What is Shamanism?
Shamanism is the oldest spiritual practice known to humankind, with archeological evidence suggesting that it been practiced all over the world for at least 70,000 years. Shamanism is not a religion, but a method for making transpersonal connection with the sacred realms. It exists in every culture, and co-exists with all religions and political systems.
According to American psychologist and consciousness pioneer, Stanley Krippner, shamans are "community-assigned magico-religious professionals who deliberately alter their consciousness in order to obtain information from the 'spirit world.' They use this knowledge and power to help and to heal members of their community, as well as the community as a whole."
Shamans view illness as disharmony in a person’s life on energetic and spiritual levels. This disharmony can lead to mental, emotional, and/or physical illness if left unresolved. A shaman addresses the energetic and spiritual aspect of illness by making journeys into the astral or spirit world; a ‘non-ordinary’ reality parallel to our own physical reality. There, the shaman meets transpersonal forces and benevolent plant, animal and human spirits. It is these compassionate spirits who perform the healing work, with the shaman acting as a conduit. It is sometimes the case that the shaman will ingest some psychoactive substance to help enter the ‘ecstatic’ trance state, although there are many examples of shamans with the ability to enter such a state at will.
Abilities of Shamans
According to Christina Pratt in The Encyclopedia of Shamanism, a shaman is a practitioner who has gained mastery of:
- Altered states of consciousness, possessing the ability to enter alternated states at will, and controlling themselves while moving in and out of those states.
- Mediating between the needs of the spirit world and those of the physical world in a way that can be understood and used by the community.
- Serving the needs of the community that cannot be met by practitioners of other disciplines, such as physicians, psychiatrists, priests, and leaders.
A shaman is therefore a specific type of healer who uses an alternate state of consciousness to enter the invisible world, which is made up of all unseen aspects of the world that affect us, including the spiritual, emotional, mental, mythical, archetypal, and dream worlds.
The Shipibo people, originating along the Ucayali River, are one of 14 indigenous cultures living in the Amazon Basin in Peru. Formerly two groups, the Shipibo and the Conibo, they eventually became one distinct tribe through intermarriage and communal ritual and are technically known as the Shipibo-Conibo people. Their total population equates to approximately 35,000 people in approximately 300 villages in the region.
The Shipibo are a long-standing people credited with maintaining a time-honored history of plant-spirit shamanism, particularly surrounding the ritual use of ayahuasca. Among the indigenous cultures of the Upper Peruvian Amazon, the Shipibo are one of the few cultural groups that have managed to maintain their original language, art and plant medicine practices. The Shipibo tribe seems to have a particularly strong relationship with ayahuasca, and many consider the Shipibo to be the most highly skilled ayahuasca healers in the Peruvian Amazon.
Much of the Shipibo knowledge and worldview comes from a deeply-rooted relationship to plants, animals, and the natural world. This is evidenced in their pottery, textiles, baskets, art, and beadwork, which display patterns representative of the harmonious energy field that pervades all things. The Shipibo culture has thrived throughout the past in the practices of fishing, hunting, medicinal plant knowledge, and art. The tapestries created by Shipibo women are beautifully woven and intricately designed to reflect visions or icaros that are seen to them via Ayahuasca ceremonies.
Shipibo Shamanism & Plant Dietas
Shamanism has been prevalent in the history of the Shipibo with a strong respect given to those that take the path of the Shaman (or curandero) in each village. Shipibo curanderos are not only the go-to authority when it comes to physical ailments but also spiritual/mental and emotional anomalies that those in the village may be facing. A true confidant and trusted authority, Shipibo curanderos undergo decades of training, countless plant diets and an abundance of ceremonies before being ready to heal others with plant medicine.
The traditional Shipibo plant dieta is an intensive study period, done frequently for long periods by Shipibo curanderos. It is where they gain their wisdom and knowledge as a healer, and where they receive their icaros (medicine songs). The general agreement in a dieta is that the curandero will sacrifice the pleasures of physical stimulation by refraining from sex, alcohol, and sweet, spicy, salty, or rich foods. In return for this sacrifice, the plant spirits agree to teach, guide, protect, strengthen, or endow special abilities to the person doing the dieta. Usually, the dieta is done in isolation and only a few types of small fish are eaten.
Typically, Shipibo curanderos undergo a number of dietas normally lasting one, three, six, or 12 months, over many years, in order to become a conduit for transferring the healing energies of the plants. While the curandero is not the one carrying out the healing (this is the role of the plant spirits), they are certainly a part of the equation, and as such, must be highly trained, psychologically and emotionally balanced, well-intentioned, and have an open and loving heart.
Icaros - Sacred Songs
During their apprenticeships and dietas working with various plants in solitude, the healers are taught specific icaros from the plants spirits directly. These songs carry a vibration which is used to help heal the patients by altering their energetic frequencies to be more harmonically aligned.
The icaros, or healing songs, sung during ayahuasca ceremonies are the audial representation of the patterns you will often see on Shipibo art. During ceremony, the shaman is accessing the geometric patterns of energy from the plants, which transform through the vessel of the Maestro into a chant or icaro. The icaro is therefore a conduit for the patterns of creation, which then permeate the body of the shaman’s patient, bringing harmony in the form of the geometric patterns in order to re-balance the patient’s body. The shaman knows when the healing is complete, as the design is clearly distinct in the patient’s body. Oftentimes it takes multiple ceremonies to complete this, and when the completed healing designs are embedded in the patient’s body, this is called an arcana. This internal patterning is deemed to be permanent and to protect a person’s spirit going forward.