Plant Medicines, Mythology & The Hero’s Journey: A Medicine Path Podcast

Yoga teacher, musician and artist Brian James, who has been exploring the intersection of music, yoga and shamanism for over 20 years recently spoke with Robert, In this conversation we talk about our explorations of indigenous healing traditions of North and South America, including work with ayahuasca and peyote, and get into a discussion about mythology and the hero’s journey.

Listen here:

Aotsi Tsinane: Women’s Retreat at Mayantuyacu, Perú with Susana Bustos, Ph.D. August 7th to 20th

Juan FloresFor over ten years I have been accompanying committed men and women into the heart of the Peruvian rainforest to work with Asháninkan healer and teacher Juan Flores Salazar. This year I have felt a deep calling to focus this work just on women and their paths, or aotsi tsinane, in Asháninkan language. That’s the reason I am inviting you to a second iteration of this journey in August 2018. Continue reading “Aotsi Tsinane: Women’s Retreat at Mayantuyacu, Perú with Susana Bustos, Ph.D. August 7th to 20th”

Snake Medicine: How Shamanism Heals

Sacred spaceAnimistic perspectives, which hold the cosmos as “a being to whom prayers and offerings are made, who is endowed with understanding, agency and sentience, and responds to the actions of humans” are often dismissed as primitive, even as “incompatible with an impersonal regard of objective reality.” Yet this account of a healing of chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (the consequence of severe rattlesnake envenomation), within the shamanic traditions of the Native American Church and the vegetalistas of the Peruvian Amazon, reminds us of how profound healing can be when it arises from indigenous perception of a sentient, living cosmos. It also demonstrates the diagnostic and healing capacities of shamanic traditions utilizing psychoactive plants, capacities sometimes beyond the reach of Western science.


Our Native Mind

A snake which gets wounded heals itself. If now this is done by the snake, do not be astonished for you are the snake’s son. Your father does it, and you inherit his capacity, and therefore you are also a doctor.
– Paracelsus

“Animism” is a concept first introduced into anthropological circles by one of its founders, Edward Tylor, as the belief in the universal animation of nature, souls, and supernatural beings. In his Primitive Culture (1871), he wrote that animism is a perception held by “tribes very low in the scale of humanity”, yet serving as the “groundwork of the Philosophy of Religion, from that of savages up to that of civilized men” (Tyler, 1871: 381).

Such paternalistic Victorian views towards animistic perception continue to hold sway in the popular mind, although a far more sophisticated understanding of indigenous perception has since developed, such as expressed by prehistorian Jean Clottes:

Traditional people, and I think the people of the Paleolithic had two concepts that change our vision of the world: the concept of fluidity and the concept of permeability. Fluidity means the categories that we have, man, woman, horse, tree, etc., can shift. A tree may speak. A man can get transformed into an animal and the other way around, given certain circumstances. The concept of permeability is that there are no barriers, so to speak, between the world where we are and the world of spirits. A shaman, for example, can send his or her spirit to the world of the supernatural or can receive the visit of supernatural spirits. When you put those two concepts together, you realize how different life must have been for those people from the way we live now (Herzog, 2010).

Scholars in recent decades have proposed different schemas to distinguish the nature of the modern and indigenous experience of the cosmos.

Fig 3_1 (2)
Figure 1. Richard Tarnas’s primal and modern worldviews (Tarnas, 2006: 80)

Philosopher Louis Dupré depicts modern consciousness as a sudden, radical departure from tens of thousands of years of human culture, where “The divine became relegated to a supernatural sphere separate from nature”, and it “fell upon the human mind to interpret the cosmos, the structure of which had ceased to be given as intelligible” (Dupré, 1993: 3). Cultural historian Richard Tarnas, who likewise sees the modern mind as an arrogation of interpretive power by the individual self, gives this model in figure 1 above to delineate the two forms of human apprehension.

Medieval scholar and fantast J. R. R. Tolkien, (whose mythopoeic works are our great modern guides to the indigenous mind of Europe) clearly had such a distinction in mind when he explained to C. S. Lewis:

You look at trees, he said, and called them ‘trees’, and probably you do not think twice about the word. You call a star a ‘star’, and think nothing more of it. But you must remember that these words, ‘tree’, ‘star’, were (in their original forms) names given to these objects by people with very different views from yours. To you, a tree is simply a vegetable organism, and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving along a mathematical course. But the first men to talk of ‘trees’ and ‘stars’ saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music. They saw the sky as a jeweled tent, and the earth as the womb whence all living things have come. To them, the whole of creation was ‘myth-woven and elf patterned’ (Carpenter, 1979: 43).

For Tolkien, unlike Tyler, such an aboriginal worldview is neither prerational nor delusional. It is a form of human inquiry that satisfies a desire for sophisticated interaction with the cosmos, about which he stated “The magic of Faery1 is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these is the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is to hold communion with other living beings” (Tolkien, 2002: 113). Continue reading “Snake Medicine: How Shamanism Heals”

The Intensified Trajectory of Consciousness in Odysseus’ Vision in Hades


The winding path that led to this essay, just published in Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, began with the traditional lore of an Ashaninkan shaman working in the Peruvian Amazon. It may be the first significant discussion of Homer’s Odyssey in the light of contemporary knowledge of sacred plant medicines, indigenous ways of knowledge, and shamanic practices to appear in decades.

Towards the end of our year long investigation into the healing practices of the vegetalistas, as the indigenous and mestizo practitioners of rainforest medicine are known, we engaged in a plant dieta under the direction of one of the informants in Susana’s dissertation research, the curandero Juan Flores. One day, Flores tramped back to visit us during our solitary fast, and there the conversation turned to the mythic—and quite real according to him—beings that inhabit the Amazonian waterways. As Flores described the behavior of these sirenas, Robert was struck by the intriguing parallels between their seductive behavior and that of the Sirens described by Homer. Flores had never heard of the Odyssey, yet when given the story of Odysseus’ ordeal in the orbit of their rapturous song, Flores nodded his head and said grimly, “That’s them, alright.”

It was then we began to suspect that the indigenous experience of the natural world, which has a marked universality among native peoples, might have an underlying, shaping influence upon Homer’s narrative.

Along with familiarizing us with the cosmovision of the Amazonian peoples, our fieldwork also introduced us to the practice of shamanic journeying, which among Amazonian peoples, who live in an environment of extraordinary biodiversity, is often conducted in ceremonies utilizing ayahuasca, a psychoactive plant medicine whose name translates from Quechua as “vine of the spirits” or “vine of the dead.”

There we were also struck by certain parallels between Odysseus’ visionary descent into Hades and ethnographies of traditional shamanic practices among indigenous peoples worldwide, especially when supplemented by cognitive archaeologist David Lewis-Williams’ theory of the intensified trajectory of consciousness. These parallels are suggestive of a deeper morphological relationship between Homer’s narrative and the traditions of vision quest among the ancient, indigenous Mediterranean peoples (whose material culture is preserved in the Paleolithic cave sanctuaries), than is generally recognized. By viewing, as our main objective, just one episode in the Odyssey, the hero’s visionary journey in Hades, from an ethnographic perspective, this essay hopes to open up more inquiry into the indigenous, and shamanic, background of the epic poem.

To read the entire article, please enter here: The Intensified Trajectory of Consciousness in Odysseus’ Vision in Hades


The Siren’s Rapturous Song: A Video on Shamanism and the Healing of Addiction

Awareness of the remarkable efficacy of psychoactive plant medicines to heal addiction is growing. These presentations by Robert Tindall and Susana Bustos, sponsored by City Lights Books, were inspired in part by the authors’ work at Takiwasi, a center for the treatment of addiction in Tarapoto, Peru which utilizes the traditional medicine of the rainforest, including ayahuasca, with a high degree of success.

These videos interweave two perspectives on the spiritual nature of addiction: An exploration of addiction versus shamanic initiation in the light of ancient Western texts, and a report on research into the shamanic treatments of addiction just conducted at Takiwasi, focusing especially on the lesser known vegetalista practice of the plant diet.

Part One is Robert’s talk on addiction versus initiation in the light of the ancient Greek and Celtic traditions.

Part Two is Susana’s talk on the vegetalista practice of plant dieta and its unique efficacy in the treatment of addiction.

With gratitude to Emerald Tablet, upon whose premises these talks were given on December 19th, 2013; to Vincent Tamer who captured them on video; and to Peter Maravelis at City Lights Books.

Loving a Sentient Cosmos

Future Primitive interviews Robert on the joy of participating in a sentient cosmos; water, the primordial womb; music and opening of the gates of consciousness; from shamanism to cultural regeneration; Tolkien: remembering the animistic perception of the world; “a love and respect of all things animate and inanimate”; “a cosmo-centric economy”; reintroducing the indigenous consciousness of reciprocity; cultivating a self-sustaining soil.

Subversive Spiritualities: A Review

It is a rare occurrence to encounter an anthropological work that is intellectually rigorous and deeply spiritual, one which both illuminates the mind and touches the deep concerns of the heart. Yet when such a miracle occurs, as we find in Frédérique Apffel-Marglin’s Subversive Spiritualities: How Rituals Enact the World, all too often these works languish in obscurity. The ethnographic works of Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff on the Tukano Indians, for example, still make for riveting reading, yet his volumes mainly gather dust upon university library bookshelves.

Subversive Spiritualities, like Reichel-Dolmatoff’s works, deserves wide reading. After her upbringing in Morocco and her anthropological studies at Brandeis University, Apffel-Marglin began her first fieldwork in the 1980’s in the temple city of Puri, India. Her experiences there opened her eyes to the power of ritual as a regenerative practice, transforming “a secular Western anthropologist into a person with a very different relationship to rituals and to the beings that were invoked and conversed with during their enactment.” As her engagement with ritual deepened over the years, leading her to Peru and extensive fieldwork among Andean and Amazonian peoples, her critique of conventional anthropology, with its view of rituals as mere “symbolic action” and the dismal inverse proportion between anthropological archives and the well being of the worlds these archives represent, sharpened. Eventually she founded Sachamama Center, a non-profit organization in the Peruvian High Amazon which collaborates with the local, indigenous population on bio-cultural regeneration projects. Most especially, Sachamama works to reintroduce the yana allpa (more widely known as terra preta), a remarkably fertile pre-Colombian soil recently discovered throughout the Amazon, back into the native communities from which it originated.

Subversive Spiritualities is the fruit of her many years of anthropological fieldwork and meditations upon the “cosmocentric economy” of indigenous peoples and, in contrast, the “Modern Constitution” of the West. In the book Apffel-Marglin weaves a fugue, a counterpoint of two themes.

In the first theme, she depicts the richness and efficacy of native practices through first-hand descriptions of the Andean water ritual of Yarqa Aspiy and the agricultural Festival of the Ispallas, as well as native reactions to the forced imposition of the Modern Constitution, as in the well-intentioned Fair Trade movement of Peru or the family planning programs of the Bolivian government. Along the way, she even manages to make contributions to our understanding of native medicine, and the use of ayahuasca.

In the second theme, Apffel-Marglin conducts the most comprehensive, deeply informed critique of the foundations of Modernity (laboring under its unwieldy, artificially constructed divisions between observing, alienated self and absolute Space, Time, and Nature) that I have yet to read. In a narrative that reads like good detective fiction, Apffel-Marglin discloses the all-too-human historical and political forces, such as the enclosure movement, witch hunts, and bloody religious wars, which were an integral part of the emergence of modern science in Europe. In so doing, she deftly unveils the little carnival showmen, such as Descartes, Boyle, and Bacon, fiddling their epistemological dials behind the big, booming smokescreen of Oz the Great and Modern.

For example, surveying contemporary Western society, it is hard to dispute her claim that, “With Descartes’ cogito, the mind departed from matter, transmuting the body and the world into soulless mechanisms, transforming us into the only observers of an inert material reality, alone amongst ourselves, abandoned by all the other beings of the world.” Apffel-Marglin’s juxtapositions of aspects of indigenous culture with those of the history of the Scientific Revolution, such as Boyle’s famous experimental method for establishing certainty, is deft. In showing how Boyle’s method “created new boundaries between the physical, the metaphysical, and the spiritual,” and how “the latter two were evicted from matter, from the physical, relegating all such things to the privacy of the individual’s heart and mind” (thus creating “an anthropocentric cosmology”), she makes visible the arbitrary nature of the boundaries created by the rise of Science.

Indeed, although Apffel-Marglin’s discussion of the forces that wrought modern consciousness is layered throughout her text, they can be enumerated as a Decalogue of the Worst Modern Superstitions, beginning with the unfounded metaphysical conceit that I. The Human Self is Separate from the Cosmos. With four hundred years’ hindsight, it is now evident that, with the Scientific Revolution, “The very act of knowing became an estrangement, a distancing, and a controlling of matter. Knowledge became power, naked, unrestrained by sentiment, moral strictures, or by aesthetic guide-posts.”

After Descartes’ astonishing epistemological sleight of hand, the descent down the slippery slope into a fragmented world view is inevitable. Soon, it emerges that II. Humans and Nature Are Separate, III. The Cosmos is Mechanical and Dead, and IV. The Identity of a Human is Human, and Nothing Else (That is to say, a “Human being cannot also be an animal, a plant, a rock, a spirit, a deity,” a characteristic of permeable consciousness that allows indigenous cultures to effectively “intra-act” with the cosmos through ritual.)
Building upon this decisive break with what Apffel-Marglin calls the “non-human and other-than-human communities,” the superstructure of consciously formulated scientific belief can be erected, with its conceits that V. Science Can Objectively Represent Reality, VI. Reality Consists of Primary and Secondary Qualities, and VII. Humans Are the Self Conscious Shapers and Guarantors of Their Reality.

Is it too much to say that, upon these tenets of faith, has emerged our modernist, progressive credo, that, VIII. Time Is a Universal Arrow, Moving at a Measurable Pace, IX. Human Cultures Develop from Primitive to Advanced, and most threatening for the health of the “ethnosphere” of the planet, X. Modern Cultures Must Join the March of Progress?

Yet, despite her strong critique of the Modern Constitution, Apffel-Marglin does not throw the baby out with the bathwater. She writes as one thoroughly steeped in the investigative methods of Western science and scholarship. It is therefore fitting that one of the most interesting sections of Subversive Spiritualities is the book’s exploration of the confluence of the epistemology and ontology of Western science and indigenous rituals of reciprocity with a living cosmos. In her discussion of Neil Bohr’s complementary principle, Apffel-Marglin reveals how, once the Modern Constitution is teased apart, a vision of “intra-action” with the cosmos emerges, one which gives insight into and strong support for the reality-creating capacity of traditional, indigenous ritual.

Subversive Spiritualities is, in short, must reading. While authoritative as an anthropological work, it transcends its genre to directly address what are, in the end, the most urgent spiritual issues of our time. It is to be hoped that not only will this text be integrated into the curriculum of anthropology departments, but that it will inspire more engagement among anthropologists themselves. Certainly, the recent publication of Apffel-Marglin’s new book, Selva Vida: De la destruccion de la Amazonia al paradigma de la regeneration, co-edited with Stefano Varese and Roger Rumrill, has caused a welcome stir in her adopted homeland of Peru.

This review is forthcoming in the journal Anthropology of Consciousness, issue 25(2), Fall 2014.

Is Alcohol a Spirit? Or, My Goodness, My Guinness!

The word Spirit, the “animating or vital principle in man and animals,” comes to us via the Latin spiritus, “soul, courage, vigor, breath,” and is related to spirare “to breathe.” Its plural form, spirits, or a “volatile substance,” is an alchemical idea, and it was only in the 1670s that it usage narrowed to its present meaning: “strong alcoholic liquor.”

Yet lurking within our modern, dry categorization of strong alcohol as “spirits” this original sense of animating power remains firmly entrenched. As Shakespeare’s Falstaff put it, a good sherris-sack “Ascends me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapors which environ it, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.” Not only that, it breathes courage into the soul, it “illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm, and then the vital commoners and inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain, the heart, who, great and puffed up with this retinue, doth any deed of courage, and this valor comes of sherris.”

This is the language of spiritual inspiration, not mere infatuation with a physical effect. Perhaps we should take ourselves at our word. What if alcohol really is a spirit?

In a recent interview with Erik Davis on his program Expanding Mind, our discussion turned to the nature of addiction and the healing potential of traditional, and psychoactive, plant medicines such as ayahuasca and peyote.

To illustrate these plants’ mysterious capacity to cleanse us of addictive patterns, I disclosed an experience I’d had not so long ago, one which ended a couple of decade’s long fierce attachment to red wine.

Indeed, I loved read wine. Holding a wine glass was like cupping a rosy heart in my hand, transparent, almost pulsing, catching the light like blood. Ancient, celebrated by song, wine even had its own deity! A good wine tasted of the roots of the Earth, of her fruit, even the sunshine, and its relaxation was, to quote the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey, “Ambrosia!”

Although I knew full well my life had been fraught with addictive struggle, I hadn’t ended that particular love affair. When I did, it was with a finality that will endure until my dying breath.

It happened deep in the ocean of an ayahuasca ceremony. Accompanied by the otherworldly, Asiatic tones of the Shipibo icaros of the Amazon rainforest, I had found myself in deep trance, holding my water bottle and praying for the health of the waters of our planet: thanking the ocean for giving birth to us and sustaining us, apologizing for our contamination of her precious being.

Suddenly, I caught a glimpse of something dark flickering over my right shoulder. My hand, like a cat’s paw, shot back and, seizing whatever it was, thrust it into the water bottle.

“Okay,” I said to myself, sitting there bemused in the dark, “I’ve just gone and trapped a spirit in my water bottle. Now what do I do?”

I directly knew I needed to go outside and toss out the water, dispersing the spirit back to the elements. Getting up, I carefully walked through the crowded room, slipped out beneath the stars, and scattered the water.

Returning to my seat, charmed, I asked, “Okay, what was that all about?”

I then saw it. The dark, flickering thing had been the spirit of red wine, and the entity had been feeding off of my energy like a succubus. I thought of all the evenings I had hastened home from a long day of work to relax into the amber red cave of her intoxication, reading my books, disappearing from my family, escorted into a sodden sleep by her liquid embrace. She had been a dark lover.

And I was done with her.

Returning home, I emptied my house of my stockpiled bottles of organic red wine, and wondered to myself, “How am I going to do this?” I was already aware of a hollow yearning within myself, one I would never feed again, left gasping for air in the dust. I felt a smidgen of dread in my soul. So many years seeking solace in the opiate embrace of red wine, could that yearning ever fade away?

Well, it did. So clean was the excision of the spirit that some nights ago, watching an Italian priest pour himself a well-deserved glass of red wine across the table from me, I felt not a trace of yearning arise in my being.

After relating this story, I received this message from a listener to that episode of Expanding Mind.

I have had a complicated relationship with alcohol for years. Just last night I was alone and decided to have some beers while watching hockey. I ended up drinking too much. It hurt my work production today and I decided to go and do some errands. That’s when I heard you talk.

Hearing you tell your red wine entity story was the second thing that was hugely helpful. The first was that over the weekend I had a powerful dream. I was in a big, old library with the comedian Greg Fitzsimmons, who is sober and in his mid-forties like me. Greg was guiding me through the shelves and we were looking for a spirit.

At one point, he disappeared and it was just me. I knew the spirit was just around the corner and suddenly I was terrified. I let out this huge scream that scared the crap out of my wife. She said it sounded as though I was going to attack something.

This dream really rattled me. Then yesterday I didn’t plan on drinking but I just did. Then I heard your red wine story and I immediately knew that there is a spirit of alcohol that feeds off my energy.

Is this so strange? Do we not call distilled alcohol “spirits”? Don’t we celebrate so, from Shakespeare’s Falstaff to the Captain Morgan rum ads, where a piratical, intensely colorful, mischievous spirit manifests like a jinn in the company of young drinkers at a party?

From an indigenous perspective, it isn’t odd at all. As anthropologist Frédérique Apffel-Marglin points out, among traditional cultures,

Concerted actions between humans and certain non-humans that have been crucial for human welfare and carried out over long periods of time have given rise to entities, or rather beings, who embody those concerted actions. For example, the soil becomes Mama Allpa, a being to whom prayers and offerings are made, who is endowed with understanding, agency and sentience and responds to the actions of humans. In modernity the soil has become a “natural resource” bereft of agency, sentience and understanding.1

If this has been characteristic and true (the enthnographic records clearly indicate it is) for human culture for thousands of years, why should we be an exception? Why should alcohol, to whom we do indeed offer up a steady stream of addict’s prayers and offerings, not be an entity in its own right?

My own innate resistance to this concept, which I presume is shared with most of my readers, is actually a product of my own historical conditioning, As Apffel-Marglin points out regarding ancestral practices of making offerings to the Earth,

The Reformers in 16th century Europe called such rituals “magic” due to their insistence on the total separation between humans, non-humans, and the religious, namely a God removed from the material world. For the Reformers, agency, voice, and meaning became exclusively human attributes. Ever since the Reformers’ separation between matter and spirit, such rituals of regeneration could only be understood as humans representing symbolically or metaphorically the non-humans who became passive and silent.2

Does not her argument, which applies to all concerted action between human and non-human agencies carried out over long periods of time, apply equally well to alcohol? Are we really justified in claiming that all the spiritual manifestations of alcohol are mere representations of something actually inert and without sentience?

For “passive and silent” alcohol is not, not by a long shot.

This essay is not, by the way, an argument for a ban on alcohol or any other consciousness altering substance. It’s a call to get our relationships straight with them, which indigenous peoples can teach us a lot about. Whatever our take may be on the metaphysics of indigenous world views, their efficacy is undeniable.

Wine with admixtures was once used medicinally in medieval Europe, tobacco and coca in indigenous ways are sacred plants which allow us to commune with divinity and heal, and if I’m ever seriously injured, please give me a preparation from the opium plant! Opium, according to the indigenous ancient Greeks, is sacred, a gift to humanity from Prometheus. I have entire faith in its curative properties.

By treating our plant allies with respect and veneration, we protect ourselves. A quick glimpse at any tobacco addict, who believes tobacco a mere “natural resource” and consumer product, is sufficient to support that argument!

Even if not taken in an explicitly sacred context, it’s still good to know what being you are communing with. For myself, although my relationship with red wine is sealed, because of the cultural richness and personal significance of enjoying a glass of stout, I still leave that possibility open for myself.

Yet, I haven’t taken that opportunity in many moons, and don’t know if I ever will again. First, I’ll be sussing out how my relationship stands with that other old friend of mine, that pint of Guinness, once enjoyed in many a convivial gathering in the local pubs in Connemara, Ireland.


1. Apffel-Marglin. “The pre-Columbian Amazonian Black Earth Re-emerging,” 6.
2. Ibid., 10.


Apffel-Marglin Frédérique. “The pre-Columbian Amazonian Black Earth Re-emerging Today. A source for Global Regeneration.” Selva Vida: De la Destrucción de la Amazonía al Paradigma de la Regeneración. eds. Stefano Varese, Roger Rumrill and Frédérique Apffel-Marglin. UNAM, Mexico: IWGIA, Denmark; and Casas de las Americas, Cuba. Forthcoming.

Expanding Mind Interview — Shamanic Odyssey

Robert recently had a conversation with Erik Davis and Maja D’Aoust on the Progressive Radio Network’s program Expanding Mind, exploring indigenous versus modern consciousness, addiction, and the profound relevance of Homer’s Odyssey to unraveling the roots of our current ecological crisis.

Erik and Maja, of course, are deeply informed and intelligent interviewers, who bring a critical, along with appreciative, perspective to their program. We hope you’ll enjoy this podcast. It can be accessed here.

Shamanic Roots of Western Culture: Odyssey & Tolkien

“I love these kind of interviews – makes you feel like you’ve been sitting around the campfire with one of the ‘elders’ – out there in the jungle with the ancestors. You can almost hear their voices echoing in the wind. This is the new shamanic tradition with a cyberspace twist,” Timaeus commented after listening to this interview.

To listen to the second hour of the interview, click here:

Red Ice Radio Hour 2

Embarking upon The Shamanic Odyssey: J.P. Harpignies in conversation with Robert Tindall

J.P. Harpignies, New York-based Associate Producer of the Bioneers Conference, and editor of Visionary Plant Consciousness recently corresponded with Robert Tindall, now located in the cacophonous mestizo wilds of the Peruvian Amazon, about his new book, The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience.

J.P.: Robert, can you explain the genesis of this book?

The Shamanic Odyssey can be mainly traced back to a conversation Susana and I had with our teacher of the vegetalista shamanism of the Amazon, the Ashanincan curandero Juan Flores. It happened when we were engaged in a very traditional diet deep in the rainforest, where Susana and I were living in isolation drinking shamanic plants and subsisting primarily on roast green bananas! Flores had tramped back to visit us, and sitting together by the stream there, the conversation turned to the mythic – and quite real according to him – beings that inhabit the Amazonian waterways. As Flores described the behavior of these sirenas, I was suddenly struck by the deep parallels between their seductive behavior and that of the Sirens described by Homer. Flores had never heard of the Odyssey, yet when I described the story of Odysseus’ ordeal in the orbit of their rapturous song, Flores nodded his head and said grimly, “That’s them, alright.”

I had already been observing a number of intriguing parallels between the ancient mythology of the Greeks and Celts I had studied at the university and the contemporary cosmovision of peoples in the rainforest, but this conversation stuck with me.

Upon our return to the United States after our year-long immersion in the vegetalista tradition, I had a chance to spend some time teaching the Odyssey, and it was then I began to recognize that the text is shot through with indigenous and shamanic cultural elements: shapeshifting, visionary journeys, plants with resident divinities, masters and mistresses of animals, the symbiosis between plant/spirit/shaman, animal becoming, sacred topography—the list went on and on. The case became particularly intriguing when Susana and I began analyzing the descriptions of the therapeutic effects of bardic song in the Odyssey in the light of her research into the healing powers of Amazonian healing songs, i.e. icaros.

The Odyssey led me into an unfolding meditation on the indigenous mind at the root of the Western tradition. The more I followed up on details of the epic poem, the more terrain was revealed. Most notably this occurred around the mythologem of the clash of the Cyclops and Odysseus, which I see as a remnant of a very ancient oral tradition transposed into Homer’s comparatively modern narrative. As a teaching story, like the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, it appears to me to capture modern humanity’s break with indigenous, or primal, consciousness.

Just as I was contemplating the ramifications of such a mythologem existing in the Odyssey at all, I encountered the peyote shaman Bob Boyll, the second major cultural informant for our book, and heard his account of the two roads of humanity he had been taught by the Hopi prophet David Monongue.

Again, like the uncanny parallels between the Amazonian and ancient Greek sirenas, Monongue’s description of the two roads of humanity struck me as too similar to the cultural tensions illustrated in the clash between the proto-modern Odysseus and the indigenous Cyclops to be accidental.

To tell you the truth, I often felt like an amanuensis, those folks who during medieval times assiduously transcribed the oral tradition, during the writing of this book. In that sense, its genesis lies in converging lineages of plant-based shamanism, the research into icaros of my co-author Susana, ancient texts, ethnography, the work of anthropologists like Reichel-Dolmatoff, even the mythopoeic work of J.R.R. Tolkien.

J.P.: On that topic, The Shamanic Odyssey covers three rather distinct areas of inquiry that might initially seem at best tangentially related: a Homeric epic, the work of Tolkien, and Amazonian shamanism. What is your own personal connection to each of these topics and why do you feel they are meaningfully linked?

I was asking myself much the same question during much of the writing of The Shamanic Odyssey. When I first sat down to write on the striking parallels between the mythology of the ancient Greeks and the cosmovision of contemporary Amazonian peoples I thought I was writing a short article. Sixty pages later I knew I had a hydra on my hands, and I wasn’t able to lop off heads fast enough.

In order to explain how it was possible for the Sirens in Homer’s epic and the sirenas of the Amazonian waterways to be so uncannily similar, I realized I needed to explore the consciousness underlying these experiences among traditional peoples. It turned out that there is a primal experience of “permeability,” of a transparency to the elements, animals, spirits, stars, which has allowed human beings over the millennia to experience the sentience of the cosmos and derive valuable information from that communion. I eventually realized that this “primal mind,” sometimes derided as “animism,” underlies not only Homer’s work, but is also markedly present in the works of other authors central to the Western European literary canon, such as Shakespeare and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien has been a great inspiration to me ever since I was a boy. The cosmovision of The Lord of the Rings made more sense to me than anything else in the barren Reagan-era culture I grew up in the 1980s, and during my studies of medieval literature in the university I found myself following in Tolkien’s footsteps academically as well. Tolkien’s express purpose was to re-inject the vitality of the pre-Christian oral tradition back into the enervated Western imagination. He termed his endeavor “mythopoeic,” and some of his earliest writings are clear evocations of the primal mind of our ancestors. Given that my purpose was to revitalize the cosmovision of the Odyssey, I found myself enlisting the old master’s support.

J.P.: What do you feel is original in your analysis of the Odyssey and of Tolkien’s opus?

I was a bit astonished as I researched and wrote The Shamanic Odyssey that I could encounter but a handful of commentaries upon Homer’s poems that referenced ethnographical accounts of shamanic practices among indigenous peoples (the work of Classicist Carl Ruck and German philologist Walter Burkert being notable exceptions). Given the intensity of the shamanic negotiations, work with psychoactive plants, shape-shifting, and visionary journeys within the text, I simply couldn’t believe that no one had bothered to connect those dots. I think this is a reflection of how truly impenetrable the ivory tower of academia can be to multi-disciplinary approaches. In fact, early on I was warned by the classicists I was consulting that my work would not be well received among academics. “Why?” I inquired. “Is there something wrong with my method?” No, I was assured. “We’re just a very conservative lot,” I was informed.

I gave up writing for a solely academic audience at that point. My goal became to invite the Muse to sing the Odyssey anew for this generation and time. I believe that we must re-familiarize ourselves with our indigenous roots, the life-ways of our own European ancestors, to address our current ecological crisis.

I also perceived a similar dearth of appreciation for the shamanic characteristics in Tolkien’s work, and when it came time for me to write a sort of apologia for shamanic states of consciousness as valid ways of truth seeking, I found myself involved in a deep reading of Tolkien’s last literary will and testament: Smith of Wootton Major. This novella is almost entirely neglected, and yet Tolkien set aside work on his treasured Silmarillion to compose it. I believe the story is about the nature of the creative/shamanic consciousness as Tolkien experienced it, and is his attempt to pass on the fay-star to future generations.

I think Tolkien has been cast in the mold of a brilliant academic with a marvelous, far-ranging imagination, yet a man of essentially modern rationality. I disagree. I think there’s more to Tolkien’s creative experience than is recognized.

J.P.: Do you think the resonance between the Homeric epics and shamanism is especially strong and revelatory, or do you think other very early written texts from other cultures (e.g. Gilgamesh or the Vedas or early Taoist or Tibetan Buddhist writings, to cite only a few) are also replete with shamanic themes? In other words, are the shamanic traces in The Odyssey there simply because that epic appeared (as those other texts I mentioned also did) during the period of transition from an archaic, mythic worldview to a more utilitarian “modern” one in human history? Or would you argue there is something special about the Odyssey in that regard?

The only way I think the Odyssey is special is that it contains a mythologem, a tale from the oral tradition already quite old when Homer sat down to compose his poem that illustrates the rupture between primal and modern consciousness and forecasts its consequences. This motif, encapsulated in the clash between the Cyclops and Odysseus, is akin to certain prophecies indigenous to the Americas.

I would expect other literatures of the world to be replete with shamanic themes. How could they not be, given that permeable, shamanic interaction is profoundly characteristic of human beings? We’ve ended up in a narrow corridor of perception, one that privileges Cartesian consciousness as “normal,” the standard by which the worldviews of other cultures are measured. Yet, in fact, viewed ethnographically, the modern style of perception is rather peculiar. Who in their right mind would believe in a dead, mechanical universe, and of themselves as the sole arbiters of the meaning of their existence?

Of course, the Odyssey is worth singling out for another reason. I’ve come to believe it is a sacred text for the West, or rather, it continues to be a sacred text, for the Ancients held it as such. I believe the Odyssey can function as a “well of remembrance” for our own age because the genesis of our modern psyche is so clearly set forth within it.

J.P.: Do you feel a kind of cognitive dissonance in Tolkien’s work between his obvious deep love of pre-Christian ancient European lore and his devout Catholicism, and between his wild imagination and his very tranquil life?

You know, I actually spent some time pondering on this. I don’t believe Tolkien suffered a lot of internal conflict on this matter. Tolkien once declared, “I myself am a hobbit.” That’s about right. As long as he could hear the sound of his teapot whistling on the stove and could putter about the garden, he seemed to have the ballast to sustain the wild visions that came upon him. In fact, his very staid existence may have served that very purpose of grounding him.

It’s important to remember that his concept of Mordor was forged during his experiences in the trenches of WWI. Tolkien had seen enough, in that sense, to justify a tranquil life.

J.P.: You report your own involvement in both Amazonian shamanism and in the Native American Church (NAC). Do you find these two traditions easily complementary or are there any elements in either or both that make them difficult to reconcile with each other? And isn’t it controversial for people who aren’t Native American to participate in NAC rituals?

I was first drawn into the Native American Church, which utilizes peyote rather than ayahuasca as its sacrament, some years after Susana and my apprenticeship in the vegetalista shamanism of the rainforest. Although ayahuasca is being served up every weekend in various ritual contexts all over the West Coast these days, we found the culture of California neo-shamanism to lack a strong container. It just wasn’t grounded enough in indigenous lineage and discipline.

The morning after my first NAC meeting run by roadman John Tyler, I stepped out of the tipi flap deeply relieved that a grounded, traditional plant medicine way was being preserved in the North. The keeping of the sacred fire, the songs, the focus on the prayer, and the devotion of the participants opened my eyes to the beauty of the way of prayer of the Plains Indians of North America.

It was also through that meeting that I met roadman Bob Boyll, who became the second major shaping influence, along with the aforementioned curandero Juan Flores, upon my understanding of the nature of indigenous, shamanic medicine. In fact, the second chapter of The Shamanic Odyssey recounts a healing of a severe degenerative disease, Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy, initiated by Boyll in peyote meetings in North America and culminated by Flores in his ayahuasca ceremonies in the Amazon.

As far as I’m concerned, when the peyote medicine is prepared to inform a participant in a tipi meeting that he needs to go seek out ayahuasca down in the jungle for his healing, a mysterious synergy is being woven.

There are different lineages within the Native American Church. Some are closed to Euro-Americans, others are not. The founders of our particular lineage, which welcomes anyone who wishes to engage in its simple, family-based way of prayer, are held as beloved family relations.

I am deeply grateful to them. There is a vision of unity among peoples and a return to indigenous sensibilities in our prayer together. This “going native” among Euro-Americans, of course, is one of the themes that our book explores.

J.P.: You make the case that indigenous cultures were more egalitarian and lived in far greater harmony with the natural world than we do, but while that may have been true of early, small-scale hunter-gatherer bands, aren’t you romanticizing indigenous cultures somewhat? Didn’t slavery exist among many Native American tribes? Wasn’t warfare, and sometimes incredibly brutal violence, common, not just among the wilder plains tribes such as the terrifying Comanches but even among such politically sophisticated groups as the Iroquois, and certainly to a blood-curdling level among the ancient Celts? And isn’t there a lot of very dark magic associated with most shamanic traditions?

Yes, predatory animism is chilling. Like nuclear weapons and chemical warfare, it should be totally banned.

Yet the Comanches certainly had their virtues. Besides being warriors, they were also masters of horses. As I have heard related in the Native American Church, the Comanche would often migrate with a large herd of horses from what’s now western Texas down south to Mexico City, an epic journey through desert terrain filled with many potential dangers. They achieved this feat by constantly eating peyote and feeding it to their lead horses. In this way, they could commune more directly with the intelligence of their horses, and listen to the advice of the peyote spirit about what lay ahead in the landscape, where water sources were, etc.

It’s this kind of communion with the sentience of nature that our work is trying to validate here. It’s more difficult to engineer the genetic richness out of plants, to poison our waters with cancer-causing chemicals, and to invent nuclear bombs if you instinctually hold nature as sacred, and the elements as a holy expression of divinity.

Of course, there’s always the tendency to romanticize indigenous people, which is the flip side of the coin whose other face degrades them into wild savages and monsters. Let’s be clear: there is some very black magic and blood-curdling warfare practiced among native peoples, and even those practices were founded upon a sense of participation in a sacred cosmos.

This is why the Celts were conquered by the proto-modern Romans. For the Celts, individual combat was a sacred thing, the very point of a warrior’s existence, and to relinquish that opportunity for mere modern efficiency in battle, fighting like an impersonal machine in the way of the Roman legions, was unthinkable!

So let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. I once heard the Apache Martín Prechtel comment about the pervasive loneliness and depression in the West: “How can you be lonely when you’re surrounded by plants and animals and other beings who you can always communicate with? You’re never alone!” It’s this communion with a sentient, vital cosmos that is the unacknowledged blessing of indigenous ways.

I think the seeds planted by the ancient Greeks and watered by medieval Christians (such as the Nominalists and Franciscan Empiricists) have borne their fruit in the modern age. Some of it is magnificent. Yet, as Tolkien demonstrated for us, we needn’t be limited to Cartesian duality and modernistic belief systems. As the modern mind wanes, we shall hopefully return to our indigenous senses without any need to reject the significant achievements that the emergence of an individual, modern self has given us.

The Shamanic Odyssey is not a rejection of modernity – rather it is a call for the reintegration of our repressed indigenous selves. It’s a call to awake to the great dream again.

J.P.: You seem to accept fairly literally some of the “magical” experiences described by some shamans and other practitioners you interview—episodes of “animal becoming,” of astral travel, of seemingly miraculous healings, of abduction by spiritual entities such as water spirits in the Amazon, etc. Are you convinced that these are objective phenomena, i.e. that these spiritual entities or forces are fully autonomous of humans and “real” in some way, or do you consider these phenomena too mysterious to fully understand and categorize?

“Real” is an elusive concept, especially in the world of shamanism.

I know I went through a painful shift of paradigm during my first year of apprenticeship in the shamanic traditions of the rainforest. As an educated Westerner, I had been open to Jung’s ideas of archetypes and had experienced meditative states during my training as a Zen Buddhist, but my default setting was essentially Cartesian: I think, therefore I am. I was the center of the show, the only real consciousness in charge, and the idea of “spirits” or “entities” was a bit distasteful, if not downright spooky.

It was therefore with a mixed sense of wonder – Oh, brave new world! – and profound existential disorientation that I began to discover my little consciousness was only one wavelength in a vast transmission of sentience that permeated everything.

Ugh. I wanted to crawl under a rock.

Somehow, with the support of those around me, I weathered it. I think it’s the process of adaptation, of crossing frontiers into other states of consciousness, which is far more interesting than the question of the ontology of spirits.

Really, phenomenologically speaking, we have raw experience, and that’s it. What I found in my own apprenticeship is encountering “spirits” that inhabit a vital cosmovision is the same as running your hand over the bark of a tree, diving into a river, or talking with your child. Things that go bump in the shamanic night all fit the criteria for “objectively out there real stuff” –and have real consequences in the daylight world.

In this sense, asking whether one “believes” in the reality of spirits is rather like asking if one “believes” in the reality of the ocean. The answer could be yes, but it seems rather awkward to say so…

J.P.: Amazonian shamanism has become very trendy in the last few years, as ayahuasca tourism has boomed and ayahuasca use has spread globally. How do you feel about this development? Quite a few of the people in the contemporary subculture that embraces ayahuasca use seem prone to embracing literal beliefs in dramatic prophecies and wild conspiracy theories. Many of them seem to me to be imbued with a kind of grandiose, narcissistic spiritual inflation. Do you think there can be downsides to the use of radical consciousness-altering substances, both personally and in terms of collective ideologies? Or do you think their positive attributes and healing potential outweigh any of these possible problems?

Of course, it’s hard to believe you’re not Neo awoken to save the world from the Matrix when, as an uninitiated Westerner, you first experience the incredible intimacy available within the orbit of plant sentience. Here, at last, is authentic divinity! Here is a profound call to meaning that we’ve been starving for! As Tolkien put it, “If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary world. The experience may be very similar to dreaming . . . but in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp.”

So powerful is the ayahuasca experience, we can forget that we are dreaming and literally believe its contents. Of course, if the contents heal a disease or teach you forgiveness or spell the end of an addictive pattern or take you on a guided tour of the solar system, let us, like Shakespeare’s Caliban, “Cry to dream again!”

It takes time to sort out one’s location in this new world, which really is neither real nor not real. It just is. I do believe it’s of the utmost importance we listen to our indigenous teachers, whether Ashaninkan, Arapaho, or ancient Greek, to tame our naïve spirits. There’s a wonderful scene in the Odyssey between the newly reunited Odysseus and his son Telemachus that illustrates this point.

As they enter the darkened hall of the palace on Ithaca, the goddess Pallas Athena goes striding before them, lifting a golden lamp that casts a dazzling brilliance. “‘Father,’ Telemachus suddenly bursts out, ‘oh what a marvel fills my eyes! Look, look there—all the sides of the hall, the handsome cross¬beams, pinewood rafters, the tall columns towering—all glow in my eyes like flaming fire! Surely a god is here—one of those who rule the vaulting skies!” (Odyssey 19.37–43).

Odysseus, aware of the dangers of fascination with numinosity, has little tolerance for his son’s visionary naïveté. He roundly rebukes Telemachus for his lack of control and sends him off to bed as punishment: “Quiet! Get a grip on yourself. No more questions now. It’s just the way of the gods who rule Olympus. Off you go to bed” (Odyssey 19.44–47).

I think we need many elders in our community like Odysseus. We need to get a grip on ourselves, as he puts it, and get to know the traditional understanding of the realms opened by plant-based shamanism. Otherwise, we’re just reinventing the wheel, and probably bungling the job.

J.P.: Another very important theme in your book is the use of music and singing to heal, including the parallels between the bard Demodocus’ cathartic song to Odysseus and the tradition of Amazonian shamanic songs, icaros, which Susana, your co-author and life-partner, is one of the world’s leading experts on. My own experience, which is, I realize, limited in this domain (a few dozen shamanic sessions in which such songs were sung) left me somewhat agnostic about icaros’ ability to heal. Do you and Susana feel that there are still shamans working today who could heal only using icaros or with icaros as their main tool, or do you think this skill is being lost with all the cultural changes sweeping the Amazon?

Well, we don’t just feel it. We know it. We’ve witnessed it, and experienced it for ourselves. Both in my earlier book, The Jaguar that Roams the Mind, and in The Shamanic Odyssey healings are documented, largely because I feel like a litmus test for the efficacy of a culture’s cosmovision is: How effectively can it heal?

Susana points out that icaros have different functions that the new curanderos do manage, such as modulating and structuring the visions of ceremony participants. Yet she feels that the healing power of the voice, which requires years of training to develop and a strong alliance with the spirit world, is waning.

A sweet demonstration of that healing power occurred in Susana’s original research, primarily conducted with Juan Flores at his center for traditional medicine, Mayantuyacu. There she was able to act as a participant-observer and conduct interviews with clients who reported experiencing “intense healing” with an icaro during his ceremonies of ayahuasca. One woman’s account of her healing stuck in my mind for its sheer elegance.

This journalist from Brazil had come to work with Juan because she was mired in anxiety and depression. She felt her brain was fried, and was no longer productive in her life.

Flores, in interviews with us, would describe how, as he worked with his patients, he would develop a diagnosis that encompassed both their physical and spiritual condition, and would orchestrate the healing forces they required. Of course, usually a curandero’s icaros act beyond the threshold of our perception, yet Susana found that over a span of 30 ceremonies a breakthrough, a direct perception of healing experience, happened in 5% of the participants. Sometimes Flores was aware that his work was culminating for a client on a particular evening.

In the ceremony in question, Flores suddenly rose from his seat and, going out of the maloca, collected a bunch of piñon colorado and the strikingly fragrant albaca, or basil, which grows in the Amazon (unlike other curanderos, Flores only uses shacapas of fresh leaves). Returning, he sang an icaro of these plants for the journalist, lightly feathering her with the leaves as his song fell upon her like a soothing rain. She had a vision of her brain, halved, with little white and pink flowers blossoming on its surface. It was a turning point. Her anxiety disappeared, and her sense of creative possibility returned to her in the latter half of the ceremony. Life became colorful again and she regained hope.

Such healings, mediated by icaros, continue to flourish in this culture – but the ability will wane unless folks take supporting and doing apprenticeships in the tradition seriously. The curanderos we presently have the privilege of working with will not last forever.


J.P. Harpignies, Associate Producer of the Bioneers Conference since 1990, and former Program Director at the New York Open Center, is a Brooklyn, NY-based consultant, conference producer, copy-editor, writer, and also currently a senior member of the review team for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge. J.P. is the author of: Political Ecosystems, Double Helix Hubris, and Delusions of Normality; co-writer of: The Magic Carpet Ride; editor of the collection, Visionary Plant Consciousness; and associate editor of the first two Bioneers books: Ecological Medicine and Nature’s Operating Instructions. J.P. also taught t’ai chi chuan in Brooklyn, NY, for 25 years.

Robert Tindall, M.A. is a writer, classical guitarist, long-time practitioner of Zen Buddhism, and an inveterate traveler, whose work explores the crossing of frontiers into other cultures and states of consciousness. He is the author of two books on shamanism, The Jaguar that Roams the Mind and The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience, along with numerous articles on the practice of pilgrimage and the medieval quest. Robert and his wife Susana lead journeys into the Amazon rainforest to encounter the healing traditions there.

Breath, Psyche, Life: an Interview with KMO

KMO welcomes Robert Tindall to the C-Realm to discuss the experiences that inform his book, The Jaguar that Roams the Mind: An Amazonian Plant Spirit Odyssey, and the themes of his new book, The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience.

Topics discussed in the first interview done in 2008, Jaguar and Pilgrim, include the nature of addiction, the role (helpful or harmful) of so-called “Ayahuasca tourism,” and the relationship between entheogenic exploration and psychedelic recreation.

To hear this podcast, click here.

In KMO’s second interview conducted four years later, Breath, Psyche, Life, Robert makes the case that the animistic mindset of non-Western, indigenous traditions, which understand how to live symbiotically with the rest of life on Earth, lies dormant in the Western psyche. It was there all along and is ready to reconcile with pre-lapsarian shamanic consciousness. In support of this idea he points to the Odyssey of Homer and to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien for illustrations of the sort of shamanic consciousness that the dominator mentality has spent the last few centuries grinding under its heel.

In particular, Robert references Aragorn’s use of the healing herb, Athelas (Kingsfoil), in The Houses of Healing and the whole of Smith of Wootton Major, as examples of animistic and shamanic themes working harmoniously within the mindset of a learned, Christian scholar.

To hear this podcast, click here.

Spirited Away

Luxurious, well-lit spirit boats plying the night waters? Bath houses for the spirits? The danger of total memory loss? Implanted spells in the shape of little black worms? Bitter medicines that provoke vomiting and purge the system of malign influences? Animal transformation? Shamanic flight?

Surely, we’re in the realm of Amazonian shamanism!

Surprisingly, we’re also in the realm of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the renowned anime director’s most successful, and Japan’s top grossing, film. Like many of Miyazaki’s films, Spirited Away both conveys a strong ecological message and depicts a young heroine’s journey without falling into the simplistic good/evil formulas characteristic of Disney. Instead, the protagonist Chihiro surmounts the obstacles in her path by discovering her innate capacity to heal and to perceive the true essence of those around her. In short, she conquers through love.

Miyazaki’s imaginary realm is wild and free, much as the mythos of traditional and ancient peoples.

Of course, Miyazaki’s cultural background is profoundly Shinto, yet the influence of other cultures, such as ancient Greek myth, upon Miyazaki’s work has long been recognized (for example, the protagonist of Spirited Away, Chihiro, has her parents transformed into swine for eating the food of the spirits, and must, Odysseus-like, must find their cure and effect their release). Less recognized is the imprint of the cosmovision of Amazonian shamanism upon Spirited Away.

The early arrival of the Acero Punta, the steamship of the spirits sited throughout the Amazon waterways and depicted by artist Pablo Amaringo, first tips off the viewer of Miyazaki’s new cultural inspiration, but it is an ayahuasca-like medicine that Chihiro, like a good curandera, utilizes to heal the sick that clinches the case.

Chihiro receives the intensely bitter, fist-sized ball of medicine as a reward after performing her first purga upon a polluted river spirit, and is soon required to purge and heal two spirits of intense maladies. The first, her ally the river spirit Haku, dying of internal bleeding while in dragon-form, swallows the potent remedy, is flung into convolutions, and vomits up a stolen golden seal upon which sits a black worm. Chihiro kills the worm, which had been implanted in Haku by the witch Yubaba to enslave him – a hex and extractive procedure quite typical of Amazonian folk medicine.

The second healing, performed upon No Face, a spirit akin to the hungry ghosts of the Buddhist tradition, triggers the most comical sequence of vomiting in cinematic history – as No Face careens after the fleeing Chihiro through the levels of the bathhouse, disgorging the contents of his vast swollen, distempered belly, he literally returns to his senses. After a bout of hurling reminiscent of the most nightmarishly purgative of ayahausca ceremonies, we hear him give a post-limpiada burp and meekly beg pardon! The restoration of No Face’s original self is complete, and he finds his home with Yubaba’s twin sister, Zeneba.

Really, that’s what Spirited Away and the Amazonian shamanic tradition is all about – finding one’s way home. It’s an inspired nostos, a homecoming song, in the best of Ancient and traditional storytelling ways.

Icaros: Song and Healing in Ayahuasca Ceremonies

MAPS logo

The healing power of icaros, the magic melodies of Amazonian shamanism, were the focus of Susana’s research in the Peruvian Amazon in 2004, where she participated in numerous ceremonies and conducted extensive interviews with healers and their clients in the vegetalista tradition.

Based on her findings, Susana gave this presentation on the therapeutic use of icaros in ceremonies with ayahuasca at the MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) conference “Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century” in April, 2011.

Susana Bustos- Icaros: Song and Healing in Ayahuasca Ceremonies from MAPS: Psychedelic Science on Vimeo.

Ayahuasca Matters: Interviews with Robert Tindall

“My take is “salvation” or “obtaining liberation,” in the Western sense, is clearly an import into Amazonian culture. Their concern is in how to walk the way of life and death, how to understand their world in greater depth. Juan Flores instructed us, “ayahuasca teaches you how to die and be reborn.” It’s important to bear in mind that for traditional people, this world and the next world interpenetrate, and as Juan put it, “Death is a door you pass through, nothing else.”

Read Robert’s interview with Ivar Verploegh of the website A General Introduction to Ayahuasca here, for an exploration of the interface between the practices of Amazonian vegetalismo and modern Western society in search of itself.

As well, a second interview with DoseNation’s is available here, which is worth checking out for the balance of grudging respect and skepticism brought by James Kent to the interview!

Finally, listen to a rocking interview, The Jaguar and the Pilgrim, with KMO, whose C-realm podcasts are gems of intelligent, humorous inquiry, here.