Shaman or charlatan?

He was sitting there quietly in a long blue smock, adorned in a range of colourful necklaces when we entered his surgery space. We all had our theories about whether he was a shaman ‘real’ or a shaman ‘turistico’, whether our guide had called up some guy and said ‘Get your costume on, I’ve got some tourists who want to see some traditional culture. Do a bit of a spiel for them and they’ll be happy’.

The truth, as I chose to believe it, was that this shaman had started his training aged 8 and graduated at 39 with an advanced knowledge of plant life and spirituality so that he could help the 100 or so people of his community as well as the members of the wider organisation that he headed. Sitting in his ‘hospital’, we learnt how locals visit shamans, who, under the influence of ayahuasca, can identify the true causes of their problems and read their auras (providing the ayahuasca hasn’t been contaminated by any contact with a menstruating woman, which would make the shaman sick).

Ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic drink made from vine leaves, is an integral part of the practice with people in communities drinking it from as young as 8 years of age, all under the guidance of a shaman. It is said to awaken the spiritual self and connect one with the world, with the universe as a whole. Many Ecuadorians I met had tried it, some many times over. No one viewed it as a drug; everyone discussed it as a spiritual experience.

The Western definition for shaman, our guide explained, is linked to that of being a charlatan, with fairly negative connotations. Within South American communities, however, the meaning of shaman is much more associated with expertise and a link to the spiritual world, and many people respect and believe in a shaman’s powers to diagnose and heal a host of mental, emotional and physical complaints (not to mention more sinister practises of putting curses on people).

Back to our visit, and yes, our shaman did do a bit of a spiel, – a little demonstration of the ritual that he performs on a daily basis that included swishing vine leaves and chanting and muttering in a repetitive manner that started to trance me out somewhat. It was an introverted display, one that reassured us that the meaning was true to him and less about us onlookers.

What happened next felt slightly voyeuristic. Patricio, an Ecuadorian tourist in his thirties, has requested to be ‘cleansed’ and we witnessed as he sat before the shaman, naked from the waist up. The chanting and vine swishing started anew before the shaman picked up another plant with links to the stinging nettle family and started to stroke it across Patricio’s back. Once Patricio’s skin had adjusted to the prickly pain, the shaman progressed to more vicious raking, dragging and beating with the plant until welts started to form. He concluded by being hands on, stroking the mottled skin, spine outwards to rid Patricio of any negative energies.

Patricio’s back was a bit red and sore for a few days but he seemed happy enough. Was it what he expected? ‘Yes’. It wasn’t his first visit to a shaman, and it wouldn’t be his last, he assured me. Shamanistic faith and healing, it would appear, are an accepted and utilised part of Ecuadorian society.

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Filed under culture, ecuador, south america

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