Peruvian Shamanism: A Different Kind of Medicine

A Shaman's Herbal Wisdom

| March/April 1998

  • Don Antonio Montero holds a sprig of sacha ajo, an important plant in his pharmacopoeia.
  • Sunrise on the Amazon River.
  • Sunrise on the Amazon River.
  • Don Antonio Montero and Dr. James Duke.
  • Don Antonio slashes the bark of the “Shaman’s Tree,” Croton lechleri, releasing its crimson sap.
  • The ethereal blossoms of angel’s trumpet belie the plant’s toxic nature.
  • Ayahuasca, the “soul vine.”
  • Sunrise on the Amazon River.
  • Smoke is an important element of the ayahuasca ceremony.
  • The Amazonian rain forest contains more than a 200,000 plant species, hundreds of which can be seen from any vantage point.
  • Sunrise on the Amazon River.

The Ceiba Tree—“abuelo,” grand­father of the forest, kapok, lupuna— is a giant in a forest of giants. Rising to 150 feet or more, it towers over the high forest canopy of the Amazon basin. Its trunk can grow to 18 feet in diameter, its great stabilizing buttresses might reach 30 or 40 feet out into the encroaching jungle. It possesses more spirits, has more power than any other tree, the locals say. It was into the sheltering arms of a mighty ceiba that Antonio Montero Pisco’s grandfather entrusted him when he was but nine years old.

The time was about 1950; the place, a small village along the Napo River in northern Peru. Antonio had been with his maternal grandparents since he was four, given to them by his parents to raise. Perhaps his family had grown too large, perhaps the grandparents needed care, or perhaps there was a special future for this child. His grandfather was a powerful medicine man, a brujo, a shaman.

The child grew up much as any young boy in the jungle. He shared a thatched, stilted hut in the village of Kokama with his grandparents. He learned to paddle a dugout canoe, to make nets and to fish, to gather fruit and dig cassava, to tend chickens, to wield a machete, to know the forest plants and trees. And when he was nine, his grandfather took him to the ceiba tree and left him alone there for a month between its sheltering buttresses.

His instructions: Make a hole in the bark of the tree, put a calabash in the hole, plug the hole and wait eight days. At the end of that time, unplug the hole and eat the gelatinous sap that had collected there. Beyond that, keep a strict fast—no fruit, no sugar, no salt, only a bit of dried fish—and talk to no one.

“During the thirty days I was in the jungle alone, I saw things I’d never seen and was frightened,” he recalls with vivid gestures. “My grandfather said they were the spirits of the forest. I was so scared I cried, I tried to run away.” He was beaten for this, and made to promise that he wouldn’t run away any more. “It’s tough being a shaman,” he says, a glint of humor in his dark eyes.

“The knowledge I have was sowed like seeds by my grandfathers,” Don Antonio explains. “Later,” he says, “I continued to learn from my elders [his other grandfather was also a shaman], but learned more from the plants themselves.” He quietly learned the ways of the plants through his teens, at the same time taking the kind of jobs that gave young men of his generation a larger world. He worked as a bushwhacker for a rubber company, he went upriver to the city of Iquitos and worked as a baker. But always he came back to the jungle. In his early twenties, he became a practicing shaman.

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