What is Vegetalismo?
Vegetalismo is the tradition of mestizo Peruvian healers of the Upper Amazon. The cosmology of Vegetalismo integrates indigenous beliefs with Catholic influences. Though many vegetalistas may declare themselves to be Catholics, they will tell you they receive their knowledge and power to heal directly from the spirits of the rainforest. According to the Vegetalista cosmology, they are assisted by three types of entities in their healing work: the genios or “mothers” of the healing plants (that can appear in human or animal form,) protective entities or Arkana (often appearing as powerful animals, birds, or humans) as well as other visiting entities that appear from other dimensions and secret parts of the Earth and cosmos. As opposed to the indigenous curanderos (such as the Shipibo-Conibo) who have traditionally used their visionary knowledge to balance the social order of their rural communities, mestizo plant spirit shamanism focuses on individualized healing, accommodating the syncretism of rural, urban, and ancestral ways of life.
Though vegetalistas are influenced by indigenous Amazonian cosmologies, they do not conform to any specific ethnic group or cultural practice. Vegetalismo is a unique calling, a long and dedicated vocation to healing and studying the hidden wisdom of the natural world. Following are some tools and practices of the vegetalista.
Vegetalistas study the knowledge of the plant spirit through plant diets or dietas. In order to dominar, or master the plants, a vegetalista must first purify their bodies and prove to the plants that he or she is worthy of their trust. In order to do this, vegetalistas must endure strict dietary restrictions, must abstain from any contact with the opposite sex, and must commit to isolating themselves for up to six months in the jungle. Focused study with the plant involves spending time near the plant and ingesting the essence of the plant in the forms of teas, tinctures, or smoke over a specific period of time. When the genio of the plant chooses to reveal itself and communicate its secrets, it may choose to do so through dreams or visions or in the form of a special healing songs known as icaros.
An icaro (or ikaro) is a song sung by a vegetalista or indigenous curandero during healing ceremonies. The word icaro is believed to be derived from the Quechua ikaray, which means “to blow smoke in order to heal.” Icaros are a system of oral/musical communication between the vegetalista and the plants, and the vegetalista and the participants in the ceremony. The powerful and often haunting sound of the icaro can influence visions in ceremonies, either to intensify them or banish them completely. The skillful mastery of an icaro can call forth the spirits of the deceased, exorcise bad entities, and heal and protect the body.
Experienced curanderos can recite hundreds of icaros, which can be whistled or sung, and expressed in any language. The vegetalista or indigenous curandero (healer) generally sing in a dialect that is a mixture of their native language (i.e. Quechua, Shipibo-Conibo, Asháninka, etc.). It is believed that every living thing has its own song or icaro and that these icaros can be learned. The singing of icaros is sometimes accompanied by the chakapa, a rattle of bundled leaves or a maraka, that is used to carry the rhythm of the ceremony. The vegetalista will use his chakapa or maraka to direct dark or unwanted energies.
Ayme Sings An Icaro
The haunting beautiful icaros are sung by curandera, Ayme, the wife and partner of Maestro Santiago Enrrique Melendez Paredes.
Baños de florecimientos
Preparing a baño de florecimiento (flower bath) a is vital healing practice in Peruvian vegetalismo, one that uses floral essences for attraction and cleansing. Often used in coordination with the Ayahuasca ceremony, floral baths are powerful magic unto themselves. Charged with the intention of the curandero, they can change one’s fortune in love or in business, often having remarkably quick and unexpected results! Preparation involves immersing the collected plants from the jungle into a large basin of water, sweet and pungent smelling plants such as fragrant piri piri root, mocura, and ajo sacha (wild garlic), ruda (marigold), and romero (rosemary) are just some of the plants hat can be used depending on the needs and desires of the person. The baths are taken are generally taken at sunset and sunrise. Six scoops of water are ritually poured over the head while facing the direction of the sun and then another six while facing the direction of the moon. The most powerful baths are taken near a river so that the released negative energy can be borne away by the energetic rush of the water.
Known as the “food of the plant spirits,” the dark and bitter jungle tobacco is used through out vegetalista healing ceremonies to drive away bad energies or focus the energy of intention in a healing. In an Ayahuasca ceremony, the vegetalista will often blow his smoke intention (soplar) into the Ayahuasca brew or blow smoke onto an individual who has come to be healed. A participant will also be asked to smoke tobacco during the course of the ceremony to help purify their energy and the energy around them during a cleansing.
Specially prized stones, crystals, and fossils are often used by Vegetalistas in their healing work. Charged in ceremony, these “encantos” (enchanted objects) are carried as talismans and are used to move and extract unwanted negative energies or entities and are often placed directly on the body in some healing ceremonies.