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Encounters with Sorcery: An Ethnographer's Account

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Drawing from data collected during fieldwork from Westerners participating in ayahuasca ceremonies in the Peruvian Amazon, I discuss the ways they make contact with spirits. I particularly focus on the issue of sorcery, illustrating differences in the ways it is perceived by Westerners and Peruvians. I argue that although it is possible that both populations have the same or very similar experiences with ayahuasca, their subjective interpretations and metanarratives are quite different because of the very different cultural paradigms to which they have been exposed. In the Amazonian cultural framework, local ayahuasca users tend to interpret any negative or dark experiences during ceremonies as attacks, by malevolent shamans, hired by other members of their community. The more individualistic Western cultural framework leads Westerners to interpret these experiences as part of their own psychic processes. I found, however, this pattern to be challenged, in that Western shamanic apprentices have integrated the concepts of sorcery and shamanic warfare into their worldview. I discovered that, in many ways, a shamanic apprenticeship for a Westerner involves a radical shift in interpretations of shamanic experience. Certain personal experiences during my fieldwork, which I discuss in this article, challenged my own faith in the dominant anthropological paradigm—that shamanic experiences are culturally defined—as well as my largely secular worldview.

Keywords: Amazonia; ayahuasca; shamanism; sorcery; subjectivity

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of AnthropologyUniversity of Wisconsin–Madison5420 W. H. Sewell Social Science Building1180 Observatory DriveMadison, WI 53706

Publication date: December 1, 2010

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