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Paqos: Shamans or Mystics?

Paqo:  Shaman or Mystic?

My work in the Peru has been with the paqos who live in the high Andes. The term “paqo” (sometimes spelled “paq’o”) does not have an exact equivalent in our culture, some people translate it as “shaman” and others as “mystic”.  It is not a particularly great choice, it is like trying to describe a bear to someone who has never seen one and having to choose between saying that it is somewhat like a large cat, or that it is somewhat like a large dog.

Photo of a Siberian Shaman

A Siberian Shaman : Smithsonian

The word  “shaman” comes from an indigenous culture of Siberia where it refers to people who have special powers and a correspondingly special role in their society.  The term has since been adopted by our culture and applied to people with similar roles and powers in cultures across the globe.  While this has diluted the meaning of the term somewhat still there are basic elements to being a shaman.  Shamans typically enter into altered states of consciousness through the use of  psychoactive plants, drumming, or chanting.  While in these states they may journey into spirit realms not normally accessible in everyday life, and there they gather needed information or take actions to heal people whose afflictions have their root in these spirit realms.   The role of the shaman in society centers around their ability to perform these special actions.

Mystics, on the other hand, are those who seek to know, through direct experience, the essential nature of the Cosmos.  Thoughts, concepts, and to some degree perception, are interpretations of reality, not reality itself.  The experience, for example, that we are separate entities moving through time is a product of our mind, it is our experience of reality after the mind has translated it into something that makes sense, it is not the essential ‘suchness’ of reality itself.  When we experience reality before our mind has had chance to interpret it we find an eternal, seamless whole, we find the Sacred.  This place of deep knowing is the goal of the mystic.  The various outcomes we may ask a shaman to accomplish may no longer be of importance once we take a stance beyond our mind-based ego and its needs, thus a possible distinction between a shaman and a mystic is that of power versus wisdom.

Andean Paqos

Andean Paqos : Photo by Elaine Nichols

Paqos have some of the attributes of both shamans and mystics. The paqos are mystics in that they nourish an interactive and mutually supportive relationship with the rest of the Cosmos, it is a relationship that is only possible through the direct, mystical, experience of the interconnectedness of all things.  While it is this relationship that is paramount, the relationship does make it possible to ask favors from the Apus (the great spiritual beings who are the majestic mountain peaks) and from the Pachamama (the great spiritual being who is our mother earth) as well as others, and it allows for the manipulation of the energy that underlies all existence.

Paqos differ from traditional mystics, however, for mystics tend to be solitary figures who may have found it necessary to withdraw from society to pursue their path.  To be a paqo is to be of service, both to the great beings of Nature and the Cosmos and to the community.  This service is always performed within the context of ayni, the Andean principle of reciprocity, where giving is  balanced by receiving , and receiving is balance by giving.

Like shamans, the paqos have abilities that fall outside the ken of our culture’s conceptions of reality.  These abilities, however, are not ‘powers’, they involve neither controlling nature nor being controlled by nature (neither mastery nor servitude).  They stem instead from having an experiential understanding of the essential nature of reality and from nourishing a mutually supportive and loving relationship with the rest of the Cosmos.

Paqos are not exactly shamans or mystics, or they are both.  If forced to choose (to avoid long explanations) I usually go with ‘mystic’, and thus I label what I am studying as ‘Andean Mysticism’ rather than ‘Andean Shamanism’.  Few people would know what I meant if I called it ‘Andean Paqoism’ and I am reluctant to be held responsible for introducing a term like ‘paqoism’ into our vocabulary.

There is one thing I would like to add before bringing this to a close.  One of the more engaging and fulfilling aspects of studying a new culture comes from entering a world unlike the one with which I am familiar.  If I insist (consciously or unconsciously) on fitting what I experience into the categories I have learned from my culture (e.g. categorizing paqos as either mystics or shamans) then I miss seeing what is really fresh and new about the culture, and instead of looking into a fascinating new world I end up simply seeing  a reflection of my own.  This is something that has arisen over and over again for me, finding that I have interpreted something about the Andean culture in terms of my own culture’s view of the world and have subsequently missed something of great interest and  beauty.  In what I write in this site I will try to help you learn from my mistakes.

The photo of the Andean paqos by Elaine Nichols is included with her permission.  I scanned it in from the back of my copy of a 17 year old issue of the journal Shaman’s Drum.  Unfortunately it looks like it is from the cover of a 17 year old journal.  This is a metaphor of what it is like for me when I paraphrase in my writings one of the Andean paqos with whom I have worked (primarily Americo Yabar).  I want to share something beautiful they have said and I’m afraid that in doing so I’ll add some cracks and discolorations that may be mistakenly attributed to them rather than to me where it belongs.  Still, I think facing that risk is better than not sharing something beautiful at all.

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  1. Your information was appreciated as I think to many folks miss the distinction between power and wisdom. The joy on the faces of the pagos in the photograph is palpable! A friend spent time in Peru and returned with a respect and appreciation for the expansive view of our relationship to all things that is espoused by the pagos. Although this is not a term she used, I believe she was describing the essence of the “service” these individuals provide to their communities and through their interactions with visitors to the rest of the world. You describe a very open relationship with “all that is” that I like very much. I have been asked by others exactly what it is that I “do”. I have no conventional answer to this question other than I “do” what is necessary for the benefit of myself and others. I have over my lifetime borrowed what is useful from all the cultures I have studied and as Buddha said I keep what I find of benefit and let the rest go with love. There is much in the few lines you have written describing the pago that is to be kept. Thank you.

  2. lovely blog, thank you for sharing.

  3. I’ve just come upon this lovely post! Thank you for articulating so clearly the essence of a paqo.

  4. Cecilia Rojas

    June 7, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    I have been going to Peru for almost 10 years now (I am Colombian, living in USA) and having studied with several ‘shamans’ some native , some not , I am now raising a question: who is to be called a shaman. Can anybody who learns their skills and acquires their knowledge “become” a shaman? Or is the knowledge and wisdom transmitted through generations and lineage what makes you a”legitimate” shaman

    • Oakley Gordon

      June 7, 2016 at 2:58 pm

      Hi. There are many traditions in Peru: healers and diviners and seers and experts in plants and layqas and paqos. There are some who are on a path of power and others who are on a path of heart. The term shaman comes from Siberia and has been adopted by Western culture to apply to diverse practices around the planet. I have my own views on this which is that paq’os are neither shamans or mystics but are closer to being mystics than they are to being shamans.

      I have been exploring the Andean Cosmovision for many, many years. I am an expert only on my own experiences and what I have made out of them, my experiences with don Americo and don Gayle and the various paqos and healers with whom they have arranged for me to meet, and from being in the magic of Peru. There are many paths that lead into the Andean Cosmovision that differ significantly from my own. Within the scope of my experiences I would say that to explore the Andean Cosmovision you only need to know how and to have the heart to want to do it, but then that does not make you a shaman (wrong culture). I hope others will contribute their own answers to your question.

    • Bruce Cunningham

      June 13, 2016 at 10:37 am

      Almost every indigenous culture around the world has, or has had a “shamanic” class. There are cultures that have specific requirements to attain the class of sacred healer within their culture, and some that do not. In some cultures, you are called to the task through a near death experience such as being struck by lightening or recovering from a near mortal injury or disease.

      The definition that I use is “A shaman is one who has been called by spirit, has the training and experience to step between the worlds of the ordinary and non-ordinary realities. Who uses spirit animals, and ancestors to accomplish the necessary steps towards wholeness for the benefit of themselves, their clients or their community.”

      There are many other definitions, some good, some not so good. The bottom line is this. Whatever they are called, good shamans help people to wholeness. Bad ones find another line of work.

  5. Thank you for your writing. I was looking up paqo as it was referenced in a post from Pacha Awakening on FB and a term I was unfamiliar with. This was so helpful in not only understanding the word but myself and more of the Andean wisdom and culture.

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