Snakes have played an important role in my inner psycho-spiritual life, from the frequent snake-based nightmares that plagued my sleep as a child to far more interesting visions later on, Continue reading “So You Want to Converse with the Serpent? A Journey to Mayantuyacu”
The impulse to transcend, to rise to a higher plane, was deeply engraved upon Western spirituality by Plato and later Neo-Platonic Christians such as Saint Augustine. Yet Humanity’s primordial mystical desire, artistically rendered in the art of the Paleolithic caves, has never been entirely lost: to touch the mind of the jaguar, to sip of the Earth’s sweet nectar, to take wing with the eagle, to commune in deep time with the ancestors.
This is why I treasure the compositions of the Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams.
It may sound like a stretch to associate a 20th century composer with indigenous consciousness, yet Vaughan Williams, inspired by a poem of Meredith, could capture in a violin melody the rising of a jubilant lark and in his orchestration our experience of symbiosis with all of Nature:
For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.
Like the voice of nature, in Vaughan-Williams’ work, as one critic observed, “One is never sure if one is listening to something very old or very new.”
Yet Vaughan-Williams did not write airy New Age music. It is a brooding prayer, full of ecstasy and grief, very in keeping with the tenor of the English imagination: “Ostensibly familiar and common place, yet deep and mystical as well as lyrical, melodic, melancholic, and nostalgic yet timeless.”
Of all his pieces, I’ve most hearkened to his eccentric composition Flos Campi, Latin for “flower of the field,” based in the Biblical Song of Solomon. Opening with a weaving bitonal duet between a viola and oboe, the suite unfolds into an interplay between a wordless chorus and an orchestra of flute (doubling on piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harp, percussion, and a modest body of strings. The voices, rising and falling in mystical/erotic ecstasy to rest in satiated tranquility, are seduced, spurred on to higher planes of exaltation, titillated, and led through intricate, whirling dance steps by their ardent lover, the orchestra. At the piece’s conclusion, all join in a single statement of soaring, subtle ecstasy and affirmation.
To listen to this piece is to be taken through a landscape, one whose contents are unique for each listener, yet which speaks universally to our deepest desire for communion with the transcendent through this created/evolved world. The listener never soars beyond into the empyrean, but is continually brought back to the dank, sublime mystery of our biological home – before being set to flight in spirit once again. It is the breadth and depth of the visionary journey which makes Flos Campi unique.
Like many of his works, Flos Campi is a song of the Earth and our symbiosis with it. Vaughan-Williams called himself an agnostic, but his spiritual roots ran deep.
Although Middle Earth could easily be characterized as a product of the intensified trajectory, J. R. R. Tolkien, staunch Catholic, Oxford don, one of the most brilliant philologists of his age, gives scant evidence of a shaman adventurer. “I am in fact a hobbit,”1 he once wrote, describing his conservative and simple tastes.
(Since the webzine Reality Sandwich just ran this excerpt from our The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience, we’d like to share this contemplation on the shamanic character of Tolkien’s mythopoeic vision here as well.)
Like Bilbo, he preferred to hear the singing of his kettle as he puttered around in his garden, leading his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, to ask:
Should we not wonder at the fact that a mind of such brilliance and imagination should be happy to be contained in the petty routine of academic and domestic life; that a man whose soul longed for the sound of waves breaking against the Cornish coast should be content to talk to old ladies in the lounge of a middle-class watering-place; that a poet in whom joy leapt up at the sight and smell of logs crackling in the grate of a country inn should be willing to sit in front of his own hearth warmed by an electric fire with simulated glowing coal?2
Yet it is precisely because Tolkien was a visionary that he was content to lead a life that to some, like poet W. H. Auden, appeared so appallingly staid. For Tolkien, Numenor was as real as, if not more real than, Oxford town. Although he himself may have disguised and felt ambivalent about that, psychologically Middle Earth existed as a literal place that he journeyed to. Whenever Tolkien found an unresolved mystery in the etymology of his Elvish languages or the history of the various races that populated his mythos, he would state, “I must find out” the answer, as would any intrepid empiricist seeking objective data in this world.
What is certain is that Tolkien’s quest, often couched in the language of his discipline of philology, was to retrace the route of the development of modern consciousness back to that primal mind, “alive with mythological beings,” which he termed Faery. Given the obviously visionary component of Tolkien’s work, it is odd that more attention hasn’t been given to this aspect of its nature.
Part of the problem may be Tolkien’s presentation itself — he was not a man inclined toward the language and concepts of psychology, which he no doubt found superficial and “modern,” and therefore degenerate. Consciousness, in the way it is being discussed here, was not a concept Tolkien would have been inclined to embrace, yet we can see a remarkable correspondence between Lewis-Williams’s intensified trajectory and Tolkien’s own descriptions of inner journeying, especially in his last creative work, “Smith of Wootton Major.” In this deceptively simple tale, Tolkien left a veiled autobiographical account that might as well be, in the words of Tolkien scholar Paul Kocher, of “any practitioner of the White Art who travels far ‘from Daybreak to Evening’ and in his old age comes home, tired, to hand his passport on to his successors.”3
Considering that the old master laid aside work on his treasured Silmarillion to compose this guide to the realm of Faery, it is worthy of far closer attention than it is usually given.
Fortunately, along with the tale itself, Tolkien left an unpublished essay to accompany it — one very revealing of his intimate experience of the visionary realms his work records. In it, he attempts to describe the subjective experience of Faery.
Faery represents at its weakest a breaking out (at least in mind) from the iron ring of the familiar — a constant awareness of the world beyond these rings. More strongly it represents love: a love and respect for all things, “inanimate” and “animate,” and an unpossessive love of them as “other.” This “love” will produce both ruth and delight. Things seen in its light will be respected, and they will also appear delightful, beautiful, wonderful, even glorious. Faery might be said to represent Imagination (without definition because taking in all the definitions of this word): esthetic, exploratory and receptive; and artistic; inventive, dynamic, (sub)creative. This compound — of awareness of a limitless world outside our domestic parish; a love (in ruth and admiration) for the things in it; and the desire for wonder, marvels, both perceived and conceived — this “Faery” is as necessary for the health and complete functioning of the Human as is sunlight for physical life.4
As Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger comments, “No great leap of imagination is needed in order to see that Tolkien was speaking from experience and that Faery was as necessary for his own spiritual health and complete functioning as sunlight for his physical life.”5
In “Smith of Wootton Major,” it emerges that Tolkien was deeply concerned with the issue of intensified consciousness. Indeed, he was struggling to define its workings, especially the experience of time alteration: “Entry into the ‘geographical’ bounds of Faery also involves entry into Faery Time. How does a mortal ‘enter’ the geographical realm of Faery? Evidently not in dream or illusion . . .”6 Clearly, Tolkien is groping toward a model of consciousness, unaware that while existing as a geographical locale in the heart of the forest, Faery also can be interpreted by some as a function hardwired into the brain.*
Indeed, intensified consciousness appears to be the missing key to Tolkien’s long-standing struggle to reconcile human and Faery time.
There must be some way or ways of access from and to Faery . . . but it is also necessary that Faery and the world [of Men], though in contact, should occupy a different time and space, or occupy them in different modes. Thus, though it appears that Smith can enter Faery more or less at will, it is evident that it is a land or, world of unknown limits, containing seas and mountains; also it is plain that even during a brief visit (such as one on an evening walk) he can spend a great deal longer in Faery than his absence counts in the World; on his long journeys an absence from home of, say, a week is sufficient for exploration and experiences in Faery equivalent to months or even years.7
That Tolkien chose to mark the entrance to that enchanted forest of the tale with “a stone with a worn and faded carving of three trees and the inscription, Welcō to þe Wode”8 is no accident. The Middle English wode, denoting both “wood” and “madness,” as in the wodewoses, or wildmen of the medieval imagination, clearly points to something outside the realm of ordinary human experience.
“My symbol is not the underground,” the usual entrance to the fairy world, Tolkien explains, “but the Forest: the regions still immune from human activities, not yet dominated by them. If Faery Time is at points contiguous with ours, the contiguity will occur in related points in space. . . . At certain points at or just within the Forest borders a human person may come across these contiguous points and there enter F. time and space-if fitted to do so.”9
Given Tolkien’s earlier evocations of the nonhuman sentience residing in the heart of forests (Tom Bombadil, the realm of Lothlórien), including those entirely vegetal (Old Man Willow, the ents and huorns of Fangorn), we may take the liberty of beginning to fill in the gap left in Tolkien’s fecund mythopoeic imagination by that abstract phrase “points contiguous with ours” with ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes’s “resident plant divinity.”
While Tolkien might be surprised to find his fantasy works compared with the enthnography of Amazonian Indians drinking psychoactive brews, his depictions of Aragorn’s doctoring skills in the bush are distinctly shamanic and use a resident plant divinity for healing purposes. After Frodo is stabbed by the Morgul-blade on Weathertop, Aragorn sat with the weapon and “sang over it a slow song in a strange tongue. Then setting it aside, he turned to Frodo and in a soft tone spoke words the others could not catch. From the pouch at his belt he drew out the long leaves of a plant.” This plant, athelas, he explains, “is a healing plant that the Men of the West brought to Middle Earth.” He throws the leaves into boiling water, and the hobbits find “the fragrance of the steam refreshing, and those that were unhurt felt their minds calmed and cleared. . . . Frodo felt the pain and also the sense of frozen cold lessen in his side.”10 The divine provenance of athelas, which responds especially to the hands of a rightful king, is made clearer when Aragorn performs a type of soul retrieval on Faramir, who has been gravely sickened by the Black Breath of the Nazgul. “Taking two leaves, he laid them on his hands and breathed on them,** and then he crushed them, and straightaway a living freshness filled the room, as if the air itself awoke and tingled, sparkling with joy.”11 The divine realm within the plant manifests, “like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in spring is itself but a fleeting memory.”12 Faramir awakens, summoned, and speaking softly, says, “My lord, you called me. I come. What does the king command?”13
To each his own with such medicine. In Aragorn’s treatment of Lady Éowyn, who is not of Numenorian blood, she awakens not to breezes wafting from Valinor, the Undying Lands, but instead to a wind bearing the pure elements of Middle Earth: a “keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.”14 Merry awakens, fittingly, to “the scent of orchards, and of heather in the sunshine full of bees”!15
Aragorn’s style of doctoring is in keeping with anthropologist Reichel-Dolmatoff’s description of shamanic consciousness as the locale where fairy and human time meet. This “power of penetration” is
The capacity to enter a trance and to undertake the magical flight that permits the payé to leave the biosphere and penetrate to another existential plane. A payé is at bottom a specialist in developing this rupture of levels in a spatial, ecstatic sense as well as in the sense of passing from one conceptual unit of time to another: ecstasy is equivalent to death and is, therefore, a process of acceleration of time.16
“Smith of Wootton Major” may, therefore, be justifiably read as it was intended: as a guide to those wishing to explore the realm of Faery.
The tale is set in motion by a traveler between realms, the Master Cook of a medieval town who, much like Bilbo, suddenly declares he is in need of a holiday and sets forth.
Upon returning some months later, he has changed from a serious to a lighthearted man, and brings a quiet, but quick-witted, young apprentice back with him. He also bears a mysterious thing — a small silver star, a fay-star, for it turns out the adventurous Cook has been sojourning in Faery.
After a short time, the Cook departs, this time on a permanent holiday, leaving his apprentice Alf to eventually step into his role. The fay-star ends up being baked into a cake with a quaint little figure of a fairy queen on top, a cake that is traditionally offered to the select good children of the village at a feast held only once a generation. There, a boy named Smithson unknowingly ingests the fay star.
The entheogenic properties of the star take a while to manifest, but when they do, all the hallmarks of the gift of shamanic song and seeing are there. It comes at dawn months after the feast, on the boy’s tenth birthday, when he hears the voice of wild nature, “the dawn-song of the birds beginning, growing as it came toward him, until it rushed over him, filling all the land around the house, and passed on like a wave of music into the West.”17
Upon encountering, as if for the first time, nature’s great song, the boy hears himself say, “It reminds me of Faery, but in Faery the people sing too.” At that moment, just as may occur in the receiving of an icaro or other sacred song, “he began to sing, high and clear, in strange words that he seemed to know by heart.” The star falls from his mouth into his hand, glistening and quivering. It begins to rise as if to fly away, but the boy intuitively claps his hand to his forehead, where the star remains for many years.
Smithson becomes Smith, in time, taking up his father’s trade, and learns to sing the otherworldly virtue of the star he bears in his body, much like an Amazonian shaman will icarar the marirí of the plants into manifestation in the world. “His voice, which had begun to grow beautiful as soon as the star came to him, became ever more beautiful as he grew up. People liked to hear him speak, even if it was no more than a ‘good morning.'” As well, his workmanship as a smith excelled, and along with kitchen tools, horseshoes, and pothooks, he made things for sheer delight: “he could work iron into wonderful forms that looked as light and delicate as a spray of leaves and blossom, but kept the strength of iron, or seemed even stronger.” Of course, “he sang when he was making things of this sort; and when Smith began to sing those nearby stopped their own work and came to the smithy to listen.”
The star has also given him the power to journey into the land of Faery, where we can see illustrated the work of harnessing the visionary capacity of the human mind.
Tolkien describes how, upon first entering Faery, Smith’s “briefer visits he spent looking only at one tree or one flower” as he sought to bring into focus the new landscape. Smith also, as is often reported upon entering stage three of the intensified trajectory, experiences the sheer speed and wealth of the visionary landscape as bewildering, yet deeply transformative: “On longer journeys he had seen things of both beauty and terror that he could not clearly remember nor report to his friends, though he knew that they dwelt deep in his heart.”
Eventually, Smith, as do all navigators into the primal mind, begins to take hold of the intensified trajectory, to master the art of transcosmological travel and preternatural sight. He perceives “things he did not forget, and they remained in his mind as wonders and mysteries that he often recalled.” As well, he begins applying his otherworldly knowledge to this realm: “in time he could have forged weapons that in his own world would have had power enough to become the matter of great tales and be worth a king’s ransom,” but Smith does not fall into the trap of seeking power to dominate others. Instead, “it is not remembered that he ever forged a sword or a spear or an arrowhead.”
Smith begins to go native. He is called Starbrow by the inhabitants of Faery, and, as his explorations deepen, he becomes more intimate with the realm. Starbrow sees the elven mariners, “tall and terrible” with a “piercing light in their eyes,” returning from battle in the realm of Unlight and falls on his face in fear as they march past him. He is rescued by a “blessed birch” tree, which sacrifices itself and weeps from all its shorn branches, to protect him from the Wind that is hunting the trespassing Starbrow. He beholds the King’s Tree, the axis mundi, “springing up, tower upon tower, into the sky, and its light was like the sun at noon.” Yet these visions come as gifts, not as a right, for, search as he will, he never encounters the King’s Tree again.
Eventually, Starbrow penetrates to the heart of the realm, Evermorn, “where the green surpasses the green of the meads of Outer Faery as they surpass ours in the springtime,” and brings a gift back to the human world. In this place, where wild nature is at its most concentrated and radiant, he dances with an elf maiden who puts a flower in his hair, a flower that never withers in our world and is treasured as an heirloom within Smith’s family for many generations. Starbrow has begun to serve as a bridge.
So it is that Smith goes from passively experiencing marvelous visions to discovering his innate capacities in both worlds.
Starbrow finally sees the great pattern within which his life is woven, when he is summoned on a long journey to the Queen of Faery, who is a vision of nearly unbearable majesty. That is, until Starbrow recognizes her as the elf maiden he had danced with. “She smiled, seeing his memory, and drew toward him; and they spoke long together, for the most part without words, and he learned many things in her thought, some of which gave him joy, and others filled him with grief.”
As often happens at the conclusion of a powerful visionary experience, Starbrow undergoes life review in light of the new knowledge he has received, and he recognizes the Queen’s image in the little dancing figure on the cake that had contained the fay-star.
Rather than reducing the Queen’s vast cosmic purport to a material cause, Smith recognizes the terrible folly of such reductionistic anthropomorphism, which distorts the great powers of the cosmos to the size of human miniatures, intellectual concepts, or hallucinations. Smith lowers his eyes in shame. Laughing, the Queen says, “Do not be grieved for me, Starbrow, nor too much ashamed of your own folk. Better a little doll, maybe, than no memory of Faery at all.”
The Queen then gives Starbrow a message to deliver to the King, whose locale is unknown, and then strips away the last foreignness from his sight, giving him a native view: laying “her hand upon his head, a great stillness came upon him; and he seemed to be both in the World and in Faery, and also outside them and surveying them, so that he was at once in bereavement, and in ownership, and in peace.” When Starbrow finally comes to, the field is empty, the Queen is gone, and he hears a distant echo of a trumpet in the mountains.
Bereaved, Starbrow finds his way back to the outskirts of Faery, where he encounters a hooded figure to whom he is inspired to entrust his message to the King. It is Alf the apprentice, the King in disguise. The King receives the fay-star back from Starbrow, who literally removes it from his forehead to pass on to the next generation, and Starbrow, now Smith, is given the option to serve as a bridge between the worlds one final time and choose his successor. By story’s end, as a child of the next generation is illuminated by the fay-star, the cycle of interaction between Faery and the human world fully emerges, illustrating the vital, fertilizing, and hidden role of spiritual activity in the staid, and entropic, realm of human affairs.
As we can see, for Tolkien, ordinary consciousness is illuminated by the larger meanings bestowed on it by a divinely infused, sentient cosmos as experienced in the intensified trajectory, rather than reducible to hallucinatory epiphenomena of mere neurological activity. We are justified, therefore, in reading his final story as Tolkien’s own passing on of the fay-star: as a guide to the realm of Faery.
*”Trip reports” of Tolkien’s contemporaries on the vast alterations in time and space lived within the orbit of extreme opium and cannabis intoxication, while not in tune with Tolkien’s thinking, remind us that altered states of consciousness were as great an interest to his age as our own. Opium eater Thomas De Quincy reported visionary excursions in which he seemed to have lived a hundred years in a night. Lord Dunsany described such a fantastical, perilous hashish journey that it bears quoting at some length: “It takes one literally out of oneself. It is like wings. You swoop over distant countries and into other worlds. . . . I have seen incredible things in fearful worlds. As it is your imagination that takes you there, so it is only by your imagination that you can get back. Once out in the aether I met a battered, prowling spirit, that had belonged to a man whom drugs had killed a hundred years ago; and he led me to regions that I had never imagined; and we parted in anger beyond the Pleiades, and I could not imagine my way back. And I met a huge grey shape that was the Spirit of some great people, perhaps of a whole star, and I besought It to show me my way home. It pointed, and, speaking quite softly, asked me if I discerned a certain tiny light, and I saw a far star faintly, and then It said to me, “That is the Solar System,” and strode tremendously on. Somehow I imagined my way back, and only just in time, for my body was already stiffening in a chair in my room; at last I could move one arm, and reached a bell, and at last a man appeared, and they got a doctor; and he said it was hashish poisoning, but it would have been all right if I hadn’t met that battered, prowling spirit” (Dunsany, “The Hashish Man,” 121-22).
**Breath is used in shamanic practices to activate and direct the powers of the plant, as well as to imbue the medicine with the shaman’s particular virtue. See the example of Casimero Mamallactas’s breathing of the jaguar spirit into a patient as described later in this chapter.
1. Carpenter, J. R. R. Tolkien, 179.
2. Ibid., 118.
3. Flieger, Question of Time, 233.
4. Ibid., 246–47.
5. Ibid., 247.
6. Ibid., 249.
7. Ibid., 248–49.
8. Ibid., 250.
9. Ibid., 249.
10. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 198–99.
11. Ibid., 866.
14. Ibid., 868.
15. Ibid., 869.
16. Reichel-Dolmatoff, Amazonian Cosmos, 126.
17. All quotations in the following section are from Tolkien, “Smith of Wootton Major,” 12–23.
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.
I first encountered the Ashaninkan shaman Juan Flores within the Cinema de Indio, one of the magical* practices of the rainforest facilitated by the psychoactive brew ayahuasca. Even many years after that heady initial immersion in the vegetalista tradition of the Peruvian Amazon, I still contemplate Flores’ invitation to join him in the rainforest with wonder, and ambivalence.
It came in my final ayahuasca ceremony at Takiwasi, the center for the treatment of addiction in Tarapoto, Peru, which utilizes shamanic medicine along with Western psychotherapy. My wife, Susana Bustos, was doing her dissertation research there into the healing powers of icaros, magic melodies sung during ayahuasca ceremonies, and we were preparing to leave for another jungle town, Pucallpa. One of the curanderos there was expecting us: Juan Flores, who I had already seen in a photo, wearing a crown of brilliant feathers, half-smile on his lips, and an innate regality in his bearing, mounted on a wall along with images of other curanderos who had worked at Takiwasi.
If things had gone better with the introduction of Catholicism in Peru, many of the churches there might look like the maloca at Takiwasi. The essential shelter of the jungle, a maloca is a large, rounded structure with a thatched roof, whose open walls allow for the easy circulation of air while containing its inhabitants like a friendly spider’s web from the buzzing and humming of the jungle outside.
As an architectural synthesis of the traditional ways of the rainforest and Catholicism, the front of Takiwasi’s maloca is a chapel, where hang images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, El Senor de los Milagros (Peru’s cherished icon of the Crucifixion, executed in an Expressionistic style), and a gaudy, baroque St. Michael slaying a dragon. Yet instead of orderly pews, cushions on reed mats line the walls, a bucket beside each of them, and in place of an altar for Mass, there is a mesa where the psychoactive medicine of the rainforest, ayahuasca, is poured.
That evening, the patients of Takiwasi gathered, dressed in white. They were all men, from teenagers to old, gnarled campesinos. The leaders, Rosa Giove and Jaime Torres, took their places at the head of the room, bottles of ayahuasca, Agua de Florida, and tobacco before them, along with other ritual implements such as the shacapa, which would beat in our ears like the sound of wings in the night.
One by one, the patients and I went forward. Salud con todos, “Health with all,” we salute before drinking, the rest echoing back as a choir.
Raising a cup of ayahuasca to the lips is a practice of transubstantiation. Within the thick, bitter fluid, capable of provoking instant vomiting, is the taste of the salvific power of the jungle, of evolution itself. That night I drank as if I were thirsty, the liquid flowing down my throat like honey. I regarded the cup in wonder.
Returning to my seat I willed myself to enjoy the beauty of the night, but a deep apprehension gripped my stomach. I found myself urgently summoning my spirit guides. I would pass through the gates of horn – the ancient gate of true dreams – that night. I would have to, because the alternative was unthinkable.
Rosa’s voice arose over the buzzing hum of insects, invoking the powers of Madre Ayahuasca.
Soon the maloca sat steeping in dense energy, and I in a revolving chamber of mirrors, seeing nothing but the confines of my self, amplified to a Dantean hell. The other patients sat with heads bowed, seemingly plying the same dark waters. The icaros went on to the dull flailing of the shacapa. Nothing moved. We were flies stuck in the bottom of a black lacquer bucket.
Finally I was called forward to drink a second time. I tossed it down. Turning the cup about in my hands, I contemplated my dosage. Handing it back to Rosa, I politely asked if I could drink more. Nodding her head, she refilled the cup. I drank again. Now I was truly committed.
Returning to my seat, my head soon fell back to rest on the wall and my hands loosened their grip on my prayer beads.
The goddess Psychointegration is the force and the goal underlying consciousness. Like gravity, she contains the matter and temporality of mind, as well as providing the underlying, binding attraction of consciousness to the Self that lies beyond the narrow confines of the ego. That evening she came as thousand faced and armed deity, with a million eyes of spirits and gods, speaking innumerable tongues. The free traversers of the depths of the mind. As a voyage into the beings that, assembled, make our character and psyche, dance our neuroses, dream our births and our deaths.
Suddenly a spirit I encountered in the Barquinha church months before in Rio Branco, Brazil, hove into view in the darkness of the maloca.
A blazing figurehead on the prow of my spirit boat cutting through the night. In a deep drift across the waters, I became aware that my Nordic ancestors were assembling.
Ayahuasca translated means “the vine of the dead,” and the taste of the dead is familiar to a portion of our psyche we touch only in deepest dream.
Now they were come indeed — those who knew how to ply the immensity of the ocean, bringing with them the Viking gift of sight stored deep in my genetic code. Half seeing their faces playing before me, half feeling the salt wind and wave upon my body, the paths of navigation suddenly lay bare, open. Ocean. Endless ocean. Brilliant, cold stars. I clutched the prow of the boat. I remembered.
A sound of wings, great wings, came cutting across the water, mysterious and familiar at the same time. Then, hovering over me, the dragon landed upon my head and closed his wings over my eyes, settling into my cranium. Joining his vision to mine. The serpent guarding his horde at the base of my brain stem, dark and poisonous, had returned – transformed as the joyous rider of the clouds.
“The dragon… The dragon…” I muttered like a mantra, touching home in my body, aware I was journeying very deeply.
Psychointegration released her hold and I passed out of the waters. After a spell the arms of ayahuasca embraced me, enfolding me in a warm, fluid light and its circumference became the walls of the womb. Held suspended in the matrix of birth and rebirth, I rested.
The mysterious summons came much later in the session. As I sat quietly, the lilting, serpentine voice of Rosa abruptly wound, serpent-like, into me searching out deeper mysteries still.
My body began to transform under her icaro. My northern giant’s bone structure compacting into an indigenous skeletal frame, my skin from white to brown, and I found I had been given indigenous ears to hear and, what was better, the seeds of indigenous understanding in my mind.
As a smaller man with black hair, brown eyes, a sharp nose, and a different music sounding in his chest, I stared across the maloca and realized there was a presence there.
Bienvenidos, I heard with perfect distinctness. Tu has hecho el trabajo y estas listo para venir a nosotros. Estas bienvenido a nuestra casa. “Welcome. You have done the work and are ready to come to us. You are welcome to our house.”
I could discern nothing of the appearance of my interlocutor. To whom the voice belonged was a mystery. Yet familiar it was, as the scent of ripe honeysuckle and the sound of droning bees. In the darkness, I was aware the shamans of the deep rainforest were assembled, a lineage of practitioners who spoke with one, Elohim-like voice. A path into the indigenous mind had opened, and I was wholly transported by its promise.
In previous ayahuasca ceremonies I had gone on marvelous journeys, passed through terrifying transformations, received healings, and been touched by spirits of love surpassing human understanding. But I had never encountered anything of this nature before – it was as if I were being shaken awake by an actual presence from outside, reaching within my ayahuasca vision!
I felt deep joy, a child’s sense of homecoming, and my adult apprehension utterly suspended, much as J.R.R. Tolkien describes: “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” (Flieger 126).
Gazing into the rich, pregnant space that had opened in the night, I gave my thanks and said I would come. The vision faded.
In the days following, back in the bright sunlight making arrangements for our journey, I wondered, had I received a genuine summons – or was it an intensely symbolic dream, valuable in itself, but without true external referent? Yet the vision had that ancient flavor, much as one classical scholar wrote upon the bardic experience of communion with the Muse: “Such visions, welling up from the unknown depths of the mind, must once have been felt as something immediately “given,” and because of its immediacy more trustworthy than oral tradition” (Dodds 100). Of course, ancient bards also experienced the past as a dimension of the present, and had an uncanny ability to see into the abyss of time. Did my vision also have an objectively verifiable referent?
It was up to me to make my way to the rainforest and find out.
Meeting a shaman naturally provokes some scrutinizing for gifts of power, some evidence of otherworldly charisma. Standing on the sidewalk outside of our dingy hotel in Pucallpa, Juan Flores Salazar affected none.
A middle-aged man with short-cropped hair above a dark indigenous face with high cheekbones, he wore a frayed white shirt, old blue slacks, and scuffed black shoes. Addressing him as “Maestro,” I shook his hand and found it hardened by a lifetime of work in the jungle. He smiled, revealing a row of tobacco-stained teeth, but his face remained set in an expression of deep stoicism. This was the Ashaninca shaman who Susana and I had traveled to study with at his center for traditional medicine, Mayantuyacu.
As Susana chatted with Sandra, Juan’s wife, he and I stood in the doorway out of the din of the motorized rickshaws. Finally we went to a restaurant down by the waterfront of the river Ucayali, where we gossiped about Takiwasi. Then, warming up to one another, Susana and Sandra began chatting animatedly about the difficulties of taming the barbarians in their lives. They meant us. Juan and I glanced across at each other, and laughed.
I observed that he was eating his fish with his fingers. I’ve gotten too civilized, I thought, choking on a fish bone I hadn’t been able to extract with my knife and fork. When I recovered, Sandra was relating intimate details of their courtship as Juan polished off his plate.
“I often can’t tell if it’s him or a plant that is talking,” she commented, looking pointedly at her silent partner.
He smiled again.
I sat contemplating the humble indio seated across from me. Had he already introduced himself to me through the Cinema de Indio? Among the features of this native version of Skype is telepathy. Early German researchers of the chemical constituents of ayahuasca named the first alkaloid they isolated telepathine (now called harmine), convinced it facilitated telepathic communication.
But as we concluded arrangements to journey to Mayantuyacu, Flores still offered no hint of prior acquaintance. No cryptic words, no significant nudge. Watching him and Sandra disappear down the dark streets, I remained puzzled.
I saw nothing of Flores in the succeeding days, except in a dream. After a ceremony with a local Shipibo shaman, I fell ill. Night after night of wading through wisps of lingering sleep back and forth to the toilet followed. Finally, I dreamt of a landscape filled with water, water flowing in valleys, rising in vapors, falling lightly from the sky. Everywhere green, everything vibrant. Watching a figure descending into the valley below, I called out, “Stop, you’re going the wrong way!” Appearing on the next rise, he said to me, “I am a hydrologist. I know what I am doing.” I knew instinctively it was Juan, going deep into the watershed to tramp through the resuscitating waters.
“Wait!” I shout to him, running in to find my rubber boots and a flashlight.
I awoke to slog off to the toilet, grateful I hadn’t shat myself again, aware we desperately needed to get to Mayantuyacu.
The day finally came when I could tell Juan about my vision at Takiwasi. He giggled as I described being transformed into an indigenous. I asked him if it had been him that had spoken to me that evening.
“Sí,” he replied from his hammock, smiling like a boy who had just done a magic trick and was enjoying the effect.
Seeing me stumped, he repeated, “Yes, it was me,” as if we were talking about meeting on a street corner. “You probably saw me in my appearance as an Indian,” he added, meaning wearing a crown of feathers and a cushma robe.
“Why did you invite me to come, Maestro?”
“I can sense a mind in search of a new curandero.”
“How is this possible?” I asked, groping through this new terrain.
“The spirits of the plants move about the world talking with one another, and if you diet sincerely with them they teach this art.”
Medieval woodcuts of witches riding about on broomsticks intoxicated by datura swirled through my mind.
“For a curandero, plants help sustain life,” he said, and went on to speak of Christ within the plants. I learned that for Juan, Christianity is first realized in the photosynthesis of sunshine, and that plants – with their roots in the soil and their branches spreading to the sky – act as bridges between worlds. Instead of dwelling in the sky, Christ is literally among us, incarnate in the lilies of the field.
Good god, I thought, this guy is the real deal.
Yet I couldn’t shake the suspicion I was being duped. Sharing my doubts with Susana and some South American friends, I was rebuffed. Of course it was possible, I was assured.
A visitor from Brazil, seeing the doubt lingering in my face, told me a story. Once, he had done a solitary retreat in the rainforest, drinking potent shamanic plants. After some days, a band of spirits surrounded his little hut and began playing cacophonous music, a real din. Shaken, he had lit a mapacho cigarette and run around the grounds, blowing smoke to drive them away, but as soon as he lay back down in his hammock, the spirits returned, blasting away on their instruments. He repeated the action, to no avail, and was beginning to experience real panic when a smiling Juan suddenly appeared sitting beside him, calmly smoking a mapacho, cool as a cucumber.
Tranquilo, Juan said. “It’s just some playful spirits.” Getting up, Juan strolled about blowing tobacco smoke, and then left.
“The spirits vanished, and I finished my retreat in peace,” the Brazilian concluded.
Recognizing I was out of my depth, I chose to suspend my disbelief.
In the darkness of the maloca that evening, with the sound of the river of boiling water flowing below, the Maestro sang a boat playing in the whirlpools of the sea, and the whole maloca was transformed and we were on a carefree, delicious ride. He sang icaros of the ancient peoples of the forest, which to sing transforms one into a member of the indigenous group the song comes from. My mind felt it could take wing on the oldest of these icaros, like an eagle, into the sky.
It was simple like plainchant, pure like the cry of an animal in the early morning, resonant with praise.
Vapor rising from the river drifted in great luminous columns up over the trees, breaking up into wisps that disappeared into the starry night above. Juan sang to the vapor, and then to the spirit of the river, the little canyon, and its seamless interaction with all levels of creation.
Some days later I poked my head out the door of our cabin and saw Juan wearing a crown of feathers, crossing the compound barefoot, dressed in an orange and red cushma – a full-length woven robe. No longer the anonymous mestizo on the city streets, here he was in his domain. Now I was satisfied. This was the shaman I had come to the deep jungle to study with.
Yet after eight years of intimate apprenticeship, I am still not wholly convinced that it had been Juan who summoned me to the rainforest. As anthropologist Jeremy Narby once told me, “Shamanism operates in the realm of paradox.” The veracity of the vision I can never doubt, yet I have come to understand that, like series of endless Chinese boxes, one within another within another, cause and effect can never be adequately unraveled in the rainforest.
In the world of shamanism, you get told exactly what you need to hear. It’s up to you to walk the path.
* As in Arthur C. Clark’s dictum, any sufficiently advanced technology appears as magic.
Dodds, E. R. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley: University of California
Flieger, Verlyn. A Question of Time: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Road to Faerie. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1997.
This account originally appeared in The Jaguar that Roams the Mind, in a less reflective and nuanced form. If you’d like to order a copy of the book, which gives an in depth account of our initial stages of apprenticeship with Juan Flores, click here.
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.
“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.
Our society is well aware of the addictive siren song of drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and chemically-degraded tobacco, all derived from originally sacred, healing plants. Yet little is known of the power of psychoactive plants to heal addiction, especially as mediated by shamanic song. We would like to share with you how one Westerner, a French doctor named Jacques Mabit who trained in the Amazonian tradition of vegetalismo, uses icaros, songs that embody and transmit the healing power of plants, to guide his patients into realms of healing and self exploration.
The House that Sings:
The Therapeutic Use of Icaros at Takiwasi by Susana Bustos, Ph.D.
This article originally appeared in Shaman’s Drum, Number 73, 2006.
During the years that Susana and I have spent studying and training in the Peruvian vegetalismo, a mixed-race healing tradition that combines indigenous shamanism with Western elements such as Catholicism, we have come to appreciate the paradoxes that indigenous medicine comes wrapped in for Westerners. Among them is the distinction between curing and healing of disease, concepts which, as in Venn diagrams, overlap yet remain experientially distinct. The thrust of modern Western medicine is to “cure,” from Latin cura “to care, concern, trouble,” by either managing disease within, or excising it from, the body, and disease is usually considered cured when symptoms abate. In indigenous styles of medicine, which give equal importance to curing as the West, healing, from Old English hælan “to make whole, sound and well,” may also involve searching out the hidden origin of the disease in the body/mind. In this healing quest, a cure may be found, and may not. The valence of the disease, however, will change. In such cases, it is the entire self that is engaged in unraveling a disease’s enigma, and the body is the laboratory wherein the cure can be found. As a consequence, such healing is often idiosyncratic, because each body’s laboratory is unique. Continue reading “Assessing a Quest to Heal HIV with Ayahuasca Shamanism”