(From The Yagé Drinker, the autobiography of Fernando Payaguaje, the last shaman-chief of the Secoya tribe of the Ecuadorian rain forest, as told to his grandsons. Originally published in Spanish as El bebedor de yajé and translated into English by Nathan D. Horowitz. Yagé is another word for ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew of two separate jungle plants which the local shamans drink to attain visionary knowledge.)
It’s not easy to graduate. To be able to graduate, it’s necessary to drink yage at least fifteen times over a period of several months. At that point you should be able to cure any illness. But to gain that ability, you pass through many privations and sufferings.
For example, I was married, but I couldn’t sleep with my wife. If I wanted to be the highest and wisest healer, I couldn’t go to her. I lived near her but in a different house, ceaselessly preparing and drinking yage, because my obligation was to perfect myself more and more. The same thing happens later too. The healer often suffers for not being able to take care of his family. Sometimes he has to be apart, because he has to keep himself well and take care of his health. He will never be able to use a vessel used by a woman who is pregnant, and he should keep his distance from her. Otherwise he will get a headache and other problems. The same is true when a woman is on her period. During that time, a healer’s wife should be hidden and remain apart from her husband until that illness passes. Then she will bathe with hot water and leaves of guava and other plants. If she does that, she can give food to her husband again. Pregnant and menstruating women also should not walk near the yage house when the ceremony is going on.
They should stay inside their homes. Otherwise, the chiefs of the fish or the forest animals won’t respond to the call of the yage. They should also not walk around while yage is being brewed. All these are rules for women to follow. However, they can drink or be healers, and it’s good for them to be able to heal snakebites and things like that to take care of their family.
While drinking yage, you keep a strict dietary regimen. Few fish may be eaten. For example, the singo may not. Few meats, as well. Also forbidden are mature chili peppers; only green ones are permitted. If you eat any old thing at all, you don’t learn. You need to be patient and suffer through it. Very often you have to stay in your house and not go visiting, so that they don’t offer you something prohibited. The apprentice also needs a new pot just for himself. His hammock should be hidden away. If he leaves it out he should raise it up and tie it so that women or visitors don’t sit on it. Your teacher warns you about all these things. Otherwise, it could happen that when you return home, bathe and lie down in a hammock that has been improperly used, you could suffer pains, and at the same time lose the power of the visions. That’s why you have to protect yourself….
The preparation of yage is hard. The cultivation is hard too. Then you have to store quantities of it. It’s also necessary to have a lot of firewood to cook it. Two people work all day to prepare it. One cooks a thick brew and the other a watery brew. During the drinking season I prepared it together with my nephew, day after day at that work. Sometimes we’d take off a day or two when we needed to go hunting. Immediately afterwards we’d resume. It’s normal to initiate the period of drinking with the moon before August; that’s the best time for graduation. It’s summertime, with its fireflies and butterflies. The spirits are above the trees, nearby; the angels move across the face of the earth. When you drink yage, you see clearly the spirits in the fireflies and the other summer insects. The drink shows them as they really are, celestial spirits, though some of them are also instructors or conductors of witchcraft. Others appear like tiny people, like children, or like dolls.
The drinking season usually lasts two or three months until the stock of yage is exhausted. During the other summer, in December, the celestial spirits are in the sky, around the firmament, and don’t come near. That’s why that’s not a good time to be instructed in the visions.
Now, some people drink yage only to gain the power to make witchcraft. With those arts they can kill people. That’s bad. You need a very superior effort or ability to reach the highest level where you have access to the visions and the power to cure. To learn to be a witch is quick and easy. I didn’t aspire to that, but to be the wisest one. My idea was to become the chief of a large family or clan, some ten or twenty families, and be able to take care of and heal all of them. Only with that thought in mind did I find the strength to rise to the highest level.
When you have drunk enough, the teacher who’s directing you generally lets you know. “Don’t drink any more, just take a rest and drink again in two or three weeks.”
That’s what happened to me, because I’d made progress. Around that time I became able to see visions of swallow-tailed kites, those birds that glide as they fly. I could take out a bone from their wings and play it like a flute. That particular bone has a stronger sound than any other….
Nathan D. Horowitz
Originally from the USA, Nathan D. Horowitz lived in Latin America for four years before moving in 2000 to Vienna, where he teaches Business English at universities.
Info: The Yagé Drinker, the autobiography of Fernando Payaguaje, translated by Horowitz can be read on Scribd.