Yanomami Shamanism in Psychoanalytic Context:
The Interpenetration of Inner and Outer Realities
IPA Mexico Congress
Exploring Sexuality, Dreams, and the Unconscious:
Research Perspectives and Controversies Concerning Dream
Interpretation in the Amazon Rainforest, with Implications for a
Psychoanalytic Theory of Dreaming
Presenters: Charles Fisher, Beth Kalish-Weiss and Daniel Benveniste
Discussants: Harold Blum and Leo Rangell
(Drs. Beth Kalish-Weiss and Leo Rangell’s contribution will be made in absentia)
Aug. 4, 2011
7:30pm – 9:30pm
1 - FREUD AND HIS ANTIQUITIES
Freud‟s library had more books on anthropology and archeology than on psychology.
And in place of visiting other cultures, Freud surrounded himself with ancient Greek,
Roman, and Egyptian antiquities. In Totem and Taboo (1913) Freud, without the benefit
of genetic theory, employed Psycho-Lamarckianism to posit the notion of a “collective
mind” as a repository of cultural memories inherited from one generation to the next. It
was Freud‟s way to come to terms with universal symbolism and the recurring nature of
the Oedipus and castration complexes.
2 - TOTEM AND TABOO
Totem and Taboo was and continues to be compelling even though it was recognized as
incorrect from the time of its publication. It never gained widespread acceptance but
Freud felt it was the best answer available at that time to address the phenomena about
which he was concerned.
3 - MASAI IN AFRICA ON JUNG‟S TRIP
Carl Jung was also interested in these matters but, unlike Freud, he got out of his office
and in 1925 visited the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico and went on expedition through
Egypt, Kenya and Uganda visiting the Masai, the Elgonyi and other aboriginal peoples of
4 - GEZA ROHEIM
Géza Róheim (1891-1953) a Hungarian psychoanalyst undertook field studies among the
aboriginal peoples in Central Australia, on Normanby Island and among the Yuma.
Róheim concluded that the universality of the complexes was not due to a „collective
mind‟ as Freud had asserted but to the recurring nature of typical traumas and the
childrearing practices which inevitably lead to them.
5 - YOUNG ERIKSON
In 1937 Erik Erikson visited the Oglala Sioux and, in the early 1940s, the Yurok Native
Americans of Northern California. Erikson‟s interest was in their childrearing strategies
and their corresponding traditional world-views, that is, he was interested in the dialectic
of childhood and society (Erikson, Childhood and Society, 1963).
6 - YUROK MAN
To these investigators we could also add L. Bryce Boyer‟s work with the Apache, Robert
Stoller‟s work among the aboriginal peoples of New Guinea and only a few others. This
is the fascinating yet not well-traveled psychoanalytic tradition into which Drs. Beth
Kalish-Weiss and Charles Fisher are exploring in their work with the Ecuadorian Ashuar.
7 - HOTI BABY ON THE GROUND
For my part, I have been studying Libido Development and Cultural Evolution as a way
of revisiting Totem and Taboo armed with a century of additional research from the fields
8 - MOTHER AND CHILD
In brief, I have learned that the psychosexual stages of individual development find
chronological expression in the early stages of human prehistory. I discovered oral
dynamics in the Upper Paleolithic, anal dynamics in the Neolithic, phallic/oedipal
dynamics in the Upper Neolithic and adolescent genital dynamics in the Urban
Addressing only the first two stages, I found that in the Upper Paleolithic cultures people
were nomadic, their life was ordered around obtaining food and being at the mercy of
Mother Earth who either provided bountifully or let her children starve. They were the
first hominids to create representational art, including numerous mother figurines. The
Upper Paleolithic peoples invented the concept of the spirit and the rituals of
cannibalism, skull and amulet worship and the funeral. As nomadic people they lived in a
kind of unity with nature just as the infant lives in a kind of unity with its mother.
9- HOTI HOUSE
But in the Neolithic people established permanent houses and invented animal husbandry
and agriculture. The mother figurines continued to dominate but Mother Nature was
falling increasingly under the control of people. The Neolithic introduced the circle that
separated the world into an inside and an outside. In the Neolithic we invented the wall
around the perimeter of the village, the walls of the house, the walls of the hearth, and the
walls of the ceramic pot. The control that comes with a definition of an inside and an
outside is a kin to the anal control the toddler establishes in managing the sphincters and
ego boundaries – his circle of influence. A culture is not an individual but rather a group
of individuals each of whom goes through his/her own development. But as members of a
culture those stages of development and corresponding traumas find expression in
cultural form, which then become the ground and surround upon which the next
generation emerges. Individual development and cultural evolution do not play ping pong
each influencing the other in turn. No, the individual and culture are together a field of
10 - HOTI GIRL RUNNING
This is a very brief description of the some of insights I derived as an armchair
anthropologist but when I ventured up the Orinoco I went not to confirm these insights
but simply to see what I might find and discover how it might change or elaborate my
thinking. The peoples I visited had some modern clothes, machetes, flashlights, plastic
cups, metal pots and some even had electric generators but to a great extent they lived the
lives of semi-nomadic Neolithic peoples embedded in nature, hunting, fishing and
working their gardens the way their ancestors had for millennia.
11 - HOTI VILLAGE
More than anything else, I was impressed by the interpenetration of their inner and outer
worlds. And this later found a distinct echo in the work of Drs. Beth Kalish-Weiss and
Charles Fisher among the Ecuadorian Ashuar and their tradition of dream interpretation
wherein external and internal realities meet in the social circle of community life. Their
tradition recognizes the way in which dream and waking realities have inter-colonized
and the way the past, present and future have also found a space in which to coexist.
12 - CHILD IN HAMMOCK
The fact that we separate our dreams from our waking realities with alarm clocks,
showers, the radio, clothes, breakfast, cups of coffee and a commute in traffic does not
mean we do not keep dreaming or have primary process thinking going on unconsciously
throughout the day. Our cultural evolution has created a wall between primary and
secondary process and relegated dream life in modern times to a dark back room where
the spirits are ignored until they bite us hard in the form of night mares or psychological
13 – YANOMAMI SHAMAN
I once met a Spanish speaking Yanomami shaman and asked him if his people paid
attention to their dreams. He told me that if a shaman has a dream of another shaman it
means he, the dreamer, is in danger of dying. He said he‟d dreamt of another shaman on
two occasions and that his brother, also a shaman, performed rituals in order to save his
life. He clearly felt very grateful to his brother. It is a simple anecdote that reveals to us
the view that dream reality and waking reality interpenetrate and that a deadly threat from
one side can easily penetrate the other. Apparently within some cultural contexts dreams
and waking reality are interpreted in different ratios of literal and figurative
14 - CANOE AND MOTHER AND CHILD
The Hoti live in homes embedded in nature and built out of nature. Their canoes are dug
out of a single trunk.
15 - ENRIQUE
Their loincloths are made out of hand-spun cotton.
16 - CHILDREN AND ANIMALS
In the Hoti village people and animals live in the same space: dogs, pigs, and birds. I
once saw woman chew some cooked manioc and extrude it between her lips and directly
into the mouth of the baby toucan.
17 - MONKEY SKULLS
One sees monkey skulls in the rafters, the skull of a bush pig here, a tapir skull there.
These skulls propitiate the animal spirits and maintain the productivity of the hunt. The
coexistence of people, animals and human projections in the form of “spirits” help us to
see how we have become so different and yet not so different from our aboriginal cousins
and ancestors. Our modern worldview is largely shaped by the technology of walls that
separate the insides of our homes from the wilderness outside and the spirits that live
there. Our clothes protect us from the mischievous spirit of Eros. Our lights control the
darkness and the monsters hiding under our beds. Our germ theory and common hygiene
banish evil gremlins to the sewers. Our principles of cause and effect and powers of
reasoning exile the magic demons to the outskirts of experience. Our scientific method
siphons off the alchemists projections and allows us to approach, even if only
asymptotically, the object and the other out there. Civilization and modern psychological
structure are but thin veneers, or better yet, a diaphanous veils over the exceedingly
human nature of our spirit world.
18 - BONGO BOAT
After navigating five days up the Rio Orinoco and Rio Casiquiare we arrived at a
Yanomami village. The whole region had been experiencing a severe drought during
what was supposed to be their usual wet season. The river was very low meaning that
boats were in danger of getting caught on sandbars or ripped open on jagged rocks. This
naturally threatened to isolate villages from one another and make it difficult to get to
19 - YANOMAMI VILLAGE
We arrive, step off the boat and are taken up to the village where we find a large central
community space surrounded by twenty rectangular houses.
20 - WOMAN WALKING
We walk to the shamans‟ meeting space - a rectangular traditional structure with no
walls, a thatch roof, and a dirt floor.
21 – SHAMANS: CATIRE AND BRACELETS
The six shamans only wear light shorts. Their faces and bodies are painted with reddish
brown body paint in lines and arcs and circles.
Some wear feather earrings, bead necklaces or shamanic arm bracelets with feathers.
The men sit on their haunches or on little stools. Each shaman chews a wad of tobacco.
22 – YOPO DISH OR METAL PLATE
On the ground, is a piece of metal and a piece of plastic bag with the hallucinogenic light
greenish brown yopo powder made from specially prepared seeds. There is a simple
wooden tube about three feet long that narrows at one end and has a ring of bitumen
about half an inch from the end. One places this end in the nose when snorting yopo. It
has a distinctly phallic shape.
23 - YOPO TUBE IN CEREMONY
There is also a large Stone Age ax. Ancient Stone Age tools are often found while
tending their gardens. They are seen as gifts from their ancestors and take a special place
in the ceremony.
After being introduced to the shamans, I remove my hat and shirt and sit down with them.
There isn‟t much talking at this point but there is an easy-going feeling of just being
together. One after another the shamans insufflate the yopo. The yopo is placed in one
end of the tube and one shaman blows the yopo through the tube and into the nostril of
the other shaman. They gag, grab or hit the backs of their heads and scratch their scalp.
The yopo has the effect of causing a brief strange pain and itching in the head and scalp.
They hack and snot and spit on the dirt floor. As they all get fairly loaded up on yopo,
there is constantly someone or another spitting, snotting, clearing their nasal passages, or
The men start chanting and dancing. The dance is just a slight jump from one foot to the
other with arms bent, elbows slightly raised and hands raised.
The aboriginal peoples of the Upper Orinoco make little distinction between the animals
of the jungles and themselves. Under the influence of yopo this distinction seems to
disappear as the shamans get in contact with their hekuras – their personal animal spirits.
The animal spirit guides the shaman in his efforts to direct the spiritual life of the
community and to heal the sick.
24 - CATIRE
As the ceremony continues, the shamans are hacking, spitting, snotting and drooling.
Many have long green strings of mucous oozing out of their nostrils, down across their
lips and hanging there two, three or four inches below their chins. They leave the snot
hanging off their faces for inordinate amounts of time and only occasionally clear it with
their fingers or the stem of a palm leaf. Large masses of snot and spittle are accumulating
on the floor where they dance barefoot. It is not half as disgusting as it sounds. In fact, I
find it creates a distinctly intimate feeling within the group. As they dance, they chant
several words and repeat them over and over, then change the words and repeat those. I
don‟t know what is being said but it does not have the sound of a prescribed text like a
formal prayer but rather a phrase that comes to them as an inspiration.
As the shamans dance and chant, one at a time, the ceremony is building and the chanting
becomes screaming and growling and the dancers take on dramatic facial expressions and
gesticulations. Sometimes a dancing shaman says something and another sitting shaman
answers back responsively and the two go back and forth like this for a time and maybe
start laughing together. This happens repeatedly between the Enrique and what I would
call the lead shaman, Delfin. Enrique follows Delfin in his dancing, chanting and in
answering him responsively.
25 - YANOMAMI WOMAN
It is a hot but glorious day of blue skies, flooding equatorial sunlight and a few billowing
white clouds. As the ceremony goes on, others in the community go on about their
business. Bare breasted women carry buckets of water on their heads. Naked little girls
and boys carry younger siblings on their hips. Teenagers walk by eating a sweet fruit that
grows wild in the jungle. A woman carries a basket full of wood for cooking.
The spirit of the ceremony is building and soon Delfin is quite clearly talking and arguing
with some spirit. A large black bird flies into the shamanic space. A shaman hits at it to
get it out but it keeps flying back in. The interpenetration of people, plants and animals is
26 - YOPO CEREMONY
Delfin, in contact with his hekura, lifts his shoulders close to his ears, then raises his
elbows to shoulder level, then bends his arms at the elbows, raises his forearms and turns
in his fists. He bends his legs so he is bowlegged and leans to one side. He turns his head
and begins to squawk and scream like some sort of mad bird. He is, at other times, a mild
mannered, and rather timid shaman and even now he rarely seems to make eye contact
with anyone. But he is in contact with his hekura, his animal spirit, and begins to embody
it and be embodied by it. He clucks and squawks and screams. He struts and jumps. He is
fascinating to watch and there is extraordinary humor in it all. He is a brilliant actor but
there appears to be no acting intention. He is being acted upon by his hekura.
27 - GREEN PARROT
Suddenly I hear another shaman squawking. I turn around and see no one. I look down
and find a huge green parrot right behind me. The squawking parrot is actually a bird
mimicking the man squawking like a bird.
28 - BOW AND ARROW
Delfin is now arguing with some spirit and the next thing I know he grabs the bow, of his
bow and arrow, unstrings it and uses it as a spear to attack a „monster‟.
29 - DELFIN
He is roaring, screaming and fighting the beast. He takes his bow and thrusts it deep into
the dry packed earth. He uses such strength it penetrates the ground several inches and
now stands by itself.
Delfin then falls to the ground, next to the spear and acts out the part of the impaled and
wounded beast. It‟s absolutely overwhelming. Soon Enrique joins in on the dance and the
battle, using the yopo tube as a spear to stab at the air. Then Enrique and Delfin jump out
of the shamanic space and into the much larger community circle. They run here and
there attacking the unseen forces.
30 - OLD SHAMAN
Another shaman, blasted into the spirit world, picks up a huge ax and joins them in their
assault on the spirits. The three of them are running around here and there battling the
forces. They run this way and that and seem to be having a childlike kind of fun but there
is also the feeling that they are being deadly serious about all this. The battle goes on.
Then suddenly they stop and look intently in the direction of the river. They look and
point. I can‟t tell what it is they are seeing, if anything at all, as my view is blocked from
within the shamanic space. The three of them are running here and there and children in
the community space are running scared. The shamanic battle is intensifying and
suddenly there is a huge gust of wind. And I mean HUGE! Leaves start flying all around.
People start running for cover and the three shamans carry on the battle as a storm of
thunder and lightening descends upon us at close range in a matter of seconds. The rain
pours down in torrents, soaking the three shamans who continue stabbing the air with
their unstrung bow and yopo tube and swinging the giant ax. The rest of us watch from
under the thatch roof. The rain is pouring down and Delfin returns to the shamans‟ space.
He leans back against a pole, grabs his genitals through his shorts and shakes them
vigorously screaming “Pishee-ee, pishee-ee”. It seems like some sort of sympathetic
magic gesture uniting peeing with raining and encouraging the rain to keep pouring.
Everyone is howling with laughter and the whole thing is absolutely spectacular!!!
31 - WOMAN AND CHILDREN
Soon the rain lets up and the ceremony comes to a peaceful end. The line between the
ceremony and the storm has dissolved completely. Did the shamans‟ ceremony bring the
rainstorm or did the rainstorm bring the shamans‟ ceremony or was the shamans‟
ceremony and the rainstorm somehow part of a whole?
32 - DANIEL AND DELFIN
If contemporary Neolithic peoples live in a world in which the interpenetration of inner
and outer realities takes place through gaping holes in the separating wall between the
community and the jungle, the hallucinogenic yopo ceremony knocks the wall down
turning the dream into an external reality and external reality into a dream.
Psychoanalysis on the other hand leaves the wall in place but opens a window on the
dream world in the midst of waking reality. Through the window we see how the totemic
spirits are projected onto the analyst in the form of a transference and how dream logic is
embedded in symptoms and the repetition compulsion. Direct contact with the dream
spirits and verbal elaboration alone often has a curative effect but when interpretation
leads to reconstruction and narrative elaboration, the patient has a chance to develop a
better relationship to his hekura, his spirits, his internal objects.
33 - HOTI BOY
If the oral stage finds expression in the Upper Paleolithic in a kind of oneness or lack of
differentiation from nature then the Neolithic impresses us with the way it
technologically separated us from nature with village borders, house walls, oven
perimeters and the walls of the ceramic pot.
As dough transformed into bread in the Neolithic oven, and juice into wine in the gourd,
culture transformed in the village, the family transformed in the house and the individual
human mind transformed within the vessel of culture itself.
34 – HOTI VILLAGE LIFE
The separation of people from nature, facilitated a separation of inside from outside,
dreams from waking reality, secondary process from primary process thinking and gave
rise to technological control over nature without and the psychological dominance of ego
consciousness over unconsciousness. Yes, the rudimentary separation was in place long
before the Neolithic but in the Neolithic the separation became technologically
established with dramatic consequences for on-going cultural evolution.
35 – WOMAN IN THE FOREST
Our spiritual saturation in nature was a cultural parallel to narcissism and our newly
developing technologies provided us with defensive structures against the threats of the
wilderness. Thus, within the vessel of culture there developed a set of traditions that gave
rise to our modern psychological structures. The cosmic space of here, being located at
the center of the universe, expanded out into three-dimensional space. And the eternal
now of cosmic time stretched out into circular time and later still into linear time with the
Urban Revolution and its invention of the calendar.
Freud did not have the last century of science and scholarship to tease out the various
strands of his prehistoric reconstruction of the human psyche but he had an intellect and
an intuition that told him where to look: in child development, in psychopathology, in
mythology, in the history of religion, in evolutionary theory, in cultural evolution and
particularly in prehistory. Freud‟s unified theory of individual development and cultural
evolution in Totem and Taboo is the jewel of his genius even if his conclusions were
The cultural innovations of the Paleolithic, Neolithic, Upper Neolithic and Urban
Revolution and the psychological structures they support are not retained as species
memories in a „collective mind‟ passed on from one generation to the next via psycho-
Lamarckian inheritance. No, they are carried in and inherited through language,
technology, customs, ideas and other cultural artifacts passed on from generation to
generation through the medium of culture itself.