“From the Rainforest to Cyberspace: Ayahuasca Shamanism and the Western Imagination”
My paper is based on ethnographic data collected over a period of 18 months in Iquitos, Peru. The data was collected for my dissertation entitled “From Medicine Men to Day Trippers: shamanic tourism in Iquitos, Peru”. During my fieldwork I worked with local shamans and westerners who participated in ceremonies that involved the consumption of the hallucinogenic drink ayahuasca. Ayahuasca, an Amazonian hallucinogen that has been used by indigenous people for thousands of years, has recently been appropriated by westerners in the context of tourism. I argue that this phenomenon is not something entirely new and that it is the continuation of a long lasting interest and fascination in the west on shamanism as well as hallucinogens – an interest that is not recreational but has spiritual overtones.
Combining historical evidence and ethnographic data on the motivations of westerners who pursue shamanic healing, I show that shamanism is often viewed as the healing force for bodily and mental disorders that stem from what is perceived as western culture’s spiritual impoverishment. In relation to this, I discuss perceptions of healing that do not fit the western biomedical paradigm as well as ideas about the acquisition of knowledge – for example through visionary experiences. I examine how westerners manage to integrate – more or less successfully – their “shamanic” experiences to their everyday experience and to their existing worldview, creating new forms of spirituality.
Of course the commercialization of shamanism has been widely criticized. I briefly discuss the debate on the impact of western appropriation of indigenous knowledge and spirituality particularly Neo-shamanism and the New Age.