The foundational triad of mestizo shamanism in the Amazon is shacapar, rattling; chupar, sucking; and soplar, blowing tobacco smoke. Amazonian healers are classic sucking shamans.

Not all sucking is physical. I was taught that there are three ways through which the shaman’s mouth can draw out intrusive objects, sickness, darts, and magical harm from the patient’s body – by sucking with the lips directly on the skin; by using one’s cupped hands to make a tube through which the sickness can be drawn out; and by pulling with the mouth from a distance. Still, the preferred method remains placing the mouth right on the patient’s body, right where the sickness is located, and sucking like crazy.

Shaman sucking out sickness (detail of a painting by Pablo Amaringo)

The sucking or pulling removes the haire, air, and the flemocidades, phlegmosities, of the sickness. The shaman is protected by his or her own flema, phlegm, stored in the chest, and raised into the throat as mariri, rarefied phlegm, like air, vibratory and protective. The phlegm of the healer contests with the phlegm of the sickness. The painting below, part of a larger picture by Pablo Amaringo, shows a shaman sucking a patient; the white material is the healer’s own mariri.

As the shaman sucks, the sickness comes out into the mouth — sometimes like cold air, sometimes like a metallic object, sometimes as rotten meat, darts, toads, scorpions, insects, razor blades. In fact, what comes out of the patient’s body may have a sweet taste, tempting one to swallow — a temptation to be resisted. The healer then spits out what is bad and keeps what will increase the healer’s own power. Often what is sucked out is so vile that the shaman gags and retches dramatically before spitting it onto the ground. If the object sucked or pulled from the patient is a powerful pathogenic object like a dart, it enters the mariri to become part of the shaman’s own dart collection; or, if the healer wishes, the dart caught in the mariri can be projected back onto the one who sent it.

Healing by sucking is widely distributed among the indigenous people of the Amazon. The Matsigenka shaman sucks out pathogenic objects – thorns, leaves, bones, spines – and shows them to the audience; the blood sucked out is said to be black. The Toba shaman sucks out little stones, sticks, worms. Anthropologist Philippe Descola describes an Achuar shaman sucking out and revealing “half a dozen pieces of glass, opaque with age.” Among the Aguaruna and the Shuar what is sucked out is said to be darts. The practice is old. A report of the Tupinambá dating to 1613 gives this account:

I see the shaman at work, sucking up the patient’s illness, as hard as he can, into his mouth and throat, pretending to hold them full and distended and then quickly spitting outside the enclosed space. He spits with great force, making a noise like a pistol shot and says that it is the illness which he has sucked.

Similarly, in North America, the Chippewa make use of a “sucking doctor.” Anthropologist John Lee Maddox has listed many Native American peoples among whom the doctor sucks the affected part and exhibits some foreign body, including the Florida, Sioux, Algonkin, Kernai, Ojibway, Apache, and Shingu. He described how the Californian Karok doctor sucks the patient, then vomits up a frog; and how the Cumana suck disease from the patient, then vomit a hard black ball. Australian Aborigines extract quartz, bone, bark, charcoal, or glass marble objects from their patients. Beatrice Whiting describes extraction by suction among the Paiute:

Sucking is part of nearly every ceremony. The doctor often sucks out some foreign object and thus effects a cure. He spits the object out of his mouth and shows it to the people. He then mixes it with dirt in his hands, rubs his hands together, and the object disappears. Sometimes he vomits the object into a pan of earth to make it disappear.

Sucking out a disease is risky, dramatic, frightening, unpredictable. To suck out a disease means committing to deal with something disgusting and dangerous. It is also a direct and personal challenge to the sorcerer who sent the sickness, and thus risks creating a powerful enemy. No wonder some shamans keep silent about their knowledge and abilities.

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2 Responses to “Sucking”

  1. Nadia says:

    A few things come to my mind.
    First, the fact that the types of object differ depending on the lineage of the shaman. That is, the type of object is determined by the type of the shaman, rather than patient’s disease itself. I am tending to conclude that in a way the shaman himself or herself is creating the object in order to focus his energy and intention on the healing. That is, sucking the object is not really a required step but rather a ritual. I.e. potentially one can have the same healing effect without sucking the object but maybe using a different kind of ritual, or maybe even no ritual at all, just the intention.

    Second, I was always wondering why there is so much evil and fight that I hear about in shaman’s world. I.e. the article says that sometimes the dart is sent back to the originator. To me that seems unproductive as then it becomes an endless fight… If these people are so powerful, and call themselves healers, I don’t understand why do they do that. Any thoughts?

    Thank you!

  2. Hmm, the good author probably knows a lot more than I about the painting that is detailed above … but it looks to me as though what is going on there is a case of soplar – only because the practitioner’s mouth is not _on_ the skin-surface of the recumbent patient, and the material just outside his mouth is white. This, however, is just my quibbling guess about a minor point.

    I write mostly as a brief answer to Nadia, when she asks “why there is so much evil and fight that I hear about in shaman’s world”? I would invite her to go to these two links, one after the other: followed by . Each is a youtube page, and each one is only six or seven minutes long. I set those tinyurl links up, about six years ago, because I was so impressed by Dr. Mabit’s concise précis of the development of the indigenous shamanic mindset, from the warrior/tribal, to the loving/universalist ethic that today somewhat (_somewhat_) erroneously competes with the warrior/tribal. These two lectures by Dr. Mabit are, I am delighted to find, also linked elsewhere on this very website.

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