Shamanism: South American Shamanism

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In particulars of cosmology, ritual, and paraphernalia, shamanism in South America has obviously been shaped by, and has adapted to, local environments and local historical and cultural processes. Nevertheless, in its mental universe and its dialectics and techniques of the sacred, South American shamanism exhibits similarities not only within the subcontinent but to shamanism in North America, the Arctic, and Siberia, indicating historical relationships that must date back to the early peopling of the Americas. This suggests that the basic ideology of shamanism may be sufficiently fundamental to the human condition to have favored its survival over enormous distances in time, space, environment, and social context.

General Motifs of Ecstasy

Shamanism and religion among the Selk'nam (Ona), Yámana (Yaghan), and Halakwalip (Alacaluf) of the Tierra del Fuego, on the southernmost edge of South Americaall presumably descended from the earliest migrants to the subcontinentappear to represent survivals of archaic ideological systems. But many of the same archaic traits also appearsometimes attenuated or overlaid with elaborations resulting from outside influences or internal dynamics, often little modified from their ancestral formsacross the whole South American continent, not excluding the high culture areas of the Andes. These common traits include familiar motifs of Siberian and Inuit (Eskimo) shamanism: mystic vocation; initiatory sickness; skeletonization, dismemberment, and contemplation by the shaman of his or her own bones; recruitment of supernatural helpers; rock crystals as manifestations of helping spirits; marriage to spirit wives, or, in the case of female shamans, spirit husbands; "rape" of the soul; sickness through soul loss or intrusion of illness projectiles into the body by magical means, and, conversely, restoration of health, in the first case through retrieval of the patient's strayed or abducted soul by the shaman, and in the second by sucking out the disease-causing foreign object; stratified upperworld and underworld through whose levels the shaman travels in celestial flight or in descent into the chthonic regions; world trees as sky supports with both phallic and uterine associations; great ancestral First Shamans and culture heroes as shaman/transformers; and divination of future events, weather, or favorable hunting conditions.

Of first importance everywhere is the ecstatic trance, mainly attained through the use of botanical hallucinogens, during which the shaman projects his or her soul into otherworlds, and returns with word of the departed, the wishes of the greater powers, and enhanced knowledge and confirmation of the sacred geography and cosmology by which the community orders its social and supernatural environment. This knowledge makes the shaman indispensable to the maintenance of the social and metaphysical equilibrium, and accounts for the shaman's chieflike role in societies that otherwise lack chieftainship. As demonstrated by Johannes Wilbert's work among the Warao, a fishing people of the Orinoco Delta, even among preagricultural peoples and incipient horticulturalists, shamanic cosmologies and cosmic models constructed on the common foundations of a pan-Indian, archaic shamanistic worldview can reach extraordinary heights of complexity. Wilbert's and other recent studies (e.g., Swiss ethnologist Gerhard Baer's work among the Matsigenka of eastern Peru) confirm the shaman's central role across the whole spectrum of indigenous life, from religion, ritual, and curing to social organization and politics.

Specific Features

Notwithstanding shared motifs in pan-South American shamanism that seem to be survivals of a common archaic substratum, shamanism in the subcontinent exhibits culture-specific tropical New World traits that are at least as significant.

The rattle

Among these distinctive features is the replacement of the drum by the gourd rattle as the indispensable percussion instrument in the shamanic arts over most of South America. Even where the shaman's drum persists, as among the Mapuche, or Araucanians, of Argentina and Chile, it is generally used in combination with the rattle. The symbolism and functions of the rattle are complex and varied. But, in general the rattle's functions parallel the functions of the shamanic drum, including the connection with the world tree as axis mundi. Indeed, even more obviously than the iconography of the Siberian shaman's drum, the hollow gourd represents the cosmos; the staff that pierces it and serves as handle symbolizes the world tree as cosmic pathway. The small stones or seeds inside the rattle, in turn, are ancestral souls and spirits whom the shaman activates when he shakes the instrument. The sound of the rattle, in combination with the chants the shaman has been taught by the spirits, enables the shaman to concentrate his or her powers for the flight or descent to otherworlds. Despite the extraordinary prominence and complex ideology of this instrument in South and Central American shamanism, the literature on the subject is poor, with Wilbert's study of the feathered hebumatarao, the "spirit rattle" of the Warao shaman (1973), the outstanding exception.

The jaguar

Another trait specific to the American tropics is qualitative identification between the shaman and the jaguar (Felis onca ). This dominant motif cuts across linguistic, geographical, and cultural boundaries on the subcontinent. In pre-Columbian times it extended into the high cultures of Mexico. Still another leitmotif is the widespread use of one or more potent psychoactive plants as a "technique of ecstasy," not only by shamans but, in specified ritual contexts, a wider adult community under the shaman's direction. Jaguar transformation and the use of plant hallucinogens, in turn, are ideologically and experientially linked.

In the belief systems of many South American Indians, shamans, alone among their fellows, can transform themselves at will into jaguars, whose inherent qualities they share; conversely, jaguars may not actually be animals but transformed shamans, or soul bearers of deceased shamans. Hence, killing a jaguar is fraught with supernatural risk. Reported by early travelers, these beliefs persist to the present day. Thus, the Tacana of eastern Bolivia told the German ethnologist Karin Hissink in 1952 that their yanaconas (shamans) regularly transform themselves into their jaguar alter egos through such techniques as somersaulting or taking hallucinogenic snuff. Theodor Koch-Grünberg, who traveled widely among the Indians of northern Brazil and Venezuela (19111913) reported that all the shamans he met or heard of identified themselves with the jaguar. All had techniques of jaguar transformation, including the donning of jaguar pelts, claws or teeth as well as intoxication with psychoactive plants. Maquiritaré (Yecuana) shamans believed that specialized benches carved in the likeness of their jaguar counterparts were indispensable to their magic art.

The conceptional identification of shaman and jaguar is confirmed by linguistics. Koch-Grünberg found all Betoi-speaking groups using the same or closely related words for "shaman" and "jaguar." The Dätuana, for example, call the shaman djaika and the jaguar dzaja. Even though the approximately thirty tribes belonging to the Tucanoan language family are separated into a western division and an eastern division, with little contact between the two branches, all identify shamans with jaguars and most use the same or a closely related term for both. Ute Bödiger reported in 1965 that the common term for shaman and jaguar among the Siona was yái and among the Coreguaje, dyái. Since Siona shamans are themselves jaguars in human form, no jaguar ever attacks them; all they have to do to protect themselves when encountering a jaguar is call out, "My name is Yái!" The Huitoto, whose language is identified by linguists as independent and whose culture is intermediate between Paleo-Indian hunters and Neo-Indian tropical forest cultivators, call their shamans ikodyai, a term derived from two Tucanoan words, dyái ("jaguar") and iko ("soul"). Irving Goldman (1963) reports that the Tucanoan Cubeo differentiate between two kinds of shaman, the pariékokü, meaning "man of power," and the yaví, meaning "jaguar." The latter has greater prestige: every yaví is a pariékokü, but not every pariékokü is a yaví.

Bird symbolism

Several other animal species also play a more or less important symbolic role in shamanism, alongside the great jungle cat. Outstanding among these is the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja ) and its close relatives. Its role as shaman's alter ego was first examined in detail in 1962 by the German ethnologist Otto Zerries; in 1977 his student Hildegard Matthäi followed with a study of the general role of raptors among extra-Andean South American Indians, with particular attention to the harpy eagle and the king vulture, Sarcoramphus papa. The ecology of these high-flying, carrion-eating birds clearly fits them especially well for a shamanlike role as mediators between the celestial and chthonic spheres. The brilliant plumage of parrots, macaws, and other spectacular tropical forest birds is widely used for feather crowns and wands or prayer sticks, and here the symbolism extends beyond that of shamanic flight to that of "light." Thus, Gerhard Baer (1978) reports that the Matsigenka shaman's feather headdress "gives light and brightness" during the nocturnal séance, just as the feather crowns of the personified sun, moon, star beings, and spirits do. Light, which the shaman can also activate with hallucinogens and chants, in turn, is potentiated communication between the human and extrahuman spheres. The Matsigenka shaman numbers many birds among his or her spirit helpers, and one, the swallow-tailed kite, Elanoides forficatus or, more correctly, its female spirit (iʾnato, "its Mother")is the most important tutelary. This bird is nown as iʾvanki, meaning "his wing." On the other side of the subcontinent the Venezuelan Warao credit the same bird with having established bahana shamanism, one of the major orders of shamanism whose main concern is human reproduction and its attendant biological, psychological, and social concerns (Wilbert, 1986).

Still, it is the jaguar that predominates in the imagery of South American shamanism, perhaps because like the shaman, and unlike most other species, it seems not to be confined by its nature to one cosmic realm or one ecological niche. It is nocturnal and inhabits caves, behaviors that associate it with the underworld. It hunts principally on land but is so well adapted to water and so expert a swimmer in pursuit of fish and aquatic game that many Indian mythologies tell of powerful "water jaguars" that spend their lives in the watery underworld to which only shamans have access. Finally, in the manner of the shaman ascending the tree as metaphorical world axis, the jaguar is an agile climber of the great forest trees. Among some tribes it also has powerful, dualistic sexual associations. Like its human counterpart, the jaguar is thus a mediator par excellence. The most detailed studies of the shaman-jaguar complex are those of the Colombian anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff among the Tucanoan Desána of the Vaupés in the northwest Amazon of Colombia. His 1975 work, The Shaman and the Jaguar, presents the jaguar-shaman transformation complex and its interrelationship with hallucinogenic plants in a specific social and ideological context.

Plant hallucinogens

Reichel-Dolmatoff found that among the Desána "practically all shamanistic attitudes and practices" are based on the ecstatic trance induced by powerful plant hallucinogens, notably yagé, an infusion of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. The same drink is called ayahuasca by Quechua-speakers in the Andes. Especially in the Peruvian Amazon, ayahuasca is often used in conjunction with one or more species of Brugmansia (an arboreal form of the well-known shrublike daturas traditionally used by Indians in Mexico and, in North America, by native peoples in California, Nevada, Virginia, and the Southwest), as well as with thickened tobacco juice. The Matsigenka shaman may use either or all in curing rites. Like Banisteriopsis, the different species of Brugmansia have their spirit "Mothers," whose "sons" are recruited by the shaman as helpers (Baer, 1978).

Along with yagé, South American Indians have discovered the psychoactive properties of many other species that are employed alone or as admixtures to heighten or, otherwise, modify the metaphysical experience. The ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes and his collaborators have identified up to two hundred different plant hallucinogens used now or in the past by American Indians, the greater part in South America. Of special interest are several kinds of potent snuffs, including those based on the seeds of Anadenanthera peregrina and its sister species A. colubrina, and on the inner bark of trees of the genus Virola, with admixtures of other plant materials. The former are legumes related to the acacias and mimosas; the latter, like nutmeg, a popular spice of Old World origin, are related to the Myristicaceae. Snuffs made from A. peregrina were being used in the shamanistic rituals of Arawakan Indians when Columbus first landed in the Antilles; he and his men mistakenly identified the potent powder as tobacco. Anadenanthera colubrina was, and is still, employed by Andean Indians as the ritual intoxicant known as huilca. Huilca is presumably the snuff used by the ancient preagricultural inhabitants of coastal Peru, where Junius Bird excavated the oldest snuffing paraphernalia thus far known from South Americaa whalebone snuff tablet and bird-bone snuffing tube dating from the second millennium bce.

Such Indian populations as the several subgroups of the Yanoamö of the upper Orinoco, until recently one of the last pure hunting and gathering societies in South America, employ intoxicating snuffs derived mainly from scrapings of the inner bark of Virola, whose effects on the central nervous system are activated by the addition of certain other plant materials. Such sophisticated knowledge of the properties of plants suggests long experimentation.

Archaeological and iconographic evidence has also established a time depth of more than three thousand years for the ritual use and deification of yet another important South American plant hallucinogen that remains in use to this day, the mescaline-containing San Pedro cactus, Trichocereus pachanoi (Sharon, 1978). Now widely used by a class of mestizo folk healers whose practice includes symbols and techniques inherited from traditional indigenous shamanism, San Pedro is depicted on ancient Peruvian pottery and painted textiles of the Chavin culture, significantly in association with the jaguar, from the late second millennium bce. Somewhat later the ceramic sculptors of the brilliant Nazca culture of the early first millennium ce personified San Pedro as a supernatural being with the columnar cactus projecting, hornlike, from his forehead and from his shoulders. Like other hallucinogens of Amazonia, the San Pedro beverage is used in conjunction with tobacco juice, which is usually administered through the nostrils. Indeed, tobacco (Nicotiana, especially N. rustica and N. tabacum, both native to South America) plays an important role in ritual intoxication, most often in conjunction with another psychoactive species that is considered of first importance to the ecstatic experience. Less commonly tobacco is the consciousness-transforming plant of choice. A prime example is the tobacco shamanism of the Venezuelan Warao, a phenomenon of which Wilbert (1972, 1975, 1987) is the outstanding student. But even where tobacco is not the primary activator of the ecstatic shamanic trance, it is conceptually linked to the shaman. Thus, the Matsigenka term for tobacco is seri, and that for the shaman seripigari (Baer, 1976).

Hallucinogens and the shamanic vision quest

To the question why the Indians of South America, and also those to the north, should have developed such an extraordinary interest in botanical hallucinogens, the hypothesis of anthropologist Weston La Barre provides an elegant answer: their ancestors, as carriers of an archaic Asiatic shamanistic tradition that valued the ecstatic trance experience, arrived in the New World predisposed toward exploration of the environment for plants capable of triggering that experience. American Indian religions, La Barre proposed in 1970, including those of the great pre-Columbian civilizations of South and Mesoamerica, are or were essentially shamanistic, and so may be seen as extensions into the New World of Mesolithic and even Paleolithic antecedents in northeastern Asia. Shamanism values the ecstatic vision quest.

In some areas of North America the preferred techniques for the vision quest apparently were sensory deprivation, lonely vigil, self-torture, and other nonchemical "techniques of ecstasy." In others, especially the tropics, shamans must have searched their new environments from the start not only for potentially therapeutic flora but for species capable of altering consciousness, and, as among the Colombian Desána, at least temporarily and in strictly structured ritual settings, conferring even upon ordinary persons capabilities otherwise reserved for the religious specialist. Universally the special power of these plants was, and is, attributed not to chemicals but to the divine nature of the species, that is, to the male or female spirit believed to inhabit the individual plant. In a sense the communal use of sacred psychoactive plants represents, like the North American vision quest, a "democratization" of the shamanic experience, akin to the occasional communal ritual consumption by Siberian natives of the fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, under the leadership of the shaman. However, even where a relatively high proportion of adult males lays claim to some shamanic powers, or where, as among the Desána or Yanoama, most men ritually partake of the ritual hallucinogen, those individuals who have been mystically recruited as religious specialists and "technicians of the sacred"the true shamansremain uniquely the indispensable mediators between the world of humans and the greater powers of the natural and supernatural environment and of the larger universe.

See Also

Jaguars; Tobacco.


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Peter T. Furst (1987 and 2005)