Last updated

Tsentsak are invisible pathogenic projectiles or magical darts utilized in indigenous and mestizo shamanic practices for the purposes of sorcery and healing throughout much the Amazon Basin. Anthropologists identify them as objects referenced in emic accounts that represent indigenous beliefs. Tsentak are not recognized in scientific medicine.


Shaman from an equatorial Amazonian forest, June 2006 Chaman amazonie 5 06.jpg
Shaman from an equatorial Amazonian forest, June 2006


The term tsentsak is derived from the Shuar language, which belongs to the Jivaroan language family. The Shuar are members of the Jivaroan peoples who reside in the Amazon rainforest of Peru and Ecuador. This term is also used interchangeably with virote (primarily by mestizo shamans), a Spanish term for crossbow bolt which was applied to the blow darts made by the Jivaroans from the spines of the Bactris and Astrocaryum palms. [2]


Tsentsak are stored by the shaman in his or her yachay , or phlegm, located in the chest and stomach. The tsentsak are embedded within this phlegm and either the tsentsak or the yachay may be projected out of the shaman into a victim to cause illness and death. This phlegm is the materialization of the shaman's power; it is used to remove tsentsak from the bodies of victims as well as to protect the shaman from being harmed by the tsentsak of others.

Tsentsak are only visible under the influence of a psychoactive substance called natemä, which is the Jívaro word for ayahuasca . [3] When the shaman imbibes natemä, the world of spirits becomes visible. It is at this time that sorcerers and bewitching shamans can send tsentsak to their victims, while conversely, healers and curing shamans can remove tsentsak from their afflicted patients.

Tsentsak are believed to possess their own agency and volition as living spirits that constantly desire to kill and consume human flesh. [4] A shaman must learn to control their darts lest they escape and cause unintended harm. To facilitate control of tsentsak they must be nourished by the consumption of mapacho (Nicotiana rustica), which can be smoked or imbibed as an infusion.

A shaman who does not possess the necessary restraint to swallow their tsentsak when they rise to the back of their throat will become a sorcerer or bewitching shaman, while a shaman who can learn to control these urges will become a healer or curing shaman. [5]

An apprentice shaman who receives their first tsentsak from a predominantly bewitching shaman is likely to become a sorcerer, while the apprentice that receives their first tsentsak from a curing shaman will most likely become a healer. [6]


Throughout much of the Amazon, tsentsak are believed to be the primary cause of illness and nonviolent death. These magical darts are utilized by brujos , (shamans specializing in attack sorcery) to bring suffering and death to their victims. The darts can be regurgitated at will by the sorcerer and projected from the mouth into the body of the victim. If the dart passes entirely though the victim they will die in three to seven days, however, if the dart becomes lodged in the victim's body, it may be removed by a curing shaman.

The shaman can collect plants, insects and many other objects small enough to be swallowed, which he may then convert into tsentsak. Each variety of tsentsak possesses its own specific attributes and degree of ability to cause illness. The amount and variety of tsentsak collected by a shaman is directly proportional to his power and ability to kill and heal.


While sorcerers may use tsentsak for malevolent purposes, healing shamans use these magic darts to create a barrier of protection around their body. They also possess the ability to suck tsentsak from the body of a victim, which can then be sent back to the sorcerer from whom it originated. The healing shaman must imbibe ayahuasca to make the darts visible in the victim's body in order to remove them.

To remove the malevolent tsentsak the curing shaman must suck it out of the victim's body. In preparation for this act the shaman must first regurgitate two of his own tsentsak into the back of his throat. The first is used to block the shaman from accidentally ingesting the malevolent tsentsak, which would most likely lead to his death. The second is used to absorb or dissolve the malevolent tsentsak which the shaman then spits out or sends back to the sorcerer. [7]


A shaman will typically receive his first tsentsak from a practicing shaman to whom he has apprenticed. The practicing shaman will regurgitate some of his yachay containing the tsentsak, which the apprentice must then swallow. The apprentice can then keep the darts in his stomach indefinitely. Many shamans will travel great distances to trade tsentsak with other powerful shamans from distant regions. They may also buy and sell tsentsak to increase the potency of their power.

To transfer tsentsak to another individual, both the buyer and seller must consume ayahuasca to make the tsentsak visible. The seller must then drink an infusion of Nicotiana rustica to regurgitate the tsentsak, which is then displayed to the buyer. The buyer then swallows the tsentsak, thereby adding it to his collection. [4] Tsentsak may also be sold in the more tangible forms of tree thorns, insects, small stones, and even pieces of razor blade. [4]

Dietary and sexual restrictions

In the context of Jivaroan shamanism, an apprentice shaman must abstain from sexual intercourse and follow a special diet for a period of at least three months after receiving their first tsentsak. If these restrictions are broken, the darts will leave the body of the shaman and the process must be started from the beginning. To gain the power to kill and cure, a shaman must observe these restrictions for a period of five months. [8]

Mestizo shamans adhere to a similar restrictive diet in preparation for the consumption of ayahuasca before shamanic rituals. These restrictions help to instill self-control and emotional mastery in preparation for a career as a healer. A shaman who breaks the restrictions cannot control the urges of their tsentsak and will become a sorcerer.

See also


  1. Rubenstein 2007, pg. 362
  2. Beyer 2009, pg. 84
  3. Harner 1973, pg. 17
  4. 1 2 3 Beyer 2009, pg. 85
  5. Beyer 2009, pg. 95
  6. Harner 1973, pg. 19
  7. Beyer 2009, pg. 86
  8. Harner 1973, pg. 20

Related Research Articles

Ayahuasca South American psychoactive brew

Ayahuasca is a South American psychoactive brew used as a traditional spiritual medicine in ceremonies among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. It is an entheogenic brew commonly made out of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, and the Psychotria viridis shrub or a substitute, and possibly other ingredients; although, a chemically similar preparation, sometimes called "pharmahuasca", can be prepared using N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and a pharmaceutical monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) such as isocarboxazid. B. caapi contains several alkaloids that act as MAOIs, which are required for DMT to be orally active. The other required ingredient is a plant that contains the primary psychoactive, DMT. This is usually the shrub P. viridis, but Diplopterys cabrerana may be used as a substitute. Other plant ingredients often or occasionally used in the production of ayahuasca include Justicia pectoralis, one of the Brugmansia or Datura species, and mapacho.

Shamanism Practice of seeking altered states of consciousness in order to interact with a spirit world

Shamanism is a religious practice that involves a practitioner who is believed to interact with a spirit world through altered states of consciousness, such as trance. The goal of this is usually to direct these spirits or spiritual energies into the physical world, for healing or another purpose.

Black magic Magic used for evil and selfish purposes

Black magic has traditionally referred to the use of supernatural powers or magic for evil and selfish purposes. With respect to the left-hand path and right-hand path dichotomy, black magic is the malicious, left-hand counterpart of the benevolent white magic. In modern times, some find that the definition of black magic has been convoluted by people who define magic or ritualistic practices that they disapprove of as black magic.


In Zulu/Xhosa mythology, Tikoloshe, Tokoloshe, Tokolotshe, De'Avion or Hili is a dwarf-like water sprite. It is considered a mischievous and evil spirit that can become invisible by drinking water or swallowing a stone. Tokoloshes are called upon by malevolent people to cause trouble for others. At its least harmful, a tokoloshe can be used to scare children, but its power extends to causing illness or even the death of the victim. The creature might be banished by a pastor, who has the power to expel it from the area. It is also considered a part of superstition and is often used in a satirical manner as a reference to overcome.

Shuar Ethnic group of Ecuador and Peru de Bolivia

The Shuar are an indigenous people of Ecuador and Peru. They are members of the Jivaroan peoples, who are Amazonian tribes living at the headwaters of the Marañón River.

Curandero Traditional healer found in Latin America, the United States and Southern Europe

A curandero or curandeiro is a traditional native healer/shaman found in Latin America, the United States and Southern Europe. The curandero's life is dedicated to the administration of remedies for mental, emotional, physical and spiritual illnesses. The role of a curandero can also incorporate the roles of psychiatrist along with that of doctor and healer. Some curanderos, such as Don Pedrito, the Healer of Los Olmos, make use of simple herbs, waters, and even mud to effect their cures. Others add Catholic elements, such as holy water and pictures of saints. The use of Roman Catholic prayers and other borrowings and lendings is often found alongside native religious elements. Many curanderos emphasize their native spirituality in healing while being practicing Roman Catholics.

Pablo Amaringo

Pablo Cesar Amaringo Shuña was a Peruvian artist, renowned for his intricate, colourful depictions of his visions from drinking the entheogenic plant brew ayahuasca. He was first brought to the West's attention by Dennis McKenna and Luis Eduardo Luna, who met Pablo in Pucallpa while traveling during work on an ethnobotanical project. Pablo worked as a vegetalista, a shaman in the mestizo tradition of healing, for many years; up to his death, he painted, helped run the Usko-Ayar school of painting, and supervised ayahuasca retreats.

Philippine witches

Philippine witches are the users of black magic and related practices from the Philippines. They include a variety of different kinds of people with differing occupations and cultural connotations which depend on the ethnic group they are associated with. They are completely different from the Western notion of what a witch is, as each ethnic group has their own definition and practices attributed to witches. The curses and other magics of witches are often blocked, countered, cured, or lifted by Philippine shamans associated with the indigenous Philippine folk religions.


The Achuar are an Amazonian community of some 18,500 individuals along either side of the border in between Ecuador and Peru. As of the early 1970s, the Achuar were one of the last of the Jivaroan groups still generally unaffected by outside contact.

Philippine shamans

Philippine shamans, commonly known as Babaylan were shamans of the various ethnic groups of the pre-colonial Philippine islands. These shamans specialized in communicating, appeasing, or harnessing the spirits of the dead and the spirits of nature. They were almost always women or feminized men. They were believed to have spirit guides, by which they could contact and interact with the spirits and deities and the spirit world. Their primary role were as mediums during pag-anito séance rituals. There were also various subtypes of babaylan specializing in the arts of healing and herbalism, divination, and sorcery.


Icaro is a South American indigenous colloquialism for magic song. Today, this term is commonly used to describe the medicine songs performed in vegetal ceremonies, especially by shamans in ayahuasca ceremonies. It is also commonly used to describe a traditional artisanal pattern of the Shipibo tribe based on the visions induced by ayahuasca.


A dukun is an Indonesian term for shaman. Their societal role is that of a traditional healer, spirit medium, custom and tradition experts and on occasion sorcerers and masters of black magic. In common usage the dukun is often confused with another type of shaman, the pawang. It is often mistranslated into English as "witch doctor" or "medicine man". Many self-styled dukun in Indonesia are simply scammers and criminals, preying on gullible and superstitious people who were raised to believe in the supernatural.


Yachay is a special type of phlegm generated by shamans and sorcerers of the Peruvian Amazon Basin which is believed to contain the essence of their power in the form of virotes, tsentsak, darts, arrows, or splinters of bone that are believed to be contained in the phlegm. It is believed that these may be fired from the mouth, and that being pierced by virotes causes various conditions. These may be removed by a shaman, who sucks them out of the victim's body.

Jivaroan peoples Groups of indigenous peoples in the headwaters of the Marañon River and its tributaries, Peru and Ecuador

The Jivaroan peoples are the indigenous peoples in the headwaters of the Marañon River and its tributaries, in northern Peru and eastern Ecuador. They speak one of the language family of the same name.

Vegetalismo is a term used to refer to a practice of mestizo shamanism in the Peruvian Amazon in which the shamans — known as vegetalistas — are said to gain their knowledge and power to cure from the vegetales, or plants of the region. Many believe to receive their knowledge from ingesting the hallucinogenic, emetic brew ayahuasca.

Yacuruna are a mythical water people, similar to human beings, who are said to live in beautiful underwater cities, often at the mouths of rivers. Belief in the yacuruna are most prominently found among indigenous people of the Amazon. The term is derived from the Quechua language, yaku ("water") and runa ("man").

Tsunki is the name for the primordial spirit shaman within the Shuar people and the Achuar people of Amazonia. The term is derived from the Jivaroan language family. The term Tsunki can also be translated as meaning the first shaman and is frequently alluded to in shamanic songs.

Manuel Córdova-Rios

Manuel Córdova-Rios was a vegetalista (herbalist) of the upper Amazon, and the subject of several popular books.

Regional forms of shamanism

Shamanism is found in many countries around the world, in different regional forms.


The Durin-gut, also called the Michin-gut and the Chuneun-gut, is the healing ceremony for mental illnesses in the Korean shamanism of southern Jeju Island. While commonly held as late as the 1980s, it has now become very rare due to the introduction of modern psychiatry.