A Shamanic Quest
Arran Frood follows a 20-year paternity saga that ends in the Amazon jungle. The Shaman and Snow White: Ayahuasca, San Pedro, Shamanic States of Consciousness and Certificate 18 Healing by Simon Ralli Robinson. lulu.com, 2011. ISBN: 9781447542292
Ayahuasca is a potent hallucinogenic plant brew from the Amazon that has been used by shamans – traditional healers who commune with visions of the spirit world to treat ailments of the body or soul – to treat injured or inquiring minds for centuries. But as ‘ayahuasca tourism’ has boomed in South America during the last decade, so have tales of the drug and its ceremonies. Which means The Shaman and Snow White is unlikely to be the last autobiographical chronicle of encounters with this formidable psychedelic.
This book succeeds because from the outcome it intertwines the author’s personal disasters in painfully revealing detail. Alongside his path from dissatisfied psychology graduate and IT technician to chancer medium, 9/11 conspiracy theorist and then apprentice shaman, Simon Ralli Robinson regales with tales of himself as the absent father to a daughter, Daisy, unexpectedly conceived in his late teens, with very readable candour.
When Robinson is in his early 20s, doubts over Daisy’s paternity consume him and wreck a string of relationships. Encountering some hippy types in the rave scene of the early 1990s, the author’s eyes are averted (I will not say opened) by, of all things, a book by David Icke. And thus begins Robinson’s journey to Amazon-dwelling trainee spiritual healer.
His mission: to ask the sacred ayahuasca plant whether Daisy really is his daughter. “What could possibly go wrong?” he asks.
A great deal, of course, but the author does well to make this journey to connect with Daisy the beating heart of his story. Every fine yarn features a transforming personal narrative, too, and Robinson exudes a genuine sincerity as he describes his first trip to India, for example, as an “unmitigated disaster”. His early attempts to contact Daisy’s mother, and then Daisy herself via Facebook, have predictably disastrous consequences for a man who, as a teenager, for legal reasons denied in writing being the child’s father. Later, his initial fumblings with the power of the ayahuasca plants are also brutally honest.
Between the break-ups and trips to the Amazon, Robinson enrols on a master’s degree course in holistic science at Schumacher College. There follows a brief treatise on modern psychology and what is wrong with its attempts to explain consciousness, with excellent references for further reading. The psychopharmacology of ayahuasca and a few other hallucinogens gets a very brief overview, too, replete with handy references for the uninitiated, even though the author makes no claim to be much of a chemist (or ever wanting to be one).
Overall, I felt there were actually too many invitations to further reading, and I would have preferred the author to tackle fewer topics but in greater depth. For example, Robinson didn’t convince me that ‘holistic science’ was much more than a rebranding for network-type analysis and the study of ‘emergent’ phenomena. Unfortunately the book scratches at the surface like this too often: Goethe’s study and perception of plants, the malevolent practices and dark arts of shamans – pornographic “with violence” visions – are glossed over, and yet earlier in the book personal text messages and letters are repeated in full.
The author admits that, to the reader, endless accounts of spirits seen under the influence of the drug can be quite tedious – and he just about stops short of the point when they are. It’s a bonus, then, that he also writes of experiences with San Pedro, a mescaline-containing cactus that so far has mostly escaped the attention of scientists and travelling psychonauts alike.
There’s plenty to enjoy in The Shaman and Snow White, even with such a protracted subtitle and references to the Disney character, which to me make little sense in the context of the story. With proper editing, this book could have been a kind of British Shantaram, with lashings of science, pseudoscience and East-meets-West philosophy in place of the fibs. But fair play for self-publishing such a candid memoir that, I daresay, will entertain and inform those familiar with ayahuasca as well as those yet to encounter the cultural, scientific and spiritual hoo-ha surrounding this soul-wrenching substance.
Arran Frood is a freelance science writer and is a regular contributor to New Scientist and Nature.