Mestizo shamanism of the Upper Amazon is closely associated with plant healing; indeed, anthropologist Françoise Barbira-Freedman speaks of vegetalismo as a syncretic mix of herbalism and shamanism. In this regard it is different from other Amazonian traditions, where shamans and herbalists occupy separate social and cultural niches. Shuar shamans, for example, have traditionally not used or prescribed plant medicine; such knowledge is widely distributed, especially among women, and herbal remedies have usually been tried before consulting a shaman in any event. Anthropologist Michael Harner, who worked with the Shuar in the 1950s and 1960s, is unequivocal: shamans, he says, never use herb remedies. Similarly, Aguaruna shamans are generally called in when a patient has already failed to respond to herbal remedies or commercial medicines.

The Cashinahua of the Purus River classify shamans into two groups — the dauya, the one with medicine, who kills and heals through the use of medicinal plants; and the mukaya, the one with bitterness, who heals and kills with the help of the yuxin, spirits, using a bitter substance called muka, which is the materialization of yuxin power. Among the Shipibo-Conibo, the raomi, herbalist, usually female, who works with the plants alone, is distinguished from, and has lower status than, both the onanya and meraya, shamans who work with plant spirits in their healing. Thus don Basilio Gordon, a Shipibo shaman, uses no physical plants in his healing practice. “If you know the icaro of a plant,” he explains, “you don’t need to use the plant.”

Similarly, among Arawak-speaking peoples in Guyana and the Venezuelan Amazon, there are several levels of shamanic specialization. At the lowest level is the biníji, who prepares medicines with plants and water; one step above is the makákana, the blower who cures by blowing tobacco smoke; then the uyúkuli, who cures by sucking; and then the sibunítei, who cures by dreams and divination.

Among the Desana, there are two sorts of traditional healer — the yee, jaguar-shaman; and the kumu, blower of spells. The yee derives his powers — including the ability to turn into a jaguar — from contact with spirits after ingesting hallucinogenic snuff, and cures by seeing the sickness inside the patient’s body, blowing tobacco smoke, massage, and sucking out the pathogenic objects from the body and spitting them away. The kumu cures by the inaudible recitation of highly formalized therapeutic spells over a liquid the patient then drinks, or over a plant that is then rubbed onto the patient’s sick body part. The liquid or plant gives the spell a material support and transfers it to the patient.

These disparate functions — preparing plant medicines, sucking out pathogenic objects, blowing tobacco smoke, singing icaros over medicines — are combined by the vegetalista, the mestizo healer.

The distinction between shaman and herbalist, however, is not universal. Among the Baniwa of Brazil, for example, shamans deal with manhene witchcraft — inflicted through secret poisonings — both by sucking out the poison, which then appears as monkey or sloth fur, and by recommending plant medicines, usually various types of root that counteract the gastric effects of the poison. César Zevallos Chinchuya, a Campa shaman, uses herbal remedies that do not differ from those used by other adults in his area.

And, among the Cashinahua, the distinction is not really as simple as presented above: plants themselves are imbued with and vehicles of yuxin, spirit matter and energy, in just the same way as the shaman is filled with materialized yuxin power.

And elsewhere, too, the distinction seems to be dissolving, under the influence of mestizo practices. Shuar shamans today, especially those who live near larger jungle population centers, increasingly incorporate Hispanic healing techniques from the mestizos — the use of Tarot cards for divination, cleansing with eggs and candles, and the use of herbs. Indeed, the Asociación Tsunki, a shamans’ organization within the Federación Shuar, has recently offered courses in Shuar and Achuar traditional medicine, open only to uwishín, shamans, which have included training in gathering plants and preparing plant medicines.

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One Response to “Shamans and Herbalists”

  1. Chuntaro's Corner says:

    In Central America up to northern Mexico we have various terms like yerbero, huesero, limpador, chupador, they were also called curanderos or doctors. However these people are not healers of the soul and chronic disease. In the Chichimeca and Mexica tradition we made a distinction based in the specialty of the tlamakazkes as well.

    Tlamakazke Xipe totec: these people studied plants and what could be seen nowadays as generic medicine. They were great surgeons as well and living encyclopedias of the plants and the human body and its ailments

    Tlamakazke tezcatlipoca: These people studied the deeper levels of disease, especially of the head and soul, not only they cured, they were therapists and psychoanalysts. These would be the people to go on vision quests and would use hikuri and ololiuqui, teonanacatl and toloache. They called them brujos and upon the conquest were the first ones to be exterminated. They were known for tattooing their whole body black. Their face paint made them very unique as well. You did not want to cross their path, they would be able to analyze you in a second, much different creatures that the quetzalcoatls, their opposite tlamakaskes. As part of the ometeotl they worked together and many times they work overlapped

    In various communities in the US I see people that know of plant remedies, are massage therapists or know things such as reiki, calling themselves healers in a way that they also claim to be ceremonial leaders, medicine people or shamans. I am not saying this is not possible, but it is more complex that the ability to being able to take away stress with a good massage or valerian tea. Those skills do not come handy when is time to blow cancer away from a person or when having to consult with spirits. I have nothing against herbalist, body practitioners and even reiki masters, but the role of indigenous ceremonial leader and healer is a hard one to get and once there, it is harder to upkeep. Know your role and contribute as much as you can with it to the health and happiness of your community.


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