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Santo Daime
an excerpt on their use of Ayahuasca
by Charlie K.
An interesting phenomenon associated with modern ayahuasca use is seen in the growing number of syncretic Christian churches throughout South America who have adopted ayahuasca as their sacrament during communion, replacing the usual symbolic bread & wine sacraments. These ayahuasca churches were initially formed in the 1920s in Brazil, and today two groups, the Uniao do Vegetal (UDV or 'Herbal Union'; founded on July 22,1961 in Acre, Brazil) and the Santo Daime ('Saint Gi'me'; founded around 1940 in the town of Rio Branco, also in Acre), continue to flourish. The UDV is the larger of the two organizations with currently more than 7,000 members in Brazil alone. These Neo-Christian churches exist in urban areas (like Rio de Janeiro & Brasilia) and therefore represent, along with the city-dwelling ayahuasqueros of Lima, Iquitos, & Bogota, the movement of ayahuasca use from the primary rainforest (as time moves on and there is less and less of it) into the city [Ott 1994]. To the Santo Daime, Banisteriopsis caapi (known to them as cipo or jagube) represents the solar, masculine aspect of the potion (which they call Daime), while chacrona (also called folha & rainha), or the Psychotria viridis leaves added to the brew, symbolize the lunar, feminine aspect. There is a similar belief in the UDV where ayahuasca represents the union between light (from the feminine chacrona leaves) and force (from the masculine Banisteriopsis vine, which they refer to as mariri) [Ott 1995].

In these churches mass is held once a week. They cultivate the plants needed to make the potion and its preparation is carried out on a large scale after which it is stored in bottles [Ott 1994 ; Lowy 1987]. During the service on special occasions, ayahuasca is dispensed at communion into small cups. The dose appears to be a relatively small amount of liquid (e.g. a couple of ounces) and the ayahuasca they produce has been reported by Luna to be "very strong." It is not unusual for members of the church to dose several times during the evening, with the celebration lasting all night long. In the Santo Daime, praying, singing, and dancing often accompany the inebriation. There are church 'Mestres' in a back room to whom anyone who finds themselves having a particularly powerful or difficult experience can go be with in private [Ott 1994]. These churches claim that the potion helps to promote concentration or "a state of contemplative lucidity that places the subject in direct contact with the spiritual plane." The Uniao do Vegetal claims the tea they call cha hoasca ('vine tea') is an "instrument of mental concentration... The effect of the tea might be compared to religious ecstasy..." [Ott 1995].

In 1985 the Brazilian government decided to add the ayahuasca liana to its list of proscribed drugs. The UDV soon petitioned the ban and the Brazilian government appointed a commission to investigate the issue. The commission found no evidence of social disruption associated with the sacramental use of ayahuasca (which the commission members tried themselves) and ayahuasca was removed from the Brazilian controlled substances list in August of 1987. More problems arose in 1988 when an anonymous source accused the churches of consisting of 'fanatics' who were "drug addicts or ex-guerrillas," given to smoking Cannabis and taking LSD during UDV rites. Because of this another study of the issue was ordered by the government, this time to investigate the technical aspects of ayahuasca's pharmacology. The conclusions of this study prompted the Brazilian government in June of 1992 to exempt Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis, as well as the ayahuasca potion, from its illicit drugs list. This legal decision has opened the doors to the further expansion of these churches, who have since held ceremonies in the European cities of Madrid, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Munich, Frankfurt, and Berlin [Ott 1994; Ott 1995]. An international scientific research team, the 'Hoasca Project', has recently been studying the long term effects, both psychological and physiological, of chronic ayahuasca use by these church members [McKenna 1994].


As far as religion is concerned, the potential for expansion of ayahuasca-using churches seems unlimited. There is at least one "underground" branch of the UDV operating in California today [Ott 1994; Ott 1995]. Incorporation of a powerful psychoactive drug into religious ceremonies could have far-reaching effects on modern religious practices and beliefs. However, it remains to be seen whether users of entheogenic drugs here in The U.S. would be attracted to such a model, i.e. 'psychedelic Christianity', or the idea of "tripping" during Catholic church services. Up to now the reigning model for the use of these drugs in our culture, if any model is followed at all, has been that of shamanism with its emphasis on individual psychonautic "vision quests" [Ott 1995].