Art credit: Sahaj Kaliman
Ayahuasca icaros, or ikaros, are traditional indigenous Amazonian songs that are performed as accompaniment to sacred plant healing ceremonies. They are musical prayers that embody the powers of spirits of plants and animals, deities, ancestors, and elemental forces. Channeled into this reality by master curanderos, they are employed as efficient healing agents, powerful spirit weapons, or ineffable realm creators.
Icaros exist both in the form of a preset library that the shaman can draw upon as well as novel melodies and lyrics that are manifested to them in real time by the spirit realm to wield in accordance with ceremony conditions and patient needs. The shamans can attune to the frequencies of these realms by altering their state of consciousness through use of entheogens such as ayahuasca.
Where Do Icaros Music and Lyrics Come From?
Susana Bustos, a transpersonal psychologist and eminent researcher of Peruvian vegetalismo (shamanic plant healing practices), wrote her doctoral dissertation on the origins and application of icaros. Her profound and unique insight elucidates just how ethereal and difficult to comprehend in terms of our reality this musical practice really is.
Bustos describes that shamans learn icaros through years of training and communing with the plants, whose powers they are to use in healing or divinatory purposes. This training is commonly known as the ‘dieta,’ and it’s the practice that the pre-ayahuasca ceremony diet originates from.
During the ‘dieta,’ which may last from many months to a few years, shamans spend time in isolation from the community (but, not uncommonly, alongside other shamans in training), fasting on a basic diet which includes rice, manioc, plantains, fish and few other jungle animals. They commune with the Master Plant once or a few times per day (sometimes skipping a day), slowly gathering power, insight, and knowledge from the spirit world. Aside from food, they abstain from all other activities as well, leaving ample space for ayahuasca to shape them.
Over the course of their training, future shamans slowly establish a strong connection with their plant teachers. As this resonance grows, the dreams, artistic inspiration and aptitude of the shaman diversify and develop as well. At some point, the apprentices are gifted with songs and chants, which they are to use for calling forth the lost souls and their spirit allies, and strengthening or modulating the actions of the plant spirits.
A firsthand account given by a shaman about the process of receiving an icaro is vibrantly relayed by Bustos in the following way: “I was just hearing something, as if there was somebody, a very tiny voice, in the back of my head […] and it was singing something, and it made me sing that thing, and repeat it and repeat it, until I got the words and I got the melody.” Bustos notes that usually the melody is revealed first, and the icaro’s lyrics follow once it is remembered.
There are other ways of receiving icaros, too. Shamans in training are often taught to sing these sacred melodies by their elders. This can either be done directly, by explicit practice, or indirectly, by ‘absorbing’ the master’s icaros, along with his other knowledge, over years of training.
Aside from passing them down willingly, icaros can also be stolen. In the murky waters of Amazon brujeria (witchcraft), it’s not uncommon for malevolent shamans to traverse huge distances in order to get to powerful curanderos, then attend their ceremony in disguise and ‘bootleg’ their icaro music. The strength of secondhand icaros, however, may never match that of those received directly.
Finally, even without having gone through a dieta, regular participants in ayahuasca ceremonies can also be gifted icaros if they are in dire need of healing. It’s not uncommon to hear spontaneous improvised chanting coming from a member of the ceremony circle; these chants are usually described as coming from ‘elsewhere,’ with the individual acting as a medium for them.
How Do Icaros Work?
Although it is manifested as melodies and lyrics, icaro music is actually an expression of otherworldly energy channeled by the recipient. Entering an altered state of consciousness, either by consuming ayahuasca or by performing activities such as rhythmical drumming, dance, shaking, or breathwork, or a combination of multiple modalities, allows the soul to transcend this reality and establish a connection with the beyond.
In this state, the spirits are called upon, and a consensus is made that the individual invoking them will allow them to ‘take over’ in order to perform their work. So, the shamans basically ‘hollow’ themselves out to accommodate the spirits. Their energies then combine and can be moved through the shaman’s body, coming out in the form of wavelengths we detect as sound.
Icaros are no ordinary sound, however. Within them is contained spiritual content that is beyond the reach of any verbal or musicological explanation. These otherworldly vibrations communicate and resonate with the energetic body of their target. The soul, in whole and in part, can then realign itself according to the blueprint that the icaros lay out for it. This is how the process of healing through icaros works.
The icaros themselves are dynamic and sometimes completely spontaneous. Depending on what the shaman and the spirits can sense about the patient they are working with, the icaros generated can heal, protect, or in many different ways induce energetic manipulation to achieve what the patient needs. They can even communicate energies of elemental forces, create landscapes or ineffable realms, induce specific feelings, or manifest animal and plant spirits and deities as allies in their recipient.
While they are singing the icaros, curanderos can identify with, or spiritually transform into the entities whose powers they are channeling. They lose their egos, and enter a state of complete flow or resonance with the source of the icaro. Different curanderos are better attuned to different frequencies of these energetic transmissions, and their healing work will be of distinct qualities according to this.
Aside from singing, icaros are complemented by other ritualistic actions the shamans often perform to enhance or modulate their effects. The shaking of a chakapa (a bundle of dry leaves that produce a rattle-like sound when shaken) is a traditional cleansing technique that is performed on the participants, the ceremonial space, as well as for rhythmic accompaniment to singing. Mapacho (sacred Amazonian tobacco) is also smoked and blown throughout the maloca (ceremonial hut) and over the participants to dispel negative energies. Finally, a range of sounds are produced by the shaman during the icaro, and they include various sound effects, purging sounds, whistling, and speaking in tongues.
For the icaros to be successful, though, it’s necessary for their recipient to be fully open to embrace their power. Any resistance causes an unfavorable energetic state and makes it difficult for a resonance to be established between the spirits and the energetic body of the patient. Pushback can happen because of personal subconscious barriers, such as lack of belief in the healing process or fear of delving too deep, or because of a more explicit reason, such as a lack of trust in the shaman or the center. The curandero may be able to dispel this resistance by cleansing the patient of negativity; in more serious instances, multiple ceremonies are needed to arrive at the level of trust needed to let go.
What Are Icaros Used For?
Icaros are weaved together by curanderos for a variety of purposes. They can be taken from a library of melodies which may be comprised of hundreds of distinct songs in many different (worldly or otherworldly) languages. These ‘standard’ icaros are usually sung for opening and closing the ceremony, and setting up an energetic shield for the space. They can also be intuitively adapted or spontaneously produced according to the specific energetic landscape the shaman senses, or when doing individual work with the participants or patients.
Although they are hugely diverse, some of the more standard icaro categories include:
- Protection. Shamans will use these icaros to set up a safe space around the ceremony area, and to equip themselves and the participants with energetic defense shields. They will call upon the spirits of certain plant and animal allies which have these kinds of qualities, and ask them to keep guard or attach themselves to everyone in the ceremony and defend them against attacks.
- Inducing the visions. These icaros are sung to establish an energetic connection between the participants and the spirits. The shamans either aim to attract their energetic lines to each other, or facilitate the transport of the energetic bodies to the spirit realm. Once in resonance, visions of the other worlds come on.
- Creating realms. Shamans can also open up portals to different realms and spiritual entities. Singing to the spirits of the birds or fishes or boas can, aside from inviting the presence of these spirits, also serve to transport the participants’ souls into their dwellings.
- Stabilizing the visions. At times, the ayahuasca experience can get intense and wild. In these cases, the shamans may sing icaros to stabilize the vision space. These can also be used as a lifeline to anyone whose soul has strayed far away, drawn by the morphing landscape. In these cases, it’s possible to slip into a dark realm or an overwhelmed state, from which it may be difficult to return. Tracing the way back to safety using the melody of the icaro can be immensely helpful.
- Invoking healing spirits. Shamans can call upon the energies of any entities they had established a resonance with, whether they be plant healers, animal allies, ancestors, mythical figures, elements, deities, or others. These invocations draw on the energy established during the healer’s dieta with the specific plant, or spiritual connection with an entity.
- Cleansing. Some icaros have the aim to create an energetic storm inside the participants in order to separate the positive from the negative energies. The latter can be drawn out to the surface, at which moment they can be projected into the consciousness, causing harrowing visions. These can, in turn, lead to purging and the extraction of negativity.
- Shifting energies. Icaros can also cause energies to shift from one participant to another or from a participant to the shaman. During this process, the energies to be purged travel along the energetic matrix that the icaro weaves throughout the ceremony space. According to one report, it may be that they are sent through time this way as well.
- Healing. These icaros are songs of pure light, inducing divine, blissful feelings in participants while performing deep energetic reparations on them. They work on the mind-body-spirit unity, and invoke the power of all the healing spirit allies the shaman is familiar with. They can be directed at the individual’s conscious or subconscious mind, body as a whole or specific parts or organs, and can provide recalibration, missing love, sensory experiences, emotional release, insight, or anything else that’s needed for healing.
- Battle. There are icaros that are used in cases of brujeria or malevolent energy attacks. The shaman invokes the spirits of powerful, violent, dangerous entities in order to ward off an attack or remove dark magic.
- Manipulation. Certain icaros can be used to exert influence over someone in order to achieve a certain goal. They are usually used to dismantle destructive patterns of thought and behavior, but in the wrong hands they can serve as dangerous weapons. One of the best known icaros of this sort is the warmi icaro, which functions as a ‘love spell.’
- Energetic sealing. Icaros can help embed the energetic blueprint of healthy functioning into the energetic body of the receiver, keeping the influences of the healing spirits within the body after the ceremony and shielding the carrier from negative energies. An important icaro category of this sort is known as the Arkana icaros.
- Closing. Standard icaros sung for the closing of the ceremony and the energy bodies of the participants.
The Magic of the Icaro
Icaros are an integral part of healing in ayahuasca ceremonies. Although words don’t quite suffice in describing their intangible power, they are an essential weapon in every shaman’s arsenal for good reason.
By learning more about them, we can understand their importance and increase our sensitivity to how they serve us. Opening up to feel their intricate role more and more in ceremony can, in turn, allow their healing power to reach its full, transformative potential.