Mestizo shamans in the Upper Amazon maintain relationships with two types of spirits — the spirits of the healing plants, who appear almost invariably in human form; and the protective spirits, often powerful animals or birds or human beings, or the spirits of certain plants such as the spiny palms. The animals and plants that protect the healer are the same as those that carry out the destructive will of the sorcerer.
And, of course, the visionary world is filled with other-than-human persons of all sorts — visitors from other planets and galaxies in shining spaceships; denizens of vast sparkling cities; the beings who live in the deep jungle and beneath the dark waters; great teachers and healers of the past and future; silent denizens of infinite labyrinths of crystal rooms. I have seen dark-robed and faceless beings gathered to support me in my nausea; tall thin dark-skinned men in white shirts and white pants with black suspenders flitting on unknown errands among the participants at a ceremony; vast lines of Peruvian schoolgirls in blue and white uniforms ascending and descending a stairway by a radiant swimming pool.
The healing plants are doctores, teachers, healers; these are the vegetales que enseñan, the plants who teach. What they teach are their own secrets — what sicknesses of body or soul they heal, how to summon them with their songs, how to prepare and apply them. Don Roberto Acho and doña María Tuesta often call the spirit of a healing plant its genio, its genius or nature; shamans also speak of the plant’s espíritu, spirit, or its madre, mother, or — interestingly — its imán, magnet; and I have heard don Rómulo Magin speak of its matriz, womb, probably in the sense of its matrix, its archetype.
The plant spirits almost always appear in human form. There are exceptions: the spirit of the uña de gato vine (Uncaria guianensis), which has small hook- or claw-like appendages along its length, has appeared to doña María as a tigrito, a small jaguar, the spirit of lobosanango (Tabernaemontana spp.) as a wolf. Doña María says that the plant spirits often appear to her first as plants, and then transform into humans.
It is worth emphasizing that the plant spirits do not always appear in the same way to different people, or even to the same person on different occasions. For example, the spirit of ayahuasca can appear as a human, either male or female, or as an anaconda. Indeed, the spirit of ayahuasca has appeared to doña María as two genios at the same time, one male and one female, who stood on either side of her — the woman dressed in beautiful clothing, the man ugly, with bad teeth. The spirit of the uña de gato vine has appeared to her not only as a small jaguar but also as a strong, muscular man on whose arms were claws.
I have encountered ayahuasca in the form of a little blonde girl wearing a golden crown, and of a teenage Indian girl with a dazzling smile. The spirit of maricahua (Teliostachya lanceolata) has been said to appear as an Indian man surrounded by little children; but the spirit came to me as a beautiful dark lady with raven hair. Spirits may appear as either male or female on different occasions; as poet César Calvo puts it, “on some days a plant is female and good for some things, and on other days the plant is male and is good for the opposite.”
Former shaman Pablo Amaringo has painted several pictures of various plant spirits as they have appeared to him. In one ayahuasca vision, for example, the spirit of the pucalupuna tree (Cavanillesia umbellate) appeared as a dark woman with cat’s eyes and a gold chain around her neck; in another vision, the spirit of pucalupuna appeared as a dark man with many heads, covered with snakes, and holding a knife and a skull. Similarly, in one vision the spirit of the ajosquiro tree (Cordia alliodora) appeared as a very small curly-haired man wearing a red cape and red clothes; and, in another, as a blue-skinned man with red hair, surrounded by birds.
There is sometimes a correlation between the nature of the plant and the appearance of its spirit. A striking example is the ayahuma tree (Couroupita guianensis). Huma is the ordinary Quechua word for head; thus ayahuma means spirit head or head of a dead person. The tree’s large, hard, globular fruit falls to the ground and cracks open with a loud sound; once cracked open, the inner pulp rots and smells like decaying flesh. The spirit of the ayahuma thus often appears as a woman without a head.
There is also some internal consistency in the identification of spirits. For example, the spirits of hardwood trees often appear to doña María as strong or large men — the spirit of the remocaspi tree (Aspidosperma excelsum) as a very muscular man dressed as a doctor; the spirit of the machimango tree (Eschweilera spp.) as a tall gringo man wearing a white shirt. The spirit of the capinurí palm (Maquira coriacea), the ends of whose fallen branches look remarkably like erect penises, has appeared to her as a large heavy pale gringo, like a weightlifter, wearing the white clothes of a doctor.
The spirits of other plants have often appeared to her as doctors wearing surgical scrubs — ishpingo caspi (Amburana cearensis), chullachaqui caspi (Remijia peruviana), caña brava (Gynerium sagittatum). The bright red latex of the sangre de grado tree (Croton lechleri) is used to treat wounds, ulcers, and skin infections; the spirit of this tree has appeared to doña María as a man whose whole body was blood red, and as a doctor carrying a tray of medicines.