The Shaman and the Jaguar is an important addition to the growing literature on the ritual use of psychotropic substances among Amerindian peoples. G. Reichel-Dolmatoff expands upon the foundation of his earlier work, Amazonian Cosmos (1971), by providing a detailed description of the shamanistic complex of the Tukano Indians of the Amazonian lowlands of eastern Colombia, with particular emphasis on the native use of hallucinogenic Banisteriopsis potions, and Virola and Anadenanthera snuffs. The initial chapters document the reactions of the early Spanish to the aboriginal use of psychotropic plants in the New World, and trace the pioneering work of Richard Spruce, Alfred Russell Wallace, and Richard Evans Schultes in the botanical identification of these species.

As the title suggests, the jaguar is a primary symbol in the native cosmology, and the author discusses this widespread phenomenon in detail, including the ritual jaguar transformation of shamans during Banisteriopsis ceremonies. One of the significant contributions of this study is a section discussing the physiological phenomena of phosphenes (transient visual perceptions of specks or patterns) stimulated by hallucinogenic compounds, and their relation to Tukano art motifs. The author describes how these ambiguous visual experiences are subjected to projective interpretations based on the cultural inventory and environment of the Tukano, and sets forth clearly the role of the shaman as the interpreter of these visions during the communal drug ceremony. These data offer an alternative approach to the hypothesis of Michael J. Harner and Claudio Naranjo that Banisteriopsis visions are archetypical images residing in the recesses of the mind (Hallucinogens and Shamanism, 1973).

The native texts collected by Reichel-Dolmatoff indicate that sexual symbolism is an important feature in Tukano art and oral literature, but the author goes beyond his data in proposing that periodic “sightings” of demons derive from sexual tension, and involve visual, auditory, and olfactory cues that precipitate a point of “closure” in which the “latent image finds a screen upon which it can be projected” (p. 190). It seems doubtful that such a complex constellation of circumstances is necessary to account for fears of bogeymen and demons, which are culture universals.

Although the symbolic analysis in this book has a strong Freudian cast, Reichel-Dolmatoff differs from many scholars who study cosmology and shamanism in strictly mentalistic terms by suggesting how these aspects of culture may serve regulatory functions in the ecological adaptation of the Indians. This is a promising avenue for research, and it is hoped that others will follow Reichel-Dolmatoff’s lead in this direction.