A Brief History of Shamanism
Shamanism exists in many varied forms all over the globe from Australia to the Americas, from Siberia to the Polar regions and has its roots in prehistory. The shaman is a spiritual leader who in a ritualised, ceremonial context enters a trance state and communes with the spirits of animals, trees and the deceased as well as spirits who inhabit planes or parallel realities quite unlike our physical universe. If he is to have a long life expectancy, the shaman must be very skilled in enlisting the aid of benevolent entities, and defending himself against evil ones – not to mention being able to tell the difference. These entities have access to information about the human condition that we do not – at least, not directly. The spirits may be able to diagnose a patient’s illness and prescribe natural, earthly treatments. They can also help the shaman by carrying out spiritual healing on the patient, restoring harmony between the spiritual body and the physical body. Eliade, one of the foremost researchers of comparative shamanism, describes the shaman’s trance state as ‘ecstasy’: he or she is literally travelling through ecstasy, co-opting the assistance of its more amenable inhabitants often as part of the healing process of individual human sufferers, or perhaps to resolve difficulties facing the community at large. It is almost always the case that the shaman will ingest some psychoactive substance to help enter the ‘ecstatic’ trance state although there are many examples of people with the ability to enter such a state at will. (A well-known example is Edgar Cayce, who never claimed any shamanic status but seemed to be tapping into similar energies.) It is less usual for the participants in shamanic ceremonies to ingest the same psychoactive substances as the shaman.
Over thousands of years, shamanism in the Amazonian rain forest has developed an unparalleled sophistication owing to the incredibly rich bio-diversity of the jungle: the Amazon contains over half of all plant species on earth, an estimated 98% yet to be fully analysed in the laboratory. Nobody knows how many plant species there are in the world: biologists’ best guesses vary from 3 to 30 million. And yet the ancestral wisdom of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon equips the genuine shaman to perform apparently miraculous feats of healing and transformation routinely.
Traditional Shamanic Practice in the Shipibo Culture of the Ucayali Basin
Throughout history it has been demonstrated that Shamanic practice in combination with traditional, natural medicine has, for millennia, been the only health-care system available to past generations. The role of the shaman, as well as the medicinal plants, has been of vital importance in maintaining the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the population. It is very clear that much of the vegetation thriving in the rain forest, and particularly the medicinal plants, contain a wealth of complex bioenergetic substances whose active ingredients constitute excellent treatments for a wide range of diseases. The Shamans are those privileged to possess this knowledge, inherited from a rich ancestral wisdom which, in harmony with nature and reinforced by spiritual forces, have given relief, peace and joy to so many people. True Shamans of the Shipibo culture also have the gift of clairvoyance as well as the power to heal, the capability to communicate with different spirits and to travel through different realms; the ‘beyond’; the world of under-water beings; the uncontaminated world deep in the forest, and, indeed, the entirety of cosmic space and other, parallel, dimensions. Specifically, such Shamans have the power to enter the subconscious of their subject, or patient, during their ayahuasca trances and to explore their past, present, and the probabilities for their future and guided by the different spirits of the teacher plants, to diagnose and cure a vast number of diseases. All this being so, and given that we will be entering a spiritual world unfamiliar to most people, to help them understand the spiritual dimension of nature, and so that they may see, appreciate and feel in their hearts these spiritual forces, let us explain a few points to familiarise them with certain aspects, such as the behavioural requirements and the customary procedure of spiritual apprenticeship.
The healing procedure, be it physical, mental or spiritual, and the nature of the diet which we must observe with each individual shaman, are not rigid guidelines which must be religiously observed in every case: the methods of each shaman will vary to a degree depending on the particular apprenticeship that he received from his masters both shamanic and spiritual. What we offer here can only serve as a general guide, as opposed to fixed rules of spiritual etiquette; we merely wish to offer the following information as a general ‘work aid’. But first, to better understand the origins of the ‘vine of Oni’, we would like to share the following legend with you.
Indigenous Wisdom: The Healers, or Shamans, of the Shipibo Culture
Throughout the planet, each different people has its own particular conception of shamanism, with different rites, practices and ceremonies. Even with the indigenous cultures of Peru, shamanism is conceived of in various different ways.
For the Shipibos, shamanism is a structured collection of knowledge both material and spiritual, which for thousands of years has conserved the many indigenous cultures, by helping people to find the most effective means of balancing their physical, mental or emotional, and spiritual states.
Amazonian ‘curanderismo’ – healing – or shamanism – is closely linked to the sacred plant, the ayahuasca vine, whose ritualistic use allows people to gain first-hand knowledge and mastery of the various arts of white medicine, to recover from ill-health and regain the tranquillity of their souls, whilst, at the same time, entering a different dimension, that is non-physical, or spiritual, where there is a new world of beauty, harmony and wisdom to be discovered. However, to enjoy these blessings, the participant must have a good mental disposition and an open mind – that is, free of any prejudices, and has to make a genuine effort to accompany the shaman on his journey. These ancestral practices help us to understand our very existence and the importance of living in peace both with ourselves and our family entourage as well as fully appreciating the blessings of love and joy.
For the Shipibos, shamanism is the most effective means to maintain the physical and psychic balance of living beings. So, what is a shaman? The Shaman is the wise man and spiritual guide of human beings. He draws his many different techniques and methodologies of healing the physical and mental bodies both from his knowledge of the curative powers of the many healing powers of the medicinal plants and his capacity to travel in other, spiritual, dimensions, unknown to most people. We can certainly say that the shaman is a special person, a visionary with much knowledge, for he knows the very essence of spirit, and he is the person who can guide you to develop your personality. This most ancient of arts is practised by way of the ingestion of the ayahuasca brew: ‘oni’ or ‘nishi’ in Shipibo.
Over the passage of time, there came to light the existence of certain very famous shamans known as ‘Merayas’, a title which denotes no ordinary shaman. Marayas are those who have reached the very peak of shamanic achievement, fully conversant with the ‘green’ and ‘yellow’ sciences: they are those who have achieved the ability to harmonise fully their auras with the beings of nature and are thus able to see these supernatural beings who live in the interior of the forest and the great aquatic and cosmic spaces. They are able to travel, fully aware, in each of the four worlds known to the Shipibo culture. Furthermore, the Merayas are able to change their physical form into an animal, such as a puma, an eagle, an anaconda or a jaguar – into an object, such as a rock – or become temporarily invisible. How this was achieved is unknown; perhaps by some form of mass hypnosis. Our founder’s grandfather, Don Guillermo, is believed to have been the last of the Merayas.
All shamans are unique and special healers, capable (to different degrees) of interacting in two different worlds – on the spiritual plane as much as the material one.
It is important that those who decide to make forays into the practice of shamanism must have a demonstrable vocation for service to others, to save lives, and not be susceptible to the black arts. They must protect themselves using their arcanas (spiritual protectors) as shields against the evil spirits who delight in harming people.
Surprising tales are told about shamans who assume the form of birds or nocturnal beasts by night and travel to different places for various reasons, but generally to heal a patient’s ailments. Very often, the person visited by such a shaman is only aware of the healing process in the dream state. Others are temporarily hypnotised so that the spirits summoned by the shaman may operate on the patient’s body. They are neither awake nor asleep, but in an intermediary level where they may be aware of the spirits healing them: and the following day, their sickness is healed. In other words – healing at a distance.
Part of the process of acquiring such knowledge, and becoming a force for healing requires the frequent use of the many benefits and teaching properties of ayahuasca, because its effects enable people to visualise spiritually many different astral beings, such as the mother of the rivers and the plains and the energies of the sun and the moon as well as other luminous entities and with the guidance of these, to correct mental and spiritual imbalances, and to diagnose a person’s ailments.