Nature's Melody: The Healing Harmony of Ayahuasca Icaros
"The spirit of the medicine comes to you and you start to have visions," explains Nima, a 27-year-old Shipibo-Konibo ayahuasca healer. "Then, afterwards, the icaros start to appear."
Being from the Shipibo-Konibo community, ayahuasca and icaros are Nima's ancestral inheritance.
"In past times, my parents, my grandparents, and my ancestors, were Murayas."
In the Amazon, Murayas or Merayas is one of several terms distinguishing a shaman at the peak of their craft. "So, I come from their blood," says Nima.
Nima describes himself as a knower of wisdom, science, and medicinal plants from his home in the Ucayali region of the Peruvian Amazon. For the past eight years, he has studied under his mother and brother.
"We come from the roots. So we are like ancestral doctors, [the tradition] has been passed down through generations, and we continue it."
He sends me a sample Icaro through Whatsapp, which is somewhere between singing and chanting and is quite soothing.
Icaros can be acapella, whistled or accompanied by a maraca or a chakapa (shacapa), a shaker made of bundled leaves. The songs serve many purposes, from healing to sorcery. There are thousands of icaros, unique to individual shamans, who often learn the songs from their plant teachers directly. Shamans collect these songs to use at the right moment in ayahuasca ceremonies and other shamanic work.
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What Are Icaros?
Icaros are traditional healing songs or chants used in rituals associated with ayahuasca. These songs are a central part of ayahuasca ceremonies as practiced by indigenous tribes in Peru, Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador.
Hearing My First Icaro
I'm sitting in the dark, impatiently waiting for the medicine to kick in. The room is silent, and I'm wondering if I need to force down another thick, bitter cup of ayahuasca.
Before I can get up, a soft rustle, like wind blowing dried leaves, brings me to attention. The ayahuasquero facilitating the ceremony is shaking out a rhythm with his chakapa.
Sh, sh, sh, sh…
The ayahuasquero begins to gently whistle a tune.
Immediately, my vision is overtaken by a wave of turquoise and orange butterfly wings. The wave breaks, scattering ripples of impossible purple and red geometric patterns. With the first repetitions of the tune, I sink into another world where, mere seconds before, I was stone sober.
Before exploring the ensuing visions of neon plant creatures and getting lost in conversation with geometric entities, I hear the icaro land around the room. The energy shift is palpable as people shift on their mats, and a few people in the circle begin to vomit.
"The icaros activate the effects of the medicine," says Gracia María, a Peruvian woman of prayer and leader of plant medicine retreats around the world.
María takes a break from back-to-back retreats in Bali to share her perspective, explaining that Icaros "help induce the passengers into an altered estate of consciousness, guiding the journey through vibration."
Potentiating the medicine or bringing on la purg, like vomiting or diarrhea, is a pretty common effect of icaros. Being impacted by an Icaro in this way is neither gentle nor soothing, but such "cleaning" is a fundamental property of ayahuasca and can be a profound healing event.
Other songs are beautiful and can elevate. Some are strange and moving. Like any form of music, the feelings Icaros can evoke are limitless. The sounds can also trigger massive emotional releases, visions, memories, encounters with beings, journeys to other worlds, and too many other phenomena to list.
What are Icaros Used For?
Stephan Beyer, Ph.D., about his time studying Amazonian plant medicine, wrote his book Singing to the Plants. Through his research, he compiled many uses of icaros.
Some examples we might expect include:
To exchange knowledge
Beyer's list (which is very long, and not all are included here) gets extremely specific:
To stun a snake
To make a distant loved one return
To call the soul back to the body
To protect before sex
To make a sorcerer fall asleep
To call the spirit of a dead shaman
To visit distant planets
To call the rainbow
Beyer's book is full of tales of sorcerers or brujos, using icaros for shamanic warfare, a common practice in Amazonia. Rivals engage in bitter battles, resulting in death or injury for those involved. Others will use their powers to manipulate — such as making people fall in love.
"The icaros provide a strength, they give you a power that reaches a higher level than where you started," says Nima. While he does warn against charlatans working with poor intentions, he emphasizes the healing potential of icaros.
"With love, you can heal all kinds of things. And with love, you nourish the medicine of the human being and the beings who can help us."
Icaros & Plant Dietas
"The Icaros are received during dietas, or during ceremony works," says María. She describes dietas as "a period of isolation, deep inner reflection and comunión with the sacred master plant allies in the jungle."