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The Andean Codex: Adventures and Initiations among the Peruvian Shamans

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The Andean Codex: Adventures and Initiations among the Peruvian Shamans

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781571743046
  • Publisher: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/28/2005
  • Pages: 216
  • Sales rank: 1,424,193
  • Product dimensions: 5.62 (w) x 8.58 (h) x 0.58 (d)

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The Andean Codex

ADVENTURES AND INITIATIONS AMONG THE PERUVIAN SHAMANS


By J. E. Williams

Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 J. E. Williams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57174-304-6



CHAPTER 1

Ayahuasca Spirits


The ayahuasca shaman, or ayahuascero, Don Pedro is tall for a mestizo and as lean as a vine. This talkative man in his early sixties with deep-set obsidian eyes in a weathered-looking but kind face spends much of his time sitting and is in no hurry to start. Unaware of the heat, he passes time entertaining us with tales of his training with a female shaman in the jungles near Ecuador, an unusual apprenticeship as most Amazonian shamans are men. When his wife and children are asleep, he rises slowly from his stool, being careful not to hit his head on the low thatched ceiling, and leads us to the ceremonial hut behind his home, where he immediately settles into a straight-backed chair.

A human skull brown with age peers hollow-eyed from a wooden trunk. Beside the ayahuascero is a three-foot-long crocodile skull bleached by the sun. Directly behind him on a plain table stands an ornate silver crucifix. A slight breeze penetrates the thin reed walls and rattles the tin roof of the hut. The candles flicker and the crucifix and the skull do a shadow dance. In front of Don Pedro on another wooden table sits a bottle of a yellowish-brown liquid. Alongside it is a small cup. Otherwise the room is empty.

I sit on a bench cut from a log. It is hard and uncomfortable. Sweat pools in the hollows above my collarbone and drips down my chest. The Peruvian poet Ana Varela sits beside me. Her high-cheekboned face shines with sweat in the candlelight and there are beads of sweat along her neck.

By ten at night, the breeze, our only ally against the stifling Amazonian heat, has dissipated. Other than the sound of the tree frogs pulsing on and off, the silence is so thick it feels like cloth pressed against my skin.

"Tonight we drink yajé," the ayahuascero says, his voice resonant and serious. "Your mind may open and your heart sing. You may vomit violently. Don't be afraid. Prepare yourselves."

Like an early explorer about to embark on a journey to the New World, I am filled with a mixture of wonder and fear. I listen attentively, fascinated by everything Don Pedro says. I will discover later that I am naïve and unprepared for what I am about to experience.

I had read accounts of ayahuasca sessions by Westerners but found them limited in insight and lacking depth of experience. Accounts from the 1950s by anthropologists of ayahuasca visions recorded after sessions with Amazonian Indians were more dramatic, but academic. They told of visitations by supernatural beings, journeys with dolphins to cities under the Amazon River, and conversations with plant spirits. As a doctor, however, I hardly believed that an organic substance made from boiling the bark of a vine with some leaves that in themselves have limited chemical activity could produce the claimed effects. In less than an hour, I would find out how wrong my assumptions were.

Handing us plastic buckets in which to vomit, Don Pedro says, "Yajé is also called la purga."

He explains that, due to its potent emetic and laxative effects, ayahuasca cleanses the body, which accounts for the name, "the purge." Yajé, as mentioned, is another common way of referring to the ayahuasca brew. Shamans say that the vision producing mixture of plants guides them in healing and facilitates attunement with the spirits of the forest.

Yajé expands the consciousness and integrates mind and body while harmonizing the individual with nature, so it is respectfully addressed as Madre Ayahuasca. In Peru, the most potent aspects of nature are believed to possess not only life but intelligence. In particular, plants such as corn, coca, tobacco, and ayahuasca have this active intelligence, and they are blessed by a madre or "mother" that makes them wise. The Earth Mother, Pachamama, is mother to them all. Peruvian shamans believe that plants not only nourish us and heal disease, but teach us about the environment and how to be a good-hearted and wise person. Such plant teachers are called plantas maestras, "master plants."

"Tomorrow morning, don't eat or drink anything before ten. Then drink one glass of warm lemon water with garlic. You can add a little salt. At noon, consume only chicken broth and eat nothing else for the rest of the afternoon," Don Pedro tells us, outlining the rules for after the ceremony. "In the evening, you can eat a meal, but don't add any salt, sugar, or oil. Don't eat fish or fruit."

Lighting mapacho, wild Amazonian tobacco commonly made into large hand-rolled cigarettes or used in small wooden pipes, the ayahuascero blows smoke over each of us and onto our palms. Mapacho belongs to the Solanaceae family of plants and is an extremely powerful intoxicant. When smoked in moderation, it can cause mild euphoria, muscle weakness, and stupor, then sleep (often with vivid dreams when smoked in excess). It is an integral part of Amazonian shamanic practice and is used extensively in healing ceremonies to cleanse the patient, much as North American Indians use the smoke from dried sage.

Don Pedro then pours a few drops of the pure cane alcohol called aguardiente on the dirt floor to honor Pachamama. Then he sprinkles some on each of the skulls to ignite the spirit within them. It is as if he is saying, "Drink with us, be alive tonight once again, protect and guide us in the world of the dead, in the worlds beyond what we see with our physical eyes."

In a barely audible voice, he invokes saints and forest spirits. Blowing smoke into the bottle of yajé, he covers it with his palm and softly whistles. The smoke trapped in the space between the top of the bottle and the yellowish-brown liquid swirls like eddies in a river. As he lifts his palm off the bottle some of the smoke escapes. As it drifts upward, the candlelight cuts through it and makes it look like lace. He blows into the bottle several times to awaken its energy by feeding its spirit with the life force contained in his breath.

Pouring some of the brew into a plastic cup, he drinks it in one swallow. Then he says, "Don't be afraid."

The smell is strong enough to turn one's stomach even before tasting it. Ana goes first. Her face twists as she drinks the thick substance. I hope that I will be able to swallow mine. She hands the cup back to Don Pedro and he fills it and gives it to me, watching intently as I bring it to my lips. The bitterness is not as strong as I expect. A foul aftertaste lingers on my tongue all the way to the back of my throat.

After I finish drinking, Don Pedro blows out the candles. Traditionally, ayahuasca ceremonies take place at night and in complete darkness. The heat is relentless and sweltering in the hut as we wait in the dark for the spirits to arrive. Don Pedro smokes another mapacho cigarette. The light from the match momentarily reveals his face and I see that his eyes are closed as if in contemplation. The smell is pungent but pleasant. Then, he whistles. The sound is soft and relaxing. After ten minutes, he chants the melodies called icaros considered by Amazonian shamans to be magical. They are said to be the songs the spirits of the plants sing. He accompanies himself with the rhythmical rustle of the shacapa, a simple form of musical device typical to ayahuasca ceremonies, made from the dried leaves of a low growing palm in the Poaceae family.

Twenty minutes pass and I feel nothing except the oppressive heat. Then Ana moans.

"It's too strong," she says. "Muy fuerte," she repeats several times in a trembling voice that sounds on the edge of hysteria.

I wonder if I am slow to react to its properties, or if Ana is exaggerating. When she retches violently and vomits into her plastic bucket, I know she is at least experiencing the purgative effects. She finishes vomiting and settles back on the bench beside me. I ask if she is all right. She tells me that the visions have started and then falls silent.

As an audience hushes and the orchestra becomes alert when the conductor comes on stage and taps his baton, so my brain stills and my body tenses. Though unaware of it at that moment, I am on the threshold of the experience that will shape the next decade of my life.

For the first few minutes, the experience is pleasurable, as when relaxing before sleep, but that rapidly progresses and I am propelled into the most extraordinarily beautiful and at times terrifying visionary world imaginable.

The room gives way and the walls disappear like a sand castle dissolves in the oncoming tide. It is as if all I am, and all that ever existed, is evaporating. I am frightened. This intense anxiety passes, however. Then, for a moment, I am floating in a void. Nothing exists except endless darkness. Suddenly, stars so bright they hurt my eyes appear. I recognize the Milky Way below me and a universe of stars all around. It is beautiful and grand and I don't feel alone or frightened. I am accompanied by light.

The dissolution of normal consciousness can be frightening. It is like death. It is not the end of the body, however, but of the multitude of opinions, thoughts, and memories that shape one's life. You are no longer what you thought you were and you are everything that you never would have imagined you could be. Amazonian shamans are said to die many times while alive. In doing so, they learn to let go of the mundane and to open themselves to the ancient teachings revealed in the forest and to the immensity of the universe. In Quechua, ayahuasca means "the vine of the dead."

In an instant, I descend toward Earth, free-falling, and the darkness fades. An orange sun rises in the distance and covers half the horizon. I float over the great Amazon rain forest, an endless sea of green extending to the horizon in four directions. Then I slowly fly east and head toward the rising sun. The river is like an immense brown serpent with watery tentacles that reach into the forest in every direction. As I float over it, the river seems less a waterway than a force of life. Animate and real, it pulses and writhes underneath me.

As I fly, the river changes. It becomes a monstrous anaconda rising up from the water. Then the frightening snake opens its gargantuan mouth as if to devour me. Terrified for a moment, I overcome my fear as I realize that what is happening is inevitable. I think of Jonah and the whale. Instead of swallowing me, however, the snake lowers itself to the bank of the river and out of its mouth comes every kind of jungle animal, bird, and insect as if from Noah's Ark.

Later, I learn that a cosmic anaconda is central to Amazonian creation myths. The Amazon River is considered the mother of all life and the anaconda its representation. Giant anacondas, some over 40 feet long, are revered by the Indians. The ancestor of them all is called Yakumama. Legend has it that this snake is so huge it hasn't moved for ages and that trees grow from its back. Since snakes are the animals closest to the ground, they are thought to harbor the wisdom of the Earth.

The forest, sach'a, absorbs each creature as a sponge takes up drops of water. Then, as I watch, the giant anaconda dissolves into tens of thousands of smaller snakes. Many enter the forest as the animals did, while the rest slither into the river.

In the next instant, I am in the forest standing in the center of a circular clearing with trees all around. At first I am alone. Then every kind of forest animal appears. Some emerge from the shadows under the foliage. Others move in the trees bending branches and rustling leaves.

I call to them: "Hermanitos," I say over and over again. "Little brothers."

Out of the forest they come. All types of jungle birds sit on my head and shoulders. Squirrels and monkeys cling to my arms and legs. Deer and tapir sit at my feet and snakes coil around my legs. Tears flow down my checks and my heart opens. I feel at one with the forest, the creatures in it, and the ancient spirits that empower it with life and energy.

The trees shimmer with lines of light like filaments that connect each leaf to the other. Then the trees disappear, leaving only myriad luminous fibers. At first, they appear random, ever changing, and in constant motion. Then I realize they pulse rhythmically and are arranged in geometric patterns.

In later work with the Shipibo Indians of the Ucayali River, I find that these patterns are typical during ayahuasca ceremonies. They are the fabric from which a shaman weaves healing spells. Like notes on a musical score, the shaman reads these patterns and sings the songs of the forest plants to cure the patient.

Then the original luminosity changes to a dazzling phosphorescent blue so beautiful it is painful to watch.

I repeat aloud, "It's too beautiful."

"Estás bien?" the ayahuascero asks.

"Si, estoy bien," I answer. "I'm all right, but it's so beautiful it hurts. Can you make it stop?"

"No, hijo," he says. "I can't, son. You are seeing reality now."

My brain is overwhelmed. I had read enough of the chemistry of ayahuasca to know that it can modulate the same neurotransmitter, serotonin, influenced by certain antidepressants and drugs like 3, 4 - methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), popularly known as Ecstasy. If too much serotonin is released, it can cause dehydration and elevated blood pressure. Uncomfortable, I check the time on my watch and count my heart rate. It is just after midnight and my pulse is normal. Huge drops of sweat roll off my body. I feel feverish.

Don Pedro dips cold water from a bucket and pours it over me. Rivulets of water run down my neck and shoulders and onto the dirt floor. The water cools me and I begin to feel better.

Ana has long since fallen into a deep trance. The next day, she tells me that she had a long discussion with her deceased mother and, afterward, felt closure with her on many unresolved issues. At the moment, she lies stretched out on the bench as if dead.

The intense heat of earlier has passed, but the air is still and humid. The darkness is profound. I continue to see webs of geometric shapes, though not as bright as before. They seem alive and possessed of a kind of intelligence much like a neural network.

As when the conductor silences an orchestra between the different parts of a composition, there is a lull in the visions. My rational mind, unequipped for what is to come, has no basis with which to anchor itself and my intellect, normally my strongest attribute, is as useless as would be the paper on which my doctoral degree is printed in a deluge.

The ayahuascero, who has returned to his chair and has been softly chanting icaros and fanning Ana with the shacapa, stops. After several minutes of silence he says, "The spirits have arrived. Listen."

I am not sure what he means, but as I listen, I hear footsteps circling the hut so faint as to be barely audible.

"Tigre," he says.

A jaguar prowls the perimeter of the hut. It circles as jaguars do, closing ever so imperceptibly the distance between the prey and itself. Then it stops behind me. Stillness pervades the hut. So much time passes without a sound that I wonder if what I heard is real or my imagination.

In contrast to my thoughts, my body reacts automatically. The hairs on the back of my neck and arms stand up, my muscles tense, and I become acutely alert. I had a similar experience with a jaguar once before while conducting research on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica in 1969. In the morning, I found tracks circling my camp. They were so large that when I put my hand in them my fingertips didn't touch the edges.

Then it leaps.

Instead of landing heavily on my back as I expect, its body fluidly merges with mine. My hands become its paws and my neck its powerful muscular neck. Then the jaguar—me—running on all fours at an incredible speed, leaps over a precipice and enters a strange new world.

No longer in the forest, I am in a yellow desert landscape. Orange stones litter the terrain that spreads endlessly out before me. The jaguar's powerful body takes me farther into this magical place as I struggle to hold on to the memory of human form.

Losing normal consciousness and physical form by shape shifting into the jaguar's body is frightening. It is as if I have ceased to exist and the universe I know and am comfortable in never existed. Though fragments of my consciousness remain, my ability to think dissolves like a film running in reverse. It takes me at lightning speed toward my own birth, into the womb, and beyond to a place before my grandparents were born. Among my last thoughts is that this is an ancient shamanic place, the parallel universe Indians talk about, a separate reality on the other side of normal human consciousness.

I can't calculate how far I travel in that land, but I sense that wherever I am going will soon be too far. I am afraid that if I continue, every fragment of my human consciousness will no longer exist and I may not be able to return. This is an unbearable thought and I am overcome with dread. But my initial fear diminishes quickly when I realize I have a choice. I can continue or go back. The decision is mine. To go on means to see what exists in the unknown territory and to go back is to regain my normal state of consciousness. I choose to return.

After this, the visions become less intense and fade like images dissolving on a computer screen. At the edge of the darkness, I see Indian women and children, naked, sitting in the forest and watching. I feel they have been there the entire time. Later, I learn from the Shipibo Indians that the spirits of their ancestors commonly observe the shaman during ayahuasca ceremonies.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Andean Codex by J. E. Williams. Copyright © 2005 J. E. Williams. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents


Acknowledgments,

Author's Note,

Preface,

Ayahuasca Spirits,

Synchronicity in the Andes,

The Shaman's Shadow,

In the Cave of the Heart,

The Way of Love and Beauty,

The Way of Knowledge,

The Way of Action,

The Way of Life,

The Way of Reciprocity,

Journey to the Mountain of Stars,

The Andean Codex,

Return to the Forest,

Glossary of Quechua and Spanish Terms,

Selected Bibliography,

About the Author,

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 28, 2005

    Authentic and fascinating - a great read!

    The book is well written and, even though I have read other books on Peruvian/Inca teachings, I found it most clear and concise. J.E.Williams writing style is very gentle with a beautiful depth and simplicity. There are five main principles to the Andean teachings and, after living among the shamans for 35 years, he is the first person authorized to bring these teachings to the US. Some of the proceeds from the book, as well as the photography, goes back to the indigenous people. As I was reading I could not help thinking that these basic teachings, much like other native peoples worldwide, are so needed now on this planet.

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