Thinking back on my trip to Peru last summer, I remembered that I had neglected to mention one of the most interesting events, which was a taking part in a shamanic session. To be precise, it was a cleansing ceremony, or limpia, performed by a curandera, or traditional healer.
That omission was in part due simple procrastination and negligence, but also largely because I did not know how to go about talking about it. Part of that was just because I wanted more time to process it, but also because it was kind of an intimate experience and writing about it seemed a bit like talking about someone else's medical appointment. Anyhow, Susana did give me permission to photograph her part of the session and to blog about it, so that covers that.
Peru's north coast in general, and the Trujillo region specifically, are known throughout Peru for the survival of shamanic medicine, and it is not uncommon for quacks in Lima and elsewhere to claim to be a "brujo norteño" to attract clients. How our own involvement came about is that Susana's field program director in Trujillo, Dr. Douglas Sharon, PhD, has known a local curandera for many years, and since the students' field work in the program involves documenting the folk uses of medicinal herbs and plants, it only makes sense for them to see and experience them actually being used in traditional medicine and to experience what the curanderos' clients experience. So, after visiting the pre-Inca city of Chan Chan and the Huaca de la Luna temple, Doug had us journey a bit further south of Trujillo, to the seaside town of El Paraíso and to the home of Julia Calderón.
Her family greeted us warmly and we ate dinner at the restaurant that they run on the first floor of their building. We, of course, paid for our meals, but because we were also guests and were with Doug, who is godfather to Julia's son, Jimmy -and therefore Julia's compadre- the portions they served us were huge!
Julia is the daughter of the late Eduardo Calderón, who was a fisherman by trade, as well as being acknowledged as a powerful curandero, indeed one of the foremost curanderos in the Trujillo region. He was the subject of a documentary film, Eduardo de Healer (1978), and of a book, Eduardo el Curandero: The Words of a Peruvian Healer (1982 and 2000), which he himself co-wrote partly with Doug.
Julia inherited the don, or the gift, and has developed into a respected curandera in her own right, and her own daughter is also said to have the don.
Anyway, after dinner, Julia and her family set up her mesa -which literally means "table"- on the ground in the family's courtyard behind the restaurant.
In the image above, we observe the mesa from the perspective of the curandera. The patient will stand across from her, on the other side of the mesa.
Every curandero has his own setup, but in modern mesas Jesus , here depicted in a crucifix, is always at the center and is flanked on all sides by objects of power or with ritual significance. There are studies published on the geometry of mesas, but here (and below) we can even with a casual glance observe one of the prime divisions: on the right side are statuettes of saints and fruits - items associated with heaven and above; whereas on the left, we find shells, stones, ancient artifacts, fossils - items associated with the earth and below.
This is a reflection of the duality that is part of the Andean cosmovision, which divides things -nature, communities, even family clans (aylllus) into nonhierarchical "upper" (hanan) and "lower" (hurin) moieties. It also reflects the Andean tripartite division of the physical world into heaven and underworld, with the earth as intermediary.
The bottles on the little table to the side contain perfumes, while the bottles on the mesa and on the ground contain macerations based on medicinal plants and, in particular, "herbs from the Huaringas". The Huaringas are a string of fourteen high mountain lakes in the Northern Andes's Cordillera del Wamanai which are said to possess mystical and curative powers.
The pot on the ground by the mesa contains an infusion of the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus, which all participants were asked to partake of before joining the ceremony, although no one was actually obligated to do so.
The mesa was set up privately before we were invited to enter the courtyard. As a final preparation, Julia then drew a six-pointed star within a circle on the ground with lime, which was to be the spot where her patients were to stand during their sessions.
Susana was the first to go.
Here she is flanked by Doug, who is observing the ceremony but also there to support Susana, and Julia's son, Jimmy, who is helping with the ceremony. Julia, meanwhile, is flanked by her other son and by Susana's colleague, Anna, who is attempting to document the ceremony with a digital sound recorder.
Julia began each session, and puctuated each at several points, with a rythmic whistling accompanied by the shaking of a rattle, which she is doing in the photo above.
The patient was then asked to drink from the concoctions in the bottles, first blowing across the top of the glass three times.
Susana, who was already feeling strongly affected by the San Pedro, said that this drink affected her perception and balance even further.
At various points during each session, Julia would take one or more of the perfumes, asking to be handed specific ones in a given order, and spray it from her mouth into the air and directly onto the patient. As she is doing this in the photo above, Jimmy -behind her- is going to each of us observers and offering us the San Pedro infusion.
The San Pedro is held to be a sacred and mystical plant, and has been so for thousands of years, and all of us who partook of it that night were asked to observe certain practices after we left Julia's place, which I get into later. San Pedro, I can attest, does affect one's perceptions, and it's effect -along with being part of a group taking it- helps make one more suggestible. Now, I am not implying that there was any fakery or quackery involved in Julia's ritual, but the San Pedro did serve to lower one's inhibitions and help one be more open to the ritual being performed and to the curandera's probing questions and observations.
At some points Julia pulled in Anna, Doug, or myself, to have us observe alongside her and her daughter, and they would ask us to confirm what they were observing. In my case, when asked to participate in Susana's session, they asked leading questions about what I saw, but I'll be damned if they weren't correct in what I was observing: that Susana appeared to have no eyes, and that she had something shining, as if a bright white gem, at her throat. (Bear in mind that other than the moon, a lamppost down the street, and camera flashes, all of this was taking place in the dark.)
Having trusted individuals - and in Susana's case, her own father- confirming the curandera's observations undoubtedly serves to bolster the curandera's legitimacy in the eyes of the patient.
Julia's sons would at some point in each session also partake of the herbal infusions, but in their case it was through the nose.
Nearing the end of Susana's session -and, yes, I know I haven't shared the specifics as to the content of her session, and I won't, nor of any of the rest of the group- Julia passed each of the bottles of Huaringas herbal infusions over her, and also the rattle and other items (for example, in the background above, one can see Julia's daughter with a sword in hand, and Jimmy holds it in the two below.)
Between Julia's blowing perfume and infusions all over people and into the air, and with each patient being asked at several points to ritually rub some into his or her hair -passing the hands over the scalp three times- we were all pretty well covered in smelly and colored water by the end of the evening.
Those who had undergone sessions and those of us who had partaken of the sacred San Pedro were to undergo a final cleansing to rid us of any residual shamanic energy which might be clinging to us and render us attractive to negative energies and witchcraft, which involved being covered in yet more perfumes and with a milky liquid containing perfume, some sort of white powder in suspension, and flower petals, which we were also asked to drink and to rub over our scalps following the ritual of the three passes.
We were instructed to not wash it off until the next day, and to avoid certain foods until the next evening. I recall beans and hot peppers being two of the proscribed foods, and perhaps meat.
How accurate were Julia's diagnoses? Well, it is hard to know. A lot of shamanic medicine has to do with restoring and maintaining balance in life, and thus in identifying that which is off-kilter and throwing one out of balance or attracting negative energy. It is telling that, in the course of their sessions, everyone who underwent one confirmed Julia's conclusion that there was some troubling interpersonal issue going on, or a worry or emotional burden they'd been bearing.
The evening of cleansing sessions turned out, actually, to be a fairly intimate experience, even for those of us who did not undergo a cleansing. In fact, almost every one of the women who did, ended up crying during their sessions, even without knowing precisely why.
Later, after we had exited the courtyard and Julia and her family had put away the mesa and undergone their own cleansing --both, private rituals--, they rejoined us in their restaurant. Since I hadn't undergone a session, Julia's kids invited me to partake of some pisco and showed me a photo of their dad and some of his artwork --he made statuettes out of clay-- while we chatted as we awaited the taxis Doug had contracted to transport us back to our hostel in Huanchaco.
I knew that I had been part of a special experience, but one which is not particularly extraordinary in Peru's north coast, where magic still retains a foothold in the modern world.