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Maripa: Integrative Consciousness and Pyscho-Social Healing among the Piaroa of Southern Venezuela

by Robin Rodd
University of Western Australia

Despite Piaroa shamans' inter-tribal and historical reputation for being the 'intellectuals of the Orinoco' (Oldham, 1997), they have not received extensive ethnographic investigation. In 2000-2001 I conducted 18 months of fieldwork with the Piaroa of Southern Venezuela, undertaking a shamanic apprenticeship for half of this time.

A Piaroa shaman's power to cure or to cause harm is referred to as maripa. Maripa is power as knowledge derived from altered states of consciousness (ASC). According to Piaroa shamans (meñeruwa and yuweweruwa), the consumption of yopo (a snuff derived predominantly from Anadenanthrina peregrina and Banisteriopsis caapi) facilitates entry to a realm of potentially infinite understanding of current and future ecological, social and individual situations. Maripa is an amorphous term applied to many circumstances: there is maripa in yopo and in B. caapi, and it is also the states of consciousness one experiences upon consuming these substances. This term is also applied to the intensity of shamanic activity in a particular place or time. A shaman's power is directly related to his ability to use yopo and B. caapi derived states of consciousness to access information. Those with the most highly developed technologies of consciousness and capacities for their deployment in curing, divination and witchcraft possess the most maripa. They are revered as potent healers and feared as dangerous sorcerers. Maripa can be seen as an integrative awareness combining practical reason, empirical knowledge, intuitive deduction, individual feeling and social sensitivity to various adaptive flows and power relationships. It is an experiential knowledge structure that cross-cuts western classifications of consciousness predicated on the divides of mind-body and nature-supernature. Maripa is the product of long-term scholarly-meditative practices and short-term induction techniques designed to attain a variety of peak states of consciousness that are applied to particular social, physical and psychological problems (Maslow, 1962).

The apparently unique combination of Piaroa induction techniques, and associated epistemology of consciousness, point to novel approaches to and uses of peak states of consciousness that warrant in-depth assessment. Despite several scholars applying the term 'fertile field' to investigation of the botanical origins and cultural context of psychotropic snuff use, little ethnographic work on this subject has subsequently been undertaken (Schultes, 1979; Chagnon, et al 1971; Ott 1996; Rodd, in press). Further, yopo has not been studied pharmacologically since 1979 (Holmstedt & Lindgren). I intend to have Piaroa yopo analysed for alkaloid concentrations, enabling integration of pharmacological, neuro-psychological and cultural assessments of Piaroa technologies of consciousness.

The pyscho-social and curative aspects of psychotropic snuff-induced shamanism, as well as the epistemological parameters of associated peak states of consciousness remain significantly understudied. Eliade's gloss of shamanism (1964) as 'archaic techniques of ecstasy' employed for communitarian ends remains dominant today. Since its inception, however, there have been few elaborations on its most salient point: 'techniques of ecstasy.' That is, few culture-specific studies of shamanism have been concerned with the processes of mental imagery cultivation (see for example Noll, 1985) and neuro-phenomenological accounts of the technologies of consciousness that are central to shamanic curing and divination. The majority of ethnographic studies of shamanism have been structural, semiotic or behaviourist (Laughlin, et al, 1992). I argue that shamanism can best be understood through phenomenological accounts of the altered states of consciousness employed to access pertinent information for the solution of social, psychological and physiological adaptive problems, and that such states can now be understood, in part, through neuroscience. My project involves the combination of a neuro-phenomenological approach to shamanic technologies of consciousness as developed by Winkelman (2000) and Laughlin, et al (1992), within more traditional contextualisations of Piaroa praxis and structure.

This project will advance understanding of shamanic practice, breaking new ground with the fusion of neuro-phenomenological and structural approaches to shamanism, grounded in a unique ethnographic context. It will redress a dearth of analyses of the cultural framework within which psychotropic snuff-use exists, and contribute to furthering understanding of the ideological, curative and physiological dynamics of peak states of consciousness achieved through indigenous technologies.

Chagnon, N., le Quesne, P. & Cook, J. 1971. Yanomamö Hallucinogens: Anthropological, Botanical and Chemical Findings. Current Anthropology 12(1):72-4. Initially presented in 1969 Annual Meeting of AAA.
Eliade, Mircea. 1964. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (New York, Pantheon Books). Originally published as Le Chamananisme et les Techniques Archaïques de l'Extase (Paris, Libraire Payot, 1951).
Holmstedt, B. & Lindgren, J. 1979. Chemical Constituents and Pharmacology of South American Snuffs. In Efron, D. H., Holmstedt, B. & Kline N.S. (eds.) Ethnopharmacological Search for Psychoactive Drugs. New York: Raven Press. pp. 339-373.
Laughlin, C., McManus, J. & E. d'Aquili. 1992. Brain, Symbol and Experience: Toward a Neurophenomenology of Consciousness (New York, Columbia University Press).
Maslow, A.H. 1962. Lessons from the Peak Experiences. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 2:9-18.
Noll, R. 1985. Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural Phenomenon: The Role of Visions in Shamanism. Current Anthropology 26:443-51.
Oldham, Paul. 1997. Cosmología, shamanismo y práctica medicinal entre los Wothïha (Piaroa). In Alès, Catherine & Chiappino, Jean (eds.) Del Microscopio a la Maraca (Caracas, Ex Libris), pp. 225-249.
Ott, J. 1996. Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic Drugs, their Plant Sources and History. Kennewick, Wa.: Natural Products Co.
Rodd, Robin. (In press). Snuff Synergy: Preparation Use and Pharmacology of Yopo and Banisteriopsis caapi among the Piaroa of Southern Venezuela. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.
Schultes, R.E. 1979. The Botanical Origins of South American Snuffs. In Efron, D. H., Holmstedt, B. & Kline N.S. (eds.) Ethnopharmacological Search for Psychoactive Drugs. New York: Raven Press. 291-306.
Winkelman, Michael. 2000. Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing (London, Bergin & Garvey).

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