Ayahuasca ceremonies often involve traditional songs called icaros.

Ayahuasca ceremonies use traditional songs called icaros. Image Source: Flickr user Paul Hessell.

Timothy Leary wrote that set and setting—the physical environment and psycho-emotional state of an individual during a psychedelic experience—are perhaps the most important factors in how beneficial the experience is for a given person. Psychedelic medicines can open the door to self-healing and a deeper understanding of the world, but the potency—and potential pitfalls—of these experiences mean they deserve the proper attention to set and setting.

Even though the term was coined by Leary in 1964, there’s perhaps no one better versed in the idea of set and setting than an ayahuasca shaman. Ayahuasca ceremonies are very structured, staged overnight in a ceremonial space where you lay on the ground in the dark with your eyes closed as a shaman guides the process. There are several elements in an ayahuasca ceremony that pertain to set and setting, but perhaps the most important tool used by shamans is the icaro. These traditional songs sung or whistled by shamans before, during, and after an ayahuasca ceremony not only comprise the setting of the experience, they also positively influence the internal landscape of a person’s psyche. While we’re still trying to understand icaros in therapeutic terms, there’s no doubt that these songs play a vital role in the healing aspects of ayahuasca.

The Shaman and His Song

Shamans say they were taught icaros by the plants themselves. Vegetalistas—shamans specializing in the spirits of plants, such as ayahuasca—use these songs to invoke or summon the spirit of a plant or animal, depending on what the shaman intuits is needed. Because they’re taught directly by the plants, each shaman has his own set of icaros. And just as shamans believe that every animal, tree, and stone is its own being, they believe that every being also has an icaro that is unique to them.  

“Icaros are the curanderos’ weapons of healing, their sources of personal energy, symbols of their power and wisdom, and inheritances for their apprentices,” wrote Susana Bustos in her research on the use of icaros at the Takiwasi ayahuasca and addiction treatment center in northern Peru. A shaman may have upwards of a hundred or more icaros in his repertoire, in half a dozen languages. The more icaros a shaman knows, the more powerful he’s considered. In fact, ill-meaning shamans, called brujos, will sit in on other shamans’ sessions to steal their icaros. But using a stolen icaro lessens its power—an icaro is most effective when used by the shaman it originally revealed itself to.  

The Many Functions of Icaros

Shamans believe drinking ayahuasca brew puts you in direct contact with the spiritual plane, opening you up to both beneficent and bad spirits. Ultimately, the purpose of icaros is guidance. Shamans use the song to invoke the good spirits of plants and animals, as well as to keep the bad spirits away.

As Anja Loizaga-Velder and Armando Loizaga Pazzi described in the 2014 collaborative work The Therapeutic Use of Ayahuasca, the function of an icaro can be compared to “the oars of a canoe, without which the canoe would be at the mercy of the currents of the river. Icaros are meant to deepen or steer the ayahuasca trance, inducing and modulating visions and emotions and stimulating subconscious material on different levels.” While they often center around healing and protection, icaros are multi-purpose tools used to carry out any number of intentions:

  • To evoke good plant spirits.
  • To protect the ceremony from evil spirits.
  • To protect the ceremony from evil spirits.
  • To enhance or mitigate the effects of ayahuasca, particularly visions.
  • To diagnose or divine the cause of an ailment.
  • To divine a treatment for an ailment or sickness.  
  • To call in healing energies to treat an ailment.
  • To strengthen feelings of love between two people.

To give an example of how this works, Bustos describes the arc of icaros in a typical ceremony at Takiwasi: before administering the brew, the shaman sings opening songs for protection, and he or she may also burn mapacho tobacco to clear out any negative spirits in the space. Once the opening songs are done, ayahuasca is administered to the group. Participants experience la purga—vomiting, or purging—and move into the heart of their journey where many experience visions. Here, the singing doesn’t stop: in fact, some shamanic researchers believe the structure of the icaros—fast and rhythmic—helps facilitate visions and keep them “flowing.” After this, the shaman moves from group work to individual diagnosis and healing, working with each person and singing icaros intuitively based on the individual’s needs. Once the peak of the experience passes, shamans sing final icaros to close out the ceremony.

Understanding Icaros in Therapeutic Terms

While science hasn’t confirmed whether or not plants are trying to talk to us, research certainly supports the idea that sound can be a healing force—anyone who’s experienced a singing bowl in a yoga class or a gong bath at a sound meditation knows that sound can indeed have a therapeutic effect. Participants in ayahuasca ceremonies confirm this idea: in their study about using ayahuasca to treat addiction, Loizaga-Velder and Loizaga Pazzi wrote that all the participants they interviewed thought music was of “critical importance” to the healing benefits of ayahuasca.

Similar to ritual drumming and meditative chanting, many shamans say that the words—which can include several languages and dialects—do not matter as much as the tone, frequency, and resonance of your voice. It’s thought that at a certain frequency you can reach the spiritual plane. For people familiar with healing music or music that invokes non-ordinary states of consciousness, you’ll find familiar tropes in icaros in their “regular, normally rapid rhythms, limited melodic variations, and two or three repetitive phrases,” as Bustos noted. The structure of icaros fits well with the theory that certain rhythms produce theta waves—the brain waves associated with deep meditation, dreams, and the unconscious.

For those who may be doubtful of the idea of making contact with spirits, you can liken the shamans’ idea of the spiritual plane to what many psychonauts and therapists—including Leary, C.G. Jung, and Stanislav Grov, the creator of holotropic breathwork—would call the collective unconscious. Here, archetypes present themselves in visions and dreams to give you messages from your “higher” self that ultimately facilitate personal healing.

Listening to the Plants

If there’s a final note on icaros, it’s this: you have to believe in them. “The efficacy of the treatment also requires a stance of active receptivity on the part of the client,” Bustos noted in her 2004 research update. Undertaking an ayahuasca ceremony requires an open mind and a willing heart, and the more accepting you are of whatever you find along the journey, the more likely you’ll experience long-lasting benefits. Icaros facilitate that process, but in the end, what you reap from a ceremony is up to you. As a plant medicine, ayahuasca can be the catalyst to treating all kinds of psychospiritual ailments, from depression to PTSD to addiction. By preparing yourself properly and maintaining a willing attitude, you open yourself up to an ultimately healing and rewarding experience.