Tuesday, October 02, 2007

25-Years of Shamanism--Part 5

This is Part 5 of an ongoing series into some of the extraordinary experiences I've had in dealing with shamanism in Peru during the last 25-years. Initially meant as I talk I was to give at the 3rd Annual Shamanic Conference in Iquitos, Peru in July of 2007, I was unable to give it when I fell pretty ill. So I began to take my notes and write them out. The result has been a pretty long piece that I'm doing in sections as I get time. Some of you will recognize some of the material from earlier stories; other material is new--or new from my old notebooks, anyway. The first four parts are on the blog but you'll have to look through the blog archives for them. In any event, this is part 5 and I'll try to get to part 6 before I leave for Peru next week.

25-Years of Shamanism--Part 5

by Peter Gorman

Not all of my extraordinary shamanic experiences took place with Julio, and not all involved ayahuasca, though most of them did. One that stands out occurred during a trip with the great photographer Jeff Rotman to the Matses villages on the Rio Galvez not long after I first visited that river with my brother-in-law Steve Flores. And though it’s not spiritual, in the way Westerners normally think of shamanism, I think it’s a good example of the day to day shamanism of ancient indigenous peoples.
The Matses have two extraordinary medicines that I know of: Sapo, the resinous secretion of a Phyllomedusa bicolor tree frog; and Nu-nu, a green snuff made from the pulverized inner bark of the macambo tree (Theobroma bicolor, a member of the chocolate family) mixed with the ashes of Nicotiana Rustica, the black tobacco ubiquitous to northwestern Amazonia—the same tobacco from which mapachos are made.
Sapo is both the name of the frog and the name of the medicine. In Matses, it’s actually called dau-kiet!, and in Spanish should be called rana, as the word ‘sapo’ in Spanish means toad, not frog. The Matses' limited Spanish notwithstanding, the medicine is essential to their well-being.
Sapo is a protective secretion that passes through the sides and legs of the P. bicolor when it’s frightened. A tree frog, the animal’s primary predators are tree snakes. When a snake catches the frog, the frog, in a panic, releases it’s sapo into the mucous membrane of the snake’s mouth, causing the snake to become instantly disoriented and giving the frog a chance to escape. That only works if the frog has not yet been crushed by the muscles in the snake’s body directly behind the head.
For Matses use, sapo is collected and dried on a stick of split bamboo. It looks like a yellowish varnish. When it’s time to use the medicine the Matses spit onto a portion of the stick, and use a machete blade or other sharp object to liquify some of the dried sapo into the spit until it has the color and texture of wasabe mustard. They then heat a short piece of vine in a fire until its tip is red hot, then apply that to the user’s upper arm, burning the exterior skin. (It can be utilized on other body parts as well, but is generally used on the arms.) The stick is reheated and a second or third burn is made. The burned skin is then scraped from the arm, exposing the capillaries in the subcutaneous layers of skin. The sapo is placed directly on those.
In a matter of seconds the user feels his heart rate jump and his head gets warm. A few moments later and one’s temples may feel feverishly hot while the heartbeat becomes an overwhelming throbbing reverberating throughout his whole body. He begins to sweat. He may have the urge to vomit or defecate. There may be a feeling of delirium.
The acute phase of sapo intoxication passes in about 15 minutes and is followed by a period of resting. After perhaps an hour has passed, the user finds themselves refreshed and their body cleared of toxins. For the next several days—depending on the dosage—the user will see and hear better, have higher thresholds of hunger and thirst, and have extra energy when they need it. Those effects are largely due to a sort of adrenal drip that the sapo turns on in the human body.
The acute and secondary effects of sapo, as well as its myriad of uses, have been written about by me in other articles and don’t need going into here, except for one, which is when sapo is utilized with nu-nu during certain times of the year when hunting is difficult.
Before I get into that I need to explain that nu-nu is a fine snuff, but one that doesn’t contain DMT, as the famed yopo of the Yanomami does. Nu-nu is generally made by two good hunters. One of them collects and dries N. rustica leaves over a fire until they crumble but have not yet lost their green pigment. The other puts pieces of the inner bark of the macambo tree into a pot with hot coals until it has become coal-like itself and can be crushed to powder. The two elements are then combined and pulverized with a mortar and pestle, often a long bamboo section serving as the mortar and a hard flat-ended stick as the pestle. Once crushed completely the nu-nu is passed through a fine material—frequently a piece of mosquito netting—several times until only a fine green powder remains.
For use, one hunter blows about half-a-gram of nu-nu through a hollow reed into one of the receiving hunter’s nostrils. It hits like a million ultra fine shotgun pellets and on impact feels as though it will continue through your nasal cavity and brain and will finally explode out of the back of your head. Eyes instantly water. Another half-gram is sent into the other nostril with equal result. Over and over the nu-nu is blown into the recipient’s nostrils, perhaps 10, 14, 30 times, until the recipient is spitting green mucous and feeling light-headed and perhaps drunk. It’s a giddy sensation once the initial pain subsides and is often used as a prelude to telling the day’s hunting stories. And as with alcohol, the more nu-nu one has had, the larger and more ferocious the beast the hunter faced with manly courage—though the beast nearly always gets away.
But nu-nu, in larger quantities, is also used as a hunting tool: during the few minutes after receiving it and before one has his legs under him, there is a sort of short dreamlike period. During this time something akin to a large movie screen appears in your sight: On it will appear all of the animals of the jungle. Bands of monkeys will fly through the trees overhead; packs of wild boar might rush past; jungle deer will flit across the screen. And as he watched, the hunter waits for one or more of those animals to die. And when it does, the hunter notes the place, the time of day and the method of death. The following day the hunter will go to the place he saw in his nu-nu dream and wait for the animal—who is said to have seen the same dream—to come to meet its destiny.
I saw that occur—and even participated once when the Matses used my nu-nu dream to hunt successfully—many times. But one time in particular, when sapo was utilized in conjunction with nu-nu, stands out over the others.
As I said, I was with a photographer, Jeff Rotman. He’d been sent to accompany me to take photos of the Matses for Penthouse magazine in that time when they still ran non-girl features. The magazine had become intrigued when I showed an editor photos from my trip with Steve Flores and decided to assign me to return with Rotman. So the trip was only several months after the one with Steve Flores. But during that time the river had come way up, so that much of the forest had flooded areas, meaning the animals didn’t have to come to the river for water. Hunting during that time is difficult as the animals can retreat deep into the jungle. When we arrived it was so bad, in fact, that Pablo, my friend and the headman of his small village, was setting a tapir trap.
Tapir-trapping time is an interesting one for the Matses. Pablo took five burns of sapo every morning and night for several days prior to going to the jungle to build his trap. He did that, explained, because it would give him the power to project his animas, his soul or life force, into the trap as a tapir, to lure a real tapir into it. Only sapo could give him that ability.
He also explained that during trapping time no one in the village could hunt any other animals. The reason was because all animals, like trees and plants, have spirits, and if you killed one while the trap was set the spirit of the animal you killed would warn the tapir you were trying to lure into the trap that the other tapir wasn’t a tapir at all but only the spirit of a man trying to kill it. Which would ruin your hunting.
There were, fortunately, two exceptions to the no-hunt rule: the Matses could hunt both river turtles and sloth. They could hunt river turtles because they were so arrogant that even if you killed them they would never stoop to talking with other animals, even to warn them of impending death. And you could hunt sloth because even though they would certainly warn the tapir, their spirits moved as slowly as the sloths did in real life. And by the time they would have explained to the tapir that the other tapir was just a man’s spirit, the season for tapir-trapping would be over.
It was all wonderful story telling, but I didn’t believe any of it. Nonetheless, I watched as Pablo took huge amounts of sapo every morning and night for several nights, then set his trap about an hour’s walk from the village. He found a muddy patch that tapirs like, then cut a sapling and affixed its top end to a tree on one side of the patch and pulled its lower end across the patch and affixed it to a second tree there. To it’s bottom he affixed a sharped stick about 14 inches long, and then set a trip line so that if a tapir pulled on it the lower end of the sapling would come loose and snap across the muddy patch, impaling the tapir on the sharpened spike. Each part of the trap was rubbed in leaves that would eliminate a human scent and help lure a tapir into the trap.
The trap done, Pablo got on all fours and mimicked a tapir for several minutes. Then we left.
We didn’t stay at his village. Instead we took my peque-peque up the Galvez for several hours to the place where the twin villages had been burnt during my earlier stay with Steve Flores. Pablo said he’d seen three large sloth in a tree near old Remoyacu recently while under the influence of nu-nu, and sure enough, they were where he said they’d be. He took one and we roasted and ate it the following morning in a hut that had not completely burned.
But he didn’t stop taking his sapo that night or the next morning and interestingly, when he took a lot of nu-nu in the afternoon he grew excited and said we’d have to return to his village because the tapir trap was going to be sprung near dawn the following morning.
It was dark by the time we returned to Pablo’s and he quickly went to bed. Moises and Jeff and I did the same.
The following morning Pablo and the others in his camp—most were his wives and children—were up early, and Pablo was joyfully agitated. "Petro! Vamos! Vamos!" he kept repeating. I got up and ready and all of us headed out toward the trap. We were probably within a hundred yards of it—though we couldn’t see it—when Pablo had everyone stop. Moments went by and then suddenly there was a snap followed immediately by the loud bellow of an injured animal. It continued to bellow as it crashed through the woods, with all of us in persuit. We found the tapir in a small stream, still breathing but near dead. Pablo was ecstatic, as were his wives and kids. I was just in awe.
I don’t know that everyone would take that story to be about shamanism, but to me it’s a great illustration of it. Somehow Pablo, utilizing plant medicines, had accessed a world of animal spirit not available to the rest of us. He had shape shifted and projected his soul into a trap to lure another tapir into it and it had worked. And he’d seen it happen nearly a day before it came to pass. Without the overt spiritual trappings we generally affix to it, it may not sound like shamanism, but I contend that it is shamanism as it was utilized by people for millennium: As a tool to access other realms of reality. And in this case that tool was utilized to feed a large and hungry family.

In my time with the Matses I picked up every thing they threw away, until they got the message and began to bring me their garbage. There were leaf bags woven to carry yucca and plantain and aguaje from their fields and the forest back to camp; there were broken arrows, an old ocelot tooth necklace, the short end of copal torches used to lite the huts at night, all sorts of things. And I’d brought them to the Museum of Natural History in New York City and had become something of a collector for them. At the time the Hall of South American Peoples was being built and they had nothing from the Matses, so were happy for my contributions. I was happy as well because getting writing assignments that would pay my way back to Peru was made much easier when I could produce a letter from such a prestigious museum asking for certain things they needed to fill holes in their new hall’s collection.
Among the things I brought back were nu-nu and some other medicinal plants I’d seen Pablo use. The museum turned those things over to the Bronx Botanical Garden’s botanists, who repeatedly told the anthropologists at the museum that I knew nothing of plant collecting and what I was producing was worthless.
In 1992, however, I caught a break: Shaman Pharmaceuticals had been created. They were a new type of pharmaceutical house, one that intended to farm not just rainforest plants, but plants already being utilized for specific diseases by curanderos. More than that, they intended to give a good share of any profits they made to the indigenous or mestizo peoples who shared their plant lore.
By luck I ran into Shaman’s lead investigator, Dr. Steven King, at a Rainforest conference I was covering for a magazine, and he recognized me as the person who’d brought out the fantastic Matses’ sapo. He also recognized me as the guy who couldn’t collect plants. But he made me a deal: If I would spend a week taking a short, intense course on plant collecting with a botanist at the Bronx Botanical Gardens he would supply me with materials and a couple of thousand dollars to see what might be gleaned from the Matses.
That was a gift from heaven for me and I left New York within a month. It didn’t take long to realize I’d need a boat for the trip: Moises made it clear that none of the puddle-jumpers we used could carry the gasoline we’d need for fear of exploding, or the volume of alcohol we’d need for making plant extractions. It took about a week to find one that was working but not already being used. During that time word of my venture got out and I began to get warned that if I, as a gringo, tried to pass through all of the military checkpoints I’d pass on my way down the Amazon to the tri-country point where the Yivari river entered the Amazon and then up the Yivari, the border between Peru and Brazil I was crazy. What I needed, I was told, was someone who had grown up on the river and run boats on the river and knew every military outpost and the mayor of every little river town along the way.
That person turned out to be Gilma Aguilar. She and Moises and I, along with our engine man—the boat owner’s son—and one boat pilot, spent a week or so getting outfitted, then headed down the Amazon in our little 39-foot long riverboat with a 24-horse power engine.
It was an amazing and successful trip, and by the end of it I was in love with Gilma. Less than a year later, I married her.


esoter1c said...

No doubt that sapo and nunu are tools for shamanistic purposes. Awesome piece, really looking forward to part 6. :)

The Grudge said...

Great story. I could use 6 hits of sapo right now. Too bad in this concrete jungle there isn't much game to hunt. Keep up the excellent story telling Peter.

bamboo said...

awesome. This is one reason I keep coming back to your blog.

Shmer said...

Very cool piece. Can't wait for 6. Good luck in Cusco.

Health Watch Center said...

Hello Peter

Fantastic posts on Shamanism...liked my trip on your blog...

Shamanism is used to heal and enlighten using rhythm, music, mind altering drugs and mythic journeys into the subconscious.

It is also described as the use of archaic (ancient) techniques of ecstasy (is the withdrawal of soul your body). It has developed experimentally operable techniques for producing ecstasy.