Textiles and the Multi-Tiered Cosmos: Shipibo Textiles

Perhaps the most iconic (at least in the Americas) shamanic textiles are those produced by the Shipibo people in Peru. This has been a difficult one for me because there is SO much information available on these textiles and all of it is AMAZING so it's hard to focus on just one thing. But I'll do my best! 

First of all, here's a video of a woman creating these textiles. The soundtrack to the video is the song that goes with one of the patterns. Each pattern has its own song. From my understanding, the pattern is the symbolic representation of the song, like written language is to spoken language. A Shipibo can look at the pattern and sing the song it represents. Likewise, a song can be transcribed onto a cloth. A visual song. This could inform on the hypothesis that tonal language (song, basically) was the first spoken language. Steven Mithen's excellent The Singing Neanderthals discusses this hypothesis. Perhaps other cultures had symbolic representations of song as well, predating script... hmm..... another topic.

The Shipibo People 

The Shipibo, with a population of around 20,000, are spread across the Pucallpa/Ucayali River region in the Peruvian Amazon. They are revered as masters of Ayahuasca, and have a rich shamanic tradition. The centerpiece of this tradition is the Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) ceremony. Ayahuasca is a consciousness-altering brew of several plants.
In his essay, available here, Michael J. Harner reports that Ayahuasca permits the shaman's soul to leave his body in the form of a bird. Under the influence of Ayahuasca, the Indians report seeing animals, primarily giant anacondas and jaguars. The shaman acquires snakes during his journey, which are enlisted as protectors of the shaman. The shamans believe they imprison others' souls on boats with demon crews led by a yellow jaguar and a black puma.

Shipibo children

Textile Maker as Shaman!

In order to prove that Textiles are associated with shamanism, my task is to show how they are related to the multi-tiered cosmos. So far, we've seen how weaving itself can be an induction method to altered states of consciousness (ASC) and how ASC and entoptic images are precursors to a belief in a multi-tiered cosmos (underworld/this world/world of spirits), which is the basis of shamanism and (arguably) all later spiritual practices. We've also seen that entoptic images are ubiquitous in textiles from all over the world. If we can see depictions of a multi-tiered cosmos (the result of ASC and entoptic experience), we come that much closer to making an association between textile production and shamanism. Please see my post here.

I've compiled a list of criteria that I think would prove a link between ASC and the textile:

These are discussed in more detail in previous posts):

  • A relationship between the creation of the artwork and an induction method to ASC ("proven" in another post: here);
  • Depictions of imagery from the 3 stages of ASC on the artwork;
  • Depictions of various cosmic realms on the artwork, including
  • world of the living
  • world of the dead
  • passage or tunnel (In many (or most) cases, the tunnel should be accessible only to the shaman/celebrant and the decedent, as it may considered too risky for laypeople to make the journey; and
  • Cultural beliefs and practices SURROUNDING the production of textiles reflecting the different cosmic realms;
  • Cultural beliefs and practices surrounding the use of the textiles reflecting the different cosmic realms (an association with death, healing, etc.). 

Caveat: All this is open to debate. I'm just condensing it here and presenting my own beliefs (based on personal research and field work). 

The Textiles

All Shipibo textiles are created by the women. Patterns, called Kene, depicting Ayahuasca-based cosmology are applied to natural, undyed cotton cloth (often grown themselves) or on cotton dyed in mahogany bark. The pattern is applied with a pointed bamboo "quill" or an iron nail using the juice of Huito (Genipa americana) berries, which produces a blue-brown-black dye. The patterns are visual music maps or scores documenting songs and chants (Icaros) used by shamans during ayahuasca healing ceremonies. 

Women often work together to produce a single artwork. The resulting piece looks as if it was created by a single artist.

As an astonishing demonstration of this I witnessed two Shipiba paint a large ceremonial ceramic pot known as a Mahuetá. The pot was nearly five feet high and had a diameter of about three feet, each of the Shipiba couldn’t see what the other was painting, yet both were whistling the same song, and when they had finished both sides of the complex geometric pattern were identical and matched each side perfectly.

Induction method

The women are initiated at a young age into the textile tradition. According to The-Shipibo-Indians-Masters-of-Ayahuasca:

From a young age the Shipibo females are initiated by their mothers and grandmothers into this practice. Teresa a Shipiba who works with us on our Amazon Retreats tells that “when I was a young girl, my mother squeezed drops of the Piripiri (a species of Cyperus sp.) berries into my eyes so that I would have the vision for the designs; this is only done once and lasts a lifetime".
According to Odland:
Shaman-led ceremonies of healing, self-knowledge, and religion use the hallucinogenic herb ayahuasca to access cosmic visions. The patterns of kené are part of the heavenly world that becomes visible through the handwork of women. “The shaman tells us that the whole visible world is covered with invisible patterns.... It is the responsibility of the shaman to rescue the designs of the heavenly world and transmit them to the women. The production of these designs on all the objects of material culture gives power and protection to the home, to individuals, and to the whole group.
While creating the images, the women sing or chant the Icaro that they are depicting. This is an induction to ASC. See my earlier post: here).

Depictions of Imagery from the 3 Stages of ASC

Please see this post here for a more detailed discussion of images associated with the three stages of ASC. 

Images Associated with the Three Stages of ASC.
Stage 1 Entoptic images/Geometric images (grid/lattice/hexagon, parallel lines, bright dots/flecks, zigzags, nested curves with flickering zigzags on outer arc, filigrees/thin meandering lines, spirals)
Stage 2 Entoptic images of stage 1 are interpreted as objects from the natural world (a circle becomes a breast, a meandering line becomes a snake)
Vortex vortex or tunnel with bright light at the end. These can be represented by spirals, concentric circles, and other images.
Stage 3 This stage of ASC involves transformation. Images become more specific and are culturally based. (the breast becomes a particular goddess, the snake is interpreted as a specific species).

Stage 1 imagery

Here are the entoptics, according to Lewis-Williams.

I've borrowed these images from Paul Prudence's article, The Generative Song & Sound Pattern Matrixes of the Shipibo Indians
Shipibo textile designs
Shipibo textile designs
Entoptics: I see include: triangles, crosses, meanders, diamonds, lozenges, nested and recurring images, zig-zags, nested images, and semi-circles. I'm probably missing some.

Prudence posits that these images are neurologically generated:
The vibrational pattern networks of the Shepibo are specifically connected to the visionary experience during the Ayahasca ceremonies and to this end we are directed to a note in James Crutchfield’s paper, Space-Time Dynamics in Video Feedback. In it he posits the idea that visionary artefacts may well be generated by a kind of biological feedback mechanism in the visual cortex due to the action of psychedelic agents. 
Stage 2 imagery: I see no Stage 2 images.

Stage 3 imagery: I see no Stage 3 images. Ethnographic data reveals that the people interpret the designs as culturally-biased icons, however. 

Naomi Lake, tapestry expert, reports:

Shipibo Shamana Herlinda traced her finger along the lines inside the circle and sang the song to me. She told me that the circle means Pachamama or Mother Earth. The tiny arrows on the inside of the circle represent the teeth of the Pirranah and have to do with protection. The outside circle represents the Anaconda, the Snake Goddess who, according to their tradition, sings energy into form.

Vortex imagery: I see concentric circles and and medallions like the second sample below. The medallion is a fairly common motif. The circle contains a radiating design in addition to the intricate meanders, so this could be a vortex reference. Charing's informant suggested that the circles are a representation of the Cosmic Anaconda and within the circle is the central point of creation, the point from which the world of the living emerged from the spirit world. This is definitely vortex-like. It should be noted that Lake's informant reported that these circles represent Mother Earth, however. See, this is why I'm an archaeologist instead of an anthropologist. No living people to mess with my neat little theories.

Concentric circles
Medallion (Image From Onanya)

Depictions of Various Cosmic Realms

I don't see naturalistic depictions of the various cosmic realms in these pieces. Ethnographic evidence suggests that the patterns are interpreted by the Shipibo as various elements from the realms, however. Odlan ( here) reports that the meandering lines represent the paths of rivers or roads, or the path one takes during one's life. According to Lake's informant, the world of the living is represented by the circle (earth). The world of the dead, or the spirit world, may be represented by the meandering lines representing the Anaconda goddess. The arrows may represent the teeth of the protective teeth of the piranha. Are those teeth protecting the living from the forces of the spirit world? I don't know.

According to Charing:
The smaller flowing patterns within the geometric forms are the radiating power of the Cosmic Serpent which turns this way and that, betwixt and between constantly creating the universe as it moves. The circles are often a direct representation of the Cosmic Anaconda, and within the circle itself is the central point of creation.
Although there are no iconic images here, the designs appear to represent the various cosmic realms, particularly in terms of creation.


Cultural beliefs and practices surrounding the production of textiles reflecting the different cosmic realms

The production of these textiles is absolutely steeped in tradition. The women are initiated from a very young age by undergoing an ASC experience (see above). The creations are a communal activity. The women sing as they work, transcribing the song onto the textile. The pattern emerges as if it were created by a single artist.

Claire Odland, textile expert, describes the production in her amazing paper available here. She says that the shaman is able to see the patterns inherent in all things and in the heavenly world. These patterns are transmitted to the women who make them visible to the living community by transcribing them onto the textiles. It is unclear how the designs are transmitted from the shaman to the painters. Conflicting reports exist as to whether the women take ayuhuasca.

Cultural beliefs and practices surrounding the use of the textiles reflecting the different cosmic realms (an association with death, healing, etc.).

The textiles are worn as garments by the Shipibo during ceremonies, gatherings, and often during daily life. The women wear the cloth as a skirt, which traditionally has horizontal bands. The men wear the cloth as a cushma, or tunic, traditionally with vertical bands.



The textiles reflect a cultural concept of the "all-pervasive magical reality" (Charing). They depict songs that facilitate healing and unity of opposites.

Since there's no way I can say it any better, I'm just going to leave this here:

From Howard G. Charing's Article: The Eagle's Wing: The Magical Art of the Shipibo People of the Upper Amazon

These patterns are more than an expression of the one-ness of creation, the inter-changeability of light and sound, the union or fusion of perceived opposites, it is an ongoing dialogue or communion with the spiritual world and powers of the Rainforest. The visionary art of the Shipibo brings this paradigm into a physical form. The Ethnologist Angelika Gebhart-Sayer, calls this “visual music".

The intricate Shipibo designs have their origin in the non-manifest and ineffable world in the spirit of the Rainforest and all who live there. The designs are a representation of the Cosmic Serpent, the Anaconda, the great Mother, creator of the universe called Ronin Kene. For the Shipibo the skin of Ronin Kene has a radiating, electrifying vibration of light, colour, sound, movement and is the embodiment of all possible patterns and designs past, present, and future. The designs that the Shipibo paint are channels or conduits for this multi-sensorial vibrational fusion of form, light and sound. Although in our cultural paradigm we perceive that the geometric patterns are bound within the border of the textile or ceramic vessel, to the Shipibo the patterns extend far beyond these borders and permeate the entire world.

The Shipibo believe that our state of health (which includes physical and psychological) is dependent on the balanced union between mind, spirit and body. If an imbalance in this occurs such as through emotions of envy, hate, anger, this will generate a negative effect on the health of that person. The shaman will re-establish the balance by chanting the icaros which are the geometric patterns of harmony made manifest in sound into the body of the person. The shaman in effect transforms the visual code into an acoustic code.

A key element in this magical dialogue with the energy which permeates creation and is embedded in the Shipibo designs is the work with ayahuasca by the Shipibo shamans or muraya. In the deep ayahuasca trance, the ayahuasca reveals to the shaman the luminous geometric patterns of energy. These filaments drift towards the mouth of the shaman where it metamorphoses into a chant or icaro. The icaro is a conduit for the patterns of creation which then permeate the body of the shaman’s patient bringing harmony in the form of the geometric patterns which re-balances the patient’s body. The vocal range of the Shipibo shaman’s when they chant the icaros is astonishing, they can range from the highest falsetto one moment to a sound which resembles a thumping pile driver, and then to a gentle soothing melodic lullaby. Speaking personally of my experience with this, is a feeling that every cell in my body is floating and embraced in a nurturing all-encompassing vibration, even the air around me is vibrating in acoustic resonance with the icaro of the maestro. The shaman knows when the healing is complete as the design is clearly distinct in the patient’s body. It make take a few sessions to complete this, and when completed the geometric healing designs are embedded in the patient’s body, this is called an Arkana. This internal patterning is deemed to be permanent and to protect a person's spirit.

Angelika Gebhart-Sayer, Professor of Ethnology, University of Marburg writes that "Essentially, Shipibo-Conibo therapy is a matter of visionary design application in connection with aura restoration, the shaman heals his patient through the application of a visionary design, every person feels spiritually permeated and saturated with designs. The shaman heals his patient through the application of the song-design, which saturates the patients' body and is believed to untangle distorted physical and psycho-spiritual energies, restoring harmony to the somatic, psychic and spiritual systems of the patient. The designs are permanent and remain with a person's spirit even after death.".

Whilst it is not easy for Westerner’s to enter and engage with the world view of the Shipibo which has been developed far away from our linguistic structures and psychological models, there is an underlying sophisticated and complex symbolic language embedded in these geometric patterns. The main figures in the Shipibo designs are the square, the rhombus, the octagon, and the cross. The symmetry of the patterns emanating from the centre (which is our world) is a representation of the outer and inner worlds, a map of the cosmos. The cross represents the Southern Cross constellation which dominates the night sky and divides the cosmos into four quadrants, the intersection of the arms of the cross is the centre of the universe, and becomes the cosmic cross. The cosmic cross represents the eternal spirit of a person and the union of the masculine and feminine principles the very cycle of life and death which reminds us of the great act of procreation of not only the universe, but also of humanity, and our individual selves.

The smaller flowing patterns within the geometric forms are the radiating power of the Cosmic Serpent which turns this way and that, betwixt and between constantly creating the universe as it moves. The circles are often a direct representation of the Cosmic Anaconda, and within the circle itself is the central point of creation.

Amazing Shipibo Ceramic Vessels


There can be no doubt whatsoever that these textiles are associated with shamanism, ASC, and the multi-tiered cosmos. However, the textiles do not have all of the criteria posited (by me) to be indicative of that association. The textiles, although interpreted to represent all cosmic realms, do not bear naturalistic or iconic images representative of ASC Stages 2 and 3 or depicting the realms themselves. 

The designs appear to present ASC Stage 1 and the vortex. They are clearly entoptic images that have been interpreted in the minds of the people, rather than artificially, as iconic figures. I cannot venture a guess as to the ramifications of this. This cloth is perhaps the most clearly and solidly shaman-related as any textile the world has yet seen. The textile and shamanism are still indistinguishable from one another today! The entoptic images transmit messages and knowledge from other realms as clearly today as they ever did. Perhaps the entoptic images themselves NEED no artistic/artificial interpretation, as everyone in the Shipibo culture understands them perfectly in their original form. Perhaps they are only effective (as shamanic tools) in their original form. I don't know. I do believe this association should be explored by paleolinguists. 

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  1. Wow. The textiles you picked are gorgeous. I wish I had your patience to do the research for your blog posts. Mine seem like a tabloid next to yours. Good job and very pretty pictures.

    1. Thanks, Jen! Aren't they beautiful? As far as the research, I ALWAYS get carried away. There's so much to learn about these textiles and altered states are always interesting!

  2. lovely blog. please visit also mine and tell me what you think :) <3

  3. These are such beautiful patterns. I'm glad you put the video up as well! Really amazing to watch.

  4. Much love,
    "Thank you for the post :)