A comparison between shamanistic cultures and syncretic folk religions
By: Darin Lehman (Santa Barbara City College 2004)
Mind altering drugs have been used on a religious level for centuries. Peyote is commonly used among the Native Americans of North America, “magic mushrooms,” known as Teonanactl in native Quecha, were used by the Aztecs, and ayahuasca has been used by various tribes in the South American Amazonian for centuries. All these plants have a strong religious basis separating them from the modern Western view of hallucinogens as an illegal drug.
The use of ayahuasca in the South American Amazonian may have only survived because the natives were able to flee to the interiors of the country to practice their religions. To this day many old tribes still survive, in this paper they will be referred to as shamanistic cultures or religions. Recently, during the twentieth century, new religions have been founded which religiously use ayahuasca to attain a spiritual state of mind. In this paper they will be referred to as syncretic religions or folk religions. The purpose of this paper is to provide the reader with a brief understanding of ayahuasca and its effects, and an introduction to shamanistic religions in comparison to the new syncretic folk religions. Ayahuasca is one of many names given to a strongly hallucinogenic drink. Ayahuasca is often referred to in the native tongue of many indigenous tribes in the Peruvian, Ecuadorian, and Colombian Amazon by caapi, yage, dapa, or huasco.
Ayahuascas main ingredient is a vine called Banisteriopsis Caapi. Most ayahuasca drinks are prepared by boiling the Banisteriopsis bark with leaves of an admixture plant. (Grob, 2002) The admixture plant, usually chacruna leaves or oco yage, contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT.) (Biopark.org, 1998) Mixing the Banisteriopsis bark and admixture leaves creates a powerful and supposedly bitter tasting hallucinogen. It is not surprising that through centuries of experimenting with nature that indigenous people could stumble across two ingredients to create a powerful hallucinogenic combination. The exact mixture of plant and bark varies from tribe to tribe and from syncretic church to church.
Ayahuasca creates a wide variety of psychedelic effects including the common occurrence of visions involving animals and people, bright flashes of color resulting in a kaleidoscope like appearance of light, and the feeling of flight. I will argue that the effects of ayahuasca are subject to differentiation between the beliefs of the users and the set and setting. Set and Setting is a widely accepted concept developed by Timothy Leary stating that the internal set of personal intention or motivation by an outside force and the external setting of a guide (priest or shaman) are the basis for hallucinogenic experiences while the hallucinogen is the spark.
When the Spanish conquerors set upon converting and destroying the indigenous people of South America many tribes were forced to move into the interior of the jungles. They were being persecuted for the ceremonies they performed, and where told not to use ayahuasca which was thought to be the indigenous peoples way of communicating with the devil. (Grob, 2002) In the jungles isolated from the Spanish these tribes could continue the practice of their religious beliefs.
Many tribes still use ayahuasca for many different reasons including prophecy, healing, divination, and ancestral communication. (Maverick, 2000) Each group perceives their psychedelic journeys in different ways. The Tukano Indians of the Colombian Amazon use ayahuasca to reaffirm religious faith through seeing the origins of the universe and of mankind. (Maverick, 2000) The Jivaro Indians of the Ecuadorian Amazon believe that ayahuasca experiences are the views of reality and the world that they live in is imaginary. (Grob 2002) While, the Cashinahua Indians of the Peruvian Amazon use ayahuasca as a way to receive information otherwise unknown through a “mystical experience.” (Grob, 2002)
The Tukano rituals involving the consumption of ayahuasca involve a great deal of dancing, drumming, and singing to help the participants, only men, to reach a state of trance. The men consume a few cups of the ayahuasca brew and embark on their mystical journey. The Tukanos divide their experience into three separate stages. The first state is a cleansing state in which the body rids itself of toxins through vomiting, diarrhea, and profuse sweating. Towards the end of the first stage the men feel as though they are flying. They associate flying with being swept away by the Milky Way. Bright colors are abundant and dance off any light that is seen. Second, the bright colors dissipate and clear images are seen. Lastly, the Tukano go into a dream-like trance. This feeling of euphoria is associated with being reborn. (Maverick, 2000) Indigenous ceremonies usually take place in small circles of mostly darkness where there is much singing. The groups are usually small and are lead by a Shaman. The Shaman is the key role and he or she may be trying to heal a sick or injured person or simply help the individual reach a spiritual state. Shamans are believed to be in direct contact with the supernatural and are always to be trained for fear that their power will be used for evil.
Taking a turn from the ancient indigenous religions is a newer generation of religions started this century. These syncretic folk religions have taken the use of ayahuasca as a supernatural connector and incorporated it in the practices of their mainly Christian church. The two syncretic folk religions that I will view are the Santo Daime church and the Unia de Vegetal church, also known as UDV. These two religions have become fairly strong and in 1987 the Brazilian government declared ayahuasca a legal substance when used religiously. (Grob, 2002, SantoDaime.com)In 1922 a Brazilian named Raimundo Irineu Serra migrated to the interior of the Amazon to work as a rubber tapper. Here he came in contact with Ayahuasqueros who showed him how to use ayahuasca. In one of his first experiences with ayahuasca Serra saw what he called the “Divine Lady,” sitting in the moon. She told him to start a new religion focused on what she called “Daime,” ayahuasca. Serra, a mestizo incorporated the use of daime with church hymns sang by the entire congregation. Daimists allow anyone to use daime and gather in congregations to take ayahuasca as a community experience. (Grob, 2002) The goal is to bring the people together and closer to their creator and messiah.
The Daimists gather in a sexually segregated room and begin to sing church hymns as they take their first dose. After the first dose they go back to praying. Soon they go for a second dose and pass around marijuana cigarettes because they believe that the Virgin Mary lives within the cannabis sativa. (Maverick2000, philtar.ucsm.ac.uk/encyclopedia.html) They inhale three times once for the moon, the stars, and the sun.
Like the Tukano Indians the Daimists also see their experiences as stages. The first is what they call purgatorio. Just like the Tukanos first stage the purgatorio stage is a toxin ridding stage where the individual undergoes strong bodily reactions to the ayahuasca tea including vomiting, seating, and diarrhea. The second stage involves geometric patterns, bright colors, and a slight change in vision. During the last stage visions usually occur. These visions trend to have religious figures dominating them. (Maverick, 2000)
The goal of each ceremony is to attain what the daimists call miracoa. Miracoa is a concept of a learning experience with spiritual perfection introduced by Serra. Miracoa help a person to be on the same spiritual level as the divine beings
The Unia De Vegetal church was founded in a similar way to the Santo Daime church. This time a mestizo man, called Mestre Gabriel by his followers, discovered the wonderful uses of ayahuasca while working as a rubber tapper in Bolivia. He brought his earning’s back to his native country of Brazil and in the early 1930s started the UDV. The UDV is not as media based as the Santo Daime and tries to maintain a low profile. The UDV speaks Portuguese, which made it very hard to find out what they do in their ceremonies.
The only experience I could find was one of a man named Nicholas Saunders and a woman named Anja Dashwood. Nicholas explained that everyone walked anti-clockwise around a table where an elder gave the participants a dose of ayahuasca. During his “trip” Nicholas describes a feeling of “revelation of the spirits or life energy.” He said he had felt “privileged” and was able to see things he couldn’t see before. After a while an elder began to read the UDV’s Articles of Inauguration and then people got up to speak one at a time. The service lasted three hours after which a feast was held. Nicholas also said that the people of the church where warm and kind. Although he didn’t speak Portuguese he was still welcome.
There are many similarities between the shamanistic religions and the syncretic churches. These similarities are mainly effects of the drug induced state ayahuasca causes. The stages of the Tukano Indians “trips” and the stages of the Santo Daime are closely related. Both have a stage where the body rejects the ayahuasca because it is a MAOI and causes sickness. The feelings of flying are common of the drug and the bright colors seem to affect all the people who take ayahuasca. Also a feeling of understanding what one has not been able to comprehend is prevalent. The feeling of omnipresence and higher knowledge caused by the journey taken may be the reason that these religions are attracted to ayahuasca.
The experiences of the people of the shamanistic cultures and the syncretic culture are a result of their set and setting. While experiencing visions the shamanistic cultures seem to see things related to them. Visions of Jaguars and deities, in the case of healing ceremonies the sight of seeing what is unknown to help cure a patient who is under another mans spell or sin are common among the indigenous tribes. The syncretic churches see visions of their divine. The Daimists often get to meet Jesus or the Virgin Mary during their religious journeys. Nicholas describes a feeling of knowing what he couldn’t understand before and feeling very good about what he was doing, where he was, and who he was with.
Shamanistic ceremonies usually involve a small group of maybe six individuals who are to be lead by a Shaman who has been touched by the divine. With his knowledge the individual can reach their goal. This reinforces the individuals’ beliefs about the world they live in whether the world that they live in is imaginary or real.
The two syncretic churches involve groups of people coming together for a common cause. In the case of the Daimists miracoa is reached, but can only be reached by a group effort. Both churches are lead by elders who may not possess a direct connection with the divine but have the roles of priests.
Both the syncretic churches and the shamanistic cultures have strict rules about ayahuasca use. These rules may include fasting, being sexually abstinent, or social isolation. Both types of religions have no addiction rates that I have found and have little or no addictions to alcohol. (Grob 2002.)
Ayahuasca puts both the body and the mind of the individual at an awe inspiring point. The body is cleansed and renewed. It is not surprising in the least that religions would turn to this hallucinogen to help them in their task of faith. For the indigenous religions I would like to argue that perhaps the use of ayahuasca came first. Perhaps most indigenous religions were created when man wondering the earth in search of food came upon ayahuasca and religion was born. Using ayahuasca has helped to change mans view of the world into an infinite amount of possibilities. Ayahuasca helps to bind communities, strengthen beliefs, and may even help to cure disease. All these religions seem to me to be very docile and caring towards one another. Perhaps, if the ever prevalent Christianity had not shadowed these religions that today instead of war there could be understanding among men.
2002 Charles S. Grob, Ph.D.
Hallucinogens: A Reader. New York, New York: Penguin Putnam
2000 Christine Maverick
Hallucinogens and Religious Identity in the Brazilian Amazon.
Internet URL: lilt.ilstu.edu
1998 Ralph Metzner, Ph.D.
Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism.
Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Volume 30, No. 4
Internet URL: SantoDaime.com
Internet URL: Enthology.org/edoto/
The Santo Daime Church
Internet URL: Biopark.org/ayahuasca
Internet URL: csp.org/Nicholas/vegetal.html