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The Cactus of Vision - San Pedro


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The use of San Pedro cactus and healing altars in the shamanic tradition of Northern Peru.

Shamans from different cultures and traditions have been using psychoactive plants since the dawn of human emergence. These plants have been used traditionally for guidance divination, healing, maintaining a balance with the spirit or consciousness of the living world.

Howard G Charing & Peter Cloudsley, talk with Maestro JUAN NAVARRO.

Article first published, in Sacred Hoop Magazine, Summer 2004.

Published in: Spiritual, Travel
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The Cactus of Vision - San Pedro

  1. 1. The hallucinogenic san pedro cactus has been used since The ancient times, and in Peru the tradition has been unbroken for MESA over 3,000 years. The earliest depiction of the cactus is a carving showing a mythological being holding a san pedro, and datesNORTEÑA from about 1300 BC. It comes from the Chavín culture (c.1400-400 BCE) and was found in a temple at Chavín de Huantar, in the northern highlands of Peru. Later, thethe use of san pedro cactus and Mochica culture (c.500 CE) usedhealing altars in the shamanic the cactus in their iconography.tradition of Northern Peru Even in present day mythology, it is told that God hid the keys to heaven in a secret place and san pedro used the magical powers of a cactus toHOWARD G. CHARING discover this place; later the cactus was named after him.& PETER CLOUDSLEYtalk with Maestro JUAN NAVARRO LA MESA NORTEÑA Juan Navarro was born in the highland village of Somate, department of Piura. He is a descendant of a long lineage of healers and shamans working with the magical powers of the sacred lakes known as Las Huaringas which stand at 4,000 metres and have beenShamans from different cultures revered since earliest Peruvian civilization. At the age ofand traditions have been using eight Juan made his first pilgrimage to Las Huaringas, and took san pedro for the first time. Every month or twopsychoactive plants since the it is necessary to return here to accumulate energy anddawn of human emergence. protection to heal his people. As well as locals and Limeños (people from Lima), pilgrims also come fromThese plants have been used many parts of South America.traditionally for guidance During the sessions Juan works untiringly, assisted by divination, healing, maintaining his two sons - as is common in this tradition - in an intricate sequence of processes, including invocation,a balance with the spirit or diagnosis, divination, and healing with natural objects, orconsciousness of the living world. artes. The artes are initially placed on the maestro’s altar or mesa, and picked up when required during the ceremony. These artes are an astonishing and beautiful array of shells, swords, magnets, quartzes, objects resembling sexual organs, rocks which spark when struck together, and stones from animals’ stomachs which they have swallowed to aid digestion! The artes are collected from pre-Colombian tombs, and sacred energetic places, particularly Las Huaringas. They bring magical qualities to the ceremony where, under the visionary influence of san pedro, their invisible powers may be experienced. The maestro’s mesa - a weaving placed on the ground on which all the artes are placed, (mesa also means ‘table’ in Spanish) - 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. The traditional mesa norteña has three areas: on the left is the campo ganadero or ‘field of the dark’; on the right is the campo justiciero or the ‘field of the light’ (justiciero means justice); and in the centre is the campo medio or ‘neutral field’, which is the place of balance between the forces of light and dark. It is important for us not to look at these forces as positive or negative - it is what we human beings do with these forces which is important.
  2. 2. Although the contents and form are almost carried away by the shaman to make a bridge between San pedroof the artes vary from tradition to drink and dream a thousand the visible and the invisible world balancestradition, the mesa rituals serve to unusual things and believe that for his people.The Quechua nameremind us that the use and power they are true. The juice is good for it is punku, which means the nervousof symbols extends throughout all against burning of the kidneys ‘doorway’. The doorway connects system socultures. and, in small amounts, is also the patient’s body to his spirit; to people lose good against high fever, heal the body we must heal the their fears,SAN PEDRO hepatitis, and burning in the spirit. San pedro can show us the frights andSan pedro (trichocereus pachanoi) bladder.” psychic causes of illness intuitively traumas, andgrows on the dry eastern slopes of or in mythical dream language. it chargesthe Andes, between 2,000 - 3,000 A shaman’s account of the cactus The effects of san pedro work people withmetres above sea level, and is in radical contrast: through various stages, beginning positivecommonly reaches six metres or “It first ... produces ... with an expanded physical energymore in height. It is also grown by drowsiness or a dreamy state awareness in the body. Soon thislocal shamans in their herb and a feeling of lethargy ... a is followed by euphoric feelingsgardens. slight dizziness ... then a great and then, after several hours, As can be imagined, early ‘vision’, a clearing of all the psychic and visionary effectsEuropean missionaries held the faculties ... it produces a light become more noticeable.native practices in considerable numbness in the body andcontempt, and indeed were very afterwards a tranquillity. And thennegative when reporting the use of comes detachment, a type ofthe san pedro. Yet a Spanish visual force ... inclusive of all themissionary, cited by Christian senses ... including the sixthRätsch, grudgingly admitted the sense, the telepathic sense ofcactus’ medicinal value in the midst transmitting oneself across timeof a tirade reviling it: and matter ... like a kind of “It is a plant with whose aid the removal of one’s thought to a devil is able to strengthen the distant dimension.” Indians in their idolatry; those who drink its juice lose their San pedro, considered the ‘maestro senses and are as if dead; they of the maestros’, enables theTalking with Juan Navarro ....What is the relationship of the maestro with san pedro?In the north of Peru the power of san pedro works in combination withtobacco. Also the sacred lakes Las Huaringas are very important. This iswhere we go to find the most powerful healing herbs which we use toenergize our people. We use dominio [linking one’s intent with the spiritpower of the plants] to give strength and protection from supernaturalforces such as sorcery and negative thoughts. It is also put into the seguros - amulet bottles filled with perfume, plantsand seeds gathered from Las Huaringas. You keep them in your home forprotection and to make your life go well. These plants do not have any secondary effects on the nervous system,nor do they provoke hallucinations. San pedro has strength and is mildlyhallucinatory, but you cannot become addicted. It doesn’t do any harm toyour body, rather it helps the maestro to see what the problem is with hispatient. Of course some people have this gift born in them - as ourancestors used to say, it is in the blood of a shaman.Is san pedro a ‘teacher plant’?Of course, but it has a certain mystery. You have to be compatible with itbecause it doesn’t work for everybody. The shaman has a special k SH SUMMER 2004 29
  3. 3. comfortable with us. The chunganas are to give us ‘enchantment’ (protection and positive energy) and they have a relaxing effect when taking san pedro. What is the power of the artes - the objects on the mesa? They 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 all your ills. You bathe with the intention of leaving everything negative behind. People go there to leave their enemies behind, so they can’t do them any harm. After bathing, the maestro cleanses you with these artes, swords, bars, chontas (bamboo staffs), saints, and even huacos (the powers from ancient sacred sites). They ‘flourish’ you - spraying you with agua florida (perfume) and herb macerations, and giving you sweet things like limes and honey, so your life flourishes. We maestros also need to go to Las Huaringas regularly because we make enemies from healing people, so we need to protect ourselves.Ancient relationship with it. It circulates in concentrate on the situation which The reason for this is that two the body of the patient and where it is going badly, or the person which forces exist: the good and the bad.Peruvian finds abnormality it enables the is giving out a negative energy. The bad forces are from the pactstextile shaman to detect it. It lets him When taken through the right which the brujos (sorcerors withdepicting know the pain they feel and nostril it is for rehabilitating and negative intentions) make with thea figure whereabouts it is. energizing, so that your projects go devil. The brujo is the rival of thesurrounded So it is the link between patient well. It’s not for getting high on. curandero or healer. So when theby san pedro and maestro. It also purifies the Afterwards you can spit the curandero heals, he makes ancactus blood of the person who drinks it. It tobacco out or swallow it, it doesn’t enemy of the brujo. It’s not so balances the nervous system so matter. It has an interrelation with much because he sends the bad people lose their fears, frights and the san pedro in the body, and magic back, as because he does traumas, and it charges people with intensifies the visionary effects. the opposite thing to him, and they positive energy. want supremacy in the battle. Everyone must drink so that the Tobacco is an important plant in Not far from Las Huaringas is a maestro can connect with them. the ceremonies - can you place called Sondor, which has its Only the dose may vary from smoke in the session? own lakes. This is where evil magic person to person because not No, no, no. It may be the same plant is practiced and where they do harm everyone is as strong. but here another element comes in a variety of ways. I know because into play, which is fire. As the as a curandero I must know how What about the ‘singado’? session is carried out in darkness, sorcery is practiced, in order to [inhalation of tobacco juice the fire in the darkness can perturb, defend myself and my patients. through the nostrils] create a negative reflection or The tobacco leaf is left for two to vision. It can cause trauma. Do people go there secretly? three months in contact with honey, Of course no one admits to going and when required for the singado You use a chungana [rattle] there, but they pass through it is macerated with aguardiente, or during the san pedro sessions Huancabamba just like the others alcohol. How it functions depends and I ‘see’ the sound as a beam who are going to Las Huaringas. I on which nostril is used; when of a light penetrating know various people who practice taken in by the left side it is for the darkness. bad magic at a distance. They do it liberating us of negative energy, Yes, sound and light are using physical means, including psychosomatic ills, pains interrelated. Chunganas are used to concentrating, summoning up a in the body, bad influences of other invoke the spirits of the dead, person’s soul, knowing their people - or ‘envy’ as we call it here. whether of family or of great characteristics etc. and can make As you take it in you must healers, so that they may feel them suffer an accident, or make30 SH SUMMER 2004
  4. 4. an organ ill or whatever, or make through any one of the senses - and tobacco. But it is to protect we musttheir work go badly wrong.They sound, vision, smell, or a feeling himself from the person’s acknowledgehave the power to get to their spirit. inside of what the person is negativity and illness, not because that we, as And people can even do harm to feeling, a weakness, a pain or he needs it to have the vision. humans, havethemselves. For example, if a whatever. Sometimes, for instance, realised fromperson has bad intentions towards a bad taste in the mouth may JUAN NAVARRO is a descendant of a long lineage of healers and shamans working with earliest timesanother and that person is well indicate a bad liver. the magical powers of Las Huaringas. that knowledgeprotected with an encanto, (amulet) All the things on the mesa are PETER CLOUDSLEY has built up anthen he will do himself harm. perfectly normal, natural things: exstensive archive of traditional Peruvian goes beyond chontas, swords, stones etc. They music and interviews. He teaches courses on sensory music and popular culture in Latin AmericaHow does the ‘rastreo’ have just received a treatment - and speaks fluent Spanish and Portuguese. awareness or[diagnosis through psychic like a radio tuned to a certain HOWARD G. CHARING is a co-director of the rational Eagles Wing Centre for Contemporary way ofmeans] work? Are you in an frequency - so they can heal Shamanism. He has studied plant spiritaltered state? particular things, weaknesses or medicine with shamans and healers of the understanding Andes, Amazon Rainforest, and theNo, I’m completely normal and whatever. But always it is Philippines. He has been initiated in the the world necessary to concentrate on the lineage of the Maestros of the Rio Napolucid. What allows the reading of a community in the Upper Amazon and has beenperson’s past, present or future, is sacred lakes, Las Huaringas. baptised into the Shipibo tribe. Howard San pedro organises journeys to meet and work withthe strength of the san pedro and these maestros. can take ustobacco. It is an innate capability - Is it necessary for the maestro directly to a Details are on everybody has the gift, you to take san pedro to have or telephone (01273) 882 027 telepathiccan’t learn it from someone, it is vision? communion Photo of San Pedro Growing in potsinherited. The perceptions come Of course, he must take san pedro © Organic Shamanic and show us that there is no such thing as an inanimate object Everything in the universe is alive and has a spirit. This is the gift of the plants which offer us a doorway into the infinite People gather for a san pedro Ceremony. On the floor the maestro has set up his mesa SH SUMMER 2004 31