I Took Part In An Ancient Andean Despacho Ceremony
June 26, 2009 by rtwsenior
I had company last week and haven’t blogged for awhile. Now, I’m back to typing up my travel journals covering my four month backpacking/hosteling journey down the Andean Cordillera, the spine of South America…nay, the spine of the whole planet….and just now, I’m working on my notes for Peru, written last March, 2009. I spent a week in Pisac, Peru, in the Sacred Valley, just an hour north of Cusco, as a guest at Paz y Luz Healing Center where I took part in several wonderful ancient shamanic ceremonies. This entry describes a Despacho Blessing Ceremony:
“About a dozen of us gathered in the circular glass house often used for meals at Paz y Luz, but designed also for classes and ceremonies. We sat on blankets on the floor and from within our glass house we could see the low afternoon sun, golden on the green encircling Andes heights. This was a special time of the year because recent rains had given a lush green covering to otherwise brown mountains and fields.
The Despacho is a ceremony in which wishes and intentions of everyone present are placed artistically into a bundle and burned so that the smoke carries our prayers up to Heaven. I understand that the bundle is sometimes buried as an offering to Pachamama or Mother Earth, but a large fire was being built to receive our offerings this day. The shaman and his wife came down from their village very, very high in the Andes to perform this ceremony. Their tribe still speaks an old version of the Quechua language and customs have not changed for many centuries, as their people had taken refuge on the heights when the Spanish Conquistadors ravaged the Incan civilization in the sixteenth century.
This couple was colorfully dressed in jackets and hats of lime green, pinks, reds, and yellows, over black felt knee-length pants for him and a black full skirt for her. They were short of stature, with strong sturdy bare legs and feet, well-muscled from climbing these mountain heights. What sort of shoes must they wear to do that, I wondered? Surely not barefoot, as they were now. They appeared to be naturally joyful and perfectly tuned to each other as she assisted him throughout the hour-long ceremony. It was a quiet, worshipful tribute to the Earth and all of her gifts, offering thanksgiving for prayers not yet answered. I was thinking to myself that there was no way to do justice to this event in words. “Indescribable” was all that I could think of when faced with the question of how I could capture this in a blog.
Each of us were given a small pile of fresh coca leaves and were told to select fifteen and then place them in sets of three. Each set was to represent our prayers and wishes for a certain outcome. I made sets for my family members’ health and happiness and then some for the success of my current plan: the healing of this planet using the spinal column analogy comparing the backbone of the human body to the Andean mountain cordillera throughout South America. Our blown breath carried our conscious intention into the leaves.
Upon a square of clean white paper before him, the shaman arranged a beautiful design of seeds, sugar, llama fat and coca leaves, as well as small candies, flower petals and chunks of animal crackers representing all of the kingdoms of creation. Our own human hearts were placed there within our little sets of coca leaves holding our prayers for the well-being of those we loved.
This beautiful despacho design reminded me of Native American sand paintings, or Buddhist sand mandalas offered to a watchful Deity, both of which are always destroyed after the ceremony. In fact, all ancient cultures living close to the earth … whether in these sacred mountains; deep in the Amazon jungle; throughout the vast plains of the world, or the unexploited regions of North America before the conquering, smothering influx of European culture… all must worship in a similar fashion. This quiet native thanksgiving to God and their humble way of offering prayers is in such contrast to the religions which replaced their tribal way.
There’s a strong matriarchal acknowledgment to Mother Earth, Pachamama, here. She is the source of all life and the people hold a deep appreciation of women as a whole, considering them the basis and foundation of life. Therefore, their whole approach might represent the feminine, in contrast to the masculine emphasis so strongly found in Western religions. It’s true that men are the shamans here, but they have a wide-awake awareness of each participant in the ceremony and a gentle concern to include every one. They seem to see themselves as facilitators for the inclusion of every individual present, and yet the women in attendance are singled out for special praise.
Gee, this is sounding like some psychological seminar or anthropological analysis which is nowhere within my small range of skills. Rather, it represents some of the small thoughts drifting through my mind as I was realizing that I couldn’t describe what I was seeing. Throughout the three ceremonies of this day, I was aware that I was taking part in something very, very ancient, which might have looked just this way many hundreds of years ago. Those ceremonies, however, wouldn’t have required translation to Spanish and English, but would have been understood in the Incan Quechua which the shaman and his wife were speaking.
There was no formality except in the quiet reverence with which the objects were handled and the uttering of soft prayers throughout the ceremoney. We were comfortable, quiet witnesses who took complete part at the same time. When the paper bundle was filled, it was folded within a square of reddish woven cloth. Each one of us stood, in turn, while the shaman moved this packet up and down our bodies, drawing off all negative energies to go into the fire with the offering. Then the shaman’s mesa, a cloth bundle containing objects of spiritual significance to him, was passed over those same parts of our bodies to infuse us with fresh strength and energy.
We were then invited to bring our own mesa, if we had one, for prayers and blessings. Most of the participants had already been to other such ceremonies and had accumulated their own objects, wrapped with cloth into a bound bundle. I did not have one, though I did have several Peruvian things bought in the Pisac market, including a necklace and a ceramic bull given to me by merchants who were grateful that I didn’t haggle. The shaman held our precious objects, prayed over them, blew his breath upon them and gave them back to us.
Soon, we all moved outside to the fire pit where the special packet was placed upon the flames, creating a moment when The Goddess would enjoy the gifts; during which we all respectfully turned our backs to the fire. A few minutes later, we were laughing and talking and warming our hands over the ceremonial fire, preparing to walk to our next event a mile or two across the village. It was to be my second Ayahuasca Ceremony of the week. I’ll cover that in the next blog.