Henry Munn: From 'The Uniqueness of María Sabina' (In Memoriam)

[In the years in which I was working with many others toward the creation of an ethnopoetics, the presence and work of Henry Munn was of extraordinary importance.  His death in February puts an end to what had been a life of intellectual questing, carried on in large part without recognition but always with an inquisitiveness  & intelligence that contributed immeasurably to the work of others of us who were able to operate in a more public sphere.  His translations, along with his brother-in-law Alvaro Estrada, of the chants and oral autobiography of María Sabina will endure beyond his life and ours, but these are only a portion of what continued to be his work until the time of his death.  Of his presence as a man and a thinker, his daughter Xochitl Diana has written: “[Henry Munn] was a unique and gentle individual, a man with a deep passion for learning and a sense of wonder that was almost like that of a child -- something very rare to find in an adult. He lived a simple life, in the sense that he was not interested in material goods. As long as he had books to read, paper and a pen to write, access to the best libraries, and the means to visit museum exhibitions, he was a happy man. Nothing energized him more than books and art.”

            An independent scholar and writer, Henry Munn arrived in Huautla de Jiménez, the home town of María Sabina, for the first time in 1965.  His essays on Mazatec religion and related subjects have appeared in anthologies published by the Oxford University Press and the University of California Press and in journals such as Plural (edited by Octavio Paz),The CoEvolution Quarterly, New Wilderness Letter, and the Journal of Latin American Lore.  His essay on María Sabina, “Writing in the Imagination of an Oral Poet,” has been a beacon for me, as have his extensive and thorough translations of her chanted poetry.  The latter are still readily available in María Sabina: Selections, the second volume in the series Poets for the Millennium, edited by myself and Piere Joris for the University of California Press, from which this essay comes as well. (J.R.)]


            Since María Sabina is the most renowned Mazatec shaman people tend to think  that she is the only one, without realizing that she is part of a living tradition. The comparison of her chants with those of four other shamans I recorded in Huautla between 1967 and 1980 -- one woman and three men -- shows the similarities between her vocabulary and theirs, at the same time as it throws into relief what makes her different from them.

            The form of the chant -- short enunciations ending with  tso, “it says,” like a vocal punctuation mark in the flow of speech, a reference to the voice speaking through them,  is used by all the Mazatec shamans – especially when they shift from speech into song.  It is a cultural creation: a way of canalizing the energy released.

            There is also a shared vocabulary between shamans and a common stock of standardized expressions that they all draw on in their chants. "Slowly and with care / with sap, with dew / with greenness, with clarity," María Sabina says again and again over the sick boy during the Wasson Velada to create the mood the words evoke. Ho nca inta, ho nca nangui  -- "slowly and with care,” literally with one's feet on the ground -- is something that is said to people when they set out on a journey.  It is one of the stereotyped expressions commonly used by the shamans.  The cluster of words --ntsin: "sap,” the milk inside a plant; xoñon: "dew"; xcoen: "green" in the sense of fresh and tender (the color green is sase); and yova: "clarity" -- expresses the quintessence of the Mazatec shamans' illuminated sense of nature. They all use these words in different combinations in their chants.

            Another couple of words that go together in the chants of María Sabina and those of the other Mazatec curanderos are yo – the buds of a flower; and chi?nte -- tender in the sense of what is young, newborn, a plant just shooting up. Mrs. Eloina Estrada de González, who translated the recordings for me, translated this couplet as "offshoots and tenderness."  In the chants of María Sabina I render them as "buds and sprouts." These words, which refer to the stages of growth of plants, are used as metaphors for babies and children. This is the view of life of an agricultural community.

            Khoa nta -- "grace, goodness" and khoa vihna, khoa visen -- "life and well-being" are correlated in the parallel constructions of the shamanic chants with "sap and dew,” "greenness and clarity."  The opposites of these four kernel words are "garbage and dust" (tje, chao); "whirlwind and wind" (xquin, ntjao), -- figures of speech for sickness and disputes.  María Sabina frequently asserts that it is the work of her "saints" -- meaning the mushrooms -- to dispel them and clear the air.

            Her words go together in couplets. These double expressions in which the same thing is said twice in different ways are a characteristic of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican rhetoric.  Other common stereotyped expressions that recur from shaman to shaman follow this same pattern: ngui xcoin, ngui ntso?vai -- "beneath your eyes, beneath your mouth"; ma and tao -- "poor and humble (or loved)"; tsin khoa?aon, tsin khoa?nte -- "there is no resentment, there is no rancor"; cjain ni, kishikhoa ni -- "it is certain, it is true.”

            They all inherit from their culture a repertory of themes and motifs on which each one works his or her own individual variations.  When María Sabina says she is a chjon chjine xki, chjon chjine xca, chjon chjine en, chjon chjine khoa -- "a woman wise in medicine, a woman wise in herbs, a woman wise in words, a woman wise in problems" -- she is stating her culture's concept of the shaman's role. The other Mazatec chota chjine -- "wise ones" -- all define themselves in exactly the same terms.

            She often says: "I am a woman of the light, I am a woman of the day." Here she is playing on the Mazatec word for spirit -- sennichi -- by breaking it down into its two component parts: sen -- physiognomy or light, depending on how it is used; and nich i-- day: the destiny of a person determined by the day sign of his or her birth -- the Mazatec equivalent of the Aztec tonalli, which meant light, heat, day, and spirit.  She usually says before or afterwards: "I am a woman espíritu,” translating the native concept into Spanish.  Other shamans do the same thing.  Another wise woman prays: "Bring his appearance, bring his day." A shaman from Loma de Chapultepec on the slopes of the sacred mountain opposite Huautla speaks of "the path of the cane of office, the path of the staff, the path of the light, the path of the day (ntia ya, ntia nise, ntia sen, ntia nichi) of each of his patients.

            She herself says of her host during the Folkways Session that he is a "man with a green staff, a staff of clarity ( nise xcoen, nise yova ).”  The words of a medicine man from Xochitonalco, a hamlet near Huautla, recall hers; he says to the old couple he is speaking for: "You should take your staff of dew, your staff of fragrant leaves. Grace, life and well-being. Green staff, staff of clarity (nise xcoen, nise yova)."  The leaves he is referring to are those used in the steambath to hit the body so as to make the air circulate.

            The path is a common motif in the chants of the Mazatec shamans who live in a mountain world of footpaths where people leave the tracks of their bare feet in the brown squishy mud.  The experience takes the form of a "trip."  One function of the shamanic chant is to guide the effect of the mushrooms on the participants and lead them by suggestion along a good path to a healing cathartic experience. María Sabina speaks frequently of following in the footsteps of Christ. Compare her words with those of the medicine man from Xochitonalco: "It is life and well-being of our Father, says.  It is sap and dew, says. It is buds and tenderness, says. It is the path of the tracks, it is the path of the feet of our Christ, says."  Sometimes the path is that of the extravagated spirit of the sick, which has to be followed to where the person was frightened. The wise woman sings: "We are going looking for the path, the path of his paws, the path of his claws, from the right side to the left side we are going to work, says."  The shaman from the Loma de Chapultepec, sitting in a chair before the family altar in the house where he has been called to give a ceremony, states: "The work I came for is to divine for them, how they are in their door, their dooryard, the path of the tracks of their feet." At one moment in the Folkways Session, María Sabina says: "I am going to receive there in the path / I am going to receive the enchantment / I am going to receive his light, his day / the path of his soles, the path of his feet."  She means she is going to reintegrate the person with his or her sennichi-li.  For her the path of the hands and the feet is what one does, where one goes.

            In Huautla people would explain the similarities in vocabulary and figures of speech between different shamans by saying that it is the mushrooms speaking through them.  I don't think we can accept that explanation, which from the scientific point-of-view is a personification into an imaginary entity of the unconscious powers of language. None of the curanderos and curanderas I recorded had heard each other speak, but they had all at one time or another in the past heard other shamans give ceremonies, either when they were children or when they were sick and had to be cured.  The uncanny way the couplets of the shamanic chant imprint themselves on the memory of ordinary listeners, even when the exact meaning of the words is beyond them, suggests how the liturgy of the mushroom medicine rites has been transmitted from generation.

            María Sabina when she was a child heard shamans sing like many Mazatec children who have lain awake at night listening to the strange words of medicine men and women singing in the darkness under the din of the rain on the thatch roof or with the chirp of the crickets in the background. The raw psycho-physiological experience is shaped by cultural models. When she began to eat the mushrooms herself, she already knew the form of the chant and the type of things that are said.

            What then distinguishes her from her contemporaries?

            First of all, her musicality. Within the traditional framework of the ritual, developed to utilize the psychoactive medicine for therapeutic social purposes, each shaman has his or her own magic song, distinctive voice, personal melody and individual manner of conducting a ceremony . Nevertheless, the melodiousness of María Sabina's chants, their rhythmical transporting effect, is unsurpassed except at moments by other singers.

            The effect of the mushrooms she has eaten for the power to cure make the body vibrate.  Hence her humming -- a way of tuning herself in to the energy flowing through her. When she invokes the Virgins and the Saints, she draws out the endings of their names into reverberant tones. At the same time she marks the intensified pulse beat of her physical existence by clapping and uttering sequences of vocables: ecstatic phonation, articulatory play, a vocalization of impulses, a rhythmical syllabification of energy.

            So so so si are the component parts of Jesusi -- a common exclamation of Mazatec women.  Ki ko ka ka ki form Kristo.  Ma ma ma mai become madre. 

            The syllables are used as beats; meaning is broken down into pure sounds and recomposed from them again.  The vocables sometimes seem to go back to the babble of babies.  In her repetition of santo santa the binary alternation of sounds is what she likes, the contrast of to and ta.  This is a level of vocalization I have heard in no other Mazatec shaman. The large part played by percussion, humming, and the enunciation of syllables in her ceremonies exemplifies her expressionistic creativity and distinguishes her performances from those of her contemporaries.

            What is not on the printed page is the sensorial condition of heightened sensitivity in which her words are spoken and heard: their resonance.  In many passages the lilt of her voice carries a force, conveys a sense of enthusiasm that is not present in just the words themselves. It is the music of the shamanic chant, its rhythm and melody, that moves the listeners as much as the words and cures them by the power of song to uplift and transport the soul.

            She alone of all the shamans says: "I am a trumpet woman, I am a drum woman, I am a woman violinist."  Her words bring to mind the mushroom ceremony pictured at the center of the Codex Vindobonensis Obverse -- an ancient Mixtec pictographic book from an area of what is now the state of Oaxaca not far from the Mazatec mountains -- where 9 Wind -- the Mixtec culture hero -- dressed in the attributes of the wind deity the Aztecs called Quetzalcoatl -- is shown officiating as a shaman, playing on a rasp with a human skull for a resonator, the volutes of speech coming out of his mouth.

            Wasson describes her dancing as she sings, turning around in the middle of the dark room, lifting her arms in gestures of adoration and imploration. Her activity of expression is total: musical and gestural as well as  verbal.  The whole body speaks. Listening to her talk in ordinary life, without understanding what she was saying, I was struck by the idiosyncratic gestures she would make with her hands and fingers.  Of all living Mazatec shamans, María Sabina was unquestionably the greatest because of her radical, extreme personality.

            One of the most distinctive features of her chants is how she assumes the being of the phenomena she names by saying "I am" this or that.  One shaman -- by day a shopkeeper in the market -- asserted "I am he who speaks with the mountains" (a male perogative, the women kneel on their mats, imploring), but even though he evoked eagles and vortices of colors, he did not identify with them. The level of discourse of the other chota chjine is practical, functional. They emphasize what they do -- cure -- and what they want -- to get rid of sickness. In the chants of none of the other shamans I have recorded does the "I am" have the same importance it does in the words of María Sabina.

            Her identifications are like the masks the Tlingit and Eskimo shamans put on and took off (bear spirit, deer spirit, moon, kingfisher, raven, eagle, old woman, cloud spirit, the spirit of the driftwood, even bubbles). This is Coleridge's "Infinite I am" of the "primary imagination."  The "I is an other" of Rimbaud.