I once asked don Rómulo Magin about his awareness of the spirits when not drinking ayahuasca. Don Rómulo said that he is constantly aware of being surrounded by the spirits, but he sees them roughly, vaguely; drinking ayahuasca, he said, is “like putting on glasses.” Doña María Tuesta agrees; ayahuasca makes the spirits bien claro, really clear. When don Roberto Acho smokes mapacho and concentrates, he says, he sees the plant spirits; he sees them now because he has seen them before, when drinking ayahuasca, but he does not see them as clearly. Most important, though, he hears them, clearly, speaking in his ear, instructing him — heal like this, they say, suck there, sing this icaro, make such-and-such a medicine — just as if they were standing next to him, just as, he says, you and I are talking right now. When he drinks ayahuasca, he both hears and sees the spirits clearly.

And, just as some shamans say that the spirits are always present, but are brought into focus by ayahuasca, some say that the songs of the plant spirits are always present, and ayahuasca brings them into audibility. Thus, don Carlos Perez Shuma says that the icaros are like radio waves: “Once you turn on the radio, you can pick them up.” Or the songs are like prerecorded tapes. “It’s like a tape recorder,” don Carlos says. “You put it there, you turn it on, and already it starts singing…. You start singing along with it.”

This reminds me of what Joan of Arc says to the Dauphin in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan:

CHARLES: Oh, your voices, your voices. Why don’t the voices
come to me? I am king, not you.

JOAN: They do come to you; but you do not hear them.

So: we are always surrounded by the spirits and their music. We see them sometimes, at the edges of our vision. Their music is pura sonida, pure sound, the language of the plants, reflected in the silbando, the whispered singing of the shaman, and in the susurration of the shacapa, the leaf-bundle rattle. We can learn to listen for their music in the singing of the stars.

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One Response to “The Omnipresence of the Spirits”

  1. Hamsa says:

    Steven,
    My Shuar teacher also seemed to be able to “contact” the spirits and their songs even when not under the influence of natem/ayahuasca (often he would use tsaank/tobacco for this purpose). He would use whistling which he described as like turning on a radio, beginning with tuneless or semi-tuneless whistling which he described as like dialing the radio knob and moving between stations, until he would “lock on” and tune in to a spirit and its song.
    BTW, I am really enjoying your blog. It has some of the most insightful and interesting writing on this subject I have come across on the Internet. Please keep it up.
    On another subject-from a November post of yours–were you initiated into toe? If so, what was it like?
    My teacher used toe topically for curing broken bones and other injuries with amazing results. But he never gave it to me internally and, frankly, I was happy with that decision. Scares me.
    You’ve probably seen Paul Theroux’s “Blinding Light,” an interesting fiction about the use of datura.


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