Adventures Abroad: Encounters with the natural and spiritual in Cañar, Ecuador

Our first day at Cañar required two members of our group to stick their heads under open flames as part of a healing ritual. The second day was more restful: we visited an ancient monument with mass graves and colossal stone faces.

Shortly after arriving in Cañar on Friday, we met with a local healer who offered to perform a traditional cleansing ritual on two members of our group, Amelia Jackson, ‘18, and Maddy Frawley, ‘18. The ritual supposedly cleanses the patient of their negative energies, but it’s not a gentle process: both girls were sprayed with fire and smacked around with a bundle of plants during the ceremony.

The Cañari people are often secretive about their traditional customs, but I have this healer’s permission to describe the first cleansing ritual in this article.  

The healer began by handing a single candle to Amelia, her first patient. Amelia then moved the candle across her body before returning it to the healer, who directed her to blow on the candle three times before igniting it and placing it on the altar with four more candles.

The healer then took a fresh egg and vigorously rubbed it all over Amelia’s body while praying to the Earth Mother, asking for her help in driving out her patient’s bad energies. When the healer was satisfied, she directed Amelia to blow on the egg and took it back to the altar, where she cracked it into a jar and read the egg white to determine her patient’s’ symptoms, which she announces at the end of the healing process. In some versions of the ritual, a live guinea pig is opened instead of an egg, but the healer correctly assumed that our group wasn’t emotionally ready to see a cuy disemboweled, and used eggs and leaves instead.

After cracking the egg, the healer used a candle and a spray bottle of flammable liquid to ignite a bundle of leafy plants. The little spray bottle generated an impressive fireball before the healer extinguished the flames and continued with the ritual. She swatted the student with the singed bundle of leaves, which helped to drive out Amelia’s negative energy.

The healer paused, not sure whether she should continue with the next step of the healing process. She consulted with our host in Spanish, who translated for the rest of us.

“She wants to blow the flame over you,” our host explained. “But you need to wrap your hair.”

The healer covered Amelia’s head with a sweater before picking up the spray bottle again and issuing several hefty blasts of fire across her patient’s body. Blindfolded, Amelia twitched whenever the fiery jets got too close to her arms or face. Then the healer knelt down and deliberately ignited the straw mat at Amelia’s feet.

“Stomp it out! Stomp it out!” she ordered. Amelia was happy to comply.

After the healer uncovered Amelia’s head, she sprayed the flames over her patient’s hands and gave her a pungent oil to rub on her face, stomach and back. Then the healer ended the ritual by placing an urn full of smoking embers at Amelia’s feet, so that the sweet-smelling smoke could waft over her body.

Once the ritual was finished, the healer was ready to read the cracked egg to determine what kind of bad energies her patient was afflicted with.

“She has a lot of nerves. A little gas,” the healer said. “She has bad energies, but she’s cured now.” The complete healing ritual lasts about eight minutes, so the healer only repeated it for one more student, Maddy. She then performed a short version on the rest of our group, commanding us to rub cleansing oil on ourselves without swatting us with eggs, leaves or gas jets. According to Cañari folklore, the ritual helps the Earth Mother drive out the bad spirits and dark energies that may have afflicted us.

The day after our cleansing, we visited an ancient Cañari ruin, which also illustrated the importance of the Earth Mother deity in Cañari culture. The ruin is called Ingapirca, meaning the Inca Wall, but a large part of the ruin was originally constructed by the native Cañari people before the Inca invaded Ecuador in the 16th century. One of the most macabre and fascinating discoveries at Ingapirca is dated from 900 a.d., well before the Incas conquered the area’s original inhabitants.

Our guide informs us that one of the tombs at Ingapirca contained eleven skeletons in a strange circular formation. Ten of the skeletons were curled up in fetal positions and arranged in a ring around the eleventh, which was adorned with jewelry and placed in the middle of the other bodies. In many ancient Ecuadorian societies, the central figure of such a tomb would have been a male ruler, but the archaeologists who analyzed the tomb at Ingapirca have concluded that the dominant figure in this grave site was a woman.

Ancient Cañaris lived in a matriarchal society, in which women were often higher-ranking figures than the men that surrounded them. The metal bracelets and other decorations that adorned the woman at the center of the crypt indicate that she held a higher rank in society than the 10 men she was buried with. When she died, tradition demanded that her followers drink poison and allow themselves to be buried alongside her — hence the 10 other skeletons that surrounded her in her tomb at Ingapirca. This arrangement, as well as the value placed on female authority, reflects the importance of the Earth Mother, or Pacha Mama, in Cañari traditions.

Pacha Mama is the local name for Earth Mother, the same deity that the healer prayed to when she drove out Amelia and Maddy’s bad energies the previous day. The ancient Cañari believed that the Pacha Mama would allow the sacrificed men to be reborn after they were entombed with their leader, which is why they buried their dead in the fetal position.

Not only are the man-made structures at Ingapirca impressive; the natural rock formations surrounding the ruins are just as remarkable. One cliffside has earned the title, “Face of the Inca,” because the shrubs, rocks and lichen have grown in such a way that they form a remarkable likeness of a man’s face. The likeness is especially remarkable considering that the placement of the eyebrow-like plants, stubbly shrubs and wrinkly rock lines are caused by nature — or Pacha Mama, if you prefer — rather than by man. When it comes to visual wonders, the human constructions in Cañar are remarkable, but the natural world is always more impressive.

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