As in Central America, in the Amazon too there are different types of healers who deal with different types of medical conditions. Most people know something about plants, though the task of healing is the work of curanderos, while yerboristas share a certain affinity with apothecaries, and then there are shamans and brujos. Sometimes the distinction between the latter two is not all that clear. The general consensus is that brujos practice evil magic, while shamans are the spiritual emissaries of a tribe. While yerboristas and curanderos tend to work on the more physical levels of disease, shamans are the specialists of the supernatural world. Their task is to maintain the spiritual equilibrium of the tribe and its individual members, ward off evil spells and curses, and if necessary, take revenge, commune with the spirits of the forest and the animals and make deals with the gods to ensure a successful hunt or beneficial weather conditions. They are often feared, for they know the powers of the netherworld, they have powerful allies and familiars and they know the magic spells that can either harm or heal.
A somewhat unique and separate role is that of the Ayahuasceros. Although in tribal contexts only shamans and healers preside over the sacred ritual of Ayahuasca preparation and the ceremonies surrounding it, the use of Ayahuasca has spread far beyond the domain of shamans. Over the years it has become widespread throughout the Amazon and has found its way into the magical practices of suburban mestizo. Here, the Ayahuasceros, who are neither shamans nor herbalists, preside over the ritual. They often know nothing or very little about any plants other than Ayahuasca - Banisteriopsis caapi, the sacred vine of the souls. Those who partake of it can enter the world of the spirits by climbing down the stem of this liana to the underworld.
In Brazil a the urban use of Ayahuasca has given rise to a whole new religious movement, known as the Daime Church, which is a strange amalgamation of Christianity, afro-brazilian folk-beliefs and traditional Indian practices, that uses Ayahuasca as a sacrament.
In western society Ayahuasca is often mistakenly thought of as a drug, since it causes what might be termed 'hallucinations'. But this is really a misunderstanding. Ayahuasca is a medicine, a spiritual medicine that cleanses the soul and the doors of perception. It should not be classed as a 'leisure drug' for would be psychonauts looking for a psychedelic adventure. Ayahuasca is not fun. It is a gateway key to an awesome and powerful spiritual world. It requires the patient to adhere to some strict rules: to abstain from certain foods as well as sexual activity prior to taking part in the ritual.
The concoction itself tastes like gall juice and its effects are by no means a fun ride. The action of this medicine can best be described as a spiritual purgative, although it affects the physical body as well. According to shamanic healing philosophy, the root cause of sickness has to be identified before any real healing can take place. This often means facing deeply buried fears or other negative emotions that are lurking in the vaults of the unconscious. In order to heal, it is necessary to deal with these inner demons. Ayahuasca opens the door.
It takes many hours of alchemical work to prepare a potent Ayahuasca brew. The Ayahuascero mixes the Banisteriopsis with Psychotria viridis, and frequently other plants as well, which will modify the end result. These additional plants are the so called 'master plants', the teachers of the specific concoction. Each ayahuascero has their own favourites with whom he likes to work, though specific conditions may also call upon a specific master.
The ceremonies are always held at night, after sunset. The Ayahuascero sits in the circle of attendants and invokes the plant spirits by singing their icaros, their magical songs. He asks them to lend their power to his brew and to guide the visions of the attendants. The attendants have all fasted during the day, or at the very least abstained from certain foods, and prepared themselves psychologically for the ceremony. The air is laden with anticipation and anguish. Will the plant spirits be gentle?
The Ayahuascero purifies the space and casts blessings and spells of protection. He blows tobacco smoke and sprinkles fragrant flower waters as he chants his invocations. One by one he turns to the attendants, cleanses each person's aura with the sacred tobacco smoke, presses certain points on the head and arms and body chakras as he blows the smoke and sprinkles the flower waters. Finally he pours a shot glass full of the sacred brew and passes it to the patient who drains it in one gulp and instantly begins to gag and splutter. The acrid taste lingers on the tongue and is almost impossible to get rid of.
The patient sinks back to his seat and meditates as he waits for the plantspirit to take him on the journey to the vaults of his soul. Sometimes nothing happens. The patient might not be ready. Or, the ayahuascero was not right for him. Each journey is different of course, depending on what demons are lurking in one's personal underworld, but when the plant spirit comes an inescapable sense of dizziness and nausea set in. To the ayahuascero the vomiting is an essential part of the cleansing process. Some attendants just vomit and vomit and not much else happens, not for the first few times. In such cases, according to ayahuascero philosophy, a lot of emotional 'junk' has to be cleared out of the way before the plant spirit can get to the gateway of the soul.
The visions that follow are highly individual, like fleeting dreams interspersed with moments of intense clarity. Emotion pours out liberally and uncontrollably, tears, laughter, fear, whatever it is, it has to come out and it does. The visions are sometimes murky, sometimes luminous, frightening or funny, but they always 'rattle the cage' and there is no way to resist the primordial force.
The next day there is no hangover, no headache no sense of sickness, but rather, a sense of calm. Further meditation and talks with the shaman help the patient to understand the message of the visions and what path of action should be taken. Healing is an active process that requires actual involvement, an action on the part of the patient. It is not something that is done by somebody else (the healer) and simply received as a grace by the patient. Seeking out the causes of disease is the beginning, but in itself does not constitute healing. The path of healing follows the call for action, which implies change.
This is the fundamental difference between shamanic concepts of healing and traditional western medical philosophy, which assumes that the doctor is responsible for restoring health, regardless of the psychological root causes of disease and the soul processes required to transforming them. In the shamanic sense disease presents an opportunity for growth and true healing is transformation.
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago there lived among the Tukanoans a woman, the first woman of 'creation' who drowned men in visions. To the Tukanoans intercourse is a visionary experience in which men are 'drowned in visions'.
The first woman became pregnant by the sun-god who had impregnated her through the eye. The child was born in a flash of light. The woman, whose name was Yaye, cut the umbilical cord and rubbed its body with magical herbs thus shaping its body. The child became known as Caapi, a narcotic plant, who lived to become an old man. He jealously guards his hallucinatory powers, his Caapi, which is the source from which the Tukanoan men received their semen.
The myth essentially tells the story of the alchymical marriage, in which wo/man seeks union with the god-source, divine power of creation. Thus the religious experience is also always a sexual one. To quote Schultes and Hoffmann: For the Indian, "the hallucinatory experience is essentially a sexual one... to make it sublime, to pass from the erotic, the sensual, to a mystical union with the mythic era, the intrauterine stage, is the ultimate goal, attained by a mere handful but coveted by all."
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