A Sanctuary of Spirits and Shamans
The Boiling River and its jungle represent a culturally-significant landscape that serves as the backdrop to rich Amazonian spirituality, legends, and traditions.
According to Maestro Juan Flores (shaman of Mayantuyacu), the Boiling River has always been known as a place of prodigious spiritual power. In the past, local people were afraid to go into the Boiling River’s jungle—particularly to the Mayantuyacu area—as the jungle was home to very powerful spirits (as well as the more tangible, man-eating jaguars). As a result, only the most powerful shamans (some of whom were Maestro Juan’s ancestors) would visit the river in order to commune with the spirits and learn their secret healing arts.
When entering this world of shamans and spirits, it important to be aware of your cultural biases, and not let them hinder your attempts to understand this multi-dimensional world.
For example, anthropologically, most Westerners come from Abrahamic-cultures or lifestyles; i.e., one directly or indirectly influenced by the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, among others. As a result, many Westerners are accustomed to categorizing spiritual forces into two camps: good and evil. Snakes, for example, are often considered evil omens in Western culture— a thought that stems from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 3, when a serpent catalyzes the fall of man.
The spiritual world in the Amazon is not so dichotomous, and in their tradition the spirit world mirrors our own physical world. In the jungle, some spirits are helpful to humans while others seek to harm them. However, the vast majority of spirits are neither “good” nor “evil”—just like humans, they are dynamic and have their own personalities. To understand them, it can be helpful to think of them as “non-human persons.”
Mischievous Jungle Spirits
In this jungle, every rock, plant, force, and animal has a spirit—often referred to as its “madre” (Spanish for “mother”). The Boiling River, for example, has a spirit distinct from the spirit of its vapors. There is an important, local guardian spirit called the Sumiruna, a man-like shamanic water spirit who lives in a large pool in the Boiling River. The Sumiruna is considered a powerful teacher, and only makes himself available to those who are spiritually prepared. Other spirits who are said to roam these jungles include gnomes, shape-shifters, elves, specters, plant and animal spirits, giant jungle crabs, winged-serpents, and animal-human-hybrids such as tapir-people, jaguar-people, sirens, and yaras (women with anaconda-like lower halves).
In 2012, our expedition team spent 8 grueling hours trying to make it to the source of the Boiling River’s headwaters in thick jungle. We finally made it far upriver and deep into the jungle, when our local guide insisted we turn back. He said we were entering a part of the jungle where shapshicos live. Shapshicos (also known as “chullachaquis”) are shape-shifters who are spiteful towards humans. They are said to appear to humans when the human is alone in the jungle. The spirit takes the form of a loved one or friend, and then asks the unsuspecting human to follow it. Once lured deep into the jungle, the shapshico possesses its human victim, corrupting the human until it too becomes a malicious spirit of the jungle.
Walking along the Boiling River with the shamans or one of their apprentices is always fascinating—they identify every medicinal plant along the way, as well as the different spirits that call specific parts of the Boiling River home.
Yacumama: “Mother of the Waters”
One of the most sacred sites on the Boiling River is home to the Yacumama, the “Mother of the Waters.” She is a giant serpent, and births hot and cold waters. The Yacumama is ancient, wise, and reserved, hesitant to interact with humans. However, she is considered a very powerful teacher and guide to humans. She makes her physical home at the site of the first thermal injection that begins to transform the small, cold stream into the Boiling River. At this site (located in the Mayantuyacu area), there is a large sandstone bolder naturally shaped like the head of a large constrictor.
In this Amazonian tradition, serpents are associated with waters, the earth’s inner world, healing, medicines, knowledge, and both life and death. It is interesting to note that independently of this Amazonian belief, the two most popular symbols of Western medicine depict serpents: the Rod of Asclepius (single serpent winding around a staff) and the caduceus (twin serpents winding around an staff, often winged).
The Yacumama’s twins, hot and cold water spirits, each have their own dominion. The cold water spirit is generally associated with our world (Earth’s surface), while the hot water spirit generally keeps to the Earth’s subterranean inner world (though making occasional excursions in the form of hot springs and other geothermal manifestations).
The interaction of these three spirits (the Yacumama and the twins) at the Boiling River was once described to Andrés Ruzo as “the place where the boys come meet their mother.” Sibling rivalries allegedly flare up. These fights take the form of the cold water spirit sending rain and cold streams into the Boiling River (attempting to dominate his brother and lower the river’s temperatures), but the hot water spirit does not yield and retaliates— with boiling water and thermal springs. All the while, the Yacumama is left frustrated at her boys’ rivalry.