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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire

Davis, Wade (1998).
Washington, D.C.: Island Press

ISBN: 1-55963-354-9

Description: Hardcover, x + 292 pages.

Contents: Acknowledgments, introduction, 14 chapters, index.

Notes: Readers of this chrestomathy may especially enjoy the chapters "The Art of Shamanic Healing," "Plants of the Gods," "Cactus of the Four Winds," and "Smoking Toad."

Excerpt(s): For, unlike the priest, who is a socially inducted and initiated member of a recognized religious organization, the shaman is one who, as a consequence of a completely personal psychological crisis, has gained a certain power of his or her own. Whereas the priest is concerned with integrating the individual into a firmly ordered and well-established social context, the shaman seeks the release of his or her own wild genius, wherever that may lead. Almost invariably, an overwhelming mental crisis is part of the vocational summons. Indeed, for the seeker of shamanic wisdom, it is a fine line between mystical initiation and psychological breakdown.

Yet, though this crisis may resemble a mental breakdown, it cannot be dismissed as one. For it is not a pathological but a normal event for the gifted mind in these societies, the realization and intuition of a level of spiritual depth that gives the world a sacred character. By following the solitary vision, the shaman breaks not with the other traditions of his tribe but with the comparatively trivial attitude toward the spirit realm that seems to satisfy the majority. In seeking this most difficult path, the shaman becomes a master of death and resurrection, of health and well-being. (page 145)

What is fascinating about the phenomenon of firewalking is not its sensational character but rather what it says about human potential. That individuals remain physically unharmed when exposed to temperatures that would-and do-result in serious damage if experienced in ordinary states of consciousness has profound implications. It suggests that trance states may potentiate certain innate yet exceptional powers of the mind. Although the exact mechanism remains to be identified, the remarkable ability to withstand fire appears to lie in areas of the mind/body interaction that neurophysiologists have yet to fathom.

The ability to walk on fire and to handle burning embers are but examples of human potential unleashed by profound states of altered consciousness. ...

Once we accept the reality of firewalking and other extraordinary abilities, it does not require a great leap of faith to understand how shamanic rituals may be capable of eliciting unexpected physiological responses, particularly when both the healer and the patient share an absolute faith in the practice. Moreover, the fact that individuals in our own secular culture have been able to induce trance states that allow them to walk on hot coals without harm suggests the exciting possibility that all humans might share the same latent potential. Taking advantage of this potential, and using altered states of consciousness to manipulate the human capacity, is precisely what the higher levels of shamanic healing are all about. (pages 151-152)

Plants of the Gods

Many years ago, while living among the Barasana Indians on the banks of the Rio Piraparana in the Northwest Amazon of Columbia, I was invited one night to drink ayahuasca, "the vine of the soul," the most revered and celebrated of Amazonian shamanic preparations. The tribal leader, a man named Rufino, described it as the jaguar's nectar, a magical intoxicant that could free the soul, allowing one to wander in mystical encounters with ancestors and animal spirits. He cautioned that the potion, like any sacred medicine, could be many things, but pleasant was not one of them. ...

... We all took more ayahuasca, several more cycles. An hour or more passed. I looked up and saw the edges of the world soften, and felt a resonance coming from beyond the sky, like the intimation of a hovering wind, pulsating with energy.

At first it was pleasant, a wondrous sense of life and warmth enveloping all things. But then the sensations intensified, became charged with a strange current, and the air itself took on a metallic density. Soon the world as I knew it no longer existed. Reality was not distorted; it was dissolved, as the terror of another dimension swept over the senses. The beauty of colors, the endless patterns of orblike brilliance, were as rain falling away from my skin. I caught myself and looked up, saw Rufino and Pacho gently swaying and moaning. There were rainbows trapped inside their feathered headdresses. In their hair were weeping flowers and trees attempting to soar into the clouds. Leaves fell from the branches, with great howling sounds. The sky opened. There was a livid scar across the heavens, stars throbbing, a great wind scattering everything in its path. Then the ground opened. Snakes encircled the posts of the maloca and slipped away into the earth. The rivers unfolded like the mouths of blossoms. Movement became penetration. Then the terror grew stronger, as did my sense of the hopeless fragility. Death hovered all around. Ravenous children, and animals of every shape and form, lay sick and dying of thirst. Their nostrils plunged into the dry earth. Their flanks lay bare and exposed. And all around rose a canopy of immense sorrows.

I tried to shake away the forms from the luminous sensations. Instead my thoughts themselves turned into visions, not of things or places but of an entire dimension that in the moment seemed not only real, but absolute. This was the actual world, and what I had known until then was a crude and opaque facsimile. (pages 155-157)

... To drink ayahuasca, anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff once wrote, is to return to the cosmic uterus and be reborn. It is to tear through the placenta of ordinary perception and enter realms where death can be known and life traced through sensation to the primordial source of all existence. When shamans speak of facing down the jaguar, it is because they really do. (page 159)

The group of plants that shamans approach with the greatest trepidation are in the potato family, species of Datura and Brugmansia-the "holy flowers of the North Star" and the "trees of the evil eagle." These plants contain tropane alkaloids that, though useful in the treatment of asthma, can in higher dosage induce a frightening state of psychotic delirium marked by burning thirst, visions of hellfire, and, ultimately, stupor and death. Sorcerers among the Yaqui of northern Mexico anoint their genitals, legs, and feet with a salve based on crushed datura leaves and experience the sensation of flight. Many believe that the Yaqui acquired this practice from the Spaniards, for throughout medieval Europe, witches commonly rubbed their bodies with hallucinogenic ointments made from belladonna, mandrake, henbane, and datura. In fact much of the behavior associated with witches is as readily attributable to these drugs as to any spiritual communion with demons. A particularly efficient means of self-administering the drug is through the moist tissue of the vagina; the witch's broomstick or staff was considered a most effective applicator. The common image of a haggard woman on a broomstick comes from the belief that the witches rode their staffs each midnight to the sabbat, the orgiastic assembly of demons and sorcerers. It now appears that their journey was not through space but across the hallucinatory landscape of their own minds. (pages 161-162)

... I confronted yet another botanical enigma, the manner in which the Indians classify their plants. The Ingano of the upper Putumayo in Columbia, for example, recognize seven kinds of ayahuasca. The Siona have eighteen varieties, which they distinguish on the basis of the strength and color of the visions, the trading history of the plant, the authority and lineage of the shaman, even the tone and key of the incantations that the plants sing when taken on the night of a full moon. None of these criteria make sense botanically, and, as far as modern science can distinguish, all the plants are referable to one species, Banisteriopsis caapi. Yet the Indians can readily differentiate their varieties on sight, even from a considerable distance in the forest. What's more, individuals from different tribes, separated by large expanses of forest, identify these same varieties with amazing consistency. It is a similar story with other stimulants, such as the caffeine-rich liana Paullinia yoco. In addition to yoco blanco and colorado, the Ingano recognize black yoco, jaguar yoco, yag-yoco, yoco of the witches. Fourteen categories in all, not one of which can be determined based on the rules of our own science.

Like most ritual hallucinogens, ayahuasca is a sacred medicine and a vital component of the shaman's repertoire, enabling him to communicate across great distances in the forest to diagnose illness, ward off evil, prophesy the future. (pages 165-166)

Whatever the ostensible purpose of the hallucinogenic journey, Amerindians generally take the sacred plants in a highly structured manner that places a ritualistic framework of order around their use. Moreover, the experience is explicitly sought for positive ends. It is not a means of escaping from an uncertain existence. Rather, it is perceived as a means of contributing to the welfare of all of one's people. (page 168)

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