Ritual and Religious Use of Ayahuasca
in Contemporary Brazil
Edward Macrae, Phd
Joint Professor in Anthropology - Federal University
of Bahia - UFBa
Associate Researcher - Centro de Estudos e Terapia do Abuso
de Drogas - CETAD / UFBA
a psychoactive brew made from the Bannisteriosis caapi vine
and the Psychotria viridis leaf, has been used for many purposes
by the native inhabitants of the Western Amazon since time
immemorial. Conceived of as a means of opening the human perception
of the spiritual world, this brew has been mainly used by
shamans for a series of purposes such as: the diagnosis and
treatment of a large variety of ailments, divination, hunting,
warfare, and even as an aphrodisiac. Although it's use probably
originated among the inhabitants of the rain forest, ayahuasca
was taken the Andean highlands and can now be found in many
of the Brazilian large urban centers as well as in Argentina,
Uruguay, Chile, United States, in a few European countries
and even in Japan.
use of ayahuasca by Amazonian tribal societies and by mestizo
healers on the outskirts of Amazonian cities like Puccalpa,
Tarapoto and Iquitos has been well documented by a large number
of scholars such as Reichel-Dolmatof, Josep Maria Ferigcla,
Luis Eduardo Luna, Marlene Dobkin de Rios , Jacques Mabbit
and many others. What I propose to discuss here is the religious
use of the brew by Brazilian urban dwellers often of middle
class origin. For in that country there are at the moment,
over eight religious groups using ayahuasca as a sacrament
during their rituals.
their belief systems and ceremonies may be quite varied, they
also have much in common,and so, much of what I have to say
here about the Santo Daime group may be taken for the others
as well. I shall concentrate on the Santo Daime because it
is the group I have been studying for the past eight years.
During this time I have taken part in its rituals and have
partaken of the brew many times.
one can understand the functioning and the cultural significance
of this religious group, one must take into account some of
the particularities of Brazilian culture and religiosity.
Brazilian society is the result of a rich mixture of European,
Indian and African elements. The Portuguese colonization of
the region concentrated itself mainly along the Atlantic coastline
and although its influence extended itself into the interior
and almost to the Andes, only recently have the distant frontier
and Amazonian rainforest areas been fully integrated into
the life of the nation. In spite of the fact that Portuguese
incursions were often able to break down traditional Indian
social organizations, very little was put in their place in
an official manner. Even the presence of the Church was sporadic
and unsystematic in most of that region , giving rise to the
development of many unorthodox religious movements which mixed
Indian, Catholic, African and assorted Esoteric elements.
result of this is that although the majority of the Brazilian
population is nominally Catholic, there is a widespread tolerance
and even active participation in a wide variety of sects or
cults of different origins. In spite of this apparently free
and easy attitude towards religion and of the rapacious materialism
that governs social interaction, most Brazilians seem to have
some feeling for spirituality and although they may have difficulty
in explaining what they actually believe in, few will call
is in this context that we must view the founding of the Santo
Daime movement in 1930, in Rio Branco, capital city of the
then Acre Territory. The founder of this movement was a Black
rubber tapper called Raimundo Irineu Serra, who had come to
the Amazon from the state of Maranhão, in Northern
Brazil, in 1912. It is probable that he was first initiated
into the use of ayahuasca by a Peruvian mestizo healer. However,
after some time he began having visions in which a female
figure, who he associated with Our Lady of the Conception,
gave him instruction on healing and handed him a new religious
doctrine, It had a pronounced Catholic flavor although incorporating
spiritualist and esoteric elements such as the notions of
reincarnation, the law of karma and the cult of assorted elemental
Irineu, as he came to be known by his followers and clients,
became famous for his healing powers and after some time his
influence began to spread in Rio Branco. His initial following
was made up of displaced rubber tappers who, after the decline
of the Amazonian rubber boom, had been forced to migrate to
the cities of the region , where they faced great difficulties
integrating into urban society. However , soon his influence
was widespread throughout the city and even politicians came
to him in search both of healing and of electoral support.
With the help of such well placed friends, he was eventually
able to acquire a plot of land where he built a church and
started an agricultural community with his followers.
his lifetime and after his death, in 1971, his movement suffered
several defections and splits. Nowadays there are several
separate religious organizations that trace their origins
to him , but most are quite small with little more than a
hundred followers each. There is, however, an exception which
is the group started by another Amazonian rubber tappper,
Sebastião Mota de Melo, better known as Padrinho Sebastião.
Unlike the other Daime leaders, he was very welcoming towards
young newcomers from outside the Amazon area. As a result,
a number of centers were then set up in the southern metropolis
and now the group he began has more than 5000 followers. Of
the ayahuasca using groups, it is second only to the União
do Vegetal, which was started in the sixties in Porto Velho,
capital city of another Amazonian Brazilian state, Rondonia.
The founder of this religious group, known as Mestre Gabriel,
was another ayahuasca using healer who had originally been
the head of an Afro-Brazilian possession cult, which he later
renounced. He had no connection with Mestre Irineu, and his
organization took on quite a different form, where a marked
Masonic influence may be detected. Yet both the Santo Daime
and the União do Vegetal display many doctrinal and
ritual similarities which attest to the importance of the
common Amazonian cultural background from which both emerged.
from a pharmacological point of view, ayahuasca may be considered
a very potent psychoactive agent, rich in DMT and other alkaloids,
the ample use made of it by these religious organizations
does not seem to lead to any apparent ill results, as attested
by recent medical studies of long time users. This is probably
due to the strict ritual control built around this practice
and to the fact that the brew is rarely taken extraritually.
Daime ritual or "work" is thought to be an opportunity
for learning and healing and for the indoctrination of the
spirits present either in the " material" or in
the "astral" planes. There are different rituals
for different occasions or different needs. These are the
"hinarios", the "healing works", the "concentrations",
the "masses" and the "makings"(see MacRae
1998:105). They all involve taking the brew and entering into
an altered state of consciousness in a social and physical
setting designed to contain and guide the "voyages".
Anthropologists, like Couto, have considered them to be "rituals
of order" that promote group and hierarchical cohesion
and a search for harmony both within and without.
factors contribute to this, such as:
- dietary and behavioral prescriptions that must be observed
during the three days that precede and that follow the taking
of the drink , setting the stage for an unusual event that
escapes the daily routine.
- hierarchical social organization in which a "commander"
or "god father" is recognized as the leader of
the seance, with the help of a body of "controllers"
who are responsible for the maintenance of order and obedience
to the commander.
- control of the dosage of the drink taken by participants.
- ritual spatial organization and behavioral control .There
is a central table\altar where the double armed Cross of
Caravacca and other religious symbols mark the sacred nature
of the event. All those taking part are given a specific
place in the room, usually a rectangle drawn on the ground
, where they must remain, grouped by sex ,age, and, in certain
more traditional areas, sexual status (virgins and non-virgins).
of a sober cut stress the unity of the group and help maintain
a mood of seriousness. The movements of those taking part
are rigidly prescribed and one of the main duties of the "controllers"
is to ensure obedience to the posture recommended for the
seated "works"(raised heads and relaxed and immobile
arms and legs) or the correct performance of a few simple
steps during the ceremonies that include dancing.
important element of control is the music which is sung and
played during most of the ceremonies, which helps harmonize
the group, through marked rhythms and voices in unison. The
ritual use of music harks back to ancient shamanic customs
from which the ritual taking of ayahuasca originates. Singing
and the use of percussion instruments with a strong, repetitive
beat , are powerful aids in bringing about altered states
of consciousness, and are thought to act as a way of invoking
spirits. The words of the "hymns" that are sung
direct the "voyages" in the desired directions and
help relieve mental or physical ill-feelings.
hymns also help in the interpretation of the experiences people
have during the seances. They help to create connections between
the lived experiences and the magical or mythical symbols
with which they become invested ,which is of great importance
in avoiding the break up of the group. The Catalan anthropologist
Josep Maria Fericgla, working on the Indian use of ayahuasca,
like Victor Turner, considers this to be a psychic or spiritual
function of symbols that was lost by Western societies when
they abandoned their traditional ways of organizing unconscious
drives and using these "sources of renovation" for
individual and collective benefit.(Fericgla 1989:13).
Zinberg, on studying different patterns of drug use, pointed
out that even the most addictive substances, like heroin,
can be used in a controlled, noncompulsive manner, so long
as this use is subject to a series of social sanctions and
social rituals that reinforce given sets of values, rules
of conduct and standardized ways of producing, consuming and
dealing with effects (Zinberg 1984:5). More recently, Jean-Paul
Grund, carrying out research among heroin and cocaine users
in the Netherlands, further developed Zinberg's theory by
proposing what he calls a "feedback model of drug use
self-regulation" which includes two further elements:
drug availability and life structure ( Grund 1993:247).The
Daime and other ayahuasca using religious organizations seem
good examples of these models . Not only do they also adopt
ritual procedures for the taking of the brew that fulfill
all the prerequisites laid out by Zinberg, but they also regulate
their followers access to the substance and provide them with
doctrinal guidance on the structuring of their lives, the
controlling elements Grund added to the drug regulation model.
they were originally set up these different ayahuasca based
religious movements played an important role in helping migrants
from the forest adapt and integrate into their new urban environment.
Nowadays, however, a great part of the new followers come
from a different socio-cultural background. They are, generally
speaking, young adults with secondary or university level
education and with lower middle-class incomes. Although they
may face different problems from those of the rubber tappers
newly arrived in the city, who made up the bulk of the original
members of these religious groups, they have their own adaptation
and existential problems. In Brazil today the young of all
classes are suffering the consequences of a social and economic
crisis that has lasted for over a decade and has led to large
scale unemployment, inflation, and the near disappearance
of what used to be a relatively prosperous middle class.
from the resulting situation of diminished expectations, these
young people also have to cope with the very quick cultural
changes occurring around them with regard to the sexual and
work ethics and the breakdown of traditional family organization
and values. In this increasingly hostile milieu, belonging
to such a religious group provides many with a sense of social,
psychological and spiritual identity.
The disciplined use of ayahuasca also provides them with a
safe, well mapped route to the kind of transcendental experience
that many search for in a compulsive use of alcohol and drugs.
Thus, taking part in these religious groups tends to be a
particularly effective way of dealing with alcoholism and
drug addiction, since, rather than just saying no to any kind
of induced alteration of consciousness, they show how to do
it most effectively and in greater safety. One could, quite
appropriately say that, in their own way they have been adopting
harm reduction methods since they were founded.
long as the use of ayahuasca was confined to the distant Amazonian
region it was out of sight and out of mind for the metropolis-oriented
Brazilian authorities and opinion makers. However, the spread
of these movements among the urban middle class youth soon
had the local moral entrepreneurs on the rampage. In 1986,
pending further studies, the government decided to ban the
use of ayahuasca. However a set of favorable occurrences led
to the setting up of a liberally-oriented official study group
which after six months research produced a paper calling for
the repeal of the ban on a nationwide level. Among other arguments
they pointed out that no damage to health had been proven
to be caused by the use of the brew and that the members of
the different religious groups had been found to be orderly
and to lead their lives according to the accepted social values.
orderly functioning of these religious organizations helps
validate a more tolerant approach to the drug question which
places less emphasis on the purely pharmacological aspects
of the question and gives more attention to the physical,
social and cultural setting in which the use of psychoactive
substances occurs. In spite of occasional problems that may
always be expected to occur when large numbers of people come
together for religious purposes, whether or not these include
the ingestion of consciousness altering substances, the Santo
Daime and other ayahuasca using religions seem to confirm
the effectiveness of social control in determining the consequences
of drug use.
- Couto, F.R. - 1989 - Santos e Xamãs -Master's
thesis in Anthropology-University of Brasília - 251
- Fericgla, J.M. - 1989 - El Sistema Dinâmico
de la Cultura y los Diversos Estados de la Mente Humana
- Bases para un Irracionalismo Sistêmico - Cuadernos
de Antropologia - Barcelona - Editorial Anthropos - 80 pp.
- Grund, J.P.C. - Drug Use as a Social Ritual- Functionality,
Symbolism and Determinants of Self-Regulation ,Rotterdam,
Instituut voor Vesslvingsondeerzoek,1993
- MacRae, E. - Guiado por la Luna- Shamanismo y uso
ritual de la ayahuasca en el culto de Santo Daime- Quito,
Ediciones Abya-Ayala, 1998, 175 pp.
- Zinberg, N. - Drug, Set and Setting, New Haven,
Yale University Press, 1984, 277 pp.
published in; DPF XII Policy Manual , Taylor, W., Stewart,
R., Hopkins, K., Ehlers,S., (orgs.)The Drug Policy Foundation
Press,Washington, 1999,pp. 47-50