Some believe it’s a miracle the indigenous tribes of the Amazon found out about ayahuasca. From the thousands of plants available, they were able to pick out the exact right ones to make the hallucinogenic concoction. The shamans themselves say the plants taught them how to do it.
As the Amazonian people were illiterate, no-one knows exactly when it started, but it’s estimated that ayahuasca use dates back more than two thousand years.
The first Western report on ayahuasca dates from some Jesuits travelling the Amazon in 1737. They describe it as a ‘diabolic potion’. Ethnobotanist Richard Spruce wrote a more elaborate report about an ayahuasca ceremony he observed with the Tukano tribes in the Brazilian Amazon. In 1851 he sent a sample of the Banisteriopsis Caapi vine to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew. They had no idea what to do with it, so it wasn’t until 1969 that the material was rediscovered and analysed.
The ‘vine of the soul’ gained Western attention in the 1960s through the writings of William S. Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg, who separately travelled the Putumayo region (on the border of Colombia and Peru), in search of the magic brew. They corresponded about their adventures in the Yagé letters (1963). Around the same time, Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes travelled the region and described a variety of indigenous ceremonies which he either observed or participated in.
During the beginning of that century, several ayahuasca churches emerged in Brazil. First was the Santo Daime in the 1930s. Barquinha split off in 1945, and in 1961 the União de Vegetal (UDV) was established. They were part of a larger process of urbanization of ayahuasca during the 20th century: the brew was no longer reserved for indigenous shamans and their tribes, but also curanderos in the wider population started to organize sessions incorporated the drinking of ayahuasca.
When Westerners started to travel more numerously to Latin America, they came in contact with these traditions. From the 1990s onwards ayahuasca churches spread outside of the region. And enthusiastic Western adepts invited shamans to travel to Europe or the United States in order to conduct ceremonies. Some of them got initiated themselves and many developed their own hybrid spiritual or therapeutic practice. This wide range of ayahuasca uses will be discussed in more detail below.
(Traditional) shamanic use
More than 70 indigenous tribes over a large geographical area, from Colombia to Bolivia, are originally known to use ayahuasca. Together they use about 40 different names for it, like caapi, natem and yagé.
Processes of migration and urbanization caused many interactions between the indigenous tribes and the wider population of the Latin-Americas. Nowadays the largest part of the population can be called ‘mestizo’: of mixed descent, and there is a wide overlap between mestizo and indigenous uses of ayahuasca.
Anthropologist Stephan Beyer published a voluminous ethnography on Amazonian shamanism: Singing to the Plants (2009). According to him, the ayahuasca vine is one of the main plants used by shamans throughout the Amazon.
Shamans generally maintain intimate personal relationships with a broad range of plants, which they perceive as spiritual entities. The plants are supposed to have their own consciousness and character. A shaman functions as medicine doctor, knowing multiple uses and preparation procedures, which are handed over from generation to generation, or learned from direct interaction with the plants.
Ayahuasca is used to heal all kinds of illnesses, but in accordance with the ambiguous nature of the shaman, it can be used for sorcery as well.
Usually, the shaman organises weekly gatherings in which all participants drink the brew. During the ritual the shaman walks around to cure the different participants individually: by sucking out the illness in the form of darts; by shaking a leaf-bundle (shacapa); and by blowing tobacco smoke over the patient’s body. Shamans also provide individual healings when necessary.
Next to healing, ayahuasca is used for initiation: it’s seen as an important teacher for those aspiring to become a shaman themselves. The initiates usually follow a special diet with the plant for a prolonged period of time, sometimes more than a year. The brew can also be used for clairvoyance or divination: in the state evoked by ayahuasca, the shaman is able to perceive the sources of illnesses or other forms of bad luck and understand how they relate to the patient’s life.
As it can be used for healing, ayahuasca can also be used to inflict harm. In the Amazon, bad luck and illness are generally assigned to sorcery. It’s commonly accepted that the only cure for sorcery inflicted by one shaman, is a counterattack by a different shaman.
The last way the brew is used is for contacting the spirits. Spirits can be called upon to attend the ceremony or to provide information. It is also possible that a spirit temporarily takes over the body of the shaman and acts on behalf of him/her. During that time the shaman is able to travel to other dimensions and gather information and visions.
Mestizo curanderos use the same ritual equipment as indigenous shamans, though individual differences on how to conduct a ceremony or a healing are commonplace. It’s likely that a healer is acquainted with a range of different (healing) techniques and (religious) traditions, and integrates those in his or her practice.
The ayahuasca churches combine elements from indigenous shamanism with folk Catholicism and various other traditions. The largest ayahuasca church, Santo Daime, is said to incorporate elements from several esoteric and Afro-Brazilian movements. The rituals are quite structured: people wear uniforms, men and women are separated, and there is an elaborate liturgy mainly composed of the singing of hymns.
In the União de Vegetal uniforms are worn and music is played as well, but in contrast to the Santo Daime spoken word is an important part of the ceremony: a question-answer session with the church leader takes the place of a sermon in an ordinary Christian church service.
Barquinha (literally ‘little boat’) is the smallest of the ayahuasca religions. They branched off from Santo Daime in 1945. The ritual has elements from a Catholic procession, where attendants follow a statue of the Black Virgin into the church. The second part of the ceremony is more reminiscent of the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé movement when drumming and dancing are used to induce a trance state. In line with the name ‘barquinha,’ the sailor-theme is quite present in both the uniforms of the members and the decoration of the chapel.
In the churches, the drinking of ayahuasca is seen as part of a religious path. It’s used to both honour and celebrate the divine, to ask for help, healing and guidance or to pursue a mystical experience in which the ayahuasca drinker transcends the personal identity and becomes one with God.
Many groups, inspired by the church rituals or indigenous ceremonies, developed their own type of ayahuasca ceremony. Literally all types of rituals are possible: some groups use different neo-shamanic or so-called ‘new age’ techniques or they combine the drinking of ayahuasca with dietary regimes and psychotherapeutic treatments.
These hybrid rituals which are nowadays conducted both in Latin-America and the Western world, are mainly aimed at fulfilling a certain spiritual quest of the seeker and also for therapeutic reasons; healing and spirituality often go hand in hand.
It’s not uncommon that gods, saints, power animals, plants and other spiritual entities are invoked to ask for protection and guidance. Participants may use a variety of techniques, like meditation, breathing exercises, dancing, drumming and chanting. Also a variety of ritual tools can be present on an altar: candles, flowers, incense, statues of diverse gods and saints or the Buddha. Often music plays an important role in the session: musicians take their instruments and play on the spot; in other cases, digital recordings are used.
People gather in a circle on the ground, for example around a fire in a beautiful nature area. But the gatherings can be held inside as well. Instead of sitting on chairs, as is common in the churches, people lay down on an individual mattress on the ground. Usually part of the ritual is spend in silence; then people are allowed to travel inwards. Also there are parts of the ritual in which participants can connect to each other, for example through singing or making music.
The sharing of experiences, using a ‘talking stick’ (sometimes a piece of the ayahuasca vine is used for this) forms an important aspect of the gathering as well. Most of the time the ritual is guided by a person acting as a shaman, but this could also be a group of people who had some form of training and/or have extensive ayahuasca experience themselves.
Ayahuasca as a form of therapy
In addition to spiritual seekers, Western therapists got intrigued by the miracle brew as well. They follow-up on the age-old idea that ayahuasca can be used for healing. Especially notable is the case of Canadian physician Gabor Maté, who integrated ayahuasca in addiction treatment. Although the preliminary results were promising, his initiative was closed down by the Canadian authorities as ayahuasca contains the illicit substance DMT.
There’ve been scientific studies into the medical effects of ayahuasca. In general they point out that ayahuasca consumption has no physical or psychological deteriorating effects, and the chances for addiction have proven to be very low. In general, moderately positive effects have been found on behaviour, mood and attitudes towards life.
The largest research project up to date is the Hoasca study, in which a group of 15 UDV-members was compared to a similar control group. Though some of the UDV-members had been alcohol and tobacco addicts before and had suffered from depression and anxiety disorders, they showed no signs of addiction or psychopathology anymore. Instead they reported radical transformations in their behaviour, attitudes and outlook on life: chronic anger, resentment, aggression and feelings of alienation disappeared, whereas feelings of self-control, responsibility and personal fulfilment increased. The researchers point out that it’s not clear what part of the effects might be due to the ritual and social context of the UDV, compared to the biomedical working of the brew itself.
Ayahuasca has also shown to fit within the field of transpersonal psychology. Based on Stanislav Grof’s models for LSD-therapy and holistic breathing, some transpersonal psychologists now offer therapeutic sessions with ayahuasca. They believe that exceptional states of consciousness, such as the direct experience of the divine, of cosmic unity or boundless awareness, can be used to enrich life and to awaken one’s full nature. Though it’s not common practice yet, it’s not unlikely that in the future more Western therapists will integrate the Amazonian brew in their therapeutical sessions.
As the popularity of ayahuasca keeps rising more and more individuals start experimenting with brewing the Amazonian tea themselves. Several recipes on ayahuasca or ayahuasca analogues can be found online, and with the needed plant material and effort it is very well possible to make your own mixture.
Ayahuasca is mainly used in a ceremonial setting and many believe some sort of ritual is an indispensable part of the experience. As the brew can be very potent, it’s recommended to have some experience in settings guided by trained experts before partaking on your own; and if possible to have some sort of expert nearby.
If you have less experience make sure to proceed carefully, always start with small quantities. Depending on your own outlook on life you might want to experiment with different religious, spiritual or therapeutic techniques and see how it affects your experience.
-On the origins of ayahuasca: Singing to the plants
-Medical studies on ayahuasca: Ayahuasca literature compilation
-Ayahuasca and transpersonal psychology: Ayahuasca Open Style
This article is based on the following sources:
-The book ‘Singing to the Plants’ by Stephan Beyer (2009).
-Sérgio Brissac. ‘In the Light of Hoasca: an Approach to the Religious Experience of Participants of the União do Vegetal.’ Fieldwork in Religion, 2, 3 (2006): 319-349.
-Fieldwork of the author
Read more about the effects, botanical, chemical and medical aspects of ayahuasca (analogues): Azarius Encyclopedia on Ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca analogues can be found in our Psychedelic Herb section.