The rich and powerful spiritual legacy of the Andean civilization is only now being properly recognised after 500 years of obscurity. This article takes a look at some of these traditions. Howard G Charing and Peter Cloudsley hold Retreat programmes in the Andes and Amazon where we work with many of the traditional shamans and healers.
The Mesa Nortena is a particular ceremonial tradition best conserved in the region of Las Huaringas, high and remote sacred lakes in the northern Department of Piura.
There are probably only a few good maestros who continue this ancient tradition in Peru today. The rest simply work with the externalities of the mesa, while giving their clients minimal doses of the visionary San Pedro cactus. Originally more importance was given to the medicine, which must be in the organism of the participants as well as the maestro for the power to flow. The mesa then served to intensify the power of the plant.
An altered state is needed to enter the symbolic world of the objects on the mesa (the word refers to the altar as well as the ceremony itself). The abundance of macerated plants, perfumes and smells employed in the mesa function to move the feelings associated with ones memories. At a deep level, sensations are translated into vibrations which the medicine brings to consciousness so that associated hurt and pain can be re-membered again and a new attitude can emerge.
The singado, or absorption of macerated tobacco juice through the nostrils involves another power medicine which is used to intensify the San Pedro at regular intervals. The instruction from the maestro to pour up the left or right nostril reflects the notion of duality found in shamanic disciplines all over the world: masculine and feminine, hot and cold, upper world and earth, expansion and contraction, flowing and stagnant. Illness arises from one of these polarities loosing equilibrium. The word singado comes from the Quechua word singa meaning nose and is perhaps an Andean notion of Pranayama!
The tendency to commercialise a tradition is inherent in urbanization and seeing things for their utility and business. For example mesas are sometimes held so that lawyers win legal battles. Piles of documents are laid on the mesa so that the power works on them and they win their case. In this way a shamanic ceremony is degraded to folklore. We can try to reconstruct the original tradition to how it was in pre-Colombian times and remove the images of Sarita Colonia and the other saints, crucifixes, photos etc., which have accumulated throughout the centuries and evolved the mesa into the mestizo tradition which survives today. Left behind are the ancient stones, magic plant brews and the enchanted waters of the lakes of Las Huaringas, being the original elements, which have survived underneath.
An ‘ofrenda’ is the most important ceremony used by Andean Indians to relate with Mother Earth. The ofrenda is a symbol of reciprocity with nature and its purpose is to teach us to reproduce this attitude. Through it we speak back to nature saying we understand the message and concord.
The ofrenda which is also known in Spanish as a ‘pago’, is not
a ‘payment’ to nature as the Conquistadores saw it, implying a sinister pact with nature spirits. Additionally, they accused the Indians of being miserly because they preferred to pay symbolically rather than with real money!
An ofrenda is an expression of gratitude, not of debt or obligation. Neither is it selfish to want things for ourselves as some people see it even today. It is true that urban people in Peru have started to make ofrendas for reasons such as wanting their businesses to flourish, but good business can equally imply good health, and harmony to the community and for the natural world.
In an Andean community realities are closer to earth than they are in the city, it is more important that the cattle do not die than to have more private possessions. Hence in the country there is a better understanding of the shamanic meaning of the ceremony, the re-establishing of relationship to nature. This is why we need a little preparation so that an ofrenda can work for us too.
We live in a time of the fulfilment of an ancient Inca prophecy. This is the time of the new Pachacuti, a great change bringing with it a new relating to the Earth (Pachamama). Each Pachacuti is a era of time about 500 years. The last Pachacuti occurred with the Conquest in the early 16th century, and the Qero (Inca) priests have been waiting ever since for the next era, when order would start to emerge from chaos. The current Pachacuti refers to the end of time as we understand it, the end or death of a way of thinking and a way of being. A new relationship with the living Earth, and an emergence into a golden age of peace. There are many indications that changes in human consciousness are taking place, yet there is still a long way to go. The traditional ways can inform us and show how we can re-engage with the sacredness of life and the Earth so we too can more fully participate in the new Pachacuti.