Mestizo shamans are recognizably part of a larger Upper Amazonian religious culture area, characterized by a number of common features — the use of psychoactive plants; the presence of magical substances kept within the shaman’s body; notions of sickness as caused by the intrusion of pathogenic objects projected by malevolent others; the ambiguity of shamanic ability to do both good and evil; the central sacrality of tobacco; the acquisition of songs from the spirits; the use of songs for the creation of both medicines and poisons; a focus on healing with the mouth through blowing and sucking; and the importance of singing, whistling, blowing, and rattling in both healing and sorcery.
Travel and exchange has occurred throughout the Western Amazon since long before the arrival of Europeans. What seems to the unfamiliar eye to be a vast undifferentiated landscape is in fact threaded with riverine highways navigable over long distances in dugout canoes. In addition to efficient canoe transport, indigenous people in the Amazon have always been able to cover long distances on foot, even carrying heavy loads, with remarkable speed. Anthropologists Blanca Muratorio and Michael Taussig have both provided nineteenth-century paintings and engravings that show indigenous porters carrying heavy burdens through the jungle highlands, including white men wearing frock coats and Panama hats, sitting on chairs strapped to the porter’s back.
Cultural exchange has been facilitated by trade throughout this area, dating back to pre-Columbian times, in such products as pita fiber, gold, salt, cotton, cinnamon, tropical fruits, and feathers, by rules of exogamy that require taking a bride from a village that speaks a different language, and by herbalists, traveling far distances, collecting medicinal plants from the Pacific coast to the lowland jungle, setting their blankets in the small markets, covered with their roots and stems, bark and leaves.
The process of cultural exchange was accelerated by European colonization, when missionaries forced indigenous people to live together in reducciones, regardless of their tribal distinctions, so they could more easily be converted and controlled; and in particular by the rubber boom, where indigenous and mestizo people from the entire area, bound together by slavery and debt peonage, were transported long distances and put to work together as rubber tappers. This process of interchange continues today in the urban slums of Iquitos and Pucallpa, and in smaller Amazonian towns, as well as in the Peruvian army, in which local healers, thrown together with distant practitioners, have traditionally been able to exchange ideas.
The shaman has always been a node in this interethnic network of social relations. Shamans seek to gain power from a variety of sources, including other ethnic groups. Shamans from some ethnic groups have reputations as being particularly powerful, or particularly skilled in certain areas of specialization. such as love magic or sorcery. Indeed, in the Amazon, most groups view others as being more powerful shamans than themselves. As one Amazonian Indian has put it, jokingly: wherever you go, the great brujos are elsewhere.
While all shamans are competitors, who may at any moment find themselves locked in mortal combat, they are also pan-Amazonian in outlook. Shamans from different ethnic groups may care for each other’s patients, train each other’s apprentices, and exchange visions, songs, knowledge, and power objects, such as stones or feather crowns. An Achuar shaman, for example, traditionally had to undergo apprenticeship with established shamans in different locations. Such communication among shamans has been maintained for centuries.
Even though mestizo shamans are very individualistic, there is also a network of relationships among them, which may include transmitting new information or knowledge. Anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna notes that such shamans often know others who live many kilometers away, and especially those that live in the city have a communication network with those living in remote areas of the forest. One reason for these networks is that shamans are subject to magical attack by more powerful shamans, and one attacked may turn for protection to a shaman more powerful still.
This Upper Amazonian culture area is in turn the hub of a larger culture area — radiating westward across the Andes, northward as far as the Mazatec and Huichol cultures of Mexico, and, within the last ninety years, further north into the Native American Church and eastward into the new religious movements in Brazil — uniquely characterized by the use of psychoactive plants and mushrooms in the practice of shamanism.
And let me be clear about what I mean by uniquely. Despite numerous claims to the contrary, I do not believe there is any convincing evidence that hallucinogens have been important in the practice of shamanism anywhere outside this extended Upper Amazonian culture area. This claim is controversial, and I will try to justify it over the next several posts.
R. Gordon Wasson’s well publicized discovery — it was a front-page story in Life magazine — that Mazatec shaman María Sabina still used the ancient psychoactive mushroom teonanácatl in her healing rituals unleashed an abiding fascination with the use of psychoactive substances in religion generally and shamanism in particular, further fueled by the remarkable popularity of the early works of Carlos Castaneda. To what extent is the central use of psychoactive plants and mushrooms unique to this extended Amazon culture area or common to shamanisms throughout the world?
This question is both historical and geographical. Diachronically, to what extent, if any, have psychoactive plants or mushrooms played a role in the origin and history of shamanism? And, synchronically, to what extent, if any, do psychoactive plants or mushrooms play a role in contemporary shamanic practice outside of the Amazon culture area?
Putting aside the rather ill-tempered work of Alice Kehoe, who renders all shamanism drug-free simply by refusing to call South American religious specialists shamans, the answer to both questions is, I think, that there is little persuasive evidence that psychoactive substances have played any significant role in shamanism outside this particular South American complex.
For example, North American indigenous religions are bound together by several overlapping cultural forms — the sweat lodge, the sacred pipe, the shaking tent ritual — but I have seen little to indicate that the use of psychoactive plants or mushrooms was ever traditionally one of them, except for the Native American Church, which is in many ways a northerly extension of Huichol peyote use. This difference between North and South American indigenous practice is particularly striking, since both culture areas share a belief in the central sacrality of tobacco, yet nowhere in North America do we find the use of tobacco as a hallucinogen, as we do in South America.
Interestingly, in Michael Harner’s seminal anthology Hallucinogens and Shamanism, all of the contributions concern hallucinogens within this South American culture area and the Native American Church, with the exception of one speculative piece on the role of Solanaceous plants in European witchcraft. In fact, Harner himself, in promoting his concept of core shamanism, stresses the fact that, although he was inspired by the Conibo and Jívaro Indians, it was North American Indians — the Winton, Poma Coast Salish, and Lakota Sioux — who taught him how to practice without the use of psychoactive plants.
Similarly, in Peter Furst’s anthology Flesh of the Gods: The Ritual Use of Hallucinogens, all the articles except three focus on the same culture area. The three exceptions are an article by Wasson on the identity of the Indo-Aryan soma, which he believes was fly agaric; a piece on the use of marijuana in a variety of cultures; and a discussion of the use of eboka and other drugs, including marijuana, in the Bwiti cult in Gabon. None of the cited pieces in either of the anthologies makes a persuasive case for the importance of psychoactive plants or mushrooms in any shamanic tradition outside the South American culture area we have described.