revisiting the settlement where it had lived and
attacking the living there (Weiss 1972:168-169). Similar ideas
are held among the Matsigenka (cf. Baer 1979:105)(cf. Karsten
1926:183, 477f.; see also discussion on soul-loss in 6.4.)
There seems to be, as we saw in the relation between the human and the underwater worlds, also an erotic element in the
relationship with other spirits. Don José Coral told me how he
had his spiritual wife. On one occasion I was able to tape a
conversation between him and a patient -who often took ayahuasca and was also a good story teller-. The patient told him how,
one night, when he was fishing in the river, he first heard the
whistle of a bird associated with the tunchi or spirit of dead
people. He blew tobacco, so as to frighten away the spirit. He
then felt tired, and slept lightly while still in his canoe. In
his dreams he suddenly saw a beautiful woman at the opposite
end of his row boat. She told him: "Why are you frightening me?
I saw that you were alone and came here to accompany you". At
this point Don José interrupted his story and asked him: "Did
you make love to her?" "No", said the patient. Don José added:
"If I had been in your place, I would have made her function,
until I had broken her bones." 4 4 And then both had a good
Vegetalistas often say that the mothers of the plants are
According to Rafael Karsten, tunchi is the term used among Jivaro (Shuar) Indians to refer to the magic arrow (also known
by the name of tsinsaca), which the sorcerers throw at their
enemies. Although it appears in the form of some material object, such as a chonta thorn, a worm or an insect, it is at the
same time regarded as a living demonical being. If no other
medicine-man extracts the tunchi, the persons dies:
"After his death, the demon remains in the body and
tries to lay hold of his soul as well, the latter
being then identified with the demon that caused
death. This is the reason why the departed are so
often feared as revengeful spirits, even when they
were, perhaps, respected and loved in life: it is the
spirit of disease and death that the Indians fear,
the demon being supposed to look for fresh victims
a m o n g the s u r v i v i n g r e l a t i v e s . "
Sexual relationship between a shaman and his tutelar spirits
have been reported among the Goldi, the Buryat and the Yakt in
Siberia. A Goldi shaman told Sternberg how he slept with a
tutelar spirit as if she were his wife (see Eliade 1964: 72-76).
celosas (jealous), as if they were spiritual wives of the shaman. They will punish the person who ingest the plants and do
not follow the prescriptions. So far I have not been able to
learn much about this hidden erotic rapport vegetalistas have
with the spiritual world.
4.1.09. Christian elements
There is no doubt that the religious world of the vegetalistas
is deeply immersed in Christian traditions, as the whole area
has been subject to intensive missionary activity since the
16th century. The degree of importance of the Christian element
in the actual practice varies with individual vegetalistas. Don
Emilio always begins his ayahuasca sessions with invocations to
Jesus and Mary (cf. 7.1.1.). In his privat life he is a very
religious person. Althoug he does not go to church, he has respect for Catholic priests. In some of his visions of travelling
to distant places (see 7. 4. ) his guide is a priest. In the healing sessions of younger vegetalistas I have briefly met a
large cross is presiding over the ayahuasca sessions, and prayers from the book La Santa Cruz de Caravaca (see footnote first
page of chapter 7) and other Catholic prayers are recited.
There are also frequent allusions to the Saints of folk Catholicism. Some of these younger vegetalistas are said to belong
to the Orden of Rosacruz. In Don Jose's practice the Christian
element invoked during ayahuasca and healing sessions is practically negligible, and that is also the case of Don Santiago.
They represent a type of practitioners more linked to the traditional Amazonian world. It is generally agreed, nevertheless,
that Jesus is the Suprem Being, and that all evil things in the
world are the work of Satan.
As I pointed out earlier (cf 1.3.), in the practice of my
informants Catholic elements are not always syncretically amalgamated, but coexist with Amazonian religious ideas.
Galvao, in his work on the religious beliefs of a Brazilian
Amazonian town pointed out that curupiras, bufeos, tunchis, and
the "mothers" of plants and animals, do not receive any cult:
the attitude of the people is simply to avoid an encounter with
them, and certain techniques of protection or neutralization of
their evil powers are employed, while saints of Popular Catholicism receive a considerable cult through prayers, promises
and festivities (Galvao 1976: 4). The same principles may be
applied to the religious life of the Peruvian Amazon.
4.1.10. The Inca motif
I have recently become aware of the importance of the Inca in
the imaginery of vegetalistas. Don Emilio told me that he has
seen the Inca in some of his visions. The Inca showed him his
city, under a huge mountain called El Angaíce, near Moyobamba.
Don Emilio believes that the Incas built huge tunnels under the
Andes thus linking various cities. At the beginning of an ayahuasca session Don Emilio invokes four angels to protect the
circle where ayahuasca is going to be taken (cf.7.1.1.). He
asks the angels to throw into those mountain tunnels any evil
spirits that may approach the circle and block the entrance
with a black stone.
During a ceremony in Iquitos in August 1985 held by a school
of ayahuasqueros, I witnessed how the master shaman endowed one
of his disciples with poderes incaicos (Inca powers). In César
Calvo's novel on Manuel Cordoba Ríos and other Amazonian shamans (Calvo 1981: 102-103) the Inka Manko Kalli appears in the
visions of Don Hildebrando, a shaman of Pucallpa. The Inca element seems to be present even among some tribes of the Amazonian rain forest. Guillermo Arévalo, a Shipibo shaman and selfmade scholar, told me that according to one tradition, it was
the Incas who taught the Shipibo how to use ayahuasca. In Pablo
Amaringo's paintings of ayahuasca visions, the Inca appears,
along with spirits of nature, oriental kings, fairies and
UFOs 4 5 . The Inca motif among both Indian and mestizo practitioners is certainly something that deserves future attention.
4.2. The concept of "arkana"
The term arkana is probably a loan word from the Quichua arkay,
which means "to block", "to bar" (Park et al. 1976:27) 46 . It is
used as something that protects the individual, so that nothing
evil may penetrate him. The concept of arkana has to be understood in connexion with the "intrusion" theory of illness,
which coexists, in this area, with the "soul-loss" theory (cf.
6.1.) 47 . It has also to be seen in relationship with a threfold
state in which the body of a person may be: cuerpo sencillo
(indicating that the body is in a normal state, without any
protection), cuerpo cerrado or preparado (the body is armed
with various defenses) and cuerpo danado (the body is ill as a
consequence of the evil doings of a spirit or a witch).
Once the vegetalista begins to ingest ayahuasca or other
plant-teachers and to follow the diet, he enters a dimension
full of dangers. He will run the constant risk of supernatural attacks. Evil spirits, or vegetalistas who mistrust the
newcomer, will try to harm him by shooting virotes (magic
darts) at him, or by sending snakes or other dangerous animals
against him. It is then all-important that the neophyte should
acquire defenses against these dangers. These defences are
given to him by the spirits of the plant and animal teachers he
Pablo's paintings would be the delight of Jacques Vallee, who
has shown (1975) that many UFO reports often present the same
structural elements as certain fairy tales and legends.
The entry in the dictionary is as follows:
"Arkay: tr. Impedir, bloquear, cerrar del todo."
For a discussion about the age of these two conceptions of illness among the American Indians, see Hultkrantz 1953:448-451.
One of these defenses is an invisible shirt which covers the
person and protects him from incoming magical darts. Don Emilio describes it in these terms: "Arkana is a defense of the
body. It is like apliable steel shirt. It is not like a suit of
armour, which makes you feel ill at ease. So nothing penetrates
you. Neither the sun, nor the rain, nor the air will harm you,
because you are well-protected."48.
This invisible garment is created with tobacco smoke. The
vegetalista creates it around his patients after he has extracted their magical darts, so as to prevent them from being
a t t a c k e d a g a i n by the sorcerers who first sent them
(cf.6.4.)49. We will see later (cf.5.4.) that there is a direct
relationship between the magic garment, the magic phlegm or
yachay, the magic dart or virote and some of the vegetalistas'
helping spirits.
The term arkana is also applied to the animal spirits which
protect the vegetalista, particularly when he enters the spiritual world through the ingestion of ayahuasca or any of the
plant-teachers, when he is healing a person, and during sleep,
which are the situations in which he is more vulnerable to supernatural attacks. These spirits may include not only Amazonian animals such as anacondas, jaguars, electric eels or several species of birds, but also animals from other parts of the
world, known from Western iconography, such as lions, tigers
and elephants. Don Celso, for example, told me that when he is
curing serious cases of witchcraft he surrounds himself with
his defenders. These are animals representing the air, the
water and the earth; the condorpishcu, a little white bird with
a red neck, will fly around his head warning him of any attack.
A lion will be on his right shoulder, a black panther on his
left shoulder and an elephant in front of him. To defend him
These are Don Emilio's words:
"Arkana es como una camisa de acero, pero que se mueve por todas partes. No es como un casco, que no te
deja ya tranquilidad. Es una camisa bien acerada.
Entonces nada te entra ahí. Te da el sol, nada. La
lluvia, nada. Aire, nada, porque estás bien asegurado"
Similar invisible magic garments have been described by Chaumeil (1983:125-127) among Yagua Indians, and by Harner (1973:
24) among the Jivaro. According to Gebhart-Sayer (1985: 9),
among the Shipibo-Conibo of the Ucayali each individual carries in himself one or several spiritual body patterns. "Before
releasing his patient, the shaman covers the pattern with a
so-called pana, a fixing coat protecting both the pattern and
the individual himself. This protection becomes effective especially when the person is exposed to the multitude of dangers
outside the tribal sphere." (1985:9).
against enemies of the water he is surrounded by a mermaid, a
naca-naca (Micrurus sp., a poisonous snake), a white eel and a
lobo marino or nutria. A shushupi (bushmaster), another very
poisonous snake, will be around his neck with its head beside
his mouth. His last defence, if he is in great danger, is a
school of piranhas, small voracious fish that will devour his
Don Emilio has also in his defence a little bird that he calls
with an icaro or magic melody, and a black bull. The spirits
may also adopt anthropomorphic shapes. One of Don Emilio's arkana is a huge winged Brazilian black man with daggers in his
hands and his belt, who will, like the angels with swords he
invokes in ayahuasca sessions (cf.4.1.10. and 7.1.1.), follow
the bad spirits and shut them into dark tunnels in the Andean
Don José Coral told me that he has four types of arkana:
huairamanda arkana (from Quichua vayra = wind), a hurricane
which will blow away his enemies; yakumanda arkana (from Quichua yaku = water), which protects him from water spirits;
llaktamanda arkana and meolinamanda arkana. I do not know yet
the function of the last two types of arkana. Llakta in Quichua
means "village", which could perhaps indicate that it is a defence against spirits dwelling in settlements, perhaps disembodied souls. I have not foud the word meolina in Quichua dictionaries, which makes me suspect that the spelling is not correct.
Some of the animals defending a vegetalista may be given to
him by the spirits and embedded in his chest suspended in the
magic phlegm (cf.5.4.). Don José Coral told me how his muerrayas vomited into the ayahuasca pot several snakes, which he
ingested. These were a naca-naca, a rattle snake, a provinciana, a bush master and an eel, considered by local people to be
a snake. During the summer of 1983 I spent one month in the
home of Don José Coral, while following the prescribed diet.
The second week, during an ayahuasca ceremony, he asked me to
get close to him. He then vomited symbolically several snakes,
one by one, into the ayahuasca pot, and asked me to ingest
them. I made a noise as if I were sucking the snakes from the
pot, and swallowing them. He was pleased, and told me that
these snakes were going to be my defense against enemies coming
from the air, the earth and the water. He repeated this operation several times during the following weeks.
This took place in the dark. Jorge, one of the two young men
who was following the diet with me during the time I spent with
Don José, was puzzled by the noises both Don José and I made,
and he asked me one day quite frankly if Don José really put
snakes into the pot and I ingested them. I told him the truth,
that it was a theatrical performance, because I had not seen
any snakes at all. Then he confessed to me that he did not
believe in Don José. Although he had been invoking spirits, he
never saw any. He said something like this: "Don Santiago knows
more, because I saw clearly that a spirit came in and sat down
near me when Don Santiago called him. He was there for a long
time, so that I could watch him very well." At this point I
the one who was puzzled, as I had not seen any spirit at
coming into the house during the session. Jorge was not
kind of person to invent stories. I questioned him about
appearance of the spirit. He said that the spirit was a
wearing a hat and carrying a gun (cf. next section).
During ayahuasca sessions various arkana spirits may be invoked to impede evil spirits or sorcerers, who are always attracted to places where ayahuasca is ingested. Don Emilio calls
forth angels with swords. Don Alejandro calls forth soldiers
with guns protecting the four corners of the house where the
session takes place. In cases of great danger, he may even call
forth fighter aircraft to defend him against his enemies. An
electric eel and other animals may be invoked to protect the
participants from supernatural attacks (see Pablo Amaringo's
painting on page 7 2 ) . All these arkana are call forth by singing the appropriate icaro or magic melody. Icaros to invoke
defenders are called icaros arkana (cf. 5.3.3.). Don Emilio
says that the supreme arkana is, in any case, Our Lord Jesus
There are further means of defense against magic illness.
Don Emilio prepares desiccated toads which he fills with a mixture of tobacco, patuquina (Dieffenbachia sp.) and camphor and
endows them with power through magic melodies. The frog is
placed in the house of a person who is often persecuted by brujos. The toads are supposed to catch magic darts or virotes
thrown against the owner of the house.
Sorcerers, on the other hand, may send animal spirits or they
may transform themselves into animals in order to harm a person. The following anecdote may be illustrative:
One evening I was about to get into one of the trucks that
was going to take me to Don Emilio's house. A woman was carried
into the truck crying loudly. Her husband and two children
formed a ring around her trying to help her. It was a moving
scene. When the truck was passing in front of Don Emilio's
house and I gave the signal to the driver to stop, the family
also got out, as they had been informed by somebody that a vegetalista lived there. I helped them to carry the woman inside
the house. Don Emilio took everything calmly. He examined her
and diagnosed witchcraft. She had been hit by a virote in her
stomach. He prepared several plants for the curing session that
took place after sunset (the exact procedure of a curing session of this type is described later, in 6.4.). After the session the woman felt much better and slept soundly. The woman,
her family and I stayed overnight. That night Don Emilio, the
woman's husband and I took ayahuasca. After the effects had
faded away, we all slept there on the floor. I remember that
during the night I was roused by the noise of what appeared to
be a large bird, which had landed on the roof screaming loudly.
After a while it flew away. I continued sleeping. The next morning I interviewed the woman about her illness. She told me
that she had been ill for several months, ever since one day,
when she was in the market selling fruits, a flying vulture
passed and soiled her on her shoulder. For days before she came
to Don Emilio's house she felt worse, and she thought she was
going to die. But now she felt fine, although she had been very
much afraid during the night, as the witch who had caused her
illness had come disguised as a bird to frighten her 5 0 .
4.3. Helping spirits
It is obvious that the spirits known by the general term of
arkana may also be considered helping spirits, which defend the
vegetalista in case of attack. In this section I will deal
briefly with those spirits which are invoked by the vegetalista
through icaros in order to help him to diagnose and treat illness.
As far as I know the spirits are always anthropomorphic. They
are either the spirits of the plant teachers (anthropomorphically) or maestros de la medicina (masters of medicine), which
include Indian and mestizo shamans (often venerable old men or
women), famous deceased Western doctors, wise men from distant
countries, and even beings from other planets, solar systems
and galaxies, all this depending, of course, on the degree of
their knowledge of the world beyond their Amazonian milieu.
Don José Coral and Don Santiago Murayari, who seem to represent a different tradition than that of Don Emilio and Don Alejandro, call upon the spirits of dead shamans who live "at the
end of the world", or shamans who live in the underwater world.
These enter their bodies during ayahuasca and healing sessions
and are supposed actually to effectuate the healing. During the
sessions they carry on long dialogues with their spirits. They
speak Spanish in a soft voice. When the spirits answer, they
adopt a very different voice, loud and nervous, and speak in an
Indian language, which the vegetalistas told me was either Cocama or Omagua, both languages of the Tupi-Guarani family (Mason 1950). These types of sessions have a theatrical character.
Several spirits may enter the body of the vegetalista, one after the other, each with his distinct personality. In the dialogues with their spirits difficult questions which the vegetalista does not want to deal with in a normal state, are discussed, such as the price of the treatment, or any problem that
may have arisen with his patients during the often long periods
they are staying at his home. The morning after an ayahuasca
session they sometimes asked me whether I "saw" the spirits
performing the cure.
Don Emilio calls the spirits he invokes during ayahuasca ses50
Rafael Karsten (1964:59) writes that among the birds that may
carry the arrows of sorcerers and thus inflict disease - are,
for instance, the black vulture, the toucan, the great macaw,
the ordinary green parrot, and nearly all nocturnal birds, especially such as arouse superstitious fear in the Indians by
their strange cries.
sions doctores, or he may use the diminutive doctorcitos. Often
he uses the term abuelo or abuelito (dear grand father). These
spirits may be Indian shamans (Yagua, Jibaro, Campa) or the
spirits of doctors that come from other parts of the world,
such as France, England, USA, China, Japan, Spain, Chile, etc.
I found the idea that the spirits may be doctors from other
parts of the world among several other practitioners, both in
Iquitos and Pucallpa. They are called collectively maestros de
la medicina (cf. Castillo 1963:88).
5.1. The magic melodies or "icaros"
During the initation period, in which the novice is purified by
the special diet and isolated from people, he is open to the
manifestation of the spiritual world. He receives from the spiritis the tools of his future practice, in particular the magic
chants or melodies (icaros) and the magic phlegm (yachay, yausa
or mariri). He may also receive magic darts (virotes) to defend
himself or to cause harm. In this chapter I am going to deal
with the gifts of the spirits, and I will present some ideas
about the distinction that is often made between good and evil
The magic chants or icaros the vegetalistas learn during
their initiation deserve special attention. To a great extent
the power of a vegetalista is embodied in his icaros. Don Alejandro puts it thus: "A man is like a tree. Under the appropriate conditions he grows branches. These branches are the
The acquisition of magic chants or melodies and the memorization of myths during shamanic initiation seem to be a widely
reported phenomenon (cf. Halifax 1979:29-33). Rouget (1980:187)
has gone so far as to say that "chamaniser et musiquer sont
deux aspects d'une seule et méme activité."
The association of the learning of magic chants or melodies
with the absorption of psychotropic plants is quite common (see
Dobkin de Ríos 1976:69-70). It is found among the Huichol (Juan
Negrín, personal communication; Myerhoff 1974:97, 1975:425; La
Barre 1970: 49-52), who ingest peyote (Lophophora williamsii)
and other psychotropic plants; among the Mazatec (Wasson, Cowan
& Rhodes 1974; Estrada 1977: 79-83, 124-129), who take mushrooms
of the genus Psilocybe; among mestizo practitioners using San
Pedro (Trichocereus pachanoi) (Sharon 1978; Gonzalez Viana
1979:55-62); among the Yanomamo of southern Venezuela and northern Brazil, who use epena (Virola theidora)(Schultes & Hofmann 1980:122-3; Donner 1984:171-4, 187); (Virola callophylloidea) (Seitz 1979:329-335), and among numerous tribes using
tobacco and Banisteriopsis (cf. Goldman 1963:210-11; Elick
1 9 6 9 : 2 0 6 - 7 , cited by W i l b e r t 1979:21; Reichel-Dolmatoff
1972:104; 1980:35; Kensinger 1973:11; Siskind 1973:24; etc.)
If we concentrate on Banisteriopsis beverages, we find frequent allusions in scientific literature to music and dancing
in the visions produced by ayahuasca. In 1906 Zerda Bayón, in
his description of the yagé use among the Indians of the Caquetá region, wrote:
"They also tried repeatedly to give expression to
their feelings about the wonderful, loud, intoxicating music which they were hearing and which sounded
strange to them, but nevertheless entrancing so that
they could compare it with nothing earthly and by
which they were transported. " (Quoted by Perrot and
R. Hamet 1927).
Goldman (1963:210-211), when describing the yagé ceremonies
among the Cubeo of the Vaupés, writes:
"There are moments of euphoria as well, when one
hears music, the sound of people singing, and the
sound of flowing water"
Father Plácido de Calella (1935: 51-52; 1940-1949. Quoted by
Reichel Dolmatoff 1980:34-35), a missionary, wrote the
following, when describing the visions seen by the Siona, a
Western Tukano group that lives in the upper reaches of the
"During the hallucinations the shaman and the other
participants claim to see large crowds of people,
Indian like themselves, all well adorned and painted,
who are called "yajé people" (yagé-paí) and who sing
and play musical instruments"
According to Bellier (1986), yagé is taken by the Mai Huna, a
Western Tukano group living between the Napo and Putumayo rivers, in the Peruvian Amazon, "in order to stimulate the singing" (estimular el canto), and "it is inconceivable to take
yaje, to penetrate the primordial world /mina/, and be silent."
The association between ayahuasca consumption and music is
also found among the mestizo population. Dobkin de Ríos
(1972:120), for instance, reports that patients under the effect of ayahuasca see a very large snake entering the circle
where they are sitting. If they are not frightened, the snake
begins to teach the person his song 51 .
I have often heard similar ideas from Westerners who have taken
ayahuasca. Michael Harner (1980:4) writes that during his first
experience with ayahuasca among the Conibo of the Ucayali, "he
heard a rhythmic sound and saw that it was a giant galley with
several hundred oars moving back and forth in cadence with the
sound". Then he added: "I became conscious, too, of the most
beautiful singing I have ever heard in my life, high-pitched
and ethereal, emanating from myriad voices on board the
I have found the idea that ayahuasca teaches magic melodies
among Indian (Ingano) and mestizo populations of Cagueté, Colombia, and in the provinces of Loreto, Ucayali and Madre de
Dios in Peru. In the state of Acre, in Brazil, communities ingesting the preparation Banisteriopsis caapi + Psychotria viridis under the name of Santo Daime possess himnarios, collections of songs inspired by Santo Daime and given to certain
privileged members. Some of these communities claim to have
memorized up to 3000 himnos (see Monteiro da Silva 1983).
Learning icaros -magic songs or melodies- is an essential
element in becoming a vegetalista. In fact, being a vegetalista is almost synonymous with being capable of mastering an
often large repertoire of icaros. They maintain to have learned
their icaros during the period in which they ingested plantteachers and followed the diet. The spirits of each plant have
their icaros, so that the repertoire of the shaman apprentice
expands as he keeps adding other plants to the basic ayahuasca
preparation (Banisteriopsis caapi + Psychotria viridis), or
when ingesting other plant-teachers that are taken by
themselves. Occasionally vegetalistas may also learn certain
icaros from each other.
Don José Coral singing an icaro on mapacho cigarettes
The word icaro seems to be a loan word from the Quichua verb
ikaray, which means "to blow smoke" in order to heal (Parker et
al. 1976:45). This term is used in various parts of the Peruvian Amazon, among the mestizo as well as among ethnic groups
of the Ucayali (cf. Karsten 1964:204-205)52. The vegetalistas
of Iquitos and other areas of the Peruvian Amazon also use the
verb icarar, which means to sing or whistle an icaro over a
person, an object or a preparation to give them power 53 .
The icaros are used ritually, but not only in ayahuasca sessions, as has been stated (Katz & Dobkin de Ríos 1971:325; Dobkin de Ríos 1972:131). They are also used during the preparation of certain remedies, during curing sessions, which take
place independently of ayahuasca ceremonies, and even during
activities such as the fishing of certain species. Upon special
Guillermo Arévalo, a Shipibo, son of Don Benito, a well known
shaman of that area, a practitioner himself and seriously engaged in the study of the medicinal flora of his ethnic group,
told me that he considered the word icaro as a loan from Quichua: the Shipibo terms for the magic melodies are taquina,
masha and cusho (to work by blowing)
In a recent article (1986) Angelika Gebhart-Sayer distinguishes
between six classes of songs used in therapy among the ShipiboConibo. Icaro songs serve for diagnosis; huehua songs feature
the content of the visions and the actual treatment; masha
songs enhance the patient's shina (mind, awareness); shirohuehua (fun songs) animate the patient, induce joy and hope;
manchari (sometimes thought identical with masha) is sung to
lead an abducted soul back to its owner; muchay songs were
usually sung during the eclipses of the moon.
In Cesar Calvo's novel on Manuel Cordoba Ríos and other shamans
of the Peruvian Amazon the following literary definition of
icarar is given:
"Icarar es devolverle a las cosas los poderes que no
les vinieron de natural en esta su vida. Icarar es
magnetizarlas con fuerzas que las cosas no aprendieron, no saben..." (Calvo 1981:104)
("Icarar means to give back to the things those powers they did
not naturally get in this life. Icarar is to magnetize them
with forces the things did not possess")
Rafael Karsten, in the section of his book on the religion of
South American Indians dedicated to the Shipibo of the Ucayali,
Icaro is also the name of a special formula of incantation which the demon teaches those who have taken
the narcotic nishí. There is a special icaro for
every animal or, more correctly speaking, every animal demon conjured." (Karsten 1964:205)
request my informants were even willing to perform numerous
icaros during interviews, thus enabling me to record them. The
comparison of several versions of the same icaro taped under
such circumstances and during a ritual, should be of interest
to ethnomusicologists. Most of Don Emilio's repertoire was, in
fact, taped during interviews, not in the actual context in
which they are used 54 .
Don Emilio told me how, during his initiation to ayahuasca,
an old man appeared both in the visions produced by the beverage and in his dreams, in order to teach him icaros (cf. appendix III, icaro 1). When he took other plants he learned more
icaros. On one occasion, he dreamt of being taught an icaro
in his dreams, which he brought back and memorized perfectly
during ayahuasca visions. I have heard similar descriptions
from other informants. It should be observed, however, that
learning icaros is not synonymous with being a shaman. I have
met several persons who have learned a few icaros from ayahuasca, but who do not consider themselves qualified for curing or
performing other shamanic tasks.
5.2. Icaros and Plant-Teachers
Don Emilio gave me a long list of plants that "teach" icaros. I
will here give some examples. There is a clear association
between the qualities or properties of certain plants and the
icaros they inspire.
Icaro de la Bobinzana
Bobinzana is a beautiful tree (Swartzia arborecens (Aubl.) Pittier (Leguminosae) (Soukup 1970:332) which is considered a
plant-teacher by the vegetalistas of Loreto. According to Don
Emilio the smell of the flowers of this tree has healing properties. Birds, monkeys and insects use it as "their medicine",
and it has the virtue of "clarifying" the mind of human beings.
The spirit of this tree is a prince, who presents himself
dressed in beautiful garments and carrying a sword. The tree is
To my knowledge only two papers have been written on the magic
melodies sung by the vegetalistas of the Amazonian provinces of
Peru. Both analyse only the icaros taped during one ayahuasca
session (Katz & Dobkin de Rios 1971; Stocks 1979)
I learned recently that in 1965 Rosa Alarco published a brief
article "Análisis musical de las canciones del ayahuasca usadas
por los brujos de la tribu de los orejones del río Napo y por
los curanderos de Iquitos. Informe.". This article is to be
found in Chiappe et al. (1985:135-136). Until now no attempt
has been made to make a systematic survey of the whole repertoire of a mestizo shaman. A. Padilla (1984), wrote a paper on
the melody, harmony, rhythm and expressive features of seven of
Don Emilio's icaros based on the material I gathered during my
first period of field work.
his palace, and this is the reason why it is always blossoming.
Emilio says that the icaro of this tree is used both for curing
and as a melody to win the love of a woman.
Icaro de la Catahua
Catahua (Hura crepitans L.) (Euphorbiaceae) is considered to
be a very strong and even dangerous plant-teacher. It is possible to "gain knowledge" from this tree, if a few milliliters
of its latex are consumed, after a good vegetalista has brought
it to boil carefully and sung a powerful icaro during the preparation. A strict diet of several months is required, otherwise the tree "may kill the person". Don Emilio explained to me
that a mixture of the latex of this tree, together with patiquina (Dieffenbachia sp.), a genus containing very toxic constituents (Arditti & Rodriguez 1982) and pucunucho (capsicum
pepper) is used to destroy lakes where there are yacuruna or
evil inhabitants of the water (see Valdizán & Maldonado
1922:11; Karsten 1964:197; Dobkin de Ríos 1972:80), often identified as huge boas, bufeos (fresh water dolphins) and mermaids
(Regan 1983: 176-185).
As a matter of fact this plant contains strong piscicidal
(Sakata & Kawasu 1971) and other biodynamic compounds (Evans &
Soper 1978; Pere, Pere & Rouge 1981). According to Don Emilio
the icaro de la catahua is whistled before one approaches dangerous cochas (ox-bow lakes). Some cochas (also called colpas)
are considered especially powerful places, the dwelling of spirits, which one cannot enter without special protection. If
this is not done, diabolic spirits may produce heavy winds and
rain, and the person runs the risk of being devoured by a boa
(cf. Reátegui 1984).
Icaro del Doctor Ojé
Ojé (Ficus anthelmintica Mart.; F. insipida Willd.; F. glabrata
HBK) (Moraceae) is a large tree, whose latex is widely used in
the Peruvian Amazon as antihelmintic. Scientific study of its
properties as a medicinal plant is in progress (Hansson 1984).
Species of this genus are rich in biodynamic compounds (Eidler, Genkina & Shakirov 1975; Elgamal; El-Tawil & Fayez 1975;
Venkatachalam & Mulchandani 1982). Don Emilio considers Ojé a
powerful plant-teacher. The spirit of this tree is supposed to
be a big, fat, elegant white man, wearing a hat and a walking
stick, who instructs the shaman who calls him how to cure certain illnesses. The icaro of this tree is a powerful defence
against evil shamans. By whistling this melody, a dense fog
will be created around the witch, rendering him incapable of
seeing where he is and unable to cause any harm (cf. appendix
III, icaro 2).
Don Emilio's repertoire includes the icaros of several other
plant-teachers such as the icaro del Clavohuasca (Tynnanthus
panurensis (Bur.) Sandwith) (Bignoniaceae), icaro de la rayabalsa (Montrichardia arborecens Schott) (Araceae), icaro del
ayahuman (Couroupita guianensis Aubl.) (Lecythidaceae), etc.
Don Emilio explained to me that it is also possible to
"dietar", a term that means to follow the diet and gain knowledge learn from perfumes, certain minerals like pedernal
(flintstone), and even metals such as steel, so that one will
be able to learn their icaros. By adding some drops of a perfume to the ayahuasca beverage during its preparation it is
possible to learn huarmi icaros to attract women. By putting a
piece of flintstone or of steel in a glass of water for several
days, drinking the water and following the diet, it is possible
to assimilate certain qualities of these objects. The icaro del
pedernal is used by witches to cause destruction by fire.
The icaro del acero (icaro of steel) makes the body strong
enough to resist rains and heavy winds. In Yarinacocha, near
Pucallpa, by the Ucayali river, Guillermo Arévalo told me that
he believes that it is also possible to learn from gasoline and
certain acids, not by ingestion, but by inhaling them, and following the prescribed diet.
The spirits of the plant-teachers, in their turn, teach the
shaman apprentice during his initiation other icaros by which
some qualities of certain animals can be incorporated. Here
are some examples:
Icaro del Pelejo
The pelejo (sloth) (Bradypus tridactylus) is, according to Don
Emilio, a very clean and strong animal. It is not disturbed
by rain or heavy winds. It never eats meat or fruit, only the
sprouts of certain trees. The icaro of this animal is used for
curing children with digestive disturbances or affected by
illnesses "produced by water." (cf. appendix III, icaro 3).
Icaro de la Pinsha
The pinsha (toucan), according to Don Emilio, is a bird that
sings in the evening to attract females. Its song is sad and
beautiful. By singing the icaro of this bird one can make a
woman cry and win her love.
Icaro del Flautero-Pinsha
The flautero-pinsha is another bird (unidentified) whose icaro
is used as a defence against the Chullachaqui (cf.4.1.1.), and
against illness produced by other jungle spirits. By singing
this icaro the vegetalista is able to "enter" the beautiful and
well built nest made by this bird.
Icaro del ninacuru
According to Don Emilio, the ninacuru is an insect whose eyes
look like the headlights of a car. By singing this icaro one
is able to look for a person that has been abducted by the yakuruna (water people). The shaman, projecting light out of his
eyes, will become like one of those insects and will easily
find the person in the underwater world.
Invocations of other animals are frequent. Animals such as
the eagle, the condor, the boa, the eel and the jaguar are
called upon for healing, for protection, or even, in the case
of evil shamans, to cause harm. Each of these animals is able
to transport the vegetalista to its particular domains in the
underwater world, the forest or the sky.
All my informants claim to be good hunters, and are extremely good at imitating animals. Don Emilio says that he "understands" the language of certain animals. As I wrote earlier,
during the period in which the novice is following the diet one
of his tasks is to watch carefully the animals and plants of
the jungle in order to learn from them. According to Calvo
(1981:232) and Lamb (1985:24?), Don Manuel Cordoba Ríos, when
taking ayahuasca, was able to convey to people the visions of
birds and animals by imitating them. The person is then able
to study their behaviour. Through the icaros the shaman is able
to "identify himself" with the animal and see the world accordingly. This idea is admirably expressed in Lamb's (1985: 24)
narration based on interviews with Cordoba Ríos, a vegetalista
from Iquitos (cf.1.6., on Lamb's work).
It seems to me that the central idea is that certain qualities or properties of plants, animals, minerals or metals can
be incorporated by the ingestion of some part of them. The icaro, which is the result of this absorption, is like the quintessence of the corresponding object, and can be used by the
shaman for curing, to cause harm, to protect himself against
evil shamans or spirits, etc.
5.3. Function of the icaros
Icaros may serve all the functions that we associate with shamanic endevour: They may be used for evoking the spirits of
a plant-teacher or a dead shaman, for travelling to other
realms and dealing with the beings of those worlds, for modifying and tuning one's visions during ayahuasca sessions, for
healing, for hunting certain animals or for fishing a certain
species, etc. I here present a rough classification, highly
provisional, which should be revised when more material has
been collected and studied.
5.3.1. Icaros for calling the spirit of a person, plant or animal
It seems that the way of communication par excellence between
the shaman and the spirits is through magic chants or melodies.
The spirits often present themselves to the shaman singing or
whistling a particular icaro. When the shaman learns these icaros, he can use them to call upon the spirits. So, by singing
or whistling the icaro of the plant-teachers, the shaman invites the spirits to come forth. The guardian spirits that all
my informants claim to possess, and which may be anthropomorphic or zoomorphic, are also called through icaros (cf.4.3.)
(cf. appendix III, icaro 4).
By calling through an icaro the spirits of two persons, a man
and a woman, they may be attached emotionally. Don Emilio told
me how a man in love with a woman who does not return his love
will go to visit him to ask for his help. In an ayahuasca session Don Emilio whistles the icaro de la piedra, by which he
can call the spirits of the man and the woman. A black stone
rotating very rapidly on an axis also made of stone then appears. He will then attach the spirits of both the man and the
woman to the stone so that the woman will feel dizzy and afraid
and will embrace the man who stands at her side. The icaro will
unite them for ever.
Through the icaro de la arañita, Don Emilio says, a similar
effect can be accomplished. By whistling this icaro a little
spider appears to spin its web around the spirit of the man and
the woman, uniting them for eternity. These sessions always
take place at night. The woman, who at this time is supposed to
be sleeping in her home, dreams of the man. When she wakes up
she feels sad and thinks of him. She ends up by trying to get
into touch with him.
As we have seen (4.1.6.) through the aproppriate icaro it is
possible to neutralize love magic caused by the bufeo colorado (pink river dolphin).
5.3.2. Icaros to modify the effect of ayahuasca and other
By using icaros my informants claim to be able to modify the
hallucinations produced by ayahuasca and other psychotropic
plants. There are icaros for increasing or diminishing the intensity of the visions produced by the plants, for changing
the colours perceived, for directing the emotional contents of
the hallucinations, etc. (cf. appendix III, icaro 5).
The icaros are very important in structuring the visions. In
fact, one can say that it is during the effects of ayahuasca
that the special quality of icaros can be perceived. The conditions in which the beverage is taken -darkness, perhaps the
jungle surroundings, the smell of camphor water, fasting during
the day when it is taken, etc.-, and the effects that the plant
itself has on the body, both hallucinatory and parasympathetic,
all this contributes to an extremely influenceable state of
consciousness in the participants. Through often very poetic
associations with the texts of the icaros, and sometimes using
most interesting acoustic effects by whistling or singing, a
good vegetalista should even be able to produce a collective
vision to those present (see later 6.1.3.). We could even say
that vegetalistas are masters of synesthesia55. This is one of
the most admired qualities in a good vegetalista: Being able to
"show" to people beautiful or impressive visions. Competitions
and tacit rivalries may sometimes arise during sessions in
which several vegetalistas are present, when two or more, so
to say, try to "monopolize" the quality of the visions.
During the ceremony the first icaros sung or whistled are
usually for subir mareación (for increasing the hallucinations)
(see appendix III, icaro No. 5). When several maestros or persons that know icaros are present at a ceremony, they often
sing their icaros at the same time -I have not yet heard two
persons sing exactly the same icaro. The effect is highly suggestive, and indeed it contributes to enhance the emotional
state of the participants and may even alter or intensify the
contents of their visions.
I would like to point out that a trance state can be achieved
without the consumption of psychotropic plants only by singing
or whistling certain icaros. During the summer of 1982 I spent
one month in the home of Don José Coral, who at that time was
treating two very sick women. He took ayahuasca aproximately
once a week, but conducted healing sessions three or four times
a week. On those occasions he entered into a trance state merely by singing and smoking one or two cigarettes of mapacho (a
local variety of tobacco normally employed by shamans). The
trance state cannot be attributed to the tobacco, as he did not
inhale large quantities. I would rather say that it was autoinduced through concentration and the whistling of magic melodies. He thereafter engaged in long talks with the spirits in a
language he told me was Cocama. Similar observations were made
by Olsen (1975) who worked among the Warao Indians, and certainly reinforce his hypothesis that an altered state of consciousness may also be reached through music alone.
Angelika Gebhart-Sayer (1986) has studied the correlation
between music and geometric designs among the Shipibo-Conibo.
According to her, the shaman engages in synaesthetic awareness.
She writes:
"His songs can, so to speak, be heard in a visual
way, and the geometric designs may be seen acoustically. This phenomenon is often referred to in the
texts of the shamanic songs. For example, a medicine
may be called "my painted song", "my voice, my little
painted vessel", "my words with those designs" or "my
ringing pattern".
Synesthetic experiences are a commonly reported phenomenon under the effects of other psycotropic plants or substances. Ríos
et al. (1965: 9) reported audio-optical-cenestesic synesthesia
among some of the subjects to whom they administered harmine
and ayahuasca in a controlled situation.
5.3.3. Icaros arkana
As we saw in the previous chapter (cf.4.2.), once the vegetalista has entered into that "other reality", he needs defences.
Through the icaros arkana the vegetalista protects himself
against attacks by witches or the evil spirits of the air, the
water or the earth. When a vegetalista is healing, or when he
enters that other dimensions through the ingestion of psychotropic plants, he is particularly vulnerable and exposed to the
attacks of the agents that cause illness 56 . If the vegetalista
does not possess stronger icaros than those of the witch that
caused the illness, he may run the risk of being killed by him
(cf. appendix III, icaro 6). One of the ways in which a witch
attacks a rival shaman is by darkening his visions through an
icaro. But there are also icaros to counteract this effect and
to recover the clarity of the visions produced by ayahuasca or
other plant teachers.
5.3.4. Icaros for Healing
Some examples have already been described above. According to
Don Alejandro icaros are especially effective for curing illnesses caused by witchcraft or due to the action of evil spirits. But there are also icaros to cure other illnesses, for
example snake bites. I want to stress the following point: It
is believed that it is the melody itself that has curative
powers. One example may illustrate this idea. During my field
work in August 1984 I met Don Manuel Ahuanari, an eighty-yearold man who lives with his second wife near the city of Iquitos. He was a vegetalista, but did not practise any more, since
he had become seriously ill. I met him in an ayahuasca session
at the home of Don José Coral. He told me that when he was 12
years old he was bitten by a jergón (Bothrops atrox), a dangerous snake. When he was close to death, a young man happened to
visit the plantation on which he lived with his family. The
young man heard about his case, and said that he was going to
try an icaro he had learned against snake bites. By singing and
blowing smoke over Don Manuel he managed to cure him. Don Manuel learned this icaro during the healing process, and said he
had cured many cases of snake bites during his long life with
the help of this magic chant.
In Cesar Calvo's novel on Manuel Cordoba Rios and other "brujos" of the Amazon, there is the following paragraph:
"When one takes ayawashka, one becomes like a crystal, said Ino Moxo. One becomes like a crystal exposed to all spirits that live in the air, both evil
and good ones. It is for this reason we have icaros,
icaros to protect ourselves, icaros to heal, songs
that call forth a certain spirit to counteract
others..."(Calvo 1981:208)(My translation).
Don Emilio once told me a significant thing. He said: "If you
have learned from ayahúman (one of the plant-teachers, also
used in the extraction of the virote or magic dart shot by evil
shamans), you do not need to go out to the forest to bring back
its bark, because you already know its icaro." This shows that
at least in certain cases the very essence of the tree is
thought of being part of the magic melody, and therefore it can
be used instead of the tree itself. In other cases the icaros
are used to reinforce the effect of medicinal plants. All the
shamans I have been working with always sing or whistle an icaro during the preparation or application of medicinal plants 57 .
5.3.5. Huarmi-icaros
Warmi means "woman" in Quechua. These are icaros for winning
the love of a woman. One of the most important tasks the shaman
has is to solve emotional conflicts in his community. Iquitos
and its vicinity, as probably many other Amazonian settlements,
is characterized by a very unstable emotional life. Couples
easily break apart. Many women with large families are abandoned by their husbands, or, conversely, men coming back from
work in the jungle find that their wives have left their homes.
Many of the clients of Den Emilio and other vegetalistas are
men and women looking for advice or help to recover or retain
their partners. Love icaros are extremely important in this
context. Some of these icaros are sung or whistled in association with ritual baths with sacha-ajos (Mansoa alliacea (Lam)
A. Gentry), a plant. These baths, very popular in Iquitos, are
believed to bring good luck in work and love.
5.3.6. Other kinds of icaros
In the repertoire of my informants there are other kinds of
icaros which are not easily classified. Don Emilio has for instance a beautiful icaro to wish farewell to a "good person"
(Icaro para despedir a un personaje bueno). There is one icaro
by which he is able to attract a pauche (Arapaima gigas), a
In the healing sessions in which I participated in the area
of Iquitos the vegetalistas usually combined several elements:
icaros, tobacco blowing, sucking the afflicted parts and the
use of plants, both for healing and for returning the illness
to the person who caused it. In Yarinacocha, however, I participated in an ayahuasca session conducted by Don Benito Arevalo, a Shipibo shaman, and his son Guillermo. They were treating a young man suffering from paludismo (malaria). During
the whole session they never approached their patient, who was
lying under his mosquito net. At a distance of two meters they
sang their icaros in his direction. They told me that he had
been near death a few days earlier, but was now recovering. A
similar practice has been reported by Siskind (1973: 31) among
the Sharanahua, who use ayahuasca only to diagnose the illness,
but who cure it with magic chants.
huge fish which is much appreciated for its delicious taste.
Through the Icaro del alcanfor (icaro of camphor) Don Emilio is
able to make a witch fall asleep, so that he can try to convince the witch in his dreams of the necessity to stop doing
harm to people. Camphor, an organic compound extracted from
Cinnamomum camphora is widely used in the Peruvian Amazon by
shamans and curanderos. It is normally always present both in
healing sessions and in ayahuasca ceremonies. Like tobacco, it
is used for helping the shaman to regurgitate the magic phlegm
which is used as an aid for substracting magic darts or virotes
from the body of a victim. Lewis (1980, 1927: 303-305) pointed
out that camphor has some psychotropic properties, which is
perhaps one of the reasons of its use among the vegetalistas of
the Peruvian Amazon.
Don Emilio also knows an icaro (icaro para llamar a un indio
Yagua), by which he calls forth a Yagua Indian, who presents
himself playing the llupana (a pan flute). Singing the icaro
del Jívaro he is able to cure illnesses caused en idioma, that
is, caused by chants or recitations in native languages.
There is a certain hierarchy among the icaros of a shaman.
Each shaman possesses a principal icaro, which represents the
essence of his power. Don Alejandro says that if a vegetalista
manages to learn the main icaro of another practitioner, he
will inherit his knowledge upon the latter's death.
There is also a hierchy among the shamans, depending on the
icaros they know. Both Don Alejandro and Don José Coral seem
to value the fact that their icaros are difficult to memorize.
Icaros in Indian languages, compared with icaros in Spanish,
are considered especially powerful. The language most frequently used is jungle Quichua, a Quechua dialect, which is the mother tongue of several tribes of the Ecuadorian, Peruvian and
Colombian Amazon areas (see Whitten 1981:125). Don José also
sings in Cocama and Omagua, and sometimes in a mixture of all
three languages with the purpose of impressing and confusing
rival shamans. Don Manuel Ahuanari, on the other hand, states
that the icaros should be clearly intelligible, so that everybody is aware of the animal spirits being invoked.
Summarizing, one may say that icaros are the quintessence of
shamanic power and wisdom. These magic chants or melodies are
what a person who takes ayahuasca is hoping to learn. It is
through the magic chants that a good vegetalista is revealed to
other shamans. The quantity and quality of his magic melodies
place a vegetalista within the hierarchy that is tacitly recognized among them. It is through the icaros that the vegetalistas heal many an illness, that they defend themselves against
evil spirits or shamans, that they protect themselves in their
shamanic journeys, that they call the spirits of men and women
to perform love magic.
5.4. The magic phlegm and the magic dart or "virote"
At some point during the initiation, either the spirits or the
senior shaman gives the neophyte a magic phlegm called yachay,
yausa or mariri, and other objects, which are ingested and
hidden "in the chest". The yachay is described as a thick
phlegm which the vegetalista is able to regurgitate, and with
the help of which he extracts the magic darts or virotes sent
by evil sorcerers which may produce illness or even death.
All the vegetalistas I have met claim to have it (cf. Chiappe
et al. 1985: 72). Don Celso told me that the yachay are always
two, one male and one female, about 12 and 8 cm long. He told
me that the spirits presented him with his yachay, which was of
four colours: white, yellow, blue and green. He could have
accepted, but refused, phlegm of red colour, bones, thorns and
razors, which would have turned him into an evil sorcerer (cf.
5.5.). Don Alejandro told me how after 3 months of diet his
Indian teacher told him he was going to "plant" the yachay in
him. With the help of a beak of a toucan he blew tobacco smoke
and tobacco juice through each of his nostrils. He then regurgitated phlegm in a little bowl and gave it to him to drink,
together with tobacco juice 5 8 . Don Emilio considers this an
erroneous procedure. He got his phlegm directly from the spirits, and he would never dream of taking yachay from anyone or
passing them to another person. Don José Coral told me that it
is very dangerous to give phlegm to anyone, because the vegetalista is running the risk of the novice breaking the rules imposed on him (a special diet and sexual abstinence) and the
phlegm returning to himself with great violence producing illness or death.
Don Emilio described his yachay as a sort of magnet, which
will attract the virote when he sucks the place where it is
located. The illness is then separated from the yachay in the
mouth, and thrown up outside the house. Wen the magic darts
are extracted from the body of a patient, they are believed to
return to the shaman who sent them. If he is not aware of the
incoming projectiles, he may be killed by them. According to
This practice is found in the shamanic initiation of several
Amazonian tribes. Among the Shuar, for example, the senior shaman gives the novice five different kinds of babas (phlegm)
during initiation, or if the novice is a relative or close
friend, ten types of phlegm Pellizaro S/A:6). According to Harner (1972:155) among the Jívaro of Ecuador "the practising shaman regurgitates what appears to be -to those who have taken
natemä- a brilliant substance in which the spirit helpers are
contained. He cuts part of it off with a machete and gives it
to the novice to swallow. The recipient experiences pain upon
taking into his stomach and stays on his bed for ten days,
repeatedly drinking natemä. The Jívaro believe they can keep
magical darts in their stomachs indefinitively and regurgitate
them at will.". Natemä is the name given by the Jívaro to ayahuasca.
Don Emilio, the yachay can also be used to extract the poison
of a wound after a snake bite.
Don Jose ingesting tobacco smoke to bring forth
his yachay
In order to bring the yachay to his mouth, the vegetalista
takes a little camphor, and then ingests tobacco smoke. He
makes impressive sounds while trying to regurgitate the yachay
and gather it in his mouth. After this procedure he is ready
to begin the extraction of the magic dart 59 .
This substance has been reported from many Amazonian tribes
(cf. Karsten 1964:178; Nimuendaju 1939:150; 1919-1920:10021037; 1921-22:367-406; Tessman 1930:229, 406, 520. 472; Langdon
1979b). Tessman, in his study on the ethnic groups of Northeastern Peru, calls it Zaubermasse. Among the Jibaro it is
called tsentsak, "a brilliant substance in which the spirit
helpers are contained" (Harner 1973:17-20), and which has functions both offensive (like a dart) and defensive (like a shield
against incoming darts).
Among the Lamista Quechua the term yachay is used. According
to Franpoise Barbira-Scazzocchio, the Quechua term yachay may
be glossed as ritual knowledge giving rise to spiritual power.
It is derived from the root yacha ("to know"). Yachay, one of
the few nominalized verbal roots used in Lamas Quechua, refers
specifically to ritual knowledge. It is conceived of as materialized in a thick white phlegm believed to lie in the top
part of the stomach (Quechua shungu), the most vital part of
the body for the Lamista Quechua. This phlegm contains spiritdarts and spirit-helpers, which Lamista shamans call upon to
cure and to harm. The generic term for shaman is yachak, owner
of a yachay (Barbira-Scazzochio 1979:178-179).
We can see that the concept of yachay is rather complex. The
yachay is at the same time a visible manifestation of shamanic
knowledge, the place where the spirits are contained, and even
the spirits themselves. These spirits may protect a person,
and in this respect are defenders and related to the arkana
spirits and magic garment we dealt with earlier (cf.4.2.). As
pathogenic agents these spirits may be identified with the virotes or magic darts, which are their material manifestations.
As helpers to extract the virote they may be considered helping
Before I elaborate further on these identifications, let us
for a moment consider the idea the vegetalistas have of the
magic darts.
Among the mestizo population the magic dart or pathogenic
agent is called virote, which is the Spanish name of a very
strong arrow, usually shot with a crossbow, which was used in
the Middle Ages. This arrow was capable of penetrating a
knight's armour. Although it became obsolete in Europe due to
the introduction of firearms, it was still used during the conquest of America. The term virote was later applied to the
darts shot by the Indians with a blowgun, and by extension, to
the magic darts shot by shamans.
Among the Jívaro, green tobacco juice is used for regurgitating the magic substance, which they call tsentsak (Harner
The virote is described either as a kind of phlegm which sorcerers are able to shoot through their mouths and which penetrates the body, or as thorns, small pieces of bone, and sometimes even small insects, which are believed to be suspended in
the yachay being the projectiles that penetrate the patient's
body. In other words, the virote is either a substance of the
same nature as the yachay, or it is some material object suspended in it, which can be manipulated by the vegetalista. Perhaps both views coexist. In the first instance the virote and
the yachay appear to be two aspects of the same thing: the
first denotes the magic substance as a weapon, and the second
as healing aid. Both the magic darts and the magic phlegm share
the characteristic of returning to the person who either shot
or donated them 60 . They are in a sense living creatures at the
command of the vegetalista, and can therefore be assimilated
into the more general concept of helping spirits, which dwell
in the body of the shaman and are at his command.
All this is in perfect agreement with what Métraux (1967:91-92)
writes in his general study of Amazonian shamanism:
"... the magical substance, the pathogenic objects and
the helping spirits constitute three aspects of the
same magic power" 61 .
In another work (1944:215, quoted by Eliade 1964:52), Métraux
expresses the same idea in the following way:
"Between the magical substance, an invisible but
tangible mass, and the arrows, thorns, rock crystals
with which the shaman is stuffed there is no difference in nature. These objects materialize the sha60
Among the Omagua and other tribes (cf.Tessman 1930:60) the magic darts return to the shaman after the death of his victims.
If the shaman possesses darts in his body that belong to other
shamans, they will return to them after his death.
My translation. This is the whole paragraph:
"Entre cette substance, masse invisible mais
tangible, et les fleches, épines, cristaux de
roche, dont le chaman en quelque sort est lardé,
il n'y a pas différence de nature. Ces objects
matérialisent la force du chaman qui, dans de
nombreuses tribus, est conpue sous la forme plus
vague et tant soit peu abstraite de 'substance
magique'. Nous pouvons même aller plus loin.
L'esprit auxiliare du chaman est une personnification de ce pouvoir et non pas une création
distincte coexitant avec la notion de force
invisible. A notre avis, la substance magique,
les objects pathogène et les esprits auxiliaires
incarnent trois aspects du même pouvoir magique. " (Métraux 1967: 91-92).
man's power, which, among numerous tribes, is conceived in the vaguer and rather abstract form of a
magical substance."
Rafael Karsten also noticed the ambivalent nature of the "magical arrows". He wrote in his unfinished book on the religion
of South-American Indians east of the Andes:
"The Indian "arrow" or "splinter" is half inanimate
object, half living being, half material, half spiritual, half natural, half supernatural. Whatever it
is, it is to the primitive mind the most real thing
possible, because its existence is manifested by its
dreadful effects." (Karsten 1964:178).
A little later Karsten adds the following:
"Although the tunchi, when let off against a person
by a sorcerer, or extracted from the body of a patient by a medicine-man, always appears in the shape
of some material object, yet it is at the same time
regarded as a living demoniacal being."
A vegetalista has regurgitated his yachay and is adding
several virotes or darts to those already suspended in it.
The virotes here include a piranha, the famous carnivorous
fish, which is also used in witchcraft.
Let us we now return for a moment to the idea expressed in
chapter 3, dealing with the plant-teachers, in which we saw
(cf.3.6.) that the novice when he takes these plants is, in
fact, incorporating some of their qualities, becoming like
them. We saw also that by means of the magic melodies or icaro
the shaman is able to become like the animals he invokes in
order to visit various places of this or other worlds. We saw
also that Don Emilio expressed the idea that if ayahúman was
not available, the icaro of this plant would do the same job.
We have, on the other hand, the belief among certain tribes
that each plant and animal have their own magic substance, and
that the magic susbstance adopts zoomorphic qualities 62 . All
t h e s e identifications show us that the yachay is the
quintessence of the spirit of the various plant-teachers. This
substance shares material and immaterial qualities and represents a transference of the spirits of each tree, with all
their theriomorphic and anthropomorphic manifestations, and all
their knowledge, into the body of the shaman. I have even come
to the conclusion that the icaro is another manifestation of
the yachay. The same metaphores are used: The icaros, as the
yachay grows inside the body. They are both subtle manifesta-
For example, according to Stirling (1938:115, quoted by Métraux
1967:90), this substance is called tsaruma among the Jivaro,
and is possessed by all the spirits, plants and animals enumerated in the myths of origin.
Michael Harner (1973: 15) begins as follows his article on Jívaro shamanism:
"He had drunk, and now he softly sang. Gradually,
faint lines and forms began to appear in the darkness, and the shrill music of the tsentsak, the spirit helpers, arose around him. The power of the drink
fed them. He called, and they came. First pangi, the
anaconda, coiled about his head, transmuted into a
crown of gold. Then wampang, the gigant butterfly,
hovered above his shoulder and sang to him with its
wings. Snakes, spiders, birds and bats danced in the
air above him. On his arms appeared a thousand eyes
as his demon helpers emerged to search the night for
tions of the spirits 63 .
I believe that these ideas may throw light on the problem of
the dichotomy good versus evil shaman, which I will deal with
in the next section.
5.5. The dichotomy good vs evil vegetalista
All my informants told me that when they were following the
diet, the spirits of the plants appeared to offer them presents. Some plants offered the novice magic songs for various
purposes, others presented them with perfumes for love magic,
others with phlegm of various kinds that would grow inside
their bodies as if they were living plants, others with bones,
thorns, razors, and other sharp objects for causing harm,
others with snakes and other animals that they would be able to
use for defending themselves or for attacking.
This idea of accepting different gifts from the spirits is
essential for understanding the dychotomy good versus evil vegetalistas. It is the neophyte who decides what to accept from
the spirits. I have repeatedly heard among my informants the
idea that it is easier to become a witch than a curing shaman.
La hechicería pega más rápido que la medicina (one learns more
quickly how to cause harm than how to heal). Don Emilio says
that the spirits of the plants first offer the neophyte great
powers and gifts with which he may cause harm. If the apprentice is weak and accepts them, he will become a witch. Only
later the spirits present other kinds of gifts, for healing or
for performing love magic 64 .
Some trees such as lupuna and caupuri are considered evil by
themselves, and the people who take these trees will automati63
similar ideas are found among the Siona. The magic substance is
called dau. Jean Langdon (1979:69-72) has discussed this concept throroughly. She explores three different meanings of the
term dau: "1. dau as the shaman's knowledge and power which may
be embodied as a substance that grows within the shaman's body;
2. dau as a concrete witchcraft substance; and 3. dau as a
sickness substance, causing a bodily ailment similar to our own
colloquial meaning of "illness". In each of these cases, dau is
a concrete thing existing independently of the individual rather than as an inherent quality or function of the individual."
A similar idea is found among the Jibaro (Harner 1973:18-19):
"At the end of the first month, a tsentsak emerges from his
mouth. With this magical dart at his disposal, the new shaman
experiences a tremendous desire to bewitch. If he casts his
tsentsak to fulfill this desire, he will become a bewitching
shaman. If, on the other hand, the novice can control his
impulse and reswallow this first tsentsak, he will become a
curing shaman."
cally become brujos (evil sorcerers). Trees with big thorns are
generally considered to teach witchcraft 65 . other trees, such
as ayahúman may teach both how to heal and how to do harm. Don
José Coral compares some of these gifts to injections which
can be used either for healing or for causing harm. I have also
repeteadly heard the idea that objects of red colour are for
causing harm, while those of white colour are medicine.
Don Emilio told me that he did not want to receive from the
spirits anything with which to harm others. Don Celso said that
sometimes he regrets that he did not learn how to do harm,
because there are situations in which he would have had good
use for a virote. Don José admits that he can do harm, but he
seldom does. I have also heard the idea that in order to heal
one must also understand how harm is done. A vegetalista from
Pucallpa told me that from the spirits one must not receive and
put inside one's body thorns, needless and objects of that
kind, because if one does, one becomes evil. On the other hand
his genios (one of the denominations for the spirits of the
plants) may have the virotes, and in case of need they can be
sent to attack.
In other words, when taking ayahuasca and following the diet,
the neophyte enters the spiritual world in which he meets the
plant-teachers (and also the spirits of dead shamans). Some of
the plant-teachers possess only positive qualities, and by
absorbing their essence, the person becomes like them. If they
are evil, the vegetalista also becomes like them, and only
desires to do harm. Some of these plants have both good and
evil qualities, and it is the vegetalista who decides what to
incorporate inside his body. There is, therefore, no sharp distinction between good and evil vegetalistas. It is also possible to become evil after having practised medicine for a long
time. For example, it is often said that a vegetalista who
drinks a lot of alcohol will finally become an evil sorcerer,
even if he was good in the beginning. It seems that there are
self imposed limits to the knowledge they want to acquire, spi65
According to Karsten (1964:80), certain trees, such as chonta
palms, both the kind cultivated for the sake of its fruit (Guilielma sp.) and the wild species (Bactris and Iriartea sps.),
are considered demoniac trees on account of their large thorns
used as magic darts by Ecuadorian tribes, both east and west of
the Andes.
Karsten (1964:181), in turn refers to Nimuendajú (1952:102,
104), who reports that among the Ticuna on the rio Solimoes in
western Brazil, "a new shaman, if he has not received the magic
substance called tacáca of evil effect, asks one of the spirit
trees which possesses thorns, especially the pupunha palm and
the açacu, for them. At the foot of one of these trees he
clears a spot, and on it he places a small gourd with a cigarette rolled in the inner bark of tauari (Cariniana sp.) lying
across the top. The following morning he finds in the pot the
tacáca which contains the thorns requested."
ritual dimensions they do not want to trespass. Don Emilio has
told me "uno no debe ambicionar demasiado" (one should not be
too eager). The more knowledge and power one acquires, the
greater the temptation to use it incorrectly.
Chapter 6.
6.1. Etiology of illness
Among the mestizo population of the Peruvian Amazon, like in
any other complex society, several alternating conceptions of
health and illness coexist, even within the same person. Besides Western doctors and health personnel, there are many different types of practitioners. No attempt has ever been made,
as far as I know, to make an inventory or classification of
such practitioners. In the few studies that have been published
by Peruvian scholars (cf.Seguín 1979; Chiappe et al. 1985), all
such practitioners are grouped together under the label curanderos. But this is an oversimplification. Although I have concentrated my attention exclusively on vegetalistas, and among
them, on ayahuasqueros, or specialists in the use of ayahuasca,
in the interviews with my informants I have become aware of the
existence of practitioners called oracionistas (who cure mainly
through prayers and spells), perfumeros (who have an elaborate
use of many different kinds of perfumes in order to cure), and
espiritualistas (who work through spirits, but without consuming psychotropic plants), apparently also of several types.
Jean Pierre Chaumeil, in his study of Yagua shamanism, wrote
that capital questions such as illness, death, vengeance, -and
even to a large extent the hostility between different tribal
groups- are interpreted by the Yagua in reference to shamanism
(Chaumeil 1983:7). These ideas, that can probably be applied to
any tribal Amazonian community, are still also prevalent among
the mestizo population of the Peruvian Amazon.
No doubt one may find ideas about illness that have their
source in Spanish concepts from the time of the conquest and
colonization of America, as for example the dichotomy hot/cold,
the imbalance of which may produce illness. Other European traditions -of later introduction- are also present, including
gnosticism and Rosicrucianism66. Many of the religious groups
now present in the Amazon -and there is nowadays an explosion
of cults- are in one way or other also connected with healing.
There also seem to be elements of African origin. Wagley pointed out (1976: 217) that in spite of the relatively small number
In fact I briefly met several youngish ayahuasqueros who live
in Iquitos and call themselves Rosacrucians. I have not yet
devoted my attention to this type of practitioners.
of black slaves that were brought to the Amazon area by the
Spaniards and Portuguese, African custom also influenced Amazonian folk belief. It would be very interesting, indeed, to devote attention to the ideas about illness and healing embraced
by all the various religious cults. So far I have concentrated
only on the practices of vegetalistas of rural extract and of
considerable age (all my main informants are over 60 years
old). This fact restricts the application of the concepts that
I am going to present to the totality of mestizo Amazonian
people. However, I believe that the concepts of illness found
among the mestizo practitioners I have been working with reflect the beliefs of a large part of the population of the Peruvian Amazon. An examination of scientific literature on the
religion and ideas about health and illness held by Amazonian
tribes shows that the ideas which are prevalent among the mestizo population still derive very closely from those found
among the native population of the area.
As we saw in chapter 4, for the mestizo population of the
Peruvian Amazon, especially in the rural areas, the universe is
inhabited by a host of spirits dwelling in the air, the water
and the jungle, which together with the world occupied by human
beings, constitute the four worlds of which the universe is
composed (cf. Regan 1983:I:146). The spiritual world is seen
basically as hostile to human beings. Only experienced vegetalistas are able to relate to these spirits in such a way as to
derive benefits from them.
Some of these spirits are identified with certain plants and
animals, such as the lupuna (Ceiba pentandra), a big tree which
is believed to harm those approaching it without the correct
protection (cf.Karsten 1964:199-200; Calvo 1981:274; Huamán
Ramírez 1985:325-330) 67 , and the bufeo colorado (fresh water
pink dolphin). In other instances they are spiritual beings
such as the Chullachaqui, and the Yakuruna (see 4.1.1. ss.).
The wind, the water and the jungle, which are thought to
possess spirits, may also harm a person. In addition, the spirits of deceased people are believed to wander about frightening those still alive.
An encounter with the spirit world may result in illness,
madness or even death. But human beings may also harm other
people either directly, by using witchcraft, or through a specialist, who usually works for a fee. Illness caused by people
is often called mal de gente.
According to Rafael Karsten, from the sap of this tree, (called
shono by the Shipibo), which is said to be very poisonous, the
Indian sorcerers obtain the mysterious bewitching matter, virote, which they use when they want to harm their enemies (Karsten 1964: 82) (On the virote and the magic substance, see below
4.3.). According to Girard (1958:255) the spirit of this tree
is, among the Shipibo, the supreme spirit or chief of the forest and of the spirits of other trees. It is considered to be
the rain tree, and rituals are held near it to beg for rain.
In this animistic context it is not easy no make a sharp distinction between natural and magical illness. Certain illnesses, for example those that are the result of parasitic invasion or infections, may be more readily considered natural 68 .
Accidents, such as falls, or snake bites, may be considered to
be the result of the action of evil people or spirits.
In most cases of natural illness the patient or his/her relatives will try to rely on their own knowledge, or will seek the
assistance of a healer. Healers, in their turn, if they consider that Western medicine is more effective, often refer the
patients to a medical doctor. If an illness fails to respond to
treatment by Western medicine, it is often suspected of being
caused by witchcraft. When illness is thought to have been produced by a supernatural cause, a vegetalista must be consulted.
The two most common causes of magical illness found in this
area are the intrusion of a magic dart into the patient's body
and soul-loss. The term hacer daño, which is widely used to
indicate witchcraft being used against somebody, may include
the two forms mentioned above, as well as others of more difficult categorization: for example doing harm to somebody by
using preparations extracted from plants or animals 6 9 , by
throwing salt into the entrance of a home, by burying infected
clothes or personal objects that belonged to dead persons,
etc. (Cf. Dobkin de Rios 1972:84-87)70. It is also possible to
cause illness through prayers or spells. It is believed that if
an illness is produced by spells in Indian languages, only a
vegetalista knowing the language in which the spell was cast
I do not possess reliable epidemiological data about disease in
the Peruvian Amazon. Several epidemic diseases, such as measles, whooping cough and tuberculosis, seem to be particularly
severe. Diseases of the respirarory system, such as bronchitis
or pneumonia, and various infectious diseases are very common,
especially among children. Malaria is also very widespread, and
there are many cases of furuncles, conjunctivitis and various
rheumatic disorders. Alcoholism is also a serious problem in
the Amazon.
In certain cases I believe that powerful toxic preparations are
in fact given to people in their food or a drink (cf. Chiappe
1979: 86). In other instances, however, the idea of illness
seems to rely more heavily on the mythological world predominant in the area. So far I have not come across any study of
the organic compounds used in witchcraft in the Amazonas.
Don Emilio told me of a case in which a woman oracionista (one
type of practitioner who does harm through oraciones -prayers
or spells-) had caused harm to another woman by stealing pieces
of her underwear, defecating on it, and burying it. The victim
began to bleed as if she were menstruating. For two weeks she
was treated by medical doctors without success. Don Emilio
cured her with the bark of ubos (unidentified), and by using
magic melodies.
will be able to cure it 7 l .
Illness is a broad concept, which may include somatic and
psychic disturbances, emotional and economic problems. Not
being loved, difficulties in relation with other people, bad
luck in business, laziness, sexual excesses, alcoholism may
all be considered illnesses, and therefore subject to the healing action of a vegetalista (cf. Chiappe 1979:76).
6.2. Diagnosis of illness
One of the most important tasks of a vegetalista is to establish the cause of an illness. The first thing that the shamans
want to determine is whether an illness is "natural", or
whether it has a magical origin. If the illness is caused by
people, it is important to discover the motives for such an
The vegetalista questions the patient about his/her symptoms,
the duration of the illness, and the patient's own diagnosis.
Quite often he also asks for details of the patient's family
and his financial and emotional situation. Examination of the
body and pulse is also current procedure. According to Don Emilio Andrade, an irregular pulse indicates that an illness is
caused by witchcraft.
When a vegetalista is unable to diagnose an illness, or does
not know how to cure it, he -and sometimes also his patientstake ayahuasca in order to consult the doctores, a term which
is used to refer both to the plant-teachers, and to the spirits
which may be contacted through these plants 72 .
The identification of the cause of illness, the assurance
that the vegetalista is able to cure, and sometimes the
patient's visualization of the reasons of his illness, and even
of the illness itself -autoscopy-, probably release endogenous
mechanisms which contribute to the recovery of the person. I
have witnessed how some of the patients treated by the vegetalistas are sometimes forced to self-reflection about their
lives as a whole, and the emotional and social tensions to
which they are subject.
Some sort of "family therapy" is not uncommon, in which a
patient is treated together with his/her partner, and even
According to Pablo Amaringo, a former vegetalista, and nowadays a painter, great murayas and bancos (types of shamans)
know the lengua mística (mystical language) of the spirits,
which is different from any human language. These shamans are
able to cure illnesses produced by spells in any language.
One of the most common functions of ayahuasca among Indian
tribes is to diagnose illness (Cf. Tessman 1930:217; Friedberg
1965:83-84; Kensinger 1973: 13, etc.).
children or other relatives. Financial or emotional problems,
alcoholism and even laziness are also considered illnesses to
be treated by vegetalistas.
Many vegetalistas stress the idea that illness will return to
the person who caused it. This also contributes to the re-establishment of the patient's internal peace as he feels that justice has been done without resorting to any external violence.
Even more effective, I think, are the methods of Don Emilio and
people who like him chose to forgive, and let the Lord decide
the fate of those that are weak enough to harm other people.
As to why people cause harm to others, either directly or
through a vegetalista, the most common reason given is envidia
(envy). To be sucessful, either in business or in any other
area of human endevour -and this applies to the vegetalistas
themselves-, is full of risks: Weak people, may try to do some
Different techniques are found among other vegetalistas. Don
Sergio Freitas told me that he is able to identify the type of
illness by the smell of the patient. It is often said that good
maestros can diagnose an illness only by looking at the
patients. Others say that they only need the name and address
of patients, and they are able to visit them in their visions
or dreams (visions and dreams are often considered equivalent).
The shaman's soul leaves his body and he "visits" patient after
patient to treat them. Don Emilio says that if a vegetalista
has followed the diet long enough, he is able to call the spirit of a patient and heal the person acting only on his spirit.
6.3. Illness as a magic dart: A case study
In both North America and South America, illness may result
either from the introduction a pathogenic object, which may be
a thorn, a piece of wood, an insect, some phlegm, or from "soul
loss" (cf. Eliade 1964: 300; Honko 1968: 49-55). Magic darts are
widely reported among Indian tribes of South America (cf. Karsten 1964:178). As we saw earlier (cf.5.4.) among the mestizo,
the magic dart is known under the name virote, and is intimately related with the concept of yachay, yausa or mariri.
During my field work I have had several occasions to discuss
at length with the patients the cause and development of their
illness, and I have tape recorded numerous interviews. Here
is the account of one of Don Emilio's patients, who was hit by
a virote. I will not try to make any assertions about the
effectiveness of the treatment, as I do not possess any
reliable medical data on the pre-treatment and post-treatment
condition of the patient.
One evening during the summer of 1981 a man went with his
25-year-old son to see Don Emilio. His name was Don Lucas, a
man about fifty years of age, whose main occupation was being a
preacher. His voice was hardly audible. Whispering, and helped
by his son, he explained his case to Don Emilio and agreed on
a healing session for the next evening. I witnessed how Don
Emilio gathered some plants for the treatment (see later 5.3.
2.), and was also present the next evening to document the
healing procedure. After the healing session Don Lucas recovered his voice, and I was able to tape an interview in which he
told me how he had lost his voice. Here is his story:
"On the first of November I went to the cemetery of
Muniche together with my wife and children to sing a
responsory for my dead children and a grandchild.
When I was doing this, some men and women who were
also there, approached me and asked me whether I
would also sing a responsory for their dear ones. I
refused. I told them: "You have already got a responsero". But they said: "Yes, but he only prays, and he
charges us five pounds (500 soles) per child. But you
can both pray and sing." I then agreed and began to
sing the responsory. I already knew that the man was
evil, in other words, a witch. When I finished, one
of the men there invited me to his home to sing a
responsory there, too. When we were going out of the
cemetery, the other responsero looked at me and
laughed as he passed me. I told him: "Laugh at your
own life, not at me". I had walked about twenty meters when I felt as if I had been struck by a blow on
my throat. I felt as if I had swallowed a leaf, and
I began to cough and was about to choke. I went to
the harbour, where I had my canoe, and drank a little
water, but I did not feel any relief. We arrived at
the place where the man who wanted the responsories
lived, and I told him: "Friend, prepare the candles
at once and I will recite the responsory. I do not
feel well." I recited the responsories, and then I
told him: "I am leaving". It was already quite
late. I arrived home, and took a little camphor
But I did not feel any relief. Finally, I
lost my voice.
I have been like this for eight months. I have been
to several vegetalistas, but they have not been able
to cure me. One day my sister went to my house and
told my son: "Why don't you take your father to Don
Emilio. This man knows how to heal." Then my son told
me: "Father, tomorrow we go to Don Emilio." I could
not talk. I told him by gestures that I did not know
Don Emilio. But I agreed. We came here on Wednesday.
He told us to come today. And we did. He began to
suck the illness away and to heal me. I felt that my
voice was coming back. When he had finished, I was
able to talk just as I am talking to you now."
Don Emilio explained that Don Lucas suffered from cungatuya,
which is a phlegm that will slowly close the throat of the victim, until the person is unable to talk, to eat or drink. If
the patient is not taken to a good vegetalista, he will die73.
The idea of illness as phlegm is extended to natural illnesses. First of all, illness is thought of as an impurity, a cochinada (hoggishness), which penetrates the organism. When a
person does not follow a proper diet, these impurities accumulate in the organism and are the cause of illness. Ayahuasca
and other plants which have emetic and/or cathartic properties,
expel the phlegm from the organism. Vegetalistas say that ayahuasca is needed for cleansing all the flemosidades (phlegm
formations) that accumulate in the intestines. Rheumatism,
which is treated with the bark of several species of Ficus, and
also with sacha-ajos (Mansoa alliaceae (Lam) A. Gentry), is
conceived as phlegm that penetrates the joints and obstructs
their movements. Common colds are also conceived as phlegm that
accumulates in the bronchi and lungs. According to Don Emilio,
fermented phlegm in the stomach produces heat that ascends to
the head and from there disperses to the rest of the body producing fever. By sucking from the top of the head, the pit of
the stomach and the temples the heat is extracted. The juice of
grape fruit together with six leaves of malva (unidentified),
after a magical song has been sung on the preparation, cools
the organism restoring the proper temperature, and produces
vomit that expels the phlegm.
Tumours are also considered the product of esencias flemáticas that accumulate and cause irritation in the tissues. One
may wonder whether this idea is of European origin and related
to the four humours of classical humoral theory of illness.
6.4. Extraction of the Magic Dart: Treatment
After inquiring after the symptoms and circumstances of the
illness and taking the pulse of the patient, Don Emilio proceeds to locate the virote or magic dart in the body of the patient. In order to find the virote, Don Emilio rubs a little
camphor water in his hands and on the area where he suspects
the magic dart is located. He blows smoke on the part affected,
and feels by touching the exact location of the virote. Don
Emilio determines then whether it is a matter of "simple"
witchcraft, which can be sucked directly, or whether it is
something more complicated, which demands the use of medicinal
plants. When Don Emilio understands that the witch who caused
the illness is stronger than he is, he refuses to treat the
patient, and advises him to find another vegetalista.
In cases of serious witchcraft, as in that of Don Lucas,
three plants are used: the tuberous roots of chicuru piripiri
(Cyperaceae sp.), the leaves of piñón rojo (Jatropha gossiphy73
This magic illness is also known among the Shipibo of Ucayali
under the name cungatuccha. A plant called ushado (unidentified) is used for extracting this illness (Guillermo Arévalo,
personal communication)
folia), and the resin of bellaco caspi (Himatanthus sucuuba). Two or three roots of chicuru piripiri are pounded and
placed on four or five leaves of piñón rojo. To this the resin
of bellaco caspi. is added, enough nearly to cover the chicuru
piripiri. According to Don Emilio these three plants "know each
other very well, and together they are a unique remedy against
witchcraft" The function of these plants is to loosen the virote, so that it can be extracted more easily. The mixture is
then placed on a clean handkerchief. Then Don Emilio takes four
cigarettes of mapacho (a strong tobacco) which are usually
brought by the patient, and sings an icaro over them to reinforce the healing properties of the tobacco smoke. Thereafter
he lights one of the cigarettes and blows the smoke several
times on the plant mixture. Tobacco is believed to cleanse the
plants, and to endow them with healing power.
Don Emilio placing the crushed seeds of chicuru
piri-piri on the patient's stomach
The next step is to bring forth the yachay, yausa, or mariri
that Don Emilio has in his stomach. He puts a little camphor
water in his mouth, lights a cigarette, and swallows the smoke
several times. He then begins to contract his stomach as if he
was trying to vomit and regurgitates the magic substance. When
the yachay is in his mouth, he begins to suck the place where
the virote is located. He does this for several minutes producing very impressive sounds. After some minutes of sucking he
extracts part of the virote and goes outside to spit it out. He
blows several times in the direction where the illness is supposed to have flown. He repeats this whole operation from four
to six times. The entire sequence takes about one hour.
When all this is done, Don Emilio blows smoke on the patient:
on the top of his head, on the place where the illness is located, all over his body. The patient has to stretch his arms in
front of him with the palms together. Smoke is blown from the
top of the fingers horizontally along the arms. In this way
the patient is covered by the arkana, which according to Don
Emilio is like an invisible armour that covers the person, and
protects him from illness (cf.4.2.).
The next thing is to apply the plants he had prepared in the
place where the illness is supposed to be. On the throat, in
the case of Don Lucas, in the pit of the stomach, in the case
of the woman. The function of these plants is to act upon
witchcraft, so that it will be easier to remove the rest of it
in the next healing session. The number of healing sessions depends on the seriousness of the case. Usually from three to six
healing sessions are required.
In even more serious cases Don Emilio extracts the latex of
catahua (Hura crepitans), boils it for a short time, and gives
a spoonful to the patient after having sung an icaro over the
preparation 7 4 . Some latex is also applied externally in the
place where the virote is located. The catahua has very strong
emetic and cathartic effects on the patient. Don Emilio says
that in this way the virote is destroyed 75 .
The patient has to follow a very strict diet during a period
of time which depends on the gravity of the witchcraft. This
diet is similar to that required of the apprentice during the
initiation to ayahuasca and other plant teachers: no salt, sugar, spices, cold beverages, pork, peccary, chicken, eggs or
certain species of fish should be ingested. Sexual abstinence
is also compulsory (cf. Dobkin de Rios 1973:70; Chevalier
1982:346; Luna 1984b:145).
The catahua has to be at least fifteen years old and has to
grow far from places where people usually go. The vegetalista
goes to the jungle before sunrise with an empty stomach. Before
taking the resin, the vegetalista addresses the catahua tree
with the appelative "grandfather", and asks permission to take
some of its "blood". Thereafter he makes a cut in the trunk,
and collects some of the resin in a bowl or a bottle.
Don Emilio told me
(Dieffenbachia sp.),
the bark of ayahúman
extract the virote.
dures that follow.
that other plants such as patuquina negra
the resin of lupuna (Ceiba pentandra) and
(Couroupita guianensis Aubl.) are used to
I have not yet enquired about the proce-
6.5. Doctor shopping: The case of Doña Rosa Teco."
Doña Rosa Teco, a 62 year-old woman, arrived at Don Jose's chacra (small plantation) a few days after I had decided to stay
with him for a month, following the special diet prescribed for
"learning" from ayahuasca. She was brought in great pain by her
family, with swollen knees and ankles. Don Emilio had seen her
some days before, but he thought that he would not be able to
cure her and sent her to Don José. She remained in Don José's
home for three weeks. During this time I was able to observe
and take notes on the whole process of treatment, which included massages, the use of various medicinal plants, healing sessions similar to those held by Don Emilio, and sometimes even
careful analyses of the dreams she had during the healing process. It also happened several times that during his sleep Don
José engaged in magical fights with the witches responsible
for her illness. I learned that before she went to Don Emilio,
she had been treated by Don Sergio Freitas, a vegetalista I had
interviewed in Iquitos the year before.
After three weeks she partially recovered and went home. One
year later, during the summer of 1984, I went to visit her in
Iquitos. I was able to tape a retrospective view of her illness, the time she spent in Don Jose's home, and the later development of her situation. Here is Dona Rosa's story:
This happened to me on a Sunday. When I was going to
visit Don José Torres, a vegetalista, I fell down,
but I was not seriously injured. I scraped my knees.
I returned home and my daughter cured me. Then I went
to see Don José. After visiting him I went home and
slept a little. I woke up and did not feel very well,
but I did not pay much attention to it. I began to
make a shirt for my son using a sewing machine. Suddenly I felt pain in my foot and noticed that it was
swollen. My daughter said: "It must be the result of
the fall you had this morning". But I replied that I
had walked all the way to the old man and had not
felt any discomfort. I continued working, but at
about six p. m. the pain was so great that I was not
even able to walk. I began to cry.
My daughter became worried and went to look for a
sobadora (from Spanish sobar = to knead. A woman
specialist in giving massages). She said she could
not do anything, because the ankle was too swollen.
I asked Walter, one of my sons, to go to look for
his elder brother to tell him that I was very ill. He
came and immediately went to bring an old man who
examined me and said: "We are going to put all the
bones back in place". He began to knead my ankle. I
screamed with pain. After a while he said: "The bone
is now in place". They put bandages all the way to
half my leg, putting there a medicine that was recommended in the pharmacy. The result was that in all
the area touched by this medicine my leg became
terribly swollen.
At about ten o'clock that night, I could not stand
it any longer, and took off the bandages. The swelling was enormous. I called my daughter and told her:
"Nobody is going to fool me any longer. This is dano
(witchcraft). Tomorrow I am going to see the abuelito
(literally, grandfather, meaning the vegetalista).
The next morning we went to see Don Vicente Torres.
Don Vicente said: "Did I not tell you, when you told
me that you fell in the street, that I should have
examined you? You said that it was nothing and went
back home. But you should have stayed here." I told
him: "Abuelito, please, help me.
It is very
swollen. " He treated me for a while and then said:
"Tomorrow you should come here. Bring a bed with you,
so that you can stay here for a while. I will cure
When I got home, I could hardly move. My leg turned
greyish. I told my daughter: "My leg is going to
rot." At about five in the evening my daughter said:
"Let us go to the doctor, to Clínica Loreto. The specialists will see what is wrong. " They convinced me.
She called a taxi, and we went to the clinic. There
were no doctors in the clinic. All of them were in
another clinic, called Lourdes. We went there. At
last we found a doctor. He said: "The lady has to
stay here. The leg has become gangrenous. We have to
amputate it." I said: "No, I do not want that. Tell
me what medicines are necessary. I will buy them,
whatever they cost." The doctor said: "No. You have
to stay here. We will see what we can do. We will
give you the correct medicines. If you go back home,
you will die."
At last I accepted to stay. The next day I felt I
was going to die. I started to have visions. They
gave me a liter of serum. On the fourth day the doctor operated on me. He opened the leg. It was full of
rotten blood. At least half a liter.
In the hospital they served me farm chicken. It
seems that this was affecting me negatively. After
six days in the clinic, I told my son that I wanted
to go back home. He talked to the doctor. He said
that I could go back home, but I had to take the medicine he would prescribe me.
We bought all the medicines. My daughter knew how
to give injections. But the more injections I got,
the more weight I lost. When I had taken all the medicines, I could hardly move. Then my daughter said:
"Perhaps it is true what you said. Even though you
have taken all these medicines and vitamins, you
don't get well. We'd better go to see the abuelito
(the vegetalista). But my son said: "No. We have to
take Mother to the clinic"
I stayed at the clinic nine more days. Dr. Rojas
treated me. They made a lot of analyses, but they did
not show that anything was wrong. The doctor wanted
to give me a blood transfusion. I did not want it. I
told the doctor: "I do not want a blood transfusion,
because I shall die" The doctor said: "How do you
know?" I said: "I know that you are a religious person, so I am going to tell you. I wish you could
understand me. I had a dream. I saw a white man with
a beard. He said: "Do not let them give you a blood
transfusion, because you will die. You had better go
home and try to find another type of medicine."
The doctor said: "I see your point. It was our Lord
who made you dream. Your body will not stand the
transfusion. I will let you go home."
We paid the clinic and went home. I felt that I was
getting weaker every day. But I did not say anything.
One day my daughter, who is married to a soldier,
told me that her husband wanted her to go to Pingo,
to the garrison. I told her to go and said that I
was feeling better, even though it was not true. But
I did not want her to stay in Iquitos because of me.
She left. Six days later I became very ill again.
They gave me injection after injection. One night I
thought I was going to die. In the morning, I told my
son: "Bring a taxi, and take me to the abuelito. I
should have gone to see him days before. If I die, I
hope the neighbours will bury me." He brought a taxi.
I could hardly move. But in a matter of three days
with the abuelo, I felt much better. I could cook for
the abuelito, and I could wash myself without help. I
stayed with him for two weeks, and I recovered almost
In those days my daughter returned from Pingo. Her
husband told her that he had had very bad dreams
about her mother's situation. He called the garrison,
and put her on a military plane back to Iquitos.
About one week later I became very ill again. I could
move neither my arms nor my legs. Then I was taken to
Don Sergio Freitas. Don Sergio said to my daughter:
"Your mother is not going to live much longer. If I
do not manage to make her react before two in the
morning, she will die." He gave me camalonga (unidentified) and tobacco juice. I became very mareada
(dizzy). In my visions I saw the two women that
caused my illness. Don Sergio treated me very effectively. He used suction, massage, several sorts of
medicinal plants, such as garlic, white onions, ajos
macho, patiquina (Dieffenbachia sp.), etc. I stayed
with him for 26 days. In the end I recovered completely. I paid him and went back home.
One month later I became ill again. I went back to
Don Sergio. But at this time Don Sergio was very
busy, going from one place to another. He did not
stay at home, so I decided to go back home. When I
became worse, I was taken to Don Emilio Andrade. Don
Emilio took me to see Don José Coral. I stayed there
with Don José. He is a very kind person, and I am
very thankful to him. He said that it was daño. He
also used suction, massage, and he whipped me with
ortigas (nettles). You witnessed how I recovered,
and was able to walk again.
After a while I went to Pucallpa to get medicines,
so as to recover completely, because I was tired of
being ill. My daughter took me there. In Pucallpa I
met another old man, a vegetalista called Don Ezequiel. He just touched my head and looked at me, and
immediately said that the illness was a revenge,
because I did not want to lend money to a woman. Two
women hired a witch to make you ill. But now you have
only some phlegm from the animal which was used for
causing you da┼ło. But just by taking some plants,
purgatives, and following the diet it will be extracted.
After some time in Pucallpa I returned here to
Iquitos. I took again some of the medicine that the
doctor told me to take. And now I feel much better, I
can walk almost perfectly, and can sleep in peace,
and do not disturb my neighbours screaming in pain.
The various vegetalistas told me the reason for my
illness. But I was able to verify myself, by taking
strong purgatives, who were the persons who induced
this illness."
Doña Rosa's case is quite typical in regard to what is known
by the term "doctor shopping". She goes from one practitioner
to another and from one medical system to another, with great
ease. She even travelled from Iquitos to Pucallpa, the second
major city of the Peruvian Amazon, to find a cure for her illness. This is another example of the great mobility that exists
among the mestizo population of this area. People sometimes
travel great distances in order to find work, to find a partner, or, as in this case, to find a cure.
It is also interesting that she is perfectly convinced of the
etiology of her illness, not only by the words of the various
vegetalistas she visited, but also because she was able "to
see" with her own eyes the persons who induced her illness.
During the time I spent in Don José's home while she was treated, one
important topic of conversation in the mornings were the dreams, because
in them, according to Don José, the development of the illness was sometimes revealed.
Don Jose Coral extracting a magic dart from a patient
6.6. Soul-loss
The idea that illness is produced due to the soul (or one of
the souls) leaving the body of a person is prevalent in both
North and South America. Hultkrantz (1979: 90) has pointed out
that the soul-loss diagnosis, in accordance with historical
traditions and trends of various cultures, has been less emphasized in parts of South America, and more pronounced in the
parts of arctic and northwest North America exposed to Asiatic
cultural influences. The idea that the soul may leave the body
is found among numerous tribes of the Upper Amazon. For example
according to Baer (1979:103), the Matsigenka believe that the
soul (i'nsure) leaves the body during sleep, during ecstasy, and
due to illness and death. The Yagua distinguish five different
souls. Two of them (hunítu/hunisétu) are active during the life
of the invidual, and may temporarily leave the body during
sleep or during the shamanic trance. The other three, collectively called ndenu mbayátu (souls of the dead) become active
after death, and may be dangerous to the living (Chaumeil
The idea that a human being has two souls exists among
Amerindian tribes of both North and South America (cf. Hultkrantz 1953:51-114; 1979:131-132;). My informants have never
explicitly made the assertion that human beings have several
souls. However, the insistence on the idea that during sleep, a
state in which one is particularly vulnerable, the soul of a
person leaves his body and may be abducted by an evil sorcerer
or by a spirit, and that a person may also lose his soul
because of a frightening experience, is firmly established76.
This gives ground to a possible implicit distinction between a
body soul, responsible for the continuation of bodily functions, and a free soul that may wander around independent of
the body. In Reagan's interviews of Amazonian people (1983:1:
207-210), several informants recognize the existence of two
souls, one that goes to heaven after death, and another, called
sometimes la sombra (the shadow), which stays on earth, becoming a tunchi (cf. 4.1.08). Some of his informants say that
the soul that goes to heaven is good, while the other is bad.
It is also believed that when the soul leaves the body during
sleep, it takes care of the body from the distance. But if the
soul is unable to return, the body dies.
Losing the soul due to a frightening experience happens most
frequently to small children, and is often called susto
(fright) or manchare, an ethnospecific illness which has parallels in other areas of Latin America (Sal y Rosas 1957; Rubel 1964). The term manchare is a loan from Quichua (the verb
manchay in Quichua means "to be afraid") 77 . The usual symptoms
of susto among children are vomits, diarrhea, constant crying,
and insomnia. It may be caused by an accident, for example a
fall, or may be due to the action of a spirit.
treat this illness by blowing tobacco ritually over the body of
the children, thus restoring their spirits.
Evil spirits may also abduct the soul of a person during ayahuasca ceremonies. The vegetalista may be able to bring the
soul back. If he does not succeed, the person will die.
shaman brings back the soul of a person either by blowing smoke
from a pipe or mapacho (a strong tobacco) cigarettes previously
endowed with power through icaros, or by sucking, also with the
help of tobacco, or both. He sucks from three places: the top
of the head, the pit of the stomach and the temples. The soul
is believed to re-enter the body through the fontanelle.
I will here give an example of soul loss, as related by Don
Emilio. This case happened when he was in the army. Here is his
A soldier called Octavio García Torres had taken his
wife with him when we were about to take ayahuasca.
Her name was Matilde Mosombite. She was very pale.
"Listen, Andrade," he told me: "My wife has been ill
for six months. The health officer has given her all
sorts of medicine, but she does not get well, nor do
I see any amelioration." "Where is the woman?" "Here
See examples of soul loss among North American Indians, in
Hultkrantz 1953:44 ss).
As we saw in chapter 5 (see footnote 52) Angelika Gebhart-Sayer
(1986) distinguishes between six classes of songs used in therapy among the Shipibo-Conibo. The class called manchari is
sung to lead an abducted soul back to its owner.
she is. Matilde, come here i My friend is going to
take your pulse". She came. "How long have you been
ill, Senora Matilde, I asked her" "Six months, young
man. " "How do you feel?" "I feel tired. I eat very
little, because I have no appetite. Sometimes I feel
very dizzy. " "Give me your left hand. " She did so. I
took her pulse. "Very well. Have you ever taken ayahuasca?", I asked her. "Yes, I have. I am from Alto
Ucayali. My uncle gave me the brew when I was twelve
years old. I am now forty-five. I have not taken it
since then, and the effect of the medicine surely has
grown weak after all this time, especially because I
have eaten all sorts of things during these years."
"Yes, it is so, Dona Matilde. I will give you ayahuasca, but not very much." Then I took a little
bowl, measured her dose very carefully, and sang an
icaro (magic song) over the beverage. She drank it. I
told her: "Sit there. If you have strong visions, do
not be afraid." "I shan't", she said.
We continued singing. About ten minutes later, the
woman began to say: "Very well! Good i Like that i Like
thati Corporal, sergeant, all of you must dance
alsoi" She was already mareada (under the effects of
ayahuasca). Some minutes later, she said: "Oh, how
good that my daughter is coming to see me in this
boat. We will travel together to Iquitos in January. "
She was talking in her visions. After that she remained silent. After some time we realized that she
was not sitting any longer. She was lying on the
floor. "Octavio I Come and look at your wife i You
should be more careful!" He came and began to call
her: "Matilde, Matilde! Get up i" She did not react.
She did not breathe. Her body was becoming hard, her
jawbone, all her body. I took her pulse. Nothing. I
took the pulse again above the elbow. Her heart was
beating. The soldier shouted: "Andrade, she is
dying!" We all got up and came near her to study this
case. What happened was that while she had strong
visions, a huge spirit, a huge black man took her
soul, and was taking it to a prison to kill it. We
tried to give her water. No reaction.
Sergeant Zarate said: "Listen, everybody. If this
woman dies here, nobody is going to say that she did
it while taking ayahuasca, otherwise the captain is
going to send all of us to prison. Is she going to
die?", he asked me. "Yes, she is dying", I said. Then
I said: "We have to call the mareación (the ayahuasca
visions)!". Irarica, one of the soldiers, tried to
bring her back. No reaction. Portocarrero also tried.
No reaction either. Zarate sang an icaro. She did
not react. I had a cachimbo (a large pipe). I put
tobacco in it, lighted the pipe, and I took six large
puffs. I took my schacapa (a rattle), and began to
blow smoke over her. Then I sucked three times from
the top of her head, six times from the pit of her
stomach, three times from her temples, and twice from
her lungs. Then I began to sing, to sing, to sing
for a long while. Then I heard her sighing and moaning. "You see, Andrade? Continue!", somebody told
me. I continued singing, calling her soul. Suddenly
I saw a road, and in the center a little shadow. It
was like a match. As I was calling the soul by singing, the shadow became bigger. When it was only six
or seven meters away I saw Matilde. Her soul entered
the body through the top of her head. At that moment
she woke up. Everybody surrounded her. "Matilde, what
happened?", asked her husband. In the meantime I continued blowing smoke over her. "I saw a huge black
man who was taking me to an immense dark cave. When I
was about to fall into it, I felt the hand of the
soldier Andrade. He took me by the waist and pulled
me back. Then my heart felt great joy, and I returned. I am very tired. Let me rest a little, and I
will tell you everything later. " I continued blowing
tobacco over her, until she was perfectly well. I
took from her all the mareación (hallucinations), and
she calmed down and sat there listening to what the
soldiers were saying. "
In this example there is no proper shamanic journey into the
spirit world to bring back the soul of a person. The vegetalista is in this world calling the soul of the patient. Don Emilio
is, in fact, applying to soul loss the same principle of cure
that he uses in cases of intrusion of pathogenic objects:
blowing and sucking. He may have visions, but he is not undertaking any spectacular shamanic journey, like those of the Siberian shamans. However, I do have reports of journeys into
the underwater world to recover a person kidnapped by beings
living in the water (cf.4.1.4.).
4.5. Illness produced by spiritual beings
Spiritual beings, such as the Chullachaki, the river dolphin,
the Yakumama and the tunchi may produce illness (cf. 4. 1. ).
However, it must be noticed that due to the change in habitat,
there seems to be a gradual change in the cities: an illness
thought to have been caused by human beings (mal de gente),
either directly, or through a specialist, happens more often
than illnesses produced by spirits dwelling in the jungle,
lakes or rivers (cf. Seguín 1979: 41).
4.6. Love magic
One of the main tasks of vegetalistas is to deal with emotional
conflicts, because these conflicts are often considered to be
intimately linked with the spirit world. Iquitos and its vicinity, as probably many other Amazonian settlements, is characterized by a very unstable emotional life. Couples easily break
apart. Many women with large families are abandoned by their
husbands, or, conversely, men coming back from work in the
jungle may find that their wives have left their homes 78 . Many
of the clients of Don Emilio and other vegetalistas are men and
women looking for advice or help to recover or retain their
partners. Mothers sometimes require help from a vegetalista to
make their daughters "aborrecer" (to hate) an undesired lover,
or to make their husbands' lovers reject them. These conflicts
are very often intimately tied up with economic problems: Women
sometimes depend entirely on their husbands' incomes to make a
living, or husbands need their wives to take care of their property while they are away working in the extraction of Amazonian products.
As we saw earlier, stealing a sexual partner is a common
theme in Amazonian mythology. Love among humans is to be seen
within this context. To a great extent to fall in love means
one is somehow losing one's spirit, which becomes the possession of the person one loves. That is why love is within the
realm of the activities of the shaman, who can separate and
unite the spirits. As we saw earlier (cf.5.3.), these tasks are
often carried out with the help of icaros or magic melodies.
If, for example, a woman goes to a vegetalista and asks him
for help because her husband does not want to sleep with her,
does not eat the food she prepares, and looks at her with indifference, the vegetalista gives her baths of sacha ajos (see
below) to make her attractive. If the husband has left the home
because of another woman, the vegetalista may act upon the spirit of the man. During ayahuasca sessions the vegetalista calls
the spirit of the man, and unites it with that of the woman.
The effects are manifested in the dreams. The man dreams of the
woman, and feels sad about having left her. After several sessions, he will return to his wife.
People often turn to a vegetalista to seek revenge. A jealous woman may ask a vegetalista to make her husband impotent,
or mad, or even kill him through witchcraft. Conversely, people
seek vegetalistas to counteract the effects of the doings of
other practitioners.
4.7. Herbal baths
One of the functions of the shaman among Indian tribes is the
maintenance of ecological equilibrium and the control of the
fertility of game and soil, often through an exchange with the
spirit world. Unsucessful hunters may recur to the shaman for
a remedy against their bad luck, or special ceremonies may be
I here use the terms husband and wife. Most couples are, in
fact, not legally married. Living together with the concensus
of the woman's family is common practice.
held for procuring the fertility of a newly planted field 79 .
These ideas have not totally disappeared with the advent of
urban or semiurban life. Vegetalistas are often visited by
people who complain of having little success in business life
-taxi drivers or shopkeepers with few clients, farmers with
unproductive soil, mitayeros (hunters of wild animals) with no
luck-, or men and women with little success in love.
In fact, one of Don Emilio's specialities is just the administration of ritual herbal baths of sacha ajos (Mansoa alliacea (Lam) A. Gentry) for saladera (from Spanish sal = salt), a
culture-bound illness which is believe to produce bad luck in
love and business (cf. Dobkin de Rios 1981a). Tuesdays and Fridays between 8 and 10 people come to Don Emilio from Iquitos,
mostly young men and women, to get a ritual bath of this plant.
They have to bring with them some cigarettes of mapacho and a
little bottle of perfume. Ahead of time Don Emilio prepares the
plant solution. The leaves of sacha ajos are cut very carefully
into tiny little pieces. Water is added and the essence is
strained and collected in an aluminium pot. When a client
comes, Don Emilio takes a bowl containing about one and a half
liters of the solution. He adds a little perfume, sings an icaro over the liquid, and drops a little magnet inside the bowl.
The client is given the bowl with the liquid, together with a
little calabash for pouring the liquid over the body. He/she
goes outside the house, and in a little chamber constructed for
this purpose takes off his clothes. The client rinses the mouth
with the liquid contained in the smaller bowl, and spits it
out. Then the rest of the liquid is carefully poured all over
the body, taking good care that all the body is rubbed down
In Lamb's narration about Cordoba Ríos (1971:33-36), we find
that herbal baths are part of the preparation hunters received
before going out into the forest to find game. In this passage,
an Indian hunter with bad luck is carefully questioned about
"his use of herbal baths to bring good luck and to remove body
odors; special diets for getting ready to hunt certain animals;
the use of charms for finding favorite game animals."
with the solution 80 .
Once this is done, he returns to Don Emilio. Men keep only
their trousers on. Women keep all their clothes on. Both men
and women have to be barefoot during the ritual bath. Don Emilio then asks the client whether he wants the bath to be effective for love or for work. He then whistles the appropriate
icaro, while "painting" the person with the liquid. First he
draws a cross with some of it on the top of the head. He continues drawing crosses on the forehead, on both temples, a great
cross on the back and on the chest, small crosses in the armpits, and the arm joints, on the feet and the back of the
knees. Don Emilio sometimes interrupts his whistling to ask the
client about his problems, family life, financial problems,
etc. He advises him, prescribes him special diets, etc. When
this is done, he takes one of the cigarettes the client has
brought with him, and blows smoke on top of the patient's head,
along his arms, on his feet, on his back and chest. The whole
process takes about half an hour.
According to Don Emilio, people will always show good-will towards people who take baths with sacha ajos. The magnet gives
strength to the preparation (da fuerza al líquido) and makes
people attractive. The perfume gives joy (alegra). The icaro
puts all these elements together (reúne). According to Don Emilio, sacha ajos cleanses the body of the evil action of witches
and keeps the body in good health.
Don Emilio also makes preparations of the same plant, which are
always carried about the person. The leaves of the sacha ajos
plant are reduced to powder and placed in a little bottle, to
which perfume is added. A little of this preparation should be
put daily on the forehand, the chest and the wrists, as if it
were normal perfume. This will protect the person and will give
him good luck in his work and in love. Sacha-ajos is, in fact,
considered by Don Emilio one of the most important plants. It
is a plant-teacher, it is good for botar los resfríos del cuerpo (literally, "to throw away the colds of your body". A cold
being considered as phlegm accumulated in the organism). Sacha80
The explanation of rinsing the mouth with sacha ajos is that in
this way the plant will act both from the inside and the
outside, and will be more effective. This is a principle that
also applies to a number of medicinal plants. The resine of
millo renaco (ficus sp.), for instance, which is used in the
treatment of fractures, is both applied externally and ingested. The same happens with the leaves of suelda con suelda,
also used in the treatment of fractures: the pounded leaves are
applied externally on the fractured limb; aguardiente (alcohol
distilled from sugar cane) is added to a few leaves of the same
plant and the mixture is ingested. This may be seen in relationship with the idea that there must be a balance with what
is inside and outside the organism. Don Emilio has advised me
to drink a little cold water before taking a cold bath or
shower, because the imbalance may produce illness.
ajos makes the body strong and flexible, is good for the eyes
(te aclara la vista), and the juice of its roots is used in the
treatment of proud flesh in the eyelids.
Steam baths of this
plant are used for the treatment of rheumatism. Sacha-ajos is
amansador, which means that people and wild animals will not
harm the person that uses this plants81.
Other plants are also used in ritual baths, but so far I have
not been able to identified them botanically.
Among the Shipibo of the Ucayali, the house where a deceased
person has lived is burnt down together with his belongings.
The site of the house is purified by burning leaves of "sachaaho" (Karsten 1964:206-207).
7.1. Ayahuasca sessions
Ayahuasca sessions among the mestizo have been described several times in literature, both scientific (Castillo 1963:
94-5; Dobkin de Rios 1972:72-76; Ayala 1978; Lamb 1985; Chiappe
et al. 1985:97-101, 103-105) and fictional (Burroughs & Ginsberg 1963:53-60; Huamán Ramírez 1983:75-78; Calvo 1981:261).
The ritual procedure followed by each particular vegetalista
has a high degree of variation. In general, I have noticed a
great difference between
healing sessions carried out in the
cities of Iquitos and Pucallpa, and those taking place near
small jungle settlements, or in chacras in the country. In the
cities, ayahuasca sessions are conducted by professional or
semiprofessional vegetalistas. They take place several times a
week, even daily, and attract comparatively big crowds -about
twenty in most cases I have witnessed-, many of whom often do
not know each other -nor are they introduced to each other during the session-. They often have a marked ritualistic Christian character including the reading of prayers from books such
as La Santa Cruz de Caravaca. Tesoro de Oraciones 82 , a prayer
collection, and others that I have not yet been able to identify.
Healing sessions carried out in rural surroundings usually
gather fewer participants
-six to ten-, who often know each
other or have kindred ties of compadrazgo (the reciprocal relationship existing between a godparent or godparents and the
child and its parents). The meetings usually have a more infor-
One finds this book all over Latin America and apparently also
in Spain. According to Atienza (1983:34) it was first published
in Valencia, Spain, in the middle of the 19th century and
consists of a collection of short prayers gravitating around
the Cruz de Caravaca, a double-armed cross, whose origin,
according to a legend, goes back to a visit by St. Helen, Emperor Constantine's mother, to the Holy Land in 326 (on the
cross, and the relationship between this tradition and the Templer Knights, see Atienza 1983:23-48.
mal character than those held in the cities 83 .
Naturally, this is only a generalization. Vegetalistas who
have moved relatively recently to the cities carry with them
their ritual peculiarities. Conversely, vegetalistas living in
the cities and having been subject to Christian esoteric traditions will continue their practices if they move to the forest.
Patients from the cities often go to a rural area to find a
cure for their illness. There is also ample contact between
vegetalistas in rural and urban areas, and, as far as I can
tell, great tolerance and even curiosity about the rituals followed by other practitioners. Here we have an unexplored field
of research that needs clarification.
Ayahuasca sessions are not, necessarily, associated with healing sessions. Vegetalistas often invite each other to drink
ayahuasca. It is not uncommon that vegetalistas living in the
cities will visit colleagues living in rural settings, or viceversa. Besides, in Iquitos I know of at least two schools of
ayahuasqueros meeting regularly (twice to four times a month).
They meet to learn from visions and renew their strength. But,
of course, when people know that an ayahuasca session is going
to take place, the news spreads quickly, and patients may get
in touch with vegetalistas so as to be treated.
People get together at sunset, two to four hours before the
ceremony begins. These hours should be considered an essential
part of a session. During this time the vegetalistas tell stories of hunting, forest spirits, magical illnesses, cases they
have treated, medicinal plants, etc.
Ayahuasca sessions in
general, and particularly these preparatory hours, are extremely important as a social and cultural cohesive device.
Usually only the vegetalistas speak. The patients and people
invited to take the brew only listen, or make brief comments.
Ideas about religion, illness, health, death, fortune and misfortune are thus perpetuated. Vegetalistas, as shamans in general, are often remarkable story tellers 8 4 . It is with this
background that people are prepared for the visionary experience that occurs under the effects of ayahuasca, in which
A l l the sessions I have attended have been in the homes of the
vegetalistas. There are, however, reports of vegetalistas
collecting groups of patients and taking them to a jungle clearance on the outskirts of the city of Iquitos (Dobkin de Rios
1972:69; Chiappe et al. 1985:103).
I think that this, in fact, is a fundamental aspect of shamanic
practice: The shaman is not only the one who "sees", but also
the one who knows how to tell what he has seen, and to do it in
such as a way that people will also "see it". In this context
we may also understand the often reported abilities of shamans
to imitate animals -Don Emilio is extremely good at it-, and to
suggest to their audience, through chants, poetry and sometimes
theatrical performances, the mystical worlds they are familiar
they will often have confirmation of the worldviews presented
to them by the vegetalistas.
An ayahuasca session will gather several kinds of participants: patients who might or might not take the brew, according
to their wishes and/or the decision of the shaman, persons who
are not specifically ill, but who wish to take ayahuasca simply
to cleanse their organism or just "to see the visions", finally persons who accompany the patients and usually keep a very
low profile in a corner only as passive observers.
Sometimes vegetalistas take ayahuasca together when treating
a difficult case in order to "see more clearly". Bad visions or
not having visions at all are sometimes attributed to the
wicked doings of evil spirits, rival vegetalistas, or even
sometimes to one of the participants in the session. In the
ceremonies vegetalistas sometimes are in tacit competition when
they sing their magic songs. To drink ayahuasca with unknown
people is considered dangerous. It is believed that several
vegetalistas are able to ally themselves in order to cause
magic illness to someone else. I have heard many stories of
this kind. When boasting about their powers vegetalistas often
say that not even a hundred people would be able to dominate
them. My informants have told me that during the time they were
working extracting rubber or other products they sometimes took
ayahuasca together with people belonging to ethnic groups, such
as Campa, Yagua, Huambiza or Shipibo.
7.1.1. An Ayahuasca session in the home of Don Emilio
During the time I spent with Don Emilio I participated in several ayahuasca sessions. On a few occasions he organized them
at my request, and once he did it only for myself, so that only
the two of us took the beverage.
Once Don Emilio has decided to have a session, the news will
spread fast in the neighborhood. The date of the session is
set, usually several days in advance. 10 to 12 people will
participate each time. Last time I was there (in the summer of
1985), Don Emilio charged 2 000 soles (about $1) for the participation. Sometimes he left to each one to decide the amount
of his fee.
Don Emilio, like many other vegetalistas, cultivates the lia-
na on his land 8 5 . At dawn the day before ayahuasca is to be
prepared, he climbs the tree where the vine grows. He blows
smoke several times on the branches to be cut, and addresses
the spirit of the plant, explaining that he is in need of its
wisdom. The plant has to be at least three or four years
old. The stem is stripped of secondary branches and leaves, and
cut into pieces of about 30 to 40 cm. He makes bundles of about
30 pieces. Those to be used later are placed under fallen
leaves in a shady place so that they are protected from the
Victor, one of his nephews, who lives some 200 meters from
Don Emilio's house, picks up about 200 leaves of chacruna (Psychotria viridis), the main additive, which grows naturally
about 86
twenty minutes' walk from his home in the forest
nearby .
Nowadays Don Emilio rarely prepares the beverage himself.
This is usually done by Dona Rosa (aged 60), the sister of his
late wife (deceased in December 1983), in a separate place ex85
Plants found in the jungle are believed to be more potent and
are preferred, whenever this is possible. I have often heard
conversations in which a vegetalista tells, with great joy, how
on such and such an occasion he has found a very old abuelo
(granpa) referring to a liana. There are vegetalistas who are
very secret concerning the whereabouts of a particular ayahuasca plant, from which they make the beverage on special occasions. I heard similar stories during a short visit to the Colonia 5000, in Rio Branco (Brazil), where ayahuasca is taken
under the name of Santo Daime (cf. Monteiro 1983). In Pucallpa
I was told that somewhere in the upper Urubamba there is one
great ayahuasca plant from which cuttings are taken from time
to time by Shipibo shamans.
Dobkin de Rios has insistently written, even in one of her latest publication (Dobkin de Rios 1984: 178), that in the area
of Iquitos and Pucallpa Banisteriopsis rusbyana (now called Diplopterys cabrerana Gates) is used as an admixture. She does
not mention where she has deposited voucher specimens or who
made the identification of the plants she mentions, or if she
collected the plant at all. On only one occasion I have seen
this plant used, and it was brought from Rio Santiago, where it
is indeed used by several Indian tribes as is also the case
among the Siona, Kofan, Ingano, and other tribes of the Colombian and Ecuadorian Amazon. In Loreto, Ucayali and Madre de
Dios the principal admixture is, in my experience, always Psychotria viridis. Among the Sharanahua of the upper Purus a Psychotris sp., under the local name of Kawa is always added to
ayahuasca (Rivier & Lindgren 1972: 103) as is the case among
the Cashinahua (Der Marderosian et al. 1970). P. viridis is
also used as the admixture plant in Taraucá, in the state of
Acre, Brazil (Prance & Prance 1970: 106) and among members of
Colonia 5000 and the UDV (Uniao do Vegetal) in Acre and in cities of other areas of Brazil (cf. Monteiro 1983).
clusively devoted to preparing ayahuasca, near the home of Victor, one of her children, or it is prepared by Don Ruperto,
Dona Rosa's brother, who lives in a house nearby.
The preparation of the beverage begins at about six in the
morning. The stems of one bundle of Banisteriopsis caapi are
crushed with a stone or a piece of hard wood. Alternate layers
of the liana and the leaves of P. viridis are placed in an aluminum pot (although Don Emilio told me that ideally an earthen
pot should be used, nowadays difficult to obtain). After each
layer, Don Emilio blows smoke over the pot. Between 12 and 15
liters of water are added, and the mixture is allowed to boil
until it is reduced to about one liter, which is poured into
another pot. The operation is repeated seven times, and the extract collected is allowed to boil again until aprox. 500 ml of
a syrup-like liquid is left, enough for about 12 doses, which
is placed in a bottle and sealed with a cork. The whole process
takes 12 hours.
Don Emilio often complains that in spite of his indications,
the beverage is not always properly prepared by Dona Rosa or
Don Ruperto. In 1984 Don Emilio paid 10 000 soles for the preparation. Considering that about twelve doses are prepared,
and that each participant usually pays between 1000 and 2000
soles for taking ayahuasca, it is obvious that no financial
reasons are behind these ceremonies.
The ceremony usually takes place at about 9 to 10 in the evening. Moonless nights are preferred 87 . People get together even
one or two hours earlier. Before the ceremony Don Emilio
usually tells stories, often of a piquante character, or questions the participants about the whereabouts of their neighbours and family.
The house is lit by kerosene lamps, which
Don Emilio himself has made out of deodorant tin cans. When the
time comes, Don Emilio carefully covers the whole floor with
empty sacks. The people sit on the floor or on a big bench that
runs along one of the walls forming an imaginary circle around
Don Emilio.
The ritual paraphernalia used during the ayahuasca ceremonies
has only a few elements. They are placed in front of the place
Don Emilio is going to occupy during the ceremony. The essential ritual instrument is the schacapa, a rattle made of the
leaves of a Gramineae (Pariana sp.), which is used for accompanying some of the icaros, and which is sometimes shaken all
over the body of each participant for "cleansing" them of illness and evil spirits. The other elements, besides the bottle
or pot containing the ayahuasca brew, are usually a bottle of
camphor crystals suspended in alcohol, several mapacho cigaret87
Don Emilio says, however, that on some occasions he took the
beverage out-of-doors with his teacher during moonlit nights
If the beverage is well prepared, then the landscape seems to
be very beautiful. Everything looks as if it were made of gold,
and the trees seem to acquire beautiful and brilliant colours.
tes to be smoked during the ceremony, and a small bottle of
perfumer88, If one of the persons present gets frightened by
hallucinations, the smell of the perfume helps to calm him
down. He also places there a flashlight and some pages of
newspaper to be used as toilet paper in case of diarrhoea.
When the vegetalista is going to evoke the spirits of some
patients, their pictures or names and addresses may also be
present among the objects the shaman places in front of him
during the ceremony. There is no special shamanic costume or
cap. The vegetalistas use their normal clothes during both
healing sessions and ayahuasca ceremonies. Don Emilio usually
puts a kerchief around his neck, but when I questioned him
about the meaning of this item, he simply told me that he uses
it for cleansing his face in case he vomits.
Don Emilio invariably begins the ceremony with the following
prayer, which may have a few variations, as I have been able to
observe during ceremonies carried out in various years:
"Divine Christ, Celestial Father, Creator of Heaven
and Earth. With Your permission we are going to take
this plant that You have put on Earth. We, Your
earthly children, have discovered it, and we use it
as a remedy in order to understand our bodies and the
problems we might have among us. Father, let no evil
spirit enter this circle. If any of those bad spirits
come, throw them into the dark, squeeze them down
with the Black Stone. The four angels will take care
of the circle. Father, in this circle of Yours there
is no jealousy, revenge, witchcraft, nothing evil.
Everything is according to Your laws. We cure ailing
people as best we can. We obey Your command, Father."
Immediately afterwards he recites the Credo, exactly as in
Catholic catechism. Thereafter there is the following invocation to the Virgin Mary:
Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ, miraculous Virgin, cover us with Your blessed mantle. Do not let
any evil object enter this circle of Yours. Make the
four guardian angels cast it away. Take care of us,
powerful Virgin Mary."
Don Emilio then takes the ayahuasca bottle, uncorks it, blows
smoke on the bottle, and addresses the spirit of ayahuasca in
these terms:
The most common perfume used, both as an element in ayahuasca
paraphernalia and in ritual baths and other love preparations,
is the commercially ubiquitous Tabú trademark, which along with
agua florida (a lightly colored scented water) is also used
among curanderos of other areas, for instance practitioners
using the San Pedro cactus in coastal Peru (cf. Sharon
"Grandfather, let us see beautiful visions. Let us
see good things. Let the doctors come, so that we
can ask t h e m a b o u t our p r o b l e m s , about our
Sometimes he asks the spirit of ayahuasca to convey specific
visions to some of the people present. On the tapes I made during ceremonies Don Emilio sometimes asked the spirit of ayahuasca to make a patient see the person who caused his magic
illness. He asked a person to see his future, or to envision a
certain bird, for example a humming bird, or to see the roots
of the trees from below, to see how they absorb nourishment,
After the invocations, Don Emilio begins to serve the brew in
a small bowl made of a calabash. About 50 ml of ayahuasca is
given to those that take the beverage. Although both men and
women are present at the ceremony, usually more men than women
will take the b e v e r a g e 8 9 . Women often say that they get
frightened by the visions. However, they often accompany their
husbands to the sessions but do not take ayahuasca. The dosage
may vary a little, according to the person. Women and people
who take the beverage for the first time usually get a little
less. Often each of the participants blows a little smoke on
the bowl, and says a silent prayer. After the last person has
taken the beverage, Don Emilio orders all the kerosene lamps to
be blown out, except the one iluminating the altar with an
image of Jesus on the Cross and two sculptures of San Martin de
For twenty to thirty minutes people remain in the dark awaiting the hallucinations. When Don Emilio begins to feel the
effect he starts shaking his schacapa and whistling an icaro in
order to increase the effects of the visions (icaro para llamar
mareación (see icaro 1 in appendix 3). From time to time he
will ask some of the participants whether they are mareados
(have hallucinations), but without enquiring what they see.
Among some Indian tribes only men take ayahuasca. For instance
among the Sharanahua and Culina (Rivier & Lindgren 1972:102),
women are not allowed to take the drug, since it is supposed to
hurt them. Among the Colorado and Secoya, women may also take
the beverage, but relatively seldom they do so (Naranjo
1983:181, 187). According to Bellier (1986) among the Maikuna,
a Western Tukano group of the Peruvian Amazon, yagé is a masculine plant to be taken by men only. Women do not take yagé "due
to inhibition rather than prohibition". However, the same
author affirms, young women may take the beverage with the permission of the shaman so as not to ruin the effect of their
husband's shamanic apprenticeship. Postmenopausal women take
the beverage freely.
In the communities of Acre, Brazil, where Santo Daime (ayahuasca) is taken as a sacrament, men, women and even children and
pregnant women take the brew.
From time to time people will leave the house in order to
vomit or defecate. They won't talk. Everybody is silently
having his visions. At intervals that I have calculated between
40 minutes and an hour, no icaros are sung, and for a few minutes there might be small talks, brief comments on the
of ayahuasca visions, and even jokes. But when the hallucinations, which come in waves, again affect the participants, the
chants begin again. Don Emilio encourages those who know icaros
to sing. If there are other vegetalistas invited to participate
in the session, each will sing his icaros without any attempt
of coordinating the different melodies. In the peak minutes of
each hallucinatory wave the voices rise, sometimes several
schacapas (rattles) are shaken simultaneously, and the scene is
really remarkable for anybody who happens to be witnessing it.
Vegetalistas often call their patients, one by one, blow
smoke over them to expelí the bad spirits and illnesses from
their bodies. If Don Emilio has clients seeking his assistance
in emotional problems, they are also are called one by one. As
the session occurs in total darkness, I do not know the details
of the procedures. Don Emilio has allowed me to take photos
with a flash, something that I have done very seldom, for
obvious reasons. In one of the photos I took a young man was
holding the photo of his beloved against his chest, while Don
Emilio was blowing smoke on top of his head. Having a photo, or
even just the name and address of a person on a piece of paper
is believed to be enough to influence the spirit of the person.
When the effects of the brew fade out, sporadic talks and
commentaries again emerge. Some of the patients and participants return to their homes. Others lie down on the floor,
smoke a mapacho cigarette or tell stories until they all fall
sleep. When the morning comes, there is often an exhilarated
and relaxed atmosphere.
In the sessions conducted by Don José there is no invocation
to Jesus and Mary. He sings several icaros on the ayahuasca,
and invokes his ayaruna (from Quechua aya = dead people, spirits, and runa = people), asking them to bring upon him powerful icaros to heal his patients. He then calls his defenders:
Huairamanta arkana, llaktamanta arkana, yakumanda arkana and
meolinamanta arkana (cf.4.2.), which will form a circle around
the place where ayahuasca is taken, so that nothing evil can
penetrate. The difference between Don Emilio's healing sessions
and those of Don José is that the latter engages in long dialogues with the spirits of vegetalistas living in the underwater world, who are, in fact, believed to do the curing.
Otherwise, the essential elements are the same.
7.2. The role of ayahuasca: cleansing vs. visions.
Joralemon (1984) has pointed out how, in the scientific literature dealing with shamanism and the use of psychotropic
plants, there has been an emphasis on the effect of hallucinogens on the central nervous system (CNS), while their effect on
the autonomic nervous system (ANS) has been neglected to a
great extent. As it is well known, ayahuasca, besides being a
hallucinogic, has strong emetic and cathartic properties. It is
often called la purga, the purgative, to indicate this effect.
Joralemon's observations have made me reflect about how the
shaman and the participants interpret this double action of the
beverage -as a purgative and as a hallucinogen-, and whether
one of these two aspects has the priority.
I have many times participated in ayahuasca sessions, and I
have often taken the brew. I understood through the talks of
the participants that they expected to hallucinate. If ayahuasca is well prepared, they said, then "marea", a term which
means "it causes dizziness". In fact, a good ayahuasquero is a
person who prepares ayahuasca very well, meaning that the brew
will produce psychotropic effects. When ayahuasca is very good,
they say that se ve clarito, meaning that the visions are
clear, that they look real. Many of the observances which have
to be followed in the ayahuasca preparation -the phase of the
moon and the hour of the preparation of the beverage, the exclusion of women of fertile age from the place where ayahuasca is being prepared 9 0 , the necessity to blow smoke and be
constantly present so that the beverage will not boil over- are
intended to make a strong brew. It is said that when ayahuasca
is well prepared it is very thick and sweet.
The worst thing that can be said about an ayahuasquero is
that his ayahuasca does not produce visions. I have also understood, however, that even if the beverage does not produce visions but causes vomiting and diarrhoea, it is also considered good, because it cleanses the organism. Besides, as I experienced myself, these two effects usually appear together: the
hallucinations are usually stronger just before and after vomiting -one usually goes through four or five periods of heavy
vomiting in a session (cf. Dobkin de Rios 1984: 63, 66).
The shamans often ask those who have taken ayahuasca whether
they are mareados. If they are not, they sometimes blow smoke
or shake the rattle over the person in order to fill him with
visions. If, in spite of repeated doses of ayahuasca, a person
does not see anything, this is attributed to the person's organism being heavily contaminated. Several sessions are necessary
in order to cleanse the body and to open it to the visions.
These prescriptions may be seen in connection with similar ones
involving the preparation of other remedies or magical potions.
For instance, a clear parallelism is found among some Indian
tribes, such as the Canelos, Achuaras, Jivaros and Yanomamö,
etc. when preparing arrow poisons. The men in charge of the
preparation observe sexual abstinence, fast, and no woman is
allowed to come near the shelter where the poison is being prepared, otherwise it will be entirely ruined (cf. Karsten 1964:
106-107; Donner 1982:131-133).
consciousness is indeed expected and desired by those that already have some experience of ayahuasca. Naturally, the expectations are very different among those that take ayahuasca for
the first time, or rarely do so. The idea of cleansing may in
some cases be more relevant.
I indicated above that participants in ayahuasca ceremonies
may or may not suffer from illness. It is common among patients
to claim that they are able to visualize the person or persons
responsible for their illnesses. I certainly agree with Joralemon (1984: 406) when he observes that "hallucinatory imagery,
structured and interpreted by the shaman, may provide psychologically persuasive confirmation of the diagnosis and thus intensify the effect of suggestion in the cure." But in many
cases people take ayahuasca specifically to seek visions, as
for instance to see the whereabouts of distant dear ones. One
often hears when someone is under the effects of the beverage
the exclamation: "How beautiful. This is like a movie!". Visions of an erotic character are frequently reported. Male participants often report seeing beautiful naked women or mermaids. However, any sexual intercourse during or immediately
before or after the ingestion of ayahuasca is strictly forbidden: It is believed that the beverage will then harm the personal91.
It is firmly believed that a good vegetalista is able to control the visions of other people. This is perfectly exemplified in some passages of the story of Manuel Cordoba Ríos (see
Lamb 1985:21), in which he deliberately conveys to other people
visions of birds and jaguars. The same idea is found in Calvo
(1981:232): Manuel Cordoba Ríos tells how Ximu, his mentor,
imitated the call of certain birds, and they appear in Don Manuel's visions.
According to Córdoba Ríos, Bruce Lamb's informant (Lamb
1985: 21), the physical condition and mental control being inadequate when taking ayahuasca, some people "have violent abdominal convulsion, others experience intense nausea, and still
others erotic stimulation of the whole glandular system involved with sexual response." I have, indeed, witnessed, and
myself experienced, intense nausea when drinking ayahuasca, and
visions of erotic character are frequently reported. But I have
never witnessed any situation similar to the one described by
Cordoba Ríos, in which people would display uninhibited and
with amazement "their tremendous hard-ons".
Visions of an erotic character have been reported among several Indians tribes. Reichel-Dolmatoff (1980: 32-33) cites two
authors' remarks about this. According to Koch-Grunberg
(1909-1910, 1:299), among the Tukano of the Tiquié River, an
erotic element seems to play a principal role in "yajé intoxication". In Rocha's account of yagé visions among the Ingano
the erotic element is particularly stressed (Rocha 1905:43-46).
Vegetalistas often say that a complete concentration is necessary in order to see, with the help of ayahuasca, what one
wishes to see. In Pucallpa I noticed that vegetalistas use the
expression "tener buenas concentraciones" (literally, "to have
good concentrations"), when the visions are exceptionally
clear. It seems obvious to me that vegetalistas train to
achieve control of the visions so as to obtain information.
This is a rich field that should be explored by psychologists.
Among the mestizo vegetalistas, as among several Indian
tribes, several types of ayahuasca are recognized. They are
called cielo ayahuasca (heaven ayahuasca), lucero ayahuasca
(star ayahuasca), trueno ayahuasca (thunder ayahuasca), etc.
These "kinds" of ayahuasca do not seem to correspond to various
species of Banisteriopsis. The distinction is based on the hallucinations they produce 92 . Vegetalistas have also a sophisticated taxonomy that includes the color of the resine of the
vine, the smell, the form of the stem, the age of the plant,
Dona Aurora Mosombite, who lives in Santa Clara, a small
village near Iquitos, has in her garden the only specimen of
Diplopterys cabrerana I have seen so far in the area of Iquitos. It is used as the main additive, instead of Psychotria
viridis. She told me that the ayahuasca prepared with the addition of the leaves of this plant produces hallucinations in
which Huambiza Indians singing in their language appear in visions. She attributes this phenomenon to the fact that she
bought this plant from these Indians when she was living in Rio
Santiago near the Ecuadorian border.
When several vegetalistas participate in an ayahuasca session, how they group around the master shaman is partially determined by their rank. But it seems that there are other factors as well. On one occasion, during a ceremony I attended in
Iquitos, one of the vegetalistas told another: "I will sit here
beside you, because you have beautiful visions". If there is
harmony between all the people present, the magic songs of each
vegetalista reinforce the visions of the others. Several vegetalistas may "join their visions" (juntar sus mareaciones) so
as to see better and perform a shamanic task (cf.Calvo
1948:48). Knowing each other is important. That is the reason
why the same people often take ayahuasca together.
It is also believed that under the effects of ayahuasca shamans living in different places are able to communicate and
exchange knowledge (cf.Calvo 1981:72).
Besides being used in the diagnosis of illness as a means of
contact with the supernatural world, and as a visionary beverage, ayahuasca is used as a general prophylactic against all
In a conversation Dr. Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff made me notice
how the Indian taxonomy seems to put more emphasis on the
effect rather than on the form of the plants.
kinds of diseases. Don Emilio told me that when he was in the
army, the sergeant in command of his company took ayahuasca
with his soldiers in order to keep them in good shape and free
from disease. I have several accounts of patients claiming to
have been cured only by taking ayahuasca and following the diet
It is well known in the Amazon area that vegetalistas have long
lives. I have met several of them who are over 75 years old,
and who still lead quite normal lives. Don José Coral, born in
1909, still cultivates his plantation and does all sorts of
heavy work. Don Celso Rojas, born in 1905, is a man of very
strong constitution and still very active, attending numerous
patients at least twice a week. Don Emilio, born in 1918, can
still climb a tree with extraordinary speed and grace.
7.3. Shamanic journeys
Ayahuasca, like the other plant teachers, are used to explore
both this world and other worlds which are not normally accesible to people. By ingesting plant-teachers (either in the
visions they may cause, or in the dreams these plants may
elicit) the vegetalista frees himself from his normal physical
boundaries and is able to move freely across levels of reality. Visions of travelling to distant places are common. The
length of the diet during the initiation determines how far the
vegetalista will be able to travel.
In some of these visions of travelling the profound impact of
Western civilization is revealed. In one of Don Emilio's
visions, to give an example, he saw the shadow of man "dressed
like a priest", who took him to visit, in a beautiful boat,
towns and cities along the Amazon river. They went together all
the way to Para, where the priest showed him "a palace for poor
people". They entered the house, which was completely empty.
But the priest pressed a button, a mechanism was suddenly
released, and all sorts of elegant furniture appeared. After a
while the priest told Don Emilio that they had to return,
but that this time they were not going back by boat. He phoned,
and an elegant car arrived to take them to the airport. When
they were flying, Don Emilio was trembling with fear and
prayed to Jesus Christ. Then the vision dissapeared, and he
then realized that it had all been produced by ayahuasca.
The Western idea of a "bad trip" finds a parallel among the
vegetalistas. Sometimes they attribute it to the plant itself:
they say that it is a purga brava. On other occasions bad
visions are attributed to the breaking of the dietary or sexual
prescriptions, or to other misbehavior of the person who takes
the beverage. Sometimes having bad visions, or not having any
visions at all, is attributed to the evil doings of rival
shamans. It is also believed that some people have "weak
souls", and should not take the beverage. If they do, they
may do crazy things, such as taking off their clothes and
running into the jungle, quarreling or biting the other parti152
cipants in the ceremony, etc.
Vegetalistas stress the idea that it is necessary to be calm
and not be afraid of the visions, however terrible they might
be. Sometimes evil spirits appear in the visions, and try to
harm the person, but if he is not afraid, nothing can harm him.
Visions of being transformed into an animal, often a jaguar or
a snake, are relatively frequent. Also being devoured by a huge
boa, or conversely, a boa penetrating through the mouth into
the person.
On one occasion Don Fidel Mosombite, who lives in Pucallpa, on
the Ucayali, reported the existence of a vine called huairacaspi ayahuasca ("wind" ayahuasca), which is not to be taken
because it produces terrible visions that may even cause death.
Don Emilio told me that on one occasion, when he was in the
army, he and other soldiers prepared ayahuasca. In their
visions they saw that they were in a hole. Several Indians were
pointing at them with spears and arrows. Some were throwing at
them snakes, insects, excrements, and other dirty things. They
understood that they had taken the wrong kind of ayahuasca. Don
Emilio told me that when one plants ayahuasca, it is important
to place three or four cigarrettes of mapacho (strong tobacco)
at the root of the plant, so that it might not be a purga brava
(literally, a "furious purgative") that will produce bad
Vegetalistas do not hide the fact that taking ayahuasca involves certain risks. Don Emilio told me the following story as
an example of the dangers of taking the beverage without the
appropiate respect and lacking the surveillance of a maestro:
These events happened in Río Tigre, about forty
years ago. As you know, along the rivers you see
houses here and there, on either bank of the river.
Sometimes they form small settlements. In one of
these places there was a maestro who, as I do now,
used to invite some of his neighbours to take ayahuasca, and sometimes
he also invited people who
lived in the vicinity. He had a beautiful new house,
where he had lived with his wife for about five
years. The place where they took ayahuasca was in
front of the house. One day a young man about 20
years old came to take ayahuasca. When the maestro
was preparing the brew the young man asked him:
"Maestro, is it ready?" "Of course not", he replied.
"It has to be kept boiling until seven or eight in
the evening". The young man then said: "Maestro,
remember well what I now tell you. Tonight I will be
the first to take ayahuasca. Don't forget. " "Very
well", said the maestro. He went home, returned one
hour later and asked again: "Is it ready?" The
maestro said: "I already told you at what time it'll
be ready". The young man said: "Don't forget. I
will be the first to take the brew. " He returned
some time later and asked again: "Is it ready?"
"Almost", said the maestro. "We'll take it in about
twenty minutes".
"But I first".
"Very well",
said the young man.
All the people that were going to take the brew got
together. The maestro sang an icaro over the ayahuasca bottle, and gave a dose to the young man, who
gulped it down at once. He then gave the beverage to
all those others present. When he had finished, he
began to blow smoke over all the participants, so
that they might all be protected during the ceremony.
This is what some maestros do after everybody has
taken ayahuasca.
After twelve, fourteen minutes the visions appeared.
Some people began to vomit, others to defecate,
others to sing. The young man went up to the maestro
and told him: "I don't see anything". "You have to
wait", said the maestro. Sometimes it takes time.
Sometimes, when the mareación comes later, it is very
strong." "Very well", the young man said. The maestro
continued singing. Some time later the young man went
to the maestro and said: "I don't see anything. Give
me some more." The maestro gave him another dose, and
continued singing and blowing smoke over one of his
patients. When the young man saw that the maestro was
busy attending his patients, he took the bottle of
ayahuasca and took two more doses.
About ten minutes later a terrible mareación came
over him. He saw that everybody present had horns and
tails and their teeth were chattering. A little
later a spirit, a huge doctor, appeared. The spirit
said: "I will give you great powers for the rest
of your life if you do what I will you. You will be
able to travel everywhere, under the earth, through
the air, under the water, both during the day and
at night. And you will get whatever you desire. " "And
what do I have to do", asked the young man. "Listen
attentively. As you can see, there is a pregnant
woman sleeping over there in a bed inside the house.
She has been pregnant for seven months. You go there
with a machete, kill her, open her womb and take out
the baby. You will break the baby's head and suck its
brain. If you do this, I will give you all the powers
I told you about."
The young man left the group and went to the house.
He climbed the stairs. He found a machete, went to
the bed and lifted the mosquito net which hang over
the bed where the poor woman was sleeping. He killed
her, and did what the spirit had told him to do.
People began to scream and tried to get hold of
the criminal, who did not let anybody get close
to him, swinging the machete with one hand and
the baby with the other. Some people went to look for
the authorities. At about midnight several policemen
came and surrounded him. While some of them were
menacing him in front, others came from behind with
ropes. They knocked him down and tied him to a tree.
The lieutenant said: "Stay where you are, everybody.
Noboby leaves this place". The criminal was there,
all tied up, vomiting and defecating, still under the
effects of ayahuasca.
The next morning many people went to that place
when they heard about this terrible crime. The
lieutenant wrote a report and ordered the construction of a big raft and good oars. All those attending the ceremony were sent to the city on this
raft, guarded by eight policemen with guns.
Everybody was sent to jail. The criminal was sentenced to 45 years in prison. The maestro to 15
years. All those attending the ceremony were condemned to 5 years in prison. All this happened in
Rio Tigre many years ago.
If continence is not observed, a person may have misleading
visions. Don Emilio told me of another case. A man had sexual
intercourse with his wife shortly after taking ayahuasca. He
saw in his vision a beautiful road where pretty young women
invited him to follow them, which he did. The people attending
the ceremony thought that he had gone home. His wife, when she
noticed that her husband was not at home any longer, thought
that he had returned to the ceremony. The next morning they all
realized that he was missing. For several days they looked
for him in the jungle which surrounded that place, without
result. In the end they gave up looking for him, and his
clothes were veiled and buried, as it is customary in the
Amazon in these cases. Several more days passed. One morning
a man who was hunting noticed that there was something up in a
tree. He was about to shoot when he realized that it was a
human being. He returned in a hurry to report to the police.
An expedition was organized at once, and they found the missing
man almost naked, full of wounds, covered by worms and insect
bites. They took him back to his home, and several women
gathered around him for several hours, washing and curing him.
When he recovered, he was able to tell what had happened to
him, and the visions he had had.
In this book I have made a relatively detailed description of
shamanism as it is practised among the mestizo population of
the Peruvian Amazon. There is a clear continuity with respect
to shamanism among ethnic groups of the Upper Amazon area. Several essential elements are preserved: the idea that some
plants and animals have powerful spirits from which knowledge
and power can be derived; the idea that in order to learn from
these plants it is necessary to follow rigorous dietary prescriptions and sexual segregation, and that these plants can be
used as tools for exploring the natural and supernatural
realms; the idea that the exploration of these realms entail
certain dangers, and that the novice needs spirits to protect
him from supernatural attacks; the idea that dreams and hallucinations may be manipulated; the idea that knowledge and power
are concentrated in a magic substance that vegetalistas have in
their chests and in the magic chants and melodies they learn
from the spirits; the idea that illness is due to the action of
spirits or evil sorcerers and that it is a pathogenic spirit
with a material manifestation (an insect, a piece of bone, a
needle or a razor) which can be diverted by means of magic
plants and melodies, by purifying the patients with tobacco
smoke, and by extracting the maleficent spirit inside the patient with the beneficent spirits dwelling in the vegetalista's
magic substance.
One of the basic ideas is that various plant spirits are
received by the vegetalista enabling him to incorporate certain
of their characteristics, both those corresponding to their
material manifestations, such as strength to withstand rains
and floods, and those corresponding to all their transformations both anthropomorphic and theriomorphic. They will be able
to take the novice to various realms, depending on their shapes
-bird, insect, fish etc, An aquatic plant will hell the novice
who ingests it to enter the underwater world. A tree with
thorns will give him weapons to defend himself or to do harm.
This is a manifestation of the principle similia similibus
which permeates Amazonian thought 93 .
The incorporation of the characteristics of the plants take
two basic materializations: a magic phlegm, which the vegetalista has embedded in his chest, and magic melodies, which are
The shape of certain plants or objects determines their
use. For example a plant which resembles an ear will cure ear
also symbolically in his chest, because from there they emerge,
and there are they believed to grow like the branches of a
tree. Under the influence of ayahuasca and other psychotropic
plants the various kinds of phlegm are visible in their "real"
form. The magic chants are also visualized under the effect of
ayahuasca (synesthesia). The magic darts or virotes are yet
another manifestation of the spirits, the reason why we can, in
fact, talk about illness as spirit intrusion. The Amazonian
spirit world seems to be a world of constant transformation,
like its material shape of rapid metabolic change.
The tradition is there. But it is not a static phenomenon, a
mere relic from the past. Shamanism among the mestizos is
highly dynamic. It is constantly adjusting itself to the circumstances, borrowing from the new cultural items introduced
into the area. The guardian spirits may be electric eels, huge
anacondas, birds, black bulls, angels with swords, mermaids,
soldiers with guns, fighters, extraterrestial beings... In
their visions they may travel on the back of an ant, or become
an insect to explore the bottom of lakes and rivers. But they
might also take a taxi or a boat, or even, as described by
Pablo Amaringo, a flying saucer to visit other worlds.
I wish to stress the fact that the descriptions of shamanism
I made in this book correspond to a certain type of vegetalistas still very much linked to rural life. They all worked in
the jungle during their youth, learnt the flora and fauna of
the forest and had contact with people belonging to Amazonian
ethnic groups. Other types of practitioners are emerging in the
cities. In their practice other elements are being absorbed
-rosicrucism, gnosticism, even eastern traditions-, and some of
the Amazonian elements are being transformed or forgotten.
In the practice of the vegetalistas I have been studying I
see somehow the spirit of the lonely forest hunter, each man
for himself. They are highly individualistic, but still connected through inconspicuous networks which link them across geographical regions and even frontiers to practitioners of various
heritages. This individualistic quality is reflected in their
icaros or magic chants and melodies. They all have their "own"
icaros, and encourage other to learn directly from the spirits
of the plants. When there are several vegetalistas at a session, each one of them sings his icaros. If a person has not
learned any, he remains silent, without trying to follow the
icaro of one of the maestros. I remember how remarkable it was
to participate in a session at which several of my main informants were present. While Don Emilio whistled his icaros in a
soft voice, Don Manuel Ahuanari sang a slow and sad chant in
Quichua, and Don Alejandro and Don José Coral sang energetically their icaros in a mixture of languages, all at the same
time. This seems to be in contrast with what I have seen the
few times I have participated in ayahuasca ceremonies with
younger people in the cities. Don Sergio, for example, acts
during ceremonies as the director of a choir. Everybody sang
the same melody. This also happens among the Brazilian cults in
which Santo Daime (ayahuasca) is ingested collectively by a
large number of people. They sing in unison the himnos selected
members are inspired with. Among members of the UDV (Uniao do
Vegetal), also in Brazil, they sometimes put on a record,
instead of singing (!). I wonder whether the destruction of the
forest environment and the process of urbanization brings about
among people attracted by spiritual quests the temptation of
adopting forms of power manipulation, and a shift towards institutional, rather than inspirational practitioners.
At the beginning of my research I was concerned in making
a contribution towards the solution of a problem that Richard
Evans Schultes (1967:51) pointed out years ago: the botanical
identification of ayahuasca additives. I have come to the conclusion that the number of additives is unlimited, simply
because ayahuasca is a means of exploring the properties of new
plants and substances by studying the changes they cause on the
hallucinatory experience, and by examining the content of the
visions. This is done among the mestizos in exactly the same
way as it is done, for example, among the Sibundoy studied by
Melvin L. Bristol (1966). The exploratory curiosity of some of
the v e g e t a l i s t a s makes them try new plants, even new
substances. Don Fidel, a practitioner from Pucallpa, told me
that he had taken a mejoral (an aspirin) to study it under the
effects of ayahuasca, and he discovered that it also contains
an "essence of plants", which is the reason why it works. This
is, indeed, a radically different idea of how one goes about in
finding out about plants and substances with biological -and
psychical- activity.
Although in this book I emphasized the use and role of ayahuasca, it is important to realize that this plant is one among
others which belong to the category of plant-teachers. Tobacco,
one of them, is, in a way, even more important than ayahuasca,
because it is considered to be a mediator between the vegetalista and the other plant spirits. Sin el tabaco no se puede
usar ningún vegetal (without tobacco no other plant can be
used), says Don Emilio. Tobacco purifies the body and expels
the illness. As Johannes Wilbert wrote (1979:31), referring to
the shaman, "it makes his breath visible, and with it the benevolent, or, as the case may be, malevolent, charges that emanate from the shaman". Tobacco is also the food of spirits (Don
José's muerrayas, who live at the end of the world, have as
their only food the nectar of tobacco flowers). Mastering the
use of tobacco, either smoked, or ingested orally or through
the nostrils, is part of the shamanic initiation of all my informants. Tobacco is always present at ayahuasca sessions.
The plants which are used as plant-teachers have a double
function. They may be used as medicinal plants for various illnesses, or as plant-teachers if they are used under the special
conditions of diet and segregation. Unfortunately, little is
known about the shamanic use of most of these other plants.
Although I collected -and identified- about two and a half
dozens of them, I never witnessed ayahuasca being prepared with
any other additives than Psychotria viridis, Diplopterys cabrerana, tobacco and toé (Brugmansia suaveolens). The other
plants, as plant-teachers, seem to belong to the sphere of shamanic initiation, not to everyday practice. In the market of
Iquitos I saw a stall where about ten of the plant-teachers
were sold as medicines. The woman who attended the place did
not know anything about their shamanic use as plant-teachers.
Some of these plants are no longer easily available, due to
deforestation. Some of the big trees which are considered
plant-teachers have economic value, and have been chopped down
in the areas near the cities and along the main rivers.
The knowledge of the flora and fauna is seriously diminishing
among the new generation of vegetalistas, due to the constant
destructive process of the natural environment. Many of the
birds and other animals my informants have told me about are
now rarely seen. They always tell me that if one really wants
to learn, one has to find a place untouched by human hands. It
is appropiate here to cite Whitten (1985:33), who referring to
the knowledge of indigenous people about their ecosystem
"The knowledge of this general system exists in specific cosmological structures of master symbols that
allow native peoples with requisite vision and knowledge to communicate widely and freely about ecosystem dynamics by reference to focal spirit beings."
I suspect that knowledge about the ecosystem is partially encoded in some of the magic chants sung by vegetalistas, unfortunately in languages that I do not understand, and will be
lost if no efforts are made in time to preserve at least some
of it. Shamanism will most probably persist, but it will lose
one descriptive dimension, one that is permanently tied up with
the Amazonian environment.
If we now think of the therapeutical aspects of vegetalismo,
I wish to make some observations. Let us remember the distinction vegetalistas make between cuerpo sencillo, which is the
body of a person leading a normal life, subject to supernatural
attacks, and therefore to illness, and cuerpo preparado, which
is the body of a person who has made his body strong through
the use of plants, and cuerpo dañado, the body of a sick person, hit by a magic dart, by the encounter with an evil spirit,
or by witchcraft. First of all, we find the idea of preventive
medicine. The best way of fighting illness is not to fall ill.
Ayahuasca and the other plant teachers may be ingested with
this purpose -or to recover health, as we saw in the case of
some of my informants-. But if one is "chosen" by the plants
and follows the prescriptions, these will give knowledge. Wisdom and health walk hand in hand. Trying to acquire either of
them -health or wisdom- leads automatically to the other.
The idea of following a particular diet is seen as a sine qua
non both for becoming a vegetalista -i. e. for acquiring wisdom
and strength- and for restoring one's health. Only by purifying
oneself by following the diet is one able to contact the spirit world, learn from the plants, and regain physical health.
All vegetalistas insist that following the diet is the way of
wisdom. They all say that while they followed their diets their
minds worked differently, they could observe and memorize more
easily, even their bodies changed their smell, allowing them to
study nature in a more direct way, and they had lucid dreams,
in-which the process of learning continued. They all stressed
that they did not become weak from this diet. Quite the opposite, although they lost weight, their bodies became stronger
and were able to stand the difficult conditions of life in the
forest and the diet prevented them from becoming ill. I believe
that these are clues for future investigations to be made by
ethnopharmacologists, psychologists and neurophysiologists.
Practically the same diet is always prescribed to their
patients in cases of serious illness, particularly if the cause
is believed to be supernatural. The diet is seen as a natural
way of restoring balance, because it helps to expel the pathogenic spirits or substance by allowing the person to be open to
the action of benefical plant and animal spirits. Several times
during my field work I heard stories of people who told me that
during the period in which they were following the diet, either
in their dreams or in the visions elicited by ayahuasca or
other plant-teachers, an old man or woman coming to take away
the illness in various ways, either symbolically, by sweeping
their bodies with a broom, or by operating on them like a
Western doctor. Such a dream would mean that curing was
imminent. The idea that with ayahuasca the vegetalista is able
to see the cause of an illness, and even see inside the body of
his patients -X ray vision- is also prevalent. Patients are
also sometimes able to visualize the cause of their illness, or
even the illness itself -autoscopy-. These cases are certainly
of interest to those studying the relationship between the
immune system and the psyche. Jeanne Achterberg, in a recent
study (1985) writes:
"Very current studies have shown that the immune
system itself is under the direct control of the central nervous system, particularly those areas of the
brain implicated in the transmission of the image of
the body."
It is important to consider the effect of knowing about the
cause of an illness may have over a patient, in terms of alleviating his tension, and therefore perhaps allowing his own
organism to take mesures towards the elimination of the illness. A vegetalista often offers to the poor patients -which
represent the majority of the people of this area- more psychological support than a Western doctor, who has usually very
little time, charges large sums, and who attends his patients
in clinics and offices which are totally foreign and even sometimes terrifyingly alien to them. The vegetalista often opens
his home to the patients, even for long periods of time, provides counseling, shows interest in the financial and emotional problems of his patients, amuses them with his stories,
even offers them what we would call forms of family therapy.
All these elements must have an effect in the curing process.
When the patients take ayahuasca under the supervision of a
vegetalista, they often turn to an introspection about their
life in general, about the kind of life they are leading. One
must remember that it is part of their idea about health and
illness to ask why a person is ill, including the question why
just me. Ayahuasca sessions seem to have a therapeutical value
for many people, even if they do not suffer from any particular
illness or psychical disorder. The idea of cleansing the body
and the mind with ayahuasca exists among many people. Vegetalistas resort to ayahuasca sessions even in the treatment of
alcoholism, often also treated as an illness caused by
somebody. Alcoholism is one of the great problems of Amazonian
people, both among ethnic groups and among the mestizo population. It seems paradoxical that the use of ayahuasca, which is
always done under a strictly controlled situation, has been
persecuted in the past, and is still seen with the greatest
suspicion by the establishment, while the beer industry, which
is florishing in the Amazon area, and causing so much harm, is
considered in the official tourist brochures as a sign of the
progress of this region.
In the last chapter I discussed the dichotomy visions vs
cleansing in the consumption of ayahuasca among the vegetalistas. If one compares the ayahuasca sessions described among
certain groups, involving prolonged dancing, repeated dosis of
the brew, and loud manifestations of encounters with spirits,
the ceremonies carried out among the mestizos are certainly
modest. Vegetalistas are very cautious people. The dose is
carefully calculated. The complaint that the ayahuasca was not
well prepared, and therefore did not produce any visions is
often heard. I wonder whether we shall gradually witness something similar to what is happening with the use of the San Pedro cactus in costal Peru. Joralemon (1984) reported that he
interviewed forty of his informants's patients, and only ten
reported having had hallucinations. Elizabeth Kremer (personal
communication) has told me that among her informants the San
Pedro potions are diluted to such an extent that they do not
produce any psychoactive effects. The patients undergo, however, a strong stimulation of the sympathetic division of the
Autonomic Nervous System due to an array of sensory stimuli
(Joralemon 1984:407).
It may well happen that among at least some practitioners
ayahuasca might lose its hallucinatory effect, while the idea
of cleansing, implicit in its emetic and cathartic properties,
might be more strongly stressed. Among Amazonian ethnic groups
shamanism is a specialization that only particularly gifted
individuals pursue. It demands long training under carefully
controlled conditions. It is like learning to navigate, only
that the space in which they travel is interior, and they may
encounter more stormy waters and treacherous air currents than
in the external world. When the conditions do not allow such a
careful training, it is no wonder that new practitioners should
be extremely cautious when entering the geography of the spirit
world. Among ethnic groups subject to acculturation it seems
that some of the most potent psychotropic plants are very seldom used. Bellier 1986) has pointed out that among the Mai
Huna, a Tukano group living in the Peruvian Amazon area, between the Putumayo and Napo rivers, only a few shamans acknowledge having taken toé (pei, in Tukano) (Brugmansia sp.), a
plant containing atropine alkaloids. They say they are afraid
of it. Also among the vegetalistas very few had taken this
plant. Only occasionally they add a few leaves to the pot when
preparing ayahuasca.
Even though many of the inhabitants of both Iquitos and Pucallpa still have chacras, and therefore keep in touch with the
jungle environment, there is a clear shift of the emphasis of
the various spirits. As plants and animals become increasingly
scarce due to intense deforestation, the spirit pantheon is
also being empoverished. In the cosmology of younger practitioners, new elements are filling the cultural void left by the
vanishing plant and animal spirits. These new elements may come
from European esoteric traditions of recent implantation in the
Amazon, which are integrated with elements of popular Catholicism, new mesianistic cults, and even, in rare cases, with the
belief in extraterrestial intervention (in Pablo Amaringo's
painting of ayahuasca visions the motive of the UFO is almost
always present, along with jungle spirits, fairies, and oriental kings). The spirits of famous "Western" doctors as helping
spirits, are taking the place of the spirits of Indian shamans.
As the cause of illness, jungle and water spirits are slowly
being forgotten and replaced by the spirits of deceased people,
and by the evil doings of evil witches. Living in often crowded
cities, people, not plants and animals, are the cause of misfortune. However, it seems to me that still the "old" vegetalistas, enjoy more prestige among the majority of the population than younger practitioners.
I have asked myself many times whether I am witnessing a
dying tradition. On one hand, I am aware of the fact that none
of my informants, who represent a type of vegetalismo linked to
the traditional Amazonian cultural complex, has any successor.
The ideal conditions of apprenticeship seem to discourage young
peasants, more and more interested in the commodities offered
to them by the external world: watches, leather boots, transistor radios, motorcycles, etc. If they have strong religious
disposition, there are plenty of religious groups, some of
which offer a certain social promotion, which are ready to
absorbe their spiritual enthusiasm. The social pressure is on
drinking alcohol, the drug of the colonists. To participate in
ayahuasca session, an Indian custom, has no social prestige. On
the other hand I have also noticed that in nearly every session
I have attended in Iquitos and Pucallpa, there was somebody
-usually an adult- taking ayahuasca for the first time94.
I cannot deny that my work has had certain shortcomings.
First of all, my ignorance of Indian languages, particularly of
Quichua, which is the language par excellence of the magic
chants. My knowledge of the Amazonian flora and fauna is also
deficient. I am sure that I have missed important implications
due to that deficiency. I have always carried out my field work
Rios (1962:28) observed that the use of ayahuasca was increasing in Northeastern Peru.
from June to August. I have not been able to follow cases for a
long time, nor travel to areas where I could collect plants I
have only heard about. More field work should be carried out
among several types of practitioners, and in more areas of the
Peruvian Amazon. In my future work I will try to amend, as far
as I can, some of these shortcomings.
Of utmost importance is the collaboration of scholars studying shamanism among ethnic groups and among the mestizo population, even across cultural areas. Interdisciplinary studies
are also needed. Several areas of the social and natural sciences may benefit from such an approach. The historian may also
learn from comparative studies in areas subject to such rapid
cultural change. A better understanding of vegetalismo may be
also benefitial to public health personnel preocuppied with improving the conditions of Amazonian people.
Vegetalistas are authentic repositories of Amazonian lore.
Some of them are conscious of being part of an indigenous tradition. One little anecdote may illustrate this idea. Don Emilio had never asked me for anything. We exchanged gifts, naturally, always as friends. That is why I was a little surprised
when, shy like a little boy, he asked me to give him a picture
of Apolinar, the Ingano shaman, who had given me ayahuasca for
the first time. "Joven Educo, podría ser que usted me quisiera
dar la foto del gran maestro vegetalista de allá de su tierra"
("perhaps you could hand me the picture of the great vegetalista of your town"). Of course I gave him the photo. One year
later, the picture of Don Apolinar was on one of the walls of
the room in his house where ayahuasca sessions take place. With
this little gesture, Don Emilio made me realize that he has
great respect for his Indian ancestors, from whom a great part
of his knowledge comes.
The Peruvian Amazon area, like the Amazon regions of all the
other countries, is experiencing great changes. The impact of
modern technology is very marked. The noise of cars, motorcycles and electric drills disturb the Amazonian spiritual world.
"A los espíritus los aflige el ruido" (the spirits dislike the
noise), Don Sergio told me once. Although at times drowned by
the roar of jet planes crossing the night sky the magic chants
of vegetalistas still travel to places Western technology will
never reach -to the realm of spirits, a world accepting modern
wonders but encompassing the past and the future as well.
During the examination of the scientific literature on the use
of psychotropic preparations made of Banisteriopsis, I kept a
record of the Indian tribes that use them, and the local names
given to them. I am sure these lists are far from exhaustive, and should be considered only as indicative. In the first
appendix, I list the various tribes and groups in alphabetical order, indicating in parentheses the linguistic family to
which each tribe or group belongs. I have used Loukotka's
(1968) classification of language families. For a map of the
use of ayahuasca among the Indians of Northeastern Peru, see
Tesman 1930, kartogramm 18). In the second appendix, there is
an alphabetical list of local names given to the Banisteriopsis
01 Achual (Jívaro)(Tessmann 1930)
02 Aguaruna (Jívaro)(Brown 1978: 121)
03 Amahuaca (syn. Sayaco, Impetineri) of Varadero (Pano)
(Tessmann 1930; Huxley & Capa 1965; Carneiro 1970:341; Friedberg 1965:112; Calvo 1981:217).
04 Anguteros (syn. Ancutere, Pioje)(Western Tukano) of Ecuador
(Villavicencio 1858; Spruce 1908:11:424; P. Naranjo 1983:78).
05 Aucas (syn. Sabelas, Huaranis)(Sabela) of Ecuador (P. Naranjo
1983:187-188), and Tihuacuna River, Loreto, Peru (Tessman
06 Awisiri (Auishiri)(Reinberg 1925:53; Tessmann 1930)
07 Banivas (Arawak)(Lewin 1927:169)
08 Barasana (Eastern Tukano)(Friedberg 1965: 51; Hugh-Jones
09 Bares (Arawak)(Lewin 1928: 169)
10 Campa (Arawak) of Peru (Tessmann 1930; Weiss 1972; Chevalier
1982; Friedberg 1965: 108)
11 Canelos Quichua of Ecuador (Quichua)(Tessmann 1930; Whitten
1976: 153-159; 1985: 136-142).
12 Carijonas (syn. Karihona (Karaib), at present two isolated
groups, one at the headwaters of the Vaupés River, and other in
and near La Pedrera on the Brazilian border of Caquetá River
(Uscategui 1959: 298; Friedberg 1965: 64; Reinburg 1925: 22;
Domville-Fife 1924: 228-231).
13 Cashinahua of Peru (Pano)(Friedberg 1965: 113; Der Marderosian et al. 1970; Rivier & Lindgren 1972; Kensinger 1973).
14 Cayapa (Chibcha) of coast of Ecuador (Karsten 1964: 95;
P. Naranjo 1983: 172-3).
15 Chamicura (Arawak)(Friedberg 1965: 110).
16 Chasutinos (Munichi)(San Martin, Alto Huallaga) (Arévalo,
per. commun.)
17 Chayavita (Tschhuito, Tsaawí)(Kahuapana)(Tessmann 1930)
18 Chebero (Jebero) (Kahuapana)(Tessmann 1930; Friedberg
19 Chocó of Colombia (Choco)(P. Naranjo 1983:96).
20 Colorados of Ecuador (Chibcha)(Karsten 1964:95; P.Naranjo
21 Conibo (Pano)(Friedberg 1965:112)
22 Coreguaje (Western Tukano)(Lewin 1928:169).
23 Cubeo of the Cuduyari River (Eastern Tukano)(Goldman 1923;
Reichel-Dolmatoff 1972:88; Friedberg 1965:59).
24 Culina (syn. Kulina) (Aráwa) of Ecuador (Rivier & Lindgren
1972; P. Naranjo 1983:97).
25 Desana of Vaupés, Colombia (Eastern Tukano)(Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971: 150; Friedberg 1965: 53).
26 Emberá (syn. Emperá) (Chocó) of Chocó (Colombia) (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1960:130-132; 1980:35)
27 Guahibo, upper Orinoco in Colombia and Venezuela (Arawak) (Spruce 1908:11:415) (Friedberg 1965:38-39) (Lewin
1928:169)(Reichel-Dolmatoff 1980:35)
28 Guanano (Tukano)(García Barriga 1975:55)
29 Hianakota-Umana (Karaib)(Koch-Grünberg 1908)
30 Huambiza (Jívaro)(Tessmann 1930)
31 Huitoto (syn. Uitoto) (Uitoto)(P. Naranjo 1983:96)(Friedberg
1965: 70)
32 Iquito (Záparo)(Tessmann 1930)
33 Ingano (Quechua)(Bristol 1966:120; Uscategui 1959:290; Taussig 1980: 237; Luna 1984a)
34 Isconahua (Pano)(Arevalo, personal communication)
35 Jivaro (syn. Shuar) (Jívaro)(Harner 1973)(Villavicencio
1858; P. Naranjo 1983:78; Karsten 1935, 1964:95; Lewin
36 Kabuvari (syn. Cauyari, Cabuyari)(Arawak)(Friedberg 1965:51)
37 Kandoshi (Murato, Roamaina)(Murato)(Tessmann 1930)
38 Kofán (syn. Cofán)(Cofán), of Ecuador and Colombia (Schultes
1982:206; Robinson 1976)
39 Lama (syn. Lamista)(Quechua) of Peru (Steward & Metraux
1948: 605; Friedberg 1965: 105; Tessman 1930: 289; Scazzochio
1979: 183)
40 Macuna (syn. Makuna) (Eastern Tukano)(Naranjo
1983:97)(Friedberg 1965:56)(García Barriga 1975:55)(Arhem
41 Mai huna (syn. Orejón, Coto)(Western Tukano) (Tessmann 1930;
Friedberg 1965: 70; Bellier 1986)
42 Maku (Maku) (Schultes (1957; Uscategui 1959: 29; Friedberg
43 Mandavaka (Arawak)(Lewin 1928:169).
44 Marinahua (Pano)(P. Naranjo 1983:97).
45 Matsigenka (syn. Machiguenga, Machiganga) of East Peru (Arawak) (Baer 1984: 499).
46 Mayoruna (syn. Moríque)(Arawak)(Río Blanco, Peru) (Arévalo,
personal communication)
47 Mazán (syn. Masamae, Parara)(Yagua)(Villavicencio 1858;
Spruce 1908:II:424; (P. Naranjo 1983:78).
48 Menimehe (Western Tukano)(Reinburg 1925:53)
49 Noanamá of Choco (Chocó)(Colombia) (Reichel-Dolmatoff
50 Omagua (Tupi), near San Joaquin and San Salvador, Peru
(Tessmann 1930; Friedberg 1965: 70; Girard 1958: 183).
51 Panobo (Pano) (Tessmann 1930; Friedberg 1965:111).
52 Piapoko (Arawak)(Friedberg 1965:40)(Reichel-Dolmatoff
53 Pioché (syn. Pioje, Cionis)(Tukano)(Reinburg 1925:20; Lewin
1928:169; Tessman 1930:214, 217).
54 Piro (Arawak)(Santa Clara, Low Urubamba, Peru)(Peter Gow,
personal communication. They learn from Cocama shamans, and
have a comptemt for Campa shamans).
55 Puinabe (Makú)(Friedberg 1965:41).
56 Quijos (Quechua) of the river Quijos, tributary of Napo
river (Tessmann 1930; Oberem 1958; P. Naranjo 1983:85).
57 Remos (Pano)(Rio Pichalla, between Peru and Brazil) (Arévalo, personal communication)
58 Santa Maria (?) (Ecuador)(Villavicencio 1858:371-3).
59 Santiagueno (Quechua) Valley of Sibundoy, Colombia (Bristol
1966: 120)
60 Secoya (Western Tukano) of Eastern Ecuador (Vickers &
Plowman 1984: 18-20; Vickers 1981: 710).
61 Sharanahua (Pano)(Siskind 1973: 130-147).
62 Shipibo (Pano) of Ucayali river, Peru (Karsten 1964: 95;
P. Naranjo 1983:97; Friedberg 1965:111).
63 Sibundoy (Kamsá)(Chibcha), south Colombia (Bristol 1966)
64 Siona (Western Tukano)(Mallol de Recasens 1965) (Langdon
1974; Vickers & Plowman 1984: 18-20; Vickers 1981:710).
65 Taiwano (syn. Teiuana)(Eastern Tukano)(Friedberg 1965:51).
66 Tamas (Western Tukano)(Lewin 1928:169).
67 Tanimuka (Eastern Tukano) of Popeyaca River, affluent of
the Apaporis, near Yucuna country in Comisaria del Amazonas
(Uscategui 1959: 296)(Friedberg 1965: 52).
68 Tarianas (Karaib)(Spruce 1908:423; Lewin 1928:169; Friedberg
69 Tatuyo (Eastern Tukano), upper Pira-parana)(Bidou....).
70 Tikuna (syn. Tucuna)(Tucuna) (Tessmann 1930; Lamb 1985: 44)
71 Yagua (Yagua)(Chaumeil 1983:38)
72 Zaparo (Záparo)(Northeastern Peru)(Spruce 1908:423; Reinburg 1925:10; Tessmann 1930).
01 Ayahuasca (Quechua) Etymology: Aya = dead person, soul,
spirit. Waska = cord, liana, vine (Carvahlo-Neto 1964)(Andrade
Marín 1969)(P. Naranjo 1983:93). The latter author considers
the name ayahuasca a Quechua neologism, difussed first in the
18th and 19th centuries. Záparo, Anguteros, Mazanes (Spruce
1908:II:424; Villavicencio 1858:373); Ucayali River (Rios
1962)(Quoted by Bristol 1966: 114) Quijos of Napo (Reinburg
1925:55). Ecuador: Spruce 1908:II:415; Karsten 1926: 324).
02 Biaxii (Kamsá language)(Sibundoy) (Bristol 1966: 120).
In his article Bristol has a table with the terms employed
by the Sibundoy, including amaron waska, ambiwaska, ayawaska, biaxa, biaxii, bichemia, chagrupanga, el remedio, sacawaska
and yax'. Chagrupanga refers to Banisteriopsis rusbyana (now
Diplopterys cabrerana); biaxa to Banisteriopsis caapi.
03 Caapi, capi, cabi, Caji, Gahpi, Kahi, (Tupi language) (Para,
Brazil) (Ducke 1943; 1957)(Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971:150;1980).
According to Von Hagen (1957)(Quoted by P. Naranjo 1983:95) it
means hacer valiente (to make one courageous). Naranjo presents
another interpretation: It means hoja para exhalar (leave to
make you like a spirit). This name is also used in other parts
of the Amazonas (Venezuela, Guiana...) (See Deulofeu 1967).
According to Koch-Grünberg 1917:1:500) (Cited by Friedberg
1965:55) there are two kinds of Caapi among the Tukanoan: Kapi
and Kulikapio. Caji (Yebasama)(Deltgen 1978/79; Deltgen is
uncertain of the precise plant or plants used). Caji-idirecaji
(Makuna)(P. Naranjo 1983:97) (García Barriga 1975: 55). Used also
by the Yecuana (Koch-Grünberg 1917:111:386-388)(Cited by
Friedberg 1965: 43)(Lewin 1928:169). Kahi ide (Makuna) (Arhem
04 Caapi-pinima (coloured caapi). Among the Macu of Tiquie
river (Brazil), a tributary of Vaupés, Schultes (1954) observed a hallucinogenic brew made of Tetrapteris methystica,
of a yellow colour -different from the brown Banisteriopsis
beverage. Schultes suggests that this "coloured" caapi might
refer to this preparation.
05 Cadána, Cadana-pira (Tukano Indians of the Uaupés) (Spruce
06 Cauupuri mariri (Brazil) (Gates 1982:113).
07 Cipo caapi (Tikuna)(Lamb 1985:44).
08 Cofa, Oofa (Kofán)(García Barriga 1975:55; P. Naranjo
09 Dapa (Noanamá)(Pacific Lowlands)(Reichel-Dolmatoff 1980:35)
10 Hananeroca (which roughly means "vine of the river of
celestial youth), among the Campa (also Kamárampi. See below)
(Weiss 1969: 440-7) (Chevalier 1982: 406).
11 ?±ko, among the Siona (which signifies "remedy") (Langdon
1974: 65).
12 Iyona (Zaparo) (Reinburg 1965: 10).
13 Jagubi, in the community called Luz Universal, of Rio
Branco (Anibal Beça, personal communication).
14 Jauma (Indians of Guarani origin, Amazonas medio) (Karsten 1964: 95; P. Naranjo 1983: 97)
15 Kamárampi, among the Campa. From the verb root -kamarank-,
which means "to vomit" (Weiss 1973: 43-4). Also among the
Matsigenka: ka´maranpi, or kama´ranpi (Baer 1984: 499).
16 Mariri (UDV -Uniao do Vegetal-) (Monteiro 1983:49). Mariri is
also the local name of a concoction of unknown plants used by
Mojo Indians of eastern Bolivia (Schultes 1977:266), perhaps
also a Banisteriopsis drink.
17 Mao de onça (Brazil) (Gates 1982:113).
18 Mihi, mii (Aucas, Ecuador)(P. Naranjo 1983:188) (Goldman
1963:210-11)(Reichel-Dolmatoff 1972:62).
19 Nape, nepe, nepi (Chocó of Colombia, Cayapas and Colorados
of Equadorian coast)(P. Naranjo 1983:176; Lewin 1928:169).
20 Natema, natem (Jívaro) (Karsten 1935)(Harner
1973:15-27)(Naranjo 1983:95)
21 Natja (pronounced natha)(mother's milk)(Piro, of Peru) (Gow,
personal communication).
22 Njaxe (Coto)(Friedberg 1965:71).
23 Nishi (Shipibo, Ucayali river)(Karsten 1964:95; P. Naranjo
24 Nixi pae (Cashinahua, of Peru. It means "vine drunkenness") (Der Marderosian et al. 1970)(Kensinger 1973:10).
25 Oni xuma (Amawaca)(Calvo 1981:217)
26 Pindé, pildé (Colorados and Cayapas of Equatorian coast,
Emberá and black population of the Pacific Lowlands of Colombia
and Ecuador) (Lewin 1928:169; Karsten 1964:95; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1980:35; P. Naranjo 1983:172-180; Taussig 1980:235).
27 Pitujiracu (in Iquitos, according to P. Naranjo 1983:97)(?).
28 Purga-huasca (Peru)(Gates 1982:113), purga (Loreto).
29 Ramanujú (Yaguas, Peru) (Chaumeil 1983: 38)
30 Santo Dai-me. "Colonia 5. 000". Rio Branco, Brazil (Monteiro
31 Shuri, rambi, undi (among tribes of Pando language, Purus
river, Peru) (Rivier & Lindgren 1972)(Quoted by P.Naranjo
1983:97). Shori (Yaminahua), ondi (Sharanahua), rami (Siskind
1973:130). Shuri-fisopa (in Peru)(Gates 1982:113).
32 Sipo, Cipo (Yecuana, who also use the term Kahi, according
to Reinburg. Friedberg (1965: 43) correctly points out that the
term sipo is a more general term for all kinds of lianas).
33 Timbó branco (Río Tapajos) (Le Cointe 1947:84). ?(reference!)
34 Tiwaco-mariri (Brazil)(Gates 1982:113).
35 Totsha (aguita de la soga:juice of her vine) (Piro, of
Peru) (Gow, personal communication).
36 Tucondi (Marinahuas)(P.Naranjo 1983:97).
37 Vegetal (o vegetal) (UDV, Brazil).
38 Uipa (Guahibo)(Friedberg 1965:40).
39 Uní (Conibo) (Guillermo Arévalo, Yarinacocha, personal
40 Wampu, wampi (a type of ayahuasca used by Matsigenka and
Piro. It is associated with a strong wind) (Peter Gow, personal
41 Yagé, yajé (Tukano) (Spruce 1858) (Reinberg 1921)(Vickers 1981: 710), Kofan (Robinson 1976), Siona (Langdon 1979: 63),
Ingano, Hianakota-Umana (Koch-Grünberg 1908).
42 Yaja (Guanano)(García Barriga 1975: 55)
Icaros No. 1
Don Emilio's first icaro
Icaro No. 5
Icaro to increase the ayahuasca visions
Icaro No. 2
Icaro of Doctor Oje, against evil sorcerers
Icaro No. 6
Icaro of the pelejo (sloth)
Icaro No. 4
Icaro to call a spirit
Icaro No. 6
Icaro against evil sorcerers
Icaro No. 7
Icaro of the Brazilian
Icaro No. 8
Introductory icaro of ayahuasca sessions
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