Author of the Month

Ayahuasca and the concept of reality. Ethnographic, theoretical, and experiential considerations. (cont.)
By Luis Eduardo Luna, Ph.D., F.L.S.

Supernatural Entities

Shamanism, which implies altered states of consciousness and the activation of what seems as common archetypes beyond ethnic and cultural differences, may have a role, as Winkelman suggests (2010) in the emergence of modern humans. This may have its roots back in ancient primate ritual heritage from our evolutionary past. Winkelman attempts “to understand the original manifestation of shamanism and the diversity of manifestations of shamanistic phenomena produced by social influences on our innate potential for ritual, alterations of consciousness, and endogenous healing responses.”

Contact with supernatural entities of some sort is documented since Upper Paleolithic time, the so-called therianthropes, part human and part animals, found in rock art of all continents (Hancock 2003:69-93). Lewis-Williams (2005:10) explores the possibility that people from that period “harnessed what we call altered states of consciousness to fashion their society and that they used imagery as a means of establishing and defining social relationships”. The same author summarizes thus one of the chapters in his extraordinary research on Upper Paleolithic Art: “… most researchers have consistently ignored the full complexity of human consciousness and have concentrated on only one slice of it and made that slice the defining characteristic of what it is to be an anatomically and cognitively fully modern human being. Here I examine interaction of mental activity and social context: how, I ask, notions about human experience that are shared by a community impinge on the mental activity of individuals and how does socially controlled access to certain mental states become a foundation for social discrimination?”

When I was doing fieldwork among the mestizo riverian population of the Peruvian Amazon I was marveled as what seems to me full sincerity when for example a fisherman described the mermaids he saw once in the river, or when another man vividly told me of the apparition at night of a frightening huge water snake, the Yakumama. Mermaids, dolphins turning into human beings in order to seduce, bird spirits announcing a death in the family, are all to be expected given the shared notions about human experience of that society. Actual apparitions are usually extraordinary events, often connected with altered states of consciousness, the same way that UFO apparitions often are (see Vallee 1969, Hancock 2005). Culture has been, no doubt, a powerful influence in the way we perceive the world and ourselves. It is well known that anthropologists sometimes are afflicted by the so-called ethno-specific illnesses of the human groups they study. At the same time this would also explain why Westerners (except children) seldom see fairies. They are said to live in the forests. Most westerners live in cities, far from nature, and their notions of reality do not accept this kind of belief beyond a certain age. I read fairy tales to my mother when in her deathbed, and I know of psychologists who read those stories to very old people. The results are often simply extraordinary, as if we would in this way connect with something deep inside us with which we were in touch as children.

A Shipibo woman painting a pot with a visual representation of a medicine song. Photo by Luis Eduardo Luna
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