Mazatec Indians - Curanderos

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College of Pharmacy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109 (U.S.A.)

(Accepted July 10, 1982)

Mazatec healing

The following report is based on fieldwork with a Mazatec curandero, or healer, living near the Alemin Reservoir in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, about 100 km from the port of Veracruz. Although a study based on information from a single source is open to criticism, the jealous and secretive nature of native shamans works against statistical methods of survey. Visiting many shamans in a single area can actually lessen the amount of information gathered, as each curandero may fear the visitor is telling their secrets and giving their “power” to a rival. To them magic can hurt or kill. Wasson and ‘Richard E. Schultes have both commented on the difficulty of making contacts with the curanderos of this region (Wasson and Wasson, 1957; Schultes, 1941).

Don Alejandro, the informant, spoke only a Mazatecan dialect. One of his sons served as an interpreter, translating from the native tongue to Spanish. The information they provided the authors was gathered in fragments over many visits during the summer of 1979 and spring of 1~980. Mazatec healing and religion are united in a manner common to traditional cultures. This is somewhat foreign to Western scientific medicine which is isolated from religion except for the times when it no longer serves to cure. A brief description of Mazatec healing, based mainly on the work with Don Alejandro should help to explain the use of ska Maria Pastora and its relationship to other healing plants. The Mazatecs (the name, taken from the city of Mazatlan, was actually imposed on the natives by the Spanish) are nominally Catholic Christians, but they have incorporated many features of their traditional beliefs into their conceptions of God and the Saints, whom they consider to have been the first healers. The most prominent among them is San Pedro, or Saint Peter, who is said to have cured a sick and crying infant Jesus through the ritual use of tobacco (Nicotonia spp.).

Tobacco is considered to be a health problem in the United States and many other countries, and its acute pharmacological effects are due to the alkaloid nicotine (Larson et al., 1961). Yet for the Mazatecs, as well as for almost all Mesoamerican Indians, it is the most important curing tool in the “pharmacopeia”. The fresh tobacco leaf is ground, dried and mixed with lime to form a powder known to the Mazatecs as San Pedro (Saint Peter); the “best” is prepared on the Saint’s day, June 29th (Inchaustegui, 1977). This preparation is more familiarly known by its Nahuatl name, picietl @piciete). It is worn-in charms and amulets as a protection against various “diseases” and witchcraft, but its most important use is in limpias, or ritual cleansings. It may be used alone with a prayer and copal (an incense prepared from the resin of Bursera spp.) (Diaz, 1975b), or in conjunction with herbs such as basil (Ocimum spp.) or marijuana (Cannabis sativa)*, eggs or various other substances. Anyone who comes to Don Alejandro to be treated usually gets a : limpia This ritual cleansing may be the cure in itself, or it may be accompanied by other “medicines”. The patient is given a pinch of the San Pedro powder (wrapped in paper) to carry with them and use during the healing period.

One learns to become a shaman through an informal apprenticeship, although the Mazatecs will insist they are taught by a progression of visions from and of heaven, rather than by people. Psychotropic plants are intimately associated with this training, which can last up to two years or longer. in this area of Oaxaca, as well as the highland region visited by Diaz, the vision inducers are taken systematically at intervals of a week to a month. Once one becomes a healer the hallucinogenic plants are ingested much less frequently. The process begins by taking successively increasing doses of S. divinorum for a number of times to become acquainted with the “way to Heaven”. Next comes mastery of the morning glory (Rivea corymbosa (L.), Hallier, f.) seeds and finally one learns to use the sacred mushrooms. There is a very’ rigid diet, or diet, to follow during this time, “Hot” foods such as garlic and chili peppers are restricted and there must be abstinence from sex and alcohol for extended periods. However, many Mazatec shamans incorporate alcohol into their training and drink during their ceremonies (Wasson and Wasson, 1957). Breaking from this dieta, or ritual diet could “make one crazy,” according to Don Alejandro and since I such obligations require maturity, one should be at least 30 years old before becoming a curandero.


Specific to Salvia divinorum (Diviner’s Sage):

Additional information:

Relevant organizations:

  • The Drug Policy Alliance – Alternatives to the war on drugs based on science, compassion, and human rights.
  • The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (CCLE). Working in the public interest to foster freedom of thought.
  • MAPS (The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies). Supporting psychedelic research since 1986.
  • The Council on Spiritual Practices. Making direct experience of the sacred more available to more people.
  • The Media Awareness Project. A worldwide network dedicated to drug policy reform.
  • The Drug Reform Coordination Network. A national network of more than 21,000 activists and concerned citizens including parents, educators, students, lawyers, health care professionals, academics, and others working for drug policy reform. DRCNet supports rational policies consistent with the principles of peace, justice, freedom, compassion and truth. Each of these has been compromised in the name of the Drug War.
  • Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Students for Sensible Drug Policy is committed to providing education on harms caused by the War on Drugs working to involve youth in the political process, and promoting an open, honest, and rational discussion of alternative solutions to our nation’s drug problems.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union. Useful drug policy links.