In order to become an ayahuasquero, one must be coronado, initiated, usually by receiving the phlegm of one’s own maestro ayahuasquero. Still, a number of mestizo shamans also report being initiated by dreams that announce — or confirm — their healing vocation. Strikingly, these dreams tend to share certain themes — a journey, often to a spiritual hospital; initiation by a powerful woman, such as the Virgin Mary, or the Queen of the Hospital; the gift of healing or of shamanic tools, flowers and a shining crown; the prediction of great strength or healing ability.
My plant teacher doña María Tuesta had such an initiatory dream when she was eighteen, in which the Virgin Mary confirmed doña María’s destiny as a healer. The dream, as she told it to me on several occasions, was long and complex, and sometimes changed in the telling. But it always began with a beautiful young woman coming and sitting by her side. “Today we are going to go upward,” the woman says, “and see everything that is happening on earth.”
María and the woman go into María’s mosquito net, which carries them up into the clouds to a beautiful green meadow. This is paradise, filled with angels — men and women, adults, children, and babies — wearing brilliant white robes and crowns of sweet-smelling flowers. All the angels start to pray the Ave María and the Pater Noster, holding hands and dancing in a circle around her. As María marvels at the sight, the young woman tells her that she is in paraíso terrenal, the earthly paradise. There are thousands of angels, holding beautiful brightly lit candles, holding up their hands and saying amén in a single voice.
In the dream, doña María sees many more miraculous things and is dressed by spiritual doctors in the white robes of a healer. But that is a story for another time.
A small detail in the dream is of great interest. The fact that doña María is carried to heaven in her mosquitero, mosquito net, has significant symbolic resonance in the Upper Amazon. In crowded households, the impenetrable cotton mosquito net is a refuge of privacy. Even more, shamans of the highest order work secretly within their woven mosquiteros — as pioneering ethnographer Robert H. Lowie says, “in complete darkness under a mosquito net.”
|Pablo Amaringo, Spirits Descending on a Banco (detail)|
The ability to enter a mosquito net and disappear, or to converse under the mosquito net with the most powerful spirits, is one of the things that distinguishes the Shipibo meraya shaman from the lesser onanya. The mosquito net within which the meraya retreats after drinking ayahuasca is called a bachi, an egg.
Don Francisco Montes Shuña says that the banco — the highest rank of shaman — enters a mosquito net in the middle of the house, lying face down, while all the disciples remain outside. Then the spirits come to the banco from below to talk to him, and to speak through him. Pablo Amaringo has painted a picture of a banco lying beneath his mosquito net while three spiritual beings — a wise old king and two princes — descend and sit on his body. The shaman is here the banco, the bench, for the sprits descending into the mosquitero. Others wait outside the mosquito net to hear these spirits speak through the shaman’s mouth.
A mestizo who heard doña María’s dream would understand, from the mosquito net reference, that she was experiencing an initiation of a very high order.