Home > Education > Gripped by Sunlight: The Education of a Secoya Shaman

Gripped by Sunlight: The Education of a Secoya Shaman

September 15, 2006

Fernando Incuyabeno

By Fernando Payaguaje

English translation by Nathan Horowitz, from the Spanish translation by Alfredo Payaguaje, Jorge Lucitande, and Marcelino Lucitande

Fernando Payaguaje (c.1915-1994) was the last shaman-chief of the Ecuadorian Secoya tribe, a group which today numbers about 400. The Secoyas and several other tribes represent the remnants of a once-vast indigenous nation whose population was reduced by about 98% when, beginning in the 1700s and ending in the early 1900s, outsiders brought waves of diseases into the area. During Payaguaje’s life, the Secoyas’ society went through great changes as they were forced to end their nomadism and settle in villages, where missionaries from the United States taught them to read and write and nearly eradicated their practice of shamanism. Today, educated and organized, they seek to preserve the best of the past while taking advantage of the opportunities of the present.

The real world

My preparation was long because I was a brave drinker. I drank up whole gardens of yage1 before having visions, but in the end, I was able to graduate even though I was young.2

After drinking, the first thing you notice is light. The mind opens like the dawn of a splendid day, everything is gripped by sunlight, and colors shine with great intensity. Next you see butterflies flying in that luminous air. The first time I saw them come near, I thought they were persons. I thought they were the angels I’d heard others speak of, but no. Only later can you contemplate those angels walking through the air. At the beginning, you see only butterflies, beautiful birds… you can also hear sounds resounding, very lovely, or the murmur of celestial beings. The drinker can become proud, saying “I have acquired the visions,” and it’s true, but they’re only the first levels. I didn’t say anything because I wanted to see more.

Afterwards, if you have a good teacher, you can reach, little by little, the truth, and the most complete possible knowledge of reality.3 The guide should bring us first to the celestial spirits, and later teach about the multitude of devils that exist, since the graduate has to know about everything. If the teacher introduces the student first to the world of devils, he’ll never be able to make his way out of there, much less reach the sky; everything’s finished; he’ll never be able to direct the ceremony.

Customs for the yage ceremony

In the old days, the Secoyas would adorn themselves to go to the yage house. They combed their hair, they painted their faces with freshly picked achiote, highlighting those designs with curí, achiote cooked and mixed with other aromatic herbs. They made long stripes in the same way. All these designs had no greater meaning; they were just designs. They dyed their lips black and, with cooked achiote, adorned their feet, calves, arms and hands. They dressed in new tunics and decorated their hammocks, and they wore flowers and fragrant plants on their bodies. At the end they put on feathers, crowns and necklaces.

At around four in the afternoon they would perform these preparations and leave their houses dressed like this, if they lived near the yage house. But if they lived far away, they would set out dressed normally, and then, a short distance away from the yage house, they would adorn themselves. No participant entered the house unadorned. Once inside, they would hang up their hammocks and remain in them from the beginning of the ceremony at dusk until it ended at dawn. In the morning, breakfast was served, and then the guests would return to their homes, where they would bathe to remove their designs.

Families who had someone sick would bring him to the yage house. He’d lie in his hammock in a corner of the house. Then, at a given moment, the shaman would give him prepared water,4 fan him with leaves,5 and, finally, say to his father,

“Your son is going to get well. That sickness will not come back.”

When the son was all better, the father would thank the healer, and would pay him with a hammock, because everyone was aware of the suffering he had to pass through to graduate. That’s the reason to pay him. Sometimes, if someone falls ill suddenly, he can be healed in his own home. The healer smokes tobacco and blows the smoke on the patient. If he’s a good healer, he knows immediately what illness he is faced with. Occasionally, if he has no yage prepared or is in a hurry, he can drink hard liquor, although the drunkenness is not the same. It’s necessary to be careful with the quantity: with a small glass, you can cure, but if you drink more, the drunkenness comes on and you can’t do anything at all, much less have visions. Liquor is very different.

There are diverse yages and various ways of using them. One customary way is to cook yage on one side and on the other side uhahai.6 That is scraped from the plant, wrapped in a leaf, and, when the yage itself is cooking, you put it in the pot and keep it there a long time. Afterwards you keep boiling the yage at least half a day or more until it’s very thick. It should be bitter, concentrated, because that way the visions acquire more potency. You take out the plant matter and let the brew cool and take it home.

Uhahai should not be cooked. You take off bark with a knife and put it in a bowl of water and leave it out in the sun. After a while you can drink it because it inebriates.

Despite being very strong, pehí7 is easy to prepare, although it should stay on the fire a long time. You cook it in a large clay pot. A long time later you take out the plant matter and cook it down until it looks more like a food than a drink. Its smell, appearance and taste are very disagreeable.

People who are accustomed to drinking yage are not gripped by the drunkenness, but drink it as tranquilly as if they were drinking chucula.8 The person who directs the singing never drinks pehí — though he has drunk it previously — to learn to sing, because it softens the body and the voice. After drinking it, you’re not afraid to sing because you’ve acquired all the knowledge. If the graduate is young, he’ll drink standing up, walking with the cup in his hand through the open space of the house, proud, drinking and singing, because the drunkenness cannot defeat him. Because it’s not he who’s drinking anymore, but the angels.

Yage is drunk in darkness, without lighting a lamp; the only light comes from the flames or the coals of the fire.

The temptation of violence

You’re reclining in the hammock, but, at the same time, you’re in another world, seeing the truth of everything that exists; only the body remains behind. The angels come and offer you a flute. You play it; it’s not the healer who teaches you, but the angels themselves that make us sing when we’re inebriated. How beautiful it is to see the totality of the animals, even the ones that live beneath the water! How could it not be lovely to distinguish even the people who live in the interior of the earth? You can see everything! That’s why it’s exciting to drink yage.

But it’s not easy. When I drank thick yage, the strong stuff, I was able to see the sun, the rainbow, everything. That vision ended and I felt my heart as hot as a newly fired clay pot. I felt the heat inside, burning me, and although I wasn’t working, I sweated all day. Visions continuously assaulted me. From time to time I bathed. I felt myself capable of bewitching and killing people, though I never did it, because my father’s advice restrained me.

“If you use that power now,” he said, “you can kill people, but you’ll never get beyond being a witch.”

In those days I was devoting myself to drinking yage. I would go visit Cuyabeno and then return home to listen to my father’s warnings.

“When you feel a little drunk,” he would say, “you should suppress the anger that comes to you. Then you won’t become violent or hurt anyone.”

“No, I’ll be able to restrain myself.”

For days I endured this heat inside. I felt like I was drowning in my own sweat. It’s a dangerous time; you have to prepare for it. You can’t even look directly at people, only listen to them.

“Now I’ll bring a different kind of yage,” my father said. “It’s the moment to try it.”

We brewed it very thick. When we drank it, he extracted those magical darts I had inside.9 I stopped sweating and became like an innocent child. That’s how my father drew the violence out of me so I could heal and not harm. At that point I went up a level.

Pehí reduces you to ashes

After meeting all the spirits of yage, you drink thick pehí to perceive the innermost aspects of reality and fine-tune your voice to sing well in the ceremony.

To drink pehí, you scrape the bark like with yoco, and you wash the roots well and peel them. You toast this material and then put it in a pot to boil. Later you let it cool down, discard the plant matter and cook it down further until it’s so thick you can almost chew it.

Meanwhile, the yage is cooking in another pot a certain distance away. During the ceremony, the director will abstain from drinking pehí, but he will offer it to those who want to see. The fact is, it’s frightening to drink pehí that thick. It smells terrible and tastes worse. It’s so bad that you immediately throw it up. That, you have to do right back in the gourd you drank it from so you can drink it again. If you vomit the pehí on the ground, you don’t get visions, the only thing you can see is an immense land in which you seem to be buried. The pehí is so pasty that you can’t swallow it easily; you have to push it down your throat with your fingers. This makes you disgusted, ashamed, and afraid.

Sometimes they mix tarayage,10 waiyage11 and pehí so that the result is very concentrated. When you drink it, the drunkenness hits you before you finish the gourd. You feel burns all over your body, as if you’re being hit with burning logs. Then the body catches on fire and is reduced to ashes. When the flesh is destroyed, only then does the soul emerge and begin to see. At that moment the most fantastic visions begin.

I drank pehí when I was very young, at an age when some people were afraid of drinking even the weakest brew. On that occasion, three graduates accompanied me. They didn’t drink. They gave me a big gourdful. I drank it and was immediately struck blind. They gave me water to get rid of the bitterness in my throat and helped me lie down in the hammock. I felt a terrible drunkenness and continued not to be able to see. They lit a tobacco for me and I took it, but I was unable to smoke it, and I threw it away, still blind. Despite everything, I withstood the fear without crying out. I held still, waiting for the visions.

My drinking companion had to drink sitting down, and not even that way could he drink more than four swallows. The gourd was still full when he stood up, frightened.

“I can’t take any more, I’m drunk already!”

“You have to finish it.”

But he started to cry and put the gourd down. Then he lay in his hammock and stayed that way for hours. Later on he got up and walked around the yage house as if he had gone insane. At dawn he went outside, saying, “I’m going visiting.” But his whole body shook with spasms and he stayed that way, as if insane, until late in the afternoon.

Young people should drink pehí to culminate their initiation; it’s the only way to reach the celestial visions. Yage is not sufficient.

With yage, it’s like a school. Until you finish studying, you don’t know everything. Only people who drink pehí to the end know the ultimate visions of the world. I was intoxicated for a night and a day, during which time I was able to see all the devils in existence. In the same way I saw all the jaguars.

1 Pronounced “ya-HEY.” A hallucinogenic medicine, also known as ayahuasca, common to tribes in the western Amazon rainforest. (Footnote by Nathan Horowitz — hereafter, NH)

2 The importance of graduating while young should not pass unremarked on. In the first place, we have already spoken about the difficulties experienced in the process; because it’s necessary to make a hearty effort to drink (“You were born male, but you’re acting like a woman, going fishing instead of drinking yage!”), this speaks for the young man’s moral quality. But furthermore, the Secoyas agree that developing the habit of drinking yage early leads to more numerous and superior visions. (Footnote by Miguel Angel Cabodevilla, editor of the Spanish edition — hereafter MAC)

3 All the drinkers insist on this: drinking is not a vice, because it’s disagreeable and risky; what they wish is to see, to control the world of the deadly spirits, to approach the happy kingdom of the celestial beings; in sum, to attain knowledge. To reach the truth, because what our eyes see is only an appearance. “If we don’t drink, we don’t see, we don’t dream; if we don’t see that other world, we’ll die off, there will be a catastrophe.” (Testimony of Cornelio Ocoguaje in Ganteya Bain, El pueblo secoya, Alvaro Wheeler, Bogota 1987, p. 274.) (MAC)

4 I.e., water that had been chanted over. (NH)

5 The leaf fan, mamecoco in the Secoya language, is a common tool of shamanic practice among ayahuasca-drinking tribes. Other names for essentially the same thing include shacapa and wairapanga. (NH)

6 Brunfelsia grandiflorae. (NH)

7 Brugmanisa sp., a stronger hallucinogen related to datura and thornapple. (NH)

8 An everyday beverage for Secoyas, made of ripe plantains boiled and mashed in water. (NH)

9 Witchcraft is seen and experienced as arrows, darts, spines, of different materials, which the sorcerer fires at his victim, conveying sicknesses or death. In the exercise described here, the master teaches the initiate to dominate as much his anger as his pride in feeling himself powerful, since both vices would be dangerous for his community; and so the master brings him to a higher level where the celestial beings purify him of his violence. (MAC)

10 Literally “bone yage,” so-called because of its knobby appearance. (NH) To stimulate visions or healing rituals, the Secoyas drink three basic types of plants. First, yage, the most well-known, used across a wide area of the Amazon, and perhaps more familiar by the Quichua term ayahuasca. … Second, pehi (peji), known in Quichua as guando (or huantuj, etc.), called in Spanish floripondio or borrachera…. Third, uhahai (ujajai), from the Secoya uja, prayers to drive away dangers, and jai, many or great. … In Quichua it is known as chirihuayusa. During his tales, Fernando recalls some of the characteristics of such potions, about which he is recognized as an expert; a more detailed description of their qualities is beyond the reach of these pages. (MAC)

11 Wai: meat. (NH)

Excerpts selected by Nathan Horowitz from his full-length translation, The Yage Drinker, which will be published in December 2006 by CICAME, Pompeya, Ecuador.

Fernando Payaguaje’s autobiography, edited by Miguel Angel Cabodevilla, was originally published in Spanish as El bebedor de yajé (CICAME, 1994).

Interested readers can find photographs closely related to the material in this article in the work of Richard Evans Schultes, the late Harvard professor and explorer who is considered the father of ethnobotany. Schultes was about the same age as Fernando Payaguaje, and was working in nearly the same environment. A recent book of his excellent black-and-white photographs, The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journeys of Richard Evans Schultes contains images of healers, typical plant life and Amazonian landscapes taken on his explorations between 1941 and 1953; excerpts and selected photographs from this book can be viewed at HerbalGram: The Journal of the American Botanical Council; and a more extensive gallery of Schultes’ photos is here.

  1. September 15, 2006 at 2:00 pm

    Thanks for posting and sharing this — I found myself in a deep green forest of luminous vision while taking a quick lunch-break at work.

  2. September 16, 2006 at 11:00 am

    Nathan, what’s especially fascinating about this – apart from the narrative itself – is the concept that education and in some sense, morality, can be absorbed physically, by drinking or eating particular substances. A far cry from all our “civilised” theories. Whether it really works or not, it’s fantastic to read this account and their attitude to “getting high” is certainly a world away from that of recreational drug-takers in our part of the planet. Thanks for posting this illuminating account.

  3. September 17, 2006 at 9:08 pm

    Lori, cheers. I’m glad you enjoyed the virtual journey–a rainforest vacation without the bug bites.

    Natalie, let me see if I can do some fine brush work to clarify details of Amazonian worldviews as I understand them. Yage provides a metaphorical trip or journey, and all journeys are educational in that on them, we encounter things we’ve never seen before. Drinkers agree that when you drink yage, spirits in the area seem to gather to observe you and see what’s happening. All those spirits have different personalities. Some are what’s called evil, and the task of a good shaman leading a ceremony includes keeping them away. Failure to do so could expose the neophyte to their temptation. A shaman teaching students will also act as a guide for the students, bringing them toward higher levels of reality–defined as the levels where the good spirits live, the Ma’temo Bai (Sky People or Heaven People), also called the Winiawai (=eternally youthful people?). These look like little multicolored humans with multiple crowns, and may be compared with angels; perhaps they’re like another tribe of angels. “Shamanic” healing among the Secoyas is often effected through their agency. A third, related task for the shaman/teacher is to sing his or her visions into the cup of yage before handing it to the initiate, enabling the student to see as the teacher sees.

    I find this kind of material very interesting, partly because, as you say, it’s so far from our theories. Like everything, maybe, it raises more questions than it answers, and I hope to return to study it again one day. In the meantime, others continue to be more actively involved.

  4. Bill
    September 19, 2006 at 5:51 am

    I just read your delightful investigation of Meso-
    American jade. Nice work. Very thorough and helpful clarification of the NY Times report of the scale of the Motagua deposit. Thanks as well for providing exposure to beliefs and practices of the complete cast of characters involved in that story, and this one as well.

  5. September 19, 2006 at 2:13 pm

    Bill, I’m glad you liked the blue jade piece. Maybe you were aware of the original story when it broke. I definitely enjoyed the beliefs and practices of the people I encountered–the mystical millionaire, the curious curator, the philosophical poor people and the rest.

  6. September 21, 2006 at 10:30 am

    In the summer of 1991 I spent six weeks in Ecuador with the School for Field Studies, studying ethnobotany (to the extent that a high school student can.) I was enthralled and it was an amazing experience.

    Perhaps the pinnacle of the trip came at the end, when we had the opportunity to be guests at an ayahuasca ceremony. The shaman’s visions told him that one of our colleagues had recently had a tumor removed but that part of it was still there. None of us knew anything about it, but she began to shake and cry immediately, and later medical investigation showed that he was right. Mostly what I remember is the tobacco smoke and the smell of the river. It’s been a long time now.

    Anyway, your piece took me back there. Thanks.

  7. September 23, 2006 at 1:50 am

    Thanks for that story, Rachel.

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