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Peruvian Shamanism

Updated on August 17, 2013
A Shaman from Peru
A Shaman from Peru
A shaman going into a state of ecstacy
A shaman going into a state of ecstacy
A ritual being performed for a client
A ritual being performed for a client
An example of a shaman's "mesa"
An example of a shaman's "mesa"
Some instruments which might be employed by a shaman in ritual
Some instruments which might be employed by a shaman in ritual
Certain movements nowadays try to recover the sacred use of hallucinogenics, termed "entheogens"
Certain movements nowadays try to recover the sacred use of hallucinogenics, termed "entheogens"
Terence McKenna was a scholar or shamanism and the relationship between human being's evolution and psychoactive plants
Terence McKenna was a scholar or shamanism and the relationship between human being's evolution and psychoactive plants


In this piece I will attempt to prove that shamanism, as the most basic form of human spirituality/religiosity, is not only incredibly malleable and historically durable, but also embodies many truths, common to all direct and revelatory forms of religion, that are vitally important to the modern world. In the first section a general overview of shamanism shall be presented, with attention given to those aspects that transcend specific cultural manifestations. The next section will deal primarily with religion in Peru, and how native practices confronted and interacted with the presence of Christianity during the Extirpation period. Section 3 will demonstrate that this dialogue, at times heated, altered the symbolic framework of Peruvian shamanism on the North Coast, but in no way influenced the underlying, numinous heart of its practice. Indeed, "a functional synthesis between aboriginal and Catholic religious forms" seems to have taken place (Sharon 8). Finally, the significance of shamanism shall be addressed. The fact that shamanism continues to this day worldwide indicates that it encapsulates something very fundamental and basic about the nature of reality. Upon close analysis, one is able to see that modern science is merely beginning to scratch the surface of the ontological claims in which shamanism and mysticism are fluent. Furthermore, a study of shamanistic practice reveals important issues present in modern culture and politics.

Shamanism 101

Much has been written about shamanism, and this section will attempt to briefly introduce this trans-cultural phenomenon. The shaman is the nexus of spiritual truth and experience in most "pre-modern" societies. According to Mircea Eliade, one of the first and foremost scholars of both religion and shamanism, it is defined as a "technique of ecstasy" ( This ability allows the shaman to leave this plane of existence in order to perform many different activities which include, but are not limited to: predicting patterns of weather and game, exorcising spirits, communicating with animals, performing magical healings, communicating with spirits or ancestors, receiving visions that often have relevance to specific individuals or society, and guiding recently deceased souls to their resting place in the next world (typically either in a "lower" or "upper" realm). Various methods are used to induce an ecstatic trance. In many cases hallucinogenic substances are used, ranging from the Amanita Muscaria mushroom in Siberia, the San Pedro cactus in Peru, Psylocibe mushrooms and Salvia Divinorum in Mexico, to Peyote in the Native American Church and Datura in various Native American tribes and in the sadhu tradition of India ( Other practices that induce a similar mental state include drumming, the use of a rattle, dance, fasting, sleep deprivation, and mortification of the flesh. Oftentimes, one doesn't voluntarily choose to become a shaman, instead it is characteristic that the vocation "chooses you," so to speak. Growing up, the young shaman-to-be may have strange dreams or visions that foretell his/her ability to shamanize. In many cases, one experiences what Eliade terms "'sickness vocation'...It is a common phenomenon in shamanism for the future shaman to feel himself 'called' through a serious illness that fails to respond to normal treatment and requires supernatural intervention" (Sharon 33). Eduardo, the Peruvian shaman who will be discussed in Section 3, experienced such an event. Hopefully, this information will give a perhaps unfamiliar reader enough background knowledge to understand the general continuity of shamanism worldwide (which will become an important point in the final section).

Pre-Colonial Peruvian Religiosity and its Evolution during the Extirpation Period

The most basic concept of pre-colonial Andean religion, which is still present today, is probably that of the huaca. According to Brundage, "a huaca [is] both a localization of power and the power itself resident in an object, a mountain, a grave, an ancestral mummy, a ceremonial city, a shrine, a sacred tree, cave, spring, or lake of origination...", etc. (Sharon 170). Most basically, these largely naturalistic monuments are sacred because they are considered to be "the creative manifestation of Panchamama," who Brundage deems to be the most central, basic, and ancient Andean deity. Indeed, it is believed that huacas "manifest in the earth and in stone...the very flesh of the Mother" (282). Devotion to local huacas was/is common, and many curanderos and shamans continue to derive their power from these holy sites. However, these indigenous practices posed an interesting dilemma for Catholic Spain when it began its colonization. The query surrounded the official definition of idolatry, superstition, and custom. Throughout Catholic history these terms have taken on different meanings for different theologians, at times blending with one another, and at others defined as vastly distinct. How one defines and interprets these terms is crucial, for it affects the punishment (or lack thereof) to be exacted on the perpetrator (Griffiths, 49-55). During the time of the Extirpation, ecclesiastical opinion was largely split over precisely which practices were idolatrous or superstitious (both of which required reprimands) and which ones were merely native custom (which were allowed to continue without punishment). This divergence of opinion allowed each parish leader to report various occurrences according to his subjective opinion of what activity fell under what category (57). More zealous priests, then, attempted to fundamentally alter the supernatural realm of the Andeans via punitive means. This approach was quite foreign to the natives, for "the 'spiritual conquest' of Peru had always been, in effect, little more than a religious decapitation" in which the conquering group would assimilate pre-existing ideologies and supplant the "highest god" in said pantheon with their central deity (8). In these regions, folk practices were suppressed, at times violently, and many individuals who engaged in traditional practices were subject to intense scrutiny and punishment (as Griffiths's book examines in detail). However, in other, more tolerant areas, most indigenous customs were permitted, especially if they assumed a "Christian guise.” Thus, violent Catholic infringement upon native belief structures was geographically variable, and created an atmosphere in which selective assimilation of Christian beliefs could occur. The newly appropriated Catholicism, strained through pre-Christian belief complexes, took on a distinctly Andean flavor. Huacas began to be associated with saints, and the line between "Christianity" and "custom" became visibly blurred (23). Clearly then, "the achievement of the native synthesis was not that it defeated Christianity but that...its distinctive logic and conception of reality were renewed" in a new symbolic form (28).

Emerging Symbols in Peruvian Shamanism on the North Coast

Douglas Sharon demonstrates in his analysis of a Peruvian shaman's symbolic system that "folk healing...represent[s] a blending of archetypes common to Christian and Indian religious experience -- a truly mestizo religious form ideally suited to contemporary Peruvian culture" (Sharon 8). A more in depth analysis of this shaman's (Eduardo's) symbolic structure shall prove this. However, this "syncretism", as Sharon calls it, appears as early as late colonial times, and is clear in the case of a young curandero by the name of Vasques, as documented by Griffiths. In Vasques's youth, he had dreams of an old man with crosses on his hands who imparted unto him knowledge of healing herbs. As he grew, Vasques withheld sharing said information for fear of punishment by ecclesiastical authorities. However, he was consumed by guilt for not utilizing the knowledge he trusted would alleviate his neighbors' suffering. Finally, Vasques went to confession, but the priest refused to absolve his sins until he used his herb-lore for the benefit of mankind. Foolishly, he disobeyed, and continued with his inaction. He soon became sick and an angel appeared to him in a dream, revealing where he would find the cure. Upon waking, he went to the site he beheld in his vision, imbibed the plant, and become better. After this episode of sickness vocation Vasques began to use his abilities to aid humanity, constantly claiming throughout his trial that his knowledge and power came solely from God (136). It is clear that even in this relatively early stage of religious synthesis the symbolic framework of Peruvian shamanism began to incorporate distinctively Christian imagery. Indeed, "Vasques...succeeded in articulating a new hierarchy that set the two traditions [native and Christian] in a logical relationship to each other, not as antagonistic and contradictory systems but as complementary and mutually sustaining parts of a greater supernatural whole" (145).

This assimilation is evident today in the symbols and self-understanding of the contemporary shaman/curandero Eduardo. Eduardo retains lots of indigenous practices in his work. For example, the use of the hallucinogenic cactus San Pedro to catalyze his inner power is still absolutely central to his work during the séance (Sharon, 149). Furthermore, sacred landscapes (huacas) play a central role not only in the curandero's initiation ceremony, but also in the collection of magical plants (146). Indeed, most of Eduardo's services, ranging from healings to exorcisms, are clearly pre-Christian in origin. Nonetheless, many Christian symbols play important roles in his work. For example, during his initiation, which occurred during a dream, he was instructed to cross himself and at a later time receive Christ's blessing (89, 34). More concretely, his mesa (the table on which his power objects reside) houses many Christian symbols, the most obvious of which is the cross, which constitutes the center of the mesa and divides it into various quadrants of different power alignments (194). Christ is said to govern the right area of the mesa, symbolizing the powers of good, and Satan controls the left, obviously characterizing the forces of darkness (194). The center, or neutral zone, is under the control of St. Cyprian (195). Many objects recall/invoke certain saints, and Eduardo is even able to communicate with some of them in his trances. In fact, Judas is regularly employed to impart information regarding negative and demonic forces, due to his "fallen" state, once owing allegiance to the light (290). Sacred Christian numbers, such as 12 (the number of the apostles), are also associated with different regions of the mesa and add further evidence of Christian influence (195). Many similar examples could be given, but Christian influence extends beyond mere concepts and power objects and affects the very symbology of ritual time, altering the layout of the séance to echo the liturgical year and the processes of birth, death, and rebirth (230-1). Thus, it is clear that "the Indian-Christian syncretism associated with curanderismo truly seems to represent a functional blending of religious forms which allowed the underlying shamanistic essence or substratum to remain relatively intact" (289).


Firstly, I would like to re-emphasize the fact that the phenomenon of shamanism can be observed cross-culturally and trans-historically. This, in itself, is note-worthy. If a mode of spiritual practice has been present throughout the lifetime of religious man, would it not make sense that this system of practice says something fundamentally essential about the human experience and the ontology of reality? This point has been recognized by scholars such as Furst (312). To deal with the issue of ontology first, shamanism agrees with the vast majority of religious and philosophical ideologies in claiming that the dichotomy of good and evil is necessary on a cosmic scale in order for life to exist. However, according to Eduardo, evil is by definition "less powerful" than good, because it stems from human imperfection, greed, lust, etc. that refuse to harmonize with one another and eventually self-destruct (287-9). Shamanism, along with mysticism, goes beyond the majority of lay religions and attempts to cultivate a first-hand, tangible, and foremost REAL experience of non-duality (305). The fact that Eduardo believes duality can be overcome (on a personal scale) is noteworthy because the generic Andean worldview has been scholastically characterized as obsessed with duality. This marked discrepancy supports the claim that shamans cross-culturally are engaging the same ontological substratum. The divine, then, is no longer a concept, but becomes the practitioner's living reality. Indeed, the shaman (along with the Hindu sadhaka) explores the inner-architecture of the microcosmic Self, which mirrors the macrocosm of Existence. Furthermore, both religious systems also expound that things typically considered negative, evil, or dangerous (Judas, evil spirits, or hallucinogenic substances) can be used as catalysts for realization and instruments for good.

Shamanism's teachings also resonate in many areas of scientific research. Throughout Sharon's dissertation he draws parallels between shamanism and Jungian psychology. One such assertion is that the integration of apparent opposites is analogous to the Jungian mandala (a symbol of psychological health and totality) (166). Sharon also points out that Kirilian photography and theories of bioplasm, which are only beginning to be researched, hint at the existence of energy fields around living organisms. Furthermore, I believe quantum physics intimates that out of body experiences and astral projection are possible, due to the fact that reality as we perceive it is not necessarily how it actually behaves. Quantum physics betrays the reductionist, for even if "mind" is conceived of as "matter,” Einstein's famous E=mc2 equation can be used to claim that the psychonaut has the ability to explore other realms of existence because matter itself is energy. As far as psychedelics are concerned, the modern entheogenic movement is rediscovering many aspects of shamanism. Establishing contact with entities can be documented trans-personally, and much interesting work is being done in this, and other areas, by people such as Terrence McKenna and Daniel Pinchbeck. It should be noted that these are not "acid gurus" who take drugs recreationally and compose fanciful stories. Instead, these individuals are deeply interested in the truths of shamanism and are attempting to continue similar practices while studying their effects academically. This brings me to my final point. Clearly, hallucinogens have played an integral role in the history of human spirituality (313). The fact that fear, suppression, and misinformation now surround them is a testament to the age and society in which we live. Most of the herbs used in the practice of curanderismo in Peru haven't been studied at all in the West (258). Moreover, the hallucinogens we do know about have not been adequately studied, for psychologists are unable to conduct research in these important areas due to the fact that the government has made most hallucinogens Schedule 1 drugs. I initially considered this issue a concern only for those who wanted to "trip out" and not worry about being arrested, but the more I study shamanism, ancient religion, and transpersonal/psychedelic psychology, the more I see that this issue’s effects extend far beyond recreational drug use. Indeed, they touch upon the very fabric of human existence; hint at the very purpose and nature of the reality we inhabit. The casual use of hallucinogenic substances now seems to be a kind of blasphemy, the equal and opposite reaction to our government's uncritical assessment of the benefit of such sacraments. In sum:

Modern man desperately needs a better understanding of himself and his place in the Universe to offset the dehumanization, alienation, and ecological crisis of his world resulting from increased scientific and technological knowledge without a concurrent growth in self-knowledge. An understanding of shamanism can teach us new ways to explore the Self and might help to heal the split in our world (313).

Awesome documentary on Shamanism

Great lecture by Terence McKenna. He has many others if you enjoy this one.

Some of the work done on Eduardo the Healer


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    • Nicholas Fiorito profile imageAUTHOR

      Nicholas Fiorito 

      5 years ago from Northern NJ

      Thank you so much!!!

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      5 years ago

      Fascinating article, so well written. Thank you so much for a great read.

    • Nicholas Fiorito profile imageAUTHOR

      Nicholas Fiorito 

      5 years ago from Northern NJ

      Thanks so much DDE! I also didn't know much about it until I started investigating it. So glad you enjoyed, thank you!!!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Incredible hub informative, useful, interesting and such a well put together hub. A helpful and educational subject indeed. I didn't know much about Peruvian Shamanism before this hub glad you wrote about it.Voted up!


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