t was strange for Narby to realise that the botanical knowledge of Amazon tribes that surprised ethno botanists was based on the visions or "hallucinations" produced by Ayahuasca.
Here I quote Narby's description of the composition of Ayahuasca:
The first plant in the mixture contains a hormone which is naturally produced by the brain, dimethyltriptamine, which, however, is inactive when taken orally, since it is inhibited by an enzyme in the digestive system, monoaminooxydase. Now, the second plant in the mixture contains precisely various substances that protect the hormone from the enzyme's assault. This made Richard Evans Schultes, the most famous ethno-botanist of the XXth century, say: "One can ask how the people of primitive societies, without knowledge of chemistry or psychology, have managed to find a solution to the activation of an alkaloid via a monoaminooxydase inhibitor. By pure experimentation? Maybe not. There are too many examples and they could be more with supplementary research.
Here we have people who, without an electronic microscope or a background in biochemistry, select, among approximately eighty thousand Amazon species of superior plants, the leaves of a shrub that contain a precise cerebral hormone, which combines with a substance found in a liana that blocks the action of a precise enzyme of the digestive system, with the purpose of deliberately modifying their conscious state.
It is as if they knew the molecular properties of plants and the art of combining them.
And when you ask them how they know these things, they respond that their knowledge comes directly from diverse hallucinogenic plants.
Few anthropologists have given attention to this type of statements and for that reason most of them have failed to understand what is essential about tribal cultures.
In this chapter, Narby refers to the incidence of anthropologists in the interpretation of what a shaman is and to the transference of their limitations to the shamans all along history.
For the first anthropologists of the XIXth century, shamans, who, in the case of the Peruvian Amazon would be the Ayahuasqueros, were extremely ignorant and inefficient.
In those days anthropological studies were in their infancy and there was total ignorance of their subject matter.
Then, with the advent of so-called "modern anthropology", they attempted to analyse natives as if they were laboratory formulas. This was done because anthropologists were trying to be considered scientific.
Narby tells us that when anthropology pretended to become established within the scientific community, "its subject matter, those primitive humans living outside time, began to melt like snow in the sun."
In fact, it became more and more difficult to find "true" natives that had never had contact with the Western world.
Due to this incongruity of anthropology, we understand that anthropology can only interpret facts.
In the XXth century the term "shamanism" is invented by anthropologists to classify hard to understand practises of "primitive" groups.
The word "shaman" comes from Siberia.
In Tungus language a "Saman" is a person who beats a drum, goes in trance and heals people. For the first Russian observers, tells Narby, "they were mentally ill."
Now we know these people, with authority inside a tribal community and known as "shamans" by anthropologists, are recognized for their knowledge and behind those apparently irrational activities there is nothing but ancestral lore.
Narby says: "This vision of an ordering shaman became the creed for a new generation of anthropologists. From 1960 to 1980, the best established authorities in the field defined the shaman as, before anything else, a creator of order, a master of chaos or an avoider of disorder.
Certainly, things have not happened in such a simple way. Until the end of the 1960s, some survivors of the old school still affirmed that shamanism was a mental disease. In the 1970s, there was a new discourse that presented the shaman not just as creator of order, but also as a specialist in all kinds of trades - that he was, at the same time, 'a doctor, a pharmacologist, a psychotherapist, a sociologist, a philosopher, a lawyer, an astrologist and a priest.' Finally, during the 1980s, certain iconoclasts, stated that shamans were, before anything else, creators of chaos!
So then, what are shamans? Schizophrenic or creators of order? Men who do everything or creators of disorder?
I think the answer is in the mirror. Let me explain myself: when anthropology was a young growing science, still unhappy with itself, unaware of the schizophrenic nature of its methodology, the shaman was perceived as mentally ill. Then, when ('structural') anthropology pretended to attain scientific status and anthropologists busied themselves with finding order amidst disorder, the shaman became a creator of order. From the moment this discipline is going through an identity crisis ('post-structural anthropology'), not sure anymore if it is a science or a form of interpretation, the shaman has began to pursue all kinds of trades. Finally, certain anthropologists have only recently began to question the obsessive search for order in their discipline, and have seen shamans whose power precisely rests on 'undermining the search for order.'
So it seems that reality behind the concept of 'shamanism' systematically reflects the view of the anthropologist, whatever his or her focusing angle."
|Essay about the Book "The Cosmic Serpent"|
of Jeremy Narby by Patricia Burgos