Yachaks, Curanderos and Parteras

The term ‘traditional religious specialist’ is commonly employed as a generic for people who specialise in belief systems and practices that encompass what we today call ‘shamanism’. There are many definitions of what shamanism is, from that narrowly employed to mean spiritual specialists from Northern, Arctic and Sub-Arctic cultures, to those sharing a broadly similar set of beliefs and practices occurring pan-globally and across time and existing before the spread of organised dogmatic religions such as Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. Shamanism may be understood as the expression of a peoples’ spiritual beliefs and experiences and their understanding of metaphysical reality, centring upon the employment of states of altered consciousness. Shamanistic beliefs and practices, sometimes better understood as folkloric traditions, still persist in many parts of the word now, continuing as a sub-stratum beneath organised religion and modern culture. We know from the archaeological record and depictions of shamans, often undergoing trance states of transformation into their animal tutelary spirits, and kindred themes, that shamanistic religion was the common basis of spiritual experience in autochthonous Amerindian societies up to the impact of the conquest by the Spanish imperium in the New World in the 16th century and the imposition of an alien religious/spiritual creed based upon Christianity. From this time onwards, any other expression of spiritual beliefs and related ontology and the ritual practices associated with them, was ruthlessly suppressed through the organised ecclesiastical campaigns referred to as the Extirpación de las Idolatrías (the uprooting of idolatries).

We know much about shamanistic traditions and practices from many ethnographic and ethnohistorical studies, but although there are very many studies about Amazonian shamanism in particular, rather less is known about Andean traditional religious specialists.

Sections 6, 7 and 8 of the questionnaire therefore questioned traditional healers directly about how they had come to be healers, the nature of their powers and the methodologies they employed for diagnosis and healing.

About being a healer

We know from ethnohistorical accounts dating from the time of the early colonial period, that traditional religious specialists and healers encountered were a very heterogeneous group and included a wide array of specialist abilities. This might in some ways equate to the way we understand modern medicine and clinical practitioners now, with a broad generalist group of clinicians – general practice – through to the different specialities. In the northern Andes there are practitioners known as ‘yachaks’ (visionaries/shamans), curandero/as (general healers), fregadores (manipulators/ physiotherapists), partera/os (midwives) as those most commonly found.

Yachaks and curanderos may work with a range of different diagnostic and therapeutic intermediaries, i.e. ritual objects that allow them to ‘see’ into the body of the patient and visualise their illness and then effect the required therapeutic intervention for healing, which generally centres upon some level of spiritual and bodily ‘cleansing’ process. The intermediary item commonly employed in these regions is the Andean cuy (guinea pig) which is applied alive and vigorously rubbed over the body of the patient and ‘adsorbs’ signs of the illness which the specialist can then ‘read’ through examination of the pattern of internal injury in the animal’s body. Other healers employ eggs, and after rubbing a whole fresh egg across the patient’s body, will then break it into water and observe the nature of discolouration to the yolk and the albumen. Still others employ candles, which are rubbed over the patient’s body, then lit, and the nature of the way the candles burns – gutters, or extinguishes – is the way they diagnose flaws in the patient’s bodily energy channels.

Of the ten healers interviewed across three communities in the survey, five were practising yachaks (one was also a partera), three curanderos (although one was also a partera) and three were parteras (of whom one was also a yachak and another a curandera).

Día de los Difuntos, Salasaka

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