There are relatively few women shamans in the Amazon, and certainly few among the mestizos. On the other hand, my teacher doña María Tuesta said that she had encountered very little prejudice because she was an ayahuasquera. There were some shamans who have said that she should not be a healer, but — in her typical way — she said that those were all stupid people with no shamanic power anyway. Still, her vocation is rare. Rosa Giove, a Peruvian doctor at the Takiwasi Cenetr in Tarapoto, reports that, in twelve years of investigation, she has known only two women who heal with ayahuasca. One is an elderly Quechua-speaking woman from Lamas, who lives in isolation, feared in her village as a bruja, a sorceress; the other is well known in Iquitos, but with fewer patients than the male ayahuasqueros, despite the fact that their methods are similar.
|Ayahuasquera doña Norma Aguila Panduro Navarro|
I know of just two female mestizo shamans — doña María, and doña Norma Aguila Panduro Navarro, who, until her recent death, performed healing ceremonies at Estrella Ayahuasca, her Centro de Investigaciones de la Ayahuasca y Otras Plantas Medicinales between Iquitos and Nauta.
There are some limitations on women both as shamans and as patients. Among most Amazonian groups, women do not drink ayahuasca at all, primarily because of fear of spontaneous abortion; the Shuar are unusual in that there is no difference in ayahuasca intake based on sex. Among the Shipibo, for example, the women are the sole possessors of the ayahuasca-inspired designs with which they decorate their pottery and clothing, yet the women themselves do not drink ayahuasca.
Doña María expresses these limitations based on concerns about menstruation. As we have discussed, ayahuasca and the other plant spirits are celosa, jealous, which means, among other things, that they do not like the smell of human sex, semen, or menstrual blood. For that reason, doña María told me, the plant spirits will not go near a woman who is menstruating.
Thus, a female curandera cannot work while menstruating; that restriction means that the most powerful ayahuasqueras will be post-menopausal. And a menstruating woman among the participants at a ceremony will disturb the shaman’s concentration and impair the visions of everyone present. Such a participant can drink ayahuasca, I was told, but she will not receive the full benefit of the drink. Soplando, blowing tobacco smoke, on the menstruating woman — all over her body, beginning from the crown of her head down to the soles of her feet — may mitigate but does not eliminate the problem.
A woman, too, doña María told me, should not drink ayahuasca while lactating, for reasons that she did not make clear — only that ayahuasca should not be in the breast milk. On the other hand, a woman can drink ayahuasca when she is pregnant, because the ayahuasca gets into the child and gives it fuerza, power. The same belief is found among the Shuar: some women express the belief that a child is born stronger if it receives the beneficial effects of ayahuasca while still in the womb.