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O Uso Ritual da Ayahuasca (The Ritual Use of Ayahuasca)
by Beatriz Caiuby Labate and Wladimyr Sena Ara├║jo (Eds.)
Mercado de Letras 
Reviewed by Jimmy Weiskopf, 1/31/2006

While studies of indigenous use of the psychotropic drink ayahuasca (or yajé) in the Spanish-speaking countries of the Amazon region have resulted in an impressive bibliography over the past few decades, relatively little has been published to date about equivalent practices in Brazil. This gap has now been filled by an anthology in Portuguese of 26 essays by a variety of Brazilian and foreign investigators, entitled O Uso Ritual da Ayahuasca (“The Ritual Use of Ayahuasca”) and edited by the Brazilian anthropologists Beatriz Caiuby Labate and Wladimyr Sena Araújo. It is an outgrowth of a congress on the subject held in 1997 by the Unicamp University of Campinas, São Paulo State which, aiming for a multidisciplinary approach, invited social scientists, doctors, psychologists and government officials to discuss the multiple dimensions of the substance’s ritual use.

The anthology goes far beyond questions of ceremony, cosmology, or altered states of awareness. In fact, we might say that it is three books in one. The first section covers the use of ayahuasca among indigenous and mestizo (persons of mixed indigenous and European descent) groups in different Amazonian countries. This includes some original research into practices among rubber gatherers in the jungles of Brazil, but there is little information about the way that country’s Indians employ the substance, which seems to confirm that the heart of traditional use lies in the piedmont jungles of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. The third section, including contributions by foreign experts such as D.J. Mckenna, J.C. Callaway, J. Ott and B. Shanon, deals with the brew’s pharmacological, medical and psychological effects. While providing useful information, these two sections do not cover much new ground, at least for the reader familiar with the literature already available in English. In my opinion, the second one, on the Brazilian ayahuasca religions, is the strongest, for never before has the subject been covered in such a comprehensive and detailed form.

I am speaking, of course, from the standpoint of a non-Brazilian reader: the overview of ayahuasca that it presents is probably not very accessible in Portuguese in other forms, hence its value to the Brazilian public. At the same time, we know little of the syncretic uses of ayahuasca unique to Brazil, which is why the book merits an English translation.

One clue to the significance of the Brazilian phenomena is found in an essay by the Colombian doctor Germán Zuluaga, who helped found an association of indigenous yajé healers in Colombia whose purpose is to protect the “purity” of their practices from commercialization by outside influence and draft a code of ethics for the shamans. Zuluaga is sceptical about attempts to adapt a custom so intimately associated with those cultures to western religious, therapeutic, new age or humanistic uses. Indeed, he frankly states that “he who is familiar with the true value of indigenous yajé would never wish to experience it in another context”.

Nevertheless, as the anthology shows, Brazil has elaborated what is virtually an alternative school of ayahausca with at least 10,000 adepts (by Labate´s estimate) who belong to legally-recognized churches that hold rituals in established centers on a regular basis throughout the country and have communities in the jungle that grow the plants and prepare the remedy for themselves and their urban branches. Moreover, considering that the Indians represent less than 1% of the population in Colombia and only a minority of that minority uses yajé, it might be argued that the absorption of ayahuasca rituals into that fusion of beliefs so characteristic of Brazilian popular religion has enabled ayahuasca to have a stronger impact on mainstream society in Brazil than in neighboring countries. While this may not invalidate Zuluaga´s claim, the ritual use of ayahuasca in Brazil is a reality that can no longer be ignored or rejected as “inauthentic”. In “Diary of the trip” by Walter Dias Jr. and other personal ayahuasca accounts in the book, it is clear that, in addition to flourishing as a colorful and well-organized movement, ayahuasca use is motivated by sincere spiritual longing.

The anthology presents a detailed study of the origins, development, creeds, rituals and present situation of the three principal ayahuasca churches of Brazil: Santo Daime, União Vegetal and Barquinha. Some people might say four: it wasn’t until I read the book that I found out that the original Daime movement, founded in 1930 by a 7 foot-tall Black laborer named Raimundo Irineu Serra, split into two branches in the 1970s: Alto Santo and Cefluris. Among other reasons, the split was sparked by differences about the legitimate successor to Irineu. Afterwards, Cefluris incorporated marijuana, which they name Santa María and consider to be the plant of the Virgin Mary, into some of their ayahuasca rituals, whereas Alto Santo does not use it (it is strongly rejected by the Indian shamans of Colombia). Cefluris is perhaps the best-known and now has branches in Holland, Japan and Spain. But its rival, the União do Vegetal, which was founded in the 1960s, likewise has a national presence and is trying to establish overseas branches. The UDV, as it is also known, is more secretive and stricter about admitting people to its rituals. The odd men out are Alto Santo and Barquinha, which have never spread from their original home in the State of Acre, also the birthplace of Daime. Barquinha, founded in 1945, only has 500 members, and as its name, which means “little boat”, indicates, its ritualism revolves around the symbol of a boat (a paradigm for a spiritual journey).

There are many smaller groups which have derived from these four principal churches, splits caused by everything from religious disputes to a desire for new therapeutic or artistic meanings for ayahuasca. If we add the poor mestizos in frontier regions who continue to use ayahuasca in an informal way and a few tribes who conserve their ancient practices, the number of ayahuasqueros in Brazil may be larger than the figure given above, as Labate herself admits.

In contrast to Colombia and Peru, where healers are responsible for the diffusion of ayahuasca to urban or tourist contexts (be they Indian or mestizo) that roughly follow the indigenous tradition, the Brazilian churches grew out of the caboclo population of itinerant Blacks or Creoles, many of them nordestinos from the eroded lands of the country’s northeast. These people began to penetrate the jungle frontiers with Peru and Bolivia in the early 20th century, mainly working as rubber-gatherers. There, they gained knowledge of the plants and preparations from the Indians of the neighboring countries and then, in the isolation of remote jungle communities where orthodox Christian influences were not particularly strong, evolved their own autonomous version of ayahuasca. Indeed, for a good part of the 20th century, the churches were lost in the ocean of evangelical cults that exist in Brazil, and it was only a few decades ago that they began to attract the interest of hippies, urban intellectuals and the like. Its higher profile provoked charges that ayahuasca was a drug and led to a serious study by the Brazilian government, some of whose officials drank ayahuasca themselves, which resulted in its legalization. In this respect Brazil is significantly more enlightened than most other developed countries.

Because of this historical background, the four churches broadly share the same approach. They are essentially Christian, with a mixture of Afro-Brazilian and European esoteric beliefs. This contrasts with Indian ayahuasqueros, whose visionary encounters and evocation of supernatural healing powers tend to revolve around the spirits of the jungle and its animal denizens. Nevertheless, in the Brazilian cults the methods of preparation, prohibitions like the one on the participation of menstruating women, and the concept of a plant teacher, all derive from their original indigenous teachers. Despite the fact that all of the Colombian shamans are currently Catholic (some very devout), what we might roughly call an “animist” inspiration still persists: the ritual songs and gestures often have a pagan feeling that is not found in the ayahuasca religions of Brazil. But the Catholicism of the Brazilian groups is by no means conventional, being part, as we have said, of a wider syncretism. In line with this heterogeneity, the groups have a strongly ritualized use of music, dance, costume and decoration that is neither conventionally Catholic nor indigenous but sui generis and exclusive to Brazil. In addition, compared to the informality of many indigenous practices in Colombia these days, where the discipline is tacit, the Brazilian rituals are highly structured: there is little room for free personal expression and in some cases, they are stricter about small points of ceremony or hierarchy than most of the Indians I know.

While a common denominator of all ayahuasca practices is the search for self-realization and spiritual enlightenment, always mediated by music considered to be “given by the spirits”, usually the practices in Colombia and Peru are specifically directed to healing illness, whereas in Brazil the emphasis is on worship. At least with regard to outward forms, such as the characteristic healing of patients with a leaf-fan performed in Colombia (which does not seem to be common in Brazil), the UDV and Santo Daime would probably say that their ceremonies effect the same healing but in an ethereal and collective way. Finally, while some Brazilian schools are more elitist than others, there is none of the indigenous chauvinism found among some healers in Colombia (the suspicion that outsiders may “steal their secrets”), nor the selling of Indian exoticism found in Peru.

Despite this common “Brazilian” identity, the different churches are not free of the kind of ideological differences that plague the Colombian scene. Indeed, the question of “purity” that Zuluaga raises has simply been transposed to another vocabulary, where the synonym for “authenticity” is no longer “indigenous” but has to do, instead, with doctrinal matters. Significantly, there is an essay in the book by Edward MacRae entitled “A plea for tolerance among the different ayahuasca tendencies, based on a Brazilian vision”.

Having been reared in the Colombian school myself, it is hard to shake off a snobbish feeling that its elderly Indian healers are the only ones who really know how to liberate the power of the vine. But recognizing that my own access to those practices is part of a wider aperture that is eroding many of their traditional customs, I have had to face up to the question of what happens when those marvellous old-timers are no longer around to guide us.

If ayahuasca has the universal significance I believe it does, we must consider alternative ways of working with it. This does not mean that anything goes, but one valuable lesson of this anthology is the way it challenges the idea that the Indians are the only ones who have a “tradition”. I have no particular stake in the Brazilian movement – in fact, I am not even a Christian – but of the many experiments with new uses that I have heard of (and to a small degree experienced myself), it seems to be one of the most promising. Some of the innovations jar me, I admit, such as Daime´s unwillingness to let participants freely enter into a communion with nature because of the ritual prescription on leaving the precincts of the church. But I recognize there is a principle of concentration behind it, and in this and other aspects, they conserve a sense of ritual, discipline, and respect for the sacred plants that is usually absent from freer, new age- or psychonautic-type experiments in the developed world. They also share with the Indians what for me is the absolutely fundamental rule that you prepare the brew yourself, and, from the little I have seen, the traditional healers´ idea that you have to drink a good amount of ayahuasca to have a fruitful contact with the spirits. I welcome their diversity, because I think the only valid way to find a meaningful replacement for the indigenous tradition in places where it does not exist or is moribund or prostituted is by allowing a lot of experimentation. Sooner or later, the spiritual, therapeutic and visionary results of the non-indigenous schools will speak for themselves and time will tell us whether or not they know how to successfully work with these sacred plants.

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  1. quote:
    “but there is little information about the way that country’s Indians employ the substance, which seems to confirm that the heart of traditional use lies in the piedmont jungles of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.”

    that’s a shame that the writer(s) of this book have missed to mention the millenary use of ayahuasca by the native people inside the brazilian frontiers.

    Comment by Kuarup — 3/8/2006 @ 4:36 pm

  2. My first experience of ayahuasca was in Brazil, however, it was on a spiritual retreat and had nothing to do with any of the religious organisations that are now using ayahuasca as a sacrament. I’m intrigued by Santo Daime but I’ve never really felt a pull to try and take part in their services. I’m very put off by their hierachies and the strict structure of their ceremonies (based on what I have read anyway). But each to their own I guess, and if it works for people then great. Anyway, this sounds like an interesting book and it’s a shame there isn’t an English version available.

    Comment by Andy M — 7/25/2010 @ 4:43 am

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