Ayahuasca and the Geometry of Sound

Last year I took part in an Ayahuasca healing ceremony. Ayahuasca is a sacred entheogen used by the indigenous people of the Amazon basin. This plant sacrament induces visual and auditory stimulation for the purpose of inner spiritual revelation and physical cleansing. The shamans who oversee the Ayahuasca ceremony will engage in many tasks in order to provide a safe and conducive energetic space for the participants: praying to the four directions, the Sun, Moon, and Mother Earth; shaking branches and leaves; trance-drumming; blowing sacred jungle tobacco called Mapacho; and chanting “icaros” — shamanic healing and protection songs learned directly from the spirit of the plant.

Different types of medicine ceremonies and medicine plants have their own icaros — some songs serve for the purpose of love magic (pusangeria), some induce joy and hope (shirohuehua), some are sung to lead an abducted soul back to its owner (manchari). Each plant dictates its personal song to the shaman or curandero who sings it. The Rena Quilla plant is used to balance women’s mental and spiritual issues. Noyoroa opens the patient’s mind to the pure light of God.

In the ceremony I attended, the shamans sang these Ayahuasca Icaros for nearly 6 hours. The chants followed an extremely repetitive melody which expressed a dark, mystical, spooky mood, and provided guide and structure to the vision quest. The lyrics articulated the shaman’s intention and request for the plant medicine to bring guidance, healing, understanding and protection to the patients. At my ceremony, the Icaros were sung in Spanish — which are apparently not as potent as those sung in the original language of the Amazon basin people, which could be Quechua, Cocama, or Omagua. Nevertheless, shamanic chanting is essential for proper plant medicine ceremonies, and I appreciate my shamans for their dedication during those long hours of singing and energetic space-holding.

Mother Ayahuasca, like all plants, has a co-resonant relationship with music — and at one point the shamans asked the participants to sing if they desired. I opened my mouth and the most beautiful melodies I have ever sang sprung from the depths of my body. It was an incredible, freeing feeling, as if the vines of the plant were sprouting and twisting and blooming out through my throat. Although my ego mind had been struggling stubbornly with the power of the medicine for the duration of my vision journey, in that moment, my psychology was completely overtaken. I had no thoughts, no control. There was only surrender. I became a pure channel for the incredible music of the plant herself.

As long as plant medicine has been used for cathartic healing and spiritual revelation, beautiful textiles describing the intricate mathematical forms of these songs have also been produced. Maestros, or those shamans who chant during plant healing ceremonies, refer to the Icaros as “my painted song”, “my words with those designs”, or “my ringing pattern” — the acoustic manifestation of the plants can be seen by the shamans and/or the patients as uniquely beautiful and colorful geometry.

The largest indigenous community surrounding the Ucayali river region in Peru boasts the vibrant art and design of the Shipibo Conibo people. Shipibo craftswomen translate the Ayahuasca icaros into visual form by weaving, embroidering, and painting geometric patterns into tapestries and ceramics. This intricate linear artwork act as visual music maps which notate the Icaros chants through symmetrical cellular patterns, fractals and curves. The Shipibo can paint the pattern by listening to an Icaro, or they can inversely hear the song by simply viewing and “reading” the design. Shipibo under the influence of the psychedelic affects of Ayahuasca undergo a sort of biological feedback mechanism which affects the visual cortex, allowing the music to be seen, and then translated into this artwork. Synesthesia is the perceptual phenomenon which produces a sense impression relating to one sense by the stimulation of another sense, in this case seeing by hearing, or hearing by seeing. Some human beings are born with this neural cross-wiring and experience this naturally, but it seems that in the case of Icaros and Shipibo artwork, chemical-induced synesthesia is the method by which this beautiful pairing of sacred art and music is created. Whether or not we consume sacred ancient plant medicines, all who experience this shamanic music and visual art are able to connect to the Amazonian’s perspective on the human being’s relationship between mind, body, soul, earth, plant wisdom, the universe, and the spirit world.