Traditional and folk medicine has remained a primary treatment source for many people throughout the world. Even in developed countries, such as the United States, the number of visits to practitioners of traditional and folk medicine actually exceeds the number of visits to Western doctors (Bussman, Sharon 2006). While Western medicine operates and treats patients from a strictly positivist framework, most traditional practitioners believe that diseases can be both caused and cured supernaturally. In Peru, many locals, as well as tourists, seek healing of their physical and spiritual ailments from vegetalistas, who are shaman healers that work closely with plants and their supernatural healing powers. The following paper will examine the beliefs regarding disease origins and several of the main practices of vegetalistas in the Peruvian Amazon, such as dietas, ayahuasca, and icaros.
The term vegetalista can also be interchangeable with curandero and shaman. However, we will use the term vegetalista to describe the healers in the Amazon who work supernaturally with plants and who ascribe largely to the indigenous healing practices of Quecha tribes such as the Shipibo and Conibo, but who may also utilize aspects of Catholicism or New Age beliefs. Vegetalistas can be Mestizo or from indigenous tribes, and, in some rare cases, of European descent (if they have extensively trained under a master shaman) (Demange 2002). Many vegetalista healing practices come directly from the traditional indigenous ones. It can be argued that vegetalistas are appropriating the practices of the indigenous tribes, however, it is not cut and dry, because most of the vegetalistas are mestizo and are descendents of the indigenous tribes. The main difference between a vegetalista and an indigenous curandero, is that vegetalistas focus on the individual healing of physical and spiritual disease, while indigenous curandero practices are centered around maintaining social structures and balance within the tribe and cosmos. If a person is sick, the indigenous curandero views it as an imbalance within the entire society and universe, and heals to restore the balance. The vegetalista is concerned with the individual. Nevertheless, their techniques are very similar and can be difficult to distinguish (Demange 2002: 60).
BELIEFS ABOUT DISEASE ORIGINS
Vegetalistas believe that illness can be caused either naturally or supernaturally. A person can be infected by a variety of supernatural means, such as spirit darts (virotes) sent by demons or shamans. There are many culture-bound illnesses of supernatural origin in the Vegetalismo belief system (Homan 2011). Mal de aire (evil wind) is when a person gets infected with an invisible illness from an encounter with an evil lost soul, and is thought to be highly contagious. Susto happens when a person is extremely scared and part of their soul leaves their body due to the shock. This causes the person to experience imbalance and become sick (Homan 2011). Symptoms of susto are depression, loss of appetite, weakness, and diarrhea (Beyer 2009:327). The only way to cure susto is to visit a shaman and have them travel the spirit world to retrieve the missing soul. When illnesses originate from natural causes, they are referred to as enfermidades de Dios (illness from God) (Homan 2011). When a person experiences an illness from God, they typically visit a pharmacy or clinic to be treated, although sometimes the vegetalista shamans provide treatments too (Homan 2011).
Peru is rich in biodiversity and there are many plants which are recognized to have healing properties, both supernatural and natural. There are countless plants used in vegetalismo as a vehicle to connect to the spirit world (Demange 2002: 30). Vegetalismo practices are centered on the belief that plants are “animated superior intelligent beings” that can relay important teachings (Demange 2002:33). Vegetalistas claim that they receive their healing powers and knowledge directly from the spirits of the plants in the rainforst (Santuario). The vegetalista aims to become acquanited with as many plants as possible (Demange 2002:33). Dietas, or plant diets, are followed in order to connect with the spirit of a certain plant, make it an ally, and to understand it’s healing properties. Vegetalistas- in- training typically follow a dieta for six months to a year as part of their apprenticeship, and will continue to follow it periodically for the rest of their lives. Dietas are very restrictive and the follower can typically only consume very plain, unseasoned foods such as boiled plantain, rice, fish, and chicken. All sexual activity must be refrained from, and time is spent in an isolated jungle hut (Demange 2002:34). One at a time, they will add a medicinal healing plant to the diet. The blandness of the rest of the diet allows the healing properties of the plant to be understood, without interference from other compounds or plant spirits. It is also believed that some of the healing plant medicines get easily jealous, so the bland diet with little additives and no sexual activity proves to the plant that it is the most important.
One of the primary plant mixtures which is used in treatment is ayahuasca, which is an entheogenic brew made out of the vine baanisteriopsis caapi, and the leaves of DMT-containing plant such as chacruna. DMT, or dimethyltyptamine, is one the strongest psychedelics known. It is not normally orally active, but is once it is combined with a MAOI, such as the baanisteriopsis caapi vine (Chantin 21). The two main ingredients are boiled into a dark and bitter tasting tea. Ayahuasca has potent consciousness-altering properties, and the user experiences profound visions, intense emotions, and synthaesia, which is the cognitive phenomenon where colors are heard and sounds are seen ( Demange 2002: 20). Vegetalistas typically hold regular ayahuasca healing ceremonies, where both the vegetalista shaman and the patient will ingest ayahuasca. These take place at night. The ayahuasca is said to allow the shaman to see and diagnose where the physical or mental sickness is coming from in the patient, and to work to extract it out through supernatural means. This can be done by sucking out the supernatural arrows and entity attachments, using certain chants to manipulate energy,
While everyone has a different ayahuasca experience, a common theme is seeing anacondas and jaguars (even those who take ayahuasca out of the jungle, in other parts of the world). It should be noted that ayahausca has shown scientifically to have some benefits, especially when used as a treatment for substance abuse disorder and depression (Winkleman 2014). It has also been shown to be effective in killing and expelling parasites (which is a very convenient feature in the jungles of the Amazon!) (Winkleman 2014).
Sacred healing chants, or icaros, are revealed to the shaman. These icaros are viewed as a main tool through which healing occurs, and are a “shaman’s most highly prized possessions, the vehicles of his power and the repositories of his knowledge” (Townsley 2001:267). An experienced shaman will know hundreds of different icaros. It is believed that every living thing has its own song, and it can be revealed to the shaman under certain states of consciousness, like after taking ayahausca. These icaros, when sung, invoke the healing spirits. The icaros chants are believed to have the power to manipulate reality and to weave strands of energy to rebalance and heal. Many individuals who have participated in ayahuasca rituals relate that the chanting can be directly felt and experienced within the body. The ayahuasca has the effect of causing the body to feel like a buzzing highway of vibrations, and the vibrational tones of the icaros can be felt moving throughout the body like a snake, or pulling or tugging the energy of the body.
The Introduction of Ayahuasca Tourism
While many traditional healing systems around the world are being swapped out for Western medicine, vegetalismo is unique because it is only gaining in popularity as tourists flock to the Amazon in search of physical or spiritual healing. There are many tales of Westerners overcoming serious diseases, depression, and having extraordinary spiritual awakenings. This trend has encouraged some to take advantage of the opportunity to make money by holding ayahuasca ceremonies for tourists. While some of these people are legitimate vegetalistas who have had years of training, unfortunately, many are not trained vegetalistas and shamans (these are called ayahuasceros- they can make ayahuasca and hold ceremonies, but are not trained shamanically). Trained vegetalistas and curanderos look down on this because they believe by doing a ceremony without a shaman, the participants are left vulnerable to evil spirits and negative energies. If a participant has a healing crisis of some sort, there won’t be anyone there to guide them through it. Also, some warn that the ayahuasceros are brujas, or witches, and that they use the ayahuasca ceremonies as a way to siphon energy out of its participants to increase their own power (Homan 2011).
Vegetalista medicine plays a large role in Peru. While many Peruvians head to Western doctors for “diseases from God” (natural illnesses), they still will visit a vegetalista, curandero, or shaman to help heal them from any illness that appeared from supernatural causes (Homan 2011). Many people throughout the world seem to trust the traditional healers, who almost always deal with supernatural aspects of illness, more than Western doctors. Looking at this from a positivist perspective, the traditional healers act more holistically than Western doctors, and spend more time and care on their patients. If a person trusts their practitioner, and believes that what they are doing will heal them, it can remove the stress they are feeling about their illness which is greatly conducive to healing. Traditional and supernatural medicine will continue to flourish as long as people have supernatural beliefs, and will continue to be combined with or used as a compliment to Western medicine.
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Demange, Francois. 2002. Amazion Vegetalismo: A Study of the Healing Power of Chants in Tarapoto, Peru. University of East London MA thesis.
Homan, Joshua. 2011. Charlatans, Seekers, and Shamans: The Ayahuasca Boom in Western Peruvian Amazonia. University of Kansas MA thesis. Accessed https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242331589_Charlatans_seekers_and_shamans_the_ayahuasca_boom_in_western_Peruvian_Amazonia
Winkleman, Michael. 2014. Psychedelics as Medicines for Substance Abuse Rehabilition: Evaluating Treatments with LSD, Peyote, Ibogaine, and Ayahuasca. Current Drug Abuse Reviews. 2014. 7, 101-116.