Shamanism and Priesthood in the Light of
the Campa Ayahuasca Ceremony

Gerald Weiss
Taken from _Hallucinogens & Shamanism_
Edited by Michael J. Harner. 1973, Oxford University Press

We have come to recognize two main types of religious practi-

tioners, the shaman and the priest. The shaman is found typically

in tribal cultures, the priest in state formations and so, presumably,

later in appearance, although some overlap between the two may

occur. The picture we derive from the literature on this subject

presents a sharp contrast between shaman and priest: we con-

ceive of them as qualitatively different. We think of a shaman

as obtaining his powers primarily from direct contact with spirits,

of a priest as one who earns his credentials primarily through

special training (Lowie, 1954:179)· We think of a shaman as an

independent practitioner operating on a part-time basis, of a priest

as a member of an organization consisting of full-time specialists

(Beals and Hoijer, 1965:585-86; Hoebel, 1966:482; Jacobs, 1964:

381). We see a shaman as one who focuses his professional skills

on individuals, particularly for ·purposes of curing, a priest as one

who leads group activities of a ceremonial nature (Beals and

Holier, 1965:586; Norbeck, 1961:103). We see the activity of a

Gerald Weiss, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Florida Atlantic
University, Boca Raton, Florida. He conducted field research between 1960 and 1964
among the Campa of the eastern Peruvian rain forest. An earlier version of this
paper was read in the Hallucinogens and Shamanism symposium at the annual meet-
ing of the American Anthropological Association in Seattle in 1968.

shaman as characterized by possession, trance, and frenzy, while

we see a priest conducting routine propitiatory acts of adoration,

prayer, and offerings (Casanowicz, 1925; Lowie, 1940:310-11;

Norbeck, 1961:103-5; Shirokogoroff, 1923; Wissler, 1938:201--6).

Broadly speaking, it is in such terms that the distinction be-

tween shaman and priest is made. One difficulty which has been

overlooked, however, is that in these terms there is no point of

contact between the two: they are simply two different kinds of

religious practitioner, as different from and unrelated to one an-

other as carpenters and potters among artisans. As a consequence,

we are faced with the following question: where did the priest, as

the later form, come from! Did he spring up out of nowhere as

an independent development to challenge the shaman, or is there

not some point of contact, some area of overlap that would allow

us to entertain the possibility that priests developed historically

out of shamans!

The notion that priests are the offspring of shamans has been

argued by some writers. Sternberg (1925:502) suggests a develop-

ment from shaman to priest with a concomitant shift from pos-

session to solicitation, from spirit to god, and from hut to temple.

Chapple and Coon (1942:407-12), While using "shaman" and

"priest" interchangeably in referring to religious practitioners,

nevertheless postulate that an original generalized practitioner

came in time to be specialized along a number of different lines,

one of these being that of a specialist in ritual. If we entertain

this possibility, however, as I propose to do here, there remains

the question of how the shift might have come about, especially

since the archetypal shaman and priest are commonly presented

as qualitatively different in their manner of conducting profes-

sional activities.

In keeping with Chapple and Coon's developmental scheme,

let us take "shaman" to mean a generalized or undifferentiated

religious practitioner, one who combines general contact with the

supernatural realm and application of this contact, particularly in

curing. Such a practitioner is generally associated with those char-

acteristics that have been mentioned as setting him apart quali-

tatively from the priest. Let us take "priest" to mean a religious

practitioner specializing in ritual. and further typified by those

distinctive characteristics already mentioned for him. In these

terms, a priest may be distinguished from a generalized practi-

tioner or shaman, and from other specialized practitioners, such as

the diviner, the prophet, and the specialized curer.

It is also important to establish that, where he makes his ap-

pearance, the shaman engages not only in individual curing, but

also in a particular form of group ceremony or ritual which we

recognize as a shamanistic performance or seance. This shaman-

istic ritual typically (or archetypically) incorporates such elements

as spirit-possession, soul-flight, ventriloquism, and movement of

objects, all effected by the shaman, whose behavior combines

frenzy and trance, while the assembled laymen remain passive

observers. A shamanistic performance in these particulars differs

from a typical priestly ritual, which might be described as formal

worship since it involves a reverent formalism that excludes

frenzy, and acts of propitiation or adoration that exclude vir-

tuosity. In these terms, it is difficult to see in a priest a specialized

shaman, for a priest's professional activities appear to fall en-

tirely outside the range of shamanistic behavior.

With these considerations in mind, let us inspect the form

of the shamanistic performance I observed among the Campa of

eastern Peru. This ceremony, utilizing the hallucinogenic drug

ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis), would appear to be unusual in certain

respects, and may exemplify the kind of transitional situation that

would permit the transformation of shaman into priest.

The leader of this ceremony among the Campa is a religious

practitioner identifiable without question as a shaman. He is a

man who has passed through a period of apprenticeship but who,

during that period and ever after, obtains, maintains, and in-

creases his recognized special powers solely by the continual and

heroic consumption of drugs: primarily tobacco, particularly in

the form of a concentrated syrup, and ayahuasca. The importance

of these substances is indicated by the word for shaman in the

Campa language: sheripiari, which contains the Campa term for

tobacco (sheri). Tobacco is not an hallucinogen, but in massive

doses it is a powerful intoxicant; As such, it is credited as the

general source of a Campa shaman's powers to see and communi-

cate with the spirits and to cure or (rather) to diagnose illness.

Ayahuasca is an hallucinogen which puts him directly into com-

munication with the spirit world, as spirits visit him, or as his

soul leaves his body to visit the abodes of the spirits and other

distant places.

Campa shamans take ayahuasca frequently, often keeping a

supply on hand for this purpose. But in addition, from time to

time, by decision or request, they conduct a group ceremony in-

volving ayahuasca, which we can refer to as the Campa ayahuasca

ceremony. This ceremony is essentially a shamanistic s(lance, but

of a somewhat distinctive kind.

The Campa ayahuasca ceremony begins at nightfall since the

drug requires darkness to produce its visual effects. A quantity of

the drug, in the form of a thick liquid, is prepared in advance and

set aside for use in the ceremony. The drug itself is called

kama'rampi in the Campa language, from the verb root -kamarank-,

which means "to vomit," reflecting its extremely bitter and some-

times emetic qualities. It is prepared by boiling fragments of

ayahuasca vine (also called kama'rampi) which the Campa find

growing wild and transplant to the vicinity of their settlements,

combined with leaves from an uncultivated tree bearing the

Campa name of hor6va (Psychotria viridis).

At nightfall, those who are present convene, arranging them-

selves sitting or lying on mats out in the open of the settlement

clearing, or else under a house roof, the women separated from

the men in the Campa fashion. The shaman is the center of at-

tention, with the vessel containing the kama'rampi by him. Using

a small gourd bowl, he drinks a quantity of the liquid, then gives

each of the other participants a drink--a procedure that will be

repeated at intervals until the supply is consumed. About half an

hour later, the drug begins to take effect, and the shaman begins

to sing. He sings one song after another as long as he is under the

influence of the drug, and the seance may last until dawn.

There is a distinctive quality to the singing of a Campa shaman

under the influence of kamarampi, an eerie, distant quality of

voice. His jaw may quiver, he may cause his clothing to vibrate.

'What is understood to be happening is that the good spirits have

come to visit the group that has called them: they come in human

form, festively attired; they sing and dance before the assembled

mortals, but only the shaman perceives them clearly. It is further

understood that when the shaman sings he is only repeating what

he hears the spirits sing, he is merely singing along with them.

At no time is he possessed by a spirit, since Campa culture does

not include a belief in spirit-possession.

Even while the shaman is singing, his soul may go on a flight

to some distant place, returning later. Some shamans move from

the sight of the rest of the group during the ceremony and then

pretend to disappear bodily on such a flight, only to return later.

The soul-flight of the shaman is an optional concomitant in any

case, and in its usual form is a personal experience that does not

intrude upon the actual performance of the ceremony.

The songs mainly extol the excellence and bounty of the good

spirits. One song marks the appearance of the hawk Koa'kiti in

human form:

Tobacco, tobacco, pure tobacco

It comes from River's Beginning

Koa'kiti, the hawk, brings it to you

Its flowers are flying, tobacco

It comes to your [or our] aid, tobacco

Tobacco, tobacco, pure tobacco

Koakiti, the hawk, is its owner

The following lines are from a song marking the appearance of

hummingbird spirits:

Hummingbirds, hummingbirds, they come running

Hummingbirds, hummingbirds, dark appearance

Hummingbirds, hummingbirds, all our brothers

Hummingbirds, hummingbirds, they all hover

Hummingbirds, hummingbirds, group without blemish

The entire atmosphere of the ceremony is one of decorum with-

out frenzy, even though the shaman is in a drugged trance. The

ceremony, following a definite if simple format, presents the ap-

pearance of a group of people reverently making contact with the

good spirits under the leadership of a religious practitioner, even

though it is true that they remain passively appreciative spec-

tators of the shaman's virtuosity.

Thus, the Campa kama'rampi ceremony is definitely a shaman-

istic performance. The spirits communicate through the shaman

to the spectators, and the shaman puts on a show. Nevertheless,

the particular way in which these objectives are accomplished

embodies a certain ambiguity or ambivalence, because the very

same acts are acts of worship as well, as the shaman, leader of

the group, reverently makes contact with the good spirits and

praises them in song. To this extent the ceremony takes on certain

of the distinctive qualities of priestly ritual. ?he effect is that of

an optical illusion (Necker illusion) to an observer preconditioned

to recognize the difference between the two: the same behavior

looks like a seance one moment and like worship the next.

That we have here a true and not merely an apparent am-

bivalence is suggested by a special local variation of the kamarampi

ceremony in which the element of worship or adoration is more

strongly pronounced. In one part of Campa territory that I visited.

the ceremony proceeds as described, except that the men take

turns singing so that the shaman remains the director of the

ceremony but is no longer the only virtuoso. In addition, the men

and the women separately and together dance and sing in praise

of the good spirits. Here the arrow of communication is unam-

biguously from mortals to immortals rather than the reverse, and

it is in the form of adoration. Some recent missionary influence

may be suspected in this case, but we are definitely still operating

within the framework of the basic Campa kama'rampi ceremony,

the main difference being that the element of worship has come

to be accentuated and stripped of much of its ambiguity.

These, then, are the facts relevant to our problem. With re-

spect to their interpretation, a number of alternative possibilities

exist, none of which can be entirely ruled out. First, it remains

possible that the points of similarity between the Campa shaman-

istic performance and true priestly ritual are only apparent and

not real, or are not significant. Second, whatever their status,

there is no certainty that from this kind of shamanistic perform-

ance true priestly ritual emerged as a matter of historical fact.

Third, it is possible that Andean or missionary influence has in-

fused the Campa shamanistic performance with the flavor of

priestly ritual, given the proximity of Campa territory to the

former Incan empire with its full-blown priesthood, and more

than three centuries of European missionary activity among the


But there remains another possibility suggested by the Campa

data, one which deserves some attention in thinking about the

circumstances leading to the emergence of the priest. It is possible

that the total range of variation of shamanistic phenomena un-

affected by any already existing priesthood includes a rather spe-

cial variant of the usual shamanistic ritual. This variant is not

necessarily common, but its features are ambivalent in such a way

that a slight shift in how the participants interpret what they are

doing could transform an essentially shamanistic seance into a

priestly ritual. If this is indeed the case, then we may have dis-

covered the behavioral link between generalized shamans and

specialized priests that could have permitted the transition from

one to the other.


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