Wild-eyed spirit weaver- Icaros, the sacred medicine songs of the Amazon

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*please note that this is part 3 of a 3 part series. Part 2 is on Plant Dieta and part 1 is on Curanderismo (plant spirit medicine).

Artist Unknown

Writing about icaros is somewhat challenging because so much of what is transpiring when one works with these medicine songs is beyond language and is a deeply personal and subtle process that unfolds differently for each person.

We spent 4 years apprenticing with Shipibo curanderos in the Peruvian Amazon and so our style has been greatly influenced by that tradition and yet our work is unmistakably our own in both essence and expression. Whether our icaros have the effects we intend them to or not is a complex question to address. There are those participants who have felt that the icaros played a vital role in the unfoldment of a certain process and its intention clearly felt and carried out. At other times it has seemed to be of little or no importance. For us, we feel Icaros can be heartfelt prayer, an act of service and a potent channel for energy and spirits.

What are Icaros?

Woven metaphor, archetypal dance and melodious prayer

The icaros are a kind of embodied and melodious prayer that are empowered by the spirits of plants(devas), nature beings, deities, ancestors and archetypal energies in the attempt to weave an energetic container, open doorways to the inner worlds and create pathways/maps for those journeying within.

The words and internal imagery are used as metaphors and symbols that then work in combination with certain melodies and rhythms in direct response to what is being felt or according to the guidance of the spirits. Anyone off the street can learn the words of certain medicine songs – rather, it is the quality of one’s connection to the various spirit beings- your sacred vocabulary, your ability to stream the consciousness of those beings, the sincere prayer and feeling in your heart and your ability to transform into various archetypes that bring the medicinal qualities to these songs.

Being ‘sung’ by the spirits of nature

“The Dineh understand that all beings, be they star or stone, are condensations of sound, solidified vibration. To connect with their medicine, or power, of lightning and star, one must sound them” – Joan Halifax

The basic idea is that everything in existence, both seen and unseen has its own unique frequency and vibration that can be expressed through music. By learning to commune and listen deeply to these beings (spirits of plants, animals, planets, stones, deities, faeries etc) we have the opportunity to entrain to their frequencies and then channel/stream their spiritual essence and embedded communications through certain melodies, rhythms, and words. When we sing the Icaro, we are weaving an energetic design or blueprint into the subtle etheric bodies of the receiver- the spirit being in question then uses that design as a pathway to travel on to do its work. These song designs also act as keys to certain inner landscapes, worlds, and mysteries as well as vehicles for the participant to travel on. 

Resources of power

Once you have learned to be ‘sung’ by a particular being, a plant spirit for instance, then that connection becomes an energetic tool or resource of power in your healing work. The mestizo curanderos amass an internal library of icaros to use in their ceremonies, these generally have set melodies and words (although sometimes a word may be changed to meet the situation) and will be repeated ceremony after ceremony.

The indigenous shipibo work somewhat differently though, instead of gathering fixed songs- they gather a library of ‘felt sense connections’ or what I like to call a ‘sacred energetic vocabulary’ mainly through their dietas. When working, they can then enter into altered states of consciousness, call in these connections and then open themselves as pathways to spirit- resulting in a spontaneous and emergent flow of musical responses to the moment in order to achieve whatever energetic effect is necessary at that moment- there can often be repetition of melodies but the words and meanings are unique pretty much every time.

“the process by which these songs emerge can be seen somewhat as “algorithmic.” This being where a set of “procedures” are applied to the infinite database of sonic possibilities, including the speech of the immortals and sounds of the forest; the celestial children’s language, onomatopoetic intonations and glossolalia emerge like a certain unplanned, dynamic computation that most suddenly allows the song to act as a medium through which the spirits can make their phenomenal existence known” -Jonathon Miller-Weisberger & Sonia Gaind-Krishnan

How are they received?

Through Dieta

Typically, icaros are received through a sacred shamanic practice called ‘dieta’ (see part 2 of this series for a more in-depth look at Plant Dieta). The form of dieta can vary depending on the particular tradition and lineage you study in but essentially a dieta is a process of retreating into nature for a particular period of time, preferably with little or no contact with other people, eating a very bland diet and avoiding pretty much all distractions.

Coming into one-pointed focus on a particular plant or being that you are wanting to connect with and learn from; you take it in with all your senses; tasting it, smelling it, feeling it, learning its shapes, colors, and textures and essentially bathing in its presence every day. Approaching it with the sincere heartfelt intention to connect and then coming into a genuinely loving relationship with this being, you begin to entrain to its frequency. As you come into resonance with the plant/being in question, your system opens into receiving communications and teachings from it in various forms such as dreams, direct knowing, art, icaros, poetry etc.

Artwork by Vanja Vukelic (@merakilabbe)

Transmission, inheritance and divine grace

Icaros can also sometimes be received spontaneously without having been on dieta, a form of grace from the Mystery- this most often happens in response to a strong ‘need’. This is a great gift.

They can be passed down from teacher to student, through a kind of energetic transmission process, sometimes this can happen directly in the moment and sometimes it happens in a more osmotic process by sitting in a ceremony with one’s teacher for years.

Sometimes they can be carried within families and are passed down through the generations.

In the shipibo tradition, receiving an Icaro is often different from other traditions. Their song-work is generally quite spontaneous and improvisational and for them, an Icaro is a song that has got vibratory power/resonance as a result of their plant dietas. They care little for pretty words or crafty musicianship, for them, an Icaro has an energetic strength and medicinal quality that a normal song does not and can be easily distinguished by those experienced in listening to genuine icaros.

How they are used

Here we describe our own experience of using the icaros, yet you may get a vastly different picture if you were to speak to someone else. Though this art was passed onto us by our shipibo teachers, once it takes root then it grows into its own form. We have done our best here to describe a process that is pretty much indescribable.

Altered states of consciousness and streaming spiritual energy

Icaros flow when the singer has entered into an altered dreamlike state of consciousness, either through ingesting an entheogen such as ayahuasca or other types of consciousness shifting modalities (drumming, ritual, dance, shaking, breath-work or simply through intention). In this state, the goal would be to come into ‘union’ with the spirits in question by agreeing to at-least partially ‘let go of the controls’ and step ‘out of the way’. Through this process you empty yourself of yourself, creating a hollow channel so that the energy of your dieta’s and spiritual connections can now begin to spontaneously move through you and into form through your voice.

It is your job to follow the music and do your best not to impose your sense of self on it, as this can narrow and even shut down the flow of energy/spirit passing through but its still important to maintain certain boundaries and at times bring alternative direction to the flow if necessary- This is a sacred dance or relationship where at certain times your consciousness may need to be in the lead and at (most) other times, you are following the lead of spirit. This could be considered a type of partial and temporary possession in a sense- usually taking many years of training to master and requiring an extraordinary flexibility of consciousness as well as trust (it can be a very vulnerable process), the ability to draw boundaries and to be able to hold one’s center when very large and powerful beings are moving through.

Art by Susan Boulet

Transmitting embedded meanings through rivers of song

What ushers forth is like an encoded communication, a pure expression that is laden with meaning but is beyond language- rather it is communicated through vibration and resonance of the voice directly to the vibrating energy body of the patient(s). Similar to the songs of birds, whales, and dolphins- the meanings in the icaros are held within the gestalt experience as opposed to the individual words. While words may point to the meaning of what is being communicated, it is far more important to open one’s heart to the ‘feeling’ of what is being sung. An example of this could be an Icaro that sings the energetic vibration of a river into one’s kidneys, the consciousness of lightning into your heart or transmitting the feeling of being held like a newborn baby to the breast of the cosmic mother, surrounded by warmth and unconditional love.

“When we consider that the frequencies are energetic alignments, through invocations and frequency-based intonations, the stubborn body is allowed to align to a more organized energetic patterning. Merging with these frequencies allows for healing. When we consider organized patterning as a sign of health, healing becomes the process of disorder moving to order. We can begin to see how sound acts as a catalyst for transformation and organization. By allowing the body the opportunity for alignment with higher spiritual forces, healing occurs.” ~Jonathon Miller-Weisberger

These kinds of feelings arrive spontaneously through the singer as a response to what is being felt/seen in the patient at that moment, or as a creative expression of a specific intention (such as protection or healing). Another example would be an Icaro intended to shake up the inner darkness from within the Pandora’s box of the patient’s psyche, this kind of Icaro would obviously feel vastly different from the one intended to communicate the unconditional love.

This is a shipibo tapestry depicting the designs of the icaros that can be seen on the energetic bodies of patients in the ceremony.

Capturing the essence of being

Icaros can capture and communicate the energetic archetypes of certain elements such as fire or water; of feelings such as love or safety; of certain plants like mint or fig trees; of animals like lions or anacondas; of places in nature like a specific meadow or mountain; of certain ancestors; of stars and planets, of wind or lightning, of deities like Kuan Yin, Jesus or Shiva, other-worldly beings like faeries, sirenas or various nature spirits, different times in history and different dimensional spaces…  even certain energetic states can be sung, like a state of inner liberation or radiant compassion… one can sing an entire lifetime into the subconscious in one Icaro- time and volume of ‘meaning’ are not linear when it comes to icaros.

Sometimes not even the singer knows what is being sung- especially when the sense of ‘self’ is far on the periphery, they are totally in the flow of the moment and have transformed into something other than what they were- in the shipibo tradition, one of the primary goals of the training is learning to ‘energetically transform’ into the being doing the singing, to have the sense that the being/archetype in question is singing through you. Most curanderos will have an affinity for channeling certain spectrums of energy and so their work may have a specific flavor.

Trust and surrender, the art of receiving an Icaro

As a patient/participant, receiving an Icaro is not a passive process- when the curandero focuses on a particular person in the ceremony, they must be met with receptivity and trust so that a kind of energetic feedback loop/ relationship can be created between them. What then ensues is a kind of dancing, flowing healing journey through the imaginal realms.

Sometimes there is a lot of heaviness or energetic ‘static’ that needs to be purged before this connection can take place and is really just a matter of time.

In other cases, there may be a conscious or subconscious dislike or distrust of the curandero/facilitator that can then block this process happening (this could be genuine intuition telling you this person is not safe or it may be a reaction to past wounding/conditioning, really listen to your heart-guidance here). We have also noticed that those who struggle to receive in daily life- that could be love, help, guidance and those who struggle to ‘let go of the reins’ of control may also find it takes longer to receive the icaros and healing from the plants and spirits. Of course, there are many who are also fearful of what they may feel if they allow the medicine in and so consciously or unconsciously block it off.

Energetic tools, deep listening, and healing guidance

The Shipibos describe how the icaros weave designs into the psycho-spiritual body of the patient so that the vibrations of the plants may enter and begin travelling on the many subtle and not so subtle energetic levels of the person in question. These sound sequences emerge of their own accord and come alive within the patient’s body and psyche. If the receiver’s heart-mind is open, then the meanings held within the songs may be felt, understood or even seen within the minds-eye.

Like a bat using sonar, the vibrations of the icaros move us out of our habitual patterns of perception and alternatively help us to access a kind of heart perception that is firmly rooted in the feeling sense. This perceptive ability is used to ‘see’ or energetically ‘listen into’ the patient- a form of diagnosis or deep listening- and the response is instant and totally beyond conscious thought- tiny adjustments are made in tone, rhythm, frequency, word, and vibration to reflect the intent of the Icaro at that moment. As a result of this ‘sensing into’ the patient, the curandero may also start receiving insight and guidance on how to craft a treatment plan for their patient, such as what medicines to make or dietary/ behavioural observances will need to be followed to compliment the energetic healing that takes place in the ceremonies.

The many waves of flow and disconnect

No matter how experienced and skilled the curandero, there will be times when the Icaros seem to have less power or impact than at other times. When you sit with a teacher over long periods you will most likely experience the many shades of connection; from full-power flow to complete disconnect and everything in-between… and this can even happen all in one ceremony!

Some of the things that can impact the potency of the Icaros are fatigue, illness, little or no mareacion (trance effect), the need to do a dieta to replenish ones spiritual energy stores, strong emotional disturbance, over-eating, not eating enough, energetic attacks, loud or shocking noises, the need to purge, being ‘crossed’ (a term used frequently by the shipibo to describe when someone or something has caused your energy lines to be crossed or blocked), negative self-talk/judgement while singing and sometimes, for no discernible reason at all. This is generally recognized as a normal part of the process and many will prepare for this by working in teams or by having capable students or assistants to take over if necessary.

 Functions of Icaros

There are stories of icaros being used to call the spirits of prey animals when hunting or to increase the yields of certain crops, to call forth the healing potency when making medicines, and even to shift weather patterns. There are myriads of uses for icaros but the primary function we have experienced and that is discussed here is the icaros that are used in ceremonial healing work.

One could sing their patient’s spirits into the trunk of a tree for protection and connection.

The functions of icaros are many and varied and again they will differ from tradition to tradition, person to person. Though it may appear linear below and often does follow some kind of sequence, this process is alive and always shifting. The icaros are designed to serve whatever function is necessary at any moment, and sometimes multiple functions at once. The information below is to give you somewhat of an idea of what may be happening when you are listening to icaros. Here is an example of a typical Icaro progression followed by our shipibo teachers :

  • In the very beginning of the ceremony, the icaros are used to weave an energetic protection around the ceremonial space, the curandero and each participant in turn. How this looks and sounds will be different for each curandero. Typically it involves icaros that weave the energy of certain plants and ally spirits that have defensive and protective qualities around the space; placing special types of energetic armour on one’self and all participants and even surrounding the space with energetic shields that prevent others from being able to ‘look into’ the ceremony. An example would be to sing about placing the ceremonial space in a spiritual valley surrounded mountains and rivers that are hard to get past, then asking your allies such as a ‘black panther’ or the spirits of ‘ayahuma or chullachaqui trees’ to patrol throughout the night, placing the sharp spines of the ‘catahua tree’ on the energy bodies of your participants and then gathering all your spiritual weapons in the event of an energetic attack.
  • Next, the icaros serve the function of calling the ‘mareacion’ or ‘trance effects’ to each of the participants. The curandero will work to open the ‘energetic lines’ (or as Bradford Keeney calls them, ‘Ropes to God’) of the participants in the ceremony that connect them to the worlds of the spirit. They will often do this by ‘magnetizing’ the lines in order to attract the plants to them. They may also transport the souls of the participants to the spirit worlds on large boats, or on the backs of an anaconda. Some other metaphors for helping someone connect to the spirit world would be to place them in the branches of a tall tree, put an antenna on their head, give them keys to doors, open windows, see them ascending or descending staircases etc. These icaros are typically faster and more rhythmic and will serve to alter one’s state of consciousness, even in the absence of ayahuasca. In a similar category are those icaros used to level the mareacion, meaning that they stabilize the container so that work can begin.
  • Then the curandero begins calling in the spiritual doctors to the ceremony. Here the intention is to invoke as much medicine into the ceremony as possible. Plant doctor spirits, power animals, ancestors, deities, divine presences and whatever else is necessary to get the healing done. Here one will call on the energies of all your dietas in order to begin the healing and cleaning work. Examples may be to call upon the energy of your dieta with eucalyptus, or the owl spirit, or your great-grandfather, or beings such as Tara, Medicine Buddha or Jesus, or the spirit of the Moon/ Sun… the possibilities are infinite. 

    Artist Unknown
  • Then begins the diagnostic and cleaning icaros. Ideally, at this point, the spirits that you invoked in the previous icaros are now fully working through your voice and there is much less of ‘you’ present. These icaros can be very intense in nature and sometimes unpleasant to listen too- even dissonant at times. They are designed to energetically shake up whatever is not serving to the surface. It is very common to feel discomfort and nausea during these types of icaros, to experience strong emotions, or to see disturbing images such as dismemberment, insect infestations, or ghastly faces and the end result can often be purging. These icaros are intended to extract energies/spirits that aren’t meant to be there, to unblock stagnant energies/emotions within the psyche, to reveal shadow aspects looking to be integrated and much more.
  • Then comes the diagnostic and healing icaros which can be sublimely beautiful, especially if divine and celestial beings are being streamed to do the healing. Here there are a vast array of frequencies being streamed to help the body-heart-psyche come back into balance and homeostasis. An example of this would be to sing to the traumatized inner child of a patient, seeing them held in love. Another experience would be to feel a deity such as Tara take over your voice and sing radiant compassion into space. Seeing stars illuminate the heart of someone who is in a lot of pain, feeling flowers blooming in the sick organs of a patient, or snakes healing damaged DNA strands. *Note, these are not necessarily ‘seen’ in the visionary sense, seeing also encompasses feeling, hearing, physically experiencing and also direct knowing.
  • Less frequently used (or so we hope) are defensive and fighting icaros. In the Amazon, those who learn to work with plants in order to help and heal others, are known as ‘curanderos’. Those who work with plants in order to harm, cause trouble and in some cases even kill, are known as ‘brujos’, and there are some who do both depending on what they are being paid for. Occasionally during a ceremony, a curandero will feel like he is being ‘attacked’ energetically by a Brujo, or he will attempt to remove black magic from one of his patients and then get attacked by those energies during the process. In this case, a defensive Icaro will be used. The curandero whips out the energetic ‘big guns’ and calls on the spirits of substances such as bleach or gasoline, trees such as toe or ayahuma, power animals such as black panthers or gorillas, weapons such as swords with flaming tips and machine guns and various other defences. An energetic battle then ensues. It is a pretty epic thing to behold and is taken very seriously in the jungle.
The river dolphin imagery is often connected to warmi-love icaros
  • Also less common are warmi icaros, which function as a kind of ‘love spell’. These icaros can be very beautiful and have positive influences but can also have a somewhat sinister intention behind them. Some curanderos use them to help their patients find love, friendship, and abundance by creating an attractive energetic aura about the person. But Brujo’s and pusangueros can be paid to use warmi icaros and other rituals to cast spells on your behalf and force someone to fall in love with you against their will. Often it causes the victim great distress and even madness.
  • An important category of Icaro is called an Arkana. This is a very potent form of energetic protection. Essentially the Icaro weaves a design into the energy body of the receiver that is then used to seal in the essence of the healing and plants you have received during your treatment or dieta. This design stays in the energy for some time and serves as a kind of shield from influences that may upset the integration of the healing that has been received once leaving the presence of the ceremonial space/curandero care.
  • Lastly, there are closing icaros. Songs that help to close off or protect various energy centres so that we do not leave the healing space wide open and vulnerable. Loose ends are tied up, doors are closed, windows are shut and portals are narrowed. This is an important step to maintain ‘energetic hygiene’ after the ceremony.

*please note that this is part 3 of a 3 part series. Part 2 is on Plant Dieta and part 1 is on Curanderismo (plant spirit medicine).

Singing the songs of power places into the ceremonial space