My new book on ayahuasca shamanism, Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon, is due to be published in October by the University of New Mexico Press.
In the Upper Amazon, mestizos are the Spanish-speaking descendants of Hispanic colonizers and the indigenous peoples of the jungle. Some mestizos have migrated to Amazon towns and cities, such as Iquitos and Pucallpa; most remain in small villages, their houses perched on stilts on the shores of the rivers that are their primary means of travel. Here in the jungle, they have retained features of the Hispanic tradition, including a folk Catholicism and traditional Hispanic medicine. And they have incorporated much of the religious tradition of the Amazon, especially its healing, sorcery, shamanism, and the use of potent plant hallucinogens, including ayahuasca.
The result is a uniquely eclectic shamanist culture that continues not only to fascinate outsiders with its brilliant visionary art but also to attract thousands of seekers each year with the promise of visionary experiences of their own.
In Singing to the Plants I try to set forth, in accessible form, just what this shamanism is about — what happens at an ayahuasca healing ceremony, how the apprentice shaman forms a spiritual relationship with the healing plant spirits, how sorcerers inflict the harm that the shaman heals, and the ways that plants are used in healing, love magic, and sorcery.
There is a website for the book and an accompanying blog at http://www.singingtotheplants.com/.
There are several reasons why I think a book on the mestizo shamanism of the Upper Amazon was worth writing at this time. Mestizo shamanism occupies an exceptional place among the shamanisms of the Upper Amazon, assimilating key features of indigenous shamanisms, and at the same time adapting and transforming them. There is today considerable interest in shamanism in general, and in Upper Amazonian shamanism in particular, especially its use of plant hallucinogens; yet there is currently no readily accessible text giving general consideration to the unique features of Amazonian shamanism and its relationship to shamanisms elsewhere in the world.
We now know much more about shamanism than when Mircea Eliade published his famous overview in 1951. There is now a wider range of excellent ethnographies, including many of Amazonian peoples; debates within the field have sharpened an awareness of many of the assumptions that underlay the fieldwork of many decades ago. Indeed, we now know, too, much more about ethnobotany, hallucinations, and the actions of such substances as dimethyltryptamine.
Moreover, ayahuasca shamanism has become part of global culture. The visionary ayahuasca paintings of Pablo César Amaringo are available to a world market in a sumptuous coffee-table book; international ayahuasca tourists exert a profound economic and cultural pull on previously isolated local practitioners; ayahuasca shamanism, once the terrain of anthropologists, is the subject of novels and spiritual memoirs. Ayahuasca shamans perform their healing rituals in Ontario and Wisconsin.
In Singing to the Plants I emphasize both the uniqueness of this highly eclectic and absorptive shamanism — plant spirits dressed in surgical scrubs, extraterrestrial doctors speaking computer language — and its deep roots in shamanist beliefs and practices, both healing and sorcery, common to the Upper Amazon. I have sought to understand this form of shamanism, its relationship to other shamanisms, and its survival in the new global economy, through anthropology, ethnobotany, cognitive psychology, legal history, and my own personal experiences studying wilderness survival and plant healing in the Amazon.