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Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon

by Stephan V. Beyer

University of New Mexico Press | 544 pages

Reviewed by Barbara Snow

Ayahuasca is a plant which has the effect that when you drink it, it allows you to see what otherwise is invisible, and it attracts the spirits. It is not that the ayahuasca takes one to another world, otherwise unreachable; it just opens one’s eyes to what is normally hidden. There is only one world, which is shared by all beings, humans, spirits, and animals. ~ Anthropologist Marie Perruchon, married to a Shuar husband and an initiated uwishin. (Pg. 37, Singing to the Plants)

The territory occupied by the shaman is suffering, hope, failure, envy, spite and malice. (Pg. 45, Singing to the Plants)

Human consciousness is no less complex in the Amazon than it is in New York city. In Singing to the Plants, Dr. Stephan Beyers undertakes a thorough and clear-eyed investigation into the nature of the ailments of all humans, and the ways in which we experience healing. Healthy skepticism concedes to sometimes extraordinary results. This book presents a scholarly, balanced view of a potent form of indigenous spirituality and its place within modern times.

“Singing to the plants” refers to the icaros, songs a shaman sings in ceremony that are hymns to the spirits of these plants whose use expands human awareness. Work with the hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca, which contains naturally occurring DMT, is an integral aspect of South American shamanism. Present day investigators cannot account for the breadth of knowledge shamans have on the healing properties of plants, knowledge achieved through ceremonial ingestion of ayahuasca and a carefully cultivated relationship with the spirits of plants.

This is not unique to the Amazon. Indigenous people on every continent employ hallucinogens to expand consciousness. Beyer speaks to the use of peyote in Native (North) American churches and the many extensive efforts to legitimize these substances that the U.S. government has declared dangerous, Schedule 1 drugs.

Beyer writes with the humble respect of an apprentice as he chronicles his intimate relationship with two respected shamans. His is neither a romanticized journey into inexplicable magic nor an expose of pretenders preying upon the ignorant. Nor does Beyer try to downplay the wide-spread use of sorcery as a political equalizer. His rigor as an academic validates his commitment as he submits to the initiations essential to acquire shamanic power. Beyer also presents the ubiquitous struggle within people and communities for position, power and comfort, and the layers of acculturation from various forms of colonization that continue even now.

Over the past two decades, indigenous young people have tended to discount what is familiar, embrace the glamour of encroaching cultures, and seek comfort and pleasure rather than discipline. At the same time, affluent foreign seekers, disillusioned with standard forms of spirituality, or drawn by curiosity or a hope for authenticity, have sought indigenous shamanic work. Some seek a magic pill to heal their wounds and make them happy without their needing to reflect or change. Although ayahuasco purging doesn’t feel magical and its visions generally initiate a longer process of transformation, this spiritual technology has generated an ever-increasing flood of spiritual tourists traveling south to feel the energy of sacred sites and sit in ceremony with shamans.


The widely touted prophecy of the eagle and the condor seems to support the phenomenon. The prophecy holds that when the eagle (representing either the human mind or the technological mindset of North Americans) and the condor (representing the heart or the nature-based awareness of indigenous peoples) fly together in the skies, the earth will begin to heal. Admittedly, shamanic tradition changes as it adapts to the people it serves, but the effectiveness of the work endears it to those outside its normal confines. Dr. Beyer, the researcher, presents his explorations of the shamanic world in concrete, grounded terms, avoiding mystical, magical language, but insisting that all spiritual “work” must engage human consciousness. Whatever your means of spiritual expression, Singing to the Plants can help you evaluate the relationship between mystery and rationalism. After that, it’s up to you.

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