Our book
Know more about this work
See  pictures of Master Irineu


Chapter 2
Caboclo Conceptions of Illness and the Use of Ayahuasca

In many parts of the world where magical views on health and illness predominate, the questions asked when someone is taken ill are different from those asked by western medicine. While the latter concentrates on how a disease may occur, magical thinking is more concerned with why someone might be struck by a given illness. It should be noted that in this mode of thought, the concept of "illness" covers a wide range of problems which, apart from diseases, also includes psychological distress and an assortment of social and family difficulties.
Within this framework, the vegetalistas develop their conceptions on the causes of illnesses and the possibilities of healing, in a way which seems to be quite widespread throughout the Amazon region1. The problems they have to deal with are classified according to two basic categories:
1 Illnesses which are natural or sent by God. These are usually simple ills like colds, sore throats, skin problems, etc., which can be easily treated with medicines available from chemists, often as injections (preferably painful ones).
2 Magical illnesses. When a natural illness does not respond to the standard methods of Western medicine, then there is a suspicion that it may have supernatural causes. These suspicions may increase if sudden pains occur is specific parts of the body. It is then that a vegetalista must be resorted to. These magical illnesses are thought to be caused by ill wishers, moved by anger or envy, and who may resort to virotes, to soul stealing or other types of witchcraft.
This type of illness may even be brought about by spiritual beings, once their world is thought to be full of danger and basically hostile to man. According to Luna, however, due to the changes occurring in the habitat and due to urbanization, it is more common, nowadays, to attribute these illnesses to other humans, who are thought to act directly or to resort to sorcerers.
One of the vegetalista's main tasks is to determine the cause of an illness that may be afflicting a client. He must ascertain if it has a natural or a magical origin. Should it be the latter, then he must first discover the cause and then develop a appropriate treatment.
In order to accomplish this, he will usually begin by inquiring about the patient's symptoms , about his love life and his financial concerns. He may then examine the client's body and take his pulse. Sometimes this may be enough for the vegetalista to diagnose the illness and prescribe treatment. In other cases, he may have to resort to ayahuasca, which he may either take alone or sharer with the patient. There may then be visions, often of a highly colored and emotionally charged nature, where it is common to find both familiar and unfamiliar human or animal figures and, sometimes, even the patient himself. There are accounts of episodes involving autoscopy, consisting of journeys into the body and an examination of its workings. Other varied bodily phenomena may also occur, such
trembling, feelings of cold, nausea, vomit ,diarrhea, and, sometimes, even the sensation of death.
Such experiences and the interpretation offered by the vegetalista tend to have a great impact, and may lead the client to reconsider his life as a whole and the various tensions to which he is subject. This may frequently lead to the root of his ills. He may attribute them to the evil influence of someone he may see in his visions. In this case, the shaman must then enter into spiritual combat to revert this condition, and the client may derive comfort from the notion that evil spells tend to return to their senders, thus satisfying his sense of justice and of cosmic order.
On the other hand, illness is usually considered to be caused by a state of impurity in the individual, and is considered to be a "cochinada" (filth) that takes over his organism. It is believed that the accumulation of impurities is due to disobedience
of the dietary rules and other forms of prescribed conduct. Thus, the efficacy of ayahuasca and other plants that may be resorted to in such cases is credited to a large extent to their emetic/cathartic properties that produce sensations of cleansing and relief.
Treatments prescribed by vegetalistas are renowned for their power and for the way they shake the patients. So, the clients, when going for a consultation , usually take someone from their close personal circle to accompany them, so as to provide them with a sense of security and to help them on their way home. This ends up by giving the vegetalistas' work a touch of family therapy.
The vegetalistas are among the most prestigious options of treatment available to the impoverished masses of the region.3. This is understandable , once the local representatives of official medicine tend to be ill prepared and indifferent , if not prejudiced, with regard to this population. The vegetalistas, on the other hand, are not only closer to their public in cultural and economical terms, but they also offer a more personalized service. They are able to produce profound psychological effects using methods which are easy to understand since they are based on a series of beliefs which are shared by the local caboclo population. Thus they are more accessible and are, in many cases considered to be more effective than the practitioners of official medicine.

Ayahuasca Sessions

There is no single correct way to organize ayahuasca sessions, although there is always an effort to create an atmosphere of enchantment appropriate to the handling of sacred substances and to prepare spirits for transcendental experiences.
Sessions may occur either in a more urban environment or in parts of the forest which may be relatively difficult to reach for urban dwellers. In urban areas, they usually take place indoors, where away from too much noise which may disturb those whose sensitivity is magnified by the use of the beverage.. It is also necessary to keep a minimum of discretion with regard to neighbors and to the authorities, since although the use of ayahuasca may be permitted in Peru, there are laws against "quackery ". These sessions are usually held by professional or semi-professional vegetalistas, who may hold them several times a week or even daily. They bring together groups of up to twenty people, who are often strangers to each other and are not even introduced at the beginning of the session.

Sometimes these vegetalistas may decide to take smaller groups to a nearby forest and hold ayahuasca sessions outdoors, usually in moonless nights. On such occasions the sessions lose a little of their ritualistic rigidity and take on a more informal atmosphere. . Luna also calls attention to the differences between sessions held by vegetalistas from cities like Iquitos or Pucalpa and those from less urbanized areas , where there may be fewer Christian elements. But , as he himself points out this may be too rough a generalization, since vegetalistas move around a lot and belong to wide social networks that bring together urban and rural vegetalistas. He also points out that there is a great tolerance and even a curiosity about different ways of holding these rituals.
The sessions, called "works", do not necessarily have to be dedicated to healing. It is common for vegetalistas to get together a few times a month, in order to take ayahuasca together, and to learn from their visions, and renew their spiritual powers.
The ritual may be considered to begin with the preparation of the beverage. In some cases , the ayahuasqueros already acquire it made, but they usually like to prepare it themselves, using plants they themselves collect from the forest or grow in their own gardens in small landholdings known as "chacras". Luna describes a session where the vegetalista begins at dawn of the day previous to the preparation and ceremoniously collects the vine. After cutting it into pieces of between thirty and forty centimeters length, he ties them in bundles of about thirty pieces each. He then places them in a shady spot and covers them with leaves in order to protect them. He then collects the chacruna (Psychotria viridis) leaves.
The brew is prepared in a place especially set aside for this purpose and, in the case described by Luna, the process is then carried out by a woman and her brother. The preparation begins at six o'clock in the morning, when the pieces of vine are crushed with the help of a stone or a piece of hard wood. The vine fibers and the leaves are placed in a large pan in alternate layers. Ideally the pan should be made of ceramics , but as aluminum pans are more easily accessible, they are also more commonly used. For every layer he arranges , the vegetalista will blow tobacco smoke in the pan. He then pours between twelve and fifteen liters of fresh water over the layers and lets it boil till the liquid is reduced to a liter. This is then poured into another pan and the operation is repeated seven more times. The extract that is collected is then boiled again , till it is reduced to half a litre and the final product is a thick ochre liquid.
The session or "work" begins at about nine o'clock in the evening, although those taking part may arrive several hours beforehand. The group may be made up of:
- patients who may or may not take the beverage;
- healthy people who may want "cleansing" or who simply want to have visions;
- people accompanying patients or who are simply curious. These keep to their places and take little part in the session.
All those taking ayahuasca must abstain from alcohol, spicy food, salt, fat, and certain types of meat, for a period of at least 24 hours before the session and this diet should be kept for another 24 following the session.
The session is conducted by the vegetalista who may be assisted by his wife. For a few hours he may talk about a variety of subjects of both sacred and profane nature; he may tell stories, some of which may even be slightly lewd; and he may asked about absent friends or relatives of those present. This talk is considered to be important to prepare those taking part for the experiences they are about to have.
When the ayahuasquero finally decides it is time to begin, all those taking part make themselves comfortable, sitting in a circle around him as a means of protection against the forces of evil that may come during the session.
In one of the ceremonies Luna describes, the vegetalista sits in front of his "schacapa", a rattle used to accompany the icaros and, occasionally shaken over the head or the body of those taking part, in order to bring them visions or to protect them from illnesses or from evil spirits. Besides him he has a bottle of ayahuasca, another with camphor crystals steeped in alcohol, several cigarettes of "mapacho" tobacco, to be smoked during the ritual, a small bottle of perfume to calm those that might be frightened, and for those who might feel sick; toilet paper and a torch. Sometimes there may also be photographs or pieces of paper with the names and addresses of people who are to be helped in their absence. Neither the vegetalista nor any of those present uses any kind of special costume. Occasionally there may also be some clearly Christian symbols, like the cross or pictures of saints.
The ceremony begins with a series of prayers. One of the most common, begins by invoking "Christ, the Celestial Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth", and begs permission to use the plant and asks for protection against evil spirits who may wish to enter the circle. The prayer ends as follows:
"Father, in this Thy circle there is no envy, revenge, witchcraft, nothing of evil. All is in accordance with Thy laws. We heal the ill, to the best of our abilities. We obey Thy commands, Oh Father."
Several other prayers may also be said, such as the Roman Catholic Creed, and invocations of the Virgin. Much use is also made of a book called "The Holy Cross of Caravacca-A Treasury of Prayers". This collection is very popular in Latin America and Spain. It is often used in magic rituals, and was originally published in Valencia, Spain, during the 19th century. It has a series of prayers invoking the Cross of Caravacca, a double-armed cross which certain legends relate to the visit of Saint Helen to the Holy Land, in the year 326. Other accounts link it to the miraculous conversion of a Moslem king during the Moorish occupation of Spain.
The ayahuasquero then takes the bottle with the brew, blows tobacco smoke over it and invokes the spirit of ayahuasca, asking it to send visions to those present. He may request that someone see his future, or who is responsible for his illness, or , even, that there may be a vision of a bird such as the humming bird, or that a patient may have a vision of the underground, and see how a tree absorbs nourishment and strength through its roots.5
The beverage is served in a small gourd. Not everyone present drinks it, and some , like women or first timers, are given less. Before drinking, they may blow a little smoke over the gourd and say a quick prayer. Once they have all been served, the vegetalista takes his own dose and has the lights extinguished, except for a candle by the altar.
There follow between twenty and thirty minutes of silence until the vegetalista feels the arrival of the "mareacion" ( the name given to the effects of the drink and which in Spanish means dizziness or nausea). He then begins to play the rattle and to whistle or sing icaros to increase the effect. Occasionally, he may ask someone if he is "mareado" or he may blow smoke. The ill receive special attention, and the shaman may eventually suck certain parts of their bodies, producing a thorn or some other evil object which is supposed to have been lodged in their bodies, causing the harm. The others keep silent, absorbed in their visions. Occasionally someone may leave to vomit or defecate. The effect of the drink seems to come in waves. Every forty or sixty minutes there seems to be an interval when the icaros stop and the participants start making comments or even telling jokes about their visions. After a period of time, the effects return and everyone is silent again. If other vegetalistas are present they might play their rattles or sing their icaros at any moment with no kind of coordination. The words of the songs may be in different languages: Spanish, Aymara or Quechua.
After about four or five hours, the effects of the drink begin to diminish. Even if the participants began the session as strangers, there is now a pervading sense of friendship and warmth. Little by little, people begin to chat and to talk about the session. Finally, some go home while others may stay on, smoking and talking until they fall asleep.
Ayahuasca is also called "the purge" and taking it is thought to be a way of putting away all illnesses, negative moods, and other sources of problems and
misfortune. The generalized trust in it prophylactic powers and the experience of its strongly emetic and cathartic effects, no doubt contribute to a feeling of cleansing and to the generalized atmosphere of joy and relaxation that reigns after the sessions.
One of the criteria used to judge an ayahuasquero is by the strength of the brew prepared by him. Apart from "cleansing" through vomiting and diarrhea, it should also produce clear and positive visions. Many people go to ayahuasqueros, specifically in search of such visions; sometimes of distant relatives or friends, other times to find out who is responsible for a particular misfortune. There are frequent accounts of strongly erotic visions involving naked women, mermaids, etc.. But sexual activity before, during or immediately after are strictly tabooed, under the allegation that otherwise the brew may cause great harm.
A good ayahuasquero must also be able to control the visions of others, ensuring that everyone has his questions answered, and avoiding the more unpleasant experiences. In order to do this he can fall back on several different resources, such as the use of different types of ayahuasca, each of which may have different uses, the singing of certain icaros, the use of rattles or of perfume.
A shamanic session must above all reach a good degree of concentration, so that the visions may be clear. It is also considered important that there be a feeling of harmony among those taking part and the icaros , when sung by several people are thought to reinforce the collective visions, "juntando las mareaciones". Thus, in search of this atmosphere of harmony, tranquillity and assurance, groups of vegetalistas often come together to renew their strength. It is also considered to be dangerous to take the beverage in the company of strangers, since it is difficult to foresee what their reaction might be under the effect of ayahuasca.
In their visions, the ayahuasqueros seek to explore zones which may be difficult to reach in a state of waking consciousness, as well as other "separate realities", or suprasensitive worlds. When they take the drink they feel that they are breaking the normal physical boundaries and that this gives them access to other levels of reality. Shamans all over the world, and using various different methods to alter their states of consciousness, report experiences of this kind often including flights and voyages to distant places. These voyages may happen in many different ways, and might involve the shaman adopting animal shapes, or being carried by helping spirits or maybe, even airplanes or flying saucers. The incidents occurring during these voyages may also be very varied. Some may visit underground worlds, inhabited by frightening monsters, others may be taken to distant cities and have the prosaic experience of driving a car or taking an elevator. Sometimes these experiences may be terrifying - they may be attacked or have enormous snakes inter them through their mouths, etc.. On such occasions it is important to have the guidance of someone more experienced with the drink who may remind them of the need to keep calm and not give in to fear. Such unpleasant experiences may be attributed to wrongdoing of the past, such as breaking the prescribed diet, or not fulfilling the required sexual abstinence, for instance. Or they may be attributed to evil spirits, or to lack of care during the making of the brew. One of Luna's informants suggests placing a few tobacco cigarettes amidst the vine roots, in order to avoid such effects.
Besides Bannisteriopsis and Psychotria, many other plants may be used to prepare ayahuasca. There is virtually no limit to them, since ayahuasca is considered to be a means of studying the properties of unknown plants and substances, through the changes their addition may make to the overall experience and to the visionary content.
There are many teacher plants and , according to Luna, in some ways tobacco may even be considered to be more important than ayahuasca, since it acts as a mediator between the vegetalista and the spirits of the plants. One of his informants even says that, without tobacco , one cannot use any plant. Tobacco is considered as a purifier of the body and an enemy of illness. It is also considered to be a fool of the spirits. Learning the use of tobacco is supposed to be one of the most important aspects of shamanic initiation and it is always present in the ayahuasca sessions held by mestizo shamans in Peru.6
The feeling that one understands the cause of an illness or of other problems, may be a powerful relief to tensions, and in many cases may stimulate the individual's own powers of self-healing. As already pointed out, the treatment given by a vegetalista is usually more attentive to the patient's individual requirements than that given by practitioners of official medicine attending the poor. Thus it is understandable that many should resort to such practitioners, in search of care for their problems. Of these, one of the most common is alcoholism, one of the main social problems of the Amazon.
In order to be effective, the vegetalista must surround himself with an aura of omnipotence and be able to convince his clients that he really is able to visit worlds few have access to and that there he may face and defeat fierce evil beings who are responsible for their ills. In order to create and maintain this aura, the vegetalista often describes his adventures, sparing no praises to his own performance. In some cases, his economic and political successes may be called upon as evidence of his shamanic powers. Dobkin de Rios reports examples of shamans who become quite rich and powerful, such as one who was arrested in Pucalpa for the illegal practice of medicine and who had to be released due to the political manifestations that followed.
A vegetalista may often act as a moral arbiter in a community and attribute the cause of certain common problems to certain types of misconduct and single out individuals as perpetrators of evil deeds and, therefore, as deserving punishment. This may then occur either through counterwitchcraft or through more direct action.

One of the aspects of shamanism that becomes obvious from these accounts is that, although it may keep its traditional Indian roots, mestizo shamanism in the Amazon region is very dynamic and malleable, and has been able to adapt itself admirably to the new conditions brought about by urbanization and by the attacks on Indian culture.
Although few of the old shamans have been able to leave successors with the same degree of knowledge about plants and the forest cosmology, the use of ayahuasca persists. New types of shamans appear, who are less individualistic in their methods and more concerned with the collective aspects of the shamanic experience. Luna and Dobkin de Rios briefly mention a new generation of ayahuasqueros who no longer sing their icaros alone, but are accompanied instead by all those taking part in the sessions, like what happens in the Santo Daime ceremonies.
The decline of the traditional Amazonian knowledge is made up for by the borrowing of elements taken from European, African and even Oriental traditions. Nowadays it is common to find elements of rosacrucianism, gnosticism, Kardecist spiritism, and umbandism (an Afro-Brazilian religion) interweaving shamanic practices. In the place of the old solitary healers, there are now hierarchical institutionalized religions. And the old notions about forest spirits coexist with modern ecological conceptions.

1- These conceptions show many similarities with the notions studied by Maues (1990) in a region close to the Amazon Delta.
2- The American doctor Andrew Weil says that the reflex that leads to vomiting has its origin in the part of the brain called medulla oblongata, whose messages are transmitted to the alimentary tract through the vagus nerve - one of the main components of the parasympathetic nervous system. During vomiting, very potent
discharges occur in the vagus nerve, leading to several other physiological effects besides the expulsion of the contents of the stomach. Weil speculates that, in this manner, vomiting may make conscious several unconscious processes and may even help spread the influence of the cortex to the center of the unconscious area of the brain, the medulla. Weil believes that vomiting may have dramatic effects
on the individual's conscious experiences, affecting them in three ways:
a. expelling unwanted material;
b. doing away with unpleasant sensations such as headaches and nausea;
c. after the use of psychoactive substances, doing away with undesired emotions which may be the result of anxiety and of the resistance to the effects of the substance. Notable relief may be had from the concentration of these resistances and anxieties under the guise of physical sensations in the stomach and their subsequent expulsion through vomiting (Weil; 1980:8-13). Thus one may understand the positive manner in which ayahuasca users regard vomiting, which is regarded as a means of cleansing and may even be stimulated.
3-Dobkin de Rios 1972:67.
4-Luna 1986:144
5-Luna 1986:147.
6- Luna 1986:159.
7- Dobkin de Rios 1972:135.

Página Inicial do Neip