By drinking bitter (Ayakda Upina) the human body becomes forest body

Tod Swanson

    Amazonian Kichwa regularly drink bitter teas made from hardwood barks to acquire qualities of strength.  What are these qualities? Many of the plants that have bitter alkaloids are trees that have the observable qualities of very hard wood, straight trunks, giant size, resistance to disease or pests and the ability to endure over generations.  These qualities are believed to be transmittable to humans as erect posture, hard muscle tone, resistance to illness, and longevity.  Furthermore the observable physical qualities of the plants are believed to evidence less visible qualities in the person within or behind the plant such as alertness, good memory, acute mind and emotional strength and determination.

    Visionary and medicinal plants such as ayahuasca or tobacco are also bitter.  The enhanced insight, visual, and audible beauty they make possible are further qualities of strength communicated through the bitter taste of their drink.  In Kichwa thinking this bitterness (ayak) of plants is so closely associated with their strength that drinking bitter is associated with the transfer of these qualities from the plant body to the human body.  Any bark that tastes bitter is by that very fact a medicinal tree (ambi yura).

        When the human body becomes more like the plant body through acquiring its bitter taste the human recipient also acquires the strength and subtlety of character, the ability to sing and discern associated with the various plant bodies.  Drinking teas from the bark of many different species gives the body the bio-diverse makeup of the forest’s own strength.  This does not mean that one should ingest everything that is bitter however.  In Kichwa the semantic range of the term ambi covers not only the meaning of the English term “medicine” but also “poison”.   Poisons are medicines so strong that they kill. 

Elsje Lagrou found very similar ideas among the Cashinahua:  For the Cashinahua the bitter quality of shamanic strength is only one end of a continuum of hardness that all people need. 

According to Lagrou “ ...people in general are said (by the Cashinahua) to need some amount of bitterness in their body because it hardens it.  Men though, need more than women, and when women feed babies the latter initially require only sweet and neutral food as their bodies are still soft, malleable and vulnerable.”

Although both men and women need the hard qualities of bitter men need more bitterness than women perhaps because the bitter body is associated with the power to kill.

The repeated consuming of shamanic plants such as ayawaska or tobacco more frequently used by men gives the body shamans a special bitterness.  Lagrou writes:

 “At the other extreme, a shaman is imbued with bitterness, as indicated by his name, mukaya (‘the one with bitterness’).   In this instance the quality stands for power and should not be understood in the Western metaphorical sense of having a ‘bitter heart”.  The shaman’s heart is bitter, but so are his blood and flesh and even his palate.  He is so suffused with bitterness that for him all meat tastes like beeswax (bui), and as a consequence he looses all desire for it.“

For the Cashinahua this bitterness acquired through shamanic plants is also associated with poison and the power to kill.

“The prolonged and systematic use of tobacco powder (rapé) xombined with rigorous fasting (no meat, sweet food, salt, or spices) is another way of acquiring a bitter and thus strong body, that of a shaman.  The story of a mythical shaman hero, Tene Kuin Dumeya... is an epic account of successive victories over yuxibu, monsters that made the forest paths unsafe.  Tene’s fleash was so strong that it was as bitter as poison.  When he dived intothe water to bathe, all the fish died as if they had been killed by poison (puikama). Lagrou p 154-55.

From Elsje Maria Lagrou. "Homesickness and the Cashinahua self", p154-55.  In Joanna Overing and Alan Passes eds., The Anthropology of Love and Anger:  The Aesthetics of Conviviality in Native Amazonia,  pp 152-169.  Routledge: London, 2000.