Celestial Journey of the Carib Shaman from ‘Shamanism’ by Mircea Eliade

Though also centering on the neophyte's ecstatic journey to the sky, the initiation of the Carib shamans of Dutch Guiana makes use of different means. A youth cannot become a pujai without succeeding in seeing the spirits and establishing direct and lasting relations with them. There is less a "possession" than an ecstatic vision making communication and conversation with spirits possible. This ecstatic experience can take place only in the course of a celestial journey. But the novice cannot undertake the journey unless he has been both taught the traditional ideology and prepared, physically and psychologically, for trance. As we shall see, his apprenticeship is extremely rigorous.

Usually six youths are initiated at once. They live in complete isolation in a hut built especially for the purpose and covered with palm fronds. They are required to do a certain amount of manual work; they tend the master initiator's tobacco field and make a bench in the shape of an alligator from the trunk of a cedar and set it in front of their hut. On this bench they sit every evening to listen to the master or to wait for visions. In addition, each of them makes his own bells and a "magical staff" six feet long. Six girls, under the supervision of an old woman teacher, serve the candidates. They furnish the daily supply of tobacco juice, which the candidates are obliged to drink in large quantities, and every evening each of them rubs the entire body of one of the candidates with a red liquid; this is to make him handsome and worthy to enter the presence of the spirits.

The initiation takes twenty-four days and twenty-four nights, and is divided into four parts; each series of three days and nights of instruction is followed by three days of rest. Teaching takes place at night, in the hut; there is dancing in a circle and singing, after which the candidates sit on the alligator bench and listen to the master discourse on the spirits, good and evil, and especially on "Grandfather Vulture," who plays an essential role in the initiation. He has the appearance of a naked Indian; it is he who helps the shamans to reach the sky by a spiral ladder. This spirit is the mouthpiece of the "Indian Grandfather” that is, the Creator, the Supreme Being. The dances imitate the movements of the animals of which the master has spoken during his teaching. By day the candidates remain in their hammocks, in the hut. During the rest period they lie on the bench, their eyes rubbed with redpepper juice, thinking of the master's lessons and trying to see the spirits.

Throughout the instruction period fasting is almost absolute; the apprentices constantly smoke cigarettes, chew tobacco leaves, and drink tobacco juice. After the exhausting night dances, with fasting and intoxication superadded, the apprentices are ready for their ecstatic journey. The first night of the second period they are taught to turn into jaguars and bats. On the fifth night, after a complete fast (even tobacco juice is forbidden), the master stretches several ropes at different heights, the apprentices dance on them in turn or swing in the air, holding on with their hands.  At this time they have their first ecstatic experience; they meet an Indian, who is really a benevolent spirit (Tukajana). "Come, novice. You shall go up to the sky by Grandfather Vulture's ladder. It is not far." The apprentice "climbs a sort of spiral ladder and thus reaches the first storey of the sky, where he passes through Indian villages and cities inhabited by Whites. Then the novice meets a Water Spirit ( Amana), a woman of great beauty, who urges him to dive into the stream with her. There she imparts charms and magical formulas to him. The novice and his guide land on the farther bank and reach the crossroads of 'Life and Death.’ The future shaman may choose between going to the 'Land without Evening' or the 'Land without Dawn.’ The spirit guiding him now tells him of the destiny of souls after death. The candidate is suddenly brought back to earth by an intense feeling of pain. The master has applied the maraque to his skin, a sort of woven mat in whose interstices large poisonous ants have been inserted."

On the second night of the fourth period of instruction the master puts the apprentices in turn on “a platform suspended from the ceiling of the hut by a number of cords twisted together, which. as they unwind, make the platform revolve with increasing speed.” The novice sings: "The platform of the pujai will carry me to the sky. I shall see the village of Tukajana." And he enters the various celestial spheres one after the other and sees the spirits in a vision.  Intoxication by the takini plant, which produces a high fever, is also employed. The novice shakes in every limb, and evil spirits are believed to have entered him and to be tearing his body. (The well-known initiatory motif of dismemberment by demons is easily recognizable here.) Finally, the apprentice feels that he is carried into the sky and enjoys celestial visions.

Carib folklore preserves the memory of a time when shamans had great powers; they are said to have been able to see the spirits with their bodily eyes and could even bring the dead back to life. Once a pujai went up into the sky and threatened God; seizing a saber. God drove the insolent mortal away; since that time, shamans can go to heaven only during ecstasy. We must emphasize the resemblance between these legends and North Asian beliefs concerning the original greatness of shamans and their subsequent decadence, which the present has only increased. We can read in it, as it were in filigree, the myth of a primordial age when communication between the shamans and God was more direct and took place concretely. Following some act of pride or revolt by the first shamans, God forbade them direct access to spiritual realities; they can no longer see spirits with their bodily eyes, and ascent to heaven can be accomplished only in ecstasy. As we shall see before long, this mythical motif is still richer.

Métraux cites the observations of early travelers on the of the West Indian Carib. For instance, Laborde reported the masters "also rub his (the neophyte's) body with gum and cover it with feathers to make him able to fly and go to the house of the zemeen (spirits).” There is nothing surprising in this, for the ornithomorphic costume and other symbols of magical flight are an integral part of Siberian, North American, and Indonesian shamanism.

Several elements of the Carib initiation are found elsewhere in South America. Intoxication by tobacco is characteristic of South American shamanism; the ritual seclusion in the hut and the stem ordeals to which the apprentices are subjected are one of the essential aspects of Fuegian initiation (Selk'nam and Yamana); instruction by a master and "visualization" of the spirits are likewise constituent elements of South American shamanism. But the technique of preparation for the ecstatic celestial journey appears to be peculiar to the Carib pujai. It should be noted that we here have a complete scenario for the typical initiation: ascent, encounter with a spirit-woman, immersion in water, revelation of secrets (most importantly, of human destiny after death), journey into the regions of the beyond. But the pujai makes every effort to gain an ecstatic experience of this initiatory schema, even if ecstasy is to be obtained only at the cost ofaberrant methods. We receive the impression that the Carib shaman uses any means to gain a concrete experience of a spiritual condition that, by its very nature, refuses to be "experienced" in the way in which certain human situations are "experienced." This observation should be borne in mind: we will return to and complete it in connection with other shamanic techniques.

Shamanism by Mircea Eliade

Among the Apinaye shamans are appointed by the soul of a relative, which puts them in relation with the spirits: but it is the latter that impart shamanic knowledge and techniques to them. Among other tribes one becomes a shaman through a spontaneous ecstatic experience—for example, by having a vision of the planet Mars, and so on. Among the Campa and the Amahuaca candidates are instructed by a living or dead shaman.“The apprentice shaman of the Conibo of the Ucayali receives his medical knowledge from a spirit. To enter into relations with the spirit the shaman drinks a decoction of tobacco and smokes as much as possible in a hermetically closed hut."The Cashinawa candidate is taught in the bush; souls give him the requisite magical substances and also inoculate his body with them. The Yaruro shamans are taught by their gods, although they learn technique properfrom other shamans. But they do not consider themselves able to practice until they have met a spirit in dream.“In the Apapocuva Guarani tribe, the prerequisite for becoming a shaman is learning magical songs, which are taught by a dead relative in dreams.” But whatever the source of their revelation, all these shamans practice in accordance with the traditional norms of their tribe. “In other words, they conform to rules and a technique that they can have acquired only by going to school to men of experience,” Metraux concludes. This is equally true of any other shamamsm. As we see, if the dead shaman's soul plays an important role in the development of shamanic vocation, it only prepares candidate for later revelations. The souls of dead shamans put him in relation with spirits, or carry him to the sky (cf. Siberia, the Altai, Australia, etc.). These first ecstatic experiences are followed by teaching received from the old shamans. Among the Selk’nam spontaneous vocation is manifested by the young man's strange behavior: he sings in his sleep, and so on. But such a state can also be obtained voluntarily; all that is necessary is to see the spirits.

"Seeing spirits," in dream or awake, is the determining sign of the shamanic vocation, whether spontaneous or voluntary. For, in a manner, having contact with the souls of the dead signifies being dead oneself. This is why, throughout South America, the shaman must so die that he may meet the souls of the dead and receive their teaching; for the dead know everything.

As we said, shamanic election or initiation in South America sometimes preserves the perfect schema of a ritual death and resurrection. But the death can also be suggested by other means: extreme fatigue, tortures, fasting, blows, and so on. When a young Jivaro decides to become a shaman, he looks for a master, pays him the proper fee, and then embarks on an extremely severe regime; for days he does not touch food and drinks narcotic beverages, especially tobacco juice (which is well known to play an essential part in the initiations of South American shamans). Finally a spirit, Pasuka, appears to the candidate in the form of a warrior. The master immediately begins to strike the apprentice until he falls to the ground unconscious. When he comes to himself, his whole body is sore. This proves that the spirit has taken possession of him; and in fact, the sufferings, intoxications, and blows that have brought on his loss of consciousness are in a manner assimilated to a ritual death.

It follows that the souls of the dead, whatever the part they have played in precipitating the vocation or initiation of future shamans, do not create the vocation by their mere presence (possession or not), but serve the candidate as a means of entering into contact with divine or semidivine beings (through ecstatic journeys to the sky and the underworld, etc.) or enable the future shaman to share in the mode of being of the dead. This has been very well brought out by Marcel Mauss in connection with magicat powers being conferred on Australian sorcerers by supernatural revelation.  Here too, the role of the dead often overlaps that of "pure spirits.”  And indeed, even when it is the spirit of a dead man that directly grants the revelation, the latter implies either the initiatory rite of the killing of the candidate followed by his rebirth, or ecstatic journeys to the sky, a peculiarly shamanic theme in which the ancestral spirit plays the role of psychopomp and which, by its very structure, excludes “possession.” It certainly seems that the chief function of the dead in the granting of shamanic powers is less a matter of taking "possession" of the subject than of helping him to become a "dead man"—in short, of helping him to become a "spirit" too.

Witoto Creation Myth

by  Rember Yahuarcani

Cuando terminó el sueño de la creación, Buinaima [el creador] también nos dejó algo de recuerdo. Nos dejó el tabaco. Así nosotros también podemos soñar como él soñó. Esta planta brotó solita del banco donde Buinaima estuvo sentado, soñando durante la noche. Por eso, cuando tomamos tabaco, meditamos concentrados y pensamos en los dióses, y ellos nos aconsejan a través de los sueños.

El tabaco se puede fumar, oler y, también, lamer, cuando se prepara una pasta hecha de hojas machucadas. Lo usamos con respeto y cuidado, porque el tabaco es un gran caminante. Quienes lo han visto en sueños dicen que es un hombre muy delgado, casi un esqueleto. Anda por el espacio apoyado sobre un bastón donde crecen sus hojas, y lleva un collar de calaveras y rodillas. Son los huesos de nuestros antepasados, tan antiguos y espectrales como su humo blanco. Parece estar cansado, pero sigue caminando, trayéndonos para siempre el recuerdo de todo lo que ha pasado desde que la Tierra y todas las cosas se formaron.

En sueños nos reencontramos con Buinaima, el creador, JusÍguna, el niño-árbol, y Buiñaiño, la madre del agua de quien nació todo lo que existe cuando Buinaima sopló e iluminó el agua con su blanca saliva. Desde entonces, Buinaima lleva un arco iris en la cabellera y sueña a colores, y nosotros también soñamos, porque la vida es el sueño a colores del creador. Vivimos y soñamos con todos los colores con que se viste Buiñaiño cuando se yergue sosteniendo el firmamento para salvamos de la tormenta y hacer que el sol vuelva a brillar. Nosotros también soñamos, porque la vida es el sueño a colores del creador. Vivimos y soñamos con todos los colores con que se viste Buiñaiño cuando se yergue sosteniendo el firmamento para salvarnos de la tormenta y hacer que el sol vuelva a brillar.

•  •  •  •  •

When he finished the dream of creation, Buinaima [the Creator], left us something to remember him by. He left us tobacco. In this way we can dream like He dreamt. This plant grew alone by the mound where Buinaima sat, dreaming throughout the night. That’s why, when we take tobacco, we concentrate in meditation and think of the gods, and they advice us through our dreams.

Tobacco can be smoked, inhaled, and also chewed when it’s prepared in a paste made from crushed leaves. We use it with respect and caution, because tobacco is a great traveler. Those who have envisioned him in dreams say that he is a very thin man, almost like a skeleton. He walks in space, aided by a cane where his leaves grow, and he wears a necklace of skulls and knees. They are the bones of our ancestors, so old and ghostly like his white smoke. He looks like he’s tired, but he keeps walking, always carrying for us the memory of all that has happened since the earth and her creation formed.

In dreams we reconnect to Buinaima, the Creator, to Jusíguna, the tree-child, and to Buiñaiño, the mother of water from whom was born all that exists when Buinaima blew and illuminated the water with his white saliva. Since then, Buinaima wears a rainbow in his head of hair and dreams in color, and we also dream, because life is the dream of colors from the creator. We live and we dream in all the colors with which Buiñaiño is dressed when she stands up, holding the heavens to save us from storms and make the sun rise and shine again.


from The Three Halves of Ino Moxo

"The viracocha—that is to say, the whites—long ago lived in a lagoon,” ponders Don Juan Tuesta, with eyes closed, in the full of an ayawaskha night. Somebody who is not Don Juan Tuesta, but is Don Juan Tuesta, has occupied his body, overflows it without containment, and comes out through his dreamwalker mouth.

Near the virakocha lived the Campa—in other words the Ashaninka. On a certain day, a Campa heard barking noises coming from the lagoon. "Well, I'll fish that dog,” and to do that he took some bananas with him. But since bananas are food for human beings, the dog was offended and refused to eat them. In turn, all of the virakocha came out of the lagoon and began to pursue, then kill, the Campa. They killed all of the Campa. The lagoon dried out. A single Campa survived, a sorcerer, one of those sorcerers called shirimpiáre: a Campa who used tobacco. Because you should know that not all sorcerers use tobacco, only shirimpiáre do. The other sorcerers have other spaces and a different name; they are called katziboréri. The surviving shirimpiáre invoked Tziho, the buzzard, and said, "Come, help me—the virakocha have killed all my brothers." "Where?" asked Tziho. "Everywhere," the Campa shirimpiáre answered, "but mainly in the Great Pajonal." You should know that the Great Pajonal, Don Juan Tuesta tells me, is the territory of the Campa nation, more than one hundred thousand square kilometers of pure flat jungle, an infinite plateau in the middle of the great forests and rivers that adjoin the High Amazon jungle, in the direction of Cusco. It was there, in the Great Pajonal, that the Campa resisted the Inka conquerors, repelled the Spanish conquerors...

The witch doctor

The witch doctor succeeds for the same reason the rest of us (doctors) succeed. Each patient carries his own doctor inside him. They come to us not knowing this truth. We are at our best when we give the doctor who resides within each patient a chance to go to work. 


-Albert Schweitzer, German physician, theologian, philosopher, and musician