THE SHAMAN la versíon española la version française


Bathing at the sacred waterfall

Shamanic mentality is not an isolated element in a culture, nor does it constitute an exclusive esoteric domain. The shamanic mentality is spread throughout a community, though its members participate at different levels and in different degrees.

Two concepts appear to characterize this mentality. The first is based on the existence of "mystical essences," or spirit helpers, that must be acquired or possessed to exorcise the threats to life and limb to which human beings are prey. The possession of these essences is a mark of an individual's having come of age. In this context, in which spirits are acquired, preserved, multiplied, or lost, the virtue of the shaman resides in his capacity to manipulate these essences in processes related to health and illness, as well as to other situations.

The second concept refers to the apparent ability of human beings to operate within two different states of consciousness and, thus, gain access to two different planes of reality, the ordinary or daily, which corresponds to an "unaltered state of consciousness," and the non-ordinary, which is related to an "altered state of consciousness," or trance, and occurs when psychoactive substances are ingested, or through dreams and spontaneous visions. In this latter situation, one encounters spiritual forces and the meaning necessary to carry on with daily life.

This dual nature of reality and consciousness provides, at each step along the way, its own logic, and only by understanding this logic can we get beyond the silly image of the "Indian" who sees spirits wherever he looks, and who is unable to comprehend the laws of physics as a result, presumably, of his mystical vision of reality. It all depends on the states of consciousness through which the individual moves and the reality that corresponds to each state. In this way, by understanding the dual reality of these peoples, we can understand the great shamanistic potential of the Amazon peoples, a potential that cannot, as is commonly believed, be defined in terms of a "reality-illusion" dualism.


In spite of the various meanings attached to the specific words denoting the shaman in different cultures (yachac, Kitchwa; uwishin, Shuar, Achuar; yagé unkuki and inti paiki Secoya; ido, Huaorani), the shaman's distinguishing characteristic is his ability to manipulate spirits in order to heal by removing bad or evil spirits, or to call upon these spirits to do harm. At the same time, the shaman has the ability to discover the essence of mystical substances and to establish connections among different worlds. The shaman also has recourse to other basic skills, including the possession of helper spirits, the ability to assume zoomorphic shapes (that of the spider, harpy eagle, owl, jaguar...), the ability to join forces with other shamans, and knowledge of the preparation of powerful substances, such as the umpunka and the semayuka. The umpunka (from the Shuar umpun, to blow) are objects that carry the evil powers of the shaman and these are left in the territory of the person he wishes to harm. On the other hand, the semayuka is a "love potion" prepared from vegetal substances and containing mystical power.

There is a hierarchy among shamans, based on the power each is able to assume and transmit. Initiation is a process without which it would be impossible to learn, possess, and manage this power in an appropriate fashion. Various taboos (generally prohibitions against sexual relations and eating the flesh of pigs, armadillos, or other animals) facilitate control of these forces which do not tolerate fear or excess of any kind in those who possess them.

The shaman is an individual who resides at the edge and who is able to cross cosmic borders. The metamorphoses into animals experienced by the shaman are a symbol of his ability to mediate among extremes or to join different planes of reality.

The shaman is frequently identified with the boa -this being a recurrent theme of shamanism in the Upper Amazon- who slides through trees, moving among the various levels that exist between earth and sky. The shaman of the Secoya travels through all worlds in the belly of a boa. The tree is thought to be the depository of the shaman's darts. The shaman is an intermediary cosmological being, the point at which the cosmic may be experienced, and this fact accounts for his association with the aquatic world, a world between the earth and the sky. It is a world characterized by sexual intimacy between spirits and animals: tsunki, according to Shuar mythology, is the first shaman who lived in the depths of rivers, and is represented as a woman with uncommonly large genitals, who copulates with the tapir. In the symbolic world of the Cañelos-Kitchwa and the Shuar, the dolphin, the incarnation of the shaman, also engages in unusual sexual behaviour.


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