Tribal peoples understand the power of decorated skin and indigenous cultures in many countries tattoo themselves with sometimes complex patterns and designs. In the Peruvian Amazon, these tattoos are known as tatuajes and their origins are found in nature and in the otherworld.

Plant and animal designs are common for tatuajes and give the wearer not only the appearance, but the qualities or abilities of the plants or animals depicted. Feathers and wings make the wearer a bird of prey and transfer the powers of keen sight and the ability to ‘soar above’ life’s problems. Jaguar patterns transform an ordinary tribesperson into an accomplished and ferocious hunter. Scales represent – but also embody the essence of – ronin-kene, the cosmic serpent, bringing the protection of this powerful ally. Images of the ayahuasca vine – the visionary plant most revered in jungle medicine – put the wearer in touch with the spirit world and give him access to divine information.

Thus, tatuajes are more than just adornments; they do not just represent the thing or force depicted; they are that force and so is the person who wears them. With the correct tattoo, therefore, the tribe member can achieve whatever he wishes. The design that he chooses thus provides an insight into his desires, his spiritual universe, and that of his people.

On our recent Magical Earth adventure to the Amazon (a jungle retreat programme I run for people who would like to work with the plant spirit shamans and ayahuasceros of Peru), we had the services of don Laurencio Garcia, a Shipibo storyteller, poet, and banco (at the highest level of Amazonian shamanism).

The Shipibo are one of the largest ethnic groups in the Amazon, with around 20,000 members. They are renowned as the ‘masters of ayahuasca’ and aspiring shamans from many different tribes seek them out to learn their methods for preparing the healing and visionary ‘vine of souls’, as well as their icaros (magical chants that accompany ayahuasca ceremonies), and knowledge of plant medicine. There are, however, few bancos left, and we were truly blessed that don Laurencio wanted to work with our group.

Prior to one of our ceremonies, he explained to us the Shipibo legend of tatuajes, which describes their spiritual origin, and why this artform is still relevant to his people.

A long time ago, a young Shipibo couple came by chance upon a place deep in the jungle that they really liked and where the fish were good and plentiful. The man set off to explore and went further into the forest, following a long, straight trail that led to a wonderful beach. On it, all alone, stood a beautiful princess (although some say she was a mermaid) wearing glittering bracelets and earrings. She was dressed in the finest clothes, with astounding and intricate designs upon them. Her face was painted with these designs too.

The man was struck with awe and asked where she had found these amazing geometrical shapes and patterns but, upon hearing his voice, the princess fell down dead. She was so pure that even a word from an outsider, or a glance at his naked and unadorned skin could cause her death.

The man called his wife to show her these designs and she put on the princess’ clothes and tried to learn the patterns herself, but she couldn’t. Then all of the Shipibo tribes came to see the designs, but as each came, one of the patterns faded until they all nearly vanished and it was impossible to capture them or to understand them all.

The people began to worry because they had seen such beauty and now it was being taken from them. Then, one day, an old woman came from a faraway village that no-one knew or had visited before and she began to miraculously teach what the designs meant and how to make them. Nobody knew how she got this knowledge (though some say she was a mermaid too) but from her they learned the patterns.

She only taught the women though, and told them to teach the children. Then, when her knowledge had been given, she vanished and was never seen again, for she was really one of the chicani [the invisible people]. No-one knows why she came to help us, but we are grateful to her still.

Since the coming of that mysterious chicani woman, only Shipibo women may paint these designs on the skin, or onto textiles, canoes, cabanas (jungle houses), hunting equipment, clay pots, or other items of importance to the village.

Girls are taught to do so at a young age and initiated by their mothers and grandmothers into the ability to see visions and transcribe them. This involves squeezing a few drops of sap from the piri piri seed into the child’s eyes so she can see the designs she will make when she is older.

Eunice, a Shipiba who works with us on our Magical Earth retreats and who is an accomplished tattooist and textile painter herself, told us that this is still common and that, when she was a young girl, her grandmother did it for her “so I would have the visions. The effects last a lifetime so this only needs to be done once”.

Although essentially a female preserve, then, it is still possible for men to learn these designs and to create tattoos of their own – but only after they have taken part in at least one ayahuasca ceremony, which opens them to the visions so that they, too, can see the intricate spiritual geometry which is the point of origin for all material reality.

One expected and fundamental ayahuasca vision is a meeting with the great anaconda or ‘cosmic serpent’ who is the creator of the universe. It is common for the serpent to appear in visions and for these to then be painted on the skin as a symbol of creativity and protection.

Within the ayahuasca universe, however, there resides the spiritual essence or blueprint for all material things, including every animal, plant, or human being on Earth, and so other symbols and motifs also occur in Shipibo designs.

The iguana, for example, is a protective ally often sought out in visions by the parents of newborns who will then paint a lizard design (and so focus the power of this beneficial spirit) onto their child’s skin. This is known as an arkana – a shield against negative energy – and gives the child immunity against the effects of intrusive spirits who may wish to consume his fragile soul.

Children who are not protected in this way may succumb or even die from the work of malevolent spirits. In this sad circumstance, the mother may have herself tattooed with symbols of coffins; a message to the spirits that she and her family have suffered enough and their other children should be left alone.

There are also designs to bring success in farming and hunting, aid fertility, ensure a safe pregnancy, or, more socially, to show that a man is married and therefore off-limits, or that a woman is available and looking for marriage, or which act as pusangas: forces of attraction to draw in love and good fortune. There are also designs for healing.

Don Laurencio explains, for example, that if someone is bitten by a snake and healed by the shaman, he must remain in bed for eight days while he is protected by the healer who watches over him. Otherwise, in his weakened state, he is at risk of infection from the ‘spirit venom’ of others. At the end of these eight days, the patient is strong enough to return to village life and a fiesta will be thrown to celebrate his recovery, but he may still be spiritually weak. A snake tattoo is therefore applied to his skin as a guard against further attacks from serpents or ‘snake-like people’.

Thus, Shipibo tattoos also have a communications function as well as a social or tribal purpose. But every one is still considered spiritual in origin. Specifically, they are gifts of the great anaconda, whose skin displays every possible design and pattern.

According to Angelika Gebhart-Sayer, Professor of Ethnology at the University of Marburg, in the Journal of Latin American Lore [The Geometric Designs of the Shipibo-Conibo in Ritual Context, Journal of Latin American Lore, 11:2 (1985), pp. 143-175] the Shipibo regard the skin of this snake as made up of energy patterns which exude a “radiating, electric, vibrating power”. When they transfer the designs to their own bodies, they therefore capture this power and become the channels for it.

Shipibo shamans also use these energy patterns to reorder the body of a person who is ill or suffering and infuse it with the power of the snake. Diseases, that is, are thought to be caused by ‘harmful designs’ within the patient, as if a geometric energy inhabits us which must be correctly aligned in order for it to flow smoothly and effectively and for us to benefit from its power and be well.

If this is not the case, the shaman (normally in an ayahuasca-trance) may visualise a new and better design for his patient, which he projects into his energy system and body by singing a healing icaro for him. This song is also made up of geometric patterns which the shaman has transformed into music and it is this which penetrates and reorders the patient’s body until it becomes again a harmonious and luminous design.

Gebhart-Sayer refers to the healing process as a form of “visual music” and relates how, “At first, the sick body appears like a very messy design. After a few treatments, the design appears gradually. When the patient is cured, the design is clear, neat, and complete”. At the end of the process, the healing designs are embedded in the patient’s body as arkanas and become ‘inner tattoos’ which are permanent shields of protection for his spirit.

Another way in which healing and protection can be achieved, especially in a group or tribal context, is by the shaman guiding the patients’ own visions through the icaros he sings to them. Then they can find their own ‘visual music’ and their arkanas.

This was the case for participants on the Magical Earth programme, who, during an ayahuasca session, were guided by our shamans to a place of inner power where their personal symbols of healing could be found. Then, next day, they were given the opportunity to have these designs tattooed onto their skins as visual reminders of their new-found power.

Tatuajes like these are made using the juice of a young green huitol fruit which is baked in banana leaves until the ‘ink’ can be squeezed from it and painted onto the body. The patterns last anything from four to fourteen days depending on the frequency of washing, after which they fade as their powers are absorbed by the patient’s spirit.

The pictures at themagicalearth – dot – slide – dot –com show the tattooing process. In figure (1) a participant holds up an image she has seen in her visions and this is transferred to the skin by a Shipibo artist. The image consists of a cosmic serpent and, in its coils, sections of ayahuasca vine. This is for healing, protection, and connection to spirit.

In figures (2) and (3) other sections of ayahuasca vine are shown, surrounded by Shipibo symbols which act as guards for the spirit.

Figures (4) and (5) show the intricate geometric designs which are common visions during ayahuasca trances. In general, these patterns are a visual representation of the ‘song of the universe’: the energy fabric which creates all material forms and sings the world into being. There are nuances to the patterns, however. Thus, figure (4) is a pusanga symbol used for women who wish to draw love into their lives, while figure (5) is a similar pattern for men, but here the intention is to attract good fortune and success in future endeavours.

Shipibo designs and tattoos are a spirit-given means by which the wearer is able to reconfigure his soul, his energy, and overcome saladera (‘bad luck’) so that the blessings of the universe are drawn to him. The patterning may be external, but the change is internal and permanent; a design for life which will aid that person’s spirit even after death.