Amazonian shamanism, Ayahuasca, plant medicines – Q&A for Life Art Media (Photo Courtesy: Isabel Grau)
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Read the article in pdf format “Icaros: Magical Songs of the Amazon” by Francesco Sammarco, originally published by “Sacred Hoop” magazine (www.sacredhoop.org)
“Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries…”
Homeric Hymn to Demeter
There are many local designations for the visionary and healing brew that goes under the common name of Ayahuasca. Yajé’ or Yage’ (in Colombia), Caapi, Hoasca or Daime (among Brazilian religious adepts), among the Shipibos it’s Oni, among the “Amawaka” (Yora) Indians it’s Oni xuma, the Ashaninka natives call it Kamarampi, whilst the Jibaros call it Natema.
In Peru it is generally known as Ayahuasca – simplified Spanish rendering of the Quechua neologism Ayawaska or Ayawaskha. The word can be translated as “Rope-of-the-Soul”, “Vine-of-the-Spirit”, “Vine-of-the-Ancestor”, or “Vine-of-the-Dead”. It is – at once – the name given to the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and to the magic, mysterious and visionary concoction which has been used ritually – from immemorial time – by the indigenous people of the Amazon basin, specifically for prophecy, divination, telepathy, shape-shifting, cleansing, diagnosis of an illness, and also for healing. A shaman specialized in the use of Ayahuasca is known in Peru as an Ayahuasquero (or Ayahuascero).
We shall use throughout these pages the word ”ayahuasca” (in lower cases) to refer to the actual vine specimen-s, and the word ”Ayahuasca” (in upper cases) when referring to the homonymous brew or concoction prepared by the shamans.
There exist many different varieties of ayahuasca vine, over one hundred have in fact been identified, but the most commonly used in the Northern Peruvian Amazon is the Cielo ayahuasca one, which is reputed to be the most suitable for initiations, can deliver profound visions (and purging!!) and is safe to use.
Among other varieties – which are for more specialized uses and normally only for very experienced users altogether – we have:
- Trueno ayahuasca (Spanish for “Thunder ayahuasca”);
- Yana ayahuasca (Quechua for “Black ayahuasca”), or ayahuasca negra, in Spanish;
- Puka ayahuasca (Quechua for “Red ayahuasca”);
- Yura ayahuasca (Quechua for “White ayahuasca”);
- Allpa ayahuasca (Quechua for “earth ayahuasca”), or “ayahuasca de la tierra” (in Spanish);
- Rayo ayahuasca (Spanish for “ray ayahuasca”, often another name for the “Cielo ayahuasca” variety), and:
- Cascabel ayahuasca (Spanish for “rattle ayahuasca”, possibly the most potent variety known).
The Ayahuasca brew – which has powerful consciousness-expanding properties, has strong antihelmintic effects (kills parasites) and is prepared by boiling for several hours (from six-eight to fourteen, depending on where and by whom it is made) the pounded, scraped stems of the Cielo Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) vine, together with the leaves of the Chacruna (Psychotria viridis) green shrub.
At times, many other plant ingredients too are added, the most common of which are usually the black jungle tobacco called Mapacho (Nicotiana tabacum/Nicotiana rustica), the leaves of the shrub Chagropanga (Diplopterys cabrerana), along with few leaves of the powerful Toe’ (Brugmansia suavolens) plant.
Chagropanga – also known by the name of Ojo Yajé - and Huambisa (Diplopterys sp.) may be combined with, as as well as being a substitute of, the Chacruna plant in the making of the Ayahuasca drink.
Toe’: a plant of the Solanaceae family, somehow affiliated to the Datura – has beautiful bell-shaped flowers and is always used very sparingly by indigenous and mestizo shamans (vegetalistas) alike. It’s a toxic plant which demands extreme care in preparations. Don Alfredo – being also a Toesero (i.e. a shaman specialized in working with Toe’) – only add two leaves of Toe’ in the Ayahuasca concoction he prepares, although actual quantities employed may vary from shaman to shaman.
Each maestro has his or her own (often jealously and secretly kept) recipe, and hardly exist two which can be considered the same, for ingredients used, and time and way of cooking and preparing the brew. Don Mariano, for instance, interviewed by us on the topic, maintains that Ayahuasca can be prepared also with sugar (!!) or with honey, but that this will make the brew much stronger and more concentrated than normal, will deliver a strong intoxication, and therefore the quantity one would need to drink has to be very very little, almost tiny.
The Banisteriopsis caapi vine is a source of various harmala alkaloids (like harmine, harmaline, and others) once called Telepathine and Banisterine – and all of which are monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI). The low percentage (0.3% to 1.2%) of harmala alkaloids present in the Banisteriopsis vine is not enough – taken on its own – to trigger psychotropic effects, which may otherwise be slightly experienced with the intake of an higher concentration.
The Psychotria viridis – on the other hand – is a botanical source of Dimethyltryptamine (known as well as DMT and N,N-dimethyltryptamine), and is found and produced in small quantities also by our own brain. DMT alone would not work – taken orally – without the intervention of the MAO inhibitors.
The power of the medicine – “el poder de la medicina” – according to Don Alfredo, resides in the bubble formations that are produced – and may be seen – during the brew boiling process.
The Brew: Plant Alchemy of the Amazon Basin
Of all identified species of Banisteriopsis in the entire Amazon basin, the most common one used by the shamans and vegetalistas in Peru, is the Cielo ayahuasca variety, believed to induce heavenly visions (cielo means “heaven” in Spanish). It also goes under the name of Ayahuasca amarilla (“yellow ayahuasca”, in Spanish). There is also an immense variety of recipes for the preparation of the brew, which have the purpose of enhancing the experience of taking the Ayahuasca, boosting the mareacion (status of inebriation and intoxication following the drinking of the brew), in either length or quality/intensity, or both. Specifically, the Chagropanga (Diplopterys cabrerana), used more widely in the Colombian Amazon – is a powerful source of 5-MeO-DMT.
Chacruna leaves layer
Pounded ayahuasca vine cuts layer
The essential ingredients of the brew in the Peruvian Amazon remain the ayahuasca vine and the leaves of the chacruna shrub.
The Ayahuasca brew – as prepared by Shipibo master shaman Chono Tsoma, in the Ashi Meraya Centre of Traditional Amazonian Medicine contains these two essential ingredients, with the addition of Toe’, Mapacho (black jungle tobacco) and Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) leaves. Chagropanga and Huambisa may also be added at times as a substitute for – or in addition to- the the Chacruna, to enhance the potency of the brew.
Shipibo shaman Don Mariano – being the very cautious and traditional maestro he is – maintains that using too many plant additives in the making of the concoction may not be the correct thing to do, as one would first need to properly diet with each and every one of these other plants, instead than taking them directly through the Ayahuasca brew without previous preparation. Doing otherwise – i.e. taking the shortcut of adding too many plants without “knowing” them first through a proper dieta - could only make the potential side effects of the brew stronger, and may only increase the mareacion (intoxication). Don Mariano contends that there is no intrinsic advantage in using other plants for the making of the brew, without having gone through a proper apprenticeship first, via the shamanic plant diet. However, in special cases, the brew can be made adding Sacha piña (Aechmea sp.) and Azucar huayo (Hymenaea sp.), among other plants.
A beverage prepared with the Ayahuasca vine cuts alone wouldn’t normally produce visions (just purging), and the same would happen if one was to take a concoction prepared with the chacruna plant on its own. By means of an apparent very simple process – which reveals, however, at close range examination, an utterly sophisticated research and knowledge on side of the indigenous people who made first this discovery – the two plants prepared together work wonderfully in synergy and each one maximize the benefit of the other.
Ayahuasca and chacruna work synergetically not only on the biochemical plane – making possible the assimilation of the alkaloids otherwise attacked by the enzymes present in our digestive system – they are also believed to be, respectively, a “grandfather” and a “grandmother” plant spirit.
One may be blessed by wonderful visions and/or amazing revelations, without ever having hoped to see or know anything, whilst others yet may see nothing at all. Nothing is granted with Ayahuasca. Many factors – visible and invisible, ranging from one’s own attitude, psycho-physical conditions and sensitivity, to the respect of the dietary prescriptions, to climatic conditions, to the icaros sang by the shamans, to changes in the electromagnetic field and even the moon, to quote a few – may contribute in different degrees to the depth of the visionary experience given by the Ayahuasca medicine.
The Ayahuasca concoction almost ready, before being filtered
Ayahuasca & Health Precautions:
The Ayahuasca Diet
The avoiding of sexual intercourse and any form of sexual activity – from three days before, until three to five days after each Ayahuasca ceremony is of paramount importance, especially in light to preserve one’s “distilled” sexual energy during the challenging, magical encounter with the Ayahuasca spirit.
Don Mariano – interviewed by us on this matter – maintained a rather “provocative” position: “la ayahuasca no se dieta antes, si no despues”, that is: the Ayahuasca medicine is not to be dieted before [taking it], but after!
Equally important is refraining from pork meat and derivate (ham, bacon, pepperoni, salami, etc), for 15 days before your first ceremony, until at least 15 days after your last ceremony. You need to arrive at the ceremony in the most possible energetically pure conditions, in order to benefit the most from this experience.
Food to Avoid
Avoid altogether – for at least 12 hours before the Ayahuasca ceremony – any food containing stimulants, caffeine, spices, chili, fats, oil, salt and sugar. And please refrain from having any fermented stuff like Soya sauce/Tamari, Soya beans paste/curd (like Miso or Tofu), beer, vermouth wine, aged/moldy cheese (cheddar, Parmesan, Swiss cheese, blue cheese), yeast and all other food which is a potential source of tyramine, like mature avocados, eggplants, figs, grapes, pineapples, plums, raisins, prunes, broad beans, fava beans, lentils, peanuts, dried milk, sour cream, yogurt, buttermilk, chocolate, Vegemite and sauerkraut. Taking foods containing tyramine in conjunction with monoamine oxidase inhibitors, can trigger hypertensive crisis and migraines.
We recommend to fast on the day of taking Ayahuasca, or else, to only have a light breakfast and a very light lunch, and – by all means – no dinner. It will be also much beneficial to drink plenty of water, on the day of drinking the purge, up until one hour before the ceremony begins. However, no water must be drunk during the Ayahuasca ceremony: doing so will only make the side effects of the medicine last longer, with no visionary effects. Remember that whatever food you may take on the day of the ceremony, will most certainly come out of your body via the “lower” or “upper” ways, after drinking the medicine.
We support and fully embrace the traditional “shamanistic” view on Ayahuasca and plant spirit medicine, over and above the ”psychonautic” perspective which lacks (in our humble view) the discipline, solidity and depth that a proper, traditional shamanic training and initiation in the jungle – with respected elder shamans as guides – would be able to offer one. The degree of depth of this experience will always be intrinsically dependent on your own tuning with the shamans’ and the plant teachers’ world, with intent, humbleness, respect and dedication.
Neither the Ayahuasca nor the Shamanic Plant Diet retreats have anything to do with a psychedelic adventure, and less so with an escape from the “reality” of our worldly affairs. To the contrary, these experiences are meant to consciously transform and enlighten people, for them to discover their inner nature, their position in the planet, to shed off what is not anymore necessary in their lives. We take Ayahuasca with the spirit of trappers in search of our lost self. Paradoxically, to invert the proportions of what we may perceive as real today, there are some Amerindian tribes who repute the world to be truly real only when one drinks Ayahuasca. We tune-in very much with this vision. As much as we value your personal evolution, development and healing over and above the mere sensorial experience of “hallucinations”, and to a certain extent, even over and above the “visions” you may receive.
There is too much emphasis in our Western world on to the “psychedelic aspect” of the Ayahuasca experience, with little or virtually no attention to the healing itself, or else – to the visions and/or revelations, which are often in tune with the mysterious realms of prophecy and divination that may be accessed when taking the Ayahuasca medicine. These may all happen simultaneously or else, as separate, distinct events. Traditionally, the most important thing in an Ayahuasca session is mainly for the shaman to have revelatory visions on the status of the participant in need of healing, whilst the mere “psychedelic” experience itself is confined to a realm of absolute non-importance for the subject receiving healing.
We distinguish between visions and hallucinations. The first belonging to an orderly – however inexplicable – realm of knowledge one can receive teachings from, the second – conversely – being a disordered, confused, chaotic visual and/or perceptual experience of little to no intrinsic value to the one who experience it. With “visions” – we reiterate – we mean structured, meaningful, mysterious, organic – even though at times unphantomable – fully cogent, clear, revelatory (but not necessarily only visual) experiences (which could have a value of their own, or else, be combined with other subtle perceptive means), versus a disordered, potentially meaningless and purely recreational witnessing of colours, spatial forms, and/or free-floating geometric patterns more in tune with anarchic “states of hallucinations”.
Most people, but not everybody, may receive visions as such – especially (but not exclusively) the first times one is taking Ayahuasca. Some people are naturally more tuned with the unknown and more sensitive than others – especially women – and may be exposed more rapidly to the Ayahuasca “visionary mysteries”. Others will need a longer period, or even many different cycles of encounters with the “Vine of the Soul”, before anything at all can be experienced/revealed. Healing – medicine willing, in one form or another – will come to all, regardless of visions, when we approach the plant teachers, and their guardians, the shamans, with humility and respect.
A rare picture of an Ayahuasca ceremony with Don Julio Llerena Pinedo, in the Aucayacu area of the Peruvian Amazon, in 2001 (*)
Photo Credit: Corrado Palazzolo – Copyright © El Mundo Magico
by Francesco Sammarco & Dino Palazzolo
Don Julio Llerena Pinedo was a remarkable “maestro palero” (an Amazonian shaman specialized in working with ”palos” or teacher trees), and an ”espiritista’ (follower of the ”spiritualist” esoteric tradition), with over 41 years experience in working as a ”vegetalista” (a term which distinguish the non-tribal shamanic healers of the Amazon region of Peru). What follows here is the account of his first ”dieta” (e.g. the traditional shamanic training) with ”plantas maestras” (teacher plants) – and how he entered this magical world – as it was narrated to Dino Palazzolo and Francesco Sammarco, respectively, in May 2001 and in September 2002. Don Julio worked with El Mundo Magico as part of our expeditions to the Rio Aucayacu and the Rio Galvez.
In the Aucayacu area of the Northern Peruvian Amazon, some 300 km downriver from the jungle town of Iquitos, don Julio lived with his family, treated his patients and took care of his ”chacra” (small allotment of land, in a cleared jungle plot, cultivated with manioc and plantains). Sadly, Don Julio – after a long period of retirement – passed away in Iquitos, at the age of 89, on the 19th of January 2007.
The Apprenticeship of Don Julio
Don Julio began his diet with teacher plants long time ago, to heal himself from a viper byte. He had already tried to treat the byte with conventional medicine but the wound got increasingly worst. He was living then in Pucallpa (the largest city in the Ucayali department of the Peruvian Amazon). One day he went to see a curandero from the district of San Miguel (an area famous for the many powerful curanderos that live there), who was temporarily staying in Pucallpa. This curandero was a palero (i.e. a vegetalista who has learnt the ways of the plants by dieting the barks of ‘teacher trees’) and strongly advised don Julio against going to the hospital, warning him that there they would have almost certainly amputated his leg, considering the advanced status of his illness.
The curandero maintained that don Julio’s wound would certainly heal if he would follow a diet of six months that he himself would supervise. Don Julio accepted and – following the instructions of this curandero – began a period of segregation in the rainforest, to diet with the plantas maestras and the bark of ‘teacher trees’. He started first with Chiric sanango and Uchusanango  (Tabernaemontana sp.) – and then with Chullachaki caspi (Brysonima christianeae), mixed with Chucuhuasa (Heisteria pallida) and Shihuauacu (Dipterys sp.?). After 5 months, whilst still dieting with Estoraque (Myroxylon balsamum) and Ayahuman (Couropita guaianensis), a man with a suitcase appeared to him in dreaming. The man invited Julio for a walk and brought him to a pueblo (small village). They entered together inside the pueblo’s pharmacy and Julio was here introduced to the pharmacist who happily and kindly welcomed both visitors. Julio was shown the pharmacy and was told of a large number of medicines that were kept there. No medicines were given to him, but their scent was enough to make Julio feel very well. In a following dream Julio was near a river when an indio appeared to him. Julio was offered by the indio a bow and the arrow he kept in his hand and was told to catch with that a fish…Julio however knew that the spirits of the plants were challenging him and refused to do his task, since this would have meant for him to embrace brujeria (evil sorcery): the arrow, in fact, symbolized evil (since it can harm, wound or kill). Even the Christian faith – don Julio explains – teaches that men are constantly challenged on their path towards faith and knowledge.
In yet another dream, don Julio saw the Capirona (Calycophyllum sp.) and Chuchuhuasa trees, side by side, and was told to climb the Chuchuhuasa first and the Capirona after. He went up the first tree but at some point he was neither able to go forward nor to go back, was truly scared and believed he would have fallen. At this point he decided to climb the Capirona tree. Whilst he was on the Capirona, an extremely powerful, strong wind blew from all sides. Julio firmly grabbed the tree and, to his surprise, he did not fell. When the wind stopped he realized that he could climb the tree down, and so he did… The challenge consisted in not screaming out of fear of falling down the trees.
In another dream he was carried away by the wind into a red sea, where the water looked like blood. In front of him only the sea and the sky could be seen. Again, the man with the suitcase accompanied him. Together they walked through the sea until they reached a town. Once there they entered again into a pharmacy. The pharmacist even this time was very welcoming and said to the two men: “I have many medicines here!” They asked Julio whether he wanted any and Julio answered yes (he thus accepted to learn the medicina). After that they all went into a ironmonger shop and Julio was offered an arpon (harpoon) but he refused: “It is bad (es malo)!” he said. He was then offered a comba (unidentified) which he refused, as well. He was finally shown some yunke (anvils) and was asked to lift them: in that instant the comba disappeared only to get inside Julio’s body (making him stronger). He then lifted the anvils but could only do so up to his shoulders. The man with the suitcase, his guide, commented that Julio was lacking the diet (with teacher plants) and left saying that he would be back. At this point Julio woke up.
In a further dream Julio found himself into an unfamiliar place where there was a house. The man with the suitcase, his guide in every dream, popped out again and led Julio to the house of an ill lady. The guide asked Julio to discover the illness the lady was suffering from, but he did not know what to answer. Despite that, Julio performed a check-up on the woman and immediately realized the nature of the illness she was afflicted by, and referred it back to his guide. “I am being tested”, he thought. When asked again by the guide on the type of remedy that he would have used to treat the woman, Julio did not know what to answer. However, he saw some blisters on the body of the woman, and the idea of giving her an injection crossed his mind. Julio referred back to the guide who asked: “How do you do the injection?”…Despite the fact that he was unprepared to answer, these very same questions opened his mind and made him understand what to do. The guide continued his questioning: “Where do you put the syringe?” – he asked. “In the buttocks!” – Julio replied. “Do it now, then!” – the guide insisted. Julio replied that he did not have the syringes with him. At this point the guide opened his suitcase that contained syringes and many kinds of medicines, took out a very small medicine bottle, and gave it to Julio who felt like an electric current transferring into his body, originating from the medicine. He then administered an injection with this medicine to his woman patient and put everything back into the suitcase when he finished with it. At this point the guide gave the suitcase, with all the medicines inside, to Julio saying that from then on it belonged to him. Julio was then brought into another house where an ill man was lying. Here he diagnosed the man a high intestinal fever and whilst pondering what kind of medicine to give him, he thought of a pill. The guide confirmed that his diagnosis was correct, reassured him that everything was going OK and carried on asking Julio: “Which pill?” Julio chose a particular pill from the suitcase, and administered it to the ill man, in a glass of water. At this point Julio was left with the suitcase, and invited to call again his guide, if he needed help, after they both left the house of the ill person.
After six months of diet with the plantas maestras Julio returned to Pucallpa, whilst the wound caused by the viper’ byte was almost entirely healed up. It healed completely little time after. One day a couple invited him to go to the cinema with them, but he refused and while he saw them going away hugging each other, he realized with certainty that the two would have soon split up…He thus understood that he could divine. He also noticed that when he encountered other curanderos they recognized in him a great strength and some of them commented ironically: “Tu es un demonio!” (You are a devil!). Another day a maestro ayahuasquero named Vasquez, a medico (shaman) with twenty-five years of experience in working with ayahuasca, asked for Julio’s help because he was convinced he had many enemies that wanted to kill him. Vasquez – trustworthy in Julio’s power – invited him to attend an ayahuasca ceremony that was to be held in the few days ahead, to be protected by him. Julio was pondering whether to go or not, since he was a palero – and was therefore not used to drink the ayahuasca brew. In the end he decided to go to the ceremony a tomar la medicina (to drink the ayahuasca) but decided to serve himself with it rather than been served by Vasquez. In a vision Julio was told to smoke its mapacho, he did it, and soon after he saw a storm coming towards them and all becoming black. Maestro Vasquez told everybody to smoke their mapacho as many enemies were approaching. Julio saw Vasquez’s enemies launching an attack with the intent of killing him. Vasquez was about to give in. During the unfolding of these dramatic attacks, however, Julio did not feel any personal harm, he only felt something like small stings bothering him. He was then told by his spirit helpers to blow mapacho smoke (soplar) and sing his icaros (ikarar). Soon after having done this all the enemies ran away! “Here we are” – commented Vasquez – “That is what I was waiting for!”
 Luna (in: Luna, L.E., Amaringo, P.: Ayahuasca Visions – The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman, Berkeley 1999, 66, n.113) says with regard to this plant that it “[...] can be a great teacher, but it is extremely dangerous [...] and only the strongest vegetalistas can prepare it”.
Among the many scholars who have investigated the ancient and contemporary use of the psychoactive San Pedro (Huachuma) cactus in Peru, we would like to remember, in particular, Italian Archaeologist and Anthropologist Mario Polia. His impeccable ethno historical investigation of the ancient sources and records – many of which translated/published for the first time over many centuries – cross-referenced with important archaeological data, presented a corpus of precious documentation essential in understanding the practice of contemporary curanderos, as well as the ritual, mythical and religious context where the traditional healing practices that had at their core the ceremonial use of the San Pedro cactus originated.
Achuma – alias Trichocereus Pachanoi B&R – in ancient times
The archaeological records
The most ancient records that we have to date as testimonial of the use of a cactus belonging to the genre Trichocereus in ancient Peru, go back to 1643-897 B.C., in the archaeological complex of Garagay, Lima, where spikes of the aguacolla cactus where found mixed in the clay of adobe bricks (Polia, 1999: 137); two spikes represented what were possibly the staffs of a small idol whose eyes were formed by the shells of the mullu conch (Burger, 1992:64, in Polia, Ibidem).
In the circular, sunken plaza of the ancient temple at the oracular complex of Chavin de Huántar, traditionally dated from 1300 B.C. (or from 850 B.C., as other researchers tend to say) an anthropomorphic being, with harp-eagle claws, feline fangs, and wings, is portrayed in a low-relief slab, in the act of holding with his left hand a columnar cactus generally identified as San Pedro.
The ancient sources: the ARSI archive
Achuma, Santiago-Illap’a and the power of lightening.
Two unpublished documents from the Archivio Romano de la Compañia de Jesús (Roman Archive of The Jesus Society – or “ARSI”) contains reference to the use of achuma – a word of dubious origins with which in Colonial times people referred to the San Pedro cactus. Of these documents, both referring to the use of the plant in the province of Potosi’, in modern Bolivia, one in particular mentions the existence of a syncretic cult that included the communal ingestion of the achuma juice rotating around the central figure of the Achumeros, the ministers of the cult. In this cult, the administration of the Eucharist was substituted by slices of the San Pedro cactus, within which it was believed that the power of lightning – addressed with the syncretic name of Santiago – secretly dwelled. This figure derived from a syncretic assimilation of the image of the apostle Santiago with Illap’a, the ancient indigenous Andean divinity of lightning (Polia 1999, 138). The power of Santiago manifested itself with the appearance/look/features of the homonymous apostle whose arrival was announced by the shaking of – and tremors in – the ceremonial area. The theophany of the achuma spirit in the devotee – in a similar way – was perceived as a fulguration of the conscience of the ceremony participant, a lightning force that pierced his consciousness like a thunderbolt. Before ingesting the juice of the achuma, and experiencing their ecstatic communion with the divine plant, devotees danced around the sacred area, where slices of the sacred plant were put. The Christian commenter who reported the event at the time (in 1637-1638), did not spare his judgemental views on the topic of the ingestion of the achuma juice, which he perceived tout court as an invention of the Devil, after which cult participants would “loose their mind”.
According to the type of vision one had after drinking the sacred beverage, the response of the Santiago deity to a participant’s query – given through the intermediation of the Achumero – could have been either auspicious or unfavourable. The vision of a garden or of a forest would represent a happy omen, the vision of dead people, an un-auspicious one. The mythical, timeless and spaceless dimension of the visionary “garden” is matched by the vision of gardens in today’s Andean curanderos. The plants of these visionary gardens blossom all together, in the same place, regardless of the specific growing season peculiar to each botanical specimen.
San Pedro Journeys today
Huachuma Journeys with Maestro Sampedrista don Humberto
As part of our unique Ayahuasca healing journey in Ashi Meraya we offer the option of experiencing a blissful Huachuma night with Peruvian curandero shaman – Sampedrista and Ayahuasquero – don Humberto. The ceremony begins at around 9 pm and may be arranged for all those wishing to take part to it – as integration and complement to the Ayahuasca rituals. Click here to read more.
Burger, R.L. “The Sacred Center of Chavín de Huántar”, in: The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes. R.F. Townsend, ed., pp. 265-78, Chicago 1992
Polia Meconi, Mario: La Cosmovisión Religiosa Andina en los Documentos Inéditos del Archivio Romano de la Compañia de Jesús (1581-1752), Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Fondo Editorial, Lima 1999
Polia Meconi, Mario: Despierta, remedio, cuenta: adivinos y médicos del Ande, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. PUCP, Lima 1996
“And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.” Revelation, 6:1
San Pedro: The Magical Cactus of the “Cuatro Vientos”
Trichocereus Pachanoi B.R. is the botanical name of the night blooming and mescaline-bearing columnar cactus once known as “Achuma” and currently known in the Andean and coastal communities of Peru as “San Pedro”, “Wachuma”, “Huachuma”, or “Gigantón”. Botanists N. L. Britton and N. J. Rose were the first to classify the plant in 1920. It is found in Andean Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia; in Peru, it also grows in many places along the northern coast.
Local curanderos maintain that there are seven different species of San Pedro, all distinguished by the number of longitudinal ribs. The one they most commonly use is a seven-ribbed cactus. The rarest and most revered one, has four ribs. This is the sacred cactus of the Four Winds, the San Pedro of the cuatro vientos. Those who find it are thought to be very lucky (Sharon, 1978:39), great shamans or about to become such (Polia 1997:19). This cactus is also reputed to have special healing powers, in lieu of the magical link with the number four – and its correspondence with the “Four Winds” and the “Four Roads” – the supernatural powers associated to the cardinal directions, invoked during the San Pedro healing ceremonies (Sharon, 1978:39).
The great Peruvian curandero don Eduardo Calderón – explained (Sharon, 1978:65) that the Four Winds correspond to the four cardinal directions of the compass. North – the place of Power, a positive direction, a place of strong magnetism, because of the position of the equator and the North Pole; South – the place of Action, because it’s opposite to the forces of the North, and the strong winds come from the South; West – the place of Death, where the Sun dies into the sea; and East – a positive direction, the place of Rebirth, where the Sun emerge again, rising form darkness.
In Andean cosmology four is a special number: four were the regions of the earth into which the Tahuantinsuyu (in Quechua Tahuantin suyu means literally “the four regions between”) – the Inca Empire – was divided. The Incas built four roads, departing from Cuzco, each running through the four divisions of their empire. Conversely, the four quarters converged in Cusco (Qosqo), centre and navel of the world, very much like Delphi was for ancient Greece.
The tall cactus resembles thus an axis mundi, a cosmic axis linking the different worlds through which the shaman travels in vision and trance.
The Origins of the Cult: Las Aldas and Chavín
The sacramental use of the plant goes back in history to at least 2,000 B.C. – i.e. to at least 4,000 years ago – as it is shown by the remains of the cactus (in form of cigars) in the ceremonial complexes of Las Aldas, in the province of Casma, in Peru, excavated by Peruvian archaeologist Rosa Fung (Polia 1997:18, Sharon 1978:42).
Around 1,300 B.C., i.e. 3,300 years ago, the priests of the Jaguar Temple at Chavin de Huántar – an oracular-shrine which was probably the focus and the origin of the most important pan-Andean religious cult ever – could have been using the sacred cactus in their rituals.
A stone frieze that lined the upper register of the sunken Circular Plaza in the Old Temple at Chavin features a mythical being, a fanged feline-anthropomorphic being, holding in his outstretched right hand the stalk of a four ribbed San Pedro cactus. Jaguar’s claws project from his feet, feline fangs protrude from his mouth, harp-eagle claws extend from his hand, snakes come out of his head, a two-headed serpent comes out from his ceremonial belt and wings extends from his back, possibly indicating the shamanic capacity to fly.
It’s possible that the whole of the Chavin culture rotated around an oracular complex and that the great Temple was like an Andean Delphi, a centre of the world, an oracular centre ruled by an absolute theocracy and focused on the cult of the jaguar (Polia 1997:18, 260), dios atrigado. In South America this is the shamanic animal par excellence, the most powerful on earth, capable to see through the darkness of the night. From the subterranean depths and obscure meanders of the Temple, a priest-oracle – intoxicated by the ritual sacrificial blood – gave in trance his responses with the voice of the Jaguar-God, lord of the dead, of night and vision.
Chavin textiles from the south coast of Peru, dating to the first millennium B.C. show again the cactus in association with the jaguar and what could be a hummingbird. Other depictions of the Huachuma cactus appear on ceramic manufacts of the Chavin period, where the plant is in association with a deer (like in a ceramic bottle from the northern coast, dating from 1000-700 B.C.), and with a spotted jaguar (in five instances, on vessels dated from 700-500 B.C.).
“Hummingbird, deer and jaguar are not alien animals in the shamanic world. Contemporary curanderos report how the hummingbird represents the shamanic capacity of sucking the magically-induced illness out of a patient affected by witchcraft. The deer represent swiftness and elusiveness, in counteracting the attacks of hostile entities” (Sharon 1978:40-41).
Nazca mummy bundles, the seed of life and San Pedro
The use of San Pedro continued after the decline of the Chavin culture, as shown by five ceramic urns of the Nazca period (100 B.C. – 500 A.D.) – all in the Museo Nacional in Lima – which were made in shape of mummy bundles from whose shoulders protruded stylized and clearly identifiable four-ribbed Huachuma cactus stalks. In a subtle and touching association, Sharon (1978:41) wonders at the possible analogy between death and rebirth, hinted by the presence of the night-blooming cactus raising from the shoulders of the dead. Like the San Pedro which blooms every spring at around midnight, so the spirit of the dead may be re-born and “bloom” in the spring of the afterlife. In Inca times the term mallqui referred to royal mummies, meant also “seed” (Sharon 1978:41). A touching and subtle equation is set between the seed-mummy, buried in the dark belly of the earth, and its re-birth in the afterlife, as the flower of the night-blooming San Pedro comes to life every spring, from the darkness of the night.
San Pedro in the Salinar Culture
Depictions of the Huachuma cactus are also present in manufacts of the Salinar culture (400-200 B.C.), which all show a four-ribbed representation of San Pedro stalks, which again may point at a subtle and explicit association to the “Four Winds”, the “Four Regions” and the ”Four Roads” that lead to them.
San Pedro views….during the Conquest
Like St. Peter held the keys of the Christian paradise, the cactus opens the doors of perception and makes one enter the Spirit world, accessing a paradisaical condition of communion with the divine. Needless to say, the Spaniards – along with their religious Catholic counterpart – who entered and conquered the New Continent held a completely different view of the traditional indigenous use of the plant.
Anello Oliva, a Neapolitan Jesuit monk, condemns in 1630 the
“devilish superstition which still endure and is still much used by those people and their rulers. It consists in drinking, to know the good or bad intentions of the others, a potion that they call achuma, which is a water they make mixed with the sap of certain smooth and large thistles that are born in the tropical valleys. They drink it with great ceremonies and chants and, since it is much strong, those who have drunk it remain deprived of their senses and reason, and see visions [...]”
(English translation by F. Sammarco, after Historia del Reino y Provincias del Peru (1631), Imprenta y Libreria de San Pedro, Lima 1895:135, in Polia 1997:12, 253-254)
“Achuma” become later “Huachuma”, and this is now more commonly known in Andean South America as San Pedro or San Pedrito.
POLIA, Mario, Il Sangue del Condor, Xenia, Milano, 1997 (available from Amazon.it)
Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo, The Shaman and The Jaguar, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1975 (available from Amazon.co.uk)
Sharon, Douglas, Wizard of the Four Winds, The Free Press, New York – London, 1978 (available from Amazon.co.uk)
“Bird priest” (lower figure on the right, with wings, beak-like nose and foots to shape of a bird’s claws) in front of the Lord (taller figure on the left), on the motif of the presentation of the sacrificial blood of defeated and captive warriors, offered in a goblet. An Ulluchu fruit is at the feet of the Lord
Photo Credit: Francesco Sammarco
The elusive Ulluchu, War, Blood and Sacrifice among the Moche
The topics linked with the ritual use of the “Ulluchu” fruit among the Moche people of ancient Peru mostly speak of ritual combat, war, sacrificial practices, ritual bloodletting and – possibly – as we shall see, even of the shamanic, otherworldly, ecstatic visionary journeys of their warrior-priests.
The elusive Ulluchu has been previously associated to Carica candicans – a kind of wild papaya (Carica papaya L.) with anti-coagulant properties – by Italian archaeologist and anthropologist Mario Polia, and most recently convincingly identified by Rainer W. Bussman and Douglas Sharon as a group of species of the genus Guarea, belonging to the Meliacea family.
One of the first depictions of this rare fruit appears in the Moche culture [circa 1-750 CE] of Peru, in a banner associated to what has been called the “Ulluchu Man”, a figurine about 50 cm tall representing an odd-looking half-crab half-anthropomorphic deity, found in level 1 of the burial site of the “Lord of Sipán”. The Lord was a high-ranking shaman, or a priest, a warrior-priest, a spiritual leader, or a bit of this all, found in an impressive Moche burial ground, near Chiclayo, in Peru.
“Level 1″ was the level actually occupied by the burial of the “Old Lord of Sipán”, which predates the “Lord of Sipán” proper (found on level 6 of the same burial site) of about 200 years.
Iconographic representations of the Ulluchu fruit are also known from the Deity of the “Ulluchus” raffiguration, found on a quadrangular banner of golden copper where the Ulluchu motif frames all sides of the sacred image. Along with this, other depictions of the Ulluchu are found in one of the golden copper banners that come out as well from the first layer of the Lord of Sipan tomb.
Some scholars are prone to believe that the Moche people of ancient Peru maintained the idea of warfare to perform rituals and sacrifices. And, conversely, their sacrificial and ritual practices appeared to have been part of their idea of war: the final stages of a conflict – with the capture and parade of the prisoners – often appear to have ended with human sacrifices.
Iconographic representation of Moche ritual sacrifice. On the upper scene are the personages of higher investitures: the Lord or a high rank warrior priest (third from the left), a “bird priest” finally offering the cup with the sacrificial blood, a priestess and other figures. Ulluchu fruits are also shown at the feet of the taller figure on the right. Many of the ornaments of the Lord correspond to those encountered in the Tomb of the Lord of Sipán. In the lower scene (centre and right), ceremonial slaughter of two naked war prisoners (or warriors defeated in ritual combat).
Photo Credit: Francesco Sammarco
Ritual Combat, Not Warfare
However, as for most recent approaches, other scholars are now prone to believe that rather than ordinary warfare, where the vanquished were ritually sacrificed, their throats slit and their blood collected and drank by a high priest-warrior or divine ruler, it was more the case of ritual combats which concluded with the actual human sacrifice. After examining a collection of bones originating from a major Moche Huaca, archaeologist Steve Bourget discovered that all their bodies were systematically dismembered and bore a mark on the neck vertebrae, showing that their throats had effectively been slit. A clear proof that these weren’t only mythological representations, but actual ritual practices amid the Moche.
Propitiatory Sacrifices and Ulluchu
The most interesting discover was however, that many of these skeletons were deeply covered with mud, which pointed at the fact that the burials took place in the rain. Since this area of Peru is almost desertic, he supposed that there must have been a link between the ritual combat and the burials on one side, and the rain on the other. The conclusion he reached is that these were propitiatory sacrifices to either celebrate or encourage rain.
The importance of human sacrifices – whether war prisoners, warriors or either of them defeated in ritual combats – in Moche culture seems to lend credit to the interpretation for which the Ulluchu fruit must have played an essential part in these ceremonies. The Ulluchu prevented the formation of clotting before a captive’s blood was consumed and the fruit often appears associated to a cup full of sacrificial blood to be offered to the Lord. Ritual drinking of the blood of vanquished warriors, the spreading of their blood on an altar, the motif of their capture and sacrifice, and the presence of the Ulluchu seem to point at a close relationship among these elements. The fruit would have granted the necessary fluidity to the blood from the moment of its collection during the sacrifice, to the moment of the final offering to the Lord.
Ritual use of the Ulluchu-Guarea seeds as inebriant/psychotropic substance in sacrifices
Bussman and Sharon, upon examining some Moche iconographic evidence contend that the grounded seeds of the Guarea, when inhaled, may have generated psychotropic effects. Specifically, a personage with dilated nostrils, carrying a gourd and a pestle, in one instance and winged runners and messengers – a possible metaphor for the ecstatic flight – are associated at times with floating Ulluchu seeds in other instances.
The inhaling of the powdered Ulluchu seeds, as recently hypothesised by these authors, may have induced in the Moche priests a psychotropic experience which – albeit mild in intensity and short in duration – would have been perfectly in tune with a possible religious and/or ritual requirement of communicating with their deity in a trance-like status. The warrior-priests may have been interceding (for instance) for a drought – or other similar phenomenon, affecting their harsh, coastal, desertic area – to end, and to favour and promote fertility. Ithyphallic sacrificial victims (whether prisoners of war – as they are seen by some scholars – or warriors defeated in ritual combat, as others contend) on Moche iconographic representations may point at the fact that we might be in presence of fertility rites. Conversely, we know (Bussman and Sharon) that the Guarea seeds when ingested in concentrated fashion may cause dilatation of the blood vessels and high blood pressure (which in turn may facilitate the extraction of sacrificial blood) and also produce erections. So, the Ulluchu-Guarea seeds might have played a multiple role in Moche ritual practices: being possibly at the same time a sacred vehicle of intoxication for the priests performing human sacrifices, a mean to facilitate blood collection from sacrificial victims and perhaps playing an important role in fertility rites (favouring ithyphallism in vanquished/sacrificial warriors defeated in either ritual combat or in warfare, and sacrificed during rainy days). The magical propitiation of rain through sacrificial practices must have played an extremely important role among the Moche people, when we consider the environmental devastation and terrible effects triggered by the El Niño phenomenon in the Moche and Lambayeque Valleys, which caused droughts lasting up to thirty years (562-594 CE; Otterbein, 140).
The Ulluchu fruit outside of the Moche culture
The Ulluchu has also been found outside of the context of the Moche culture. In the province of Huancabamba, the ”Italian Archaeological Mission” led by Mario Polia has found the ancient indigenous temple of the Huancapampas people, together with the ruins of the later Inka buildings. At the top of Cerro Tsaquir, nearby the “Templo de los Jaguares”, Prof. Polia discovered an archaic funerary complex, where were found a ”rainmaker” burial, two human sacrifices and a vast subterranean stone temple, with several offerings of rare Spondylus shells. Among the ritual offerings there was necklace made of hundreds of stone pearls and shells, with three representations of the Ulluchu fruit, in lapislazzuli. Testimonial – for the first time – of the fact that the ancient use of this mysterious fruit in ritual sacrifices spread outside the traditional boundaries of the Moche culture.
1) Carica candicans A. Gray (Family: Caricaceae; Genus: Carica), synonymous of Vasconcellea candicans (A. Gray) A. DC. , a plant common in Peru.
2) Cerro Tsaquir: note the similitude with the word Tzakiir which – in Jibaro tongue – means literally ”where water springs”. See MISSIONE “ANDE DEL NORD”, led by Prof. Polia: http://www.lifeland.it/articles.asp?id=18
Bourget, Steve, Kimberly L. Jones : The Art and Archaeology of the Moche: An Ancient Andean Society of the Peruvian North Coast (Editor)
Bussmann, Rainer W. and Sharon, Douglas: Naming a phantom – the quest to find the identity of Ulluchu, an unidentified ceremonial plant of the Moche culture in Northern Peru, Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, Vol. 5, 31 Mar 2009 http://www.ethnobiomed.com/content/5/1/8
Harder, Ben: Ancient Peru Torture Deaths: Sacrifices or War Crimes? National Geographic News, April 29, 2002
Located 31 km from the Peruvian capital, on the old Southern Pan American Highway, overlooking the fertile Lurin Valley and the Pacific Ocean, this vast ceremonial complex housed the important oracle of Pachacámac – “The One Who Generates the World” – great god of creation, of the spirit that permeates every living thing, a fearsome deity associated with war and whose anger resulted in tremors and earthquakes.
Built centuries before the coming of the Incas, possibly occupied from as early as 200 AD and already fully active by 500 AD, the ritual complex was inhabited by several pre-Columbian cultures which built along the centuries an impressive network of palaces, plazas, and pyramidal temples. All encompassed by richly frescoed precinct walls of adobe mud bricks which granted accesses to the plazas by means of the many doorways going though them.
The site is reputed to have been the most important pre-Hispanic religious centre of Peru, along with Cusco, and certainly the most important Sanctuary along the coast. At the time of the warrior-like powerful Huari empire (born around 600 AD) – that spread over and controlled half of modern Peru – Pachacámac was already a major point of pilgrimage.
Through the centuries, the pattern of intense pilgrimages extended far beyond the geographical boundaries of the Lurin Valley, attracting scores of devotees from the central Andes that came here to consult the shrine’s revered oracle. Miguel de Estete (1533) reports in his chronicles that Pachacámac was the destination of pilgrims coming from places as far away as Tacamez, in the Ecuadorian coast, who carried gold, silver and clothes offerings.
The original pre-Inca ancient temple faced the northwest side of the coast, had terraced sides and richly decorated rooms, possibly destined to the reception of envoys and to the ritual making of sacrifices. Before reaching its shrine, pilgrims, priests and noblemen alike were compelled to fast for twenty days before to gain access to the first court on the lower plaza, and for an entire year before ascending to the holy of holies, the holier shrine on the upper plaza, of exceptional sacredness and immense religious significance.
Above the inner shrine stood a pyramid at the top of which was the wooden idol of Pachacámac. Only the priests could have access to the oracular chamber, consulting the oracle on special important issues – on behalf of others – but were themselves forbidden to look directly at the Janus-like idol, from the sight of which they were protected by a textile that hung before it, in function of screen. The wooden Idol reflects the cosmogonic vision of the Andean people of the 12th century. Two-faced, possibly hinting at an androgynous nature, the oracular powers of the god are evident in the possibility of seeing simultaneously – spatially and temporally – in opposite directions.
The sanctuary saw an intense frequentation by the Incas themselves, who occupied the place 170 years before the arrival of the Spaniards, paid high respect to this important oracular divinity, and encompassed the cult of the fearsome creator-God into their own religious universe, associating its worship along with that of the Sun. The Inca part of Pachacámac includes among other structures the Moon Temple (Mamaconas), the House of the Sun Virgins (Acllawasi) – where almost 200 “chosen ones” lived and dedicated their life to the cult of the Sun and of the Inca – and the magnificent Temple of the Sun, built on the highest point of the sanctuary.
Pachacámac reached its apex of popularity at the time of the Incas, becoming one of the most important sanctuaries of the whole of the Americas.
The sacred identity of the place as pole of attraction for pilgrimage, continued through our modern times. According to some scholars, the assimilating aspects of the native pre-Columbian indigenous traditions – centred around the huaca of Pachacámac – with the Christian cult may be found in the celebrations that take place each year with the rites in honour of El Señor de los Miracles (the Lord of the Miracles), and El Señor de los Temblores (the Lord of the Earthquakes).
Lightning cults, shamanism and sacredness
Anthropologist Alberto Villoldo reports the comments of his informant (and mentor), Prof. Antonio Morales, regarding the great civilizations who had developed North of the equator, as been characterized by a “descending God”, where “the divine comes from the heavens and descends to the Earth” (Villoldo 1995:172). The Greeks were amid those ancient civilizations who had this marked “descending” character attributed to their divinity. The Incas – unique great culture developing South of the Equator – conversely, had an “ascending” god-force, raising, like the golden maize stalks in the garden of the Koricancha Temple, from mother earth to heaven. Still, we believe there are oversimplifications in this pattern of reconstruction, which do not take into account the many, complex overly-articulated aspects of ancient Greek perception of the divinity, the different phases and stages where these religious ideas were manifested and expressed in -sometimes – conflictual forms, which make any “descending” statement tout-court a bit of an issue in terms of reflecting the actual way these different visions of the world were perceived and channelled in cultic and ritual practices by our Greek ancestors.
This is not the place for a treaty on ancient Greek religion, therefore we shall dwell only on those aspects of this ancient Greek sense of divinity – those archaic cults linked to the earth-goddess, and then prophecy and divination as they were practiced in the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, and to a specific cult of Zeus, worshipped as “Kataibates” – which lend themselves to be seen with a more sympathetic eye to the explorer of Inca shamanism.
By all means, a few millennia before the Incas, Ghe’ – Gaia, the primordial Earth Mother – was worshipped by the ancient Greeks. One of the attributes of the later, Olympian deity of Apollo was Pythios, and – as the myth goes – Python was the dragon-snake, son of Gaia, who guarded the ancient oracle at Delphi. Here, the Pythia, priestess of the Oracle, divined in trance, uttering inexplicable, enigmatic prophetic announcements, intoxicated by the vapours coming from a rocky chasm in a special area of the sanctuary. Her words were later interpreted by a special class of priests, devoted to the de-codification of the prophetic response. Python was the guardian of this chasm, from where the inebriating vapours ascended from the depths of the earth. The power of prophecy was – in primordial times – originating directly from Ghe’, the Earth Mother. It came, ascending from the earth. In later times, Apollo, a later, solar Olympian deity, stole the role of this primordial divinity, killed Python and took over in the cult at Delphi, becoming himself the god of prophecy.
The Incas worshipped Viracocha, their creator god, Inti, the Sun, Quilla, the Moon goddess, and had in the cosmological temple of Koricancha – in Cusco – a whole section dedicated to Venus, the Pleiades and all the stars. Here, Garcilaso de la Vega informs us, there was a room “dedicated to lightning, and to thunder, which they were both expressed by the single name, illapa. [...] This room was entirely covered with gold, but neither thunder not lightning were represented there [...]. The fourth room was devoted to the rainbow, which they said descended from the Sun [...]. It was entirely covered with gold and the rainbow was painted, in beautiful colours, across the entire surface of one of the walls. They called the rainbow cuichu and revered it very specially. [...] The fifth room and last room was reserved for the high priest and his assistants, who were of royal blood. [...] The name of the high priest was uilac-umu [...] This means “he who speaks of divine matters” [..]“.
Cusco was for the Incas what Delphi was for the Greeks: an esoteric centre of the world.
So far, we have seen an ascending Greek goddess, Ghe’, and had a glimpse of the special status that Cuichu, the rainbow descending from the sun, had for the Incas. Far from mirroring the complexity of the dimension of religious cults and vision of the world in either culture, the statements of Prof. Morales – as reported by Villoldo – do not seem to pay full justice to the reality of facts. There is no clear-cut view of Inca shamanism, religion and cultic practices versus ancient Greek civilization and, escaping poetic and simplified views, more than antithetical and opposite visions of the world we are strongly bound to believe that there is much more ground to dwell on similarities instead.
We do not know in what form the uilac-umu, the high priest of the Incas who spoke of divine matter may have – if at all – survived in contemporary Andean religion and cults. But we know that the Q’eros, who repute themselves direct descendants of the Incas, distinguish (alongside other indigenous communities of the high Andes) between two different types of different shamans: the Altomesayoq (or Alto mesayoq), a higher shaman – invested by the the power of prophecy and seeing – elected by the Apu (“Lord”, Sacred Mountain Spirit) and stroke by lightening (up to) three times, and the Pampamesayoq (or Pampa mesayoq) – a “normal” shaman, of lower status than the Altomesayoq. Both are called Paqos (or pakos).
The lightning cults of ancient Greece, where individuals and areas struck by lightning benefited in certain cases of an exceptional sacred status, and the election process of the Andean Altomesayoq bear a close intrinsic resemblance: both benefit from a special sacred condition and elective affinities.
In ancient Greece, one of the epithets with which the figure of Zeus was worshipped (as we know from Aischylos, as early as 467-458 BC) was that of Kataibates – the god “who descends” as a thunderbolt, or (as later sources translate the epithet) he “who makes to descend” the thunderbolts, denoting in either case the fall of the striking lightening from heaven to earth. Zeus Kataibates was worshipped for many centuries in different regions of Greece, and the ground adjoining the altars of the god was at times regarded as an ábaton, or inviolable sacred place, innermost sanctuary or shrine. We know that there were lightning ábata, called enelýsia, holy grounds of the god, which were essentially spots struck by lightning and reputed to be the living place of Zeus Kataibates.
The closest Andean equivalent to the Greek enelýsia may be seen in the spot hit by Illapa (deity of thunder, lighting and rainstorms), where the future Altomesayoq – the “shaman of the high table” – will find the sacred stones that will become part of his or her own mesa (sacred space with medicine objects) and will be the aid in the direct communication with the Apu.
The most striking parallel between the specially elected and higher condition of the Altomesayoq and the ancient Greek world (at least from the 5th century B.C.) is probably offered by the status of the Dioblés, the “Zeus-struck man”. The god descended as a lightning flash and the one on whom he fell was considered Diόbletos – “struck by Zeus” – and held in an especially sacred status. In ancient Greece, the divinity of the god was conveyed on the individual struck by the lightning – i.e. by Zeus Kataibates – who was made immortal, or imperishable.
In the Andes there is a special relation between lightning and the make of a high shaman. The Altomesayoq, who can communicate directly with the Apus and Illapa – receives his or her shamanic powers after been struck by lightening. The initiatory process develops essentially along three phases, which are all deeply remnant of traditional shamanic initiations: at the outset Illapa strikes (one to three times) and kills the chosen person, then his or her scattered body parts are put back together, and finally the person is brought back to life. When the candidate future Altomesayoq re-awakes from the shock and regains consciousness, he or she must look for special stones that the Illapa left on the ground when it stroke. Nobody must see – or interfere with – the future Altomesayoq (who may otherwise die).
These stones – called Khuyas stones – are invested of special powers and sacredness, and will become part of the mesa of the Altomesayoq. These will be the intermediary in the direct communication that the high shaman establishes with the Apu and Illapa.
Cook, A. B. Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion, Cambridge University Press, 1925
Garcilaso de la Vega, The Royal Commentaries of the Yncas, translated by Maria Jolas, Lima 2002