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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. Prac-

titioners who call themselves vegetalistas


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 invol-

ving sexual

segregation and

a diet that may extend from six

months to several years. Several of these plants

have pycho-

tropic 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

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)







spirits and

carried by vegetalistas

in their chests, and which is used in

the extraction of magic darts or

virotes, shot

by evil sor-

cerers, 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 ill- ness and its treatment.














CONTENTS 5 MAP 8 PREFACE 9 Chapter 1. INTRODUCTION 1.1. Scope 13 1.2. Shamanism 13 1.3.
Chapter 1.
1.1. Scope
1.2. Shamanism
The term "mestizo"
Ayahuasca and the plant-teachers
Methodological considerations
A survey of the scientific literature
Organization of the material
Chapter 2.
The Peruvian Amazon
area .................................
2.2. Iquitos and Pucallpa. Historical and
socio-economic considerations
Religious background of the area
Tribal Amazonian shamanism: main characteristics
Vegetalismo and vegetalistas: Amazonian
mestizo shamanism
The informants
Chapter 3.
Shamanic initiation
Don Emilio's account
Don Jose's account
Learning from an ant spirit
Commentaries on the accounts


The diet and sexual segregation

3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51
3.2. The diet and sexual segregation 51


3.3. The use of psychotropic plants in the Americas 55 3.4. Ayahuasca: An overview 57 3.5.
The use of psychotropic plants in the Americas
Ayahuasca: An overview
Tribal uses of ayahuasca
Learning from the plants
The plant-teachers
Chapter 4.
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
Inca motif
The concept of arkana
The helping spirits
Chapter 5.
The magic melodies or icaros
Icaros and plant-teachers
Function of the icaros
Icaros for calling the spirit of a person,
plant or animal
Icaros to modify the effect of ayahuasca
and other plant-teachers
Icaros arkana
Icaros for healing
Huarmi icaros
Other kinds of icaros
The magic phlegms

Chapter 6.


6.1. Etiology of illness 119 6.2. Diagnosis of illness 122 6.3. Illness as a magic dart:
Etiology of illness
Diagnosis of illness
6.3. Illness as a magic dart: A case study
Extraction of the magic dart: Treatment
Doctor shopping: The case of Doña Rosa Teco
6.6. Soul-loss
Illness produced by spiritual beings
Love magic
Herbal baths
Chapter 7.
ayahuasca sessions
7.1.1. An ayahuasca session in the home
of Don Emilio
The role of ayahuasca: visions vs. cleansing
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 sabidu-


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,


scientific and popular,

in the West.

These terms are,


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 con- sequence 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 implica- tions (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 self- evident.

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 psycho- tropic 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 philo- logy 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 Ame- rica 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 Adminis- tration 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 Apoli-


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 prepa- red myself for this trip consulting Prof. Åke Hultrantz, Head

of the Institute of Comparative Religion of Stockholm Universi- ty, 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, in- cluding the name of Don Emilio Andrade Gomez, whom he had never met.

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


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 parti- cipant-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 (Colom- bia). 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, members of the Colonia 5000,

State of Acre,

Brazil, among

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 re- cordings of interviews with vegetalistas, magic chants and ayahuasca sessions, material which I am still organizing. I also took several hundred slides and completed an ethnographi-

cal film (Don Emilio and His Little Doctors,

1982). When I

began serious examination of scientific literature on Amazonian


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 Karo- linska Institutet, Stockholm, for their enthusiastic inspira- tion. Dr. Timothy Plowman and colleagues of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, have helped me with the identifica- tion of botanical material, and Dr. Ilkka Kukkonen, Head Cura- tor of the Botanical Museum of Helsinki University, has suppor-

ted the transport and preservation of voucher and



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 Cam- bridge. I am specially indebted to Terence and Dennis McKenna, who during years have helped me with good advice and intelli-

gent 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 conversa-

tions 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 hospi-

tality and great generosity.

Thanks also to Dr.


Ayala and colleagues of the Herbarium Amazonense, who have

always been most helpful to me, to Alfonso Padilla for trans- cribing 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 vegetalis- tas 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 Kulturhisto- risk 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 Medi- cine. 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 popu- lation of the Peruvian Amazon area. My work is based on the reports of a handful of practitioners, my deductions as a par- ticipant-observer during five periods of field-work, and the examination of the scientific literature available on this sub- ject.

  • 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 accumu- lated 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 dis- cuss.

  • 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 pro- ceed to give a survey of the scientific literature which already exists on this subject. I will finally present the dis- position 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 consi- derable 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 occu-

pied the minds of so many researchers,


simply by adhering

myself to the ideas of one particular scholar, Prof. Åke Hult- krantz, 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 corres- pond to each other and make up an integrated field, often with the exclusion of beliefs, rites and tradi- tions 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:


Accordingly, Hultkrantz gives the following definition of shamanism:

"The central idea of shamanism is to establish means

of contact with the supernatural world by the ecsta- tic experience of a professional and inspired inter- mediary, the shaman. There are thus four important constituents of shamanism: the ideological premise, or the supernatural world and the contacts with it;


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


implicitly presupposed in the prac-

tice 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 pre- sent 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 ini-

tiation 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 clea-

rer later on-, I believe that the use of the term shaman, when referring to these practitioners, is justified. In the follo- wing 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 prac- tice, 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 her- balist, which denotes a person knowledgeable in the use of me- dicinal plants. All vegetalistas are usually also herbalists, in that they know a great deal about medicinal plants and fre- quently use them. But not all herbalists may be called vegeta- listas.

1.2. The term "mestizo"

The term mestizo presents its difficulties. The Webster Dictio- nary (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 intermix-


A similar confusion is found in Brazil with the term ca-

boclo. 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 dian culture rather than specific ethnic groupings.


In the following I am going to use the term mestizo as a so- cial and cultural, rather than as a racial term. Among vegeta- listas 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 Spa- nish is their mother tongue, while ideologically they operate, naturally, in various degrees, within the large and diffuse Upper Amazon cultural complex 1 .

All my informants are born in the Amazon area, and are of considerable age (all over 60 years old). They represent per- haps "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.

1 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


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 infe- rior. I am going to avoid to use this term as a social catego- ry.


Although, of course, I have limited my work to a handful of informants, they do not represent an isolated or marginal phe- nomenon. 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,


zil, Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia. They play a very impor-

tant 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 concoc- ting 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 vegeta-


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 pro- perties.

  • 1.5. Methodological considerations

From the very onset of my research, my attitude during the ga- thering of the material has been that of a participant-obser- ver. I presented myself as somebody who was interested in aya- huasca, but not only concerned, as other gringos 2 , with taking the beverage for having the experience, but as a potential apprentice. I am aware of the dangers of such an approach. Stu-

2 ln the Peruvian Amazon this term not only applies to North Ame- ricans 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 invol- ved, and it happened to me that I found myself many times iden- tified 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 sus-

picion 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,


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 beve- rage several times. I did not hide from him the fact that I was systematically gathering information. I worked with a tape re- corder, 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 intro-

duced 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 practitio- ners 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 plas- tic 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 espe- cially 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 superna- tural 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 informa- tion 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 li- terature 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 popu- lation 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 investiga- tions 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-expe-

rimentation with the beverage, and Pennes & Hoch (1957) and Naranjo's (1965) description of the clinical effects of har- mine, 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 possibili- ties of using the pure active compounds present in ayahuasca in the study of possible biochemical mechanisms underlying psychi- cal 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 in- teresting 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 aya- huasquero 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 psycholo- gical 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 publica-


In 1965 Oscar Ríos, together with M. Hernandez, M. Lemlij and F. León, published a paper reporting a pharmacological and cli- nical study on harmine, extracted from Cabi paraensis, and aya- huasca, prepared by a curandero from Iquitos, which they admi- nistrated 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 Se- guín, 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 eso-

teric 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 ethnobota- nical information is scarce, and unfortunately, sometimes inac- curate.

The American anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Ríos collabora-

ted with Seguín and Chiappe, and did field work first on prac- titioners using the San Pedro cactus in the coastal area of Northern Peru, and then in Iquitos, among ayahuasca practitio- ners, 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 witch- craft 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 psy-

chotherapy. 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 exam-


of the yachay or mariri, a magic substance which is essen-

tial both in upper Amazonian tribal shamanism, and among mesti- zo 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 perva- sive role of magic chants or icaros, not only during ayahuasca sessions, but in all aspects of shamanic practices, is not suf- ficiently stressed, and there is no profound enquiry about sha- manic initiation, the importance of the diet and the acquisi-

tion 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 deposited.

Since the publication of her book on ayahuasca, Dobkin de


Rios has made other contributions to the subject of folk hea- ling in the Peruvian Amazon area (1977, 1981a, 1981b). Particu- larly interesting is a paper (1984) in which she shows the de- velopment of Don Hilde, a practitioner living in Pucallpa, who has put aside much of his ayahuasca practice to enter a mysti- cal organization called Septrionismo de la Amazonía, formed in 1968 by an urban middle class mestizo. The aim of the organiza- tion is to achieve coherence and unity between religious and moral values and science. This paper shows the religious dyna- mism 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 reli- gious 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 reputa- tion 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 (Amahua- ca) 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 Car-


(1980), an Amahuaca specialist, on the grounds that the

tribe described by Córdoba Ríos presented many traits, inclu-

ding the role of the chief, population patterns, clothes, uten-


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 phenomena.


In the summer of 1985 a second book by F. Bruce Lamb was pu-


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 know- ledge 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 identifica- tions, and their uses are mentioned. For me this was particu- larly valuable, since I have also gathered ethnobotanical in- formation about many of these plants.

It has also been very rewarding to examine the work of seve- ral 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 vegeta- lista of Iquitos, and other practitioners of the Peruvian Ama- zon, deserves particular attention: Apart from its literary beauty, this book is very rich in information about the prac- tice of the shamanism of that area. César Calvo was born in Iquitos, and seems to reveal a reliable knowledge of the folk- lore 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 religio- sa de Itá, Baixo Amazonas (1976), a simplified Portuguese ver- sion of his Ph.D. dissertation presented at Columbia Univer- sity) 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 Ama- zon.

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 cabo- clos (cf. 1.2., p.15) (Iberian popular Catholicism, Amerindian and even African beliefs). He also presents descriptive mate- rial about religious fraternities, local beliefs in superna- tural 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 po- pulation 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 systema- tic comparative study between Upper Amazon Amerindian and mes- tizo 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 informa- tion 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 Barbi- ra-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 Bel- lier (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 Rei- chel-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 work.

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 Catholi- cism as an element of their culture. This work presents a large amount of first-hand information gathered by a hundred inter- viewers 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 wide- spreading 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 (Tricho-

cereus pachanoi). I have decided,

however, to leave such a com-

parison 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 socio- economic point of view. I will then make brief comments about the religious background of the area, and present the main cha- racteristics of Amazonian shamanism, based on Métraux's stu-


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 ini- tiation. In chapter 3 I will present some accounts of initia- tion and discuss the conditions in which it takes place, in particular the diet and sexual segregation, which are consi- dered necessary in order to become a vegetalista. Before dis- cussing the concept of "plant-teacher", which is crucial in the practice of shamanism in the Amazon area, and providing infor- mation 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


and the helping spirits with the aid of which vegeta-

listas 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 ill- ness 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 impor- tant 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 aya- huasca 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 geogra-

phical 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 bet-

ween the forest on the steep eastern slopes of the Andes,


ween 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 me- ters 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 fami- lies, 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 ma- nufacture of pottery.

The second feature, the effective use of canoeing among cer- tain tribes, which allowed them to spread their art and customs over enormous distances, combined with natural conditions, pro-


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 par- ticular tribal or ethnic groups. The missionaries forced Indian groups of different traditions to settle in large villages (re- ducciones), 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 repre- sent only about 20% of the jungle population, and about 2.5% of the total population of the country, which amounts to approxi- mately 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 fi- shing 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 pro-

grams 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.

3 The Jesuits,

for instance, between 1640 and 1768 esta-

blished 152 reducciones gathering along the Ucayali and Hualla- ga 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 considerations

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 ri- vers. 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 origi- nal 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 prin- cipal river harbour in the Peruvian Amazon area. In 1864 a com- mercial 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 Amazo- nian territories were soon the object of foreign capitalist

interests. When F. W. Up de Graff,

an American adventurer,

arrived at Iquitos in 1899, about 2 000 inhabitants:

it was already a small town of

"Iquitos sprang from the necessity for a receiving and distributing center for rubber and merchandise respectively for the Upper Amazon system, correspon-

ding to Manaus and Para for the Lower." (Up de



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 diffi- cult, 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 Amazo- nian rubber industry. Thousands of workers returned from the jungle, increasing the population of Iquitos, Yurimaguas, Re- quena, Nauta, Contamana and other urban nuclei (Barcia García


In the twenties other Amazonian products,

such as balata

(Manilkara bidentata), leche caspi (Couma macrocarpa Barb. Ro-

dr.), precious wood and resins, and live animals


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 brasi- liensis)(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 Co- lombian 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 Amazo- nian 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 mili- tary camps in Amazonian territories.

The Second World War was again to bring changes to the Ama- zon. 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 Ama- zonian 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.


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 Ba-

sadre road (843 Km), allowing active trade with the rest of the country. Pucallpa was also built as a post of rubber distribu- tion. 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-econo- mic role than Iquitos.

On the lake of Yarinacocha, near Pucallpa, there is the Sum- mer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), an American institute con- nected with the Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT), which has played an active -and controversial- missionary role among In- dian 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,


example, have had many different jobs in various areas of the

Amazon. This great mobility is yet another factor which contri-

butes 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 respec- tively 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 na- tional structure on which their power is based. Many of these peasants have very little knowledge of the Amazonian environ- ment (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


12 million ha.) will have been

cleared out, with unimaginable climatic, ecological and social consequences.

Both Pucallpa and Iquitos have airports. There are daily re- gular 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) esta- blished 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 evan- gelization was, nevertheless, very effective, and Christian elements penetrated deeply into the Amazonian population. Va- rious 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 in- terpreted them according to their own traditions. According to Stephen Hugh-Jones (personal communication), the Barasana of Vaupés (Colombia), although their missionization is very re- cent, knew a lot about Christianity when the missionaries arrived. Their knowledge did not come directly from the missio- naries, 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 mu- tual influence of popular Catholicism and autochthonous Amazo- nian 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 syn- cretic cults are appearing, including messianic-millenarian movements which incorporate Tupi-Guarani, Catholic and Protes- tant religious elements (cf. Regan 1983:II:129 ss; Clastres


Popular Catholicism still remains an important religious ele- ment 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 dif-

ferent objectives and complement each other as parts of a reli- gious system (Galvao 1976:5). As we will see later, when I des- cribe an ayahuasca ceremony conducted by Don Emilio, the Chris- tian element is the main frame within which the ceremony is conducted. But once the invocations to Christ and the Virgin


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 Mé- traux'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 magi-


and the term piai, of Tupi and Carib origin) are remar-

kably 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 ac- quired 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 in- spiration, 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 se- crets of magic (among the Indians the poetic and musical inspi- ration is often interpreted as the product of communication with the supernatural world).

The power of the piai is often conceived either as an invi- sible, though concrete, magic substance, or as a series of ob- jects, 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 de- pends 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 ori-

gin of his tradition of ayahuasca use, he told me that the cau-


(rubber collectors) had discovered it. He is probably


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 fa- cilities, 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 In- dians to various mixtures of white and Indian, including people coming from other regions of the country. Shamanism has proba- bly 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 in- cludes 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 Ucaya- li, 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 re- duced 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), cata- huero the person who uses catahua (Hura crepitans), and aya- huasquero the person who uses ayahuasca. Of course, the same person may master several of these plants 5 A vegetalista may also be called maestro, doctor, médico, and often simply vieji- to (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 fea- tures are. It seems to me that it is applied in various ways by

4 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.

5 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,


some pages later (372), where we learn that also Zeba-

llos use ayahuasca for the diagnosis of illness. I have never heard of enmities of this kind between different types of vege- talistas. In fact, quite often toé is added to the ayahuasca brew.


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 rela- ted 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 vegetalis- tas in general, and it has a despective connotation. My infor- mants 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 vegetalis- tas.

Besides vegetalistas there are other types of practitioners of whom, at the moment, I have only vague ideas. As far as I


there are no studies which clearly differentiate the

practices of vegetalistas from those called oracionistas (who mainly use prayers and encantations in their practice), perfu- meros (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 Psiquia- tría 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 thera- peutical recipes. But it is the distinction between medicine- man and curandero which I would like to discuss briefly. Accor- ding to Seguín the medicine-man operates within his own cul- ture, 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 con- tributes to the creation and obedience of the laws, while the latter is persecuted; the medicine-man is integrated, the cu- randero is marginated; the motives of the medicine-man are re- ligious, 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 techni- ques 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,



social. But even social categories are relative. For

instance vegetalistas are perhaps despised by established so- ciety, 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 do- minant 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 re- ligious religious motives. I think that more subtle distinc- tions 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 conditions 6 .

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 aya- huasquero 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 specifi- cally with ayahuasca and other plant teachers in the next chap- ter).

I would like to make a few more observations before I pre- sent 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 ta- lents 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

6 Seguín also distinguishes between medicine-man and shaman. Ac- cording to him, two characteristics differentiate a medicine-

man 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 spi- rits, while the medicine-man has to recur to "magic techniques" and to the use of plants, minerals or animals in his therapeu- tic treatment. I find this distinction unnecessary. Shamans/

medicine-men operate out in the open,

in their homes,


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 in- formants). Seguín does not explain in what way the "magical techniques" of the medicine-man differ from those of the sha- man. 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 literature 7 .

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 rich.

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 vegeta- listas 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 shamans 7 . 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 infor- mants. He showed us a sack of perhaps 100 different plants col- lected 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 cultu- ral traditions. This is in accordance with the spirit of shama- nism. The shaman is the man who transcends the boundaries of society and goes outside, where there is power. The most power- ful shamans are often those that get some secret weapon from a distant group. This, of course, encourages syncretism.

7 A lengthy and interesting discussion on the psychology of sha- mans is found in Merkur 1985:10-40.

7 In a study of folk healing in southeast Colombia, Michel Taus- sig (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 pa-

tient, 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 hierar- chical form extending from less to more powerful hea- lers"


All my informants are men. This does not mean that there are no female vegetalistas. I heard about a few, but I had no occa- sion to meet them. I have always had very limited time for doing field work, and I preferred to concentrate on few infor- mants. 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 transitio- nal 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 eco- nomy (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 Amazo- nian physiognomy) 8 , whose features he inherited.

During his childhood his parents lived in various settle- ments along the river, following the ups and downs of the eco-

nomy of the area, which in turn followed the prices of Amazo- nian raw materials in Europe and the United States. When Don Emilio was ten, his parents separated. He stayed with his mo- ther in Iquitos where he went to school for the first time.

When he was twelve or fourteen,

his father took him to the Up-

per 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).

8 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 ri- gorous 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 vegetalis- ta. 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 Putuma- yo 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 settle- ment 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 govern- ment representative responsible to the sub-prefects of provin- ces).

He still lives near Quistococha. A busy road that will even- tually 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 De- cember 1982. He has a small swidden garden, where he grows yu- ca, pineapple and other fruits, but not enough to sustain him- self. Two days a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, he devotes him- self 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 de- cided 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.


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 ma- nioc, pineapple, peanuts and other plants. Don Emilio presented my case to Don José, who agreed that I could stay with him du- ring the month of July of that year.


Don Emilio Andrade and Don José Coral Don José was born in a small settlement in

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,


fish, etc., he made his cha-

cra 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


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


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 prac- tice, 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 fol-

lowing 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


ther, 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 who had gone to the underwater world.

spirits of vegetalistas 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 sha- manic tasks. Don Santiago came to visit Don José when we had already been there for over two weeks. The woman with the in- fection had not shown any signs of improvement, and Don Santia- go 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 in- terested 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


in his left leg, which developed a suppurating abscess resis- tant to treatment. After nearly three months of suffering he was forced to travel to Iquitos in order to find medical assis- tance. 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 in- gesting ayahuasca once a week, a little bird appeared in his


It looked at his leg, and saw that it was covered by

maggots. The little bird carried them away and ate them,


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 Fridays- he drinks ayahuasca and cures sick people. This is his main source of income. He is a man of strong constitution and great


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 Yava- rí river, a tributary of the Amazon. When he was ten years old his family moved to Puca Barranca on the Napo river, where he


introduced to ayahuasca at the age of seventeen by an In-

dian -he did not know the tribe-. He followed a diet for two


and learned medicine from the spirits of the plants.

After working for years as a collector of various jungle pro- ducts, he moved to Iquitos in 1973, wishing to give his chil- dren 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 him- self by the practice of medicine, in spite of considering him- self 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 cere- mony. He is the youngest of all the vegetalistas I have met. Don Sergio represents another type of practitioner, a transi- tional case between a rural and an urban practitioner. I visi- ted 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 San- tiago, and were more in accord with those of other practitio-


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 McKen- na, I met other practitioners in Pucallpa. I gathered conside- rable 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 es-

píritus 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 practitio- ners like Don Emilio and Don José. I find it very dangerous to elevate one practitioner to a pedestal and pretend that he re- presents 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 vi- sits 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 sha- manism 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 prac- tice. There are notable differences between practitioners li- ving 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 (hun- ters), they know the flora and fauna of the Amazonian environ- ment 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 pro- cess 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.

life with all that it involves. Don Emilio crushing the stems of Banisteriopsis caapi Don José

Don Emilio crushing the stems of Banisteriopsis caapi

life with all that it involves. Don Emilio crushing the stems of Banisteriopsis caapi Don José

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 condi- tions 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 conside- red plant-teachers. In chapter 4 I will deal with the spirit world of the vegetalistas, and in chapter 5 with the transmis- sion 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 iden- tify 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 voca- tion. It seems that there is a gradual recognition on the part of the community -and on the part of the vegetalista himself- that 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 com- mon 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 simi- lar story is presented by Regan (1983:2:20): A man had an in-


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 ayahuas- ca, catahua and lupuna colorada (all plant-teachers). He fol- lowed a diet for a certain time. In his visions he saw the per- son 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 rewar- ding. Many interesting details about his socio-economic cir- cumstances emerged in his free narration, which in turn have helped me to understand the particulars I was primarily inte- rested 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 ri- ver. 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 se- veral 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 mos- quitos 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 ayahuas- ca. I watched everything without uttering a word. Among these people there was an old woman called Ve- neranda 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.


"It is just the same thing. Besides, you will cure your body. And if you want to see your father or mo- ther or girlfriend, you can see them in mareación (in your visions)".

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 ma- reado" "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 pre- sent, 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,


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


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 back- wards. 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 sto- mach 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 de- dicate 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 presen- ting me with their own experiences. I have a distinct feeling

that some of the episodes they told me happened to them,


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 ac- cepted 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 vegetalis- ta, 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 10 . He said that one of these spi- rits 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 spi- rits". 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.

9 After listening to so many stories, I have come to realize that among the devices used to make a story credible there are indi- cations about the location -such and such a river-, at a cer- tain hour, a certain type of dialogues. A study of the struc- ture of oral narrative in this area would probably yield inte- resting results.

l0 The term muerraya is found among certain Indian tribes (cf.Ste- ward & 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


3.1.3 .



a n


spiri 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 sha- manic 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 il- luminating because it is a good contribution towards understan- ding 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 al- ready 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 Pu- tumayo 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 vege- talistas 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 Iqui- tos Aucas, because this woman taught him how to take herbal baths before hunting, so that his body might

acquire the smell of the jungle, would not run away.

and the animals

  • 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

11 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 de- cided 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 ri- ver 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 shel- ter, 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 magnifi- cent 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 my- riads 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 illumina- ted. I looked around. Then I saw a circle of snakes

around me. I took up a posture of defense as Don Da- niel 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 three- dimentional language. The ant invited me to ride and to visit its home.

When the ant was ascending to the tree where it


a sticky substance came out of it,


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 támi- shi 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-dimen- sional 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 ima- gination 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


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 inte- resting element in A. A. story is the idea that the ants were once intelligent. This is in agreement with indigenous Amazo- nian ideas, according to which in primordial times animals "were people". A third interesting element is the long prepara- tion 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,


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


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 observa-


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,

could be applied to these cases.

the theory of illness"

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 du- ring 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 com- mon 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 (Ras-

mussen 1930) and Netsilik Eskimos (Balikci 1970:225),


Kwakiutl of Northern Vancouver Island

(Trueblood et al.


the Ojibwa (Trueblood et al.

1977:108), the Carib

(Eliade 1964:129), etc. Food restrictions and sexual segrega- tion are also found among many Amazonian tribes such as the Cu- beo (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), etc.

All my informants stress the necessity of following a strict diet, sexual segregation and sexual abstinence during the pe- riod of apprenticeship, because only by following these pres-

12 "Among the Apinaye shamans are appointed by the soul of a re- lative, 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 decoc- tion of tobacco and smokes as much as possible in a hermetical- ly 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 per-

son has been initiated, is an open process which can be reini-

tiated at will.

From time to time vegetalistas renew their

energies and expand their knowledge by following the diet du- ring shorter periods.

During the diet, Don Emilio explains, different plants pre-

sent themselves to the initiate,

"a querer ensenar",


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


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. Se- xual abstinence, isolation -in the case of men, total separa- tion from fertile women-, and certain requirements of ritualis- tic 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 me- lanoptherum, B. erythopterum), boquichico (Prochilodus nigri- cans), 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 (As- tronotus ocellatus) and fasaco (Hoplias malabaricus). Certain birds such as panguana (Crypturellus untulatus), pucacunga (Pe- nelope 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 sa- jino (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), maqui- sapa (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 leucop- tera); 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 Pime- lodidae) family (Kullander, personal communication) 13 . A com- plete list would imply such knowledge of the fauna of the re- gion 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 prepara-

tion of important remedies,

love potions, and other shamanic


and before and after the ingestion of ayahuasca and

other plant-teachers 14 . 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


etc. espantan a los vegetales (make the plants

escape). The action of plants is thought to last a certain pe- riod 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-

13 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 conduc- ted my research.

14 Similar practices have been widely reported among Indian


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


1964: 186) 15 . According to Stephen Hugh-Jones (1979: 90) among

the Barasana, a Tukano group of the Vaupés, coca, tobacco, to-

bacco snuff,



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 night- time, the sacred time where men do not consume normal food. " 16 .

Some of the plant-teachers are extremely "jealous".

If the

diet is broken, they may punish the offender by causing an ill-

ness 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 plants.

Several times I have heard from various vegetalistas stories in which a person breaks the prescribed continence one or two

15 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).

16 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 in- gesting the San Pedro beverage: "not to eat any food that con- tains 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 segrega- tion, 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 conve- nient 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 hallucino-

gens; most of them are found, and many of them still in use, in


New World

(Schultes 1967:36;

Schultes & Hofmann



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-Meso- lithic 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 Ameri- cas 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 re- creational 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,


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 re- cognized the old pattern of summoning of spirits by sorcerers, of diabolic possession and strange voices, of uncouth visions of ghostly beings." 17

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 spe- culate why these plants should fascinate the people in the New World so much. There is already a vast bibliography on this subject 18 . If we focus our attention for a moment on the Orino- co 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 life.

We may recall the use of various kinds of snuffs: in open savannah country, snuffs were prepared of Anadenanthera pere- grina (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 va- rious admixture plants- of Virola (V. calophylla, V. calophyl- loidea, 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 co- ca) (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: Tetrapte-

ris methystica R. E. Schultes, is used by the Makú on the Rio Ti- kié, 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.


all cultigens,

are used in the Andean region

(Schultes & Hofmann 1980: 264-278). Various species of Brunfel-

sia (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 psychotro- pic compounds.

18 I want simply to refer to some of the basic books on the sub- ject, 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.

19 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 etnographi- cally, botanically and pharmacologycally as ayahuasca, a brew made of a malpighiaceous woody liana of the genus Banisteriop- sis, usually with the addition of one or more additives. Aya- huasca (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 Ecua- dor. 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 alphabe- tically 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, Banisteriop- sis 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. ine-

brians 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 exa- mined 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 malpi- ghiaceous 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 Diplop- terys 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 biody- namic effects. According to Anderson (cf. Gates 1986) this plant is best included within the variation represented by the widespread variable species Tetrapterys styloptera Adr. Jus- sieu. Another malpighiaceae, known under the name of Cabi para-


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 compa- rative 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 hallu- cinogenic (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 (0.007- 0.0001%) 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 Si- bundoy 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 pre- sent 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 (Mon- teiro 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 quan- tities 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 seve- ral groups of the Panoan family. In Colonia 5000 it is said that the uasca (B. caapi) gives a força (strength) to the beve- rage, 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, har- maline, 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 oxi- dase (MA0)(cf. McKenna & Towers 1984:351). The chemical analy- ses carried out on ayahuasca show that the amounts of beta- Carbolines 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 inhibi-


tion was directly correlated with the concentration of beta- Carbolines. 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 considerably 20

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 con- sidered a medicine per se. Harmine, the alkaloid which is found in larger concentrations in Banisteriopsis caapi, in the twen- ties 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 Berin- ger'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 Parkinsonism.

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 ac- tivities, including antimicrobial and anthelmintic properties. They propose the hypothesis that psychoactive indole and iso- quinoline alkaloids are effective antagonists of the neuro- transmitters of the neuromuscular system of helminths, inhibit protozoan parasites and were selected by indigenous plant doc- tors 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 insis- tently say that ayahuasca is effective against paludismo (mala- ria).

20 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 infu- sion 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 In- dians living in the vicinity of Araracuara, in Colombia that they smoked the leaves of a plant that he identified as Banis- teriopsis caapi.


Ayahuasca has attracted the attention of ethnologists, ethno- botanists, anthropologists, pharmacologists, neorophysiolo- gists, psychologists, artists and travellers 21 . 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 aya- huasca 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 con- tact with the spirit world (which among several tribes is equi- valent 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 ac- quired. Knowledge of this and other worlds, of past and future events. It is believed that ayahuasca helps to explore the na- tural environment, its geography, flora and fauna. It allows shamans to diagnose illness, to find its cause-natural or su- pernatural-, and to find a remedy for it. With the help of aya- huasca 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 dic- tates 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 pe- yote- alters consciousness in ways that have been so deeply and completely evaluated and interpreted. Caa-

pi truly enters into every aspect of living. It

reaches into prenatal life,

influences life after

death, operates during earthly existence, plays roles

21 There are numerous reports of Westerners who have taken aya- huasca 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 1975:85- 98; Ayala & Lewin 1978; Deltgen 1978/79: 77-78; Harner 1980:1- 24, 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, role."

A detailed survey of the role of ayahuasca among Indian tribes would be a large enterprise. I will simply present some quotations from scholars who have given special attention to this matter, before I enter into a more general concept, that of plant-teachers.

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 cos- mic planes and signifies, according to anthropologi- cal studies, the rupture of the placenta. Drinking caapi is often interpreted as returning to the "cos- mic 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 con- tact 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 Si- bundoy of Colombia take biaxii (ayahuasca):

"Biaxii intoxication is sought for a variety of rea-

sons outside the medical sphere. A Sibundoy separated from his family while travelling may take it to re- lieve his loneliness and, as he says, transport him-

self to their midst.

Or he may be anxious to know who

is gossiping about him during his absence. The loca-

tion 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 per-

ceive, 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 aya- huasca 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, melo- dies/rythm and fragrance which play a key psychologi- cal and spiritual role for both the patient and so- ciety. 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, per-


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 im- portance 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 doc-

tor. It possesses a strong spirit and it is considered an in- telligent beings with which it is possible to establish rap-


and from which it is possible to acquire knowledge and

power if the diet and other prescriptions are carefully fol- lowed. 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 consi- dered 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 com-

bine 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 under- stand, all psychoactive plants are considered potential tea- chers. I once asked Don Emilio if he had ever taken the mush- room 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 medi- cine. 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 anything 22 . other plants teach only in dreams.

During the period of apprenticeship the vegetalista is con- fronted 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 informa- tion, 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 languages 23 .

The idea that ayahuasca has the effect of increasing the in- tellectual and artistic skills is quite common among vegetalis-


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 Pu- callpa, who is also a practising vegetalista. During my visit

to Colonia 5000,

near Rio Branco, in the Brazilian state of


they told me that some of the people there had been

22 According to Chiappe et al. (1985:72), the curanderos of Iqui- tos distinguish between plants that produce mareación (dizzi- ness) and visión (hallucinations). It is possible that some vegetalistas make this distinction. In my experience, however, mareación includes both, dizziness, like that produced by drin- king tobacco, and hallucinations, like those produced by aya- huasca.

23 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 pre- viously 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






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 under- standing / 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 memo- rize 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 indivi- dual must also comply with a series of precisely defined pres- criptions 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 lay- men; 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 pre- paration or application of medicinal concoctions (Métraux 1967:83)." (Chevalier 1982:346).

taught to play musical instruments by Santo Daime (ayahuasca). In Iquitos I met several practitioners who,

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 ef- fects 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 fol- lowing nights 24 .

In this way, they say, they have recognized the medicinal pro- perties of many plants. Knowledge of the great plant-teachers and of many medicinal plants comes, of course, from los anti- guos (the ancestors). I have been surprised that among the me- dicinal 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 medi- cinal 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.

2 4 A very good example of how ethnic groups learn about the pro- perties of an unknown plant with the help of ayahuasca is pro- vided by Bristol (1966) in a paper on the Sibundoy of Colom- bia. Bristol's conclusion is as 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 res- tricted 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.


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. Neverthe- less, 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 ulti- mately 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 aya- huasca, so that one becomes as strong as these trees. A vegeta-

lista 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 in- formation highly provisional, as I still have many local names to collect, and I still have plants which have not been identi- fied. Most of these plant teachers have also medicinal proper-

ties. 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 plant-

teachers 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 bota- nically identified (cf. Luna 1984b):


Abuta (Abuta grandifolia (Mart.) Sandwith. Used as a plant—

teacher and as a medicinal plant for pulmonary illness, for

gastric cancer and for malaria (tercianas) by Don Manuel Pache- rras, in Puerto Maldonado.


Amaciza (Erythrina poeppigiana (Walp.) O. F. Cook (amaciza)


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


fortify the body.

It requires




diet. According to Don Emilio it teaches both medicine and he-


(witchcraft). The fruits are given to hens for food

and as a remedy for plague.



Bellaco caspi (Himantanthus sucuuba (Spruce) Woods (Soukup

1970: 153). Used in the extraction of the magic dart or virote.


Bobinzana (Calliandra angustifolia Spruce (Soukup 1970: 56).

Used in love magic (cf.5.2.).



Capirona Negra (Capirona decorticans Spruce (Williams 1936).


Catahua (Hura crepitans L. (catahua) (det. T.Plowman, 1982)


According to Don Emilio it is a very strong doctor and a dan- gerous 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


or magic darts to cause harm 25 . Vegetalistas believe

that an strong ayahuasca is prepared with chacruna having ex-

clusively four dolmatiae or five dolmatiae.

  • 9. Chiricsanango (Brunfelsia grandiflora) D. don ssp. schulte-

sii 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. Huacap ú (Vouacapoua americana (Aubl.)


1970:368). The bark of this tree may be added to the ayahuasca brew.

  • 17. Huairacaspi (Cedrelinga catanaeformis Ducke (Soukup

1970:74). It is a big tree about 80-90 meters tall and two me-

ters of diameter.

It is a tree able to withstand violent

25 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,


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 sorce- rer. 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.)(Accor-

ding 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 ani-

mals: 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 pro- perties 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, 1964: 202-203)
the Ucayali,
1964: 202-203)



referred to the

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 (Phtirusa pyrifolia HBK Eichler)(det.

T. Plow man, 1982)

  • 27. Tahuarí (Tabebuia heteropoda (DC) Sandwith. It is a tree

strong like iron ("es un palo como fierro"). A diet is requi-


  • 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 (Psycho- tria 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 prepara- tions commercially available throughout the Amazonian provinces

26 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 poiso-

nous 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,


ther 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 orga- nic compound extracted from Cinnamomum camphora, and widely

used in folk medicine all over Latin America. 2) Timolina, a


apparently made of plants,

which is used as a

perfume. 3) Creolina, a strong disinfecting substance easily available.

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 wa- ter is drunk, and the diet is followed. It is believed that the spirit of these minerals appear in dreams to teach magic melo- dies. 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
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 li- ving, 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 territo- ries. Nature is animated by spiritual powers which assume the- riomorphic 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 rela-

tives 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 are-


often in a violent way,

to new social and economic


to new religious ideas,

and to new technology.

These changes certainly have made a great impact on the spiri-

tual world of Amazonian people,


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 ex- traordinary 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, be- cause 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 spiri- tual 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

No doubt, when studying the cosmology of the vegetalistas one is often confronted by seemingly unconnected

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 chulla- chaki-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 -inun- dated 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 hirsu- ta, tentative identification), a small tree, the fruits of which are his food (cf. Reátegui 1984:65) 28 .

27 Rafael Karsten (1964:197) has reported this being among the Na-

po and Bobonaza Indians of eastern Ecuador, and among the Shi-

pibo 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 mono- graphy on the spirits of the wild and the spirits of the forest (Wild-und Buschgeister) among South American Indians, summa- rizes Koch-Grünberg's (1920:323-4) characterization of the Co- rupira 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 Wal- des spendet. Er erscheint als geheimnisvoller und mächtiger Geist in verschiedenen Gestalten und Stimmungen, bald fantas- tisch 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 Wal-

des 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 Wald-

geist nachläuft. (


)" (Zerries 1967:9-10).

28 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, of- ten 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 encoun- ters), 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 me- tereological 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


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, oneself against this being.

is the best way of protecting

By following the appropiate diet, it is possible to become the friend of Chullachaki, which can give hunters luck. But he will punish those who hunt too many animals (a collection of testimonies about this being is found 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 gra- dually 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, depen- ding 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 with- out the help of ayahuasca he appears as a small man wearing huge red shoes, red trousers, a shirt, scarf and hat. But later

29 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

he may take the form of any animal (Calvo 1981:37-38)30. 4.1.2. Sachamama Sachamama (Painting by Pablo


(Painting by Pablo Amaringo)

30 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 fo- rest, 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 path."

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 sto-


is the Sachamama. The sachamama (mother of the jungle)

is supposed to be a huge boa of 50 meters or more that is be-

lieved 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.

Another animal spirit which is also the subject of many sto- ries, is the Sachamama .

The hypnotic power of


Sachamam a is

thought to be like a

rainbow that attracts



huma n


towards the

mouth of the


and protects it from

approaching dangers.

The vegetalista, when


to master


spirit of the Sachama-

ma through the above mentioned icaros, ac-





powers, which are ma- nifested during the visions and dreams as flames that are sus- pended on the top of the head of the vege- talista.

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 Amazo- nian people, which is not strange, considering the climatic and

geographical situation of the area,

and the paramount impor-

tance 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 mes- tizos 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, cept for the tunchis or spirits of the dead (cf.4.1.08.),



in fact,