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Celebrating the Power of Plants for Conscious Living

Inner Worlds, Art and Sacred Plants

by Luis Eduardo Luna

The following essay was included in the catalog for Luis Eduardo Luna’s 2015 Valparaiso University winter exhibition, “Inner Visions: Sacred Plants, Art, and Spirituality.” It was republished on Reality Sandwich.


Since the advent of human consciousness, we have been drawn simultaneously towards the external and the internal world. Magnificent examples of figurative Paleolithic art have been preserved which depict many species of animals of economic or ritual importance. For example, the paintings depicting pig deer found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, according to recent studies, are at least 35,400 years old, and the horses, rhinoceri and lions from the Chauvet cave in southern France date from 30,000-32,000 BP. Representations of strange, non-naturalistic beings that are human-animal composites (therianthropes) also have been discovered from an equally distant past and probably possess a mythic-religious significance associated with ritual music and dance. In the cave at Fumane, near Verona (Italy), one of the oldest known depictions of a human being is a horned therianthrope. It is called “the shaman” and is at least 35,000 years old, with claims that it may be even 8,000 years older (Broglio et al. 2009). In the Chauvet cave (a World Heritage site), a mysterious figure is a composite of a female lower body and a feline head, with one of the legs growing into a second body that has a head of a bison. In the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave, located in the Valley of Lone, Baden-Württemberg (Germany), a magnificent 32,000-year-old female wood sculpture with a lioness’s head was found. Perhaps the most famous therianthrope is the “dancing sorcerer” of the Cave of the Trois-Frères in France with a figure that seems to be in the process of animal transformation (figure 1). Numerous examples of therianthropes in rock art from various periods are found in the African continent (see http://www.sarada.co.za) as well as in the Americas (figure 2).

Therianthropes have been a part of our species’ artistic endeavors ever since. They are found in the human-headed winged bulls and lions guarding Assyrian palaces. In ancient Egypt, we have Anubis, the jackal-headed god associated with the afterlife, Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess of war and battle, and, of course, the sphinx, silently gazing forever toward the eastern horizon. In India, there is Ganesha, the elephant god, and Hanuman, the monkey god. Fauns, centaurs, mermaids and angels are familiar images from antiquity, as well as Satan, a powerful archetype of Christianity and Islam, depicted as a therianthrope with horns, tail and wings. We find therianthropes in Picassos’ Minotaur. They are also the main heroes of today’s blockbuster films such as SpidermanThe X-Men, and the Na’vi of planet Pandora, in Avatar.

Clearly, our compulsion to create myths explaining our place in the natural world and the nature of existence itself dates from ancient times. What is the origin of all these enigmatic figures depicted in such diverse geographical areas since the very beginning? Do they come from dreams? Have they emerged from altered states of consciousness, as proposed by Lewis-Williams (2002)? Are they manifestations of beings that exist either in other dimensions or in the minds of particular individuals with enough power or charisma to imprint them in future generations? This remains a great mystery. In any case, they are certainly not beings from ordinary reality. Subjectively, at least, our ancestors were deeply affected by such apparitions, and, as far as we know, most cultures through time and space have believed that human-animal figures play an important role in supernatural worlds.

Historians usually mark 4,000 BCE as the approximate advent of complex societies. As children, we learned that civilization originated in the “Old World”, and only later in the “New World”.  This may be true if one takes into account the recent discoveries of Göbekli Tepe, in Turkey, where 11,000-year-old sophisticated ritual architectural sites are being unearthed, and if one also accepts the existence of a much older Egypt, which is still a matter of dispute (Schoch 1995). If, according to traditional interpretations, one views the origin of western civilization in Sumer, it is important to be aware that, at the same time, another civilizatory process was taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. One needs to visualize Norte Chico, located some 100 miles north of Lima, where archeologists have uncovered more than 30 major sites with monumental communal architecture (though lacking ceramics), occupying from 25 to 500 acres in an area along four short river valleys running into the ocean on a 15-mile stretch of Pacific coast. These sites are dated 3200-1800 BCE. Archeologists consider Norte Chico the cradle of Andean civilization.

Asians crossed to America through the now submerged Beringia, which, at that time, bridged the two continents from at least 37,000 years ago. The two populations were separated at the end of the last glaciation (18,000-12,000 BCE), each following their own development and establishing advanced civilizations on both sides of the Atlantic. These were two old worlds that would meet at a later point in time. And when it did happen, it was not the “discovery” of a new world but, rather, the violent collision of two ancient worlds, one overpowering the other, which gave birth to the new world in which we live today. I’m referring, of course, to 1492, when a process began by which the Americas were nearly totally overtaken by peoples from the other side of the sea.

At the end of the 15th century, two competing kingdoms (Portugal and Spain), on the western tip of Eurasia, began an impetuous expansion of exploration and conquest, the purpose of which was to dominate the whole world. Two more kingdoms, France and England, would soon enter the race. These nations had advanced navigation technology, superior weaponry and combat experience, as well as a cultural commonality that included a shared fervent religion: Christianity in its diverse forms. There was no such cohesion in the Americas. Apart from two large empires, the Incas in South America, and the Aztecs in Mesoamerica, Amerindians were fragmented into hundreds of cultures with various degrees of technical development.

Over the course of millions of years of separation, Eurasia and the Americas developed their own unique flora and fauna. One of the great differences between the two worlds was the larger emphasis given in Eurasia to the domestication of animals: cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, horses and chickens. This profoundly affected their way of life, their use of land and water, in addition to the development of their immune systems as they gradually developed a resistance to several illnesses that jumped from animals to humans during the domestication process. When the Europeans arrived on the other side of the Atlantic, they not only took their plants and animals with them, but also, unknowingly, a formidable biological weapon: their germs. Within 150 years of contact, approximately 90-95% of the Amerindian population had disappeared. Concurrently, plants and animals from Eurasia invaded the Americas, initiating what Crosby (1986) calls “biological imperialism”.  

Few animals were domesticated originally in the Americas, and all of these had a limited geographical impact: the llama, alpaca and guinea pig of the Andes, the turkey and the dog in Mesoamerica. Eurasian plants played, then as well as now, a crucial global role, as we still consume rye, wheat, rice, barley, rye and chickpeas. But Amerindians mastered different ecosystems with great skills, developing hydraulic technology and domesticating plants for food and a wide range of other uses: the many varieties of corn, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, squash, manioc, quinoa, amaranth, edible cacti, avocados, pineapples, and numerous other fruits; stimulants such as cacao, tobacco, coca and mate; medicines such as quinine (used in the treatment of malaria) and the active compounds from the various curare of Amazonians which now make open heart surgery possible. Rubber extracted from several species of Hevea was essential in the birth of modern transportation (bicycles and cars) as well as other industries.  

It is within this larger context of plant knowledge that one needs to consider the discovery and use in the Americas of numerous species of psychotropic plants, probably within a shamanic context. Once this important defining characteristic is understood, suddenly a great deal of previously enigmatic pre-Columbian art makes far more sense. Representations of the human-jaguar motif, for example, are found all over Central and South America, as Stone (2011) has demonstrated. Reichel-Dolmatoff (1988) recognized the birdman motif in a large number of Colombian Amerindian works in gold. Many of these figures are probably expressions of subjective states: animal transformation, for instance, or depictions of meetings in non-ordinary states of consciousness with therianthropes. The use of psychotropic plants seems to coincide with the dawn of certain major Amerindian civilizations. From Caral (2600 BCE), one of the ceremonial sites of Norte Chico, we know of inhalators used to absorb a plant, though it has yet to be identified botanically. Coca was in use since at least 8,000 BCE and is still considered sacred among Andean communities of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, as well as indigenous groups of the Sierra Nevada in northern Colombia.

In the circular plaza of the temple of Chavín de Huántar (1200-300 BCE), one of the figures in the gallery of the offerings (figure 3) is a man-jaguar therianthrope with snakes as hair and a belt holding a piece of Trichocereus pachanoi, the well-known San Pedro cactus still used by healers in Andean and coastal Peru. Chavín ceramic representations of this cactus, either in association with a jaguar or a deer, confirm its importance in this advanced culture.

Several hundred Maya mushroom stones have been found in Kaminaljuyú, Guatemala, dating from 2500 BP. Mushrooms are still used ritually by Mazatec healers, as the meeting of Gordon Wasson and María Sabina revealed (Wasson 1980). Peyote buttons that date from approximately 3000 BCE were found in a cave in Texas in a context suggesting ritual use (Schultes & Hofmann 1979:132). There are ceramic representations of peyote from Monte Albán (300-100 AD) and Colima (100 AD) in Mexico.  Although persecuted by the religious and civil authorities of Mexico since the 16th century, peyote is still the central sacrament of the Huichol, Cora and Taraumara of that country. In the US the American Indian sacramental use of peyote was threatened in 1990 by an ominous decision of the Supreme Court, in response to which the Native American Church (NAC) seeking protection of the ancient use of Peyote prevailed on Congress to enact in 1993 the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and to amend in 1994 the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), both signed into law by President Clinton, to ensure the continued religious use of peyote by thousands of members of the Native American Church.

The oldest date for the use of Anadenanthera colubrina (based on known archeological evidence) is from around 2100 BCE. A related species, Anadenanthera peregrina, was used by indigenous groups of northern South America and taken to the Antilles around 2000 BP. The first book written in the Americas in a European language was mostly about the ritual used of cohoba (the vernacular name of this plant) by the Taíno on the island of Hispaniola (known today as Haiti/Dominican Republic). This book was written by Ramón Pané, a Catalonian friar, under the orders of Christopher Columbus during his second voyage of conquest and discovery (Pané 2008). The seeds of these two species were roasted, ground to powder and inhaled by means of snuff trays and inhalators of various kinds.

Anadenanthera colubrina had obvious religious significance in the remarkable Tiwanaku culture (0-1000 AD), which had its capital near the shores of Lake Titicaca. In the Ponce Stela at the Kalasasaya Courtyard, a figure holds in his hands strange objects that archeologists believe were ritual objects of some kind. Thanks to discoveries in San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile, an area influenced by Tiwanaku, these objects are now identified as paraphernalia related to the inhalation of the seeds of A. colubrina. In San Pedro de Atacama, approximately 25% of the male funerary bundles contain perfectly preserved wool bags enclosing wooden snuff trays for depositing the seed powder, inhalators and tiny spoons to handle it, as well as leather pouches containing snuff powder with traces of bufotenine, its main psychoactive compound (Torres & Repke 2006). In spite of persecution by religious authorities, as was the case with other sacred plants, A. peregrina and A. colubrina are still used by a limited number of indigenous groups.

Ayahuasca is the Quechua name of a brew consumed in the Amazonian areas of Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, and parts of Ecuador. It is prepared by cooking the stem of Banisteriopsis caapi, a vine in the Malphighiaceae family, and the leaves of Psychotria viridis, in the Rubiaceae. In Colombia and adjacent areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon, a normally cold infusion known as yajé is prepared by macerating the stem of Banisteriopsis caapi and the leaves of Diplopterys cabrerana, another malphighiaceous vineBoth preparations are pharmacologically similar: P. viridis and D. cabrerana contain dimethyltryptamine (DMT), an alkaloid present in many plants and in all mammals, including, of course, humans. This alkaloid is orally inactive, but in the presence of harmine from the Banisteriopsis vine, it crosses the blood brain barrier, stimulates serotonin-2A receptors and blocks adjacent metabotropic glutamate receptors in the nervous system, and finally binds to sigma-1 receptors inside the neurons. In appropriate concentration it produces changes in mood and cognition, and often elicits extraordinary visions that are culturally interpreted. Recent studies show that DMT has anti-inflammatory properties at a cellular level and may play a role as an immune regulator (Frecska et al. 2013; Szabo et al. 2014). It is extraordinary that such as simple molecule on the cellular level has such healing property, while at the same time opens up the visionary realm.  

 The names ayahuasca and yajé may be used to refer solely to the Banisteriopsisvine, but there are also numerous vernacular names among the dozens of indigenous groups that use these preparations in the Upper Amazon. In the Peruvian Amazon, other admixture plants (some of them psychoactive) may be added to the basic ayahuasca brew. In the Sibundoy Valley, in the Colombian Putumayo area, the Kamsá and Ingano –with a special expertise in Brugmansiaspecies- add potential medicinal plants to yajé in order to study their properties and thus expand their pharmacopeia (Bristol 1966).  The oldest known archeological reference to ayahuasca is no more than two hundred years old, but the use of at least Banisteriopsis caapi is probably much older. Among contemporary Amazonians it is used to communicate with the spiritual side of nature, for divination (diagnosing illness, finding lost objects or learning about others), or as a tool “to learn” about this and other worlds. It is also connected with ethical aspects: it is given to young people as an initiation to help them to lead a good life. Among the Aguaruna (or Awajún, their endonym) it is not enough simply to know facts; one must learn to think well by bringing together the body, the emotions, and the intellect in the epiphany of the visionary experience (Brown 1985). It is also the source of inspiration for indigenous songs and ornamentation. Reichel-Dolmatoff (1971, 1978) was the first to realize that the decoration on the communal houses or malocas, ceramics, and painting in general, was associated with the visions that the Desana and Barasana of the Colombian Vaupés received under the effects of caapi, their vernacular name for the Banisteriopsis vine.  Jean Langdon (1979) discovered that among the Siona of Southwest Colombia the body painting mimics designs perceived on the spirits encountered in visions. In Siona culture, most narrative is related to the adventures of shamans in parallel worlds. The Shipibo of the Ucayali believe they are covered and penetrated by normally invisible three-dimensional designs that are revealed in non-ordinary states of conscious and subsequently are represented by the woman through the textiles, ceramics and body painting. In earlier times, they also covered houses and objects of their material world. These designs have a musical aspect: shamans see them when they ascend to the summit in their cosmology and listen to the songs of the spirits. These are the same songs they use to cure their patients, restoring their spiritual patterns to them in the healing process (Gebhart-Sayer 1985).  All designs are believed to be found on the skin of the cosmic serpent, a spiritual being that surrounds the world (which, curiously enough, is also the case in Germanic cosmology). Music is probably older than language itself. To a certain extent, the so-called power of the shaman resides in an ability to evoke powerful, non-linguistic, archetypical images through his chanting.

From 1980-1986, I carried out research among vegetalistas, mestizo practitioners who use ayahuasca, tobacco, and other powerful plants as a vehicle to diagnose and heal illness, which is thought to be caused in most cases by soul loss or by an animated agent that is either natural or supernatural. Vegetalistasare experts in the use of specific powerful plants they believe are doctores or plant-teachers from whom it is possible to learn medicine and acquire certain powers.  A strict diet and isolation that may last for several months or even years is required in order to “learn from the plants”. Transmission of knowledge is most often mediated through icaros, powerful songs or melodies used in their shamanic practice.  This tradition is at least one hundred years old. When I was doing research in the 1980s, I was worried this tradition was in danger of disappearing, since, at that time, I did not meet any young people interested in undergoing the hardships of such training. This situation has radically changed since the beginning of the 1990s due to the interest in ayahuasca shown by a growing number of non-Amazonians. Today, there are dozens of practitioners, some Amazonians (indigenous or mestizo), some from a surprising variety of Western countries and even beyond, who are offering sessions or have created centers where it is possible to be in isolation and observe the required diet.   

In the summer of 1985, ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna and I were collecting plants in Pucallpa, in the Peruvian Amazon. Dennis introduced me to Pablo Amaringo (1938-2009), then living in a very modest house with no electricity, running water or proper sanitation. I soon realized that Pablo Amaringo was very knowledgeable about the mestizo ayahuasca traditions I was then studying. He had been a vegetalista but had stopped practicing seven years before we met.  Almost by chance, he showed us a few watercolors on cheap paper depicting jungle motifs. He claimed to have a photographic memory. I was inspired by Reichel-Dolmatoff, who had taken paper and pencils to the Barasana, a Tucanoan group of the Columbian Vaupés, and asked them to paint whatever they wanted. They painted their visions. I asked Pablo whether he could remember his visions under the effects of ayahuasca. He made two paintings, and gave each of us one of them. At home in Helsinki, where I was living at that time, I photocopied the painting I had received from Pablo and requested an explanation with regard to several elements in his painting, which he did without delay. This initial painting and the letters we exchanged are displayed in the exhibit. I understood that Pablo could elucidate the inner world of mestizo Amazonians graphically, and, for years, I provided him with the best possible art materials, organized exhibitions, transformed his living conditions and those of his family, and finally published Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman (Luna & Amaringo 1991). The paintings displayed here are among those I acquired from Pablo during the first years that he began to produce his work.

Once copies of Pablo’s paintings began to circulate, and even more so when the book was published, I witnessed a profound reaction among Peruvian Amazonians themselves, who immediately recognized that these paintings depicted worlds revealed by the ayahuasca experience. Except for a few illustrations by Peruvian artist Yando Ríos that appeared in a book on ayahuascaby his wife, anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Rios (1972), to the best of my knowledge no artist had attempted to render these kinds of visions as works of art. Friends of mine who are anthropologists took the book to Amazonian indigenous communities and encountered similar reactions. The book also caused something of an international stir, with some people claiming this publication was partially responsible for the new global interest in ayahuasca.

In 1988, Pablo Amaringo and I created the Usko-Ayar Amazonian School of Painting in Pucallpaa project to which I dedicated several years of my life, buying high- quality materials, photographing the art, and organizing exhibits in various countries. At its apex, the school had three hundred students, mostly between the ages of 10- 20. Amazonians seem to have extraordinary eidetic memories, and Pablo, a remarkable pedagogue, was able to transmit his own technique of projecting on paper what the students had seen in the forest. Although it might be difficult to believe, not a single sheet of high quality paper was ever wasted. A few students attempted to paint their own ayahuasca visions, but Pablo, who had already abandoned his practice as a vegetalista many years before, did not encourage it.

One of these students (and certainly the most talented), Anderson Debernardi, entered the school at age 18, but left after a few years to follow his own path, specializing in highly realistic depictions of Amazonian birds, plants and forest landscapes. In 1994, due to an urgent need to continue my own research in other areas, I resigned from my responsibilities at the Usko-Ayar school. I was offered a visiting professorship in the department of anthropology of Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (UFSC) in Florianópolis in southern Brazil. Several years later, I saw Andy, who had just finished several huge murals at the Helsinki Zoo. I knew he had partaken of several ayahuasca sessions and that they had a great impact on his life. I proposed that he paint his visions. The result is clearly astounding. He gives the same kind of fine detail to his visions that he does to his strictly naturalistic paintings.

Donna Torres, whose father is Canadian and mother is Colombian, is a painter, an art teacher and a botanical illustrator. She has collaborated with scientific drawings in publications by retired art historian and archeologist Professor Constantino Manuel Torres, her husband. Manolo is an expert on Tiwanaku, the world authority on pre-Columbian snuff-trays, and has travelled extensively to visit important archeological sites, especially in Northern Chile, always accompanied by Donna, who is herself interested in shamanic traditions and sacred Amerindian plants.  I met Donna and her husband in July 1985 at the 45th Congress of the Americanists, which that year was held in Bogotá. They were in the audience of the very first international and interdisciplinary symposium on ayahuasca, which I organized. The three of us became instant friends and have collaborated since then on various projects. I have followed Donna’s artistic development with admiration and I am extremely thankful for her collaboration not only with paintings, but also with her exquisite botanical drawings of sacred plants.

I met Rick Harlow in 1993 through legendary Professor Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001), the father of modern ethnobotany. Rick was our guide when Pablo Amaringo, two of his students and I visited Washington in 1994 in connection with an exhibition at the Capital Children’s Museum. As a result of subsequently meeting him on many occasions in various countries, I became aware not only of his work as an artist, but also his admirable commitment to various projects with Colombian indigenous groups, such as teaching the Amazonian Makuna and Tanimuka to make paper with the pulp of Cecropia species and helping the Arahuacos and Kogi of the Sierra Nevada, in northern Colombia, to record and publish tales of the elders in their native language for free distribution among the young.  In his paintings, Rick juxtaposes the visionary realm with nearly photographically realistic landscapes. “Ayahuasca taught me to read the book of nature,” he says. Rick was one of the artists I invited to participate in the exhibition Visions That the Plants Gave Us, which took place in 1999 at the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, and I am grateful he accepted to exhibit some of his truly exemplary, intriguing paintings here in Valparaiso.

Alex Sastoque is a Colombian artist, who, in my opinion, is a rising star. He is the youngest of the artists in this exhibition, but already has compiled an impressive artistic résumé. We have not yet met in person, but Skype is a good substitute. Donna suggested that I consider his work while I was in the process of planning this exhibition. Alex’s art is obviously influenced by Amerindian shamanic themes –for instance the therianthrope motif- since he has taken the sacred plants in ceremonies with several indigenous groups. At the same time, he has collaborated with the great visionary artist Ernst Fuchs. This is a powerful artistic confluence that is perfectly visible in Alex’s work.  

What might the current interest in sacred Amerindian plants mean for the religious and spiritual life of today’s globalized world? It isn’t entirely clear. New religions that adopted ayahuasca as a sacrament under the names Santo Daimeand Vegetal emerged in Acre and Rondônia (in the Brazilian Amazon) beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1960s. These syncretic religious institutions incorporate Christianity, Afro-Brazilian religious elements, European esoteric traditions and Amazonian ideas. Undoubtedly, institutions of many kinds are now being developed that will have a future impact. Experiences with sacred plants (in the proper setting) are not incompatible with these worldviews or symbolic systems. Previously held cosmological ideas may even be reaffirmed: encounters with Jesus or Mary, Lord Shiva, Odin, Ogun, the Cosmic Serpent, the World Tree, or Mother Earth (Gaia) are common. Strassman (2014) finds powerful explanatory models in the mystic Jewish tradition for the DMT experience. And, certainly, as presented by Professor Richard DeMaris in this catalogue, visionary experiences abound in the Christian tradition.

Remarkably, regardless of their cultural background, many persons participating in ceremonies with the sacred plants discover a renewed interest in nature and environmental issues. This represents extremely important common ground. In this time of ecological calamity caused in part by the desacralization of nature, all world religions and spiritual traditions (regardless of ideological differences) urgently need to reconsider our relationship with the natural world. The worship of nature may unite us more than anything else and allow us to overcome doctrinal discrepancies that are relatively unimportant if considered from the perspective of human culture as a whole.

Our Western contemporary world is perhaps an historical exception in that our attention is constantly being drawn (in keeping with the devastating logic of unbridled consumerism) solely towards controlling and profiting from the external world. We have forgotten our own traditions that facilitate entering inner worlds during our waking hours, even though we have learned the benefits of meditation from the East. Too often, we pay no attention to our dreams, arranging our lives so that we are violently disconnected every morning from our inner world by all sorts of clocks and artifacts. Art saves us, which perhaps explains why it fascinates us. Art reminds us (sometimes explicitly, as in the case of the artists in this exhibition) of other realities, hidden in the inner recesses of our minds.  


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Art: Pablo Amaringo