Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Andean Codex: Adventures and Initiations Among the Peruvian Shamans

Book Review: The Andean Codex: Adventures and Initiations Among the Peruvian Shamans  by Dr. J.E. Williams (Hampton Roads Publishing 2005)

This is an interesting chronicle of the author’s time spent among Peruvian and other Amazonian shamans. It starts out with an account of an ayahuasca (yaje) experience in the Amazon. Ayahuasca is a powerful hallucinogen that is strongly considered an entheogen – where shamans say the actual spirit of the plant is contacted and interacted with. Several anthropologists and entheogen researchers have provided remarkable and intense accounts of these experiences. In any event, the presiding shaman interprets the author’s experience as a summons to travel to the Andes and learn from the shamans there. So by a series of interesting coincidences he meets up with some Q’ero shamans (as well as some Tibetan monks passing through). They spend some time together in the beauty of the Andes. Incidentally, I have heard of a few Tibetan monks that have studied South American shamanism. The main story then ensues of the author’s multi-year adventures with his Q’ero teacher, Sebastian, and his mates and family.

The Q’ero live high in the Andes but the author meets his friends in the city of Cuzco near the most famous Incan ruins. Strangely, Sebastian and comrades are often in Cuzco when the author arrives from California. The author talks much about synchronicity and auspicious conditions being signs for shamans. Auspicious dreams are also important.

The author shares some great adventures in this book involving hardships of life in the Andes, high elevation illnesses, and braving the elements among a poor indigenous society that is by necessity very in touch with the natural world. In fact, among the Q’ero the relationship between humans and the natural world is the most important relationship. The author refers to it as an eco-spirituality. There is communication and relationship between the shaman and the spirits of nature. The spirit of the Earth is called Pachamamma, nature spirits are called Akikuna, and mountain spirits are called the Apus. Sebastian is also a curando, or healer/diviner. He divines with coca leaves, a staple in the Andes – where the leaves are offered in most rituals. They are also chewed and made into tea frequently to ward off fatigue and bring a feeling of well-being. The author refers to the paqos as shaman-priests. The author also notes the strange magnificent quality of the refracted light in the Andes due to high elevation air and proximity to the equator. He describes it as otherworldly and enhancing an already great beauty. He describes the small offering rituals called despachos which involve arranging special food and colorful offerings that are burned in natural places – kind of similar to a Vedic homa fire offering, a Tibetan sangchod or smoke offering, or a Native American smudging. The Akikuna nature spirits are venerated at wakas, or unusually shaped rock formations. The puma is a great totem animal among the Andeans and their predecessors the Inca because of its great power and ferocity. There are legends of the return of the Inca.

He notes that most Andean ceremonies are performed at noon when the sun is at its height. The Sun is the father as the Earth is the mother. The shaman carries a medicine bundle with sacred objects used in despachos and other more detailed rites. When the offerings to be burnt are readied there is first a ritual blowing on the offerings.

The Incan three worlds are described as our everyday world, the interior world entered through dreams, death, and shamanic experiences, and the higher world of “spiritual beings and universal energy.” The author uses mapacho tobacco – an hallucinogenic form of tobacco with large amounts of nicotine – as an offering and sacrament. The Q’ero shamans also indulge although it is used by other Peruvian shamanic traditions, not theirs.

The author then digresses about his early interest in the Andes from a book about a fabled hidden monastery there (called Secrets of the Andes by Brother Phillip). He tells an interesting experience he had in the 70’s at Mount Shasta in California where he sought sacred power and meditation. He was stranded there as his car brokedown so he visited a psychic who informed him that he was to meet Sister Thedra, whom she apparently did not know. Through coincidence and luck he found a place called Mount Shasta Abbey. He rang the bell and asked for Sister Thedra and was informed she was in permanent retreat. But she hears and meets with him briefly saying she was expecting him. She then tells him that she was on the original expedition in the 50’s to find this Monastery of the Seven Rays, near Lake Titicaca, and spent 5 years in Peru and Bolivia. She talked of a mystical form of Christ called Sananda. She mentioned that the monastery was there but had transitioned to a non-physical plane. The book he read was about their journey in the 50’s.

The author then describes his ritual at the cave Temple of the Moon near Machu Picchu. After this he describes the first of a handful of Andean principles. The first is Munay which means love, or loving-kindness and implies a sincere tranquil joy and beauty. During this chapter the author describes a long journey on foot to the land of the Q’ero over high mountains to 18,500 ft. All the mountains have names and are venerated. They reach the village and ready to go up to more mountains to do a karpay, a shaman’s initiation for the author. At this point he introduces the second principle, yachay, the way of knowledge – to learn, to know, to remember. This includes indigenous survival knowledge as well as intuitive inner knowledge. Shamans here spend much time isolated in nature – on vision quests of sorts. Some objects used for the karpay are condor feathers and llama fetus (as an offering to the lower world), and resinous incense. Sebastian notes that the power of stines is very important in healing and the Inca were people of the stone, being very intricate and precise stone-workers. During his initiation he is given special stones by Sebastian, some of a strange sort that are said to fall out of the sky, that have something on them looking like a carved spacecraft.

The next principle is llank’ay, the way of action. He describes this as the proper cultivation of love and work. In this section he describes the communal work life of the Andeans who live in small primitive stone huts heated with smoky llama dung. He describes the potato harvest that he takes part in. Apparently there are over 4000 varieties of potatoes and other roots cultivated there, all very small – about the size of one’s thumb.

The next principle is the way of life, or kawsay. This refers to the energy matrix, or web of life that connects all living things on Earth. He says that Pachamamma, Earth-time, and kawsay are inseparable. “Prayers, chanting, and drumming are traditional ways of  regulating energy and restoring balance.” Colored flowers and ribbons are used to lighten heavy energy. The author also mentions a method of placing stones on a person’s body when the energy is too light. This provides a grounding effect. The life force is called kallpa and heavy energy that may cause sickness is called hucha. There are reputed to be magical stone keys to open  gates to other worlds perhaps to be rediscovered at the return of the Inca. The energy of the Apus, or mountain spirits, are said to be male with colors of white and sky blue. The energy of Pachamamma is female and green in color.

The last of the five principles is ayni, the way of reciprocity. This refers to the interchange of the other principles – love, knowledge, action, and life-energy – between humans and the environment. Mutual respect and acknowledgement of interconnectedness are other ways to describe it. So a despacho rite is an offering of respect to nature – a way of acknowledging and working with that interconnectedness. This ayni is practiced both in ritual and in daily life.

Next the author describes a ceremony where he becomes part of the family as a sort of god-father to one of Sebastian’s daughters. Then they take a long journey (which they take every year) to the Mountain of Stars where 30 to 40,000 Andeans gather in mid-winter. There chunks of ice from a glacier are carried on the backs of ascetic pilgrims back to Cuzco, as a ritual offering.

Some Andeans do practice the ritual sacrifice of llamas, as offerings to the Apus and obviously for food. According to a book I read a few decades back called, “The Highest Altar: The Story of Human Sacrifice,” there is some evidence of an occasional child sacrifice to mountain spirits (although obviously illegal). Of course, most indigenous traditions practiced human sacrifice, even our European ancestors. The Vikings and Celts killed captives, slaves, and servants and wives to killed nobles, as recently as a thousand years ago. The Incans utilized human sacrifice all the way up to the Spanish conquest in the 1500’s and 1600’s so it is much more recent in the history and perhaps the minds of the people. As in many cultures the mountain spirits are said to be the most powerful.

The author concludes with another journey into the Amazon where he takes ayahuasca once more with chanting shamans and experiences more visions which he ties in with his dreams and previous visions.

Overall an interesting book, worth reading, mostly an account experiences but also an account of an apprenticeship in Andean shamanism.

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