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In the shamanic traditions of Northern Peru, the san pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi), or ‘cactus of vision’, opens the doorway to expanded awareness and acts as mediator between man and the gods.   San pedro grows on the dry eastern slopes of the Andes, between 2,000 – 3,000 metres above sea level, and commonly reaches six metres or more in height. It is also grown by local shamans in their herb gardens and has been used since ancient times, with a tradition in Peru that has been unbroken for at least 3,000 years.  The earliest depiction of the cactus is a carving showing a mythological being holding a san pedro, which dates from about 1,300 BC. It comes from the Chavín culture (c. 1,400-400 BC) and was found in a temple at Chavín de Huantar, in the northern highlands of Peru. The later Mochica culture (c. 500 AD) also depicted the cactus in its iconography, suggesting a continued use throughout this period. Even in the present Christianised mythology of this area, there is a legend told that God hid the keys to Heaven in a secret place and that San Pedro (Saint Peter) used the magical powers of a cactus to find this place so the people of the world could share in paradise. The cactus was named after him out of respect for his Promethean intervention on behalf of mortal men. As can be imagined, early European missionaries held native practices in considerable contempt and were very negative when reporting the use of san pedro. One 16th century Conquistador, for example, described it as a plant by which the natives are able to “speak with the devil, who answers them in certain stones and in other things they venerate”. As you might also imagine, a shaman’s account of the cactus is in radical contrast to this. Juan Navarro, a maestro within the san pedro tradition, explains its effects as follows: “It first produces a dreamy state and then a great vision, a clearing of all the faculties, and a sense of tranquillity. Then comes detachment, a sort of visual force inclusive of all the senses, including the sixth sense, the telepathic sense of transmitting oneself across time and matter … like a kind of removal of one’s thought to a distant dimension”. Considered the ‘maestro of maestros’, san pedro enables the shaman to open a portal between the visible and the invisible world for his people. In fact, its Quechua name is punku, which means ‘doorway’.  AN INTERVIEW WITH A SAN PEDRO MAESTROJuan Navarro was born in the highland Andean village of Somate, department of Piura. He is the descendant of a long line of healers working not only with san pedro but with the magical powers of the sacred lakes known as Las Huaringas, which have been revered for their healing properties since the earliest Peruvian civilization. At the age of eight, Juan made a pilgrimage to Las Huaringas and drank san pedro for the first time. Now in his 50’s, every month or so it is still necessary for him to return there to accumulate the energy he needs to protect and heal his people.  Healing sessions with san pedro involve an intricate sequence of processes, including invocation, diagnosis, divination, and healing with natural ‘power objects’, called artes, which are kept, during the ceremony, in a complicated and precise array on the maestro’s altar or mesa.  Artes may include shells, swords, magnets, quartz crystals, objects resembling sexual organs, rocks which spark when struck together, and stones from animals’ stomachs which they have swallowed to aid digestion. They bring magical qualities to the ceremony where, under the visionary influence of san pedro, their invisible powers may be seen and experienced.  The maestro’s mesa, on which these artes sit, is a representation of the forces of nature and the cosmos. Through the mesa the shaman is able to work with and influence these forces to diagnose and heal disease. What happens during a san pedro ceremony?The power of san pedro works in combination with tobacco [see below]. Also the sacred lakes of Las Huaringas are very important. This is where we go to find the most powerful healing herbs which we use to energize our people.  We also use dominio [the linking of intent to the power of the plants] to give strength and protection from supernatural forces such as sorcery and negative thoughts. This dominio is also put into the seguros we make for our patients [amulet bottles filled with perfume, plants, and seeds]. Dominio is introduced to the bottle through the breath. You keep these seguros in your home and your life will go well.  How does san pedro help in the healings you do?San pedro helps the maestro to see what the problem is with his patient before any of this healing begins. The cactus is a powerful teacher plant. It has a certain mystery to it and the healer must also be compatible with it. It won’t work for everybody, but the maestro has a special relationship with its spirit.  When it is taken by a patient it circulates in his body and where it finds abnormality it enables the shaman to detect it. It lets him know the pain the patient feels and where in his body it is. So it is the link between patient and maestro.  It also purifies the blood of the person who drinks it and balances the nervous system so people lose their fears and are charged with positive energy.  In the ceremonies I’ve attended a lot seems to happen. Can you explain the process?Patients first take a contrachisa. This is a plant [actually, the outer skin of the san pedro cactus] which causes them to purge [i.e. to vomit – a removal from the body of toxins], so they get rid of the spiritual toxins that are within their systems. This is a healing. It also cleans out the gut to make room for san pedro so the visions will come. They also take a singado. This is a liquid containing [aguardiente and macerated] tobacco which they inhale through their nostrils. The tobacco leaf is left for two to three months in contact with honey, and when required for the singado it is macerated with aguardiente.  How it functions depends on which nostril is used. When taken in the left nostril it will liberate the patient from negative energy, including psychosomatic ills, pains in the body, or the bad influences of other people. As he takes it in he must concentrate on the situation which is going badly or the person who is doing him harm. When taken through the right nostril it is for rehabilitating and energizing, so that all of that patient’s projects will go well.  Afterwards he can spit the tobacco out or swallow it, it doesn’t matter. The singado also has a relationship with the san pedro in the body, and intensifies the visionary effects. During the ceremony I also use a chungana [rattle] to invoke the spirits of the dead, whether of family or of great shamans, so they can help to heal the patient. The chunganas give me enchantment [i.e. protection and positive energy] and have a relaxing effect when the patient takes san pedro. What is the significance of the artes and of Las Huaringas?The artes that I use come from Las Huaringas, where a special energy is bestowed on everything, including the healing herbs which grow there and nowhere else.  If you bathe in the lakes it takes away your ills. You bathe with the intention of leaving everything negative behind. People also go there to leave their enemies behind so they can’t do any more harm.  After bathing, the maestro cleanses you with the artes, swords, bars, chontas [bamboo staffs used as healing tools to lightly beat or ‘stroke’ a patient and scrape negativity off him], and even huacos [The energetic power of the ancient sites themselves]. They flourish you – spraying you with agua florida [perfume containing healing spirits] and herb macerations, and giving you things like honey, so your life will be sweet and flourish.  Not far from Las Huaringas is a place called Sondor, which has its own lakes. This is where evil magic is practiced by brujos [Sorcerers] and where they do harm in a variety of ways. I know this because I am a healer and I must know how sorcery is done so I can defend myself and my patients. As I said, a lot goes on in a healing! So, with all of this, just how important is san pedro?What allows me to read [i.e. diagnose] a patient is the power of san pedro and tobacco. Perceptions come to me through any one of my senses or through an awareness of what the patient is feeling; a weakness, a pain or whatever. Sometimes, for instance, a bad taste in my mouth may indicate that the patient has a bad liver.  

Of course, I must also take the san pedro and tobacco, to protect myself from the patient’s negativity and illness, and because it brings vision.

  Join us for an authentic experience of ayahuasca, San Pedro, and plant spirit shamanism in the beautiful rainforests and mountains of Peru. Email ross@thefourgates.com for a FREE Information Pack or visit the website http://www.thefourgates.com and look under the Sacred Journeys section.

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There is one concept that underlies all work in plant spirit shamanism, which is that nature itself will tell you what they are used for and its well-stocked medicine cabinet is right in front of us every day.  Shamans recognise the spiritual powers and qualities of plants in many ways: the colours of their flowers, their perfumes, the shape and form of their leaves, where they are growing and in what ways, the moods they evoke, and the wider geographical, cultural, or mythological landscapes they occupy.  

Although such considerations do not play a role in modern medicine (which does not believe in these spiritual powers at all), it was not long ago that we, too, had an understanding that nature is alive and is talking to us in these ways.

 

The 16th century alchemist and philosopher, Aureolus Phillippus Theophrastus Bombast – better known as Paracelsus – introduced this notion in his Doctrine of Signatures treatise, which proposed that the Creator has placed his seal on plants to indicate their medicinal uses. This was not just idle speculation on the part of Paracelsus; nature itself taught him the truth of it.

 

“Seeking for truth”, he wrote, “I considered within myself that if there were no teachers of medicine in this world, how would I set to learn the art? Not otherwise than in the great book of nature, written with the finger of God…. The light of nature, and no apothecary’s lamp directed me on my way”.

 

In his ‘book of nature’, Paracelsus noticed how the qualities of plants so often reflect their appearance – that the seeds of skullcap, for example, resemble small skulls and, it transpires, are effective at curing headache. Similarly, the hollow stalk of garlic resembles the windpipe and is used for throat and bronchial problems. By the same token, willow grows in damp places and will heal rheumatic conditions, caused by a build-up of fluid on the joints.

 In fact, as Thomas Bartram remarks in his Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, “Examples are numerous. It is a curiosity that many liver remedies have yellow flowers, those for the nerves (blue), for the spleen (orange), for the bones (white). Serpentaria (Rauwolfia) resembles a snake and is an old traditional remedy for snake-bite. Herbalism confirms the Doctrine of Signatures”. Underlying Paracelsus’ treatise was the premise that nature was itself a living organism which must be considered an expression of “the One Life”, and that man and the universe are the same in their essential nature; an idea that was echoed (some would say proved) by Dr James Lovelock, 500 years after Paracelsus, in his Gaia hypothesis on the unity of life. Gaia shows, for example, that the Earth maintains relatively constant conditions in temperature and atmosphere, etc, which defy rational observations and predictive measurements of what ‘ought’ to happen. It is, rather, as if the Earth is a living organism, which consciously takes care of itself.  

Because of this “One Life”, Paracelsus held that the inner nature of plants may be discovered by their outer forms or ‘signatures’. He applied this principle to food as well as medicine, remarking that “it is not in the quantity of food but in its quality that resides the Spirit of Life” – a belief familiar to those who choose to eat organic food and share a common concern over Genetically Modified (GM) substitutes that lack ‘life force’, or spirit.

 

According to Paracelsus, then, the appearance of a plant is the gateway to its spirit or consciousness.

 The doctrine of signatures, per se, is not something known to many indigenous shamans, but they understand the principles behind it well enough – that nature is alive, aware, and communicates with us. These principles are not regarded as fanciful at all, but practical and important enough that they can save lives.

I discovered how the doctrine of signatures operates in the Amazon, for example, during an experience with the jergon sacha plant reported by one jungle traveller, who came across this plant accidentally, when walking through the rainforest with the shaman Javier Arevalo, studying the properties of the plants.

 “Javier queried why I always walked around with a machete. I jokingly replied ‘it’s against anacondas!’ “He paused for a moment then beckoned me to follow him. A few minutes later we came across this tall-stemmed plant. This was jergon sacha, he said. Javier cut a stem from it and proceeded to whip me around the body, paying most attention to my legs and the soles of my feet. He then said ‘no more problems, you are protected against snakes’. I asked him why this plant was used in this way, and he indicated the pattern on the stem which looks identical to the snakes in the forest.“Later, on a hunch, we started to investigate this plant and discovered some amazing correspondences. Jergon sacha is widely used as an antidote to snake venom in the Amazon. Referring back to the concept of ‘signatures’, this plant is a clear demonstration of the outer form indicating the inner qualities. Its use is directly related to its physical appearance, the tall stem closely resembling the venomous pit viper known as the Jararaca or Bushmaster, which is indigenous to the Amazon. The Bushmaster, unlike most other snakes, is aggressive and will defend its territory. It can strike in the blink of an eye from 15 feet and is rightly feared and respected.  “Remarkably, jergon sacha does turn out to be a highly effective antidote for the bite when its large root tuber is chopped up and immersed in cold water and then drunk, or placed in a banana leaf and used as a poultice wrapped around the wound. “Of course, the pragmatic statement here is that it is not possible to store anti-venom vaccines in the rainforest, where there is no refrigeration, so this plant has exceptional life-saving importance. This importance is recognised because the plant itself tells the shaman of its use through the markings on its stems”.

Another illustration of the connection between the form and function of a plant is provided by Artiduro Aro Cardenas, a shaman who works with plant perfumes.

 

“If the smell of a flower has the power to attract insects or birds, it can also attract luck to people”, he says.

 Artiduro makes fragrances which attract customers into a shop, for example (“You just rub the perfume on your face and it brings in the people to your business”), as well as perfumes for love, and others for “flourishing” – growth and success. “I watch what the plant does and if it is attractive [i.e. has the power to attract], I use it to attract. Plants are the forces of nature”, he says. “All I do is give these forces direction”.  Today’s system of homeopathy is also based on the principle of a sentient universe known through its signatures. Hippocrates spoke of a universal law of similia similibus curentur (‘like cures like’), and the modern pioneer of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), showed, through his experiments, that plants contain a healing ‘essence’ or spiritual quality that has an affinity with human beings and acts on them according to the nature of the illness they are suffering from. 

No-one really knows how homeopathy works, but the fact that it does seems clear. In 1836, for example, when cholera destroyed many Austrian cities and orthodox medicine was unable to stop its spread, the government turned in desperation to homeopathy and built a quick and crude hospital in which patients could be treated.

 

The results spoke for themselves: while orthodox hospitals reported deaths in more than 70% of cases, the homeopathic hospital recorded a death rate of just 30%.

 

Shamans have a simple explanation for this: the homeopathic doctors appealed to and engaged the spirit of the plants to intervene on behalf of their patients and the spirits answered their call.

  Join us for an authentic experience of ayahuasca, San Pedro, and plant spirit shamanism in the beautiful rainforests and mountains of Peru. Email ross@thefourgates.com for a FREE Information Pack or visit the website http://www.thefourgates.com and look under the Sacred Journeys section.

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The Incas regarded coca as the divine plant, mainly because of its ability to impart endurance, and its use was entwined with every aspect of life, art, mythology, and the economy of the Incan Empire.

 

Millions have chewed coca on a daily basis and the practice has continued for hundreds of years. It continues as a custom, not because coca (the basis for cocaine) is a ‘habit drug’, but because it is a part of Andean culture. Even today, distances are measured in cocadas – how far a load can be carried under the stimulus of one chew of coca.

 

Andeans chew coca just as they do everything else: ritually, deliberately, and systematically. A mouthful of leaves is carefully chosen from an exquisitely woven coca bag or chuspa and lliptia is chewed with the leaves to liberate their active ingredients.

But the ceremony which really brings out the spirit in the leaves is coca divination. Doris Rivera Lenz is an Andean curandera (shaman) who is expert in its practice. In the following interview, she offers insights into the nature of healing and illness, and the role of plant spirit medicine in this.

 

What is coca divination?

It is meeting with the spirit of the element that you are working with, whether it is coca, maize or a mountain. In the case of coca, you meet the mother spirit, soul or power of the plant, which is the sacred part which never dies.

 The practitioner must be in total communication: spirit-to-spirit. It is more like listening to the coca leaves than reading them. It is a higher state of consciousness. You have to be prepared to integrate yourself spiritually to help another spirit. Human beings are sacred cosmic seeds in evolution. The coca is a sacred seed like us, only of the vegetable kingdom. It has been created by the Earth to guide and heal its younger brothers: ourselves. Similarly we have been created to help other people. As we become more open, we discover plants like coca. Not everybody sees the spirit of coca, but it is here to help us. What is the cause of disease, and how is it cured by the spirit of the plants? Illnesses do not exist. We create them with our minds according to our attitudes and the things we do. Resentment, for example, causes cancer. A woman whose ovaries are unwell [with cancer] may be resentful and [so] suffers trauma. People who do not have the freedom to express their feelings suffer from throat problems, and so on. So how do we heal them? First we need to look at them through the coca leaves, to know what has happened. Why are they resentful, fearful, or anxious? What is causing their problems? Difficulties existing outside our bodies, such as a theft, disillusionment, or being lied to, affect us because we are predisposed to have this pain. Such people get ill because they are not in equilibrium with themselves. The coca shows when and how this began; it tells the story of how they got ill. Human beings are always predisposed by their attitudes. This is why you need to know their story. Someone who has a superiority complex or is aggressive and violent is on a downward spiral. They are weakened in their heart, stomach, and solar plexus: the ñawi or naira [the Andean equivalent of chacras] where emotional attitudes are held. In the Andes, people will frequently consider an aching stomach to have been caused by sorrow. A person who harbours feeling of hate may feel perfectly well for a time but problems with their children, their husband, or lack of money, intensify their emotions which degenerates their body on a cellular level. So they create their illness because they are already out of equilibrium.  Can you explain the concept of the ñawi and how it relates to illness?In Quechua it is ñawi, or in Aymara, naira. It means ‘eye’, or energy centre of the body, but chacra is also a very common word in Peru, and is Quechua for a piece of cultivated land or field. I believe it has the same linguistic root as the Hindu ‘chacra’. Just as some fields have lots of stones, and others are very fertile, so our bodies, also part of nature, are similar. Less than a generation ago, people would make offerings before preparing their fields for sowing. They would chew coca leaves, drink chicha or maize beer, and even play music – a whole ceremony. The ancient healers or shamans would give floral or smoke baths to people, curing them of illnesses, fright and so on – the ‘health’ of the land and the people were treated as interrelated. People identified themselves with their fields and with nature. So when I remove negative emotions from a person, it is like I am removing weeds from their chacra/field.  When they are feeling desperate, the people of the Andes benefit from going to a wild place or some ruins, to scream and shout so that even the mountains will hear. They align with natural forces; this puts them back into equilibrium. So, do people come to you for coca divination because they are unwell? Is it more than ‘divination’ as we would understand it in the West?The majority are unwell in their spirit or mind; there are lots of problems today. They are particularly afflicted in the stomach, the place of emotional pain, and also where we are joined to life.  The first thing is to discover what is going on: the wife had an accident, the husband was unfaithful, they haven’t got a job, the house is falling down… Then I look to see their capacity to accept criticism, to listen to the mother leaf ticking them off saying: ‘You have done this, you are insecure, weak, a drunk, or a prostitute’. What is the story? Is it karmic – or something they are doing? That sounds like a psychological approach – what people are doing to themselves. How do you make sense of the belief that some problems are caused by sorcery?I show the person that he is not the victim of sorcery and is creating the problem in his mind. Talking about it brings it out and is the first part of becoming well again. It is true that some people will take vengeance through black magic when they feel prejudiced or offended in some way, because they are sick. When people think they have power and feel superior, the ego can become very negative. The first thing I do is to wake up the consciousness of the person who has been harmed and tell them that evil does not exist! ‘You are inventing it’, I tell them. I need to use a bit of psychology. Black magic does not exist then?Neither good nor bad exists; it is a universe, and we create the good and the bad. But I recognise that the person may feel attacked. When someone falls ill it means they are weak and the curandero [an Andean plant healer] must speak positively and encourage them to shine light on it. Then they can create positive thoughts for themselves. If I agree with them and say they are bewitched it makes them worse. But do you believe that black magic can exist?Of course, but the act itself is not so powerful as white magic. It is the negative spirit of the black brujo [sorcerer] which creates the power of the spell. If you get hold of a chicken and take off its feathers, put a toad inside, and hang it in the doorway of a hated neighbour [An Andean form of cursing], you can give them a nasty fright, but without a powerful negative spirit nothing will happen. But if the intentions are very negative and the person is weak, they will pick it up quickly.  The most powerful brujos are found in the jungle where there are powerful plants for healing, just as there are dangerous plants that can paralyse your body and so on. But plants have much more wisdom than people. Do you think that if I go to a floripondio [a shaman who works with flowers] and say ‘I want help to do harm to so and so’, that their plants will automatically be at my disposal? No! You have to make a pact with the spirit. Do people need to believe that your ceremony has done something in order for it to work?

When people trust that you are a white curandero they open up. You have special permission to go into their soul and work with suggestion. Let’s say you give them a bath in a herb with spines, and you ask permission from the spirit of that plant to heal the person with fright or a bad spell – you bathe them, you put them on a diet, you cleanse them and purify them. You call their soul and give them strength and they get well.

 What is different about people from the West? What do they need?Their heads cutting off! No, its only a joke! Their religion has failed them, the church authorities have kept vested interests and institutions going. Eventually people have thrown the baby out with the bath water. We are Gods and we should believe in ourselves first.  All Gods come through nature. But what has become of Western religion? Materialism, loss of identity, loss of customs. There is so much struggle today. People are no longer thinking about nature, but about money and the help they need. They have become completely insecure. Imagine if we went to live in nature again, surrounded by mountains, or in the rainforest, how much more healing it would be. Yet the tendency today is for everybody to want to move into the cities, to live like Americans, build motorways. It’s sad. I’ve spent time with people in the Andes. I have seen people leaving their traditional clothes and customs. They say ‘Why do you believe in the Earth, the Sun, the puma and the condor’? They go to the city and see a TV and think, ‘What a beautiful TV!’ They sell their llamas and buy one. I am sad to see their children, who are so pure, being contaminated in this way. They learn negative habits and are hypnotized, and no longer want to work their land. It really hurts in my soul to see them obsessing about dollars and forgetting their power. This loss of values for material things is happening so fast, its incredible! But it’s the Western influence which has been working over 500 years. People will get a nasty shock from seeing the increasing changes and natural disasters on the Earth and we will be shocked into changing. Desperation will show the necessity of love. Who will want to do harm when money and material things have become useless? We will come back to a new kind of community consciousness. We are beginning to anticipate this and becoming more conscious, but we are swerving about. There is so much wisdom in nature, she rears us like her children, teaches us to ask permission, to care for her like ourselves. Join us for an authentic experience of ayahuasca, San Pedro, and plant spirit shamanism in the beautiful rainforests and mountains of Peru. Email ross@thefourgates.com for details or visit the website http://www.thefourgates.com and look under the Sacred Journeys section.

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This journey is a magical experience of authentic Andean shamanism, using the methods, plants, and approaches that have been practiced in this region of Peru for thousands of years, including San Pedro: the Cactus of Vision.  Our accommodation is close to the heart of Cusco – the “centre of the world” – so you can enjoy Peru and its culture as well as its magic and medicine.  The programme includes: San Pedro: authentic ceremonies with the visionary cactus, led by Andean shamans Limpia: an Andean healing method where the shaman divines areas of unbalanced energy within a patient’s body. These are then rebalanced and any unhelpful energies are removed. Pago: an offering to the spirits of the land and a blessing for those who take part.  Coca Divination: using the leaves of the sacred coca plant to produce a picture of a person’s life – and sometimes past lives. Each divination is unique and sometimes followed by a ‘correctional healing’ to change the future and produce an outcome more favourable to your needs or desires.  Seminars and circle meetings: with the shamans and Ross Heaven, author of Plant Spirit Shamanism, to discuss your San Pedro insights, and provide you with background to Andean shamanism to enhance your understanding of this healing tradition. Email ross@thefourgates.com for a free Information Pack, or visit the website www.thefourgates.com and look under the Sacred Journeys section.