Upon meeting the shaman one usually encounters a man off the street, and seldom is he or she dressed like a Walmart Indian in a grass skirt, a man who takes you down to his place by the river, his beads and feathers bought at Salvation Army counters. Still, to me a shaman's load of stuff looks like the jungle version of dumpster diving. For example, every shaman has a shakapa. Every shaman sings icaros songs. With this and a bottle of ayahuasca and lots of toilet paper for the puking and shitting to follow, the shaman is more or less in business, wherever that might be, from a flop-house in the city to a luxury resort in the jungle and any place in between, depending on the skill one has at making money. It's not about the money of course, which mostly means its about the money. But the money comes for a reason, that reason being the healing one expects from the shaman who provides one with cool-- or not so cool-- visions of oneself as God.
About the money, as much an epistemological question as a moral one, Fitiou puts part of it thus:
The more secure a shaman feels about their position in the market, the larger amounts they charge, which in turn creates hostility and resentment in local society. Tourists depending on their background and their financial situation will either consider expensive shamans as frauds who exploit indigenous knowledge, or they will consider the price fair for what they are receiving. (Ibid. Fitiou.)
The question is about the authenticity of the shaman, but also about the authenticity of shamanism. what makes one a real, i.e. authentic shaman as opposed to a charlatan? Is it bad to be greedy? Is it bad to be a scumbag? Does one need to dress up like a cartoon shaman? Can one be a decent person and still do battle with killer spirits? Is any of this even worth considering in a Modernist world? When confronted with need, what is right? When one goes to the doctor for healing, what does one expect? A clean white lab coat and a shiny stainless steel stethoscope? Or what?
The shaman's paraphernilia of sticks and leaves and stuff to swallow is prep for the effects of ayahuasca drinking. For the drug tourist none of this is about native culture, but is about visions of oneself, which is why one would pay lots of cash for the experience of being sick and psychotic. How, though, does one know one has met and is “healed” by a genuine shaman and not a rip-off artist? Before we talk to the shaman, let's find out more about what a shaman does and why and who he is as a shaman. Thus, we'll look at shapakas; find out a bit more about icaros; see what the purging is about; and then look at the effects of ayahuasca on the mind, if not the brain. Even though I have never taken ayahuasca, my idle curiousity prompts me to find out the difference between a shaman and a man who has some longings that one might confuse with shamanistic essence. Who's a pro and who's a con? Even those who are pros, as it were, are still playing a game for drug tourists, whether they know this or not; and many have picked up on key words their customers want to hear, an embarrassment when one finds a shaman stumbling badly to say things about yoga, Hinduism, Buddhism, and New Age fucking flaky. It is the nature of things to trade and absorb and pass on to others; and so too do shamans pick up from their customers all kinda stuff and such. They might say they've know this all along and now use more familiar terms for old concepts; but one might wonder. A bit of honesty can shed a great deal of revelatory light. Finally we'll look at why one would need, as it were, a shaman in the first place, assuming one is there for something-- anything-- more than to indulge ones wanker search for ones own perfect self in a bottle. What kind of weltanschauung does one need to be a part of ayahuasca? What do real ayahuasca people think the world is about and what does the ayahuasca-using shaman do for them? Then we can move on from Fitiou's interesting and informative doctoral thesis and go find out about a shaman in person again, this time armed with more information, with a light to shine on the shaman and his craft, so we know the real from the shadow, the light from illusion. First, some background, and interestingly some vivid examples in the moment.
The schacapa is [an] important tool for shamans. It is a rattle that consists of a bundle of leaves from the Pariana spp. palm. It might appear that its sole purpose is to provide a monotonous sound during the ceremony.... It is used to direct energy where needed or to remove negative energy from the patient’s body.
In the ayahuasca setting, the shaman rattles his shakapa and sings icaros. This is meant to manipulate the scene and its effects on the shaman and others, people as well as spirits.
While the shaman sings he or she shakes the schacapa producing a monotonous sound that accompanies the icaros, while when he or she does an individual healing on someone they tap their body with it. The sensation of tapping the schacapa on the crown of the head can be very soothing. When the ceremony is lead by multiple shamans and there are several schacapas used at the same time the effect can also be very impressive.
The icaro carries the healing intention of shamans and there are icaros for a variety of other purposes. Icaros are also the way that the curandero communicates with the spirits of the plants mentioned in each icaro. This way, the song contains the powers of the healing or curative plants. At the beginning of the ceremony the shaman sings icaros in the individual servings of the brew using the name of the participants for their protection and to solicit a certain outcome. Then he or she invokes the mareación as well as the plant and animal spirits and puts their curative powers inside the patients’ bodies. I was told that during the ceremony, sometimes the patients feel stronger while other times they may initially feel weaker because the power of the spirits combats the spirit of the patient while at the same time strengthening it. Most shamans advised participants to concentrate on the icaros during the ceremony especially if they are having a hard time or are afraid. One shaman said that the icaros are 100 percent healing (100 porciento curativos). A very common phenomenon related to the icaros, is that of synesthesia, where participants say they can literally “see” the music. Every time there is a change in song the visions change. In fact, it is said that a curandero can move or manipulate a person’s visions or state of mind by using different icaros at different times or change the overall energy and feeling of the ceremony. ... What is important here, and causes these dramatic changes are not the words of the icaro, which tend to be repetitive and variations of the same themes, but the intonation in which they are sang. Some icaros might be whistled or whispered especially at the beginning of the ceremony when they want to attract the spirits, while they can become much more intense later in the ceremony. (Ibid. Fitiou p.36.)
The icaros are said to be given to shamans directly from the spirits during their apprenticeship, in ceremony, or when dieting and in the course of their lives they might accumulate more icaros. The way that icaros are learned is directly from the spirits; shamans hear the icaros from the plants and they are told to follow them. They also learn and receive the icaros of their teacher which they learn and follow during their apprenticeship. This is what an ethnographer had to say about the transmission of icaros from the spirits to the shaman: 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/rhythm 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 applicable corpues of shamanic cognition suitable for the mundane village. [Luna 1986:62] The fear that others will copy their icaros is very common among curanderos and some will not allow recording of the ceremonies for this reason. ... The more common strategy used to avoid copying of the icaros is using a mix of words from native languages, especially Quechua, or what they call spirit language that is difficult to decipher and copy by other shamans. I was told by a shaman that I should use as many obscure words as possible if I want to be a shaman because it will make my icaros more powerful and more difficult for someone to learn. One shaman used words from Spanish, Quechua, Shipibo, Campa and Urarina in her icaros. [I]t is not enough to learn an icaro and sing it. Each icaro has a particular power or energy and that can only be transmitted by the master shaman to the apprentice by will or by the spirits themselves when they give the icaro to the shaman. Therefore, even though someone can just copy someone’s icaros and sing them in ceremony, these icaros have no power and therefore are not able to heal, protect etc. (Ibid. Fitiou: p. 187.)
Icaros are the vehicle through which the shaman will infuse an object or the brew with a power, whether healing, cleansing or harmful energy and transmit this energy to the patient. … At the end of familiar words each shaman will add a short suffix that usually does not mean anything and sometimes was mentioned as “spirit language”. I was told that the meaning of a word is not as important as the feeling of it. The way the shaman feels at the moment is what determines the words. ...
“The Icaros come from inside the body of the shaman”, one shaman told me showing his belly. He added that he uses some of the Icaros of his teacher but mostly his own. He explained that he took the base (spinal cord as he put it) from his teacher and developed his own ritual. This is very common in shamanism; there is a degree of following tradition and a lot of room for each individual shaman’s creativity.
[T]here were quite a few similarities between [icaros]. This might be because the vast majority of icaros are for special cases and they rarely get to be used or simply because the claims of knowing a hundred icaros are an exaggeration in the first place. There are icaros that are meant to do a variety of things such as heal, protect and defend against enemies, call the mareación, call the spirits, take the mareación away, remove negative energy, and even win the love of a woman-- this last category are called huarmi icaros.
During the ceremony the curandero will blow smoke on the crown of the head, the back and the hands of the participant after they drink the ayahuasca. In some cases they will repeat it during the ceremony when they perform a personal healing on the person. This does not happen in ceremonies with a high number of participants even though a few curanderos feel strongly about this and will perform the individual healings regardless. The curandero during his training and diets acquires spiritual force or medicine as it was called by others, which normally resides in his or her body. During ceremonies he or she can then blow (soplar) this medicine into the patient and change their condition or heal them. Sucking, or chupada, is another element that is important in removing negative energies or disease from the body but it was not used as widely as soplada in the context of tourism. Even though it is a very important part of indigenous Amazonian shamanism, it was used by two of the shamans with whom I worked and I have only observed it three other times in ceremonies around Iquitos. The one time was when the curandero was trying to remove sorcery from a local woman, the second time when the curandero was healing a local woman of what was suspected sorcery and the third time when the curandero treated me and a local friend. On that occasion he sucked from my belly button for a few minutes but without making the dramatic sounds that are often described in ethnographies and I witnessed during the ceremony to counter sorcery. What is sucked out of the body is the physical manifestation of disease or the ill will of a sorcerer. It can take the form of a variety of objects such as twigs, worms, feathers, stones etc.
(Ibid. Fitiou: p. 185-192.)
My parents were those types who forever complained about my behaviour, saying, “Don't do this; don't do that.” No doubt this would have been of benefit to my little brother had they ever seen-- or believed what he said-- I did to him. Often, though, prescriptives are meant to make the person feel better about himself and his group, such as taboos against whatever the case is. Denying oneself something that one enjoys is a matter of self-discipline, and thus is a way of elevating oneself above the low masses: “Don't do this; if not, then those who do are repulsive because they do and we do not.” Often it takes the form of food taboos. The more restrictions one has in ones own life, the more righteous one might feel in the presence of those who indulge. Conversely, it makes some sense not to eat before going for surgery. It makes some sense not to eat some foods before going into a bout of puking and shitting from swallowing an emetic and laxative like ayahuasca. “Don't do that” makes empirical sense sometimes.
Puking and Shitting.
Purification and cleansing are also very instrumental for ayahuasca healing. There are certain dietary restrictions that are meant to keep the body pure before the ceremony. The diet requires refraining from spices, sugar, salt, oils, meat, especially pork, which is to be avoided for 30 days after the last ceremony, stimulants and sex. Pork is to be avoided because of its “dirty energy”, especially its fat. Diet is very important in other shamanic traditions as well. Siikala mentions that Siberian shamans fast, meditate and go into seclusion before ceremonies (1992:213).
Amazonian shamans also fast during the apprenticeship and practice sexual abstinence. Following a specific diet is very important as in many Amazonian societies illness is considered to be the result of breaking food taboos, of which there are many (Hugh-Jones 1979). The diet includes abstinence from sex for a few days before the ritual and eight days afterwards. The idea behind this is that the plants remain in one’s system for days after the ceremony, so will continue to work and heal or teach the person, provided that they stay pure. ... On the day of the ceremony one is not supposed to eat anything after noon. … One of the prohibitions that is not very popular is the sexual abstinence rule. ... One shaman said that ... the spirit of ayahuasca is very jealous and does not want people to have sex when it resides in their body. In his opinion and from a Western point of view the rationale behind the prohibition is because sex is a very strong, very open, energetic exchange. The energies of the persons interfere with each other and it can “defocus” someone who is dieting and doing spiritual work. [I]f the diet is broken, the healing or spiritual work stops and sometimes even worse things can happen. (Ibid. Fitiou: pp. 192-94.)
Purging during the ceremony is also extremely important. … Vomiting is not the only way to purge; … yawning is also cleansing and that crying is the best form of cleansing because it is also cleansing at the emotional level. Sweating is also cleansing as are other bodily sensations. ... One participant described his purging experience thus: “During the vomiting, I felt like my skin had turned red and bat wings had appeared in my back. When I vomited, I felt like I was cleansing myself and throwing out all the shit I had inside: physical, emotional, psychological. I kind of saw that when I vomited, during the act of vomiting, my skin turned from red to pink and then white, I wanted white, so I wanted to vomit, I didn’t want to be a ‘demon’, I wanted to be an ‘angel’... I could feel the shit been sucked from my toe, coming up and accumulating and then thrown out to the bucket. I wanted to be white, not red”. (Ibid. Fitiou: pp.195-96.)
I wanted to be a fireman.
There are at least two kinds of ayahuasca users: the locals, and the Modernist drug tourists; the former being mostly those who have not made a full and successful transition to the Modern from the jungle, i.e cholos still stuck in the past; the latter being of various sorts, ranging from the merely curious, the tourist who happens upon ayahuasca by chance; the seriously flaky who live in a state of anomie and want to “find themselves,” a problem, one must assume, compounded with the terror of finding that there is nothing much to find in the final event but a lonely and bitter drama queen; to the hard core drug-using hippie who will take anything for the sake of whatever. Of the post-modernist refugee from the Modernity, the Freak Show promoter of all things for his own self, there is a constant lack of commitment to family, traditional religion, and employment: Who can raise a family, go to work, and be a member of a productive community if one is taking drugs in the Amazon jungle? Perhaps such people really do need “healing.” Me? I'm special.
People take ayahuasca for a reason. They take it for the effect. The locals take it as an alternative to Modernist medicine, though often in conjunction with the latter. Others take it as, in effect, recreation, if that includes “re-creation” of the person.
Beyer (2009:23-4) lists three phases in the ayahuasca experience: the first phase is dominated by [seeing] geometric figures; the second by contact with the spirit world; and the third is quieter, with physical symptoms lessening and more pleasant visions.
The effects of DMT, which provides the hallucinogenic effect in ayahuasca, as described by Strassman (2001) are: sense of timelessness, loss of control, contact with other “beings” or “entities”, feeling that another intelligence directs their minds, visions of unseen worlds, of DNA-like spirals, of jungle animals etc. Like other psychedelics, it can induce states similar to mystical experiences. In addition to the visionary experience, ayahuasca causes sensitivity to light as well as violent vomiting and diarrhea, which are considered to cleanse the body. Many people report the perception of parallel realities or universes during an ayahuasca experience. Common visions mentioned in interviews were: geometrical shapes, one’s own death, and contact with non-human persons. People also reported that visions change very quickly and often it is very difficult to understand what one is looking at and even more difficult to remember all of it afterwards. Change between light and darkness is often reported as well. One of the things that a shaman is able to do and everyone learns by experience is to control the visions–or to be more precise-- to catch up with them and make sense of them. Here is how Stafford and Bigwood summarize the ayahuasca experience:
Visions. Ayahuasqueros describe long sequences of dream-like imagery; geometrical patterns; manifestations of spirit helpers, demons and deities, tigers, birds and reptiles. They see dark-skinned men and women. They experience sensations of flying and of their own death; they see events at a great distance. Many users claim that these visions appear in a spiritually significant progression. [Stafford and Bigwood 1992:349]
….According to ethnographers the most common themes in ayahuasca visions are: (1) the feeling of separation of the soul from the body, and the sensation of flight, (2) visions of jaguars, snakes and other predatory animals, (3) a sense of contact with supernatural agents (demons and divinities), (4) visions of distant persons, cities and landscapes (perceived as clairvoyance) and (5) detailed reenactments of previous events (Harner 1973b:172).(Ibid. Fitiou: p. 16.)
In the interests of full disclosure about your humble writer here, I have to make it plain that I hate George Bush jr. only because he didn't invade enough countries and didn't give enough tax breaks to the rich. Worse still for some, the only trans-sexual who doesn't make me puke more that drinking a bucket of ayahuasca is Deirdre McCloskey. Therefore, when it comes to taking medicine, if I take any at all, it would be from a certified Modernist doctor who has some idea of what he's supposed to be doing. I'm not one to see a witchdoctor in the jungle. It's the kind of man I am. Unfortunately, not everyone is like I am. Some prefer “natural” medicine.
This is central, if not so much of interest to those solely interested in ayahuasca, because it tells of the person in deep ways not so obvious to the casual inspector of his own soul. I am endlessly surprised and dismayed by the incuriousity of the average “seeker” of truth and light and whatever who has no interest in much beyond his narrow and generally uninformed ideas gathered up from friends and self-help books at the local drug story magazine and book rack. I find myself then asking the age old question: “WTF!”
If people choose to see a shaman for “healing,” why do they do so rather than suffer in silence or rather than seeking out standard medicine we have generally come to recognise as more effective than the use of agua de florida, though one must admit it's as good a cure for male pattern baldness as any other. So, at the risk of antagonising my readers with more history of stuff, let's look very briefly at medicine as some reject it in the post-modern world today, and then we might know more about why we do what we do. I would call that freedom.
Just because the gods love me there are at my place at Iquitos, Peru currently two people in serious need of medical attention at this moment, one with a badly infected foot from an incident in the jungle, the other a man coming down with blood poisoning that looks like gangrene. One has turned to a local for treatment and is hobbling around with a smelly foot and runny bandages; the other is trying to get his mates around here to cough up some cash to pay for his stay at hospital. The odds of either of these people getting better are beyond my capacity to predict, though I suspect neither of them will have much luck. The gods provide me with these two as vivid examples of what one might do in a medical emergency situation. There is a third party involved here, and they too are evidence the gods love me: the third party, after panicking momentarily over a fellow citizen's predicament, have retired to the rooftop to seek herbal medical relief for their anxieties. The question of import is how one sees the nature of illness, disease, wounds, and sickness. What-- or who-- is responsible? And in deciding on that, what is to be done? Who is to do the doing? One injured, one sick, and both have opted for divergent treatments. About the pot smokers on the rooftop, one might say... yeah, well, whatever, man.
Strange it is to me that what so many call alternative medicine is not the alternative at all but is the same old and explicitly ancient medicine of Galen and Hippocrates that hardly budged an inch in millenia that was demonstrably worthless and usually iatrogenic as opposed to an ever-changing and radically innovative, allow me to say revolutionary empirical and scientific alternative to nothing much at all, i.e. medicine as an "art."
My grandparents all survived the Great Depression, which they could hardly get through an evening without mentioning in deep detail. They survived the Second World War, which was almost as constant a topic of conversation. but they also survived the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919, which my grandmother told me she didn't want to speak about because it was too terrible to recall. Now I have some idea what she meant.
Many shamans in Iquitos charge each person anywhere from 50 to 150 soles for an ayahuasca ceremoney, two euphemisms in one. Most of the curanderos I know in villages around Iquitos charge one chicken, or about 20 soles, give or take. But regardless of how much one pays for it, only the truly weirdly sick take ayahuasca because they like it's effects, they being bulemics and scatologists. Yes, they exist, and that's why words for them are so commonly used. But aside from them, the majority by far take "ayahuasca" for the chakruna. To suggest, to say aloud, that one takes ayahuasca for its healing powers is to say the same as one takes pills for the sake of chalk and capsules because of the gelatin or that one dates a woman because of her shoes covering her feet, if that's a good analogy. Ayahuasca is the coating that allows for the effects of the chakruna. Calling this a "ceremony" is too puerile to bother discussing. Most people in this bitterly poor country where a working class man in his prime breaking his health makes 20 soles a day, to make S150 per head from tourists per day by the dozen, let's be honest here, is a better alternative. when the local village shaman prices his services so dearly, then only the drug tourist can afford him, and thus the peasant is left with little alternative but Modernist medicine. How horrible is that? It depends on ones vision of reality, and that means that when one has an infected foot or when one is laid low by blood poisoning one has to decide quickly what the medical option is going to be, shamanism or modern chemistry. My grandparents didn't have the latter option, and they couldn't bring themselves to talk about the effects of country doctors accepting chickens for the art of medicine they practiced as millions died in their prime in the aftermath of industrial slaughter that was World War One. The pandemic without the benefits of flu vaccines was a horror even they, hard and sometimes brutal people, couldn't speak about. We spent thousands of years with Galen and little else. Today we have effective alternatives. Some Modernists reject it. The question is "Why?"
What or who causes illness? Some deliberately reactionary Christians, the ones "sophisticated" people like to tar all Christians as in an attempt at erecting straw men, do argue, as it were, that this or that is caused by God's wrath. So what? We know better, Christian normatives or leftard buffoons alike. And yet, one finds both gangs resorting to herbal remedies and tarot card readings-- and ayahuasca-- for medical reasons. They conveniently skip the embarrassing native superstitions and go for the gauzy "ancient" aspect instead, as if millenia of failure is a priori authentic and anything Modernist is a priori a source of horror. But for the local it is, and almost entirely is all about, faith. It's not about plants, I think I see, it is about the spirits of plants, a matter of faith in spirits and the shaman's ability to use them wisely and beneficially. The plant material is secondary for the local, but not for the drug tourist who wants to get stoned. For him, without the drug-induced effects of ayahuasac, he would not be at Iquitos taking cabbage leaf soup for an infected foot. Why not? The locals do it. And that is because they know their enemies have caused them illness and injuries and only a very nasty shaman can kill the devils and perhaps curse the other shaman who did this to them. It doesn't want a sissy in charge. It wants a mean motherfucker. The rest of us settle for antibiotics.
Cause of illnesses: Why one would consult a curandero.
[P]ersonalistic and naturalistic. In personalistic systems disease results from purposeful intervention of an agent, such as evil spirits, other spirits when offended, curse or witchcraft by other humans. In this scheme, there is little room for accident or chance and illness is only one of a number of misfortunes brought about in this way. Amazonian shamanism would fall into this category, since illness is mostly diagnosed in these terms. In naturalistic systems, disease results from natural forces or conditions, such as the environment, an upset in body’s equilibrium, aging etc.. The familiar biomedical system is a naturalistic system. In the context of shamanic tourism the personalistic explanations of the shamans come together with the naturalistic ones of westerners and often there is a shift in the way westerners view illness.
[In] Evans- Pritchard’s (1976) work on the Azande, which is one of the most important in the discussion of witchcraft and sorcery [he] used the Azande’s distinctions and showed that ideas of witchcraft for the Azande functioned as a means of explaining misfortunes that could not be explained otherwise. For him these ideas were a reasonable way for the Azande to explain things and also gave shape to their moral worlds. Witchcraft accusations were a means of expressing and discharging tensions between people. For Mary Douglas witchcraft is an alleged psychic force; “an anti-social psychic power with which persons in relatively unstructured areas of society are credited, the accusation being a means of exerting control where practical forms of control are difficult” (1966:102). Witches defined like this are marginal. Witchcraft can also be involuntary. Sorcery for Douglas is a form of harmful power which makes use of spells, words, actions and physical materials; it “can only be used consciously and deliberately” (1966:107). Evans-Pritchard also argued that witchcraft accusations indicate social conflicts. In Iquitos, the phenomenon of witchcraft and the frequent accusations are a result of the strained local economy and the antagonism between shamans competing for the few tourists. Ayahuasca tourism is limited and the income the tourists bring is highly desirable. In this context, sorcery becomes a battle for limited resources and a means of exerting power.( Ibid. Fitiou.)
So, harm is caused by agency; or shit happens. For the postmodernist, shit happens, but the way to make it less smelly is to refer to an "authentic" healing shaman rather than to a greedy and chemistry-based Modernist doctor. Some, even those with more money than I, Steve Jobs, for example, die because they wish to be cured "organically" rather than chemically. Jobs likely no more believed in spirits than I do, but he had faith in "authenticity," and it killed him.
One might shake ones head in disgust at the "faith' people have in the ugly religion of scientism that is so often held by the same people who say with a straight face that they also believe in the healing power of Juan-Carlos' soup cooking on my stove as a remedy for a person's infected foot at this time. The Modernists don't believe, as does Juan-Carlos, in the spirits; they say they believe in the curative powers of his soup because he is a native of the Amazon who therefore has power in himself because he knows what healers have known for thousands of years. Juan-Carlos knows how to cook soup. He doesn't know how to practice medicine. He laughs when we speak and says they want the soup. He went to a hospital recently and got stitches in his own foot. No soup for him because he's not a fool. Others? Well, I'm a gentleman, and I won't comment on those who "believe."
A very important element of an ayahuasca ceremony are the spirits, also called doctors, or doctorcitos. The curanderos have a special relationship with certain spirits with which they work closely; even participants encounter spirit doctors who manipulate their body with the purpose of healing them. The curandero might also employ spirits for future protection. Shamans ascend to other worlds to consult spirits and even god in order to heal a patient. One of the shamans I worked with used to say that she comes closer to god with ayahuasca. The spirits tell shamans what to do, for example if they need to direct energy to a person with the schacapa. They also tell shamans when enough energy has been directed to a person and manage the chaos of energy that might ensue during the ceremony. Each plant, human or object has multiple spirits, which are arranged hierarchically. When invoking a spirit, the shamans call the head spirit of each plant or madre de la planta. (Ibid. Fitiou: p. 196.)
The madres look at what is needed and send the appropriate spirit to each person. I was often told that one has to be receptive to receive help from the spirits. Sometimes when one asks for their help the immediate response is unpleasant because they bring in more energy than the body can handle but when they pull negative things out the person feels better. In a way, “it gets worse before it gets better.”
Some interviewees have described quite dramatic interactions with the spirits. One of them said that once the spirits performed open heart surgery on him. He believed that the visions are like anesthesia and are meant to distract someone while they are healing their body. This idea that the visions are really a distraction and not the actual purpose of the ayahuasca experience was shared by many people. (Ibid. Fitiou: pp. 196-97.)
But when all is said and done, ayahuasca is a tourist-driven business, the village curandero usually selling out, as it were, as soon as he gets a chair at a luxury resort and has a chance to screw tourist girls and make a lot of cash. Such is the nature of man, women-- and spirits, no doubt. To fit in as a shaman, one has to act the part as expected of them by tourists. The village idiot turned shaman has to learn to talk about chakras, for example, and might even have to dress up in a grass skirt like the Boras with whom he has nothing in common ever at all. Give the customers what they want, and they will pay. The tourists want "healing ceremonies" as they get high? Fine, and say "chakras" a lot as if you know what the fuck you mean.
Foreign concepts–from Asian traditions– are adopted by the shamans in order to accommodate tourist expectations and needs. Notably, a mestizo shaman with whom I worked for two months would often refer to the body’s chakras, or energy centers, a concept borrowed from eastern spirituality. People, including shamans, adapt constantly to new circumstances and as anthropologists soon realized, culture was always taking new forms and can never be viewed as static. While cultural exchange has always been part of shamanism and curanderos have been always been eager to adopt foreign powerful elements-- for example biomedical symbolism has been part of curanderismo for a long time (Greene 1998)-- the factor of tourism might speed this process up. As a result, the shamans who have figured out the expectations of the tourists about what is authentic attract the most people. Some aspects that tourists consider authentic are the dress of the curanderos, exclusion of Christian elements, as well as their location. For example they consider being in a “clinic” or retreat near Iquitos the authentic experience, because they are in the jungle just a few kilometers outside of the city, while locals drink ayahuasca in dark rooms in the city. The clothes that some of these shamans wear during ceremonies, are a mixture of attire from the surrounding ethnic groups, mainly Shipibo, who sell their crafts in the streets of Iquitos, or bought at the market. Most curanderos who choose this attire wear a long robe with Shipibo imagery and usually some sort of head dress made of feathers. I have seen tourists be impressed by these shamans. For example at the Amazonian Shamanism Conference in 2005 it was said that the sign up sheets for the shamans who wore indigenous dress filled up much more quickly than the ones for shamans that were older and more experienced but were dressed in Western clothes and did not make an impression. The “authentic” mestizo shamans that cater to Peruvians wear regular Western clothes and are Christian. For example an older shaman that works from his house in Iquitos and has no lodge in the jungle always has a picture of Jesus in front of him during ceremony. Some tourists might initially be put off by the fact that these shamans are Christian, because they do not identify with Christianity themselves, others just accept it as part of the culture. As a result, the shamans who react to the expectations of the tourists about what is authentic attract the most people. I have observed a certain shaman adjust her attitude according to the group she had on a particular night. She would remove the Christian images and symbols from the ceremonial space when she realized they were offensive to some visitors and put them back when she had groups of Peruvians coming to ceremony. She would also try to distance herself from institutionalized Christianity for the sake of the tourists and openly criticize the Christian church. Curanderos will also decorate ceremonial spaces with indigenous handicrafts bought at the market. To be fair, not all local curanderos partake in this performance of “authenticity”. Some will only do it for ceremony to create a more “sacred” mood, while others, as in the case of the conference, will dress up to appear more authentic or attractive to potential clients. However there is an increasing number of curanderos who are critical of this trend and will refuse to dress up and insist on wearing Western clothing at all times. Those are few but it is clear that they want to differentiate themselves from the rest and maintain some sort of integrity. I was surprised to see that in one of the most well known ayahuasca retreats near Iquitos the maestro and apprentices wore their regular clothes at all times and at no time did they try to appear more authentic. Even more surprisingly, guests [at one place once] did not seem to mind and I never heard anyone complain that they were not getting an authentic experience, which shows that tourists are not as superficial as they are thought to be. (Ibid. Fitiou: pp. 137-39.)
To end this part of the ayahuasca look-at we have seen the shapaka and the icaros of shamanism, the rattle and hum of the trade. We've looked at those who practice shamanism in resorts and those who live in remote villages, both doing the same sort of thing for altogether different reasons for altogether different clients. We've looked at why anyone in a world of pandemic flu outbreaks so devastating that hard people can't bear to recall the times would indulge in sentimental pseudo-medicine. We've seen how some will play the game that the customers demand. These are important things to know and consider in light of taking ayahuasca in the Amazon among people who take it seriously as part of the life of their living culture. I personally find drug tourists to be repulsive and disgusting in their preening and sentimentality. But they buy stuff from my friend Amelia and she pays the rent and feeds the kids, so in all, what's to complain about? But there is something more, and if it weren't more I would never have bothered looking at this tourist idiocy in the first place.
That something more is the nature of the universe as it is, something morons on dope miss altogether, and something that ayahuasca might indeed reveal to the interested person in better form than one can access through the mind unaided. It's probably clear by now at the end of eleven installments of ayahuasca that I truly hate drug tourists. I hate them not because they take jungle drugs but because they are mostly lazy, stupid, and phony. but the world is a big and complicated place full of mystery that I cannot begin to grasp the sense of, so perhaps such people perform some greater good that escapes me. I know too that there are some seriously evil people in this world who do seriously evil things; and it takes equally serious and equally evil people to fight them successfully. Armed then with something like knowledge of the ways of right and wrong, true and false about ayahuasca, the next step is to talk to two shamans, a gringo hippie arsehole and a native woman who is likely as bad in her own way as anyone else one can find in this world. If you want to fight devils, don't be nice about it. Get them and kill them. To a large degree, that's what ayahuasca is about. The battle between cosmic good and evil.
Orwell puts it well:
"Men sleep peacefully in their beds at night because rough men stand ready
to do violence on their behalf."
Now I think we know enough to know if shamans really do kick arse in an evil universe. Let's find out.
*The only Marxist with principles is Groucho Marx.
Many thanks to Doctor Fitiou for the work I have so freely quoted without her prior permission. Great work, Doctor, and I hope we can meet if you return to Iquitos.
A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:
And here are some reviews and comments on said book: