Plant Spirit Shamanism: The death of a shaman

Every time a shaman dies, it is as if a library burned down
Mark Plotkin, Medicine Quest

There are nearly 270,000 species of flowering plants on Earth, and less than one percent of have been studied for their healing properties. Moreover, most of the research that is taking place is conducted in Western laboratories, where scientific rather than spiritual methods are, of course, employed. The intention is to isolate one or two active ingredients and patent more drugs instead of finding more cures. Any other secrets that plant might teach us die with it on the altar of Western rationalism.

Around 125,000 species – almost half the plants on Earth – are found in tropical rainforests, which cover almost eight billion acres of the world’s surface. Estimates vary, but it is well-known that several thousands of these rainforest acres are destroyed each year by Western companies or local farmers under Western sponsorship so that cattle-grazing and mineral exploration can take place, in the interests of fast food and petroleum companies. There is no doubt that many of these plants hold the keys to life-saving new medicines – we know this from the less-than-one-percent that have been studied – and yet every year thousands more are destroyed. Once they are gone, they may never return.

But this is only half the story, because traditional ways of working with plants are also dying out as the West exports, not only its technology and needs, but its worldviews and values to these cultures. It is a frequent lament among Amazonian shamans, for example, that many fewer young people are now coming forward to learn natural medicine and meet the spirit of the plants. They are migrating to the cities instead, or putting their faith in Western science, which sees their shamans as out-dated, misguided, or a throwback to a naïve age.

These shamans, who cultivate their successors through apprenticeship, have no more students to teach, and their knowledge is dying as quickly as the forests around them.

“I have always said to my children, you can be what you want, but don’t forget your culture”, says Guillermo Arevalo. “Come back to nature and your people”. Sadly, not all of them do, despite the pleas of the medicine men themselves. [Encouragingly, though – perhaps even ironically – the increasing interest in traditional plant medicines by Westerners, such as those I take on my Amazonian retreats, is now helping to revive the interest of younger Peruvians in their own traditions. The shaman, Artidoro, remarks, for example, that “When our children see Westerners coming here and wanting to learn about our plants and medicines, they think ‘maybe there is something in this after all’ and they ask their elders to teach them about the plants”].

If plant spirit shamanism were to die out completely it would be a tragedy not just for Amazonian culture but for us all, since many of the drugs we use in the West are derived from shamanic knowledge, pharmaceutical companies having, for decades, employed anthropologists and ethnobotanists to work with these shamans so they know where to look for the plants and what they are used to cure.

In Haiti, too, the situation feels similar. On this Caribbean island there is less of a temptation for the young to adopt Western values since all they have really experienced of the West, in a culture born in slavery and subjected to exploitation ever since, is Western oppression. But still, what the people aspire to is often power more than spiritual communion, and this is measured in terms of Western values so that money and material possessions become the new gods. Once again, this is not so surprising, since the Western use of force to take power from others is what has been taught them from birth. As a consequence, shamanic initiation still takes place, but for many this becomes a way of earning money in an otherwise deprived country – a job more than a calling to heal – and the older and more experienced shamans talk of a decline in the values and spiritual power of the newcomers to their profession. “Their heart is not in it”, they say.

In our own culture we can also chart the decline of traditional healing as science comes ever-more to the fore. In America, many true healers and shamans are now confined to the reservations so their knowledge and expertise is hardly known to the wider world, and many age-old natural cures, as well as the plants themselves, have been made illegal. In Europe, herbalists are under increasing pressure to become educated, validated and registered in the same way as scientists, leading to a decline in intuitive healing and belief in plant spirits. Throughout the world, the old ways are being denied or forgotten.

It is sad, oppressive, and potentially dangerous when cultural diversity and freedom of speech and belief are restricted in this way, but it is also self-defeating for those who oppress. Every plant is a complex mixture of interacting energies and healing processes, for example, and there are at least 30 active ingredients in each one. A Western medicine isolated from these plants is lucky to contain two or three, so we are all missing out on healing and making ourselves weaker instead of well.

In his foreword to Irish Folk Medicine Sean O Suilleabhain of the Department of Folklore, University College Dublin, offers examples of Western cures that could not have existed at all without the discoveries of traditional healers who worked in concert with their plant spirit allies.

“African medicine-men have for a long time used the bark of a certain type of willow to cure rheumatism with salicyl; the Hottentots knew of aspirin; the natives of the Amazon River basin used cocillana as an effective cough-mixture, and curare, which they applied to arrow-tips to stun their enemies, is now used as an anaesthetic; the Incas have left us cocaine; ephedrine reached the Western world from China; cascara was known to the North American Indians; from the juice of the foxglove was derived digitalin for heart-ailments; and finally, here in Ireland, moulds from which penicillin has been derived were traditionally used for septic wounds… early peoples used compresses, scarification, hot baths (tithe alluis), even vaccination”.

It seems dishonest and ungracious, at the very least, then, for modern medicine to take so much from the old ways and then belittle these traditions for their primitive beliefs and lack of effective medicine. We reveal our own ignorance when we do so, and, as science wins the war against tradition, the old ways die out, leaving fewer folk healers and plant experts whose knowledge our scientists can raid to develop their own new medicines.

Furthermore, despite the grand claims of drug companies, their products may actually cause illness rather than cure it. A report by Jerome Burne in The London Independent newspaper in 2005 revealed, for example, that “The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) – the government group responsible for regulating UK medicines, including herbs – says that between 2000 and August 2004, there were 451 reports of suspected adverse reactions involving herbal preparations, of which 152 were serious”. On the face of it, this sounds a lot, but, he continues, “By way of comparison, consider this from a report in the British Medical Journal last year: ‘In England alone, reactions to drugs that led to hospitalisation followed by death are estimated at 5,700 a year and could actually be closer to 10,000’. Herbs may not be completely safe, as critics like to point out, but they are a lot safer than drugs”.

There have also been some spectacular drug failures, despite the promises. In 2005, for example, the FDA, after an extensive review of hundreds of studies, issued a warning that the use of antidepressants may actually lead to an increase in depression and suicidal thinking – the very outcomes these drugs are mooted to cure. The Yahoo news story that covered this warning noted the FDA’s concerns that “antidepressants may cause agitation, anxiety and hostility in a subset of patients who may be unusually prone to rare side effects… psychiatrists say there is a window period of risk just after pill use begins, before depression is really alleviated but when some patients experience more energy, perhaps enabling them to act on suicidal tendencies”

By contrast, the herbal cure for depression, St John’s Wort, has never harmed anyone. As the Independent newspaper put it: “[St John’s Wort] is not only more effective in the treatment of moderate to severe depression than the SSRI Seroxat, according to the British Medical Journal, but it also has fewer side-effects”.
It is true, says the Independent, that “A study expressed concern about herbal remedies that could interact with treatments like NSAids… leading to increased gastrointestinal bleeding”. But, as the journalist points out, “the herbs don’t cause the bleeding, it’s adding the aspirin”.

On the face of this evidence, it is time for a return to traditional healing methods, to concern and compassion for patients instead of profits, and for a new generation of plant spirit healers to step up to the plate to arrest this decline in well-being.

To do so, it will be necessary to free your minds from the conditioning of scientific rationalism, so you can explore, dream, meet, and work with your plant spirit allies, the energies of nature that are calling you, and to rediscover the magic of plant spirit shamanism and natural healing, so it can be preserved and used for the good of all in this increasingly materialist and dis-spirited world.