Caboclo Conceptions of Illness and the Use of Ayahuasca
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
a. expelling unwanted material;
b. doing away with unpleasant sensations such as headaches and
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.
6- Luna 1986:159.
7- Dobkin de Rios 1972:135.