Ross Heaven/Waking Times
Shamanic healing often employs plants to good effect, though it is rarely about herbalism, per se. Indeed, most shamans are explicit that the pharmacological properties of the plants they employ are of far less importance than the spirit which is held by the plant. It is the spirit which heals, while the plant itself is secondary, acting only as the home of the plant-spirit.
The point is illustrated by Amazonian shaman, Javier Arevalo, who serves the community of Nuevo Progreso, on the Rio Napo river of Peru, working with the visionary jungle vine, ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca is a powerful purgative and curative mixture which is used by the shamans of the Amazon to commune with the spirits, who then oversee the healing of the person who drinks the ayahuasca brew, while the shaman guides the healing session and appeals to the spirits on behalf of his client.
The mixture itself, blended in careful measure, contains ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and leaves of the chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis), often with datura and pure jungle tobacco, which cause the purging qualities that ayahuasca is famous for. The final mixture is also known as ayahuasca, from the Quechua words, aya meaning ‘spirit’ or ‘dead’, and huasca meaning ‘rope’ or ‘vine‘. Hence, the brew is often referred to as the ‘vine of souls’ or the ‘rope of the dead’.
It is prepared by cutting the vines into short lengths which are then scraped, cleaned and pounded to a brown pulp. The vines, along with chacruna leaves and other ingredients are then placed in a cauldron, water is added, and the entire mixture is boiled for 10-12 hours, overseen at all stages by the shaman who will continuously blow sacred tobacco smoke into and over the brew. When ready, the mix becomes a muddy, pungent liquid with a foul, acrid taste.
Once ingested, the mixture produces initial feelings of warmth which spread up from the stomach, creating a sense of well-being and a sensation of skin elasticity, almost as if the skin has become rubber-like and pliable and no longer separate from the air around it. After this first phase, which may last 30-60 minutes, the visionary effects begin, which are often dramatic. Harvard ethnobotanist, Wade Davis, in his book, One River, described the sensation as akin to being “shot out of a gun barrel lined with Baroque paintings, and landing in a sea of electricity”. Visions of snakes and vines in bright primary colours are very common but, for the trained shamanic eye, information on the illnesses and diseases which inhabit his client’s bodies are also expected. It is these visions which enable him, and the spirit of ayahuasca, to heal his clients.