Culture & Customs
The jungle is a fascinating environment with lush flora and fauna, fabulous scenery and very interesting indigenous groups. At the same time, it is also hostile and full of threats. The inhabitants of the Amazon basin have adapted to this environment over centuries. Their way of life, culture and customs are inseparable from the environment.
The native people’s survival has constantly been threatened by unpredictable insects, diseases, predators, evil spirits, shaman’s dark magic, torrential rains, rivers and so on. Therefore, the values and vision of life, death and survival are very different for Westerners. Native Pragmatism may surprise the Western traveler.
One should realize that concepts such as "personal growth" and "self-awareness" are not existent in their traditional culture. It was with the arrival of the white man and the mestizo when these concepts have begun to be incorporated in the shamanic context. The traditional role of the shaman is to cure diseases and protect the community. It is not that of the master or spiritual guide. One of the major errors committed by travelers in seeking experiences with ayahuasca is trying to find a shaman that fulfills the role of teacher, mentor, guide, and a spiritually elevated being. As in all professions, those exist, but not all of them are like that...
The master plants and diets
In shamanism, many plants are used, and ayahuasca is only one of them. Tobacco, toé, yawar-panga, chiring-sanango, chacruna, ayahuasca... All of these plants have a role in Amazonian medicine. Some of them are used for purging, a very important concept in this tradition, to cleanse the body and prepare it for the lessons of the ‘teacher plant’ that will be taken afterwards. Others are used to heal specific ailments or obtain knowledge in the initiation process into shamanism. The traditional way of taking these plants is through the diet (la dieta), which is more or less a prolonged period of time in which the individual is living in isolation, has very strict dietary and behavioral restrictions and ingests preparations of a ‘teacher plant’. The shaman guides the individual doing the diet through the process.
Therefore, you should not understand shamanism as the simple act of taking ayahuasca. It goes far beyond that, although it is true that both tobacco and ayahuasca have a central role in the Amazonian shamanic world. However, the ritual use of ayahuasca is the common thread that links religion and spirituality of almost all indigenous peoples of the upper Amazon, including the mestizo population. It seems likely that the shamanic practices of most part of the Upper Amazon - Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia - form one religious cultural area.
The worldview of the native cultures of the Amazon basin is very different from the one found in occidental society. Ayahuasca and other plants are used not only to cure, nor only for religious purposes. In his book Singing to the Plants, Stephan Beyer explains:
"It is through the hallucinogenic power of the ayahuasca drink that the hundreds of healing plants, including the plants used for magical attack and defense, reveal their appearance and teach their songs; it is through the power of ayahuasca that the shaman can see distant galaxies and planets, the wellbeing of distant relatives, the location of lost objects, the lover of an unfaithful spouse, and the identity of the sorcerer who has caused a patient to become sick. It is the ayahuasca drink that nurtures the shaman’s phlegm, the physical manifestation of shamanic power within the body, used both as defense against magical attack and as a container for the magic darts that are the shaman’s principal weapon."