How Feminine is Ayahuasca?

how-fem-is-aya3The following article was originally published on

While doing fieldwork with traditional healers in the Peruvian Amazon, I realized that their way of understanding nature was profoundly embedded within the categories of male and female. Humanity was only one possible expression of this gendered pluriverse. The forest and the cities of the forest were made of people, objects, plants, animals, and other-than-human beings with different gendered identities defined by deep cultural traditions.

Yet, with the recent influx of ayahuasca tourists seeking the “mother” ayahuasca brew, the traditional gender understanding is being turned upside-down. In this space of transformation, local women healers seem to gain more opportunities in the gendered pluriverse.

Doña Alicia from San Pedro island. Artist: Nicole Washburn

Before I tell you about one indigenous Peruvian woman’s journey of healing locals and tourists, let’s consider this traditional gendered reality of plants. One thing that is certain is that it is complex.

Despite the enormous diversity of male and female beings, or “presences,” of the plant world, it was possible for me to identify certain patterns. Two terms appeared constantly among the healers I was researching in Tamshiyacu, a small village near Iquitos. They arepalos, which we can translate as “woods,” and hierbas, which are “herbs.” Each word, however, was a kind of world and defined a specific path between humans and the universe of plants.

In general, male curanderos (healers) tend to work with palos or “woods”, and female curanderas are inclined to work with hierbas or “herbs.” The gender of a healer defines his or her relationship with the pluriverse of the plant kingdom.Existing as relatively independent universes, the palos and the hierbas connect transversally the plants, the human realm, and the other-than-human presences of the forest.

These presences, or beings, dwell in diverse families of dueños, or “owners,” of the plants, and, although these mysterious presences exist in invisible realms, they also may be experienced through the ordinary senses of smell, touch, and taste. Is there not a visible incongruity? Why, if males work with masculine plants and females work with feminine plants, and the sacred vine ayahuasca is understood as a feminine spirit, are the healers who work with ayahuasca mostly male?

This is the tension that I want to consider. But first, let us go over the nature of these two dimensions. Different styles of humanity are expressed in the geographic locations where palos and hierbas grow and propagate. The hierbas are usually grown near houses, gardens, squares, and parks, closely related to women, the elderly, and children. Objects of domestic care and maternal fostering, they belong to a nature that is in a permanent process of bonding to the families that nourish them. Some examples of hierbas are malva (Malachra ruderalis), algodón (Gossypium barbadense) and cordoncillo(Piper aduncum). These plants, usually small to medium in size, tend to have a smooth consistency to touch and a soft or simple taste. They accompany feminine activities such as pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding. Also, they prevent and treat illnesses that are not inflicted by other humans, a local category of afflictions known as males de Diosor “God’s misfortunes.”



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