A long-standing debate about shamanism concerns the locus of interaction between the shaman and the other-than-human persons with whom the shaman works — between shamans who travel to the land of the spirits, and shamans whose bodies are occupied and possessed by spirits. Often the debate is expressed dichotomously as a matter of power — between the shaman being “the master of spirits” on the one hand, and the shaman being “the instrument of the spirits” on the other. Graham Harvey, a scholar of indigenous religions, puts it this way — that “there is an almost continual conflict between those who think shamans are, by definition, people who control spirits … and those who think shamans are, at least sometimes, controlled by spirits.”
I think we should subvert this dichotomy at the outset. It is based on dualistic assumptions about power and control: either you have power over the other or the other has power over you; either you are in control or you are out of control. In the Amazon, the spirits — the plants — are powerful and unpredictable. And the relationship between shaman and plant is complex, paradoxical, multilayered, embodied in a recurrent phrase in my teacher doña María Tuesta’s songs, doctorcito poderoso, powerful little doctor, the diminutive indicating warmth and familial affection, the adjective acknowledging power.
The shaman “masters” the plants — the verb for learning a plant is dominar — by taking the plant inside the body, letting the plant teach its mysteries, giving oneself over to the power of the plant. As doña María warned me, ayahuasca is muy celosa, very jealous. To acknowledge that the spirits can be dangerous, and then to speak, as does anthropologist Fiona Bowie, of mastering, taming, even domesticating them, is to gloss over the complex reciprocal interpersonal relationship between shaman and other-than-human person — fear, awe, passion, surrender, friendship, and love.
The dichotomy is also subverted among the Shuar. The tsentsak, magic darts, kept within the chest of a Shuar shaman, are living spirits, who can control the actions of a shaman who does not have sufficient self-control. The magic darts want to kill, and it requires hard work to keep them under control and use them for healing rather than attack. That is why it is considered to be much more difficult to be a healer than a sorcerer: it is difficult to resist the urges of the darts; as some Shuar say, “The tsentsak make you do bad things.” Thus, Shuar shamans are, in a real sense, possessed, but not by the soul of a deceased human person; they are possessed by their own shamanic power, with which they are in continuous interaction.
Aguaruna shamans, too, when they begin to heal, call pasuk to enter into their bodies. Pasuk are the spirits of formidable shamans who live in the forest, enter into the human shaman’s chest, and tell the shaman information about the sick person. While shamans are said to control their pasuk, the extent of this control appears to be variable. Similarly, the Parakanã of Eastern Amazonia believe that shamans possess pathogenic agents that cause sickness, called karowara. When animated by a shaman, karowara are tiny pointed objects; inside the victim’s body, they take the concrete form of monkey teeth, some species of beetle, stingray stings, and sharp-pointed bones. Karowara have no independent volition; but they have a compulsion to eat human flesh. Again, the relationship between shaman and pathogenic agent appears complex, and control is not easily defined.