by Michael J. Harner
"And when they went, I heard the noise of their winds, like the noise of great waters, as the voice of the Almighty, the voice of speech, as the noise of a host: when they stood, they let down their wings." Ezekiel 1:24
He had drunk, and now he softly sang. Gradually, faint lines and forms began to appear in the darkness, and the shrill music of the tsentsak, the spirit helpers, arose around him. The power of the drink fed them. He called, and they came. First, pangi, the anaconda, coiled about his head, transmuted into a crown of gold. Then wampang, the giant butterfly, hovered above his shoulder and sang to him with its wings. Snakes, spiders, birds and bats danced in the air above him. On his arms appeared a thousand eyes as his demon helpers emerged to search the night for enemies.
The sound of rushing water filled his ears, and listening to its roar, he knew he possessed the power of tsungi, the first shaman. Now he could see. Now he could find the truth. He stared at the stomach of the sick man. Slowly, it became transparent like a shallow mountain stream, and he saw within it, coiling and uncoiling, makanchi, the poisonous serpent, who had been sent by the enemy shaman. The real cause of the illness had been found.
The Jivaro Indians of the Ecuadorian Amazon believe that witchcraft is the cause of the vast majority of illnesses and non-violent deaths. The normal waking life, for the Jivaro, is simply 'a lie,' or an illusion, while the true forces that determine daily events are supernatural and can only be seen and manipulated with the aid of hallucinogenic drugs. A reality view of this kind creates a particularly strong demand for specialists, who can cross over into the supernatural world at will to deal with the forces that influence and even determine the events of the waking life.
These specialists, called 'shamans' by anthropologists, are recognized by the Jivaro as being of two types: bewitching shamans and curing shamans. Both kinds take a hallucinogenic drink, whose Jivaro name is natema, in order to enter the supernatural world. This brew, commonly called yagé, or yajé, in Colombia, ayahuasca (Inca 'vine of the dead') in Ecuador and Peru, and caapi in Brazil, is prepared from segments of a species of the vine Banisteriopsis, a genus belonging to the Malpighiaceae. The Jivaro boil it with the leaves of a similar vine, which probably is also a species of Banisteriopsis, to produce a tea that contains the powerful hallucinogenic alkaloids harmaline, harmine, d-tetrahydroharmine, and quite possibly dimethyltriptamine DMT. These compounds have chemical structures and effects similar, but not identical to LSD, mescaline of the peyote cactus, and psilocybin of the psychotropic Mexican mushroom.
Washikta, an outstanding Jivaro shaman, quietly listens to a visitor's request for assistance. As is customary when dealing with strangers, he keeps a shotgun in readiness during the consultation.
When I first undertook research among the Jivaro in 1956-57, I did not fully appreciate the psychological impact of the Banisteriopsis drink upon the native view of reality, but in 1961 I had occasion to drink the hallucinogen in the course of field work with another Upper Amazon Basin tribe. For several hours after drinking the brew, I found myself, although awake, in a world literally beyond my wildest dreams. I met bird-headed people, as well as dragon-like creatures who explained that they were the true gods of this world. I enlisted the services of other spirit helpers in attempting to fly through the far reaches of the Galaxy. Transported into a trance where the supernatural seemed natural, I realized that anthropologists, including myself, had profoundly underestimated the importance of the drug in affecting native ideology. Therefore, in 1964 I returned to the Jivaro to give particular attention to the drug's use by the Jivaro shaman.
The use of the hallucinogenic natema drink among the Jivaro makes it possible for almost anyone to achieve the trance state essential for the practice of shamanism. Given the presence of the drug and the felt need to contact the 'real,' or supernatural, world, it is not surprising that approximately one out of every four Jivaro men is a shaman. Any adult, male or female, who desires to become such a practitioner, simply presents a gift to an already practicing shaman, who administers the Banisteriopsis drink and gives some of his own supernatural power - in the form of spirit helpers, or tsentsak - to the apprentice. These spirit helpers, or 'darts,' are the main supernatural forces believed to cause illness and death in daily life. To the non-shaman they are normally invisible, and even shamans can perceive them only under the influence of natema.
Shamans send those spirit helpers into the victims' bodies to make them ill or to kill them. At other times, they may suck spirits sent by enemy shamans from the bodies of tribesmen suffering from witchcraft induced illness. The spirit helpers also form shields that protect their shaman masters from attacks. The following account presents the ideology of Jivaro witchcraft from the point of view of the Indians themselves.
To give the novice some tsentsak, the practicing shaman regurgitates what appears to be - to those who have taken natema - a brilliant substance in which the spirit helpers are contained. He cuts off part of it off with a machete and gives it to the novice to swallow. The recipient experiences pain upon taking it into his stomach and stays on his bed for ten days, repeatedly drinking natema. The Jivaro believe they can keep magical darts in their stomachs indefinitely and regurgitate them at will. The shaman donating the tsentsak, periodically blows and rubs all over the body of the novice, apparently to increase the power of the transfer.
The novice must remain inactive and not engage in sexual intercourse for at least three months. If he fails in self-discipline, as some do, he will not become a successful shaman. At the end of the first month, a tsentsak emerges from his mouth. With this magical dart at his disposal, the new shaman experiences a tremendous desire to bewitch. If he casts his tsentsak to fulfill this desire, he will become a bewitching shaman. If, on the other hand, the novice can control his impulse and swallow this first tsentsak, he will become a curing shaman.
If the shaman who gave the tsentsak to the new man was primarily a bewitcher, rather than a curer, the novice likewise will tend to become a bewitcher. This is because a bewitchers magical darts have such a desire to kill that their new owner will be strongly inclined to adopt their attitude. One informant said that the urge to kill felt by bewitching shamans came to them with a strength and frequency similar to that of hunger.
Only if the shaman is able to abstain from sexual intercourse for five months, will he have the power to kill a man (if he is a bewitcher) or cure a victim (if he is a curer). A full year's abstinence is considered necessary to become a really effective bewitcher or curer.
During the period of sexual abstinence, the new shaman collects all kinds of insects, plants, and other objects, which he now has the power to convert into tsentsak. Almost any object, including live insects and worms, can become a tsentsak if it is small enough to be swallowed by a shaman. Different types of tsentsak are used to cause different kinds and degrees of illness. The greater variety of these objects that a shaman has in his body, the greater his ability.
According to Jivaro concepts, each tsentsak has a natural and supernatural aspect. The magical dart's natural aspect is that of an ordinary material object as seen without drinking the drug natema. But the supernatural and 'true' aspect of the tsentsak is revealed to the shaman by taking natema. When he does this, the magical darts appear in new forms as demons and with new names. In their supernatural aspects, the tsentsak are not simply objects but spirit helpers in various forms, such as giant butterflies, jaguars, or monkeys, who actively assist the shaman in his tasks.
The drawings shown here depict figures seen by the shaman Mashu, while under the influence of the powerful Banisteriopsis drink, natema. At left is the head of a jaguar that appeared in one of Mashu's visions. The shaman, who had never drawn before, used pencil and paper supplied by the author.
Bewitching is carried out against a specific, know individual and thus is almost always done to neighbors or, at the most, fellow tribesmen. Normally, as is the case with intratribal assassination, bewitching is done to avenge a particular offense committed against one's family or friends. Both bewitching and individual assassination contrast with the large-scale headhunting raids for which the Jivaro have become famous, and which were conducted against entire neighborhoods of enemy tribes.
To bewitch, the shaman takes natema and secretly approaches the house of his victim. Just out of sight in the forest, he drinks green tobacco juice, enabling him to regurgitate a tsentsak, which he throws at his victim as he comes out of his house. If the tsentsak is strong enough and is thrown with sufficient force, it will pass all the way through the victim's body causing death within a period of a few days to several weeks. More often, however, the magical dart simply lodges in the victim's body. If the shaman, in his hiding place, fails to see the intended victim, he may instead bewitch any member of the intended victim's family who appears, usually a wife or child. When the shaman's mission is accomplished, he returns secretly to his own home.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the bewitching process among the Jivaro is that, as far as I could learn, the victim is given no specific indication that someone is bewitching him. The bewitcher does not want his victim to be aware that he is being supernaturally attacked, lest he take protective measures by immediately procuring the services of a curing shaman. Nonetheless, shamans and laymen alike with whom I talked noted that illness invariably follows the bewitchment, although the degree of the illness can vary considerably.
A special kind of spirit helper, called a pasuk, can aid the bewitching shaman by remaining near the victim in the guise of an insect or animal of the forest after the bewitcher has left. This spirit helper has his own objects to shoot into the victim should a curing shaman succeed in sucking out the tsentsak sent earlier by the bewitcher who is the owner of the pasuk.
In addition, the bewitcher can enlist the aid of a wakani ('soul,' or 'spirit') bird. Shamans have the power to call these birds and use them as spirit helpers in bewitching victims. The shaman blows on the wakani birds and sends them to the house of the victim to fly around and around the man, frightening him. This is believed to cause fever and insanity, with death resulting shortly thereafter.
After he returns home from bewitching, the shaman may send a wakani bird to perch near the house of the victim. Then if a curing shaman sucks out the intruding object, the bewitching shaman sends the wakani bird more tsentsak to throw from its beak into the victim. By continually resupplying the wakani bird with new tsentsak, the sorcerer makes it impossible for the curer to rid his patient permanently of the magical darts.
Many times the Christian missionary had told Mashu of the devil feared by white men, But since he had never seen the spirit, Mashu remained skeptical. Some time later, after drinking natema, Mashu was confronted by this figure of the 'white man's devil.' Since that time, Mashu has remained convinced of this spirit's reality.
While the wakani birds are supernatural servants available to anyone who wishes to use them, the pasuk, chief among the spirit helpers, serves only a single shaman. Likewise a shaman possesses only one pasuk. The pasuk, being specialized for the service of bewitching, has a protective shield to guard it from counterattack by the curing shaman. The curing shaman, under the influence of natema, sees the pasuk of the bewitcher in human form and size, but 'covered with iron except for its eyes.' The curing shaman can kill this pasuk only by shooting a tsentsak into its eyes, the sole vulnerable area in the pasuk's armor. To the person who has not taken the hallucinogenic drink, the pasuk usually appears to be simply a tarantula.
Shamans also may kill or injure a person by using magical darts, anamuk, to create supernatural animals that attack a victim. If a shaman has a small, pointed armadillo bone tsentsak, he can shoot this into a river while the victim is crossing it on a balsa raft or in a canoe. Under the water, this bone manifests itself in its supernatural aspect as an anaconda, which rises up and overturns the craft, causing the victim to drown. The shaman can similarly use a tooth from a killed snake as a tsentsak, creating a poisonous serpent to bite his victim. In more or less the same manner, shamans can create jaguars and pumas to kill their victims.
About five years after receiving his tsentsak, a bewitching shaman undergoes a test to see if he still retains enough tsentsak power to continue to kill successfully. This test involves bewitching a tree. The shaman, under the influence of natema, attempts to throw a tsentsak through the tree at the point where its two main branches join. If his strength and aim are adequate, the tree appears to split the moment the tsentsak is sent into it. The splitting, however, is invisible to an observer who is not under the influence of the hallucinogen. If the shaman fails, he knows that he is incapable of killing a human victim. This means that, as soon as possible, he must go to a strong shaman and purchase a new supply of tsentsak. Until he has the goods with which to pay for this new supply, he is in constant danger, in his proved weakened condition, of being seriously bewitched by other shamans. Therefore, each day, he drinks large quantities of natema, tobacco juice, and the extract of yet another drug, piripiri. He also rests on his bed at home to conserve his strength, but tries to conceal his weakened condition from his enemies. When he perchases a new supply of tsentsak, he can safely cut down on his consumption of these other substances.
The degree of illness produced in a witchcraft victim is a function of both the force with which the tsentsak is shot into the body, and also of the character of the magical dart itself. If a tsentsak is shot all the way through the body of a victim, then 'there is nothing for the curing shaman to suck out,' and the patient dies. If the magical dart lodges within the body, however, it is theoreticall possible to cure the victim by sucking. But in actual practice, the sucking is not always considered successful.
Whenever the shaman is curing or bewitching, his head remains covered by this halo-like crown. The crown can be seen by those drinking natema, but remains hidden from other onlookers.
The work of the curing shaman is complimentary to that of a bewitcher. When a curing shaman is called in to treat a patient, his first task is to see if the illness is due to witchcraft. The usual diagnosis and treatment begin with the curing shaman drinking natema, tobacco juice, and piripiri in the late afternoon and early evening. These drugs permit him to see into the body of the patient as though it were glass. If the ilness is due to sorcery, the curing shaman will see the intruding object within the patient's body clearly enough to determine whether or not he can cure the sickness.
A shaman sucks magical darts from a patient's body only at night, and in a dark area of the house, for it is only in the dark that he can perceive the drug-induced visions that are the supernatural reality. With the setting of the sun, he alerts his tsentsak by whistling the tune of the curing song: after about a quarter of an hour, he starts singing. When he is ready to suck, the shaman regurgitates two tsentsak into the sides of his throat and mouth. These must be identical to the one he has seen in the patient's body. He hold one of these in the front of the mouth and the other in the rear. They are expected to catch the supernatural aspect of the magical dart that the shaman sucks out of the patient's body. The tsentsak nearest the shaman's lips is supposed to incorporate the sucked-out tsentsak essence within itself. If, however, this supernatural essence should get past it, the second magical dart in the mouth blocks the throat so that the intruder cannot enter the interior of the shaman's body. If the curer's two tsentsak were to fail to catch the supernatural essence of the tsentsak, it would pass down into the shaman's stomach and kill him. Trapped thus within the mouth, this essence is caught by, and incorporated into, the material substance of one of the curing shaman's tsentsak. He then 'vomits' out this object and displays it to the patient and his family saying, 'Now I have sucked it out. Here it is.'
The non-shamans think that the material object itself is what has been sucked out, and the shaman does not disillusion them. At the same time, he is not lying, because he know that the only important thing about a tsentsak is its supernatural aspect, or essence, which he sincerely believes he has removed from the patient's body. To explain to the layman that he already had these objects in his mouth would serve no fruitful purpose and would prevent him from displaying such an object as proof that he had effected the cure. Without incontrovertible evidence, he would not be able to convince the patient and his family that he had effected the cure and must be paid.
The ability of the shaman to suck depends largely on the quantity and strength of his own tsentsak, of which he may have hundreds. His magical darts assume their supernatural aspect as spirit helpers when he is under the influence of natema, and he sees them as a variety of zoomorphic forms hovering over his, perching on his shoulders, and sticking out of his skin. He sees them helping to suck the patient's body. He must drink tobacco juice every few hours to 'keep them fed' so that they will not leave him.
This snake tsentsak was seen by Mashu, coiled within the stomach of one of his patients. To work his cure, Mashu then sucked this supernatural essence from the patient's abdomen.
The curing shaman must also deal with any pasuk that may be in the patient's vicinity for the purpose of casting more darts. He drinks additional amounts of natema in order to see them and engages in tsentsak duels with them if they are present. While the pasuk is enclosed in iron armor, the shaman himself has his own armor composed of his many tsentsak. As long as he is under the influence of natema, these magical darts cover his body as a protective shield, and are on the lookout for any enemy tsentsak headed toward their master. When these tsentsak see such a missle coming, they immediately close up together at the point where the enemy dart is attempting to penetrate, and thereby repel it.
If the curer find tsentsak entering the body of his patient after he has killed pasuk, he suspects the presence of a wakani bird. The shaman drinks maikua (Datura sp.), an hallucinogen even more powerful than natema, as well as tobacco juice, and silently sneaks into the forest to hunt and kill the bird with tsentsak. When he succeeds, the curer returns to the patient's home, blows all over the house to get rid of the 'atmosphere' created by the numerous tsentsak sent by the bird, and completes his sucking of the patient. Even after all the tsentsak are extracted, the shaman may remain another night at the house to suck out any 'dirtiness' (pahuri) still inside. In the cures which I have witnessed, this sucking is a most noisy process, accompanied by deep, but dry, vomiting.
After sucking out a tsentsak, the shaman puts it into a little container. He does not swallow it because it is not his own magical dart and would therefore kill him. Later, he throws the tsentsak into the air, and it flies back to the shaman who sent it originally into the patient. tsentsak also fly back to a shaman at the death of a former apprentice who has originally received them from him. Besides receiving 'old' magical darts unexpectedly in this manner, the shaman may have tsentsak thrown at him by a bewitcher. Accordingly, shamans constantly drink tobacco juice at all hours of the day and night. Although the tobacco juice is not truly hallucinogenic, it produces a narcotized state, which is believed necessary to keep one's tsentsak ready to repel any other magical darts. A shaman does not even dare go for a walk without taking along the green tobacco leaves with which he prepares the juice that keeps his spirit helpers alert. Less frequently, but regularly, he must drink natema for the same purpose and to keep in touch with the supernatural reality.
While curing under the influence of natema, the curing shaman 'sees' the shaman who bewitched his patient. Generally, he can recognize the person, unless it is a shaman who lives far away or in another tribe. The patient's family knows this, and demands to be told the identity of the bewitcher, particularly if the sick person dies. At one curing session I attended, the shaman could not identify the person he had seen in his vision. The brother of the dead man then accused the shaman himself of being responsible. Under such pressure, there is a strong tendency for the curing shaman to attribute each case to a particular bewitcher.
Shaman's gradually become weak and must purchase tsentsak again and again. Curers tend to become weak in power, especially after curing a patient bewitched by a shaman who has recently received a new supply of magical darts. Thus, the most powerful shamans are those who can repeatedly purchase new supplies of tsentsak from other shamans.
Shamans can take back tsentsak from others to whom they have previously given them. To accomplish this, the shaman drinks natema, and using his tsentsak, creates a 'bridge' in the form of a rainbow between himself and the other shaman. Then he shoots a tsentsak along this rainbow. This strikes the ground beside the other shaman with an explosion and flash likened to a lightning bolt. The purpose of this is to surprise the other shaman so that he temporarily forgets to maintain his guard over his magical darts, thus permitting the other shaman to suck them back along the rainbow. A shaman who has had his tsentsak taken away in this manner will discover that 'nothing happens' when he drinks natema. The sudden loss of his tsentsak will tend to make him ill, but ordinarily the illness is not fatal unless a bewitcher shoots a magical dart into him while he is in this weakened condition. If he has not become disillusioned by his experience, he can again purchase tsentsak from some other shaman and resume his calling. Fortunately for anthropology some of these men have chosen to give up shamanism and therefore can be persuaded to reveal their knowledge, no longer having a vested interest in the profession. This divulgence, however, does not serve as a significant threat to practitioners, for words alone can never adequately convey the realities of shamanism. These can only be approached with the aid of natema, the chemical door to the invisible world of the Jivaro shaman.
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