The Shipibo-Conibo people of the Eastern Amazon basin in Peru have weathered the harsh waves of history exceptionally well. With the Spanish colonization, the rubber boom era, and of course the cultural cleansing efforts of the missionaries, it is a wonder that the culture still thrives. Some say that this has to do with the deep connection they have with the jungle and all of the diverse wisdom of the plants, as if nature’s guidance has supported them through the hardships and they have managed to keep much of their culture intact.
At the core of the Shipibo-Conibo culture is the shamanic use of Ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew made up of two plants cooked together; Ayahuasca Vine and the leaves from a shrub named Chacruna (Banisteriopsis Caapi & Psychotria Viridis). In the past, every Shipibo-Conibo community had its shamanic healer, or Onanya, in Shipibo language. This person is the bridge for the community and the plant spirit world. The Onanya perform healing rituals with the ceremonial use of Ayahuasca, or Oni, in Shipibo. Below is a beautiful hour-long recording of Healing Icaros sung by Shipibo Onanya in Ayahuasca ceremony.
The training to become an Onanya in the traditional way is a lifelong and arduous undertaking if done with integrity. An Onanya told me once that at 18 years of age he was sent out into the Jungle alone with nothing more than a mosquito net and some hooks for fishing – to be alone in the deep jungle for an entire year. He said that for the entire last month of his experience he was surrounded by and communicated with animals. On the last night, he came face to face in a peaceful encounter with a tiger.
Long periods of isolation in the jungle is part of the training: a good Onanya must constantly maintain and deepen their connection with healing plants by doing special plant diets. In these isolation diets only very bland food is eaten in order to heighten the senses over time, it is said that in this way the plants eventually come to you, and teach you things. They often come with songs and melodies called Icaros which are used in healing rituals and in Ayahuasca ceremonies to call in the plant spirits to assist with the healing work. Or as most Onanya will tell you, the plants are doing the healing, the Onanya is simply the channel.
“Wisdom requires not only the investigation of many things, but contemplation of the mystery.”
Jeremny Narby, Author of “The Cosmic Serpent”
Different Icaros are used for different purposes. Some Icaros are used for protection; to protect the ceremonial space, or to leave energetic protection in the patient, other Icaros are used to call in the spirit of a plant. An Onanya will draw upon their knowledge of the many plants that they have dieted and call in the plant spirit that is best suited for healing the energetic problem within the patient in front of them. In this way, the plants are called upon with very specific purposes for healing specific dis-ease or trauma through the Icaros.
Although for some of you it may sound absurd, such is the power of Icaros that the entire visual experience and the content for a participant in an Ayahuasca ceremony can be controlled by the Icaros. When certain energies are being called into the ceremony by the Onanya, it is felt tangibly sometimes. This can be a fearful experience for people who have never experienced things energetic or spiritual in nature.
Yet we are spiritual beings, we have just forgotten or been conditioned by a culture in which the material world reigns supreme. We are also taught to avoid negative, heavy emotions and sensations and as such we never truly integrate our shadows and traumas. Ayahuasca may not be an appropriate healing tool for everybody, but what is important is that we all begin to open to an inquisitive exploration of our own spiritual nature. Icaros in an Ayahuasca ceremony can crack old belief systems right open, they can give us an experiential context of magic and alter our understanding of faith.