The Harpy’s Gift and the Jaguar’s Curse: Hunting Medicines among the Matsigenka

May 24, 2022
10:35 am

Fully one fourth of the pharmacopeia of the Matsigenka people from the Peruvian Amazon consists of plants with the specific purpose of improving hunting ability. Not mere charms or “sympathetic magic,” many of these plants appear to contain powerful bioactive compounds, including emetics, purgatives and psychoactive substances that are given to hunters as well as their dogs. According to Matsigenka mythology, the harpy eagle long ago walked the earth in human form and taught shamans its own hunting secrets: the knowledge of special toxic plants to sharpen vision, cleanse the body and purify the soul. However, the jaguar also tempted the Matsigenka with a particular species of Brunfelsia, a psychoactive plant in the Solanaceae, that makes men such good hunters that they begin turning into jaguars and eating their own kin. I will discuss five main kinds of hunting medicine used by the Matsigenka: 1) Cultivated sedges that are infected with a systemic fungal endophyte related to ergot, known for its powerful bioactive alkaloids; 2) Eye drops that appear to contain psychoactive components to improve vision and heighten the other senses; 3) Purgatives and emetics to flush impurities from the body; 4) Complex mixtures of animal body parts and plants, including the powerfully psychoactive Solanaceae liana Juanulloa, given to dogs to imprint game animal scents on their senses; and 5) Hallucinogens and narcotics to transport the soul to other dimensions where the hunters communes with the harpy eagle and other spirit beings. I will discuss the case of Pascual, an old friend who described to me in horror how his use of Brunfelsia as a youth began turning him into a jaguar in his old age, and explore the concept of jaguar transformation more generally among the Matsigenka.