There is an ambiguity inherent in shamanic practice, where the dangerous work of healing and sorcery intersect. Because shamans possess spirit darts, and with them the power to kill, the boundary between sorcerer and shaman is indistinct. Such shamanism, says social anthropologist Carlos Fausto, “thrives on ambivalence.”
In the Upper Amazon, life and death are inextricably intertwined, and the cosmos is conceptualized in terms of predator-prey relationships. Indigenous Amazonian communities often draw a connection among attack sorcery, hunting, warfare, and predation — particularly by the jaguar, the ultimate predator. By forcibly inserting pathogenic darts into bodies, sorcery is a form of human predation; the sorcerer is an eater of human flesh; the Piaroa always consider a disease to be a process of being eaten. Stories among the Sharanahua explicitly relate shamans to cannibalism. The shaman Ruapitsi, they say, ate one of his wives; so powerful was his hunger for human flesh that he cut pieces from his own thigh for food. His second wife killed him with an axe. Shamans are often equated with jaguars — indeed, are thought to become jaguars.
Sorcery is the evil twin of healing. Instead of extracting harmful objects from sick bodies, the sorcerer introduces them; instead of maintaining relationships of trust and friendship, the sorcerer is antisocial, dangerous, secretive. Thus, too, healing and harming are intertwined.
The Shipibo clearly state that the healing act itself ineluctably causes harm — that to remove the sickness from one person is to cast it upon another who lacks the power to repel it. Since the illness-causing substance cannot be destroyed, the shaman, in curing one, always harms another. In the same way, Yagua shamans toss extracted sickness-causing darts toward the sun, where they reach the subterranean realms of the people-without-an-anus, causing considerable harm. Even more, the harm multiplies. In reprisal, the shamans of the people-without-an-anus fling balls of earth at the Yagua, on which their children sometimes choke.
In the same way, in return for successful hunting, the Tukano shaman must pay a fee — the lives of living people, who are sent to serve the Master of Animals. The shaman drinks ayahuasca and sees these victims in the form of birds sitting on the rafters of the spirit’s house. The lives are those of people who live far away; when the shaman learns that people have died in some other place, he knows that his debt has been paid.
And this works in the other direction as well. Among many indigenous peoples of the Guyana Amazon, the term canaima refers both to a mode of ritual killing and to its practitioners, a form of dark shamanism involving the mutilation and lingering death of its victim, who becomes, after death, the shaman’s food. But the killing of the helpless victim is also seen as a human sacrifice to Makunaima, the creator of all animals and plants, in return for his bounty to humans, and in order to ensure his continuing benevolence; the victim is food for lord jaguar and the garden spirit. Thus the killing creates life; the dark shaman contributes to the ongoing cycles of fertility and death without which humans could not live.
In this tragic cosmovision, the dark and the light, killing and curing, predator and prey are at once antagonistic and complementary; the price we pay for life is death, and out of death comes healing and life. Shamanic healers and shamanic killers represent interlocking cultural tendencies, and their battleground is the flesh of the sick, the ambiguous heart of the shaman, the valley of the soul.