Plants - Drugs Mind - Spirit Freedom - Law Arts - Culture Library  
Full Review
book cover
O Uso Ritual da Ayahuasca (The Ritual Use of Ayahuasca)
by Beatriz Caiuby Labate and Wladimyr Sena Araújo (Eds.)
Mercado de Letras 
Reviewed by Mauricio Fiore / Translation by Robin M. Wright, 5/26/2008

The publication of a collection of articles involves risks that are proportional to the level of ambition of the editors. In the case of the collection O uso ritual de ayahuasca, edited by the anthropologists Beatriz Labate and Wladimyr Araújo, the objectives of the undertaking seem to have been fulfilled, notwithstanding the problems that can be pointed out in the 25 articles (besides the Introduction) that comprise the book. The first objective, to publish the papers presented at the First International Conference on the Ritual Use of Ayahuasca, held at the State University of Campinas in November, 1997, was expanded, since more than half of the articles were written by researchers who did not participate in the event. The more audacious objective, to assess the state of the art of research and debates on the use of ayahuasca, promoting discussions on the question, yielded satisfactory results. The researchers who specifically deal with the question no doubt will find lacunae — not surprising in a volume of this type — but the important point is that, for researchers and any other interested people, the book not only serves as a sophisticated and broad introduction to the theme, but it also serves as a reference work.

“Ayahuasca”, a Quechua term that means roughly the vine of the dead or of the spirits, is one of the names given to the beverage prepared by the mixing of two main ingredients, the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of the Psychotria viridis bush. Its use by native South American peoples of the Amazonian region is pre-Colombian, and it has psychoactive properties, that is, it affects in some way the functioning of the central nervous system in human beings. This property is the result of the action of DMT (N, N-dimethyltryptamine), which is present in the leaves of the bush and of the Beta-carbolines and other substances which are present in the vine. Although the DMT can be quickly neutralized when it is ingested orally, the Beta-carbolines act directly on neuron-receptors, which neutralize it, opening the way to its brain activity, which would explain its psychoactive effects. At the beginning of the 20th century, during the great migratory movement into Amazônia, principally as a result of the rubber boom, contact with the Indians led the “whites” to incorporate ayahuasca into their religious beliefs and therapeutic practices. The first sect which was founded on the consumption of the beverage was organized by Raimundo Irineu Serra in the 1920s and ‘30s, and it was after that that other sects were created, on through the 1960s. The sects attracted followers from the great urban centers of the country, thus expanding the use of the beverage throughout Brazil and the world.

The set of general and introductory certainties seems to end there. Controversies and debates that involve different scientific disciplines, religious dogmas and legal concepts make ayahuasca and its consumption a rich topic, which the book by Labate and Araújo develops into three groups of articles: the first deals with the indigenous or “native” use of the beverage, dialoguing directly with Ethnology; the second goes through the different sects in which the beverage plays a central role, such as the Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal; and a final set of articles considers the pharmacological and psychological aspects of ayahuasca. If one of the objectives of the book was to engage in a dialogue with other researchers who are not just specialists in the area, that is what we will be looking for here in discussing, even if briefly, the data and analyses presented in this work.

The articles in the first part of the book systematically describe the format of the rituals that involve the use of ayahuasca — or “yagé”, the name given to the beverage by several Amazonian tribes. The discussion of such classic themes in Anthropology as shamanism and anthropomorphism are associated with the debate over the consumption of hallucinogens by indigenous tribes. The articles by Pedro Luz and Esther Langdon consider the meaning of the use of the beverage in various Amazonian tribes, which forms a kind of “psycho-integrity” (Langdon, p. 68), that is, a type of primordial social link established by this practice (Luz, p. 63). The ritual of taking ayahuasca reaches its high point at the moment when daily life is surpassed in order to attain a world of “truth” (Luz, p. 61), in which all elements of nature exist in the same dimension.

Along the same line, the articles by Bárbara Keifenheim and Luis Eduardo Luna seek to place the use of ayahuasca into the cosmological system of indigenous societies, getting out of the evolutionist separation between magic and religion, which is responsible for a series of errors in understanding shamanic rituals or their equivalents. The first author perceives amongst the Kaxinawá a synaesthetic ritual involving the use of ayahuasca, which is not necessarily shamanic (the latter involving, above all, the use of tobacco), in which the Indians re-enact a primordial myth the perspective of which ties together all the dimensions of nature, very similar to what Luna discusses in the next article with regard to anthropomorphism. The article by Mariana Franco and Osmildo Conceição reveals the curative aspect that rubber-gatherers perceive in ayahuasca, moreso than an established religious character.

Two articles written by medical professionals complete this first part; their intent is to defend native “causes” but, in doing so, they end up sliding on their analyses. Germán Zuluaga argues that the indigenous peoples who discovered ayahuasca (according to him, located in the Amazonian “foothills”) were supposedly robbed by the “white man”, who has used the beverage in a “flippant” way. Since he is much more concerned with “charlatan healers” than with biopiracy — an urgent question that he only mentions — the author ignores well-established theoretical reflections from the social sciences and overly essentializes terms such as “culture” and “knowledge”, sounding an alert for the cultural theft of ayahuasca from its “true” traditional, indigenous, and culturally “pure”, context. It would have been much more useful, perhaps, to have discussed the rights of indigenous peoples to pharmacological knowledge that is being systematically used by science in a very unregulated way. Despite his good survey on the ritual and the effects caused by the beverage, Jacques Mabit confuses his proposal to do medical or psychological analysis with the possible revelations occasioned by ayahuasca. In criticizing the use of the concept of hallucination to refer to the effects of the beverage, which would imply an error or product of fantasy, the French medical doctor is accomplice to the error of imagining that the “efficacy” of ayahuasca can be measured by the degree of veracity of its visions. His discussion on the clinical potentials of the beverage is certainly provocative, but the lack of specification of the subject-object relation, so dear to psychiatry, potentially diminishes more objective debates.

The second and larger part of the book is dedicated to the ayahuasca religions in Brazil, and from the very beginning of the good bibliographic review by Beatriz Labate one fact calls attention: only here (in Brazil) have there developed non-indigenous popular religions based on the use of the beverage. Although the number of followers is not demographically significant on the national level, with only around 10 thousand adepts (p. 232), these religions have become very visible to the public. If their origins go back to contact between the Indians and pioneer rubber-gatherers who occupied Amazonia, Labate identifies the existence today of a possible process of “daimization” of the native populations, that is, the ritual of “Santo Daime” (another of the numerous names for ayahuasca) has attracted the descendants of those who originally are supposed to have presented the beverage to the whites. Under the generic term “Santo Daime” are included those religions that claim fidelity to the primordial teachings of Master Irineu, the Cefluris (Eclectic Center of Flowing Universal Light) and the Alto Santo, whose differences are well presented in the reading of the book.

Eight articles provide a detailed discussion of the symbolic elements that make up the ritual of Santo Daime. In the case of the new sects one can observe, along with a shamanic process, a fusion of elements from Spiritualism and Umbanda with a strong Christian base, more accurately Catholic — and on this point the article by Sandra Goulart is of special interest because it highlights in the origins of the Daime cults traces of traditional Catholicism from the rural regions of Brazil, which is marked by relations of godparenthood and alliance. Meanwhile, Clodomir Monteiro relativizes the “syncretism” that is at the base of Santo Daime, to the extent that incorporation by spirits could be a direct introduction by African descendants coming from the Northeast, without concurrence from Umbanda or Kardecismo. It should also be remembered that the massive contact with urban populations from the 1960s on, which resulted in the expansion of Santo Daime to beyond the Amazonian frontiers, also exercised an influence on the organization of sects, with the incorporation, for example, of the use of marijuana. Among the followers of Master Sebastião, founder of one of the Daimist lines, the Cefluris (MacRae, pp. 455-457), “Holy Mary”, the name the sect gives to marijuana, is considered sacred.

But while the analysis of the symbolic process and the organization of Santo Daime is a strong point of the articles, the lack of a certain objectivity seems to prevent deeper discussions. As a response to the constant discrimination suffered by the Daime religions, several articles insist on starting from responses based on the belief itself in order to legitimate the use of ayahuasca, in such a way that, as Lévi-Strauss stated, the native theory ends up serving as an explanation for the reality precisely because it seems closer to the reality that one wishes to explain1. Thus, the value of the ritual is overestimated: at one moment it is argued that it is only by means of the ritual that one can in fact get out of the territory of simple hallucinations (Monteiro, p. 389), at another moment value judgments are made that delimit good and bad uses of psychoactive substances, Daime being situated among the good uses (Dias, p. 422). The same thing can be said about the articles that deal with the União do Vegetal, two of which were written by members of the organization and one other by an ex-member. Neither of them escapes a certain propaganda tone which prevents analytic reflection that goes beyond the idle question of “Is UDV good or bad?” — to the point that the book is now the object of a lawsuit filed by the UDV itself! In any case, the descriptive density of the articles enables the reader to get a reasonably good notion of the forms of the major ayahuasca religions of Brazil, which stimulates future research.

The medico-pharmacological discussion is the central discussion of the last part of the book. A bit uneven, the last five articles represent much more of a direction in which new research can be done than a source of definitive data. The UDV is the central focus of the first three texts. Interested in demonstrating the “positiveness” of the use of “hoasca” (the name used by the followers of Master Gabriel, the founder of the UDV), the Medical Scientific Department of the sect has stimulated the production of research by its members: from psychiatric tests to general clinical studies, they insistently seek to demonstrate that among them, hoasca has no effect whatsoever on a healthy life; to the contrary, it is supposed to, among other benefits, facilitate abstinence among dependents, from other “drugs.” The article by the multidisciplinary Benny Shanon is far too audacious: it seeks to demonstrate that certain universal archetypes come to light when activated by ayahuasca. The discussion in fact is interesting, but the radical psychologyzing by the author — “the study of ayahuasca belongs, in very first place, to the domain of psychology and, more specifically, to cognitive psychology” (p. 633) — doesn’t take into consideration various anthropological works that have dealt with the topic in very different ways. Closing the book, whoever is looking for a specific discussion on the pharmacology of DMT — in ayahuasca as in other plants — will find in the article by Jonathan Ott an excellent introductory discussion.

If the objective of this part of the book was to introduce the weight of psychopharmacological studies, a suggestion for future work may perhaps be useful here: include a more in-depth discussion of the concept of hallucinogen, in which ayahuasca fits in general terms, which is a question that is far from being settled and has to do directly with the relation between the medical and social sciences. It is enough to remember that, while many scholars or members of the ayahuasca religions prefer to use the term “entheogen”, directly connected to a mystical conception of the so-called “plants of power”, medicine uses terms such as, besides “hallucinogen”, “psychodysleptic”, “psychoto-mimetic” or” psycholytic”2.

  • * *

To conclude we wish to reflect on a question that could have been debated more throughout the text, and that was only touched on in the article by Edward MacRae, which is in fact a plea for tolerance in relation to the ayahuasca religions. The logic that seems to guide the articles of the book is that the use of ayahuasca cannot be seen as just any sort of consumption of psychoactives, given that it involves traditional religious rituals. The very title of the book restricts the type of use of ayahuasca — ritual — that is under discussion. Now, rituals are a classic object of study in the Social Sciences, principally in Anthropology, although there is no consensus on a precise definition of the term. The fact that rituals have been thought of primarily as directly related to religious or mystical aspects should not lead to the false idea that they are always related to the domains of the sacred3. For Edmund Leach, one can understand ritual as an act or series of prescribed and non-instinctive acts that are not rationally explained, since, in this case, according to him, the idea of rationality has to be relativized: “A psychiatrist could qualify as a ‘private ritual’ a compulsive neurotic’s constant washing of his hands, while for the neurotic it is nothing more than rational hygienic procedure”4.

Besides that, it’s necessary to remember that in 1986, after a hardline repressive legal process against the use of the beverage, ayahuasca was legalized by the (now defunct) National Council on Narcotics. After a strong vindicatory movement on the part of various ayahuasca religions — and based on a study involving anthropologists, psychologists, medical doctors, police officials, legal experts, etc. that came to the conclusion that the use of ayahuasca did not present risks to the participants of these sects — the legalization of its specific use for religious rituals was established, in the name of the preservation of constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms. The two plants used in the preparation of the beverage were exempted from prohibition, but not DMT – the principal psychoactive – in its isolated form, which continues to be prohibited until the present day. This special statute of ayahuasca has faced contestations, and on December 31, 2002, the National Anti-Drugs Secretary commissioned a new study on the question.

Nevertheless, it seems to me to be wrong to imagine that such peculiarities in the use of ayahuasca could prevent treatment of the question through a wider and deeper discussion, that involves the contemporary consumption of legal and illegal psychoactive substances. Just for that reason the article by MacRae — which follows up on a reflection he had already developed in another work5 and whose studies have had a critical role in the struggle for the legalization of the religious use of ayahuasca — highlights the role of the social control exercised internally among the members of Santo Daime, which avoids a destructive pattern of use of the beverage. The concepts MacRae works with are inspired by the studies of the North American medical doctor Norman Zinberg and the Dutch social scientist Jean-Paul Grund, who perceived among users of psychoactive substances three decisive elements in the definition of what could be called a “use pattern”: the substance utilized, the setting and the set6. Roughly speaking, one can summarize these elements as follows: the desired biochemical effects that each specific substance provides vary decisively; the setting is the social context of use, the environment in which the substance is consumed and the way in which it is acquired; the set however is understood as the individual characteristics of the user, which involves his notion of the world and psychological characteristics. Another previous work, by Howard Becker, identified among North American marijuana users a network of information on the effects of the herb that served as common knowledge transmitted by experienced users to newly-initiated users, preventing certain conditions and forms of use considered to be negative from being maintained7.

These examples demonstrate the possibilities for a more intense debate in studies on ayahuasca and other psychoactives. The hierarchical separation between what is supposed to belong to the religious domain and what to the secular makes the discussion on the consumption of ayahuasca move further away from the more productive debate on the consumption of psychoactive substances in the contemporary world. Suspending the prohibition on the beverage, which was based exclusively on the idea of freedom to practice religion, created a contradiction that had consequences in the very relations among the ayahuasca religions, besides threatening the stony separation between religions, the individual and the State. The conflicts between the UDV and its sympathizers, which even involves the use of marijuana, provides evidence that the State, in conferring exclusive freedom to certain religions which make sense only in their context, grants these religions the power to decide what is a “true” ritual and what is not, as well as denying to the individual the freedom to choose between whatever type of mystical, philosophical or religious perception, even if it is entirely unknown.

Evidently the freedom to consume ayahuasca represented an unprecedented advance if we really take into account the influence of sociocultural factors in the official policy regarding psychoactive substances8, but today we are witnessing a dispute for a certain kind of purity or religious truth in which, as is well-known in Anthropology, there are no winners. As a rough analogy, we could think of a State that prohibited the consumption of alcohol for all its citizens except during Christian services, but only those authorized by the Vatican, excluding for example the rituals of the Orthodox Church… If at some time the argument for religious freedom became strategic for the very survival of the groups, it’s already past the hour for ayahuasqueiros and researchers to confront the question from a broader point of view, that doesn’t exclude the wealth of the social and religious repertoire involving the use of ayahuasca and tries to think of it within a society that does not allow the individual to choose which substances he/she can use, either by prohibiting them, or by stimulating them. As MacRae himself states, this is necessary “in order to come to terms with the view, which is still prevalent in our society, that insists on approaching the question of the use of psychoactives in a simplistic way, attending only to pharmaceutical type definitions, and putting off to one side its psychical and socio-cultural dimensions, as well as demonstrating a great intolerance to the idea that there may be a spiritual use of any of these substances, which are all generically considered as “drugs’” (p. 458).

(1) Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “Uma introdução à obra de Marcel Mauss”. In: Mauss, Marcel. Sociologia e antropologia. São Paulo: EPU, 1974 (esp. pp. 25-26).

(2) See for example Karniol, Isac G. “Cannabis sativa e derivados”. In: Seibel, Sérgio D. e Toscano, Alfredo Jr. (orgs.). Dependência de drogas. São Paulo: Atheneu, 2000; Carneiro, Henrique. Amores e sonhos da flora: afrodisíacos e alucinógenos na botânica e na farmácia. São Paulo: Xamã, 2002.

(3) Cf. Benedict, Ruth. “Ritual”. In: Encyclopedia of the social sciences. New York: Macmillan, 1948, p. 396.

(4) Leach, Edmund. “Ritual”. In: Enciclopedia internacional de las ciencias sociais. Madri: Aguilar, 1976, pp. 383-384.

(5) MacRae, Edward. Guiado pela Lua. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1992.

(6) Zinberg, Norman. Drug, set and setting. New Haven: Yale University Press: 1984; Grund, Jean-Paul C. Drug use as a social ritual. Roterdam: IVO, 1998.

(7) Becker, Howard S. Outsiders: studies in the sociology of deviance. New York: The Free Press, 1966.

(8) Cf. MacRae, Edward. “A importância dos fatores socioculturais na determinação da política oficial sobre o uso ritual de ayahuasca”. In: Zaluar, Alba. Drogas e cidadania: repressão ou redução de danos. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1994.

Mauricio Fiore has a Master´s in Anthropology at the FFLCH-USP and is a member of the NEIP - Nucleus for Interdisciplinary Studies on Psychoactives (

Originally Published In : Revista Novos Estudos CEBRAP, nº 66, July, 2003, pp. 198-202.
Other Reviews of this book:

Comments »

No comments yet.

Leave a comment

Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed:



Note: Your submission will be considered for publication, no need to submit twice. Thank You!