Volume 76
Number 1

The Shaman’s Gift

Deliberate Vision

Before Madness

Lee's Miserables












































































































IN THE VILLAGE OF RIO BLANCO, in Ecuador’s Amazon basin, the indigenous Quechuan people see more anacondas now than in years past. They fear no other animal in the rain forest, but of this one they are petrified. Even when encouraged, the children refuse to swim in the nearby river.

No puedo, no puedo,” they say. “I can’t, I can’t.”

The villagers believe that the snakes are drawn to Augustine Grefa, their shaman. The anaconda is Grefa’s power animal, and he summons it before he embarks on his vision quest—a hallucinogen-enhanced state of altered consciousness where he looks beyond the material world and delves into a realm of invisible spirits. In this place, he can diagnose and heal.

Last March, anacondas were not the only visitors descending on the village. Oxford Professor of Sociology Michael M. McQuaide and eleven students arrived at Rio Blanco by dugout. Accompanying them were McQuaide’s wife, Stacy Bell, and Oxford’s Charles Howard Candler Professor of English Lucas Carpenter. Drenched with sweat and covered in mud from what McQuaide calls “the most exhausting trail imaginable,” the students trekked through the rain forest as part of McQuaide’s course “Social Change in Developing Societies.”

MCQUAIDE IS A TALL MAN of Scottish ancestry with a deep, clear voice, and blue eyes. He seems most comfortable in jeans and a flannel shirt with a pint of stout in his hand, but he is equally at home in the classroom. He has taught at Oxford since 1979 and has won three Professor of the Year awards and the 1996 Fleming Award for Teaching and Service. More than anything, he enjoys a method of teaching that removes students from their everyday environment.

A series of serendipitous, haphazard events led McQuaide to an interest in alternative, or “complementary” health care, and ultimately to the dense, loud Amazon rain forest.

He trained in medical sociology at the Pennsylvania State University in the late 1970s—a time when hardly anyone had heard of the field. For the first fifteen years of his career he stuck with a big-picture approach, focusing on major policy issues in health care.

Then former Oxford Dean William H. Murdy sent him an article about a study of fifteen thousand children who had contracted childhood leukemia. According to the study, a significant percentage of those children endured a severe, emotionally traumatic experience in the year before the onset of their illnesses.

Around the same time, as the director of a summer abroad class in London, England, McQuaide had a student who was visibly ill, and he took her to the hospital. As McQuaide looked on, the British doctor never touched the student, not even with a tongue depressor. Instead, he explained why she was sick, gave her condition a name, and told her it would pass in two or three days. With the authority of a physician, he claimed her illness.

“The gleam was back in her eye, the bounce back in her step,” says McQuaide. “Completely well, within an hour, and no one administered anything. I knew that I had witnessed something very powerful, but I also knew that I didn’t know how to talk about it.”

For the first time, McQuaide began to think critically about the social psychology of health care—the interaction between a patient and a provider.

Modern Western medicine is based on a model that was passed down by Descartes, “who unscrewed the head from the body and placed it on the shelf,” McQuaide says. The head was left for psychiatrists to deal with, while the body was treated as a machine, an assemblage of parts. According to most observers of modern medicine, the head needs to be reintegrated, McQuaide says. Instead, the West has been training generations of physicians who see “the kidney in room 314.”

In the spring of 1998, McQuaide “dropped out of his life” and took a sabbatical. Responding to what he perceived to be a gap in his own knowledge of the history of medicine, he delved into the literature on “the first specialist in the world”—the shaman, or medicine man. Then he went to Ecuador. Enlisting the help of Oswaldo Muñoz, a translator and guide, he spent twelve days in the Andes Mountains and the Amazon basin. Interacting with two different types of shamans, he immersed himself in a culture with very different notions of health care.

“I found the experience to be so intellectually fulfilling that it was exhilarating—there were times in which I was as wide eyed and slack jawed as my students would ever be. This was as authentic a departure from my traditional way of living as I’ve ever undergone.”

McQuaide had arrived at the conclusion that “beliefs played a major and unmeasured role in the origins of health and illness,” and that there is a “huge connection between what we believe cognitively and how we feel physically.”

“I came up out of the Amazon basin harboring the idea that I wanted to bring a group of sociology students back. I thought that if they could get one-tenth of the intellectual growth or fascination with life out of that experience as I did, then I would accomplish what I want to do as a professor, which is to show students things that encourage a growth in their wonderment of the world.”

For Beth M. Crowther ’01C, a political science and sociology major, it worked. “I don’t think anyone went down there and came back the same person,” Crowther says.

“Alberto, the shaman we met in the highlands, had huge, strong hands like my father’s,” says Julie A. Wancik ’02C, a sociology and Russian major. “He was the most charismatic man I’ve ever met in my life.”

“[What the students are describing] is this irresistible animal magnetism that cannot be taught,” McQuaide says, and that magnetism may contribute to the shaman’s effectiveness. “The credibility or the authority of the healer may be the variable that healing springs from.”

Peter J. Brown, professor of anthropology and editor of Understanding and Applying Medical Anthropology, would agree. Whether they’re in Ecuador or America, Brown says, “patients demand a level of confidence,” and a shaman’s techniques may “work in part because the healer believes in his own power and is able to symbolically communicate that confidence to the patient.”

In a sense, he says, the healer is “harnessing the body’s own ability to heal itself.”

ON THE SECOND-TO-LAST-DAY of their stay, Grefa prepared to perform a divination ceremony for the students. He would ingest ayahuasca (literally, “vine of the dead”), an intensely hallucinogenic indigenous plant. After removing the bark and chopping the ayahuasca vine into small pieces, Grefa steeped it in a pot with huayusa tea leaves and reduced the mixture to an amount that would fit in a Dixie cup. After drinking it, he smoked a cigarette. (The nicotine in the local variety of tobacco acts as a catalyst to the hallucinogenic agents.)

Then he sat and meditated, summoning the anaconda.

McQuaide asked Grefa what he saw. As translated through Muñoz, McQuaide recounts the answer:

“The anaconda will come luminescent out of the far distance and will present itself to the shaman by approaching in a straight line and lying on the ground in front of him, waiting. Then, the shaman will give a nod, and very gradually, this gigantic snake will finish the approach, and envelop the shaman from the tips of his feet to his ribs, like a vine.

“He is able to judge the intensity of the psychedelic drug by comparing it to the anaconda’s constriction. Sometimes the anaconda will squeeze the shaman so hard that he will not be able to relate to other people. When the anaconda relaxes a bit, than the shaman can begin to do the chanting, whistling, and rhythmic breathing that he does.”

“Augustine stood behind us, and everything [he said] was in Quechuan,” recounts Crowther. “He shook leaves around our head. All of your senses were intensified, because it was so dark, you couldn’t see anything, and the swishing sound almost puts you in a trance. It was a bizarre moment, but intense.”

“The shaman will peer into the body from the back, and identify the dynamics of the present spirits that either create health or illness. Then, he will shift his gaze to the right of the person, and actually lift the animus out of the body. He doesn’t want to have to be looking at bones. That obscures what he needs,” says McQuaide.

One by one, Grefa placed his open mouth on the crown of each student’s head. Sucking in with great force, he attempted to draw into himself whatever spirits were causing them harm. With a loud, choking sound, he purged himself, “coughing up” the malady onto the ground and completing the cleansing ritual. Afterward, Muñoz took each student aside and told them Grefa’s diagnosis.

“I went to Ecuador skeptical, but [Augustine] pinpointed some specific things about my family,” says Crowther. “It doesn’t make sense, but I know that it happened, and there is a still a lot that I have to explore. Sometimes I give up, and I don’t want to analyze it. I just want to respect it.”

“He’s definitely got a gift,” says Wancik. “Here is this man in the most primitive society with no connection to the world we live in. He touched on things that he could not have possibly been in tune with.”

ON THE CLASS’S LAST NIGHT in Rio Blanco, all of the villagers gathered around a fire with the Emory group. Despite the language barrier, the Quechuans acted out a traditional marriage ceremony and, to offer a piece of American culture in return, McQuaide, Bell, and Carpenter sang “Hey Good Lookin’. ”

“It meant so much to them that we were there,” says Crowther. “It makes you ask yourself, ‘What are you doing to get the most out of life?’” Being with the shaman, she says, made her think “there are things in this world that are beyond us, that we’re not supposed to understand.”

Crowther’s words point to some of the most valuable lessons that “Social Change in Developing Societies” can offer—that it is acceptable to embrace a sense of mystery, and that there are wholly disparate ways of being in the world.

“For me, that’s music,” McQuaide says. “I thank God that I’m not so jaded in my old age that I can’t feel awestruck by the amount of sheer magic all around me. If I can elicit some sense of that awe in my students, then I have accomplished my greatest duty as a teacher.”

Richard Hermes ’98C, one of the founding editors of bluemilk magazine, was profiled in the Spring 1999 issue of Emory Magazine.



© 2000 Emory University