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Ayahuasca pot

THE TIMELESS RAIN FOREST is watching over not only the graves of peoples who have disappeared but also over the wisdom they possessed. The great shamans of the Siona and Secoya look for it in visions.

A moon full and pale over the Aguarico River. This river may not be as spectacular as the Napo, but its waters are more crystalline, and its fish more abundant. Here one finds some of the largest fresh water fish in the world. Nevertheless, the area around the Aguarico and its tributaries was relatively unknown until, in the early seventies, the roads and footpaths opened the Oriente. As a result, the ethnic groups who live along the Aguarico, the Cofan, the Siona and the Secoya, have had to face serious economic and socio-cultural pressures originating from this new society that surrounds them.

THE YAGÉ RITE

Campo Eno, on the banks of the Aguarico. It is six in the evening, when millions of crickets, as though obeying a sign only they perceive, begin to fill the air with their metallic sound. And it is time for the yagé (ayahuasca) rite to begin, a time strictly prescribed, as are all aspects of the ritual associated with the preparation and use of this hallucinogenic substance. Thus, one requirement is punctuality: at six in the morning, the person who cooks the yagé begins the process, and at six in the evening the drink is ready.

Hilano, the curaca of the Siona group that lives in the area, uses a stick to stir the thick, strong-smelling, coffee-coloured liquid.

"Whoever wishes to find wisdom must have the will, in addition to a lot of courage, along with an almost innate capacity to withstand suffering," says Hilano. And, in effect, this is true. The hallucinogen makes demands on the body and, in some cases, can causes physiological disorders.

"There are many who aren't able to withstand the effects of yagé" Hilano adds. "Some go mad and only recover after much time has passed."

When participating in the yagé ritual, the Siona and Secoya don their finest cushmas, and paint their faces with stripes, crosses, and designs representing the sun, along with other symbols, using achiote, a dye they extract from annatto seeds. Only freshly harvested seeds produce the dark red tones desired. They also paint their arms and legs and tie flowers and fragrant herbs around their arms. Finally, participants wear headdresses, necklaces and feathers.

"The person who knows how to take yagé doesn't get drunk. He remains calm when drinking it, as though he were drinking chucula" Hilano explains. "I can't tell you how much I enjoy taking yagé not for the drinking itself, but for the visions it produces!" Hilano brings the gourd to his lips and drinks the contents in one go. "With just one bowlful I can see the farthest corners of the earth and of the heavens, for earthly visions end and heavenly visions begin."

Those who have taken yagé are soon engaged in a lively conversation. Bursts of laughter and loud shouts are heard. Some imitate bird songs, others growl like wild beasts.

The Siona and the Secoya, the latter perhaps to an even greater extent, are prized by their neighbors for the wisdom of their curacas. In Ecuador, the Siona-Secoya are spoken of as a single group. Both groups are descendants of the ancient encabellados, or "long-haired ones," and the Pioje's, members of the Western Tucano linguistic family. A number of travelers have included the Cofan in this same group, though its members belong to the Chibcha linguistic family and long ago lived in the wilderness surrounding the headwaters of the Aguarico and its tributaries. The Cofan, along with the Siona and the Secoya, have been called cushmas, a word that refers to their dress, a tunic originally made from llanchama, or bark cloth.

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