Insects of healing and malady in Australian ayahuasca visions

bug james


Yesterday I took my copy of William James’ Varieties off the shelf to read more about his notion of radical empiricism and shortly after placing it on the coffee table I was joined by the well greased mechanical poise and elegant sensibility of an insect staring me in the eyes. Along with various animal, plant, human, alien, and machine spirit persons, insects appear in the visions of ayahuasca drinkers in Australia. In some cases these insects are described as malevolent entities that may cause illness and afflictive emotions. For example, Pete, a sports coach and regular ayahuasca drinker explained that, “we have insect demons in us that effect our diet, our emotions, our relationships with people and ayahuasca helps clean them out”. In other cases insects appear in ayahuasca visions as benevolent entities of healing and wisdom. For instance, Lucy, a cleaner, describes developing muscular-skeletal problems due to “negative and stressed-out” attitudes of the family whose house she cleans. She describes an ayahuasca insect healing experience.

Minute, absolutely minute little bugs, like, metal ticks, tititicking through my body, 10,000 of them. They destroyed anything on my skin that needed healing. Then some bigger bugs entered and became, like, more liquidy once entering my body. They did so much intricate work on my spine… I felt that they were feeling complete utter joy in fixing my damage, like they were feeding of my sickness or something… they undid this zipper down my back then these bigger, like, hand-sized similar to spiders moved through my back and worked on every single joint… they were amazing, using their legs flicking out kind of calcification stuff… then some pray mantises came and did all this work on my shoulders and neck.

While shapeshifting is a central aspect of indigenous Amazonian ayahuasca practices, where shamans become animals, plants, or other nonhuman persons (as detailed in the blog post Synesthesia and shapeshifting)this phenomenological potential of ayahuasca use is rarely explored in Australia. Of the hundreds of reports I collected on ayahuasca trance in Australia only a few included examples of shapeshifting or turning into nonhuman beings. Michael, a thirty-three year old neuroscientist and neophyte Australian ayahuasca drinker described an ayahuasca experience of turning into a praying mantis. During the ritual he became aware of a human-sized praying mantis standing in front of him looking at him with the same level of astonishment and curiosity that he held towards the creature. He describes turning into the insect spontaneously and without control and observing his human body sitting in the ceremony from the perspective of the insect. He described then turning into a different praying mantis looking at the praying mantis looking at himself. He initially felt “really unsettled” by the experience. “It was good to be human again”, he commented and stated that the first thing he thought about upon returning to human embodiment was his son and his wife.

The psychoanalytic potential of analysing the qualities and characteristics of insects and their significance to the imagination of Australians is an important avenue of investigation. However, I will not attempt to draw semiotic links between ayahuasca experiences and the cultural imagination but simply comment that in these examples where insects are agents of illness and healing and are forms of transcorporality, trance experiences provide sources of reflection where nonhuman Others become implicated in perceptions, understandings, and orderings of social relations. The insects in the examples above constitute failures and promises in ‘moral sociality’ (Londono Sulkin 2005:13). Whether psychic insects are enforcing negative affects upon health and “relationships with people”, as described by Pete, or healing muscular-skeletal problems related to an employer, as described by Lucy, or colonising a human perspective and bringing into focus the importance of family for Michael, the individual finds him or herself in processes of redefining or rearticulating his or her relationships with other people and the world.


James, William 1982 [1902] The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature. Penguin classic paperback

Londono Sulkin, Carlos 2005 ‘Inhuman beings: morality and perspectivism among Muinane people (Colombian Amazon)’ Ethnos. Vol. 70 (1)

4 thoughts on “Insects of healing and malady in Australian ayahuasca visions

  1. I could be wrong, but… this is not “shape-shifting”. Shifting awareness, yes. But looking back to your own human form, even if from that of an insect or bug, means that the human form, was still human, not that of the insect.
    If he had looked down at his own body, from within it, and seen an insect instead of his human form – I would call that shape-shifting. Slightly different.

    Still a great experience though.

  2. Hi Sean,
    Thank you for your comment. To clarify, the participant described turning into an insect, and feeling and perceiving his appendages and corporality become the praying mantis, and then from this insect embodiment observed another entity (himself in human form) separate and sitting in the ceremony. If we compare this form of shapeshifting with Amerindian perspectivism, the key difference would be that in Amazonia the embodying of nonhuman forms typically result in changes to predator/prey perspectives in which, for example, humans perceived from the perspective of jaguar-personhood are prey. The embodiment of another species includes the embodying of that species’ relationship to other species, including to humans. But the fact that the Australian ayahuasca drinker experienced changes in corporality and proprioception to that of an insect qualifies as shapeshifting, regardless of whether he then perceived another entity (himself in human form) sitting in front of him.

    • Hi culturaladmixtures
      I didnt realise there are different “categories” to shapeshifting. I had an experience in Peru in 1998 that was as I suggested… my physical body totally shifted in to the animal.
      Thanks for the clarification.

  3. Great experience on Ayahuasca. Experiencing ayahuasca is very enchanting. It unblocks your mind and it’s like seeing things from a whole decade to just couple of hours.

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