THE MIND OF THE SHAMAN
Shamanic mentality is not an isolated element in a culture, nor
does it constitute an exclusive esoteric domain. The shamanic
mentality is spread throughout a community, though its members
participate at different levels and in different degrees.
Two concepts appear to characterize this mentality. The first
is based on the existence of "mystical essences," or spirit
helpers, that must be acquired or possessed to exorcise the
threats to life and limb to which human beings are prey. The
possession of these essences is a mark of an individual's having
come of age. In this context, in which spirits are acquired, preserved, multiplied, or lost, the virtue of the shaman resides in
his capacity to manipulate these essences in processes related
to health and illness, as well as to other situations.
The second concept refers to the apparent ability of human
beings to operate within two different states of consciousness
and, thus, gain access to two different planes of reality, the
ordinary or daily, which corresponds to an "unaltered state of consciousness," and the non-ordinary, which is related to an "altered
state of consciousness," or trance, and occurs when psychoactive
substances are ingested, or through dreams and spontaneous
visions. In this latter situation, one encounters spiritual
the meaning necessary to carry on with daily life.
This dual nature of reality and consciousness provides, at
each step along the way, its own logic, and only by understanding this logic can we get beyond the silly image of the "Indian"
who sees spirits wherever he looks, and who is unable to comprehend the laws of physics as a result, presumably, of his mystical vision of reality. It all depends on the states of
consciousness through which the individual moves and the reality that
corresponds to each state. In this way, by understanding the
dual reality of these peoples, we can understand the great
shamanistic potential of the Amazon peoples, a potential that
cannot, as is commonly believed, be defined in terms of a
THE PERSON OF THE SHAMAN
In spite of the various meanings attached to the specific words
denoting the shaman in different cultures (yachac, Kitchwa;
uwishin, Shuar, Achuar; yagé unkuki and inti paiki Secoya; ido,
Huaorani), the shaman's distinguishing characteristic is his
to manipulate spirits in order to heal by removing bad or evil
spirits, or to call upon these spirits to do harm. At the same
the shaman has the ability to discover the essence of mystical
substances and to establish connections among different worlds.
The shaman also has recourse to other basic skills, including the
possession of helper spirits, the ability to assume zoomorphic
shapes (that of the spider, harpy eagle, owl, jaguar...), the
to join forces with other shamans, and knowledge of the preparation of powerful substances, such as the umpunka and the
semayuka. The umpunka (from the Shuar umpun, to blow) are
objects that carry the evil powers of the shaman and these are
in the territory of the person he wishes to harm. On the other
hand, the semayuka is a "love potion" prepared from vegetal
substances and containing mystical power.
There is a hierarchy among shamans, based on the power each
is able to assume and transmit. Initiation is a process without
which it would be impossible to learn, possess, and manage this
power in an appropriate fashion. Various taboos (generally
prohibitions against sexual relations and eating the flesh of pigs,
armadillos, or other animals) facilitate control of these forces which
tolerate fear or excess of any kind in those who possess them.
The shaman is an individual who resides at the edge and
who is able to cross cosmic borders. The metamorphoses into
animals experienced by the shaman are a symbol of his ability
to mediate among extremes or to join different planes of reality.
The shaman is frequently identified with the boa -this being a
recurrent theme of shamanism in the Upper Amazon- who slides
through trees, moving among the various levels that exist between
earth and sky. The shaman of the Secoya travels through all
worlds in the belly of a boa. The tree is thought to be the
depository of the shaman's darts. The shaman is an intermediary
cosmological being, the point at which the cosmic may be experienced,
and this fact accounts for his association with the aquatic
world, a world between the earth and the sky. It is a world characterized
by sexual intimacy between spirits and animals: tsunki, according
to Shuar mythology, is the first shaman who lived in the depths of
rivers, and is represented as a woman with uncommonly large
genitals, who copulates with the tapir. In the symbolic world of
the Cañelos-Kitchwa and the Shuar, the dolphin, the incarnation
of the shaman, also engages in unusual sexual behaviour.