Attitudes Toward Sacred Plants

Among many groups in the Americas, shamans employ plants which are regarded as having spiritual power or being sacred. Most of these plants fall into the pharmacologic category of hallucinogenic, psychotomimetic, psychedelic, or "mind-manifesting" substances. The shamans, however, prefer to conceive of these unusual plants as powerful in a spiritual sense: "Whether the shaman alone, or shaman and communicants, or communicants alone imbibe or ingest... any of the vast array of (North and South American) psychotropic plants, the ethnographic principle is the same. These plants contain spirit power" (La Barre 1972: 277).

The reasons that use of sacred plants has persisted for centuries can be clarified by observing the role of divine plants in some contemporary tribal and traditional cultures. These groups present facets of human development from the past mixed with contemporary influences. Shamanistic practitioners of today, who still use sacred plants, have evolved artful ceremonies which combine the old with the new. This layering or syncretism preserves the beliefs necessary for the beneficial application of divine plants in rituals of mythical quest for rebirth, healing, and renewal. The sacred plants play a primary role in the preservation and intensification of the core beliefs which constitute membership in a particular group. Shamans use the plants to contact the "spirit world' for various purposes, including: control of natural forces, contact with ancestors, receiving advice from supernatural sources, healing, sorcery or witchcraft, out-of-body experiences, etc. In short, the shaman makes use of the plants to foster transcendence of the human condition. This ability to transcend is necessary to fulfil the shamanistic role of intermediary between the visible and invisible planes of existence.

Eduardo Calderon Palomino, an unusually acculturated contemporary practitioner of the shaman's art in Peru, described the effects of a sacred plant, San Pedro (literally, "Saint Peter"; botanically, (Trichocereus pachanoi) to Douglas Sharon, an anthropologist:

For himself
(The physical effects) are first a slight dizziness that one hardly notices. It produces a light numbness in the body and afterward a tranquillity. And then comes a detachment, a type of visual force in the individual inclusive of all the senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, et cetera -- al the senses, including the six sense, the telepathic sense of transmitting oneself across time and matter... It develops the power of perception... in the sense that when one wants to see something far away... he can distinguish powers or problems or disturbances at great distance, so as to deal with them... it (also) produces... a general cleansing.

For his patients
San Pedro... tends to manifest itself in the form of vomiting, perspiration... sometimes in dancing. At times during diagnosis, a patient automatically starts to dance alone, or to throw himself writhing on the ground and there "unfolds" the power (that is, the ailment, or evil power) placed into the person.

It seems that... not all of us are resistant. Some are very susceptible, very unstable, and San Pedro tends to reach the subconscious... and the conscious, in such cases. It penetrates the blood... rises to, let us say, the intellectual nervous system. Then it "visualizes" and opens up a sixth sense... Then the individual, sometimes, by himself, can visualize his past or... the present, or an immediate future (Sharon 1978:45).

Eduardo describes what he means by the subconscious and the healing strategy or the curandero's (curer or white witch) approach:

The subconscious is a superior part (of man)... a kind of bag where the individual has stored all his memories, all his valuations... One must try.. to make the individual "jump out" of his conscious mind. That is the principal task of curanderismo. By means of the magical plants and the chants and the search for the roots of the problem, the subconscious of the individual is opened up like a flower, and it releases these blockages. All by itself it tells things. A very practical manner... which was known to the ancients (Sharon 1978:46).

We may characterize the attitudes or perceptual paradigms of cultures using magical or sacred plants as including the following elements: 1) The plants are regarded as sacred or mystical. They are described as containing supernatural agents. Whatever the individual group's variation on this theme, the result of the belief is great respect and perhaps even some fear regarding these plants. 2) Plants are used in specific ceremonies or rituals that support and renew the world view of the culture in which they are used. 3) There exists a world apart from this one to which the plants give access. Useful experiences take place in this hidden dimension of existence and valuable knowledge may be gained in this realm. 4) The use of these substances is an acknowledged part of membership in the group or some significant sub-group, i.e., shamans. 5) These plants can be used by those adept in their application to heal and to effect other changes in the ordinary world.

Text: Gateway To Inner Space, Christian Ratsch, 1990. p.16-18
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