I wrote this piece on the shamanic use of plants and plant music last year for the 15 questions ebook on animal music. The ebook is due out fairly soon, but with permission from its publisher I thought I would put this piece on my blog.
Music of the plants
“If you have dieted with the plant and not learned its icaro then you know nothing,” Shaman Francisco Montes Shuna (from Stephan V Beyer’s book Singing to the Plants).
Sound is power for the shamans of the Amazon basin. The magical melodies, called icaros, taught to these healers by the plants and animals of the jungle bring with them not just the power to heal, but the power to kill, to protect, to find love, get rich and even to uncover the infidelities of a wandering spouse or partner. A visitor to the shamans of the mestizo peoples of the upper Amazon may come seeking to uncover something as prosaic as why his or her business failed, but they are equally likely to be seeking a remedy for a physical illness or an emotional cure for a malaise of the soul.
Shamanism in the Amazon basin is not a long faded ancient practice, but a contemporary reality in indigenous and mestizo communities of the region. Although no doubt a varied and dynamic tradition, shamanism in its many forms presents a vivid example of a way of life structured by a belief in the power of sound and song. It is the magical melodies, the icaros of the plants and animals, which heal the sick, protect the vulnerable, uncover the lost and divulge answers to the many questions brought to the shaman. And it is the shamans job to learn these songs.
For people like me who have no direct contact with the peoples of the Amazon it can be difficult not only to understand but even to gain information about the shamans and their songs. There is only a small amount of written material and much of this is authored by anthropologists rather than by the shamans themselves or members of their communities. Over the past few decades anthropology as a field has been forced to confront the ugly reality that much of it was based on prejudicial assumptions about the superiority of Western societies and a belief that indigenous and other non-western were relatively easy for western academics to understand and explain. Although most of the work consulted for this article showed a sophisticated understanding of the power relations wrapped up in this practice the fact remains that this article, which draws heavily on the work of anthropologists, shares all the limitations of attempting to make sense of a culture to which you do not belong, and in my case have never directly witnessed.
Learning to sing
In his astonishing book Singing to the Plants Stephan V Beyer asserts that the primary task of the shaman is to sing. Beyer’s book presents an overview of the shamanic traditions of the upper Amazon, but it also fascinatingly documents the author’s own attempts to train as a shaman.
According to Beyer, this training involves entering into a complex apprenticeship with both a shaman teacher (referred to as maestro ayahuasquero) but also the plant spirits themselves. Both of these relationships revolve around the ingestion of one plant in particular, the ayahuasca vine.
Meaning ‘vine of the soul’ in Quechua, ayahuasca is a pyschoactive plant which induces visual and auditory hallucinations, and in many cases violent vomiting. Beyer says that by taking the plant into the body, the shaman is able to visit with the spirit of the vine who will teach him or her the plant’s icaro. ‘‘To learn the plants” Beyer writes “means to create a relationship with the plant spirits, by taking them into the body, listening to them speak in the language of plants, and receiving their gifts of power and song.’’
This, however, is no simple process – plants are fickle and do not readily give up their secrets. To convince them to do so the shaman must go to extraordinary lengths to show he or she is worthy of possessing the magic melodies. For a start because plants are seen as extremely jealous, shamans must abstain from sex. The plants also hate strong smells, particularly those associated with sex like semen, but also menstruation.
The shaman must also purify his or her body by following a highly restrictive diet, avoiding any strong tasting foods as well as sugar and salt. Some shaman believe they must avoid sunlight. Others like shaman Pablo Amaringo, who is cited by Beyer, believe that because the spirits generally dislike the smell of humans it is best for shamans to avoid other people and spend as much time as possible in the jungle ahead of an ayahuasqua ceremony.
Ingestion remains central to shamanic study. After learning the icaro of the ayahuasca vine, shamans ingest other plants in order to study them. This process, Beyer states, is viewed as spending time with the different plants and learning from them. Other substances are also studied in this way. To study steel and learn its icaro the shaman soaks it in water for several days and then drinks the water; gasoline is studied by inhaling it. Cologne is mixed with ahayausca to access its properties and learn love icaros.
During these sessions with the plants, animal spirits may also appear to the shaman to teach their icaros. Anthropologist and ayahuasca researcher Luis Eduardo Luna says one shaman he spoke to, Don Manuel Cordoba Rios, brings animals to his students through imitation, enabling them to ‘become one’ with the animal, and in time use the animals’ icaros to call on the animal spirit for help in healing ceremonies.
This way of learning presents a startling reversal of the western preoccupation with the importance of observation. For the shaman the body is the site where knowledge is produced, and the way it is transmitted is via sound and melody. ‘’In fact it seems that one of the central ideas is that certain qualities or properties of plants, animals, mineral, or metals can be incorporated either by the ingestion of some part of this object, or by other means unknown,’’ Luna writes.
Mastering the icaro of the plant or substance in question is the ultimate aim of this process of ingestion, and Luna writes that for many shaman these songs are seen to contain the very essence of the plant or animal in question, and in the case of medicinal plants can be substituted for the physical plant.
Songs of power
Discussing one of the ayahausca ceremonies held by his teacher don Roberto Acho Jurama, Beyer describes don Roberto beginning the session by singing a simple song used to protect those in attendance. He then sings the icaro de ayahuasca in a whisper over the ayahuasca liquid and distributes it to those attending, before singing again and drinking it himself.
As the room fills with the sounds of retching and vomiting, Beyer says don Roberto calls the plant spirits, again by singing, reciting the icaros of a vast number of spirits to the healing room so they are ready at hand for the ceremonies to come.
Despite having consumed ayahuasca in the past, Beyer writes of his apprehension at swallowing the ‘vile liquid’. “It is one of the worst things I have ever tasted,” Beyer writes, “it coats my teeth and tongue.” Before the ceremony, Beyer says he wonders if the spirits will appear to him tonight. In a book chapter devoted to the icaros of the Peruvian Amazon, Luna details just some of the examples he encountered in the Amazonian provinces of Peru.
Although it is plants which are seen as the original teachers for the shaman, there are icaros of both plants and animals. “A man is like a tree. Under the appropriate conditions he grows branches. These branches are the icaros,” Don Alejandro tells Luna.
An icaro of the sloth, an animal which is seen as clean, strong and very picky about what it eats is used to cure digestive problems in children. The flamboyant toucan, with its sad and beautiful song has an icaro which is used to help win love. Icaros of slippery animals are used to aid in child birth. Other animals like the eagle, the condor, the boa, the eel and the jaguar are all called on by shamans for healing.
As Luna writes “Through the icaros the shaman is able to ‘become one’ with the animal and see the world accordingly.” At times an animal, rather than a plant may even become the primary teacher of the shaman. Luna cites one young shaman who said his teacher was a hawk. Another shaman said during an intense period of ayahuasca ingestion and learning he had felt himself becoming very small, and subsequently a large ant had appeared to him and communicated in a ‘tridimensional language.
One example of an icaro of protection cited by Luna was used by a former shaman Don Pablo Amaringo, which invokes the spirit of the jaguar. Part of the icaro goes: ”Where are you coming from/the offspring of the black jaguar/ You nourish the earth with the milk of your breasts/ In this way come forth. Behind it comes/the otorongo [jaguar] is calling him/ in the midst of the great forest/ it comes screaming”.
But icaros don’t just invoke the characteristics of the animal or plant in question, they also reflect the realities of contemporary life. Luna cites one used to invoke an insect which has eyes similar to the headlights of car. This icaro, Luna says, is used to help the shaman look for a person who has been stolen.
Some icaros are used simply to farewell a good person, or attract a particular fish prized for its taste. According to Luna each shaman has a ‘main icaro’ which represents the essence of his or her power. If a shaman learns the main icaro of a different healer he or she will inherit the knowledge of that healer on his or her death.
Icaros can be whispered, whistled or sung in full voice, some have clearly discernible words, others are in a mix of languages, some are in the languages of the spirits and some are just a melody.
Links to the past
The importance of sound to shamanism may find its roots in the some of the traditional beliefs of indigenous communities in the Amazon.
One striking example is found in the myths of the Wakuénai, described by anthropologist Jonathan D Hill in an article documenting the practices of the indigenous curers of the upper Rio Negro basin of Venezuela. According to Hill, in the mythology and cosmology of the Wakuénai, whose ancestral lands are found around the Isana and Guainir rivers in Venezuela, the world as it we know it was literally sung and hummed into existence.
For the Wakuénai, Hill writes, the figure of Kuwái, the son of the world’s first man (Iñápirríkuli) and woman (Amáru), produces a ‘powerful sound’ which ‘opens up’ the world, transforming it from its past existence as the miniature world of his parents, into the life-sized world inhabited by the humans, animals and plants of today.
Kuwái is subsequently killed by his father and the world shrinks back into its miniature form, emphasising the integral link between sound and human existence. Again it is through music that the world is reconstituted. From Kuwái’s ashes grow plants which are used to make the sacred flutes and trumpets played in initiation rituals and sacred ceremonies. The instruments are stolen from Iñápirríkuli by Amáru who along with other women play them as they lead Iñápirríkuli on a long chase across the world, reopening it for a second and final time in its current form.
Hill traces the origins of shamanic practice in this region to these beliefs of the Wakuénai, asserting that the most striking feature of the curing rituals in the region is the degree to which the behavior of the ritual specialists centers on musical performance. “The rituals are essentially musical events around which a variety of other less important activities revolve,” he writes.
In reenacting Kuwai’s musical creation of the world, Hill states the chant owners tap into the transcendent power of sound and song.
A power beyond words
Words may be crucial to the recitation of many icaros, but their intelligibility is not, and in many cases meaning is actively obscured.
Beyer cites his teacher don Roberto as saying the more abstract, less conceptual, less overtly intelligible the icaro the more powerful it is. He states that many of the most powerful icaros feature a mix of languages, some unknown, some indigenous, other gleaned from the plant teachers, as well as non-verbal sounds.
When reciting icaros shaman add to the indiscernibility of the songs by dissolving many of the words into whispers, and non verbal sounds. Other icaros have no words at all consisting solely of a melody. Ayahuasca seems to powerfully affect the conception those who ingest have of their ability to understand the meaning of pure sound, or non-verbal sounds. In Singing to the Plants Beyer cites the experience of anthropologist Janet Siskind who stated that after ingesting ayahuasca she believed she was capable of understanding every song she heard.
Doña María Luisa Tuesta Flores, another of Beyer’s teachers, and one of the few women shaman referred to in the articles I have read, said she spoke to the spirits in Quechua, despite not being able to speak the language when not under the influence of ayahausca. And both don Roberto and don Maria said spirits from out-of-space spoke to them in a ‘computer language’ of beeps, while the languages of the plants themselves were described by the pair as consisting of somewhat similar high pitched sounds. According to Beyer, both shamans report no difficulty in understanding what is being communicated to them in these languages. Perhaps surprisingly given the shaman tradition’s emphasis on sound is the power many of these healers’ believe exists in its absence – silence.
Training as a shaman involves lengthy periods of solitude, often in the jungle. Many days are spent listening and watching the plants and the animals. One novice shaman discussed by Luna, talks about spending months consuming ayahuasca and observing the creatures and plants of the jungle. When asked by his teacher which animal had impressed him the most, the young shaman described spending many days with one type of ant, listening to it talk in a ‘transdimensional language’ and learning its habits.
Perhaps it is this meditation on such tiny sounds, which has contributed to the shaman’s belief is the power of quiet.
According to Beyer, for the shaman the most powerful of all sounds are those which hang between song and silence, and the most potent icaros are those refined into breathy whistles and inaudible whispers. In these instances, like the transdimensional language of the jungle ant, sound itself is readily discernible, its power perhaps being bolstered by its faltering existence at the edges of perception. This is perhaps most profoundly summed up in Beyer’s claim that the shamans most powerful sound of all, one which can both kill and cure, is the one which most nears silence – the sound of blowing. He describes is as it as a soft voiceless – ‘pshoo’….
Beyer, Stephan V, 2009 Singing to the Plants – A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon, University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque
Hill, Jonathan D 1992 ‘A musical aesthetic of ritual curing in the northwest Amazon’ in Portals of Power, University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque
Luna, Luis Eduardo 1992 ‘Icaros, magic melodies among the Mestizo Shamans of the Peruvian Amazon’ in Portals of Power, University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque