THE MOTHER OF THE MOTHER OF TOBACCO IS A SNAKE
Two days after my first ayahuasca experience, I was walking in the
forest with Carlos Perez.
Shiuna, my main Ashaninca consultant.
Carlos was forty-five years old and was an experienced tabaquero-ayahuasquero who had also dealt
missionaries and colonists. We reached a river that we had to cross
The moment seemed right to ask a few questions,
particularly since Carlos had also participated in the hallucinatory
session two nights previously.
"Tío [uncle]." I asked, "what are
these enormous snakes one sees when one drinks ayahuasca?"
time, bring your camera and take their picture," he answered. "That
way you will be able to analyze them at your leisure."
I laughed, saving I did not think the visions would appear on film.
"Yes they would," he said, "because their colors are so bright."
With this, he stood up and started wading across the river.
I scampered after him. thinking about what he had just said. It had
never occurred to me that one could seriously consider taking
pictures of hallucinations. I was certain that if I did so, I would
only obtain photos of darkness. But I knew that this would not
prove anything, because lie could always question the capacities of
my camera. In any case, these people seemed to consider the visions
produced by hallucinogenic plants to be at least as real as the
ordinary reality we all perceive.
A few weeks later I started recording a series of interviews with
Carlos, who had agreed to tell me his life story. The first evening,
we sat on the platform of his house, surrounded by the sounds of the
forest at night. A kerosene lamp made of a tin can and a cotton wick
provided a flickering source of light and gave off blackish fumes.
Despite my training, it was the first time in my life that I
interviewed someone. I did not know where to start, so I asked him
to start at the beginning.
Carlos was born in the Perené Valley in 1940.
He lost his parents
when he was five years old in the waves of epidemics that swept the
area with the arrival of white settlers. His uncle took care of him
for several years: Then he went to an Adventist mission. where he
learned to speak, read, and write Spanish.
What follows is an extract from the transcript of this first
We talked in Spanish, which is neither his mother tongue
nor mine, as a faithful translation reveals:
"My uncle was a tabaquero. I watched him take lots of tobacco, dry
it a bit in the sun. and cook it. I wondered what it could be.
That's tobacco,' my uncle told me. and once the mixture was good and
black, he started tasting it with a little stick. I thought it was
sweet, like concentrated cane juice. When he ate his tobacco, he
could give people good advice.
He could tell them, 'this is good' or
this is not good.' I don t know what the intellectuals say now. but
in those days, all the Adventist missionaries said. 'He is listening
to his bats, to his Satan.' He had no
book to help him see, but what he said was true: 'Even/body has
turned away from these things, now they all go to the missionary. I
do not know how to read, hut I know how to do these things. I know
how to take tobacco, and I know all these things.'
So when he
talked, I listened. He told me: 'Listen nephew, when you are a grown
man, find a woman to look after but before that, you must not only
learn how to write, you must also learn these things.'
"Learn to take tobacco?" I asked.
"Take tobacco and cure. When people would come to him, my uncle
would say: Why do you ask me to cure you, when you say you know God
now that you are at the mission, and I do not know Cod' Why don't
you ask the pastor to pray, since he says he can cure people with
prayers.'' Why don't you go to him?' But he would cure them anyway.
He would pull out his coca, start chewing it, and sit down like us
Then, he would swallow his tobacco Meanwhile, I
watch him and ask him what he was doing The first time I saw him
cure, he said: 'Yen/ well, bring me the sick baby.' First, he
touched the baby, then took his pulse: 'Ah, I see. he's in a bad
way. The illness is here.' Then, he stalled sucking the spot
Then, he spat it out like this: ptt! Then, again,
and a third time ptt! There, very good. Then he told the mother:
'Something has shocked this little one. so here is a herb to bathe
him. After that, let him rest.' The next day. one could already see
an improvement in the baby's health. So I took a liking to it and
decided to learn. Ooh! The first time I had tobacco, I didn't sleep."
"How old were you?"
"I was eight years old. I thought tobacco was sweet. But it was so
bitter that I couldn't even swallow it. My uncle said: 'That's the
secret of tobacco.' Then, he showed me everything.
He gave me a tobacco gourd. Little by little. I learned to take it
and to resist. Fairly quickly, I stopped vomiting."
"Did your uncle also teach you how to use ayahuasca?"
"No. I learned
that later, with my father-in-law. ..
Over the following months, I recorded approximately twenty hours on
the meanders of Carlos's life.
He spoke Spanish better than anybody
in Quirishari; in the past, he had taught it to other Ashaninca in
an Adventist school. However, his grammar was flexible, and he
talked with unexpected rhythms, punctuating his sentences with
pauses, gestures, and noises that completed his vocabulary nicely,
but that are difficult to put into written English.
narrative style varied from a first-person account to the commentary
of a narrator who also plays the roles of the characters. This is no
doubt more appropriate for oratory, or radio plays, than for a
By taping Carlos's life story, I was not trying to establish the
point of view of a "typical" Ashaninca.
Rather. I was trying to
grasp some specifics of local history by following the personal
trajectory of one man. In particular. I was interested in questions
of territory in the Pichis Valley: Who owned which lands, and since
when? Who used which resources? As it happens, the overall history
of the Ashaninca in the twentieth century is closely defined by the
progressive expropriation of their territory by outsiders, as
Carlos's life story reveals.
Carlos' birthplace, the Perené Valley, was the first Ashaninca
region to undergo colonization. By 1940. the majority of indigenous
lands in the area had already been confiscated. Ten years later,
Carlos the young orphan had followed the mass migration of the
Perene Ashaninca toward the Pichis Valley, where the forests were
still free of colonists and diseases.
After living twenty-six
years in this new homeland. Carlos had been elected to the
presidency of the congress of the Association of the Indigenous
Communities of the Pichis (ACONAP). The goal of this organization
was to defend indigenous lands from a new onslaught of colonization.
Carlos was forced to abandon his position after four years when he
was bitten by a snake. At this point, he retired to Quirishari to
cure himself "with ayahuasca and other plants."
When I appeared five
years later, he was living like a retired politician, satisfied with
the tranquility, but nostalgic for yesteryears struggles, lie did
not seem displeased at the idea of confiding his memoirs to a
Over the course of our conversations. I often asked Carlos about the
places he had lived, directing the conversation toward the solid
ground of social geography. But he would regularly answer in ways
that pointed toward shamanism and mythology.
"The earthquake in the Perené, was that in 1948 or 1947?"
"And were you there at the time?"
"Of course, at that time. I was a young
boy. It happened in
Pichanaki. It killed three people, Pichanaki was a nice plain, hut
now there are more than twenty meters of earth burying the old
village. It used to be a fertile lowland, good for corn."
"And why was this place called Pichanaki?"
"That's the name that the first natives gave it in the old days, the
tabaqueros, the ayahuasqueros. As I have explained to you. it is
simply in their visions that they were told that the river is called
"Ah yes. And Pichanaki' means something? All these place names that
finish in -aki. like Yurinaki also, what does 'aki' mean?"
"It means that there are many minerals in the center of these
places. The word means eye' in our language." "And, Picha?"
"He is called like that, because in the hills, there is a
representative of the animals whose name is Picha."
"Ah, 'the eyes
"Now you see."
I often asked Carlos to explain the origin of place names to me.
would invariably reply that nature itself had communicated them to
the ayahuasqueros-tabaqueros in their hallucinations:
"'That is how
nature talks, because in nature, there is God, and God talks to us
in our visions. When an ayahuasquero drinks his plant brew, the
spirits present themselves to him and explain everything."
Listening to Carlos's stories.
I gradually became familiar with some
of the characters of Ashaninca mythology.
For instance, he often
talked of Avíveri:
"According to our ancient belief, he is the one
of the forest, he is our god. He was the one who had the idea of
making people appear."
Carlos also referred to invisible beings,
called maninkari, who are found in animals, plants, mountains,
streams, lakes, and certain crystals, and who are sources of
"The maninkari taught us how to spin and weave cotton,
and how to make clothes. Before, our ancestors lived naked in the
forest. Who else could have taught us to weave? That is how our
intelligence was born, and that is how we natives of the forest know
how to weave."
I had not come to Quirishari to study indigenous mythology.
considered the study of mythology to be a useless and "reactionary"
pastime. What counted for me were the hectares Confiscated in the
name ol' "development" and the millions of dollars in international
funds that financed the operation. With my research, I was trying to
demonstrate that true development consisted first in recognizing the
territorial rights of indigenous people. My point of view was
materialist and political, rather than mystical.1
So, after nine
months in Quirishari, it was almost despite myself that I started
reading Gerald Weiss's doctoral dissertation on Ashaninca mythology,
entitled The Cosmology of the Campa Indians of Eastern Peru -
"Campa" being the disparaging
word used until recently to designate the Ashaninca, who do not
I discovered as I read this thesis that Carlos was not making up
fanciful stories. On the contrary, he was providing me with concise
elements of the main cosmological beliefs of his culture, as
documented extensively by Weiss in the 1960s.
According to Weiss, the Ashaninca believe in the existence of
invisible spirits called maninkari, literally "those who are
hidden," who can nonetheless be seen by ingesting tobacco and
ayahuasca. They are also called ashaninka, "our fellows." as they
are considered to be ancestors with whom one has kinship.
As these maninkari are also present in plants and animals, the Ashaninca
think of themselves as members of the same family as herons,
otters, hummingbirds, and so on. who are all perani ashaninka, all
our fellows long ago.3
Some maninkari are more important than others. Weiss distinguishes a
hierarchy among these spirits. Avíveri, the god who creates by
transformation, is the most powerful of them all. In Ashaninca
myths, Avíveri, accompanied by his sister, creates the seasons with
the music of his panpipes. He shapes human beings by blowing on
earth. Then he wanders with his grandson Ki'ri, casually transforming human beings into insects, fruit trees, animals,
or rock formations. Finally.
Avíveri gets drunk at a festival. His
malicious sister invites him to dance and pushes him into a hole
that she has dug beforehand. Then she pretends to pull him out by
throwing him a thread, a cord, and finally a rope, none of which is
strong enough. Avíveri decides to escape by digging a tunnel into
the underworld. He ends up in a place called "river's end." where a
strangler vine wraps itself around him. From there, he continues to
sustain his numerous children of the earth.
And Weiss concludes:
"There Avireri remains to the present day, no more able to move,
because ol the vine that constrains him."4
Finally. Weiss notes in passing:
"To be sure, although these
accounts are to be classified and referred to as myths, for the Campas they are reliable reports handed down orally from past
generations of real happenings, happenings as authentically real as
any actual event of past years that someone still remembers or was
I had the same impression as Weiss: My Ashaninca informants
discussed mythological characters and events as il they were real.
This seemed quite fanciful to me, hut I did not say so. As an
anthropologist I was trained to respect outlandish beliefs.
The inhabitants of Quirishari had made it clear to me that I was not
supposed to gather plant samples. However. I could study their uses
of the forest as I pleased, and I could try their plant remedies.
So whenever I had a health problem and people told me they knew of a
cure. I tried it. Often the results went beyond not only my
expectations, but my very understanding of reality. For instance. I
had suffered from chronic back pain since the age of seventeen,
having played too much tennis during my adolescence.
had consulted several European doctors, who had used cortisone
injections and heat treatment, to no avail. In Quirishari there was
a man, Ahelardo Shingari, known for his "body medicine." He proposed
to cure my back pain by administering a sanango tea at the new moon.
He warned me that I would feel cold, that my body would seem rubbery
for two days, and that I would see some images.
I was skeptical, thinking that if it were really possible to cure
chronic back pain with half a cup of vegetal tea. Western medicine
would surely know about it. On the other hand. I thought it was
worth trying, because it could not be less effective than cortisone
Early one morning, the day after the new moon, I drank the sanango
tea. After twenty minutes, a wave of cold submerged me. I felt
chilled to the bone. I broke out into a profuse cold sweat and had
to wring out my sweatshirt several times. After six rather difficult
hours, the cold feeling went away, but I no longer controlled the
coordination of my body.
I could not walk without falling down. For
five minutes I saw an enormous column of multicolored lights across
the sky - my only hallucinations. The lack of coordination lasted
forty-eight hours. On the morning of the third day, my back pain had
disappeared. To this day it has not returned.6
I tend not to believe this kind of Story unless I have lived it
myself, so I am not trying to convince anybody about the
effectiveness of sanango. However, from my point of view. Abelardo
had pulled off a trick that seemed more biochemical than
I had several other similar experiences. Each time, I noted that the
seemingly fanciful explanations I was given ended up being verified
in practice - such as "a tea von drink at the new moon which turns
your body to rubber and cures your back pain."
So I began to trust the literal descriptions of my friends in
Quirishari even though I did not understand the mechanisms of their
Furthermore, by living with them on a daily basis. I was continually struck
by their profound practicality. They did not
talk of doing things; they did them. One day I was walking in the
forest with a man named Rafael. I mentioned that I needed a new
handle for my ax. He stopped in his tracks, saying "ah yes," and
used his machete to cut a little hardwood tree a few steps off the
Then he carved an impeccable handle that was to last longer
than the ax itself. He spent about twenty minutes doing the bulk of
the work right there in the forest and an additional twenty minutes
at home doing the adjustments. Perfect work, carried out bv eye
alone. Up until then. I had always thought that ax handles came from
People in Quirishari taught by example, rather than by explanation.
Parents would encourage their children to accompany them in their
work. The phrase "leave Daddy alone because he's working" was
unknown. People were suspicious of abstract concepts. When an idea
seemed really bad, they would say dismissively.
"Es pitta tcotia"
["That's pure theory"].
The two key words that cropped up over and
over in conversations were práctica and táctica, "practice" and
"tactics" - no doubt because they are requirements for living in the
The Ashaninca's passion for practice explains, in part at least,
their general fascination for industrial technology. One of their
favorite subjects of conversation with me was to ask how 1 had made
the objects I owned: tapes, lighters, rubber boots. Swiss army
knife, batteries, etc. When I would reply that I did not know how to
make them, nobody seemed to believe me.
After about a year in Quirishari. I had come to sec that my hosts'
practical sense was much more reliable in their environment than my
academically informed understanding of reality. Their empirical
knowledge was undeniable. However, their explanations concerning the
origin of their knowledge were unbelievable to me.
For instance, on
two separate occasions, Carlos and Abelardo showed me a plant that
cured the potentially mortal bite of the jergón (fer-de-lance) snake.
I looked at the plant closely, Slinking that it might come in useful
at some point. They both pointed out the pair of white hooks
resembling snake fangs, so that 1 would remember it.
I asked Carlos
how the virtues of the jergón plant had been discovered.
this thanks to these hooks, because that is the sign that nature
Once again, I thought that if this were true.
Western science would
surely know about it; furthermore I could not believe that there was
truly a correspondence between a reptile and a bush, as if a common
intelligence were lurking behind them both and communicating with
visual symbols. To me, it seemed that my "animist" friends were
merely interpreting coincidences of the natural order.
One day at Carlos's house, I witnessed an almost surreal scene. A
man called Sabino appeared with a sick baby in his arms and two
Permian cigarettes in his hand. He asked Carlos to cure the child.
Carlos lit one of the cigarettes and drew on it deeply several
times. Then he blew smoke on the baby and started sucking at a
precise spot on its belly, spitting out what he said was the
After about three minutes, he declared the problem solved. Sabino thanked him profusely and departed. Carlos called after him,
placing the second cigarette behind his ear:
"Come back any time."
At that point, I thought to myself that my credulity had limits and
that no one could get me to believe that cigarette smoke
could cure a sick child. On the contrary, I thought that blowing
smoke on the child could only worsen its condition.
A few evenings later, during one of our taped conversations, I
returned to this question:
"When one does a cure, like the one you did the other day for
Sabino, how does the tobacco work? If you are the one who smokes it,
how can it cure the person who does not smoke?"
"I always say, the property of tobacco is that it shows me the
reality of things. I can see things as they are. And it gets rid of
all the pains"
"Ah, but how did one discover this property? Does tobacco grow wild
in the forest?"
"There is a place, for example in Napiari, where there are enormous
quantities of tobacco growing."
"In the Perené. We found out about its power thanks to ayahuasca,
that other plant, because it is the mother."
"Who is the mother,
tobacco or ayahuasca?"
"And tobacco is its child?"
"It's the child."
"Because tobacco is less strong?"
"You told me that ayahuasca and tobacco both contain Cod."
"And you said that souls like tobacco. Why?"
"Because tobacco has
its method, its strength. It attracts the maninkari. It is the best
contact for the life of a human being."
"And these souls, what are
"I know that any living soul, or any dead one, is like those radio
waves flying around in the air."
"In the air. That means that you do not see them, but they are
there, like radio waves. Once you turn on the radio, you can pick
them up. It's like that with souls; with ayahuasca and tobacco, you
can see them and hear them."
"And why is it that when one listens to the ayahuasquero singing,
one hears music like one has never heard before, such beautiful
"Well, it attracts the spirits, and as I have always said, if one
thinks about it closely... [long silence]. It's like a tape
recorder, you put it there, you turn it on, and already it starts
singing: hum, hum, hum, hum, hum. You start singing along with it,
and once you sing, you understand them. You can follow their music
because you have heard their voice. So, it occurs, and one can see,
like the last time when Ruperto was singing."
As I listened to these explanations, I realized that I did not
really believe in the existence of spirits.
From my point of view,
spirits were at best metaphors. Carlos, on the other hand,
considered spirits to be firmly rooted in the material world,
craving tobacco, flying like radio waves, and singing like tape
recorders. So my attitude was ambiguous. On the one hand, I wanted
to understand what Carlos thought, but on the other, I couldn't take
what he said seriously because I did not believe it.
This ambiguity was reinforced by what people said about spirits;
namely, that contact with spirits gave one power not only to cure,
but to cause harm.
One evening I accompanied Carlos and Ruperto to the house
of a third man, whom I will call VI. Word had gone around that
Ruperto. just back from an eight-year absence, had learned his
lessons well with the Shipibo ayahuasqueros.
For his part, M.
boasted that he had a certain experience with hallucinogens, and
said that he was curious to see just how good Ruperto was.
M. lived on the crest of a little hill surrounded by forest. We
arrived at his house around eight in the evening. After the
customary greetings, we sat down on the ground.
Ruperto produced his
bottle of ayahuasca and placed it at the bottom of the ladder
leading up to the houses platform, saving.
"This is its place."
Then he passed around a rolled cigarette
and blew smoke on the bottle and on M. Meanwhile. Carlos took my hands and also blew smoke on them.
The sweet smell of tobacco and the blowing feeling on my skin were
Three months had gone by since my first ayahuasca session. I felt
physically relaxed, yet mentally apprehensive. Was I going to see
terrifying snakes again? We drank the bitter liquid. It seemed to me
that Ruperto filled my cup less than the others. I sat in silence.
At one point, with my eyes closed, my body seemed to be very long.
Ruperto started singing. M. accompanied him. but sang a different
melody. The sound of this dissonant duo was compelling, though the
rivalry between the two singers implied a certain tension. Carlos
remained silent throughout.
I continued feeling calm. Apart from a few kaleidoscopic images. I
did not have any particularly remarkable visions, nor did 1 feel
nauseated. I started to think that I had not drunk enough ayahuasca.
When Ruperto asked me whether I was "drunk." I answered "not yet."
He asked me whether I would like some more. I told him that I was
not sure and wanted perhaps to wait a bit. I asked Carlos in a
whisper for his opinion. He advised me to wait.
I spent approximately three hours sitting on the ground in the dark
in a slightly hypnotic, hut certainly not hallucinatory state of
mind. In the darkness. I could only make out the shape of the other
participants. Both Carlos and M. had told Ruperto that they were
The session came to a rather abrupt end. Carlos stood up and said
with unusual haste that he was going home to rest. I got up to
accompany him and thanked both our host and Ruperto. to whom I
confided that I had been slightly fearful of the ayahuasca. He
said. "I know. I saw it when we arrived."
Carlos and I had only one flashlight. He took it and guided us along
the path through the forest. I followed him closely to take full
advantage of the beam. After covering approximately three hundred
yards. Carlos suddenly yelped and scratched at the back of his calf,
from which he seemed to extract some kind of sting. In the
confusion, what he wits holding between his fingers fell to the
"That man is shameless. Now he is shooting his
arrows at me."
I was relieved to hear his words, because I was
afraid a snake had bitten him, but I had no idea what he was talking
about. I asked questions, but he interrupted, saving.
We marched over to his house.
On arrival, Carlos was visibly upset.
He finally explained that M.
had shot one of his arrows at him,
"because he wants to dominate,
and show that he is stronger."
For my part. I was left with a doubt. I low could one really aim a
little sting in total darkness across three hundred yards of forest
and touch the back of the calf of a person walking in front of
Nevertheless, Carlos was ill the following day. and the tension
between him and M. continued to the end of my stay in Quirishari.
These suspicions of sorcery gave rise to a network of minors and
counter rumors that partially undermined the community's atmosphere
Contact with the spirits may allow one to learn about the medicinal
properties of plants and to cure. But it also gives the possibility
of exploiting a destructive energy. According to the practitioners of
shamanism, the source of knowledge and power to which they gain
access is double-edged.
Toward the end of my stay in Quirishari, I read over my field-notes
and drew up a long list of questions. Most of them concerned the
central subject of my investigation, but several dealt with the
shamanic and mythological elements that had mystified me. In one of
my last taped conversations with Carlos.
I asked him about these
"Are tabaquero and ayahuasquero the same?"
"Good, and I also wanted to know why it is that one sees snakes when
one drinks ayahuasca."
"Its because the mother of ayahuasca is a snake. As you can see.
they have the same shape."
"But I thought that ayahuasca was the mother of tobacco'"
"So who is the true owner of these plants, then?"
"The owner of
these plants, in truth, is like God; it is the maniukari. They are
the ones who help us. Their existence knows neither end nor illness.
That's why they say when the ayahuasquero puts his head into the dark
room: 'If you want me to help you. then you must do things well. I
will give you the flower not for your personal gain, but for the
good of all.' So clearly, that is where the force lies. It is by
believing the plan! that you will have more life. That is the path.
That's why they say that there is a very narrow path on which no one
can travel, not even with a machete. It is not a straight path, but
it is a path nonetheless. I hold on to those words and to the ones
that say that truth is not for sale, that wisdom is for you. but it
is for sharing. Translating this, it means it is bad to make a
business of it."
During my last interviews with Carlos.
I had the impression that the
more I asked questions, the less I understood his answers. Not only
was ayahuasca the mother of tobacco, winch I already knew, but the
mother of ayahuasca was a snake. What could this possibly mean - other
than that the mother of the mother of tobacco is a snake?
On leaving Quirishari, I knew I had not solved the enigma of the
hallucinatory origin of Ashaninca ecological knowledge. I had done
my best, however, to listen to what people said. I had constantly
tried to reduce the nuisance of my presence as an anthropologist. I never took notes in front of people to avoid their feeling spied on.
Mostly, I would write in the evening, lying on my blanket, before
going to sleep. I would simply note what I had done during the clay
and the important things that people had said.
I even tried thinking
about my presuppositions, knowing that it was important to objectify
my objectifying gaze. But the mystery remained intact.
I left with the strange feeling that the problem had more to do with
my incapacity to understand what people had said, rather than the
inadequacy of their explanations.
They had always used such simple
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