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Ancient Wizardry in Modern Perú

Bearing in mind the country’s poverty and the fact that almost half the population is still pure Amerindian, it isn’t altogether surprising to discover that the ancient shamanic healing arts are still flourishing in Peru. Evidence for this type of magical health therapy stretches back over three thousand years on the Peruvian coast. Today, curanderos (Spanish for “curers”) can be found in every large community, practising healing based on knowledge which
has been passed down from master to apprentice over millennia.

Curanderos offer an alternative to the expensive, sporadic and often unreliable service provided by scientific medics in a developing country like Peru. But as well as being a cheaper, more widely available option, curanderismo is also closer to the hearts and understanding of the average Peruvian.

With the resurgence of herbalism, aromatherapy, exotic healing massages and other aspects of New Age “holistic” health, it should be easier for us in the West to understand curanderismo than it might have been a decade or so ago. Combine “holistic” health with psychotherapy, and add an underlying cultural vision of spiritual and magical influences, and you are some way toward getting a clearer picture of how healing wizards operate.

There are two other important characteristics of modern-day Peruvian curanderismo. Firstly, the last four hundred years of Spanish domination have added a veneer of Catholic imagery and nomenclature. Demons have become saints, ancient mountain spirits and their associated annual festivals continue disguised as Christian ceremonies. Equally important for any real understanding of Peruvian shamanism is the fact that most, if not all, curanderos use hallucinogens. The tribal peoples in the Peruvian Amazon who have managed, to a large extent, to hang on to their culture in the face of the oncoming industrial civilization, have also maintained their spiritual traditions. In almost every Peruvian tribe these traditions include the regular use of hallucinogenic brews to give a visionary ecstatic experience. Sometimes just the shaman partakes, but more often the shaman and his patients, or entire communities, will indulge together, singing traditional spirit-songs which help control the visions. The hallucinogenic experience, like the world of dreams, is the
Peruvian forest Indian’s way of getting in touch with the ancestral world or the world of spirit matter.

The origins of shamanism

The history of healing wizards in Peru matches that of the ritual use of hallucinogens and appears to have emerged alongside the first major temple-building culture — Chavín (1200 BC–200 AD). Agriculture, ceramics and other technical processes including some metallurgy had already been developed by 1200 BC, but Chavín demonstrates the first unified and widespread cultural movement in terms of sacred architectural style, and the forms and symbolic imagery used in pottery throughout much of Andean and coastal Peru during this era. Chavín was a religious cult which seems to have spread from the central mountains, quite possibly from the large temple complex at Chavín
de Huantar near Huaraz. Taking hold along the coast, the image of the central Chavín deity was woven, moulded, and carved onto the finest funerary cloths, ceramics and stones. Generally represented as a complex and demonic-looking
feline deity, the Chavín god always has fangs and a stern face. Many of the idols also show serpents radiating from the deity’s head.

As far as the central temple at Chavín de Huantar is concerned, it was almost certainly a centre of sacred pilgrimage built up over a period of centuries into a large ceremonial complex used at appropriate calendrical intervals to focus the spiritual, political, and economic energies of a vast area (at least large enough to include a range of produce for local consumption from tropical forest, high Andean and desert coast regions). The magnificent
stone temple kept growing in size until, by around 300 BC, it would have been one of the largest religious centres anywhere in the world, with some three thousand local attendants. Among the fascinating finds at Chavín there have been bone snuff-tubes, beads, pendants, needles, ceremonial spondylus shells (imported from Ecuador) and some quartz crystals associated with ritual sites. One quartz crystal, covered in red pigment, was found in a grave, placed after death in the mouth of the deceased. Contemporary anthropological evidence shows us that quartz crystals still play an important role in shamanic ceremonies in Peru, the Americas, Australia and Asia. The well-documented Desana Indians of Colombia still see crystals as a “means of communication between the visible and invisible worlds, a crystallization
of solar energy, or the Sun Father’s semen which can be used in esoteric undertakings”.

In one stone relief on the main temple at Chavín the feline deity is depicted holding a large San Pedro cactus in his hand. A Chavín ceramic bottle has been discovered with a San Pedro cactus “growing” on it; and, on another pot, a feline sits surrounded by several San Pedros. Similar motifs and designs appear on the later Paracas and Mochica craft work, but there is no real evidence for the ritual use of hallucinogens prior to Chavín. One impressive ceramic from the Mochica culture (500 AD) depicts an owl-woman — still symbolic of the female shaman in contemporary Peru — with a slice of San Pedro cactus in her hand. Another ceramic from the later Chimu culture
(around 1100 AD) shows a woman healer holding a San Pedro.

As well as coca, their “divine plant”, the Incas had their own special hallucinogen: vilca (meaning “sacred” in Quechua). The vilca tree (probably Anadenanthera colubrina) grows in the cloud-forest zones on the eastern slopes of the Peruvian Andes. The Incas used a snuff made from the seeds which was generally blown up the nostrils of the participant by a helper. Evidently the Inca priests used vilca to bring on visions and make contact with the
gods and spirit world.

Shamanism today

Still commonly used by curanderos on the coast and in the mountains of Peru, the San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi) is a potent hallucinogen containing mescaline. The curandero administers the hallucinogenic brew to his or her clients to bring about a period of revelation when questions are asked of the intoxicated person, who might also be asked to choose some object from among a range of magical curios which all have different meanings to the healer. Sometimes a curandero might imbibe San Pedro (or one of the many other indigenous hallucinogens) to see into the future, retrieve lost souls, divine causes of illness, or discover the whereabouts of lost objects.

On the coast, healing wizards usually live near the sea on the fringes of a settlement. Most have their own San Pedro plant which is said to protect or guard their homes against unwanted intruders by letting out a high-pitched whistle if somebody approaches. The most famous curandero of all lived just outside Trujillo on the north coast of Peru.  Eduardo Calderón– better known in Peru as El Tuno – was a shaman and a healer. His work consisted
of treating sick and worried people who come to him from hundreds of miles around. His job was to create harmony where tensions, fears, jealousies, and sickness exist. Essentially a combination of herbalism, magical divination and a kind of psychic shock therapy involving the use of San Pedro, his shamanic craft has been handed down by word of mouth through generations of men and women. El Tuno’s knowledge made him a specialist in healing through inner visions – contact with the “spirit world”. He was a master of the unconscious realms and regularly entered non-ordinary reality to combat the evil influences which he saw as making his patients sick. His knowledge has been passed on to the next generation, and, rather than losing its influence in Peru, appears to be gaining in popularity, reputation and healing power.

Describing the effects of San Pedro, El Tuno once said that at first there is “a slight dizziness that one hardly notices. And then a great ‘vision,’ a clearing of all the faculties of the individual. It produces a light numbness in the body and afterward a tranquillity. And then comes a detachment, a type of visual force in the individual inclusive of all the senses, including the sixth sense, the telepathic sense of transmitting oneself across time and matter…
It develops the power of perception… in the sense that when one wants to see something far away… he can distinguish powers or problems at great distance.” (Quoted in Wizard of the Four Winds by Douglas Sharon (The Free Press, 1978.)

El Tuno and many other coastal wizards get their most potent magic and powerful plants from a small zone in the northern Andes. The mountain area around Las Huaringas and Huancabamba, to the north of Chiclayo and east of Piura, is where a large number of the “great masters” are believed to live and work. But it is in the Amazon Basin of Peru that shamanism continues in its least changed form.

Even on the edges of most jungle towns there are curanderos healing local people by using a mixture of jungle Indian shamanism and the more Catholicized coastal form. These wizards generally use the most common tropical forest hallucinogen, ayahuasca (from the liana Banisteriopsis caapi). Away from the towns, among the more remote tribal people, ayahuasca is the key to understanding the native consciousness and perception of the world – which for them is the
natural world of the elements and the forest plus their own social, economic and political setup within that dominant environment. It has been argued by some anthropologists, notably Reichmal Dolmatoff from his work among the Desana Indians of the Colombian rainforest (who also use ayahuasca), that the shaman controls his community’s ecological balance through his use of mythological tales, ceremony, rituals and a long-established code of avoiding killing and eating certain creatures over complex temporal cycles. Dolmatoff appears to be suggesting that the Desana culture’s ritual food taboo cycles are, in fact, a valid system or blueprint for the survival of the tribe and their natural eco-niche – a system worked out and regulated over millennia by the shaman, who listens to the spirits of nature through visions and inner voices.

The Shipibo tribe from the central Peruvian Amazon are famous for their excellent ceramic and weaving designs: extremely complex geometric patterns usually in black on white or beige, though sometimes reds or yellows too. It’s not generally known, however, that these designs were traditionally given to a shaman (male or female) by the spirits while they were under the influence of ayahuasca. The shaman imbibes the hallucinogen, whose effect is described as “the spirits coming down”. The spirits teach the shaman songs, or chants, the vibration of which helps determine the shaman’s visions. The geometric designs used on pots and textiles are his or her material manifestation of these visions. The vision and its material manifestations are in turn highly valued as healing agents in themselves. They make something look
beautiful; beauty means health. Traditionally the Shipibo painted their houses and their bodies with geometric designs to maintain health, beauty and harmony in their communities. Similarly, painting a sick person from head to toe in the designs given, say, by a hummingbird spirit, was seen as an important part of the healing process.

Throughout the Peruvian Amazon native shaman are the only real specialists within indigenous tribal life. In terms of their roles within traditional society – as healers, masters of ritual and mythology, interpreters of dreams, visions and omens, controllers of fish, game and the weather – the forest Indian shaman commands respect from his group. But it is precisely his group and the nonmaterialist, nonaccumulative tendencies of their semi-nomadic lifestyles (which it is the shaman’s role to promote and preserve) which keeps them on an economic par with their fellows. Consequently the tribes have retained their organic anarchy on a political and day-to-day level. The size of communities has generally remained low. There is no cultural impetus for the shaman to turn high priest or king, just as there is no cultural incentive to accumulate surplus material objects or surplus forest produce. The shaman in traditional tribal societies is often a major conservative force – preserving his or her culture and conserving the environment, particularly in the face of
encroaching development and consumerism.

It is clearly hard to generalize with any accuracy across the spectrum of healing wizards still found in modern Peru, yet there are definite threads connecting them all. On a practical level even the most isolated jungle shaman may well have trading links with several coastal curanderos – there are many magical cures imported via a web of ongoing trans-Andean trading partners to be found on the curanderos’ street market stalls in Lima, Iquitos, Trujillo, Arequipa and Chimbote. It has been argued by some of the most eminent Peruvianists that the initial ideas and spark for the Chavín culture came up the Marañon Valley from the Amazon. If it did, then it could well have brought with it – some three thousand years ago – the first shamanic teachings to the rest of ancient Peru, possibly even the use of power plants
and other tropical forest hallucinogens, since these are so critical to understanding even modern-day Peruvian Amazon Indian religion.

One thing which can certainly be said about ancient healing wizards in modern Peru is that they question the very foundations of our rational scientific perception of the world. With recent developments in understanding the human mind and the holistic nature of living organisms the scientific establishment may come to learn something about both the inner cosmos as well as healing from these Peruvian masters of curanderismo.