San Pedro: the shaman’s cactus of the sacred waters
San Pedro or the Echinposis pachanoi cactus is an ancient sacred psychoactive plant, that is used traditionally in shamanic and folk healing in Peru.
The use of this cactus for spiritual healing goes back a few thousand years, with evidence of San Pedro usage in preceramic times on the northern coast of Peru, from about 4000 b.p. (before present) and in the area just north of Lima (from about 3500 b.p.) This is evidenced by the ancient depictions of this plant on pottery, textiles and in rock art created long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. (Glass-Coffin, 2010).
The cactus is known in this region by many names including achuma or huachuma, giganto´n, agua collay, and cardo santo. The most well-known name by which it is known today is that of San Pedro. “It is considered by contemporary shamans as a planta viva (or ‘living’/spirit-filled plant) that facilitates shamanic journeys to other worlds. Even the name San Pedro alludes to this. As contemporary shamans often remark, like the Christian apostle by the same name, San Pedro is a keeper of the keys; the guardian of the gates to other, unseen, worlds. It is through ingestion of San Pedro that vista (vision) into these other realms is made possible” (Glass-Coffin, 2010).
Plant (phyto) chemicals that the cactus contains, like mescaline, allow for the stimulation of the visual and emotional centres of the brain; that makes the plant a visionary psychoactive plant medicine. The cactus and its visionary properties are used by the shamans, who consume the plant as a drink, in order to facilitate shamanic soul journeys, where the shaman leaves his/her body in order to be an intermediary between the world of spirits and the community, for healing purposes. This is the archetypal ‘soul flight’, that is one defining characteristic of being a prototypical shaman. The Peruvian shaman uses this state of consciousness in order to heal sorcery and soul loss, that are believed to be at the root of many illnesses. Today, seekers often use the plant to reconnect to themselves and nature, for self-development and spiritual healing. This is crucial in today’s modern societies, where our fast-paced and stressful jobs and living in the concrete jungle preoccupy us. We have lost a lot of our connection to nature in modern, urbanised, western society. San Pedro allows for enhanced connection to nature, especially if it is taken in nature. This brings us to the significance that San Pedro has had in South American society for thousands of years.
Glass-Coffin and other researchers have pointed out that, at the time of the Incan civilisation, there was a belief that the creator called Wiracocha (sometimes translated as ‘sea foam’ or ‘fat of the sea’) is said to have risen out of the highland ‘sea’ of Lake Titicaca, later creating the sun and the moon and all elements of creation out of these same waters and that the first people were made from mud of the earth. There was also the belief that ‘the ancestors were able to travel along subterranean waterways, and that they were to emerge in water bodies such as lakes, where they could claim rights to lands and waters for their descendants’. Furthermore, there is, depicted in ceramic art, the connection between the use of the San Pedro cacti, ancestral propitiation and fertility of the land through water, earth and sky, with these elements working together. Thus, there was an active relationship between ancestral worship at water bodies and the use of San Pedro, which is still seen today, where Peruvian shamans visit lakes in the Peruvian highlands in order to perform healing rituals using San Pedro. This indicates the significant relationship between the use of psychoactive plants by the Incan people and the element of water and its outcomes for fertility, which shows that psychedelic plants were a sacred sacrament honouring the earth and its regenerative elements. Interestingly enough, this same connection between psychoactive plant sacraments and water bodies, exists too in South African traditional healing, where, for example, helichrysum (imphepho) flowers are used to invoke the ancestors and these rituals are often done by water bodies such as rivers, or by the sea, that has a direct connection to the ancestors. These examples show how interconnected some human societies were with their environment and its fertility, especially before the rise of western European cultural dominance.
Given there is this historical evidence for San Pedro’s use connected with the element of water, it’s perhaps a strange coincidence that my own experiences with using San Pedro were in relation to water bodies. The first time I took San Pedro (my first psychedelic experience) was in Mauritius in 1997, when I snuck a bottle of boiled cactus into my luggage. I then drank the cactus one evening on the beach and experienced one of the most blissful and euphoric swims I have ever had. My friends from school were a bit averse to anything psychoactive (I would say on account of the indoctrinated drug use stigma belief we adopted from the “Just say No” campaigns given to us at school), which was a pity, as they missed out on the sensorial pleasure and enhanced connection to the self, that the cactus affords. It is unfortunate and an injustice, I would say, that psychedelic substances have been lumped into the same category as ‘hard drugs’ by the law.
The mescaline and other psychoactive compounds contained in San Pedro work on the dopaminergic neurotransmitter system, amongst other neurotransmitters like serotonin and are very ‘somatic’ in the sense that they enhance one’s feeling and tactile sensations. It is a medicine that is very good for people struggling to feel, i.e., due to trauma or depression. I experienced on another occasion, having a block in my energetic (chakra) system, that it enhanced the emotional pain I was in to an excruciating level, until there was a breakthrough I needed to make. In this instance I needed to express the emotional pain I was going through, but I held it in. The heat got turned up and my heart chakra was physically paining, until I had a conscious mini wrestling match with a friend K at the venue where the San Pedro was being offered, who was encouraging me to release what I was keeping in. Making a camp fire and stepping on a coal was the catalyst for letting it all out and then the pain and discomfort completely lifted.
A journey with San Pedro can be experienced with one cup of the cactus juice, which is prepared in the following way. Firstly, one peels off the outer thick cuticle or waxy layer of the plant. This is done by slicing off the ribs of short spines first, then using a blunt knife to get between the cuticle and the green underside and then stripping off the cuticle leaving beneath the green layer of the mescaline-containing cactus. It is the green layer of the skin that one wants. The rest of the inner white pith is discarded. When one has sliced off the green layers, one boils these green slithers in a pot of clean distilled water. One boils this down, then re-adds water to half the pot and then boils it down again. This is repeated two or three times until the liquid becomes a pale olive green colour. In this way the plant material starts to release the mescaline and other phytochemicals it has. Eventually after two hours or so, one has around a litre of green looking decoction. One allows it to cool off and, when still warm, uses a muslin or dish cloth to squeeze the cactus slithers of their juice. This is the final preparation which is drunk on an empty stomach.
One drinks one cup of the decoction and then waits around half an hour to 40 minutes for the gradual onset of the experience. The experience can include a warm glow, enhanced feelings or deep relaxation as well as enhanced connectivity to the environment one is in. There can be a little nausea in the beginning stages, but this soon passes. It is often preferred to take the cacti in nature, as it is the space they grow in and you become part of that nature as you become acutely aware of the elements and even their masculine or feminine energetic aspects. One metaphorically undresses from the business suit and steps into one’s warrior tribal self.
San Pedro can be used to know energetically where blockages are and to do massage or Qi Gong with the aid of San Pedro is an area of great potential. One should never disrespect the plant by keeping too much of the plant and then taking it for granted, or use the plant merely to feel good. It is used to heal oneself of emotional wounds through an enhanced state of awareness and to become more connected to community and the earth for its healing. San Pedro has come a long way; 3000 years back till today, when we once again can visit this ancient connector plant and know who we truly are, beneath the suit of conditioned living we have become accustomed to.
Owing to the fact that the medicine works with the emotions, I think we could use the plant today in conflict resolution scenarios, either possibly in group work in intentional communities or in plant-assisted psychotherapy. In intentional (neo tribal) communities, this idea would need to be tested where interpersonal healing and group cohesion could be engaged through using San Pedro as a ‘mediator’ plant for interpersonal conflict resolution.
San Pedro – the heart opener medicine – allows us to feel and know our expanded self, which we may have buried in long-forgotten pains and traumas, only to re-awaken to what joy there can be; but first, we must face and experience the pain for what it is and then come out the other side – lighter and sunnier like the energy that the cactus holds, high up in the sun-filled mountains of Peru, from where it was born.
African psychoactive plants
San Pedro is among many other psychoactives used around the world for healing. Yet, Africa has often been considered to be poor in psychoactive visionary plants. How can this be so, given the rich floral and cultural diversity found on the continent? This is the research question the author, being an ethnobotanist and herbalist, asked in 1999, that set him off on a personal journey to explore African traditional medicine and its uses.
What resulted from this period of study was over 300 species of plants being used for psychoactive purposes in African traditional medicine; that gave rise to the first comprehensive inventory of psychoactive plants from the region. This included plants with sedative, stimulant, memory-enhancing and visionary uses amongst others.
These findings challenged the belief and literature at the time, such as Plants of the Gods, that said the old world was lacking in significant psychoactive plant use, due to cultural reasons.
Not only is psychoactive plant use significant in African traditional healing, but there is also a great similarity in the categories of psychoactive plants used between South American curandero shamans and the Southern African isangoma/inyanga healers in their healer initiation process. This indicates a cross-cultural-technology of using psychoactive plants in healing psycho-spiritual illness. This research was presented at the ethnopharmacological search for psychoactive drugs 50th anniversary conference in in London in 2017, by invitation from Dr Dennis Mckenna. There is much to be learned from traditional medicine in treating and healing mental illness. These findings, that I elaborate in my forthcoming book, indicate the global importance of psychoactive plants and fungi in human health and wellbeing.
Those interested in Jean-Francois’ new forthcoming book on African psychoactive plants can contact him at [email protected], and, to join his exciting online course on psychoactive plant medicines, see his webiste @ http://phytoalchemy.co.za/faq/ and the FAQ page under Course Sign-up.
Shamanism and San Pedro through time. B Glass‐Coffin, 2010.
Anthropology of Consciousness 21 (1), 58-82
Jean-Francois Sobiecki B.Sc.Hons. EthnoBot. (UJ)., Dipl Clin Nutr. (Aus) is a pioneering South African ethnobotanist (medicinal plant researcher), a qualified nutritionist and herbalist healer and offers medicinal plant training for students, traditional healers and the public through workshops, individual mentoring, consultations and online courses on herbal medicine, nutrition and self development.