Yachaks, knowledge, ayahuasca and protection

This is a brief extract from my thesis (more on that here), featuring an interview with a Kichwa shaman about yachaks, knowledge, ayahuasca and protection.

5.3.1 Wizards and Fighter Jets.

“How do you protect your knowledge?” I asked a middle-aged yachak [‘one who knows’, plural yachakuna], a traditional Kichwa healer, wizard and community adviser, as we were preparing a large amount of ayahuasca brew, the hallucinogenic drink ‘that makes you see’, and ultimately, ‘know and heal’.

“You need to be strong to protect yourself” he answered, pressing the vine and leaves deeper into the boiling water with a wooden stick. “You need a lot of energy, sinzhi [force, strength, especially spiritual in kind], to protect yourself from attacks. Your enemies will always try to attack, make you ill or eradicate you completely. It is dangerous to be a yachak. That is why many are secret. But only a very powerful brujo [Spanish for warlock/male witch, referring to yachakuna who practice black magic, harming others] can get past my defences. I have many secrets, including a whole fleet of fighter jets, spiritually, that protect me. Sometimes I just use a mirror”, he laughed “and send the misdeed back to the one who sent it”.

“So, by protecting yourself from spiritual attacks, you protect your knowledge?”

Domingo looked at me with the indulgent pity reserved for the stupid.

I tried again: “I mean, what happens to your knowledge when you get attacked? Does it disappear?”

“Your power disappears. When you get attacked and you cannot protect yourself, you become weak. Maybe you get ill, maybe you die.”

“But if you get ill, and then recover, you will still have your knowledge?” I insisted, starting to be unsure about whether I was making any sense. What was this thing I called knowledge? “Will you still know which plants to use to heal someone, for example, or will you forget such things?”

“It’s not enough to know which plants heal. You need to have the knowledge to make them heal. That’s why we diet1. It gives us sinzhi.” He paused. “When they attacked my uncle, a very good yachak, and he got very ill, when he then recovered, he could not understand the [ayahuasca] visions. He could see, but he could not interpret them. For a long time he was no use as a healer. And he could not see the future very well. Not even the tobacco helped him. They took his power.”

On another ocassion he told me:

“Every powerful place gives us knowledge. […] There are powerful places with much energy everywhere in the forest, special places. My grandfather took me to some of them. Every healer has knowledge from these places, from rivers, from waterfalls, from big rocks, from caves, from the hills. But now […] The contamination finishes these places. You go to them and there is no energy. […] There where the contamination arrives, the energies disappear.”

1 A yachak’s diet refers to the abstention from certain foods, as well as activities, during certain periods. In particular, after drinking ayahuasca, salt, chilli, alcohol and fatty meats, such as pork should be avoided. Someone who is learning to heal is expected to abstain from sexual intercourse for several months at a time. There are times when one should not touch any object that might be either too cold or too hot.