You are on page 1of 4

Underlying the intricate geometric

patterns of great complexity displayed in

the art of the Shipibo people is a concept
of an all pervading magical reality which
can challenge the Western linguistic
heritage and rational mind.

COMMUNION The Shipibo are one of the largest ongoing dialogue or communion with
indigenous peoples in the Peruvian the spiritual world and powers of the
with the Amazon. These ethnic groups each
have their own languages,
Rainforest. Their art forms bring this
paradigm into a physical form. The
traditions and culture. The Shipibo, Ethnologist Angelika Gebhart-Sayer,
who currently number about calls this ‘visual music’.
INFINITE 20,000, are spread out in
communities through the Pucallpa -
Ucayali river region. They are highly
Initiated women
All the textile painting, embroidery,
regarded in the Amazon as being and artisan craft is carried out by
masters of the hallucinogenic vine, the women. From a young age the
The visual music of Ayahuasca, and many aspiring Shipibo females are initiated by
the Shipibo people shamans and Ayahuasqueros from their mothers and grandmothers
the region study with the Shipibo to into this practice. Teresa, a Shipiba
of the Amazon learn their language, chants, and who works with us on our Amazon
plant medicine knowledge. Retreats, tells that “when I was a
In their visionary art the Shipibo young girl, my mother squeezed
create complex geometric patterns drops of the piripiri (a species of
HOWARD G. CHARING which convey an all pervading cyperus sp.) berries into my eyes
magical reality which can challenge so that I would have the vision for
the Western linguistic heritage and the designs. This is only done
Above left: Shipibo women (shipiba) in rational mind. These intricate once and lasts a lifetime”.
traditional dress gathered at Iquitos to patterns are more than an The intricate designs have their
show their craft and artisan work expression of the one-ness of origin in the non-manifest and
Above right: Shipibo textile, a combination of Creation, the inter-changeability of ineffable world within the spirit of
embroidery and traditional painting with huito light and sound, or the union of the Rainforest and all who live
dyes on mahogany bark dyed white cotton perceived opposites. They are an there. They are a representation of

30 SH WINTER 2005
the Cosmic Serpent, the sides of the traditional
Anaconda, the great Mother, complex embroidered
Creator of the universe called geometric Shipibo
Ronin. For the Shipibo the skin of pattern were textile bag
Ronin has a radiating, electrifying identical and
vibration of light, colour, sound, matched each
movement and is the embodiment side perfectly.
of all possible patterns and The Shipibo
designs past, present, and future. designs are
The designs that the Shipibo traditionally
paint are channels or conduits for carried out on
this multi-sensorial vibrational natural un-dyed
fusion of form, light and sound. cotton - which
Although in our cultural paradigm they often grow
we perceive that the geometric themselves - or on
patterns are bound within the cotton dyed in
border of the textile or ceramic mahogany bark
vessel, to the Shipibo the patterns (usually three or four
extend far beyond these borders times) which gives
and permeate the entire world. the distinctive
brown colour.
Painting music They paint using
One of the challenges for the either a pointed piece of Imports),
Western mind, is to acknowledge chonta (bamboo), or an enamoured
the relationship between these iron nail, with the juice of by these
designs and music. For the Shipibo the crushed huito berry fruits designs,
can ‘listen’ to a song or chant by (genipa americana) which turns ordered via the
looking at the designs - and into a blue- brown-black dye once project twenty Below: a
inversely, paint a pattern by listening exposed to air. thousand textiles with the same traditional
to a song or music. Each of the designs are unique, design. This order could never be Shipibo chupa
As an astonishing even the very small pieces, and fulfilled - the Shipibo simply on mahogany
demonstration of this I witnessed they cannot be commercially or couldn’t comprehend the concept dyed cotton
two Shipiba paint a large mass produced. In Lima I met with of replicating identical designs. painted with
ceremonial ceramic pot known as a woman who had set up a huito dye.
a mahuetá. The pot was nearly five government-funded community Singing the The designs at
feet high and had a diameter of project which, amongst other the edge of the
about three feet. Neither could see matters, established a collective
patterns of healing textile represent
what the other was painting, yet for the Shipibo to sell their artisan The Shipibo believe that our state the sacred
both were whistling the same work and paintings. She tells that of health, both physical and Anaconda
song. When they had finished both a major USA corporation (Pier 1 psychological, is dependent on the

SH WINTER 2005 31
shaman the luminous geometric arkana This internal patterning is
patterns of energy. These deemed to be permanent and to
filaments drift towards the protect a person’s spirit.
mouth of the shaman Angelika Gebhart-Sayer,
where they Professor of Ethnology, University
metamorphose into a of Marburg writes that ‘Essentially,
chant or icaro. The Shipibo-Conibo therapy is a matter
icaro is a conduit for of visionary design application in
the patterns of connection with aura restoration;
Creation, which then the shaman heals his patient
permeate the body of through the application of a
the shaman’s patient, visionary design, every person
bringing harmony in the feels spiritually permeated and
form of the geometric saturated with designs. The
patterns which re-balance shaman heals his patient through
the patient’s body. the application of the song-design,
The vocal range of the which saturates the patients’ body
Shipibo shamans when they chant and is believed to untangle
the icaros is astonishing; they can distorted physical and psycho-
range from the highest falsetto spiritual energies, restoring
union between mind, spirit and
one moment to a sound which harmony to the somatic, psychic
Above: typical body. If an imbalance in this
resembles a thumping pile driver, and spiritual systems of the
Shipibo painted occurs - such as through emotions
and then to a gentle soothing patient. The designs are
ceramic bowl of envy, hate, anger - this will
melodic lullaby. Speaking permanent and remain with a
generate a negative effect on the
personally of my experience of person’s spirit even after death.’
health of that person.
this, it produced a feeling as if Whilst it is not easy for
The shaman will re-establish the
every cell in my body was floating Westerners to enter and engage with
balance by chanting the icaros,
and embraced in a nurturing all- the world view of the Shipibo, which
which are the geometric patterns of
encompassing vibration, even the has been developed far away from
harmony made manifest in sound,
air around me was vibrating in
into the body of the person. The
acoustic resonance with the icaro
shaman in effect transforms the
of the maestro.
visual code into an acoustic code.
The shaman knows when the
A key element in this magical
healing is complete, as the design
dialogue with the energy which
is clearly distinct in the patient’s
permeates Creation and is
body. It make take a few sessions
embedded in the Shipibo designs,
to complete this, and when
is the work with ayahuasca by the
completed the geometric healing
Shipibo shamans or muraya.
designs are embedded in the
In the deep ayahuasca trance,
patient’s body, this is called an
the ayahuasca reveals to the

Right: Teresa,
the Shipibo
craftswoman who
helps the author
when he takes
groups to visit
the Shipibo. She
is painting onto
white cotton
with huito dye
using a steel
nail as a brush

Inset: The
wife and
daughter of the
shaman, maestro
Benjamin. She
is wearing a
fabric dress.

32 SH WINTER 2005
radiating power of the Cosmic
Serpent which turns this
way and that, betwixt
and between,
constantly creating the
universe as it moves.
The circles are
often a direct
representation of
the Cosmic
Anaconda, and
within the circle
itself is the central
point of creation.

The primal rhythm

In the Western tradition, from
the Pythagoreans and Plato
through to the Renaissance, music
was used to heal the body and to
Above: Shipibo
elevate the soul. It was also ceremonial pot
believed that earthly music was no or Mahuetá
more than a faint echo of the
universal ‘harmony of the
spheres’. This view of the
harmony of the universe was held
both by artists and scientists until
the mechanistic universe of
Joseph Campbell, perhaps the
foremost scholar of mythology,
our linguistic structures and universe, and becomes the Cosmic suggested that there is a universe
psychological models, there is an Cross. The Cosmic Cross of harmonic vibrations which the
underlying sophisticated and complex represents the eternal spirit of a human collective unconscious has
symbolic language embedded in person and the union of the always been in communion with.
these geometric patterns. masculine and feminine principles - Our beings beat to the ancient
The main figures in the Shipibo the very cycle of life and death - rhythms of the Cosmos. The
designs are the square, the which reminds us of the great act traditional ways of the Shipibo and
rhombus, the octagon, and the of procreation of not only the other indigenous peoples still
cross. The symmetry of the universe, but also of humanity, and reflect this primal rhythm, and their
patterns emanating from the centre our individual selves. perception of the universal forces
(which is our world) is a The smaller, flowing patterns made physical is truly a HOWARD G. CHARING
representation of the outer and within the geometric forms are the communion with the infinite. has organised journeys
to the Amazon
inner worlds, a map of the Rainforest for the past
Cosmos. The cross represents seven years to work
with the ayahuasca
the Southern Cross shamans and the
constellation which dominates sacred ‘jungle doctors’
(healing and visionary
the night sky and divides the plants) of this area. He
cosmos into four quadrants, has written numerous
articles about the
the intersection of the arms of Amazonian plant
medicines, and has
the cross is the centre of the worked with some of
the most respected
shamans in the region.
Above: Shipibo textiles. He was baptised into
their tribe by the
The one at the top of the Shipibo Indians
page showes the cosmic in the Amazon
If you would like to
cross within the circle of discover more about
the Anaconda this work, he conducts
Plant Spirit Medicine
journeys to the Amazon
Right: Painted Shipibo Rainforest working with
the Shipibo people.
textile. As with all Shipibo
paintings, they start in the Enquiries to Eagle’s
Wing BM BOX 7475
centre and the pattern London WC1N 3XX,
moves out from this point. tel: (01273) 882 027,
or website www.
The cosmic cross is
again at the centre Photos: ©
Howard G. Charing

SH WINTER 2005 33