Mazatec Indians - Curanderos
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ETHNOPHARMACOLOGY OF SKA MARIA PASTORA (PART 2)
LEANDER J. VALDES III, JOSE LUIS DIAZ and ARA G. PAUL
College of Pharmacy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109 (U.S.A.)
(Accepted July 10, 1982)
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.
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