Interview with Eda Zavala Lopez, Peruvian Curandera

By Eliot Cowan

One afternoon in June 2012 I was chatting with Eda Zavala about the plant medicine of her beloved Amazonian forest. Eda was born into a family of traditional healers. She lives in a remote village in the jungle of Northeastern Peru, far off the beaten track of ecotourists and neoshamanic adventurers, but not outside the long reach of corporate greed. Eda had come to the U. S. to seek support for saving her pristine forest and also to share about the healing traditions of the Amazon.

Before I switched on the recorder I had asked her to speak about the healing songs, or "icaros" given to Amazonian healers by the plant spirits.

Eda: I'm delighted to explain this to you, Eliot, because I see that you have a lot of respect for our plants…

I feel a lot of devotion and admiration when I sit with the elders and fast with medicinal plants. I am spiritually enriched by the plants. The grandmothers and grandfathers always tell us to pay attention when the plant spirits visit for healing, to talk, or to teach you something. If you are in training to become a healer the plant spirits teach you through the icaros - the songs, sounds, and melodies that appear to you in dreams or visions.

Sometimes the plant spirits are small old men; they can have human form. Sometimes their ears are not human, but a different form. Sometimes they can be animals of the forest, but they might have feet instead of paws or hooves. They can also be small beautiful women of the forest with long black hair; they never show their face. Sometimes they are girls who do let you see their face. All this will depend on which medicinal plant you are taking, which one that the master healer has prescribed for you at that time.

In the case of my brother, who is a great ayahuasquero, the icaros come to him in the middle of his ceremonies. He says he feels the medicine wraps around him and has him produce a melody with his voice. It could be like a whistling bird song, or a hiss like a snake, or like the wind moving through the forest. Then the melodious voice of the plant arrives; it is the spirit of the plant connecting with us.

In other cases [the spirit of the plant] connects with us in visions or dreams. When I traveled with my first teacher, Mama Benita, this happened to me. Sometimes the spirit of the plant comes to you in silence and shows you which way to go. Sometimes it comes in a melody.

Among the elders that I know, the men teach with their icaros, and the women blow tobacco and flower water on you. That is how they transmit the knowledge of the plant. So I have these different teachings from the elders, manifesting in sound, vision, and dream. But theicaros are particularly magical because you realize that the medicinal plant is actually talking to you, it is transmitting the knowledge of how to use it for healing.

Eliot: How is the medicine of the plant delivered [to the patient]?

Eda: This is also very important; it has a lot to do with respect. The old ones, the real masters, the true healers who respect the tradition go to the forest and collect the plant very early in the morning before the sun touches it, but never when it is raining. The masters, (I'm speaking about the men now because we women are even more careful with our sexual energy), the masters abstain from sex for at least eight days before going to collect plants. If you are a really old master you are permanently abstinent. For example, you are in the forest for three months receiving information about the plant. You rest for a little while, then you go back to collect the medicine. Your sexual energy is pure and clean. The elders say you are courting the plant, getting it to fall in love with you. They say the plants are jealous; they don't want you to be touched by another woman or man. If your body and your energy are sexually pure, they let you touch them, they let you collect them or use their sap. You don't necessarily use the whole plant or cut down the tree. You take a little bark or juice, or if they are small you take the shrubs or use the roots and leaves.

There is a whole ritual about this. First and foremost, sexual abstinence. Second, you must not eat meat, and it's best not to eat salt. Then you need to know what is the right time to pick the plant: new moon, full moon, waxing or waning moon. This will depend on what tradition you belong to, how you were instructed by your ancestors.

Eliot: They go to the forest to collect the plant and then they go back to their patient?

Eda: Traditionally, (and this is still done today even by the young ones who take the traditional path), they return to their hut with their wife, daughter or granddaughter who is also fasting from sex, and there they prepare the plant the way the plant itself has instructed you in your dream, your vision, or when the spirit comes and sings or whispers to you. You must follow these instructions - how to prepare it, what dose to give, whether to use the leaves, root, stem, whether fresh or dried. This must be done right away, while the information given by the plant is fresh in your mind. The preparation can take several days, a week or more. Meanwhile you are still abstaining from sex, pork, chili, duck, turkey, and most kinds of fish.

Eliot: What is the healing session like?

Eda: This too will depend on your tradition and the world view of the people and clan you belong to. Also if you are an apprentice it's different from just going to the healer because you're sick. When there is a physical ailment, which is common in the jungle, the master first checks out the patient, takes their pulse, sees what physical organic problem they have, and then selects the plant remedy. The master blesses the plant which will already have been prepared, and the patient drinks it. But first they have to purge all the impurities in the body, and this is very intense…

The master blesses the medicine; we say he blows into it. He blows tobacco and sings the icaro of that medicine, and then he gives it to you. You stay in your hut without leaving… He doses you morning, afternoon and night. It has been blessed, blown on properly. The icaros are in the bottle, the spirits of the plant are in there.

Finally the master comes to your hut and blows wild tobacco on the crown of your head. He blows on your chest, your back, your hands and feet, to dose the healing cycle. This doesn't simply mean the treatment is over and you can eat salt. It means that the spirits of the plant you have taken are made to stay inside you; they continue working in your body, running through your bloodstream. They stay in your body to heal, protect, and care for you.

At this point you have to be very respectful, because if you eat lard, pork, fish, duck, or chili, if you drink alcohol or you have intimate relations with your wife, forget it. You get a hundred thousand times worse than when you arrived to take the treatment.

Eliot: How long do you have to continue the fast after the treatment cycle is closed?

Eda: It depends what medicine you have taken and how disobedient you have been. If you have only eaten a little meat or if you have had sex only one time, the master heals you again, invoking the spirits of the plant and asking that you be pardoned. And you take the medicine again. But if you have been very disobedient and have abused your sexual energy, you have eaten badly, etc., there are people who go crazy.

I've been talking about what it's like to receive healing for a physical illness. When we are on the path of an apprentice learning how to heal, we have to be still more strict. We have to come to the traditional fast physically and emotionally healthy, mentally at peace. On this path the teacher gives you plants of knowledge, which are much more powerful than the ones used for physical healing. During those eight days when you are taking the plant you can feel you are going crazy; your whole body is in pain; you have very high fevers, you can't sleep, your whole body itches. You can vomit a lot, have chills, have diarrhea, and you feel something crawling under your skin, running through your body.

The wise teacher says, "Let it be. It's the spirit of the plant running through you. That's the way it manifests. It has to be this way for you to learn." This is not easy; you've got to pay the price. You must respect and trust them. You have to be convinced that you can get to the spirit of the plant, which could be a little man, a boy, a woman or a girl. You have to stay very calm and receive all that is being given to you at that moment through your body. Ah yes, you first receive the message through your body, in a way that is kind of brutal. It makes your body vibrate, and at the same time you are receiving the knowledge through the dream or the vision you are having at that moment.

You aren't necessarily taking the sacred ayahuasca; there are many other teaching medicines that give you visions, songs, icaros, and instruction in how you are going to heal people.

So far I have received teachings from the feminine plant spirits, because I asked my teachers, "Please let me first heal my feminine essence, my woman's body and mind." But now the elders have said, "It's time now, Eda." This means I now have to take a very powerful [masculine] plant, a plant of great knowledge. I tried it once and I could only stand it for two days. The third day was too much for me, so I said no, it was too much for me. This was about eight years ago. Now I feel I am ready in my spirit, in my body, in my mind. I am totally surrendered to this path.

Now, through your openness and the loving message you want to give to the people, I want to send a message: Please be respectful in the matter of the medicinal plants. It is not something to be learned in a chemistry laboratory; it is much more than that. When the master tells us, "Above all, take care of your sexual energy," one must comply. What you call the spirit of the plant is there; we have to respect it. From the first day you take the medicine the chemical properties are working in your body; in your Circulatory system, your nervous and digestive systems, in the organ that is being healed. But the point is that we have to be completely convinced that it's not just the chemical properties; the medicinal plant is a being, and that is what the masters invoke. That is what they summon with the icaros. That is what we have to respect, to plead to, saying, "Oh, plant, heal me, protect me. I will keep you in me as part of my essence." And the plant stays with you. I am a good example of this.

Since I began taking the medicinal plants I relearned that one must respect them. If you don't take care, the plants abandon you; they don't heal you. And the saddest thing is they don't teach you. But if you respect and love them, they do heal you, they teach you, they transmit to you.

For information on Eda's program at the Blue Deer Center in April, 2013, please click here.