In the shamanic traditions of Northern Peru, the san pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi), or cactus of vision, opens the doorway to expanded awareness and acts as mediator between man and the gods.
San pedro grows on the dry eastern slopes of the Andes, between 2,000 – 3,000 metres above sea level, and commonly reaches six metres or more in height. It is also grown by local shamans in their herb gardens and has been used since ancient times, with a tradition in Peru that has been unbroken for at least 3,000 years.
The earliest depiction of the cactus is a carving showing a mythological being holding a san pedro, which dates from about 1,300 BC. It comes from the Chavín culture (c. 1,400-400 BC) and was found in a temple at Chavín de Huantar, in the northern highlands of Peru. The later Mochica culture (c. 500 AD) also depicted the cactus in its iconography, suggesting a continued use throughout this period. Even in the present Christianised mythology of this area, there is a legend told that God hid the keys to Heaven in a secret place and that San Pedro (Saint Peter) used the magical powers of a cactus to find this place so the people of the world could share in paradise. The cactus was named after him out of respect for his Promethean intervention on behalf of mortal men.
As can be imagined, early European missionaries held native practices in considerable contempt and were very negative when reporting the use of san pedro. One 16th century Conquistador, for example, described it as a plant by which the natives are able to speak with the devil, who answers them in certain stones and in other things they venerate.
As you might also imagine, a shaman’s account of the cactus is in radical contrast to this. Juan Navarro, a maestro within the san pedro tradition, explains its effects as follows:
It first produces a dreamy state and then a great vision, a clearing of all the faculties, and a sense of tranquillity. Then comes detachment, a sort of visual force inclusive of all the senses, including the sixth sense, the telepathic sense of transmitting oneself across time and matter … like a kind of removal of one’s thought to a distant dimension.
Considered the ‘maestro of maestros’, san pedro enables the shaman to open a portal between the visible and the invisible world for his people. In fact, its Quechua name is punku, which means ‘doorway’.
AN INTERVIEW WITH A SAN PEDRO MAESTRO
Juan Navarro was born in the highland Andean village of Somate, department of Piura. He is the descendant of a long line of healers working not only with san pedro but with the magical powers of the sacred lakes known as Las Huaringas, which have been revered for their healing properties since the earliest Peruvian civilization. At the age of eight, Juan made a pilgrimage to Las Huaringas and drank san pedro for the first time. Now in his 50s, every month or so it is still necessary for him to return there to accumulate the energy he needs to protect and heal his people.
Healing sessions with san pedro involve an intricate sequence of processes, including invocation, diagnosis, divination, and healing with natural power objects, called artes, which are kept, during the ceremony, in a complicated and precise array on the maestros altar or mesa.
Artes may include shells, swords, magnets, quartz crystals, objects resembling sexual organs, rocks which spark when struck together, and stones from animals’ stomachs which they have swallowed to aid digestion. They bring magical qualities to the ceremony where, under the visionary influence of san pedro, their invisible powers may be seen and experienced.
The maestro’s mesa, on which these artes sit, is a representation of the forces of nature and the cosmos. Through the mesa the shaman is able to work with and influence these forces to diagnose and heal disease.
What happens during a san pedro ceremony?
The power of san pedro works in combination with tobacco [see below]. Also the sacred lakes of Las Huaringas are very important. This is where we go to find the most powerful healing herbs which we use to energize our people.
We also use dominio [the linking of intent to the power of the plants] to give strength and protection from supernatural forces such as sorcery and negative thoughts. This dominio is also put into the seguros we make for our patients [amulet bottles filled with perfume, plants, and seeds]. Dominio is introduced to the bottle through the breath. You keep these seguros in your home and your life will go well.
How does san pedro help in the healings you do?
San pedro helps the maestro to see what the problem is with his patient before any of this healing begins. The cactus is a powerful teacher plant. It has a certain mystery to it and the healer must also be compatible with it. It wont work for everybody, but the maestro has a special relationship with its spirit.
When it is taken by a patient it circulates in his body and where it finds abnormality it enables the shaman to detect it. It lets him know the pain the patient feels and where in his body it is. So it is the link between patient and maestro.
It also purifies the blood of the person who drinks it and balances the nervous system so people lose their fears and are charged with positive energy.
In the ceremonies Ive attended a lot seems to happen. Can you explain the process?
Patients first take a contrachisa. This is a plant [actually, the outer skin of the san pedro cactus] which causes them to purge [i.e. to vomit – a removal from the body of toxins], so they get rid of the spiritual toxins that are within their systems. This is a healing. It also cleans out the gut to make room for san pedro so the visions will come.
They also take a singado. This is a liquid containing [aguardiente and macerated] tobacco which they inhale through their nostrils. The tobacco leaf is left for two to three months in contact with honey, and when required for the singado it is macerated with aguardiente.
How it functions depends on which nostril is used. When taken in the left nostril it will liberate the patient from negative energy, including psychosomatic ills, pains in the body, or the bad influences of other people. As he takes it in he must concentrate on the situation which is going badly or the person who is doing him harm. When taken through the right nostril it is for rehabilitating and energizing, so that all of that patients projects will go well.
Afterwards he can spit the tobacco out or swallow it, it doesnt matter. The singado also has a relationship with the san pedro in the body, and intensifies the visionary effects.
During the ceremony I also use a chungana [rattle] to invoke the spirits of the dead, whether of family or of great shamans, so they can help to heal the patient. The chunganas give me enchantment [i.e. protection and positive energy] and have a relaxing effect when the patient takes san pedro.
What is the significance of the artes and of Las Huaringas?
The artes that I use come from Las Huaringas, where a special energy is bestowed on everything, including the healing herbs which grow there and nowhere else.
If you bathe in the lakes it takes away your ills. You bathe with the intention of leaving everything negative behind. People also go there to leave their enemies behind so they can’t do any more harm.
After bathing, the maestro cleanses you with the artes, swords, bars, chontas [bamboo staffs used as healing tools to lightly beat or stroke a patient and scrape negativity off him], and even huacos [The energetic power of the ancient sites themselves]. They flourish you – spraying you with agua florida [perfume containing healing spirits] and herb macerations, and giving you things like honey, so your life will be sweet and flourish.
Not far from Las Huaringas is a place called Sondor, which has its own lakes. This is where evil magic is practiced by brujos [Sorcerers] and where they do harm in a variety of ways. I know this because I am a healer and I must know how sorcery is done so I can defend myself and my patients.
As I said, a lot goes on in a healing! So, with all of this, just how important is san pedro?
What allows me to read [i.e. diagnose] a patient is the power of san pedro and tobacco. Perceptions come to me through any one of my senses or through an awareness of what the patient is feeling; a weakness, a pain or whatever. Sometimes, for instance, a bad taste in my mouth may indicate that the patient has a bad liver.
Of course, I must also take the san pedro and tobacco, to protect myself from the patients negativity and illness, and because it brings vision.