The "Deified" Heart: Huichol Indian Soul-Concepts and Shamanic Art

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article asks what is the relationship between shamanic vision and the production of shamanic art? Based on interviews with Huichol Indian yarn painters in Mexico, the author shows that the artist's concept of the soul is important to understanding shamanic art. For the Huichol, the heart is the centre of shamanic inspiration and the vehicle for communication with the gods. This study builds on recent research into Mesoamerican concepts of the soul, and its relationship to the human body. It questions assumptions about contemporary "ethnic and tourist" arts which arise out of the shamanic complex,(f.1) and suggests that indigenous artists may be working from their own assumptions about process as well as product.

Resume: Cet article demande comment la vision chamanique est reliee a la production de l'art chamanique. Utilisant des entrevues avec des artistes indigenes huicholes du Mexique, l'auteur demontre qu'on doit comprendre leur concept d'ame afin de comprendre leur art chamanique. Pour les indigenes huicholes, le coeur est le centre de l'inspiration chamanique et le moyen de communication avec les dieux. Cette etude utilise des recherches recentes sur les concepts mesoamericains de l'ame et sur sa relation au corps humain. L'etude fait ressortir les postulats sur les arts "ethniques et touristiques" contemporains qui proviennent du complexe chamanique. Elle suggere que les artistes indigenes travaillent a partir leurs propres idees sur le processus et le produit.

The true artist, capable, practicing, skilful, maintains dialogue with his heart, meets things with his mind.

The true artist draws out all from his heart: makes things with calm, with sagacity; works like a true Toltec.

-- (Codice Matritense de la Real Academia (cited in Anderson, 1990: 153)

When I first began to study Huichol (pronounced Wee-chol) Indian shamanism in Mexico, I was intrigued by statements that Huichol art was spiritually inspired. The dealers who sold brilliantly coloured yarn paintings in Puerto Vallarta insisted in their sales patter that all Huichol artists were shamans, and all their art the product of dreams and visions. Several articles in the literature support the idea of a visionary source for Huichol arts. Berrin (1978: 47) illustrates Huichol embroidery which was "inspired by the artist's dreams and hallucinations." Furst (1968-69: 23) describes several yarn paintings which are said to illustrate peyote-induced dreams. Schaefer (1990: 246-248) describes weavings based on dreams. Eger and Collings (1978: 39-41) discuss mandala-like drawings seen by a young shaman while eating peyote. However, Berrin, Eger and Collings and Schaefer all note that making designs based on dreams and visions represents an ideal that only some artists are able to achieve.

There is a growing literature which suggests that art of indigenous peoples is spiritually inspired, or is shamanic (Halifax, 1982; Lommel, 1967); but how much do we understand of what this generalization means? What is it that makes an art shamanic? How are shamans inspired, and how do they translate inspiration into art? Is it simply a matter of "seeing" a vision or dream, then replicating the image in art, or is some other process involved?

Some authors have suggested that one source of shamanic art may be the trance experience created by hallucinogenic plants, such as yage or ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis spp.) (Harner, 1973), or peyote (Lophophora williamsii) (Cordy-Collins, 1989). This has led to observations that certain plants produce characteristic patterns and images, such as the writhing snakes of ayahuasca, or the geometric, lattice-like, transforming colour combinations of peyote. Other sources of visionary art may be physical stress, such as the fasting used by North American aboriginal people. …