Reality, Invisible World and Shamanism

An Outlook from the Indigenous Worldview1

by Carlos Martínez Sarasola

Pablo Figueroa, translator, Graciana Dutto, proofreader

Mundara Koorang (Thunder Snake) of the Gamilaroi people of Moree, Australia.

The worldview of native peoples very often faces westerners with the problem of questioning our own beliefs about reality. In this clash of worldviews, important questions arise. Are there any other levels beyond the one known as “ordinary reality”? Is there an invisible world? What does it mean to “travel” through other realities?

Denying or excluding what cannot be understood is a common attitude in the western conception. It is also fairly common for uniformity of thought to be the rule. Things are one way or the other, and they can’t be both ways at the same time. This dogmatic and narrow-minded perspective tends to exclude, deny, or in the best of circumstances discredit anything that is not easy to integrate into this frame. The dominant western worldview has difficulty handling elements that appear to be conflictive or opposite to each other except through simple dichotomies.

Within an indigenous worldview, the search for harmony and balance is something natural. Thus, things, people and other living creatures are seen in a constant interrelationship where they are part of a whole and where integration is the rule. Dreams are incorporated into daily life and are not something separated from the person’s “ordinary” world. The spirits in the woods live together with humans. Nature is magical and alive, and its creatures can talk with us.

Carlos Martínez Sarasola is an anthropologist. Lecturer in the MA program in Cultural Diversity at the Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and researcher in the Institute for Cultural Diversity at the same university. Member of the Editorial Board of the magazine Diversidad. Author of De manera sagrada y en celebración. Identidad, cosmovisión y espiritualidad en los pueblos indígenas (In a Sacred Way and in Celebration. Identity, Worldview and Spirituality in the Indigenous Peoples) Biblos, 2010 ; Nuestros paisanos los indios (Our Country Men, the Indians) [1992] Del Nuevo Extremo, 2013 –among others- and coauthor of El Lenguaje de los Dioses. Arte, chamanismo y cosmovisión indígena en Sudamérica (The Language of Gods. Art, Shamanism and Indigenous Worldview in South America) Biblos (2004). His work focuses on indigenous issues and ethnohistory of Argentina, comparative and cross-cultural approaches to indigenous worldviews and shamanism, and emerging processes of re-ethnization and spirituality in the Americas.

Mutual openness is a necessary condition for trying to explore the territory between western and indigenous worldviews. In an interesting article, anthropologist Pablo Wright described a short time ago the difficulties he faced when interacting with a toba (pi’ogonag) shaman, and his efforts at trying to understand a view of the world different from the western one.

I had never imagined being near a pi’ogonag who would make an everyday thing of relationships and entities that, in my mind, formed a set that wasn’t linked with real life. There, in broad daylight, Alejandro was talking calmly and I was trying hard to understand what he was saying (1996, p. 173).

In one of his last works on the shuar groups from the jungle in Ecuador, anthropologist Josep M. Fericgla reflects on reality and the process of knowing it. He suggests that in light of the most recent findings in cognitive research, the early discarded perspective of some of the classic anthropologists should be reconsidered:

Thinking reality—not “thinking about” reality—if it’s possible to put it this way (doubtful), is closer to reality itself than to our abstract thinking. I start to see clearly that the shuar have a “primal thinking”, that primitive humans are nature which became, to a certain extent, self awareness. We have created a symbolic-abstract reality remote from our own and we have swallowed it. The process through which the shuar elaborate thoughts is almost the opposite from our own. For them, the thought or mental conception itself makes the action happen: I have thought this, so this must happen” (1994, p.79).

In recent times, many philosophical debates, particularly epistemological ones (such as new scientific theories and paradigms), consider reality might be more complex than the one we are used to conceiving in the narrow perspective of materialism. However, the conventional scientific view remains a strong influence on perception.

The production of dissident knowledge is stigmatized and rejected because of its singularity. Any different option is transformed into an analogy of madness or perversion by the guards of the “official definitions” of reality. Alternative knowledge is annihilated because it constitutes the dark side which threatens the lucid reality that traditionally represented science.… science by and large has made all within its reach to state and reinforce the idea of a single and deterministic reality… the scientific vision of reality is based on certain mechanisms or formulas (particularly dualism in all its different forms) that, like black holes, devour differences or make them invisible, suppressing the emotions, the ability to perceive, to think, to dream. (Bergallo 2003, p.189-190).

It is then appropriate to seriously debate and reflect on the western “rational” idea of reality, while bearing in mind the existence of other forms of knowledge.

We are used to inquiring in only one direction: the one which is pointed out for us by the only criterion of reality that we use daily. This criterion is the result of traditional scientific conventions. But…is the reality we know the only possible one? Is the reality we know exactly as we experience and understand it? Is there anything beyond what we are used to perceiving? In general terms, science doesn’t admit the possibility of discussing the existence of facts or phenomena that don’t fit in its view of the world. This is a big flaw in the western perspective. (Martínez Sarasola, 2000a, p. 10).

Patrick Harpur’s original and complete work recovers Jung’s notions of the collective unconscious and “psychic reality.” The concept of imagination is understood as “the realm halfway between mind and matter, the psychic realm of subtle bodies” and it comes from alchemical thought. Harpur also recovers the Neo-Platonic idea of Anima Mundi, which refers to a transitional world inhabited by daimons who act as intermediaries. Based on these concepts, he offers a definition of “daimonic reality”. With it, he explains the ambiguous and mysterious spaces in which “a way of knowing and thinking, a way of seeing the world” navigates. This way of knowing has always been present in human beings, and it incorporates the direct experiences of encounters with entities, situations and phenomena belonging to other levels of reality (Harpur, 2003).

In a more recent essay, Harpur picks up Jung’s crucial intuition about the psyche. “There are things in my psyche that I don’t produce, but they have a life of their own … like animals in the woods or people in a room…” (Harpur, 2003, p. 34).

Invisible World, Shamanistic Experiences and Worldview

From the beginning, my fieldwork experiences as an anthropologist brought me face to face with situations that conflicted with conventional logic. My fieldwork was carried out in the mid seventies in northwest Argentina in an area known as “Chaco-salteño”. I was then surrounded by a very different universe. It was inhabited by stalking spirits, uncertainties, dangers, and unknown powers. For the first time these experiences brought about a serious questioning of my way of seeing the world and life.

In those early days, I witnessed a shamanic healing. It was the kind of healing that is known in anthropology as “suction healing”. Though shocking to my eyes, I realized –again, factually—that other forms of knowledge existed. The old shaman—an ipayé of ava-guaraní or chiriguano origin—displayed his power of “seeing” the patient.

By means of this power, the shaman “saw” into the depths of the person, into his interior, in such a way that he was able to identify the illness. In his conception, the illness was an object lodged in some part of the body. Once detected through a set of techniques and with the aid of auxiliary spirits, he would extract the foreign object and thereby heal the patient. Indeed, all this is what happened.

In those years of my residence as a professor and researcher at Universidad Nacional de Salta, I had the good fortune of sharing fieldwork experiences with philosopher Rodolfo Kusch, a great expert on the Andean Peoples and their worldview. He also brought me closer to that multi-dimensional world which I began to appreciate in its real dimensions.

At the same time, I came across the early work of Carlos Castaneda, which generated a heated debate about its veracity. This debate eventually led to an even broader argument within anthropology. I was especially influenced by Castaneda’s work, and although I had some questionings of my own, I wasn’t so much concerned about the factual basis. What was attractive for me was not the issue of authenticity, but the notion of reality he put forth, conceived as something quite different from what I had until then considered valid.

Some time later I explored Philosophical Anthropology when lecturing at Universidad del Salvador (Buenos Aires). I dove deeper into the quest of the concept of human person in the native thought of the peoples of the American Continent. I then surveyed sources, chronicles and codices. I also researched the work of religion historians such as Mircea Eliade, Rudolf Otto, Gerardus van der Leeuw, and anthropologists Paul Radin, Jacques Soustelle, Laurette Sejourné among others, who once again opened up my mind to other ways of being and conceiving the world and the universe.

Indigenous dancing

Later on in the eighties, together with Ricardo Santillán Güemes, I started and co-directed the anthropological publication “Cultura Casa del Hombre”. In this magazine, the topics mentioned above were examined and discussed. At the same time professor Abraham Haber introduced me to Jung’s study of archetypes. I was also drawn to thinkers such as Eduardo A. Azcuy, a true pioneer in introducing in Argentina the confluence of the new scientific paradigms, hermetic traditions, symbolism and anomalous phenomena related to light. Azcuy’s last book deals with reality and its multiple levels in a search he defined as “the metaphysic-real”.

Towards 1996, along with some colleagues, I began more detailed research on shamanism and the “sacred” or “master” plants, also known as psychoactive plants or “entheogens”. I was able to participate in ceremonies conducted by curanderos or “vegetalist doctors” of the shinipibo-conibo and ashánika ethnic groups of the Peruvian Amazon. These experiences took me back to my first contacts with the depths of the indigenous world from the beginnings of my career as an anthropologist in that chiriguano community in the far north of my country. Being in physical contact with the shamanistic world, I realized once again its full importance. I got closer and closer to the essence of the foundations the native worldview was built on.

Only then I was able to start accepting the possibility of nature being in fact a sacred place to which we owe respect. What we traditionally understand by reality is something much more complex, with different levels and dimensions in which many entities and strange situations can be together. Through experiences of deepening awareness, one can access this world that the native Indians, especially shamans, know thoroughly. They are the inheritors of a millenary tradition and wisdom that some authors call “the invisible world” or simply “the Invisible”:

The gestures of a naked man in the equatorial jungle performing the immutable rites of his tribe next to his dead brother make the West face the first question, the first of all problems; because those gestures are being repeated in identical terms, and by putting into motion analogous symbols from one end of humanity to the other, the same faith in the same reality is implied.

It is this person I wanted to talk about when I used the word man, because he has remained faithful to himself. He has kept his sense of place in the universe and the notion of the infinite value of the invisible principle he carries inside himself.

It seems to me that the term Invisible defines more precisely what certain philosophers call the Numinous and others the Sacred. The Sacred can be created by human beings while the Invisible is imposed upon them. In the spirit of the members of traditional civilizations, the Invisible lacks the vagueness of a metaphysical concept. It is a reality, a dimension in which all those who make up humanity move. The Invisible is inside each person and it is more real, more present and more sensitive than any part of one’s body. The Invisible is around humans as an environment that registers each of their earthly actions and reflects these in consequences that would be ineluctable without the action of mediators, invisible too (Servier, 1970, p. 9-10).

What I have understood after my years of experience and research in the fields of shamanism and sacred plants is that the ingestion of these plants, and the rituals associated with them, enable the shaman as well as the patient, to make contact with the invisible world and its beings and situations, and also journey through it and take from it the powers they need.

In the aforementioned Chiriguano community, the woods that surrounded it were inhabited by entities and spirits that one had to be careful of, especially at dusk. Among the Mocoví Indians in the Chaco region, there is a concept known as nayic, which refers to the paths going from the settlements to the woods: “They are trails that start from familiar ground and go deep into unknown, strange and dangerous regions. They allow people in the human world to cross towards a world that is not human, into the woods” (López & Campano, 2005, p. 5).

By conducting various seminars and doing research on “Cosmovisión Indígena Americana” (Indigenous Worldview in the American Continent), I was able to gather a set of materials that moved me closer to a new way of conceiving the world that native peoples carry. Finally, a change of perspective in the indigenous movement of the American continent due to a revaluation of their spirituality, along with my growing participation in ceremonies of different indigenous groups in Argentina and in other countries of the continent, contributed to my conviction of the importance of the native worldview, shamanism, and the invisible world. These are all interrelated fields that express a different way of knowing.

A broad theoretical frame that fully explains the native worldview of the American continent has yet to be developed. In fact, the word “worldview” itself doesn’t always have the same meaning, and this is apparent when used in different languages. Nevertheless, there is a set of studies and authors from different disciplines that, from the end of the 19th century until now, assembled the pieces of a theoretical scaffolding that converge in the most recent research on this topic.

Although it is not possible here to thoroughly examine all the authors that have worked on this topic, some very important lines of research that have addressed the main ideas of the native worldview can be mentioned. They are the French ethnology (whose contributions come especially from its areas of work in Mesoamerica), the branch of American cultural anthropology, and the different currents in anthropology in Mesoamerica and South America.

It is also relevant to mention why I use the term “worldview” and not another one, as well as setting up some differences with other terms that may appear similar. It seems to me that the word “worldview” is comprehensive enough to explain the existential approach the native Indians have towards the whole that surrounds them, as well as the forms humans and community adopt to relate to that whole.

In this idea of a whole, the universe is included. For the indigenous person, his or her everyday life is a replica of the functioning of the cosmos and, both levels, everyday life and cosmos, are essential parts of the worldview.

For the time being, the term worldview fits perfectly into what I am trying to describe and analyze, and allows me to differentiate it from other terms such as “cosmology” (which is the branch of philosophy that deals with the origin, structure and laws of the universe, or a set of theories that state an image of the universe). I think it is also more precise than the term “cosmogony” which refers to the explanation of the creation or origin of the cosmos. Finally I prefer it to the term “religion”, which is the set of beliefs and practices related to what a human group considers sacred, especially those practices linked to divinity. Many times this concept also alludes to the institutionalization of that set of beliefs and practices.

The aspects we could define as religious are part of the worldview because this term implies a more restricted meaning. Many indigenous societies have traditionally had a place specifically designated for religion, with their rituals, caste of priests, temples and other associated paraphernalia. Therefore, it seems more precise and comprehensive to use the term worldview because this peculiar indigenous conception (an all-inclusive and all-embracing conception) constitutes one of the pillars of their identity.

It is also relevant to point out that the indigenous worldview stresses spirituality. It constitutes a way of being in the world, a particular attitude full of feeling that links humans to the sacred and the different levels of reality in a very profound manner. Spirituality is essentially practice, and it is done through concrete activities in everyday life, which is shaped by the celebration of rituals.

As expected, there is not only one definition of “worldview”, but I think most of the authors have reached consensus to a certain extent implying a general agreement in the use of the term (Medina, 2000). All the definitions refer to human notions of the universe, to our place in it, and the analysis of life as an integral fact.

The concept of worldview was originally developed in the end of the 19th century by German philosophers such as Wilheim Dilthey who would make the term Weltanschauung the core of his reflections (Medina, 2000). For this author, every person has an idea or conception of the world, a Weltanschauung that precedes the development of philosophy, religion, science or art. This Weltanschauung’s general principle is the “reality of life”.

Solid white female figure

Mythological Corpus and Main Ideas

This way of being and understanding the world and life has a millenary tradition in which the indigenous peoples of the American continent have built up a complex system. This system has finally manifested itself in the native worldview, supported by a great mythological corpus and a profoundly interrelated set of ideas.

Regarding the mythological corpus, the native peoples (even though they did not have a writing system) possessed an extraordinary oral tradition, a way of transmitting their knowledge across generations through vocal utterance. An unlimited number of narrations about human existence’s very diverse topics took shape throughout time.

Those stories tell us how the peoples were in the beginning, and of their deep relationship with the gods, with nature, with animals, with the universe. They express their worldview and show how the communities saw themselves in the world, what they thought and felt about life. Native Indians believe many of the stories to be true (for westerners they are myths, and for others, “tales” or legends). These essential narrations manifest also the fundamental values of the peoples, and from this point of view they are exemplary because they mostly are universal teachings.

The set of central ideas or principles are: totality, energy, communion, sacredness and the community sense of life. Although these ideas or principles are not the only ones (in fact they are a part of a broader conception of the world), it seems to me that they somehow summarize the native peoples’ worldview.

The idea of totality, understood as an integrating view of the world and life, is expressed in different forms. Among them we can mention the complementary opposites (a notion tightly linked to duality), the multiformity of the gods (in a sense that they can adopt different meanings at the same time), the circle as a geometric form and circularity as an idea, the quaternity (time) and the quadrapartite system (space) as basic elements generally accompanied by the symbols of the Center and the World Axis (Axis Mundi).

Energy, the main force that regulates the rhythm of the cosmos and generates vitality, and possesses a creation-destruction dynamic, is ever-present in the worldview of indigenous peoples. Often sacrifice (seen from an energetic perspective) plays a dominant role. In the same way, the relationship between energy and the human body, or energy and nature, is linked to the everyday vital-energetic consumption, as exemplified in the primal act of hunting.

In this context, communion is understood as a way of establishing a deep link between the human person, nature and the cosmos, and it goes a step further from what is usually referred as “participation”. This particular union implies a special kind of connection which intensely integrates relationships such as cosmos-home-body, or cosmos-heaven-earth. The union is also strongly manifested in the ceremonies’ different ritual elements, such as pipes, drums, clothing, or paintings. These ritual elements are full of symbolism that communicates with the transcendental levels.

The sacredness or the sacred is one of the crucial principles of the indigenous worldview. This idea (which refers to a space where a broader communication between humans and the gods exists) has a social value and is expressed through everyday life, dreams, shamanic practices, nature, sacred geography, social hierarchies and the animals.

The community sense of life, as a principle of the worldview, refers to one of the pillars of the native conception: human life acquires meaning when collectively developed.

These five principles constitute a model to explain the complexity of the native worldview; they are not the worldview itself. The worldview is a never ending universe composed of multiple levels, which is constantly revealing itself. This model consists of three main points: first, the different native cultures in the American continent have worldviews with many elements in common. Second, those points in common can be summarized into the five principles I have mentioned above. The principles are also influenced by other vital concepts. Third, shamanism plays a very peculiar role in linking the communities with their own worldviews.

When I use the term “worldview” I do it in the singular form. Of course there are as many worldviews as indigenous groups, but I believe that from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego a common set of principles or main ideas characterize the indigenous peoples, shaping their identity and uniting them beyond whatever local and circumstantial differences they may have. The secrets of a native worldview bring them together, giving them a new collective sense that today, in the threshold of a different time, repositions them in the continent with renewed force.

The Way of a Cosmic Consciousness

Totality, energy, communion, sacredness and community sense of life are the five ideas that together constitute the expression of a cosmic and spiritual consciousness of the indigenous world. This consciousness could be depicted as a big circle because of the sense of completeness that constantly prevails in the native worldviews.

Shamanism plays a very special role in this system. Among the native Indians, it is one of the practices that allows understanding and communication of that cosmic consciousness with the community and vice versa. Shamanism “breaks through” the circle of consciousness, allowing communication with the different levels and dimensions of reality, navigating across the interstices of the invisible world.

Even though shamanism is not the only practice that allows “communication” with the cosmic consciousness, it may be the most important one. At the heart of the indigenous communities different members can play roles that offer the possibility of moving across the different levels of reality. Among other powers, leaders and chiefs traditionally had (in fact, some of them still do) the ability to connect with other dimensions and to achieve direct experience of them. In certain specific situations, old members or ceremony guides can also travel through the passages to the other dimensions.

In addition, many ceremonies and rituals in which most members of the community participate allow “passing” to other levels, therefore gaining access to a cosmic and spiritual consciousness. This is what some authors call “shamanity” which refers to a state of mind rather than an activity (Vitebsky 1995 in Costa 2003, p.10).

However, it is in shamanistic practices where the full possibilities of the native world are enhanced, because shamanism is able to guide the members of the community to the different levels of reality. Shamans are specialists. They have the power of healing. They are the inheritors of a millenary tradition. They were initiated and formed with a very rigorous discipline, and its observance is precisely one of the requisites to gain access to a genuine spirituality. Usually, transgression of the rules brings innumerable problems to the shaman, including a decrease in power and, as a consequence, a poor use of his capabilities. This point has special relevance today, especially in regard to the opening of the native world to westerners. In this process, the shaman’s own balance is at risk and there are many cases of loss of the identity axis. The risk applies not only to shamans but also to all those native leaders who pass from their communities to the urban spheres and who are in contact with the western way of life. This process is part of the new challenges the native world has to face. Like the shaman, native Indians must travel through the worlds without losing their identity. They must be able to “go” but perhaps more importantly, they must know how to “get back.”

Finally, there is one more element to the complex system of native worldview: balance. In his or her particular way of being in the world, the indigenous person tries to align with the universe with a constant search for harmony. Balance is a necessary condition.

Humanity must keep a delicate interrelationship with each part of the whole. Examples abound: from the sacrifices that hold up the cosmic order to the permission that is asked to start a journey, everything in the native world is regulated by this vital need of balance, which is the key to the organization of the worldview’s different principles.

Rituals, dance and music in traditional ceremonies, the structure of sacred spaces, the symbols that are used, everything tends to reach the needed balance that regulates life and the different cosmic forces that are in constant interaction with human beings.

The practice of shamanism includes the idea of patient and healer “aligning” with spiritual entities whose aid is invited in the process of healing. Usually the shaman tries to “place” the patient, to balance him or her. There are many ways of achieving this. Some of them are: the use of tobacco which acts as a cleansing and restoring mechanism. This is done through a process known as “la soplada” (the blow). The “mesa” (table) the shaman uses with his different elements follows an order related to the balance of the world. The search of the lost soul is a way of regaining the person’s harmony. The chants, dances and performing of musical instruments during the healing aim to invoke benign spirits who will come to the aid of the shaman, or to expel the malefic spirits. Here too, the idea is to keep or restore the lost equilibrium.

Indigenous Cosmovision as a Territory of Encounter

Even though it is still being debated and elaborated, the concept of worldview has generated a certain consensus among many authors in regard to its range: it is a very fertile field to approach the sense of the path the native cultures have followed throughout time.

Even though the worldview retains and respects a central core of ideas and principles (what López Austin defines as “hard nucleus”), it is also important to notice that constant changes in native cultures bring about natural adaptations and recreations and, on the other hand, explain the worldview’s vitality.

The theoretical view that is able to deal with this kind of research implies, from my point of view, not conceiving the native cultural forms as the uninterrupted and direct continuity of the pre-Hispanic past or as archaisms, but visualizing this culture in a constant process of transformation and re-elaboration that is nevertheless sustained in very ancient roots. The native culture must be studied in its process of constant transformation, in which ancient structures and beliefs have been articulated with new shapes and contents in a dynamic and creative way (Broda, 1995, p.14, in Medina 2000, p.261).

The native worldview nurtures a conception of life that is based on an integration of the different elements that surround humans. Dialogue with native cultures, and more specifically with men and women of wisdom (may they be spiritual leaders, shamans, the elders, advisers or artists) who treasure a very ancient knowledge, is indispensable not only for anthropologists but also for all those who perceive that we are entering into a new stage in the encounter of westerners and native Indians.

Slowly and subtly but growing steadier with time, a mutual opening is happening. Perhaps, diving deeper into the vast territory of the native worldview will contribute to finding and discovering the still mysterious common points of the human condition. This condition passes through the visible world, which is connected with the invisible one, making it possible for us to get together in a sacred and spiritual dimension essential for the new times.


1 The person in charge of the healing literally “sucks” the patient in the area where he has detected the evil, which takes the form of an object, and he extracts it.
2 Ipayé is the name that the ava-guaraní give to the “kindhearted” healers.
3 Castaneda’s work remains controversial to this day. This polemic arises from the narrow-mindedness of the so-called scientific approaches in anthropology, which oscillate between the author’s disqualification and his blind acceptance. As a consequence, a deeper and richer debate about the nature of our world is obstructed.
4 The meaning of the term “curandero” in Argentina (meaning deceitful) is different from the one given in other countries such as Peru. In Peru , “curandero” refers to a person of indigenous or mestizo origin who heals using ancestral techniques and wisdom, especially master plants.
5 Some mapuche indigenous groups of southern Chile and Argentina refer to knowledge and wisdom as kimun. At the same time, this wisdom leads to raquizuan which is the collective way of thinking of this native people. Raquizuan is not individual thinking but the way all indigenous persons relate to waj-mapu: the Whole, the Universe, Elchen, of which they consider themselves a part. This series of relationships between knowledge, thought and a collective connection with the totality that surrounds the human (a totality of which one is a part), brings us closer to the conception of worldview that I use in this paper.
6 “By worldview we understand a structured view in which cosmologic notions were integrated into a coherent system that explained the cosmos and the situation of man within it” (Broda, 1991, p. 462). “In a people’s worldview its main concepts of shape and quality of the universe, of its inhabitants, and the position of humanity within this system are synthesized in a structured way. Especially in traditional cultures the worldview serves as a model for various aspects of the culture, such as village settling patterns, the organization of society and rites of varied kinds. This is the reason why the worldview influences routine life in the village in many ways” (Köhler 1980:583)


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