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Earth Beings and Plant Spirits

September 29, 2016
Anonymous, Virgen-Cerro, c. 1730. Museo de la Casa Nacional de Moneda, Potosí. The painting represents an Earth-being that is also a mountain, occupied by the Virgin and guarded by the Church, from where the Devil might have been expelled.

Anonymous, Virgen-Cerro, c. 1730. Museo de la Casa Nacional de Moneda, Potosí. The painting represents an Earth-being that is also a mountain, occupied by the Virgin and guarded by the Church, from where the Devil might have been expelled. Found at:

This blog entry continues a sequence of writing about books I have read whilst in dieta. Recent posts have included commentaries on Henri Corbin’s book ‘Alone with the Alone’ about visionary experience and Thomas Moore’s book ‘The Planets Within’ about the Renaissance astrologer and psychologist of the soul, Marcilio Ficino.

As I have commented before, reading books whilst doing a plant dieta, is different from normal reading. Because of the intense receptive state a dieta creates, which is why it is important to monitor one’s contact with different energies – traditionally for the Shipibo dietas were done in isolation in the jungle –  one absorbs the energy of a book. Ideas, as James Hillman pointed out, are living entities and they have their effects on our psyches.

book-coverWhilst on a recent short eight-day dieta with the sacred tree Noya Rao, I read ‘Earth beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds’ by the Peruvian anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena. This book is not an easy read.

It is a very scholarly and multi-levelled account of the author’s contact over ten years with two men, Mariano and Nazario Turpo, father and son, who were both well-known as yachaq – a Quechua word that translates as ‘knower’ – in the mountain community of  Pacchanta, more than 4000 meters above sea level, east of Cuzco and close to the mountain of Ausengate.

The book is framed as a collection of stories. And the book constantly interrogates the assumptions on which stories, and even words, are constructed. For example, Cadena points out that the term ‘Andean shaman’, by which Nazario Turpo came to be known, and who developed an international following by his work with tourists (like an increasing number of Shipibo healers), is a relatively recent construction “created by the convergence of local anthropology, tourism and New age practices.”

Part of Marisol de la Cadena’s initial intention in getting to know Mariano Turpo was to retell the story of how he became an important peasant leader in the struggles over land ownership in Peru, which led to the important agrarian reform of 1969. Mariano Turpo was keen to collaborate because he felt that his role in overthrowing the extreme exploitation of the local hacienda, which had involved considerable risks to his life and threats to his family, was no longer recognized in the community he was part of.

As Marisol de la Cadena engaged him in conversation about this, and was given access to an important ‘archive’ of documents related to this struggle, she took seriously Mariano’s practices as a yachaq and the role of the earth beings to whom Mariano made offerings, notably the mountain Ausangate, in the political struggle. Mariano was recognized by his community as very skilled in doing this, which was an important reason why he was chosen to lead the struggle.

The great endeavor in this book is, from the perspective of an anthropologist trained in Western forms of thinking, to take seriously and attempt to understand, as far as possible in their own terms, indigenous forms of knowing and practice. These have typically either been dismissed as native superstition in colonial anthropology, which either consciously or implicitly assumes the superiority of Western thought, or interpreted and subjugated in post-colonial anthropological thinking simply as forms of belief.

It seems to me that within the limits of Western thinking, Cadena goes as far as she can to acknowledge the existential and ontological reality of the very different worlds that are almost excluded to non-indigenous people by our very ways of thinking about them. In so doing, she begins to break down some of the divisions between nature and culture, subject and object, signifier and signified that have been the hallmark of Western thought since the sixteenth century.

Interestingly, to me, Cadena does all this within the terms of very sophisticated theoretical thought. It is clear that she is very affected by her relationships with the father and the son who are the two main protagonists of the different stories she tells, but she never reveals anything of her own experience of the ‘earth beings‘, which she sees as having played a significant, yet unacknowledged, role in the political struggles of the local area. She gives them ontological status through her writing yet never refers to them in terms of her own direct experience. I wonder if that is because she is concerned about being disaccredited within the academic world.

From a relatively limited knowledge of the field, I see Cadena’s work as part of a new tradition in anthropology, which looks to break down the traditional nature-culture divide upon which much anthropological thought has been founded. Cadena uses the work of Bruno Latour to track down the origins of this divide and the way it then created the ‘modern constitution’ and the ways that politics have come to be constructed.

Commenting on Latour’s work, she says that the ‘modern constitution’ was inaugurated by “the invention of the ontological distinction between humans and nonhumans, and the practices that allowed for both their mixture and their separation….the modern constitution was foundational to the agreement that founded the world as we know it, and that set the confines within which disagreements could be effected without undoing modern politics.

Together these divides – between humanity and nature and between allegedly superior and inferior humans – organized the agreement according to which worlds that do not abide by the divide are not. They do not even “count as not counting” “

In this sense, these worlds are invisible to the dominant cosmovisions.

This ‘new-wave’ of anthropology includes the Brazilian anthropologist Viveiros de Castro in his work with Amazonian peoples. For Viveiros de Castro, Amerindians live in and enact worlds in which all human and nonhuman beings share culture but inhabit different bodies – their experience will vary according to their bodies i.e. their different natures. This dismantling of the conceptual barrier between culture and nature, sometimes called neo-animism, is also evident in Eduardo Kohn’s book with the intriguing and wonderful title, ‘How Forests Think: Towards an Anthropology Beyond the human.’

There is clearly much more that could be said about this new tradition in anthropology. I want, though, to go in a different direction, as I have in other blog entries, and connect my understanding of this book with my experience of La Madre Ayahuasca.

What did I take from this book that seemed important and helped me make sense of my ongoing work with plant spirits in dietas with my Shipibo Maestro?

1. Equivocation

Cadena throughout the book constantly refers to processes of translation between cultures and the inevitability of what Vivieros de Castro refers to as ‘equivocation’ – that terms from one culture will inevitably be misunderstood by the other culture in a way that often leads the difference in the terms to be lost. This made me think a lot about my relationship with my Shipibo Maestro. Often, I find him impenetrable. He communicates little in words and rarely offers explanations. Until I become more fluent in Shipibo, we each communicate in our non-native tongue. He prefers that his work does the talking for him.

One example of equivocation particularly stood out for me in this recent dieta. We had reached the end of a ceremony, which had been marked by constant music and drunken shouting from a recently opened bar. I had been thinking about how the young people in the community were gravitating towards alcohol, reggaeton music, and other Western influences. I began to talk to my Maestro about this and asked him how old the people were who had been at the bar. He did not seem to understand my question. When I repeated it, he answered it in terms of the names of the young people who he thought had been present and who, in the community, they were the sons of.

I did not think this reply was because he had not understood my Spanish. He heard me asking about these young people and instead of answering in quantitative terms about their age, he answered me in terms of their relationships to the community.

2. Being in-ayllu

Cadena, in referring to her two main protagonists, writes repeatedly about the importance to them of being ‘in-ayllu’ and the obligations that follow from this. Cadena quotes a bilingual Quechua-Spanish teacher explaining this term to her as follows:

“Ayllu is like a weaving, and all the beings in this world – people, animals, mountains, plants etc. – are like the threads, we are part of the design. The beings in this world are not alone, just as by itself a thread is not a weaving, and as weavings are with threads, a runa [person] is always in-ayllu with other beings.”

The individual does not therefore exist as an isolated unit, but is defined through their relationships with all the beings, human and nonhuman, that make up the ayllu. In the language of chaos theory, the individual is a fractal of the whole. The whole is embedded in each being and each being expresses the whole.

As Cadena goes on to say:

“Rather than speaking for the ayllu, personeros like Mariano spoke from it. They were not only personeros, they were also the collective of which they were part, and which was part of them. As persons with relations integrally implied, in-ayllu personeros are not the individual subjects that the state (or any modern institution of politics) assumes they are and requires them to be.”

All this points to the importance of place and all the beings, humans and nonhumans, material and nonmaterial – like the earth beings of mountains and the plant spirits – that form a place. In the Western world, we have largely and tragically severed this connection with place. I have seen the importance of place with my Maestro. It seems to me he does his best work in the family situation and community within which he is embedded. Outside of this, he is like a fish out of water.

3. The signifier is the signified.


We are used to thinking that the word, which signifies something, for example ‘Ausangate’, is different from that which is signified, the mountain Ausangate. Cadena shows us that for the yachaq in her book, there is, at times, no difference. She refers to two different epistemic regimes:

“In the first one, words and things are indivisible. Without distinction between signifier and signified, words do not exist independently of the thing they name; rather their utterance is the thing they pronounce (Foucault, 1994).”

When I read this, I understood icaros in a new way. They are not simply songs, which can be learned. Their singing, in order to be effective, has to evoke what is being sung. The icaros do this by making manifest in their expression, the plant spirits from whom they come. These plant spirits are the healers not the person singing the icaro. We are simply a channel. A number of people have commented to me about the experience, which I occasionally have, of where the icaro sings you rather than vice-versa.

It also explained to me why, a number of years ago, when I played my Maestro a number of icaros I had helped record on a disc, using high quality sound recording and doing everything we could to make them as authentic as possible, that he said to me: “No son icaros. Son canciones bonitas pero no son icaros. (They are not icaros. They are beautiful songs but they are not icaros).” For him, I think, the process of recording them and producing them on a disc had turned them into representations of icaros.

4. History

Cadena points out that one reason the earth beings are seen to have played no part in the local political struggle by historians is because they cannot be validated by usual historical methods. They exist outside history. They are ahistorical. I guess this is another way of saying that our more profound experiences in the realm of La Madre Ayahusca do not happen in normal space-time dimensions. But calling them ahistorical gave me a further understanding. I have often wondered, in the face of my desire to re-live some of my most profound experiences with La Madre, why these experiences never reoccur. I suspect there are a number of reasons for that, and perhaps they do for other people, but one is because these experiences, unlike those of normal life, do not unfold historically. They exist in another, possibly eternal, realm.


Many thanks to Susan Street and Laura Dev for reading a preliminary draft of this blog entry and offering suggestions and edits.



  1. Hi! Good post, I just got the book – after some visits to Doña Aya now I am reading Viveiros and Kohn, one foot on each side – nice to find them both here – I will come back.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Earth-Beings, Plant Spirits, Ayahuasca and Equivocations: Part One | Conversations with Don Machinga and Other Beings
  2. Part Two: Earth-Beings, Plant Spirits, Ayahuasca and Equivocations | Conversations with Don Machinga and Other Beings

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