I have been reading a book about Mestizo shamanism called "Singing to the plants" by Stephan V. Beyer, and really have enjoyed learning about the culture and the way of life of shamans. There are many things about shamans that I didn't understand and a lot that I didn't know until I started to read the book. The book has such a wealth of knowledge that its hard to fully take in everything that the author wants to convey in his accounts and research into shamanism. I wanted to briefly go through the book as far as I have read and talk about what I have learned from the book.
Two healers of the upper amazon
The book starts off talking about two shamans that are healers in the amazon forest. Their names are Don Roberto and Dona Maria. Both these shamans have spent most of their lives living in the rain forest building a relationship with the plants they heal with, and using those plants to heal many physical and psychological pains that local and visiting foreigners have. They also use their songs or icaros to call the spirits of every living thing to help someone in trouble. Life is hard for the two shamans as they often have to work other jobs in order to provide for their family and themselves. The shamans also live in a fear driven world by which sorcerers often poison and give a bad name to the shamans. Not only is the profession of these two shamans what brings them together but also their use of ayahuasca in their healing rituals.
The shamanic performance
Not only is the ritual of the shaman and the use of the healing plants whats important to the process of making someone better, also is the performance. The book talks about the extensive tricks that many shamans perform in order to show their patients what they are removing from them. Many shamans have gone out and talked about the false magical performances they have conducted, such as removing some meat from a persons body without cutting into them in order to remove a tumor. They say that the reason that they do these magical acts is because often enough people don't want to pay or believe that anything is happening when their is nothing physical to show them. The shamans also noticed that people who see these performances often heal better which we understand as the placebo effect. Performances include many things that shamans also consider very important to the protection of the individuals and shamans involved in the healing process. Shamans will sing, blow tobacco smoke, dance, and sometimes act as though being possessed by sprites.
Learning the plants
Learning the plants is a huge part of what the shamans do all through their life. It is possibly the most important item in the shamans tool set when conducting healing. They go on extraneous diets for months only eating small fish and cooked plantains, but that is only part of what they call the diet. They use psychoactive substances like ayahuasca to learn about other plants that are not psychoactive because ayahuasca produces visions and allows for communication not only with the ayahuasca spirit but also other plant spirits. This area of the book really gives a detailed look into why when shamans are asked how they found out how to make such an rare drink mixture of ayahuasca, the shamans always answer back, "the plants told us." The relationship that the shamans have with ayahuasca is very intimate and also is their relationship with all other types of plants as they often spend much of their time talking with the sprites of the plants.
Songs that the shaman sings are often the tool used in order to call a spirit from where it resides. The songs that the shaman uses are taught to the shaman during their diet by the plants and often by other shamans during an apprenticeship. Shamans may also travel many miles on foot to learn icaros from other shamans in order to use them as protection or for healing. One of the main differences between Amazon shamans and other shamans is their ability to call the spirits with their songs, rather than travel to the spirit world. Each shaman produces their own icaro or songs to call the spirits to heal, and even those who learns icaros from other shamans, put their own twists into the song.
You can listen to one of Don Roberto icaros here
Phlegm and Darts
Something that I have always wondered about since watching the documentary "Jungle Trip" what did the shaman put into Piers mouth near the end of the show? Phlegm is also a great tool that the shamans have. Their phlegm is the substance inside of them (much like normal phlegm) that is protective agents evil darts. The phlegm of a shaman is in a way a spiritual substance that can be transferred to others for protection and festered in another body to create more phlegm to later transfer. The shaman often blows a mist of the phlegm on those being healed, and even singing or opening the mouth can cause phlegm to be used. When the shaman is healing others they often put the phlegm in their throats in order to stop darts and evil spirits from going into their body. They later spit out the bad phlegm in order to toss away the evil.
Darts are like evil spirits that can be used to harm others and also protect others. They may gain darts from other individuals or save darts from sick people in order to use as later protection or to use them for harm. If a shaman uses darts for harm, they are a sorcerer and are forever doing evil. Sorcerers are those who do harm or become obsessed with the power of the spirits and are "tricked" by the spirits to cause bad things to happen to another person. Its hard to say if darts are bad or good, I would believe its how you use them, but they still have great capacity of causing harm.
Initiation for the shaman is very intense. As an apprentice after obtaining the phlegm from another shaman the individual must maintain a diet. The diet unlike our western starvation or restriction of food is nothing compared to what they call the diet. The apprentice must not leave his or her bed for a week while staying in the dark all while covering their mouths in order to protect the phlegm from leaving them. They drink tobacco juice for months while eating nothing but small fish with no teeth, along with cooked plantains. The apprentice is also not allowed to have sex or speak or be around anyone. They must keep their distance from all people and can only look at them from a distance. After a period of time these restrictions are slowly changed over a period of months and one at a time. Learning the diet as well as learning the self control makes a shaman resilient to temptation from the sprites to abuse the power given to them as well as allowing for communication from the spirits to the man or woman.
What are the shamans healing?
From what I have read of the book so far and of my other readings into the shamanism world, it seems that shamans are really true healers. I am not one to say that shamans are physically taking out disease of our bodies but what I do believe is they are healing our minds. Our mind has the great capacity of causing long term harm to our bodies as well as healing the body. It is also true that many of our medicines today are taken from the exact same people we currently call crazy or mystical ... shamans. We have taken the plants that they have used for thousands of years, purified them and sell them as pharmaceuticals today. I think the shamans deserve a little more respect then we often give them. If we don't respect them in the western world, they are still highly respected in the Amazon and greatly feared as well...