Synesthesia and shapeshifting: Amazonian shamanism and transcorporeality

This blog entry presents ideas on the types of sensory and cognitive effects of the psychoactive substances that enable Amazonian shamans to not only see the spirits of animals, plants, and meteorological phenomena but to see from the perspectives of the spirits, that is, to shapeshift. Exploring recent studies on synesthesia, the paper proposes a theoretical basis to the reality of shapeshifting and helps to explain certain experiential and transcorporeal underpinnings of the cosmological, social, and moral worlds that constitute the practices of Amazonian shamans and the lives of Amazonian peoples more generally.


In contrast to the pervasive notion in Western societies in which the human is conceived as the only creature to possess personhood, in Amazonian societies various nonhuman beings may be endowed with personhood, including anacondas, jaguars, mountains, birds, and river dolphins. Human and nonhuman beings may be referred to as persons and they are described as existing together in a kind of ‘cosmological economy of souls’ (Viveiros de Castro 1998) where personhood is unstable or subject to transformation. The risk of unwittingly becoming a nonhuman person, in a transaction or process of cosmological metamorphosis, haunts the indigenous Amazonian imagination and provides a powerful ideological medium by which various moral and social codes are regulated (Riviere 1994, Vilaca 2005, Praet 2009, Viveiros de Castro 2005).

This way of relating to the world may involve many aspects of life for Amazonian peoples, including health, hunting, warfare, politics, and acts of prophecy. However, these distinct categories (health, hunting, politics etc.) are not always so distinct in Amazonian socieites. Disease and illness, including colds, infertility, and diarrhea may be understood by indigenous Amazonians as being the result of preying attacks from various spirit beings, such as jaguar-spirits and anaconda-spirits or also as the result of attacks from malevolent shamans or assault sorcerers (Riviere 1994, Viveiros de Castro 1998, Whitehead and Wright 2004, Vilaca 2005, Praet 2009, Londono Sulkin 2010). Furthermore, anti-social behaviour such as anger, envy, and jealousy may also be understood as resulting from preying or attacking spirits, both human and nonhuman spirits who may abduct the person’s soul. Londono Sulkin (2005) describes how a Muinane person accused of social misconduct or misbehaviour would often hear the comment ‘That wasn’t your Speech! Your own speech does not do thus’ (2005:12). The ‘false’, ‘hot’ or immoral speech is associated with the speaker becoming or embodying different animals . The author insists that this moral perspectival imagery is not metaphorical for the Muinane but that they conceive literally of the transformational possibilities of subjectivity across persons and species (Londono Sulkin 2005:22).

This process of cosmological metamorphosis is central to the deliberate practice of Amazonian shamanism. The notion that shamans may intentionally transform into different beings—such as jaguars, birds, or river dolphins—in order to conduct healing, sorcery, manipulation of weather and resources, and prophecy, has been widely documented as existing not only across Amazonia but also in the Andes and the Pacific coast (Langdon 1975, Hugh-Jones 1974, Rouse 1978, Riviere 1994, Vivieros de Castro 1998, Praet 2009). Furthermore, this dual power of spirits and shamans to both heal and harm creates what has been labeled the ‘moral ambiguity complex’ of Amazonian shamanism (Whitehead and Wright 2004).

Indigenous Amazonian practices of drinking the psychoactive brew ayahuasca are embedded in these larger Amazonian ways of relating to and understanding the world. For example, Esther J. Langdon (1979) notes that shamanic initiation for the Siona of the Putumayo river consisted primarily of drinking iko (ayahuasca) and transforming into a jaguar to obtain knowledge and power. Bernd Brabec de Mori (2012) focusing on the role of music in Shipibo culture in the Ucayali region, describes an ayahuasca healing rite where, through singing, the healer transforms himself into an anaconda in order to perceive the ill-causing anaconda spirit that is making a patient sick. The healer identifies himself with the illness—that is, the anaconda spirit—in order to gain control of it so that he may banish it and return the patient’s soul to her body thus restoring health. In parallel, Graham Townsley (1993), working with Yaminahua peoples along the Yurua river, describes an ayahuasca healing ritual that involves a shaman embodying a variety of animal and nature spirits, or yoshi in Yaminahua, including anaconda-yoshi, jaguar-yoshi and solar or sun-yoshi. The shaman weaves incredibly complex metaphorical songs, or what Yaminahua label ‘twisted language’, that shape his visions and bring a level of control to the visionary content. They allow the shaman to perceive from the various perspectives that the meanings of the metaphors (or the spirits) afford, and they are central to the act of healing.

Everything said about shamanic songs points to the fact that as they are sung the shaman actively visualizes the images referred to by the external analogy of the song, but he does this through a carefully controlled “seeing as” the different things actually named by the internal metaphors of his song. This “seeing as” in some way creates a space in which powerful visionary experience can occur. (Townsley 1993:460)

Overarching or highly significant meanings build, interpenetrate, and amalgamate, they ‘metonymically link as part of the single whole forged by [the shaman’s] vision’ and are issued forth at orchestrated moments carried along a staccato stream of tobacco smoke blown from the shaman’s mouth onto the crown of the patient’s head. The healing intentionality is literally ‘sung’ into the patient’s body. The shaman described this type of transaction as ‘spilling them’, ‘painting them’ and ‘lining them up’ (Townsley 1993:416).


Domingo Cuatindioy

It has been noted that different morphologies or cosmological bodies—such as human, jaguar, anaconda, sun—have been described by indigenous Amazonian’s as being like ‘clothing’, ‘skin’, ‘bark’, or different types of layers that can be taken off, shed, discarded, or placed on and embodied, layers which may directly involve social, ecological, and moral relations (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971, Hugh-Jones 1974, Rouse 1978, Viveiros de Castro 1998, Londono Sulkin 2010) and health as the two examples above indicate. These cosmological ‘layers’ are not limited to natural phenomena but indigenous Amazonians may also refer to various modern artefacts such as out-board motors, radios, shot-guns, and mobile phones as being spirits or as each having a certain spirit quality (Chaumeil 1992, Townsley 1993, Brabec 2012).

Through investigating the notion of synesthesia the paper now turns to explore some thoughts on the nature of ayahuasca induced shapeshifting. Synesthesia is a common trope of psychedelic experiences, not just of ayahuasca but also LSD, psilocybe mushrooms, mescaline cactus, and various other psychoactives. It is typically characterised by a kind of union of different senses in which people might, for instance, see sound, smell colour, or feel vision in a tactile sense. In general, approximately 1-4% of people worldwide experience types of synesthesia naturally or without the aid of psychoactive substances (Simner et al 2006). Some common examples include days of the week having a certain colour and also taste or smell being experienced as different colours. Furthermore, some studies suggest that artists are seven times more likely to be naturally synesthesic (Rothen & Meir 2010) indicating a link between certain types of creative activities and synesthesia. Differences have been noted between psychedelic or drug-induced synesthesia and natural synesthesia with the former characterised as more ‘intense and dynamic as well as flexible’ in terms of intersensory communication and sensory experience (Sinke et al 2012). In the 1950s studies on the effects of LSD, several researchers discovered apparent ‘absurd somatic experiences’ including ‘metamorphosis of limbs or the whole body into other parts or animals, fusion with the hallucinated object, and more’ (Hintzen and Passie 2010:131). The possibility of changes in ‘body image’ and proprioception are reserved only for drug-induced types of synesthesia (Sinke et al 2012, Hintzen and Passie 2010) and this evidence provides important dimensions to the understanding of shapeshifting or cosmological metamorphosis described in ayahuasca shamanism.

Indigenous ayahuasca shamans reportedly embody various types of synesthesia while conducting rituals. Claims of singing ‘fragrant songs’ or ‘patterned songs’ are not uncommon in the ayahuasca complex of South America (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1978, Gebhart-Sayer 1985, Classen 1990, Townsley 1993, Beyer 2009, Brabec 2012) and, as this paper argues, by extension psychoactive induced changes in perceptions of ‘body image’ indicate central aspects of the metamorphic quality of Amerindian shamanism.

There have been interesting developments in consciousness studies in recent years that suggest that synesthesia is not simply a kind of union of the senses but that it involves an intimate relationship between sensory experience and semantic functioning or processes of meaning making (Nikolic 2009, Mroczko et al 2008, Dixon et al 2000, Simner & Ward 2006). For example, neurophysiologist Danko Nikolic (2009) found that when natural synesthetes, that see, for instance, the Latin letter “A” as red, are introduced to the equivalent of the letter “A” in a related language, once the link is made between the symbols, the newly learnt letter quickly turns to red thus indicating a relationship between mental or semantic processes and sensory experience. In response to these types of findings, Nikolic (2009) has challenged the notion that synesthesia is simply ‘sensory communication’ and pioneered the concept of ‘ideasthesia’ to highlight the role of semantic functioning or meaning in synesthesic experience.

This notion of ideasthesia, or of a dynamic relationship between semantic functioning and sensory experience, offers some in-roads to novel understandings of the notion of cosmological metamorphosis often reported in Amazonian shamanism. When various Yaminahua shamans were asked ‘how do you contact different spirits or Yoshi?’—including not just Yoshi of animals and plants but also Yoshi of artefacts like radios and motors—the shamans replied, ‘when we first saw these things we examined them carefully, asked ourselves what their Yoshi were like, and then found their song’ (Townsley 1993). The spirit of outboard motors, for example, is thought to be good for curing headaches given that the sound of the motor resembles the throb of the headache (ibid). Furthermore, jaguars are often known as fierce and powerful beings only accessed by powerful shamans, and other creatures such as turtles or certain insects that make ludic noises are at times associated to jokes and humour (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975, Rouse 1978, Londono Sulkin 2010).

Reichel-Dolmatoff suggested that spirits reflect kinds of ‘qualities of existence’ (1971:125). Various other anthropologists have echoed and developed this notion arguing that Amazonian spirits, as different ‘garments, skins, or barks’, reflect different moods, ‘transient states’ (Rouse 1978:119) or ‘bundles of affects’ (Viveiros de Castro 1998) that are associated to beings such as jaguars, anacondas, rivers and at times even radios and shot-guns. This association of different beings of the cosmos to different qualities of existence that may be known through semantic and sensual disclosure—‘when we first saw these things we examined them closely to discover their Yoshi’—and that may be embodied through ritual procedures of deliberate cosmological metamorphosis, or a shift in corporality, seems to imply a logical extension of the notion of ideasthesia put forward by Nikolic (2009).

Amazonian shamans are distinguished by their ability to ‘see nonhumans as they [nonhumans] see themselves’ (Viveiros de Castro 2004:468) and to negotiate with these nonhuman persons. The dominant way in which Amazonian shamans occasion this ability is by ingesting psychoactive plants such as tobacco, toé (brugmansia), and ayahuasca and related snuffs, and also to some degree through forms of sensory deprivation, sensory manipulation, sleep deprivation, and physical pain. The ability to shapeshift allows shamans to perceive the world from the point of view of other forms of personhood—jaguar personhood, anaconda personhood—and is characterised by a shift in perception where ‘under the effects of the hallucinogenic drug… shamans are capable not only of seeing the spirits, but of seeing like the spirits’ (Viveiros de Castro 2007:162). Lenaerts describes this understanding of ‘seeing like the spirits’, including the ‘physical’ or literal view that the Ashéninka hold in regards to the practice of ayahuasca-induced shapeshifting.

What is at stake here is a temporary bodily process, whereby a human being assumes the embodied point of view of another species… There is no need to appeal to any sort of metaphoric sense here. A literal interpretation of this process of disembodiment/re-embodiment is absolutely consistent with all what an Ashéninka knowns and directly feels during this experience, in a quite physical sense. (2006, 13)

Vision or sight has been described as being a dominant sensory mode in Amazonian societies, and it is often understood as the ‘model of perception and knowledge’ including in the acquisition of knowledge from extra-sensory or ‘visionary’ domains of consciousness (Mentore 1993, Townsley 1993, Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975, Alexiades 1999, Rodd 2003, Viveiros de Castro 2007). Given the common reports that psychedelic experiences occasion synesthesia, and given the accounts of shapeshifting frequently reported in Amazonian shamanism, along with the conflation of ‘knowing’ and ‘seeing’ in the encounter between shamans and spirits, it appears that the notion of ideasthesia approximates or points to a far more complex understanding of sensory experience, semantic association, and transcorporality found in the practice of Amerindian shamanism.

In response to the question asked in anthropological circles, ‘do Amazonian shamans really turn into jaguars?’, it seems probable that the answer is yes. They really do turn into jaguars in a similar way that synesthetes really do experience sounds as colours.  The reported embodiment of ‘other beings of the cosmos’ by Amazonian ayahuasca shamans appears to refer to deliberate and advanced forms of synesthesia that peak in types of cosmological metamorphosis that give shamans the ability to shift corporality or ‘body image’ and become a variety of dominant ‘qualities of existence’—that are semantically and sensually associated to animals, plants, radios, and other spirit beings—in order to negotiate spiritual alliances and undertake various shamanic activities, including those related to issues of health and the restoration of wellbeing.


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One thought on “Synesthesia and shapeshifting: Amazonian shamanism and transcorporeality

  1. Pingback: Insects of healing and malady in Australian ayahuasca visions | Cultural Admixtures

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