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Joural ofLatin American Lore 11:2 (1985), 143-175

Printed in U.S.A.
The Geometric Designs of the
Shipibo-Conibo in Ritual Context
Universitit Tiibingen
This essay attempts to demonstrate that the intricate design art of the
Shipibo-Conibo Indians of eastern Peru may once have been a codified
system of meanings, a vehicle of communication. Although certainly
not a veritable writing system, it may well have constituted a graphic
device comprising symbolic, semantic units, in perhaps a mnemotech
nical arrangement and was employed in ritual context.' Present-day
indigenous understanding of the meaning of the designs is fragmen
tary at best. The prime, almost obsessive, motivation of the Indians
to preserve the art style, regardless of the loss of semantic content,
is their continued belief in its overall spiritual, ethical, aesthetic,
emotional, and medicinal significance, which provides both the indi
vidual and society with a mode of differentiation, integration, identity,
and meaning (see Gebhart-Sayer 1985).
Until about two hundred years ago, Shipibo and Conibo households
were densely covered with geometric designs. It is said that the house
posts and beams, the plaited interior of the thatched roof, the box
shaped woven mosquito tents, boats, paddles, kitchen and hunting
equipment, finely woven cotton garments of men and women, as well as
the heavy headwork attire, were lavishly decorated with designs (Fig. 1).
'The study is based upon nine months of fieldwork in 1981 and two months in 1983
in the village of Caimito, generously supported by Mr. and Mrs. Peter G. Wray of
Phoenix, Arizona, and the Breuninger and Bosch companies of Stuttgart, West Ger
many, respectively.
Figure 1. Men's festive attire as used until the 1950s.
The face, hands, and legs bore the characteristic filigree ornaments
(Fig. 2)
The choreography of the festive round dances (Fig. 3) followed
an imaginary pattern on the ground. Even today, each person carries
within his body a spiritual pattern related to his well-being and bestowed
on him by his shaman. The sight of a village must have been impressive
against the background of the forest wilderness and must have filled
the inhabitants with a sense of sophistication when they compared them
selves with less artistic neighboring groups. It seems that the horror vacui
principle, which characterizes the style, formerly embraced the entire
visible world and-as we shall see-even the invisible world of the
What has survived of this cultural preoccupation with the refined and
the reticulate are textile painting and embroidery, ceramic painting,
the plaiting of headwork, an occasional facial pattern, and, above all,
the invisible "marking" of individuals with body patterns spiritually
projected onto the patient's body by a shaman during a healing session.
Essentially, Shipibo-Conibo therapy is a matter of visionary design
application in connection with aura restoration. Since all individuals
Figure 2. Facial design for festive or healing purposes, made with the juice of
the Genipa americana fruit and lasting four to five days.
undergo therapeutic treatment starting in early childhood, we may
depart from the fact that every person feels spiritually permeated and
saturated with designs. The designs are permanent and remain with a
person's spirit even after death and help identify him as a Shipibo
Conibo in the other world.
Very little is known today about the semantic content of the designs.
With the exception of woodwork designs, where women sketch and men
carve, all art is produced by women. Elders retain some knowledge of
the therapeutic applicability and spiritual origin of the patterns, but in
general today's artists are no longer initiated into the design messages.
The Indians assert that "our present comprehension of the designs is
but the vanishing odds and ends of what our grandparents used to know
about them." Moreover, many of the allusions in the designs appear to
have been accessible only to the shamans, even though women carried
out their actual rendering. The artists' terminology for design compo
nents reveals some symbolic content but is primarily descriptive. Hence
it is conceivable that women have always worked with the designs on
a more material level and developed their own technical terminology,
Figure 4. Choma beer storage vessel by the Caimitoan artist Jisosa, with canoa
design around the equator and quene design around the neck.
while the shamans might have utilized a separate, symbolic, and perhaps
occult terminology which no longer survives.
The design style comprises two basic substyles: (I) the quene, a linear
composition either curved or angular (Fig. 4, upper design); and (2) the
canoa, a blocklike, angular composition in bold lattices often visualized
in a positive/negative way (Fig. 4, lower design). All designs are based
on the principles of horror vacui, symmetry, and evasive direction of
line. The lines are uniformly spaced and interlock loosely, thus creating
the impression that they could be compressed onto a smaller area.
The symmetrical repetitions could be continued endlessly, were they
not trimmed and anchored at the edge of the design field. This anchoring
of border lines accounts for the static quality of the style.
In quene layouts, complexity of composition and long stamina of the
formline are highly valued. Ending lines are mostly adorned with a
small figure filled with solid color and called vero (eye, seed). Secondary
lines accompany the formlines on both sides, and tertiary filler work
is inserted into the remaining empty spaces. The term "baroque style"2
seems appropriate to describe the growing inclination of younger women
to reduce the thickness of the formlines while intensifying filler work.
Often, the formlines are only slightly broader than the filler lines and
'See Roe's comprehensive research on the Shipibo-Conibo art style, for example, Roe
1979, 1980, 1982b.
tend, therefore, to optically stand back behind the busy load of fillers
Where formlines continue to be strong and the fillers become ver;
dens:, the ller "ork rcedes to for
a gray background. Considering
that _m prvwus tlmes fillers were utlhzed sparsely and in autonomous
onfiguratwns, the new development in tertiary work represents a loss
m wealth of forms. Nevertheless, the development of such "fashions"
indicates that Shipibo-Conibo design art is a living art, not an artificially
revived or nostalgic art.
Designations for some dsign components refer to body parts (head,
wngs, ands, eyes; see Ftgs. 5-7). Others are named in accordance
with thetr clearly realistic renditions (for example, man or snake; see
Figure 5. Head motif.
Figure 6. Wings or hands motif.
Figure 7. Eyes motif.
figs. 8 and 9). My earlier studies explored the remaining knowledge of
Shipibo-Conibo design symbolism (Gebhart-Sayer 1983, 1984, 1985,
note 2). Central to contemporary Shipibo-Conibo design perception
is the symbolic complex of the cosmic anaconda, Ronin. Being the
mythical donor of the designs, this world snake combines all conceivable
designs in its skin pattern. Hence, all designs may be called ronin quene.
Figure 8. Two small chomo vessels with joni quene (man
design). Courtesy Peter Koepke.
Figure 9. Small chomo vessel with two-headed snake
design. Courtesy Peter Kgepke.
But a design with a very long meandering formline may be called ronin
quene because "its ends are difficult to see" (Fig. IO). More or less
realistic snake renditions appear on pottery on the occasion of a per
son's recovery from a poisonous snakebite (Fig. 9), a celebration called
rono-aca-picoti ("to emerge from what the snake did"). Yet another
perceptual level recognizes the ophidian shape in the very structure of
the vessels: the winding clay ropes of the construction technique present
the coiled posture of the resting world anaconda who, with its spiral
body, encircles the cosmos just as the clay ropes encircle the vault of
the vessel. Ronin-rau is also the symbolic designation for the above
mentioned shamanic therapy in which the shaman heals his patient
through the application of a visionary design.
Figure 10. Ronin design.
The vero-yushin-quene ("eye spirit design") represents a special,
somewhat ambivalent design category. Although nowadays fashionable
on pottery and textiles, this design is brought into malevolent context by
the shamans. It is composed chiefly of curved lines arranged around a
center cross (Figs. II and I2). The "eye spirit" of a person, which upon
death leaves through the pupil of the eye, comprises two aspects. In
part, it rises directly to "God in the sky," but its negative aspect goes
astray as a caya spirit or an ota shadow, to travel in the clouds and on
earth, eat garbage in the villages at night, and to terrify people with its
monotonous whistling. At times it kills those who get too near it and
inhale its odor or touch its aura. In the mind of the average villager,
these designs are related to the graveyards and tomb crosses introduced
by the missionaries, and to the custom of drawing death-related designs
into the ashes spread over the graves, a practice attributed to both
mourning women and spirits of former times. The shamans of Caimito
report a rather feared category of previous shamans, among them the
renowned artist and shamaness Vasamea, who cultivated steady contact
with these spirits of the deceased, manipulated their designs, and em-
Figure 11. Back of man's embroidered shirt with veroyushin (eye spirit) design.
Figure 12. Embroidered chitonti (skirt) with vero-yushin (eye spirit)
played them for evil machinations. To argue that it is precisely these
vero-yushin designs that are so popular today on the women's skirts
draws but a shrug of a shaman's shoulders since a design alone does
not make sorcery. My prime informant insisted that once materialized
on textiles, ceramics, or other media, a design loses its spirit ("ya no
tiene anima") and thus its potency. 3 He added that he himself seeks
'It occurs to me that this statement might imply that designs lose their potency at
the hands of women, since only women render the designs. Future studies will shed more
light on this suspicion.
the help of the vero-yushin only in cases where a missing person is
suspected to be dead.
Shipibo-Conibo designs are said to be rooted in the earliest mythical
past. Ronin showed the designs of its magnificent skin pattern to an
ancestral woman. This compartmentalized skin pattern comprises all
designs conceivable. The smallest, finest, and most appreciated (in sha
manic context, the most powerful) designs are found around the tail,
just before its end point (shama), where all force culminates. Ronin is
one of the most powerful spirits recognized by the Shipibo-Conibo, the
ultimate food controlling entity coiling around the edge of the world.
It is the "mother of all fish," and its belly holds the "prison of abducted
souls." It appears physically in disguises of every kind, often some kind
of large ophidian, and may be encountered during fishing excursions
or in the forest. Although basically fond of humans, it is feared daily
by even the most acculturated Indians, and is said to have a "radiating,
electric, vibrating power, blinding light, hypnotic attraction and a desire
to draw people into its aquatic home."
The Script Issue
An interesting speculation about the allegedly hieroglyphic nature of
the Shipibo-Conibo designs began with a note published by Alexander
von Humboldt after his travels to South America (Humboldt, p. 211).
During his stay in Lima in 1802, Humboldt met the Franciscan mission
ary Narcissus Gilbar (Father Girbal's name is misspelled here) who had
been living among the Shipibo and Shetebo at the mouth of the Sarayacu
River since 1790. Girbal informed Humboldt of certain Panoan "copy
books" made of fine cotton fabric pages, a thread binding, and a palm
leaf cover, their format corresponding to that of the missionaries'
copy-books. The pages contained human and animal figures as well
as many isolated characters, orderly and symmetrically placed on lines
and believed to be hieroglyphs. According to the Indians, these books
were handed down by their forefathers. They contained "occult things
which no stranger should be allowed to learn" or were referring to
"travels and old wars with the neighboring hordes" as Girbal was told
by Manoa Indians (who were actually Shipiboes resettled by the mission
aries). (It is interesting in this connection that one of my Caimitoan
informants claimed that the designs were formerly used like geographical
maps.) Girbal had met an old Indian who was explaining the book's
'The German edition unfortunately carries no date. Karl von den Steinen, in his critical
summary and juxtaposition of the daring speculations that this note gave rise to, uses
the French and earlier edition, "Vues des Cordilleres," of 1810.

content to a group of young people. Despite the Indians' objections,
the missionary managed to obtain one such book and dispatched it to
Lima, where it was inspected by a number of Humboldt's acquaintances.
It was later dispatched to the convent of Ocopa but never reached its
destination. Humboldt suspects that it might have been lost or smuggled
off to Europe. Girbal promised Humboldt he would procure another
copy, but to my knowledge the subject is not pursued in Humboldt's
It seems as if during the heyday of the Sarayacu mission, the Indians
had started to cast what was their traditional design coding system
"inherited by their forefathers" into a new form, the general external
appearance of the Spanish books seen at the mission. Many accounts
of the recent Indians reveal that their forefathers of early missionary
times were desperately trying to obtain some of the missionaries' books.
Even recent Indians still consider the missionaries' rejection the major
fraud in their entire history of Spanish contact.
Karl von den Steinen initiates his survey of the Panoan hieroglyphic
speculations by pointing to the immense importance Girbal's document
would have had to the study of cultures (1904:9):
But the most peculiar discovery ever made with the South American native
peoples, which would represent something no less important than Mexican
cultural documents south of the Amazon, seem to be the illustrated copy-books
of the "wild Panoans" of the Ucayali, filled with hieroglyphic paintings, on
which Alexander von Humboldt, during his stay in Lima, came to know some
details from Father Narciso Girbal.
And he terminates with the following passage (p. 12):
For "to read" the Panoans use the charming expression "the paper is talking
to him." On their cotton fabrics ... they may have painted pictographs of
wars ... or other former experiences and made them into copy-books of
missionary fashion. But it would have been of greater interest to allow one
of these copy-books, with the necessary explanations, to talk to us, too-it is
useless to speculate after the books were lost. ... As far as the interpretation
of the colored pictures as a genuine "hieroglyphic writing system" is concerned,
one may remain cool considering the fact that while numerous South American
petroglyphs have been approached as if hieroglyphic scripts, not a single one
was confirmed as such. (My translation)
Diaz Castaneda, who spent years among the Conibo of the mouth of
the Pachitea River approximately one hundred years later, and whose
knowledge of Conibo culture was intimate, noted in connection with
the designs: "Into the spaces between the main lines representing a
figure, a kind of popular hieroglyph is drawn, the variety of which is
very great" (p. 314; my translation). He added two drawings (see Fig. 13)
that show the independent character of these fine "filler" elements so
drastically simplified in modern design art. Unfortunately, like Girbal,
Diaz Castafeda seems to have had little success or interest in gathering
native information on the semantics of these "glyphs."
The French anthropologists S. Waisbard and R. Waisbard relate the
mysterious glyphic books mentioned by Humboldt to a tradition that
was still practiced when they traveled the Ucayali in 1956. A finely
woven strip of white cotton fabric (about 15 em wide and 70 em long),
delicately painted with designs and called quirica ("book"), s was pre
pared for each child entering puberty. The book was folded in leporello
(screenfold) manner and stored until the person died. Then it was ex
tended over the chest crosswise and buried with the person. The Wais
bards note: "Since the famous hieroglyphic books of the Panos men
tioned by Humboldt are unfortunately .. . undiscoverable, this could
lead to new and exciting discoveries, since it could be the only form of
aboriginal writing known in present Peruvian Amazonia" (1959;27;
my translation).
Unfortunately, no other "eyewitness" reports on the subject. We
must therefore rely on accounts of the contemporary Indians themselves,
who readily recall book-related instances they have heard about from
their "grandparents." In Caimito, people remember an old man from
a neighboring village who treasured a book by his father-in-law, a
shaman. In 1978 his son, an enthusiastic Adventist, made him burn the
document since "it contained matters of the devil." It was an ordinary
school copy-book from the mission, filled with minute red and black
designs. Among the many people who remembered the book was a
young woman, Olga, who as a young girl had managed along with her
girlfriend to secretly get hold of the book, although the old man kept it
well hidden. The girls had just started copying some of the designs
when Olga's grandmother discovered them and forbade them to have
any contact with the book. It contained "the dangerous affairs of the
spirits." Olga claimed to have never forgotten the four designs she had
by then finished copying. She drew them on paper for me (two are
shown in Fig. 14). The people of Caimito regarded the four designs as
examples of outstanding design art and sometimes referred to them as
a measure of quality when discussing designs.
The Caimitoans are also acquainted with the strips of painted cloth,
although in a context different from the Waisbards' description. Appar
ently, the most potent and feared of the early Shipibo-Conibo shamans
were those who worked with the spirits of the dead, the vero-yushin.
'Loan word from Quechua, where the term quilca refers to sequences of geometric
signs modified by rotation, reflection, and change of color.
Figure 13. Delicate fillers between the thick form lines of the cross
design (from Diaz Castaneda 1922:308). The drawings by Diaz Castaneda
show that around the turn of the century, filler work between the form
lines of the designs were more independent and versatile than today.
He assumed that the fillers had hieroglyphic function.
Figure 13 (Continued). Types of fillers (from Diaz Castaneda 1922:318).
Other than the more common shamans who concealed themselves in
their mosquito tents to practice (the tents are of a dense fabric and are
not transparent like the mosquito nets used elsewhere), these high-rank
ing shamans sat on a platform, in public view during the entire seance.
A man of such eminence would own a leporello book painted on both
sides with black fineline designs and solidly colored vera (the seminal
design elements mentioned above). There used to be one design on
each page, all of which had their individual names. The edge of each
page was outlined with colored stripes, the kind still woven into cotton
1 58
textiles. The shaman would claim to have received the designs from the
eye spirits.
When the master took his book out of the box, the women would
gather around in order to have a lesson in design art. Often coming in
large numbers and from remote villages, they brought pieces of cloth,
bark paper (the bark from the local lecythus tree is used to manufacture
an excellent white paper; personal communication Robert Carneiro),
and clean wooden slabs or paper from the mission. The sessions could
last several days during which the shaman explained the designs and
the women studied until exhausted, increasing the power of their shina
(mind, intellect, creativity, vitality). Outstanding artists exercised spiri
tual and physical discipline such as fasting, sexual abstention, contem
plation of designs, and the enhancement of the tena (image of the inner
eye, imagination, reflection) before they arrived at the sessions, generally
with the help of medicinal plants, and were sometimes "crowned" by
the shaman with an invisible quene maiti (design crown). These crowns
further enhanced a woman's shina capacity and her social status. Certain
young men over the age of twenty (possibly the shamans' novices) were
also introduced to the design meanings. The Waisbards mention two
"schools of magician-sorcerers" on the Huallaga River (Waisbard and
Waisbard 1959:68, note 2), where part of the Panoan population had
been relocated by the Jesuits around 1670. Some shamans would take the
women's pieces of cloth into their mosquito tents. Animal voices and
foreign utterances indicated that the shaman had contacted the spirits
and was conversing with them. Somewhat later he passed the pieces back
from underneath the tent, now preciously painted by the spirits. It was
on these occasions that the shaman must have acted most conspicuously
as a switchman of art and dominating ideas, as a perpetuator between
the past and the present, and as a pontifex on the artistic bridge between
the temporal and the spirit world. His ultimate task was the visualization
of ideas, the transformation of spirit messages into culturally meaningful
configurations. He was also a selector of themes which he passed on
and which were then reproduced in manifold varieties and edited for
the general public on pottery, textiles, and other media. The girls'
puberty feasts during which the absolutely finest in clothing, adorn
ments, and pottery came together were great forums of art display, if
not publication of coded religious or other information.
On the occasion of the girls' puberty ceremony, the shaman carried
an occult type of book contained in a wooden box on his head while
he danced, accompanied by two women. During the dance, the book
was handed to consecutive female dancers wearing the "complete festive
dress." As we know from Roe's excellent descriptions of the ceremony
(1982a), the young girls were dressed up for their clitoridectomy more
elaborately than anyone else. It was probably the young initiates them
selves who were entitled to carry the book.
Manuals of such ritual significance may still exist in the more conser
tive villages. Caimitoan elders saw them in use until the 1950s. Perhaps
It IS but a matter of extended traveling to trace them. The recent shamans
of Caimito are making extensive use of a different kind of "literature"
visi?nar books called "design medicines" visible only to the shama
dunng his ayahuasca experience. 6 These are fundamental requisites of
the therapeutic seance, consulted like a reference book, and suggest to
he healer possible diagnosis and therapy. They are said to be folded
m leporello style. Their utilization is discussed below in more detail.
Because of the obscured semantics of the design tradition, it seems
doubtful that a motif-by-motif decodification key, the only acceptable
proof of the (former) existence of a code system, will ever be at hand.
Karl von den Steinen was rightly skeptical. The fact that the term
quirca or
quilca is of Quechua origin would have to be given some
co?sideratiOn m future studies, and the impact of the bibles and cate
chisms, those exotic "speaking" treasures of the early missionaries that
must have profoundly upset the world view of the Indians at the time
of first contact, ought to be carefully analyzed.
H?wever, while research continues and this essay may encourage
studies by other ethnographers in the Montafa, we should bear in mind
that the Shipibo-Conibo Indians live in an area where mnemonic codi
fication was, or is, not uncommon. The northwest of South America
bear witness to other indigenous code systems, such as the geometric
appliques of the Cuna (see Nordenski<ld 1928, 1930), the mnemonic
wooden slabs of the Northern Yu'pa or Macoita (see A. Lhermillier
and N. Lhermillier 1982), and the tocapu signs on Quechua and Aymara
ueros and ponchos. The Shipibo-Conibo tradition of weaving narrow
nbbons of considerable technical and ornamental complexity for wrist
and ankle decoration might well be linked to the Waisbards' cloth strips
and the Inca custom of weaving high-ranking information into the
narrow woof stripe which many ponchos displayed at the waist or con
cealed within the inseam (see Barthel 1970, 1971; Jara 1973).
'It is typical of recent ShipiboConibo acculturation and secularization that most
shamanic objects (like the book), which were previously utilized during the sessions
are ow reduced to a visionary/spiritual existence. The shaman's crown, ring, or par;
of 1s costume are other examples. While earlier generations wore two types of body
namely t?e visible skin design and the permanent invisible healing design, the
cusom IS now w1del reduced to the latter, immaterial type. Actual facial and body
eslgns are
hard t fmd among the recent Shipibo-Conibo. This is consistent with my
mformants assertiOn that early shamans invariably were more powerful than the
contemporary ones, and with the general feeling that the present state of affairs is a
mere shadow of previous conditions.
Design Therapy
As indicated above, the healing designs of the Shipibo-Conibo are
perceived from the spirits and projected onto the patient's body in a
spiritual, nonmaterialized manner. There are some indications that a
shaman may read the designs of his vision analytically in linear pursuit
of individual configurations, but in general the design visions are de
scribed as being overall, nonanalytical impressions of entire patterned
"pages" or "sheets" flashed rapidly in front of the shaman's inner
eye and vanishing as soon as he tries to have a closer look.7
The shaman's spiritual knowledge, his spirit comprehension, and
interactions form a complex system that deserves detailed study apart
from the present essay. These matters are, to a large extent, veiled
from the patient and the other nonspecialists. The patient might snatch
a few disconnected details from the shaman's songs, but in general he
does not comprehend the shaman's spirit struggles and conferences that
take place above his sickbed, or the shaman's otherworldly voyages.
All he is told about his sickness is its origin and the precautions to be
taken. Ideally, he places himself in the hands of his doctor and refrains
from asking questions. 8
One important condition of the therapy is the aesthetically pleasing
environment into which the shaman and the family place the patient.
He is carefully surrounded by an ambience designed to appease both
the senses and emotions. Visible and invisible geometric designs, melodi
ous singing, and the fragrance from herbs and tobacco smoke pervade
the atmosphere, and ritual purity characterizes his food and each person
with whom he has contact. The patient is never left alone in his mosquito
tent during the critical time of his illness. This setting induces in the
patient the necessary emotional disposition for his recovery. But how
is this indigenous concept of aesthetics to be understood?
The term quiquin refers to several notions of "correctness" and
"beauty." Although it implies primarily a pleasant visual, auditory,
or olfactory experience evoked, for example, by harmony, symmetry,
accurate performance, or cultured refinement, the term is not limited
'Reichel-Dolmatoff describes the ayahuasca visions of the Desana as symmetric light
patterns "perceived as superpositions on surfaces," as a "multitude of small luminous
images" clustered or strung together, zigzagging or assuming network and checker
patterns. He also points out that acoustical stimulation is important to attain a "bright
and pleasant vision" (1978:8-12). These descriptions coincide in all aspects with descrip
tions of Shipibo-Conibo visionary experience. Hence we may assume that the graphic
perceptions are a phosphenic retina function triggered by the alkaloids of the drug.
'The external proceedings of ayahuasca sessions have been described elsewhere. See,
for example, Roe 1982a and Meyer 1984:57.
to sensuous experience; it includes ideational values like subtlety, rele
vance, appropriateness, and cultural correctness. A harmoniously
formed and well painted vessel is quiquin just like a village kept free
from plant growth. Quiquin rarebo are genuine relatives; a quiquin
ainbo denotes a woman of good upbringing and appearance. Quiquin
also refers to the treatment of a sick person if the shaman works in an
appropriate, traditional, sophisticated, and aesthetic manner, that is,
employing, songs, designs, fragrance, and ritual purity in a truly Shipibo
Conibo manner. We shall now see how the shaman operates with qui
quin-ness on three sensory levels-visual, auditory, and olfactory
and how they are synaesthetically combined to form a therapy of beauty,
cultural relevance, and sophistication.
The shaman uses several invisible requisites richly embellished with
designs. These include the medical book with its delicate, minute designs
drawn by the Hummingbird spirit, the shining crown received during
initiation, and the crossed bandolier which is the "mother and root"
of the quenyon, the gruel-like substance, which he carries in his chest
and may bring up to his mouth to suck the afflicted body parts. Among
the visible painted requisites are the shaman's garment, the tari (Figs. 15
and 16), the occasional facial painting of the patient (Fig. 2), the painted
vessels the shaman uses for the ayahuasca potion or tobacco water, and
the vessels used for the patient' s food and washing water perfumed with
fragrant flowers.
Each case of illness requires the attendance and assistance of a differ
ent set of plant and animal spirits. Only Nishi lbo, the master spirit of
the ayahuasca vine, is necessarily present at all sessions. Nishi lbo pro
jects the luminescent geometric configurations before the shaman' s eyes
shortly before he visits the session personally. These are luminous
phoshenic visions that cover everything within the shaman' s sight. With
the assistance of his helper spirits, the shaman now begins to interpret
the vision as a quiquin design medicine. As soon as the floating network
touches his lips and halo, the shaman issues melodies that correspond
to the shiny visions. Describing the phenomenon, the shaman says,
"My song is a result of the design image, " a direct transformation
from the visual to the auditory, in some way comparable to our musical
notes and their auditory realizations. There can be more than a hundred
designs in one song. The songs are heard, seen, and sung simultaneously
by Nishi lbo, all attending spirits, and the shaman. Hence the shaman
blends into a choir of spirits while the villagers hear but his solitary voice.
If the patient' s relatives now join the shaman in singing (their singing
necessarily lags slightly behind since most of the texts are ad hoc crea
tions and unknown to them), a two-sided choir builds up in which the
shaman plays the conspicuous role of an acoustic hinge between the spirit
Figure 15. Shaman wearing tari (cushma, traditional men's garment), seated
in front of mosquito tents.
Figure 16. Healing session shortly before arrival of the patient. The bottle
contains ayahuasca potion.
and the village worlds. The compelling force of this chorus is directed
against the spirits held responsible for the patient' s illness.
A voices meander through the air, a second transformation takes
place, visible only to the shaman. The song now assumes the form of a
geometric pattern, a quiquin design which penetrates the patient' s body
and settles down permanently. According to the shaman, the healing
pattern is a result of his song. Unless he falls ill again, it remains with
the patient even after death to help identify his spirit as a Shipibo
Conibo in the other world. The Hummingbird spirit, Pino, described
as the "writer" or "secretary" among the helper spirits, now hovers
above the patient and lets the design configurations drop onto the
patient' s body, swishing, whirring, humming, busy with tiny move
ments. The shaman explains:
Pino writes the quene outlining the therapy and the song. It grows little by
little. Just as each word in modern writing is different, so are the individual signs
(lena) of the design. At first, the sick body appears like a very messy design. After
a few treatments, the design appears gradually. When the patient is cured, the
design is clear, neat, and complete. In my visions, I watch Hummingbird hover
above the patient. With each swish of his wings, a part of the design emerges.
He also draws with his beak and tongue. If the design refuses to become clear,
I know that I cannot heal the patient. I am not told the meaning of the indi
vidual design elements, but I know by my overall impression of the designs
what I have to sing. I feel that designs and melodies are rotating. Some designs
can make a person even more ill. They are not made by Hummingbird, but
come out of the mouth of a sorcerer. They are detached like figures, not fowing
like handwriting.
While he watches Hummingbird write the healing design, the shaman
uses his painted garment, the tari, to fan away the malignant nihue
(wind, pneuma, aura) of the disease-inflicting spirit, which again "sounds
like the wings of Hummingbird." Nihue hampers the formation of the
healing design. In a specific case of swollen liver, high fever, and hemor
rhaging diarrhea, for example, a motif called nai cano mahueca ("con
secutive curves in the scaffold of the sky") was applied by the humming
bird, a design including many zigzags. Before the hummingbird is able
to apply the healing design, the shaman, with the help of his fragrant
herbal bundle, brushes away the "mess" (m6e) on the patient's body.
Spots and shadows are traces of nihue indicating that the healing process
is not yet completed.
The number of treatments required to complete a healing design
depends on the tenacity with which the disease-inflicting spirit is able
to contaminate the design. Generally, a shaman needs three to five treat
ments of approximately five hours each, during which the spirit inces
santly tries to stain or smudge the gradually emerging design with its
evil countersongs and harmful aura. When on a disease-inflicting tour,
these spirits may also attempt to open the tightly sealed vessels of design
song medicines stored in the cloud villages of the tree spirits and pro
tected by guardian spirits, to let the shama (massed potency) of the
medicines (which are actually songs) escape and vanish. The shaman
counters such attacks with an intensification of singing and helper spirit
In certain cases, the shaman will climb the tower or tree that connects
him to the cloud villages to procure personally the medicines (songs and
herbal recommendations). Or he will descend into the water to free an
abducted soul from the "soul prison" of the cosmic anaconda at the
aquatic edge of the world.
A number of therapeutic measures are applied directly to the patient.
During the daytime, for example, the shaman dispenses herbal remedies
(the Shipibo-Conibo know many), helps prepare blood-circulating nettle
lashings, steam baths, ablutions, inner purifications (vomiting, enemas),
and prescribes facial and body painting. The patient is kept on a diet
that excludes, among other things, bought food "which has been in
contact with metal" (during the canning and bottling processes), foods
containing fat, sugar, salt, and fruit. The patient must be protected
from impure influences, such as menstruating women and couples who
have "united" the night before. Tobacco smoke, the fragrance of
flowers, and certain aromatic ointments from the pharmacies in town
are substantial components of the treatment in that they lead helper
spirits to the sickbed, ward off opponent spirits, and intensify respiration
and relaxation.
If the patient' s destiny is to die, a condition the shaman is able to
read from the unsuccessful body design, he will tell the patient after the
first few sessions that he is unable to cure the disease. If the treatment
is successful, the healing pattern is "covered" (tapado) by a protective
finish, the pana. For this purpose, the entire body of the patient is
"covered with songs." The pana shelters the weakened patient against
shocks from menstruating women or sexually active couples, as well as
from malevolent spirits and shamans. Should further treatment be
necessary, the pana must be removed with the help of certain songs.
Although the pana acts as a protective shield, it is easily destroyed, for
instance through breaking of the diet, and the old disease may appear
Many diseases are nihue afflictions and are cured with the spiritual
body designs (quene rau or yora quene).9 They may be defined as "loss
'The second major medicinal agent applied is nete (light). However, this complex is
of little relevance in this essay.
of the anima," "rainbow stroke," "shock," "hypnotic spirit magne
tism," and so on, and attributed to an inimical shaman or an animal,
plant, or other spirit.
Although research has not been very successful in the realm of harmful
designs, one mode of inflicting disease appears to be the sung projection
onto a person's body of a design resembling a double projectile point
or any nonspecific pattern received from the spirits and used by the
shaman together with the name of the person to be harmed or influ
enced. '0 Ronin, with all possible patterns united on its body, is brought
into play in this instance, provided the shaman has command over this
most awesome of all spirits. An evil body design is said to be clouded
and difficult to diagnose. It is sometimes equalized with nihue, the
harmful spirit aura. But with the help of Nishi lbo (the ayahuasca
spirit), the shaman "reads it as if with an X-ray machine." Once an
evil pattern is diagnosed, the shaman can "unravel" it and wind it onto
an imaginary spool, erase it with his shamanic broom, lift it off as if
peeling it, etc. All these transactions are accomplished through singing,
the texts of the songs revealing much about the techniques involved.
The vero-yushin designs described above seem to be as ambivalent
as most other shamanic issues. Discussion of them arouses controversy
among the Indians themselves. The relation of the designs with the
spirits of the dead (a clearly negative association) and sorcery on the one
hand and their popularity on textiles and ceramics on the other obscures
their function and meaning.
Another method for inflicting harm is the withdrawal through the
shaman of a healing pattern he once gave to a patient. This is, allegedly,
"he ambivalence of the shamanic practice in Amazonia is well established. The
Shipibo-Conibo shaman is no exception, being both healer and sorcerer. Not only is he
himself ambivalent, but his helper spirits are too. The same spirit that assists in curing
may be sent to harm a person. But conditions are not that simple. In the terminology
a shaman uses after defeating a harmful spirit, it is conspicuous that such spirits are
never extinguished or killed by the shaman. They are simply driven away. Langdon
( 1 979a: 64, 77) describes how the Siona shaman directs the disease-inflicting substance
back to its origin. Reichel-Dolmatoff ( 1 971 : 1 30) reports that the Desana shaman has to
promise to the master of game animals to cause the death of a certain number of people
(own or alien) in exchange for game animals. The Warao "Dark shaman" feeds human
sacrifices to the Lords of the Underworld to guarantee the duration of the world, the
Gods, and the young generation (Wilbert 1 975:1 74). In the Siona case, the shaman
knows where the evil substance is going, but it is uncertain whether he also knows the
substance to cause harm at its place of origin, that is, whether he uses the substance to
hit back, thus simultaneously harming somewhere else and caring for his own people.
very easy to accomplish and presents quite a temptation to the shaman:
"I have to keep controlling myself so that this idea does not enter my
head; 1 might wish to apply this practice on my own people." If a
patient whose design has been withdrawn falls ill, the new sha
whom he might then consult can immediately recognize that the pahent
is without a design. Healing designs from earlier cures are smudged by
new diseases.
Obviously, a person places himself in the hands of his do

tor not
only during therapy, but for the rest of his life." This explams wh

the Shipibo-Conibo are so careful in their choice of doctor, and hy
would be absurd for them to recommend doctors to one anothe
proximity plays an important role, and it is understandable If

are eager to lure a shaman son-in-law into the family. The social an
psychological implications of these close ties between a shaman and his
former patient appear to be significant and deserve further study.
Returning to the visionary shamanic book previously disc

ssed, we
may now conclude that the Indians' view of th

book co

pnses b

the general (ayahuasca-induced) capacity to perceive the rapidly fl


"sheets" of designs or the floating variety that covers everythm

'ght and the mentioned imaginary volume that the shaman receives
f ' nt
from the spirits during his initiation. The semor m ormant s accou
of his initiation adds some ethnographic substance to the latter:
I had been practicing with small portions of shahuan-p

co [' :te maca

moulting"; an unidentified parasitic plan forll

ly used m Shipibo-Combo
shamanism as a hallucinogen instead of or m additiOn to ayahuasca] for a long
time This is a very strong drug which not every shaman could endure. I ra

the j
uice of the leaves with water and tobacco juice, and I also bathed With it.
In the Desana case it is obvious that caring for one's people and harming are closely inter
related. A case for such an interrelation between caring and harring coul
d be ade for
the Shipibo-Conibo if it could be shown that the shaman, wh1le expelhg evil forces
f om a patient intentionally directs them to certain targets (perhaps a distant enem),
r:ther than jus; dismissing them into space. One step in his directin mi
ght be my maJ
f t' answer when 1 asked him why he was very s1ck and losmg h1s force. He said,
m orman s
, h "h
t" b k" are
"I healed many during my life. Now they are hitting back. T oe 1t mg ac
either the inimical spirits and shamans whom he upset so many times, or those peo
whom he harmed perforce by exposing them to the harmful forces released thrg h1m,
be it intentionally or not. Considering the profound concern with the econc1hat10n f
0 posites, with reciprocity, ambivalence and balance in general so con
ly found m
Lwland cultures (including the Shipibo-Conibo), the latter speculatiOn m1ght be not
entirely off the track.
''Among the Warao Indians, lifelong dependence on the shaman exists for some women
(Johannes Wilbert, personal communication).
Then came my chief experience with shahuan-peco. Twelve hours after drinking
the potion and bathing with it, about noon the next day, it started to thunder,
and I heard crowds of spirits making much noise. The four masters of the
plant appeared in human disguise. They were very angry with me and denied
me their knowledge and power. When I was shaking a lot and almost fainted,
they took hold of me and dashed me around within the four corners. Two of
them were standing in the opposite corners to throw me back. When I was almost
dead, Ani-Ino, the great j aguar, arrived, very beautiful and shining. He grabbed
me by the neck with his mouth, and sucked my blood to reduce my weight so
I could fly. He carried me through the air for many hours, up to the clouds,
into a great remoteness. This is how a shaman learns to travel through the air
and to see things from above. In the clouds, he meets all the tree spirits who
help to heal the sick, for example doctor anta -yushin (a tree-spirit and bone
doctor). During my vision, I was able to see all who passed by my house in
their true nature, with their true intentions, and naked. Then there appeared
the master of shahuan-peco himself. He carried a book in his hands, the leaves
of which were still new and blank. Before he gave it to me, Hummingbird
painted very fine designs into it with its delicate beak. In a book like that, a
shaman can read about the condition of his patient and the way to help him.
I often use the book when I sing.
Although it contradicts what was said about the overall grasping of
rapidly flashing design "pages" in ayahuasca visions, I would like to
introduce here a bit of information received from the same shaman
which supports the claim that a shaman can (or could) also read a design
analytically, that is, follow the individual motifs in linear fashion.
Linear pursuit is an indicator of a former motif-by-motif reading tech
nique. While discussing the reading of his shamanic book, the informant
followed with his finger the meandering configurations of a design,
starting at the lower right and continuing horizontally in serpentine
ascent. In front of him were the two designs he had chosen from my
comprehensive collection as the closest approximation of those of his
visionary book (see Fig. 1 7). Belonging to the older, rectilinear design
tradition, they are composed of two or more subfields displaying dif
ferent patterns. Naturally, as a consequence of the semantic loss in
design art, this linear reading technique, if it ever existed, became
Music and Geometric Designs
Yu'pa Indian shamans of Venezuela draw upon their nightly dreams
when treating a patient. The following technique helps them to memorize
their visions: the shaman sits up in his hammock immediately after the
dream and, by singing, transforms the vision into a sequence of vocal
sounds that represent the dream i mages. The resulting song remains
engraved in the shaman' s consciousness and facilitates recalling the
Figure 11. Two racoti (woman' s mantle). This kind of rectilinear and very
minute design with bordering stripes of a different pattern I S spmtually
used by the shaman to heal the patient. From Tessmann 1 928, plate 1 1
(upper) and plate 13 (lower).
1 69
dream the following morning. 1 2 Thus, in a synaesthetic effort, a visual
experience is transformed into an audio code. As previously indicated,
the Desana need acoustic stimulation to attain "bright and pleasant
visions." Likewise, the Shipibo-Conibo shaman engages in synaesthetic
awareness. His songs can be heard in a visual way, so to speak, and the
geometric designs may be seen acoustically. Reference to this phenom
enon often occurs in the texts of the shamanic songs. For example, a
medicine may be described as "my painted song," "my voice, my little
painted vessel, " "my words with those designs, " or "my ringing
This leads to the question of whether a direct structural correlation
exists between individual design and musical elements. Preliminary com
parison on a macro-structural level shows that certain form proportions
indeed coincide, such as the division of the song into subsections of
altered tempo possibly correlating with the divisions of the design into
two or more subfields of different patterns. Perhaps the most obvious
common feature is the symmetry characterizing the structure of both.
Lucas (1970: 70) observes that "A interesting parallel can easily be
drawn between the symmetry in Shipibo music and the symmetry in the
Shipibo artistic style." Symmetry prevails in the formal, melodic, and
rhythmic characteristics of the songs. A example of a more complex
consonance is the lateral symmetry of melodic inversion. 1 3
I n some descriptions of visionary designs, my informants equated
the end-curl of a design motif (often adorned with a vero) with the
dramatic finales of the individual verses of a shaman' s song in which
the shaman squeezes the last bit of air from his lungs, and which are
said to represent the shama (accumulated potency) of the song. Some
kind of musical code must also have been involved when two potters
sat together to practice what was called "the meeting of the souls."
In older times, the two halves of a very large vessel (more than 1 m in
height) were painted by two women simultaneously but independently.
They sat opposite each other, with the vessel between them, unable to
see the other woman' s half. By singing, they managed to tune in to each
other' s mood to such an extent that they could paint two harmonizing
and i nterrelating design halves. The women aspired the harmonious
and unnoticeable fusion of their individual lines at the two sides, using
only what must have been a melodious code to reach concordance.
The texts of the songs are said to have been irrelevant.
A word should also be said about the role of the textual content of
the shamanic songs. When talking about their corpus of design-song
"Johannes Wilbert , personal communication.
"Thanks to Rolf Stoll for his advice in musicological matters .

medicines, the shamans clearly refer to the melodies and not to the texts
of the songs. The texts are generally improvised and vary from one
situation to another, whereas the melodies amount to a stable corpus
of about twenty or thirty "song medicines," divided into approximately
eight categories.
Another field of Shipibo-Conibo art that closely links geometric
designs with music is dance. Two dances, nahuarin and masha, are still
occasionally practiced in Caimito during the drinking feasts. In the
masha, men and women hold hands to form a circle (Fig. 3). The leader
of the dance advances, pulling the others along, while all sing. As they
perform squares, circles, loops, meanders, and so on, without disturbing
the circular or oval formation, their footprints "draw" an imaginary
pattern in the dust. It would be interesting to analyze the relation be
tween a particular pattern and the occasion it was danced as well as
that between choreographic design and the song melody. It is doubtful
that this sort of study will be forthcoming, however, in view of the
practically extinct dance tradition.
Fragrance in Therapy
The utilization of fragrance both manipulates the spirits and enhances
the patient' s aesthetic awareness. The body is rubbed with selected
essences. A bowl containing water and sweet-smelling flowers is placed
next to the patient for frequent face and head baths. During the nightly
sessions, the fragrance from tobacco smoke and the shaman' s herbal
bundle (which he manipulates like a rattle) fills the air. The interrelation
between fragrance and the song-designs is often referred to in the syn
aesthetic descriptions contained in myths and shamanic songs. Spirits
can be attracted by fragrance (ini ). Especially favored scents are those
of flowers, herbs, certain tree barks, yucca beer and other alcoholic
beverages, and such stimulating pharmaceutical products as agua florida
or menthol ointments. Honey is the food of the spirits, who find its
smell irresistible, while tobacco smoke makes a path in the air leading
the helpers to the patient.
Spirits involved in harmful machinations can be driven away with
good smells as they are more interested in bad odors (for example, pisi
or via). When the healing design is being sung onto the body of the
patient, they try to ruin the pattern by singing evil-smelling anti-songs
dealing with the odor of gasoline, fish poison, dogs, certain products
of the cosmetic industry, menstrual blood, unclean people, and so on.
One of the Caimitoan ayahuasqueros who claimed to be predominantly
a sorcerer was heard singing his "stink songs" about feces, breaking
wind, kerosene, and cheap soap.
Design medicines are often described as being fragrant in the shamanic
songs. For example,
The (harmful) spirit pneuma
swirling in your body's ultimate point.
I shall tackle it right now
with my fragrant chanting.
I see brilliant bands of designs,
curved and fragrant. . ..
As already mentioned, the design medicines (songs) are kept in tightly
sealed vessels stored in the otherworldly spirit "pharmacies" within
the spirit villages. Should an enraged spirit manage to lift the lid of a
medicine vessel, the shaman's therapeutic power would escape. This
power is imagined as the fragrance of the design-songs or the aromatic
gas fizzing from fermenting yucca beer. Naturally, these vessels are
the target of the disease-inflicting spirits and have to be carefully
In its essential parts, the Shipibo-Conibo healing system may be
understood as the application of a spiritual design message that is
perceived both visually and rhythmically-melodically and is trans
formed into culturally meaningful information. Messages from the
spirit world need a mediating agent to be comprehensible for the village
world. Visual, auditory, and olfactory perceptions are, therefore,
introduced as a connecting link and bound together to form a syn
aesthetic-and aesthetic-body of shamanic cognition.
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