Belen and the Amazon
At this time, I began to use the naipes, or fortune-telling cards, I had learned about in Salas. One night a healer there told his wife to bring the cards down to the tambo where his patients were waiting for the San Pedro ceremony to start. I tried to find out about the cards and how they were used, but the healer brushed me off. When I got back to Lima, I met with the institute’s secretary. Although she was solidly middle class in background, she was quite an aficionada of the cards and showed me how to read them.
I had also purchased several little books on the naipes in the Chiclayo city marketplace. One was even supposedly written by Mme. Le Normand, reputed to be the advisor to Napoleon, which helped me read each card specifically. When in Belen one day I took out the naipes, quite small and compact, and began to read the future of one of my informants. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to ask for any remuneration. After all, these people were so poor, why would I want to burden them any further? However, in November of 1968, I left Peru for a meeting of the American Anthropology Association in Seattle, Washington, and stopped first in New York to visit my family.
In New York, I visited Ari Kiev, a well-known psychiatrist interested in psychopharmacology. I told his fortune with the naipes (no one had ever accused me of being shy . . .) and he advised me to request money for any reading, even if it were a small amount, because that was the norm for others who read the cards. In Seattle, Michael Harner advised me similarly. When I returned to Iquitos, I became a full fledged curiosa, a specialist who could divine the future. Suddenly my practice increased tenfold and people practically lined up to have their fortunes read.
At the end of a day of clients’ fortunes, I could commiserate with others in the barriada about how tired I was, like them, after a hard day’s work. Two women with whom I had become friends acted as agents in the field and sent me clients. They kept insisting that I raise my prices, since I only charged the equivalent of a kilogram of rice, only a fraction of what was collected by my nearest competitor who lived in another area of Iquitos.
I learned that many ayahuasca healers and probably the San Pedro maestro in Salas used the cards as a diagnostic technique in their work, since there were about seventeen misfortune cards that people would dialog with out loud, which gave healers some insight into their clients’ stressors and problems. The healers would appear omnipotent, all the while in a shamanic mode of total control. Soon, my walk from the Belen market at the city’s banks down to the river community took a very long time, as people would call me the “gringa who knew things . . .” and pull me into their homes to tell their fortune. People would wake me up early in the morning as they sought advice before making a business decision or going on any kind of travel.
Fortune-telling has always been a marginal topic for anthropologists unless they go into great abstraction about people’s needs to understand their anxiety associated with not knowing what the future will bring. All societies have some means of forecasting--whether it’s calculus in mathematics to tell when a curve is about to nose-dive in the marketplace, or if it is fortune-telling cards to tell you if your lover will ever take you back. In Peru, I not only observed the use of fortune-telling cards but I also took the trouble to learn how to read them, and when I returned to the United States, how to interpret them mathematically and psychologically.
When I published on the fortune-telling data, I called the article “Fortune’s Malice,” to describe a little-known trait of the fortune-telling cards--namely the malice and bad luck that is ever present in a card reading. When examined through the lenses of probability statistics, one sees that the average deck of naipes cards in Peru, which consists of forty-eight cards, has up to seventeen cards that can be seen to bring misfortune--such as false pregnancies, business losses, and even death. Because folk healers who use ayahuasca treat a large number of psychosomatic disorders in their clients, these misfortune cards can be a real source to reveal social stressors that clients face in their day-to-day lives, allowing the healer to appear omnipotent. This is especially true when people in Peru “dialog” with the cards, commenting on all sorts of private information about who’s angry at them and who wants them to suffer.
In my study, with the help of some colleagues of mine at Cal State, L.A., we applied a complex mathematical probability equation to the reading of the naipes. The likelihood of at least one misfortune card would appear in a given reading was 99.76 chances in 100. Wow! That at least two misfortune cards would occur went down to 97.40 chances in a hundred. Finally, the likelihood that at least three misfortune cards would appear in a given reading was 87.70 chances in a hundred. The numbers fell precipitously after that. Each card read is modified by preceding and sequential cards. Any interpreter could construct a story line quite easily that focuses on interpersonal conflict, material loss, or illness. The deck effectively is stacked not in the direction of good fortune but as fortune’s malice to highlight stress and conflict present in the client’s world.