Bearing in mind the country’s poverty and the fact that almost half the population is still pure Amerindian, it isn’t altogether surprising to discover that the ancient shamanic healing arts are still flourishing in Peru. Evidence for this type of magical health therapy stretches back over three thousand years on the Peruvian coast. Today, curanderos (Spanish for “curers”) can be found in every large community, practising healing based on knowledge which has been passed down from master to apprentice over millennia.

Curanderos offer an alternative to the expensive, sporadic and often unreliable service provided by scientific medics in a developing country like Peru. But as well as being a cheaper, more widely available option, curanderismo is also closer to the hearts and understanding of the average Peruvian.

With the resurgence of herbalism, aromatherapy, exotic healing massages and other aspects of New Age “holistic” health, it should be easier for us in the West to understand curanderismo than it might have been a decade or so ago. Combine “holistic” health with psychotherapy, and add an underlying cultural vision of spiritual and magical influences, and you are some way toward getting a clearer picture of how healing wizards operate.

There are two other important characteristics of modern-day Peruvian curanderismo. Firstly, the last four hundred years of Spanish domination have added a veneer of Catholic imagery and nomenclature. Demons have become saints, ancient mountain spirits and their associated annual festivals continue disguised as Christian ceremonies. Equally important for any real understanding of Peruvian shamanism is the fact that most, if not all, curanderos use hallucinogens. The tribal peoples in the Peruvian Amazon who have managed, to a large extent, to hang on to their culture in the face of the oncoming industrial civilization, have also maintained their spiritual traditions. In almost every Peruvian tribe these traditions include the regular use of hallucinogenic brews to give a visionary ecstatic experience. Sometimes just the shaman partakes, but more often the shaman and his patients, or entire communities, will indulge together, singing traditional spirit-songs which help control the visions. The hallucinogenic experience, like the world of dreams, is the Peruvian forest Indian’s way of getting in touch with the ancestral world or the world of spirit matter.

The origins of shamanism

The history of healing wizards in Peru matches that of the ritual use of hallucinogens and appears to have emerged alongside the first major temple-building culture – Chavín (1200 BC-200 AD). Agriculture, ceramics and other technical processes…

Shamanism today

Still commonly used by curanderos on the coast and in the mountains of Peru, the San Pedro cactus ( Trichocereus panchanoi) is a potent hallucinogen based on active mescaline. The curandero administers the hallucinogenic…

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