It is the quintessential image of the shamanic ceremony: participants gathered in a circle with the curanderos, the smell of sage, sweetgrass, or palo santo drifts through the space, and more than likely there is a heavy haze of mapacho smoke in the air. The sacrament has been served. Night has fully fallen. As the curandero shakes the rattle and whistles gently, one can feel the energy of the medicine flow into the space like a cool breeze, and when the curandero opens his heart and his vessel to the spirits, lilting into the first medicine song-- the first icaro-- it feels as if the bottom has dropped out of the rollercoaster as the medicine begins to vibrate us from the inside out… this is when the journey truly begins.
It is difficult to imagine any kind of medicine ceremony without picturing the shaman singing or chanting; this is because the sounds of ceremony are the keystone of the entire process. Therefore, the subject of icaros-- i.e., Ayahuasca or plant medicine songs-- is quite an extensive one. In fact, we and many others in the plant medicine community would put forth the idea that the icaros are actually a complex technology in which they function as a delivery system for the medicine itself.
This may be surprising to those who have not had direct experience with a traditional Ayahuasca ceremonies. To the uninitiated, icaros may simply appear to be songs or chants that the curandero (shaman) sings to provide an audial component to the setting of the ceremony, maybe even music to simply amplify the “trip”. That is, many newcomers do not realize the importance of the icaros in ceremony. Even though it is hard to picture any kind of traditional ceremony without chanting and song, it is equally hard to understand the critical role these songs play within the ceremony without having experienced them first hand. In this post we intend to highlight the importance of icaros as they relate to Ayahuasca itself and how icaros and Ayahuasca work together in seamless, symbiotic concert.
From the outside looking in, an Ayahuasca ceremony simply looks like taking a psychedelic and listening to a shaman sing songs all night. Unfortunately, this basic misunderstanding can then lead to yet another misunderstanding that all it takes to become a shaman is to learn how to sing some icaros while participants go through their Ayahuasca experience. However, a much better understanding comes quite quickly after one has gained some direct experience with Ayahuasca and the icaros sung in ceremony. Within the context of a ceremony with a well-trained and experienced shaman, it does not take long for the participant to realize that icaros are a rich and complex technology that require years of training and practice in order to truly sing them with any real efficacy.
In this post, we will do our best to articulate how icaros function and how a curandero goes about learning and using icaros. With that said, we will start the discussion off with explaining how an apprentice or even an experienced curandero learns their icaros. This explanation of the learning process will form a good foundation for us to move into the explanation of how icaros work in ceremony.
The foundation of the Amazonian shamanic training path is the practice of the shamanic “dieta” (literal translation: diet). In other posts, on our podcasts and on our website we have mentioned that if one approaches the curanderos in the jungles of Peru and indicates interest in studying plant medicines, their response is, “Dieta, Dieta, Dieta”. It is notable that they do not say, “Ayahuasca, Ayahuasca, Ayahuasca.”
The conversation around the shamanic dieta is a very large one and we can not attempt to cover it in this post. In fact it is such a big subject, we have put together a two hour podcast about dieta. If you want to dive into learning about the shamanic dieta, you can click here to listen to the podcast. That said, we will provide a brief description of the shamanic dieta as it is integral to the subject of icaros.
In a nutshell, the practice of the shamanic dieta has several functions and desired outcomes. As the practice relates to icaros they can be listed as follows:
Spirit Allies. A shaman or shamanic apprentice will diet in order to form a very strong personal relationship between him or herself and the tree or plant spirit. In this way the dietero (the one dieting) embodies the medicine of the particular plant, and can call on the spirit of this plant to assist in ceremony. It is notable that a curandero will want to form this sort of relationship with many different trees and plants as they become their friends or allies and in turn they call on their friends to help out when necessary. We can always use more plant spirit friends and we can always strengthen our existing relationships through the practice of the shamanic dieta.
Purification. Those practicing or studying shamanism will diet to clean the physical and energetic bodies. In Amazonian plant shamanism we are obsessed with energetic cleanliness. This is because, if the vessel is clean, the medicine flows through the vessel out to others in a much smoother manner than if the vessel is dirty or “blocked/kinked” up. Again, the more one diets, the cleaner the vessel becomes and the more optimized the vessel is for delivering medicine (both by proximity and through the use of icaros).
Charging the body with medicine. A shaman will diet to build medicine energy in the body. The analogy is that the energetic body is like a battery. By doing diets, the dietero charges his medicine battery.
Energetic Protection. Dietas widen and clean the energy channels such that negative energy has nothing to “resonate” with, or stick to. In turn, this brings tremendous stability to the Ayahuasca ceremony by allowing the curandero to hold their center in what can be intense vortexes of energy that flow through an Ayahuasca ceremony. If the curandero is stable during this time, that stability flows out to the ceremony participants.
As mentioned above in the first bullet point, one of the functions of dieta is to create a close relationship with the tree or plant spirit that is dieted. This concept of forming a strong bond with a plant spirit is extremely important. It is through these relationships that the curandero begins to learn to listen to the plants and, one could say, speak their language. It is often said that the icaros are sung in the language of the plants. The icaros often have recognizable words, but the driving tones and vibrations of the melodies that the plants respond to: Icaros are sung in the language of the plants.
Also, it is through the practice of dieta and the forming of relationships that allow specific medicine from the plants dieted by the curandero to be delivered from the singer of the icaro via the carrying technology of the icaro and into the body of the participant. With the help of Ayahuasca, the vibration of the icaro which is carrying the the medicine of the plant dieted, unlocks the cells in the participant’s body to receive that plant medicine. This vibration then interacts with the Ayahuasca already in the participant’s body in a manner that is specifically appropriate for that person at that particular moment in ceremony. All of this, in turn, facilitates cleaning, healing and learning.
Example: A curandero completes one or many shamanic dietas with the tree Bobinsana. He then forms a strong relationship to the tree spirit of Bobinsana and learns a Bobinsana icaro. When the curandero sings the Bobinsana icaro in ceremony the icaro is the delivery mechanism for the Bobinsana medicine. This technology interacts with the Ayahuasca that is already in the participants body; Ayahuasca helps open the cells to receive the Bobinsana medicine via the icaro. The shamanic dieta, the icaro and Ayahuasca all work in a beautiful and magical concert that is, in a word, astounding. (Note: In this example you can replace “Bobinsana” with other plants or trees such as Sanango, Ayahuma, Ajo Sacha, Ix Cacao, etc…)
This example may sound fantastical, but it is a statement based on personal experience and based on feedback from our ceremony participants over the past 9 years. In fact, here are some examples of that feedback from participants:
“I had no idea how important the icaros are to ceremony. They really impact the experience. It is like the icaros paint the visions.”
“Wow, I was just about to totally lose my shit and then y’all sang the perfect icaro that led me out of some pretty intense darkness.”
“I was really struggling. I was in the ‘washing machine’. Then Jess came over to give me a ventiada (direct personal work, using an icaro, for someone having a hard time) and it pulled me out! Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
In summary, it is through the practice of dieta that a curandero facilitates their relationships with plant spirit friends and allies and cultivates their particular medicine in his body. It is through this practice that the body, mind and spirit are cleaned and charged up like a battery with various plant medicines.
Over time and after years of dieting, the curandero’s body can become optimized to understand and take direction from the plant spirits themselves. These spirits tell the curandero what to do, when to do it, and which icaros to sing and when during ceremony.
It is worth highlighting that last point….the plant spirits tell the curandero what to sing and when. There is no icaro “play list” during ceremony. Sure, we will often open the ceremony with the same protection icaros, but once that protection is in place, we wait for the medicine or plant spirits to direct us as to what to sing, when to sing it, and how to sing it.
One could say that a curandero is not singing an icaro, rather the plant medicine spirits are using the curandero as an instrument or tool to deliver the appropriate plant medicine via the icaro to the participants. The plant medicine spirits are actually singing the curandero.
A good curandero knows how to “step out of the way” and let the medicine use him as a delivery mechanism. They understand that a ceremony requires a flow state on the part of the shaman and is more like surfing than a pre-planned orchestra.
Now, it is worth noting that one can learn icaros by listening and singing along in ceremony without doing any shamanic dietas at all. This is fine and can often be done without consequence. In fact we encourage those who sit with us regularly as a spiritual practice to learn icaros of plants and trees that they have yet to diet.
It is just important to understand that if one has not dieted the plant of the icaro being sung, it will not have the same vibrational impact or medicinal punch as an icaro wherein the singer has dieted that plant. It may very well be a beautiful icaro and sung in a very nice way, it just won’t have as much “medicine”.
When one does a shamanic dieta and forms a strong relationship with a plant spirit and they sing that plant’s icaro, some very interesting things can and often do happen:
The voice, melody, or cadence of the singer changes depending on which plant icaro is sung. This happens without any conscious effort or “trying” on the singer’s part. The singer simply trusts the medicine, letting it flow allowing their body/vessel to be channel for the medicine.
The singer will feel an internal rush or tingling of energy as the medicine stored in their body comes up and forth through the singing of the icaro.
The participants in ceremony will literally feel the icaro activating the medicine in their bodies and directing that medicine. Participants often notice that the character of their experience and the nature of their visions will change depending on which icaro is being sung, and which curandero is singing (as the medicine will often take on the energetic flavor the “vessel”).
As mentioned above, one can learn plant icaros without dieting those plants and they can helpful and beautiful. However, they will not be as powerful nor go as deep in terms of cleaning and healing. This a major reason as to why the Maestros in the jungle say that if you want to learn the medicine, “Dieta, Dieta, Dieta”.
The process of learning or receiving the icaro usually comes about in a few ways:
Receiving an original icaro directly from the plant spirit. This often happens during dreams, during dieta or in ceremony although it can happen at any time.
Learning by spending time with a teacher during ceremony and singing along in ceremony.
Learning through some sort of recording.
While the above ways of learning icaros seem to be quite distinct, I would argue that eventually all the icaros become original icaros that are received directly from the plant spirits. That is, as a curandero gains experience and builds their relationships with the different plants, they will progressively learn to get out of their own way and let the medicine move through them and express via the icaro. This “getting out of the way” will produce icaros that shift in terms of melody, stanzas, cadence and tone such that the icaro is always a personal expression of the medicine carried by a curandero that is simply moving through a unique vessel or instrument. We often times finish a round of icaros and are simply astonished as to what just came out of our mouths!
There are many types of icaros, and it depends on the lineage and practice as to what types of icaros are used by any given curandero. Our lineage practices “pura medicina” or pure medicine. So due to our very narrow focus in terms of practice, our icaros consist of the following intentions:
Calling in the effects of the medicine or increasing the effects of the medicine.
Calling the medicine to clean and heal.
Connecting with the Divine.
Other shamans or curanderos may have other areas that they play in, but we are exclusively focused on pura medicina in terms of our retreats, our ceremonies and our icaros. Therefore, we really can not comment on the larger range of icaros that exist as we have not studied them.
It is not uncommon to continue to hear the icaros for days or even months after ceremony. Particularly as one is drifting off to sleep or waking, the icaros are pervasive throughout one’s stream of consciousness, as literally an echo of the medicine continuing to vibrate within all the cells of the body. Imagine the sweetness of songs sung in the key of Pura Medicina, washing over and through the body like waves long after retreat is over… this is the gift of Ayahuasca through the technology of the icaros.
To listen to some recordings of La Familia Ayahuasca singing icaros, you can click here.