BIOLOGICALEFFECTS OF THE DRUG body weight ex.: synaesthesia, depersonalization,
p hysical condition psychological and somatic changes
s et (motivation, attitudes)
past experiences SOCIAL-INTERACTIONAL
n ature of the group
presence of a guide
enculturation and shared
e xpectations of visionary
nonverbal adjuncts, such as music and pleasant odors
Marlene Dobkin de Rios, a North-American anthropologist who studied the use of ayahuasca by Peruvian healers, suggests that effects may be conditioned as much by the set and the immediate environment as by additional factors such as beliefs regarding the use of plants. These variables may precede or follow the administration of the substances. The anthropologist, doing fieldwork, cannot usually measure variables like somatic reactions, intellectual or moral ability, changes in visual perception and other consecutive effects. He can, however, contribute with the study of antecedent variables, an area whose theoretical aspects still remain to be fully developed. He can focus on the users’ belief system, and the use made of the visionary content, as well as the community's expectations concerning the oft-reported occurrence of determined visions.
Thus, for an anthropological understanding of the experience induced by entheogens(7), Dobkin de Rios proposes the scheme in Figure 1.
In traditional cultures, psychoactive substances are usually taken in a ritual context. Researchers consider this to be the reason why such use seldom has harmful effects The model proposed by the late Norman E. Zinberg, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who studied the use of illicit psychoactive substances, may help us understand this phenomenon better.
Zinberg developed this scheme in the ‘70s, while leading a research team in a study of the use of Cannabis and LSD. The study’s aim was to understand why the rapid expansion of these psychoactive substances amongst the American population was not being followed by the catastrophic effects that many had considered inevitable. Zinberg’s research also focused on the use of heroin, reviving a former interest of his which dated back to 1968. During this period, he spent time in Britain examining a system in which addicts were prescribed heroin by their doctors. Zinberg found that many of these addicts functioned successfully and lived relatively normal lives. Although there were others who had more serious problems, he observed that, unlike many American "junkies", even these more problematic addicts were not resorting to crime or acting aggressively towards others. His observations led him to conclude that the differences between British and American addicts were attributable to their different social settings- i.e., to the two country’s varying social and legal attitudes with respect to heroin. Years later, continuing his research in America, he also discovered that despite heroin’s ability to provoke quick and intense physical and psychological dependence, there was a small group of users that did not succumb to addiction.
In order to explain this phenomenon, Zinberg begins by stressing the importance of the three different types of factors that determine the effects of drug taking (his book is appropriately called "Drug, Set and Setting"). In the book, Zinberg makes a distinction between "controlled" and "compulsive" uses. The first has low social costs while the second is dysfunctional and intense and its social costs are high. The difference between both is that "controlled "use is governed by values and rules of conduct (which he calls "social sanctions") and patterns of behavior (called "social rituals") shared by groups of users. These "social controls" are part of the social setting and function in four basic and overlapping ways:
-defining acceptable uses and condemning compulsive ones
-limiting use to physical and social settings that are conducive to positive or safe experiences
-identifying potentially negative effects. Rituals embody the precautions to be taken before and during use.
-compartmentalizing different types of substance use and supporting the users' non-drug-related obligations and relationships (Zinberg 1984:17).
The "social rituals" are stylized, prescribed behavior patterns surrounding the controlled use of the substance. They take into consideration methods of procuring and administering the substance, the selection of the physical and social setting, the activities undertaken after administration, and the ways of preventing undesired effects. These rituals serve to buttress, reinforce, and symbolize the sanctions (Zinberg 1984:5).
As one can see, this approach has much in common with that proposed by Dobkin de Rios. Thus, the biological antecedents are seen to act on the pharmacological aspects of the substance itself ( the "drug") – with the psychological aspects limiting the "set" and the social, interactive and cultural variables corresponding to the "setting". Interestingly, Zinberg's social sanctions and rituals reflect Dobkin de Rios's notion of "cultural variables".
Aside from emphasizing the importance of social aspects – such as the ritual and the presence of an experienced guide - Dobkin de Rios considers the existence of a cultural system, shared by all, to be crucial to the success of the experience. This allows the shaman, or guide, to lead the experience of the subject in the direction of the desired goals.
These models form the basis of my understanding of the ritual use of entheogens. My aim is to try to establish a relationship between the experiences that follow the ritualized ingestion of "ayahuasca" while examining their cultural basis. Yet, one must not forget that certain themes reoccur with unexpected regularity in experiences of individuals that come from different cultural traditions. Thus there are many reports -derived from various cultural contexts - of altered perceptions of time, of animals revealing to man the characteristics of certain plants, of the part played by music in evoking visions. The association of plants and spiritual beings, shamanic transformations of humans into "familiar" animals, and other paranormal phenomena such as telepathy and precognition are frequent themes(10).
Similarly, scientific experiments performed on subjects from modern urban environments, who did not know what was being administered to them, have led to reports that echo stories related by Indians. A case in point was an experiment involving 35 white Chileans who, after taking harmaline - one of the alkaloids found in "ayahuasca" – evoked a variety of experiences ranging from flying and seeing landscapes from high vantage points to encountering serpents, crocodiles, and other reptiles, as well as tigers, leopards, cats, birds, and vampires. Fifteen of those interviewed also reported having visions, feelings and concerns of a religious nature involving devils, angels, the Virgin, Christ and mystical ecstatic states. Other visions of a mystical nature involved classic fairy-tale settings and themes such as castles, kings, medieval clothes, etc.(11)
To Claudio Naranjo, who carried out this research, such experiences seem to represent "being" and "becoming", freedom and need, spirit and matter, all of which constitute the essence of the human condition , with the eternal struggle between good and evil, and the final reconciliation and fusion of both through surrender to death and destruction. The result is an essentially religious process which evokes the central themes of human life. These findings led Naranjo to consider certain shamanic concepts as expressions of universal experiences capable of transcending local culture and traditions(12).
Other scholars, using different substances, have also witnessed these mystic-religious elements. This seems to indicate that although such visions may be partially attributed to the subject's culture, certain elements seem more deeply linked with the psyche. Such elements manifest themselves as what one might call a mystical feeling towards the cosmos, which, at least potentially, is a possibility open to all humankind.
Reflecting the aforementioned theoretical stance which places emphasis on the importance of the "setting", this book stresses the social-cultural context of the use of "ayahuasca" in the Santo Daime rituals as well as its Indian and mestizo origins in the Amazon region. Although the majority of the ethnographic material mentioned in the two chapters devoted to the subject refers to the Amazon regions of Peru and Bolivia, I consider that the homogeneity of the region – indicated by many other researchers -means that this information may also be considered relevant to the study of this religion from the Brazilian Amazon.
The origin and development of the Santo Daime religion and its relationship with both Amazonian and Brazilian culture in the twentieth century constitute the themes of the third chapter. Chapter 4 delves further into the description and discussion of various rituals where the entheogen is used. Using Zinberg’s theories as a starting point, Chapter 5 examines the informal social control developed among the Santo Daime followers in their daily life, with particular emphasis on rituals. In conclusion, Chapter 6 seeks to understand the relationship between these practices of mestizo or "Caboclo" origin and the urban milieux of Southeast Brazil’s large cities, where this religion has been attracting followers among the more educated and liberal segments of middle-class youth. Indeed, such an interest seems to be related to the so-called "New Religious Consciousness" that is particularly widespread among these segments of the population and which can be observed in the growing importance attributed to mystical, oriental or esoteric aspects of the so-called "New Age Culture".
As for the participant observation method I adopted in this study, there are a few points I would like to make concerning my research and my own personal experiences with the religion.
I first became aware of Santo Daime in 1988, while doing research on the use and the prevention of the abuse of psychoactive substances at the "Centro de Estudos do Instituto de Medicina Social e Criminologia de São Paulo". With my interest piqued - both academically and existentially - I took part in the founding of the "Flor das Águas" (Water-flower) Santo Daime church in São Paulo, that same year. I have since taken part regularly in many sessions, during which I have taken the brew along with the other participants.
In taking part in the use of this substance, I was following the example of other researchers studying the "Santo Daime", "ayahuasca" and the ritual use of other entheogens. This method has been adopted by some of the most influential researchers working on postgraduate dissertations, scientific reports and classic works on similar subjects.
The objection that the ingestion of the brew presupposes an inclination, even if slight, towards conversion – i.e., to taking part in the religious activities of the group - would apply to almost any case in which an anthropologist studying religious groups takes part in their rituals. Of course, one must not allow native categories to contaminate one’s work, but, as Malinowski himself pointed out, the anthropologist cannot remain isolated from the daily practices of the subjects he is studying without running the risk of missing important data and "insights".
In order to maintain objectivity, I relied on the various resources normally used by anthropologists working in the field, as well as on my own experience, acquired during previous research both for my Ph.D. degree and during the four subsequent years I spent with users of different psychoactive substances.
As to the personal impact of these experiences, although they have not always been pleasant, they have, on many occasions, led me to face aspects of my life and personality that I would otherwise have tended to ignore. I also feel I have managed to tune in to a kind of inner voice which, in moments of doubt and confusion, has suggested to me the appropriate course of action . So, from my own personal experience, I consider my participation in these rites to have been highly positive, especially when they reminded me of the importance of living in accordance with the daimista principles of love, harmony, truth and justice.
For the purposes of this book however, I have tried to put aside such subjective questions. In doing so, I hope to have given a picture of the "Santo Daime" that is in accordance with the methods and concepts current in the discipline of Social Anthropology.
1 - Humfry Osmond proposed this term, later popularized by Timothy Leary and Ralph Mezner.
2 - Term proposed by Aldous Huxley for mescaline.
3 - See "Entheogens" in Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, vol. 2, n. 1 and 2, January and June, 1969, by Carl A.P. Ruck, Jeremy Bigwood, Danny Staples, Jonathan Ott, Gordon Wasson.
4 - Hult Krantz, 1989:47.
5 - Harner, 1989:14.
6 - Lapassade, 1987:5.
7 - Dobkin de Rios, 1990:215.
8 - Zinberg, 1984:5.
9 - Zinberg, 1984:152.
10 - Dobkin de Rios, 1977:294.
11 - Naranjo, 1976:201.
12 - Naranjo, 1976:204.
1. Shamanism in the Western Amazon - Ayahuasca, the Shaman and the "Vegetalista"
Before beginning a discussion on the Santo Daime religion, one should examine the different uses of ayahuasca in the Western Amazon where, since time immemorial, this brew has been taken by Indian groups, and more recently, by the mestizo or "caboclo" population, as it is called in Brazil.
This chapter is primarily based on bibliographical research and borrows heavily from the work of the anthropologists Luis Eduardo Luna and Marlene Dobkin de Rios. Their studies focused primarily on the activities of mestizo" healers from the Peruvian Amazon, concentrating mainly in the towns of Iquitos and Puccalpa. The fact that these works were carried out in Peru does not diminish their importance for the understanding of the Santo Daime . After all, the founder of this Brazilian religion, Raimundo Irineu Serra, was first initiated into the use of the entheogen in a part of the forest straddling the frontier between Brazil and Peru. Furthermore, in spite of the fact that various countries share its territory, the Amazon region is considered to be remarkably homogenous from a cultural standpoint.
In fact, research has shown that despite the many differences between the various Indian ethnic groups, all usually possess a shaman who is socially endowed with very similar characteristics, functions and techniques. As in other parts of the world, communities believe their shaman capable of establishing contact with the supernatural world and its denizens, as well as acting on their behalf to ensure healing , devining, good hunting, and avoidance of natural catastrophes as well as organisation of religious ceremonies.
With a few exceptions, this role is usually played by men. It is believed that a shaman’s powers are acquired by personal vocation, by the will of supernatural beings and, sometimes, by inheritance. The circumstances under which the discovery of this gift is made vary, but might include the sudden apparition of an ancestor or an animal spirit or even the occurrence of certain types of psychosomatic crises.
It is believed that the shaman receives his powers from the spirits. This may happen directly, through inspiration, or after initiation, under the supervision of a more experienced master. This initiation often entails a long period of time spent in isolation and the observation of strict dietary and sexual control. Contact with the spiritual world is often achieved through altered states of consciousness brought about by eating certain plants and by using tobacco. In this state the shaman feels his spirit is capable of flying and of experiencing unusual perceptions. He must then try to listen to orders the spirits may give him as well as pay attention to songs or melodies they may whisper to him. This is the only way he can learn their secrets and share in their power.
The shaman's power is conceived of as a magic substance which is stored in different objects such as thorns, arrows or quartz crystals. The more of these objects he possesses, the greater his power. The shaman always carries these objects with him and identifies them with his helping spirits. To the other members of his community he is an ambivalent figure, and often treated with suspicion, since he is considered to have not only the power of healing, but also that of doing harm (1).
The shamans are usually very knowledgeable about the forest and the use of plants for healing and other purposes. They are also specialists in the use of entheogens, mainly as a means of establishing contact with the spirit world. One of the most frequently used substances is the brew made out of the combination of "Banisteropsis caapi" and the "Psychotria viridis" leaf, to which many other plants can be added. This preparation has a many names, ranging from "natema" and "yagé" to "nepe", "kabi", and "caapi". But it is generically known by the name of ayahuasca, a quechua expression meaning " vine of the spirits".
Both anthropologists and botanists have listed the many functions of this brew:
1 - Ayahuasca and the supernatural:
a- Magic and religious rituals. In order to receive divine direction and communicate with plant spirits or to receive a protective spirit.
b- Divining- to detect the approach of strangers; to discover the whereabouts of enemies and their plans; to detect marital infidelity; to see into the future .
c- Witchcraft- To cause illness by psychic means; as a prevention against the evil intentions of others.
2 - Ayahusca and Healing - to determine the cause of illness and to cure it.
3 - Ayahuasca, pleasure and social interaction - to bring on pleasurable or aphrodisiac states of mind, to strengthen sexual activity, to attain ecstasy or a state of drunkenness; to facilitate social interaction (2).
These days, the Indian population is a minority in the region; and mestizos - the descendants of Indians and Portuguese, Spaniards and Africans - are predominant. Nevertheless, in spite of the radical changes brought about by Iberian colonization, missionary activity, the rubber economy and the exodus of the forest dwellers towards regional urban centers, shamanic practices continue. Although they may present considerable changes and are continually subjected to varied influences; among the "caboclo" healers, or "vegetalistas" as they are often known, these practices still maintain elements of ancient Indian plant lore, including both their usages and their relationship with the spiritual world.
The characterization of these practicioners as "caboclos" must be taken more from a socio-cultural point of view than from a racial one. Among the vegetalistas, many could pass for Spaniards, Portuguese or Italians, while others boast Indian features. But, though they may use Spanish as a mother-tongue, in ideological terms, caboclos operate according to the diffuse and complex cultural patterns of the Upper Amazon. The group in whose name they claim to enter into contact with the spiritual world is no longer a distinct community. It is not even an ethnic group. Nevertheless it does have well defined contours and within them, this type of healer plays an important role.
Rather than alluding to shamans’ use of many different plants in their work, the term "vegetalista" refers to the origin of their knowledge, in which spirits of certain plants are believed to be their instructors. Called "doctors", the healers attribute to these plants both their knowledge of medicine and of magical elements - songs, melodies and the phlegm (?) - that are the shaman's working tools. Although the most important plant teacher may be "ayahuasca", many other plants are also used which are generally added to the basic mixture of the liana and the leaf. Significantly, it is the brew that provides the initial access to the spirit of the plants and allows one to employ their healing powers.
The mestizo shaman is a direct descendant of the Indian shaman whose secrets were passed on to the rubber-tappers living in the forest. Isolated from Western society, these mestizos had to resort to Indian medical knowledge. Their shamans were concerned mainly with healing, and manipulated spiritual powers in order to cure physical, financial and emotional problems.
Among the mestizo population there are many types of practitioners, known as healers "empiricos" or "vegetalistas". They are often called "master", "doctor", "little old man" or "grandfather". In certain cases, "vegetalistas", who are greatly respected for their vast knowledge and powers are also called "bancos" ("benches") . They lie down, faces turned to the ground, and allow themselves to be taken over by spirits. As such, this desigation probably refers to their being (?) the resting place of power. "Vegetalistas" are also called "sorcerers" or "witches" - usually with a pejorative connotation – in allusion to their capacity for doing evil (3).
"Vegetalistas" tend to be marginalized and looked down upon by the dominant classes. This does not usually bother them, however, for they are highly respected by their own communities where their influence is much greater than that of the local medical authorities who are frequently incapable of perceiving or understanding their patients' daily problems.
The vegetalistas may belong to various age groups, though, as informers, Luna chose older people, mostly over sixty. In spite of their advanced age, he considered them to be physically strong, outstandingly healthy and lucid, and among the brightest members of their communities, with an impressive general knowledge. They often proved to be wonderful story tellers, endowed with artistic talent and amazing memories. Such observations coincide with those made in other parts of the world and refutes the cliché of the shaman as a psychotic and unbalanced individual, often portrayed in popular literature (4).
These elderly men represent a transitional shamanism, on the verge of extinction, that still preserves the Indian knowledge of plants. The younger men, though they still use ayahuasca, are more urbanized and tend to substitute the detailed knowledge of plants for esoteric traditions of European origin. From an economic point of view, the older men occupy an intermediary position between a subsistence agricultural system of small land owners and the market economy. In their youth, most had close contact with the forest, allowing them both to know its flora and fauna and to witness its more recent destruction. In their later years, they have had a prolonged exposure to urban life .
The "Vegetalista's" Initiation
Throughout the world there are both many examples of cultures with shamanic traditions and many ways of attaining the status of shaman. One can be called to be a shaman by means of a dream or a vision. Or a new shaman may be chosen by an older shaman to be trained as his successor. In some cases, at the end of the training period, public ceremonies may be held to mark the beginner's initiation, although, this may not be the actual initiation itself, which usually occurs prior to formal recognition by the community (5).
Because the “vegetalistas” fail to identify themselves with any specific tribal group and have no community support, there is no public ritual to mark their recognition as "vegetalistas". Their initiation is a question of personal choice or of vocation and their acceptance as "vegetalistas" by the community and themselves only occurs gradually. It's a very individualistic process, in which a beginner feels as if he is receiving lessons directly from plants and spirits (6) rather than learning from an experienced master.
Initiations usually start with the use of tobacco and ayahuasca. It is the individual's personality, his ability to withstand difficult training, and the physical and psychological dangers it involves that determine his degree of development (7). When this process takes place under the guidance of a more experienced shaman, it is his function to protect the beginner against bad spirits and sorcerers, as much as to teach him about the diets and the rules he must follow in order to attain power.
The correct use of plants is one of the main ways of acquiring the knowledge needed for their future shamanic practices. The plants "open" the shamans’ minds allowing them to study fauna and flora and, later, to remember what they have learned. The plants communicate with the shamans through visions and dreams, transmitting "wisdom", "strength", and certain physical capacities such as the ability to support winds, rains and floods.
In the life stories of the "vegetalistas", certain patterns, also found among Indian shamans, seem to repeat themselves. The shamans usually begin by suffering some serious illness characterized by physiological symptoms that official medicine is reportedly unable to cure. They then resort to a "vegetalista" or take ayahuasca on their own, which allows them not only to heal themselves, but to develop the ability of healing others as well. According to Mircea Eliade, a student of religions in general and of shamanism in particular, this is how shamans learn the mechanisms or the theory of illness (8). However not all novices who receive the teachings of the plants become healers. Their interests may be more philosophical than humanitarian in nature, since the knowledge of the art of healing is only one of the aspects of the teachings transmitted in this way.
One of the main aspects of the apprenticeship during this period of initiation is the observance of a dietary and sexual discipline, which all of Luna's informants considered essential if the plants were to reveal their lessons. The rules for this are either passed on to the beginner by an instructor or directly by the plants themselves.
The length of time during which these precepts must be observed may vary from six months to twelve years. Often the beginner must leave his place of residence and go into the forest or to some lonely spot, where the teachings might be received more directly from nature. After some time, their diet might be suspended, to be taken up again later on. In certain cases, even experienced "vegetalistas" undergo their diet (?) for shorter periods, in order to renew their energy and increase their knowledge. This period determines how much knowledge and power will be gained from different plants .
The main function of the diet is to cleanse the organism. This allows the plants to act to their full potential and reduces the negative effects produced by the mixing of certain kinds of food and the plants. The ideal diet generally consists of boiled plantain, certain types of smoked fish and the flesh of a few forest animals. Some "ayahuasqueros" also consider rice and manioc to be acceptable, but salt, sugar and other spices, fats, alcohol, pork, chicken, red meat, fruit, beans and cold drinks are usually avoided. Although the details of the different prescribed diets may vary considerably, all shamans insist on the importance of not eating pork.
There are many rules pertaining to the question of contact with the opposite sex. The dieting must be accompanied by total sexual abstinence and men must avoid any contact with women in their fertile years. Food must be prepared by girls who have not yet started having their periods or by women in menopause.
Similar restrictions are followed during the preparation of certain medicines, love potions and during other shamanic activities, as well as before and after using of ayahuasca and other teacher plants.
All "vegetalistas" claim that following the diet is the road to wisdom (9). They say it does not weaken anyone and, although they might lose some weight, those who follow the diet become stronger and more resistant. Even their natural odor changes. They also claim that while on the diet their minds function differently and their memories and powers of observation improve remarkably. Nature herself can then reveal her secrets. Dreams become clearer and more instructive. Thus, the diet functions as an important means of altering consciousness during the shaman's initiation .
Some of these dietary restrictions are difficult to explain and, maybe, are best understood when examined alongside other taboo behaviors related to sex and food, that can be observed on numerous social occasions. An example is the case of the Shuar Indians - popularly known as "jivaros" – who fast and abstain from sex during the period that they prepare the poison for their arrows.
It is considered essential that the rules governing diet and sexual behavior be followed by the "vegetalistas" and their clients (patients?) when they take the brew. The latter are told that if they disobey the rules the effects of the plants will grow weaker and end up disappearing altogether. Furthermore, certain "teacher" plants, believed to be very "jealous," are likely to punish those who disrespect them with illnesses and even death.
The existence of taboos involving the use of medicines - even those belonging to the official pharmacopoeia - is very widespread throughout the whole Amazon region. Raimundo H. Maues, a Brazilian anthropologist who studied a fishing community on the mouth the Amazon observed that upon prescribing medicine, the popular medical practitioner is also expected to prescribe special dietary and behaviorial observances that must be followed by the patient during the period in which he is taking the medicine. Adherence to such rules assure the medicine’s efficiency and prevents the "poison that kills the illness" from harming the patient. Such taboos seem to play an important part in the healing process for Maues refers to frequent complaints about doctors not advising their patients to abstain from certain foods or activities while taking prescribed medications (11).
This concept might be related to the idea that certain foods are not to be eaten together. A deeper understanding of the question requires an approach which goes beyond mere physiological considerations, and takes into account the meanings attributed to the taboos of the region’s cultural system.
Teacher Plants and Ayahuasca
Although psychoactive substances have been used - at different times and in different regions of the world - for a wide variety of reasons, its two greatest uses have been as a means of healing and as a way of making contact with divine forces. Indian sacred texts and Homer's epic poems, for instance, report the use of plants and other natural substances that provoked states of altered consciousness. Even in the lonely wastelands of Siberia, hallucinogenic mushrooms were traditionally used for shamanic purposes.
However, it is in the Americas that the greatest concentration of these substances is to be found, and where, to this day, they are most frequently used. In this part of the world, their use has been traditionally regarded as sacred rather than recreational, and as a means of validating or reifying culture as opposed to a temporary way of escaping it. In fact, for their most important religious and cultural events, most of the Indian tribes of the Amazon basin, as well as those on the Orinoco, use preparations made from one or more psychotropic.
Of all these plants, the one most frequently employed is the "Banisteriopsis", of which the "caapi", "quitensis" and "inebrians" varieties are used to prepare ayahuasca. The recipes for this brew vary and many groups add different herbs , depending on their traditions and on the the desire end result. Usually, they include the "Diploterys cabrerana", the "Psychotria catharginensis", or more commonly, the "Psychotria viridis", which are believed to reinforce and sustain the visions (12).
Besides using them for their medicinal effects, Amazon Indians take ayahuasca to reach the "real world", the world of the spirits from where all knowledge comes. The "vegetalistas" see the plant as a "doctor"; an intelligent being endowed with a strong spirit, with whom it is possible to establish relations. They believe that much can be learned from ayahuasca if the rules are followed correctly.
"Ayahusca" is thought to belong to the class of plants that have "mothers" or protecting spirits – a notion that is common among many of the region’s Indian groups.
"Doctor" or" teacher plants" are believed to:
1. Produce an altered state of consciousness.
2. Alter the effects of ayahuasca when they are cooked together.
3. Produce dizziness.
4. Have strong emetic or cathartic qualities.
5. Provoke particularly clear visions.
It is said that ayahuasca brings knowledge about fauna and flora and helps one to memorize this knowledge. Like other teacher plants, ayahuasca is said to teach songs, both in different Indian languages and in Spanish. It even helps to each the languages themselves. Furthermore, it is thought to increase artistic and intellectual abilities in those who take it. Some "vegetalistas" claim to have learned many long prayers from the teacher plants (13).
There are approximately fifty plants that may be added to ayahuasca, either by Indian or by mestizo healers. The "vegetalistas" who want to know the effects of certain plants, add them to the mixture when preparing ayahuasca, and then learn from the alterations they provoke and the visions and dreams they bring on.
Interpreting these experiences leads shamans to understand the plants’ properties and applications. Thus, certain plants are thought to give the shaman the power "to see", "to voyage", "to heal", "to harm" or to become stronger. This is also how shamans learn which plants may be used together because "they know each other", and which "do not go well together" (14).
The Amazonian Spirit World
A large majority of the Amazonian population that uses ayahuasca continues to live in small riverside villages surrounded by nature. Even de Rios' and Luna's informers, who live in cities such as Iquitos and Pucallpa, still maintain links with rural life or tend small gardens. Many spend time in the fields as well as in town, while others are recent arrivals to urban areas.
Similar social conditions may be found in the Brazilian Amazon where a considerable portion of the population of both small agricultural communities’ and towns like Rio Branco, in Acre, is comprised of ex-rubber-tappers, who were thrown out of their forest "colocações" (holdings) by the social changes that have affected the region since the turn of the century (15). These people continue in their ancient beliefs - of Indian origin – that concern the spiritual beings thought to inhabit the forest, water and air. Such notions – whose origins can be traced from the fusion of various Indian groups’ cosmologies with European belief systems such as Catholicism, Spiritualism, and Esoterism, and African religions - often give the impression of an incoherent jumble made up of fragments of various systems. But this diversity coupled with its arrangement as a composite (?) can be best understood as a reflection of the brutal changes that have been occurring in this region, changes that involve the incorporation of new populations along with their diverse social and economic systems, technology and religious ideals.
In the same way that the Amazonian "caboclo" finds himself at the mercy of social powers that he can hardly understand, so he conceives of his life as being influenced, for better of for worse, by supernatural beings. Such beings come in many guises ranging from animals, Indian, mestizo and black shamans, foreign white business executives, and rubber-tappers to European fairy-tale princesses, angels, army officers, famous doctors, and even extra-terrestrials(16).
Although they may be known by different names on the each side of the Peruvian/Brazilian border, these beings are take similar forms: as mermaids that live "in enchanted realms" at the bottom of the rivers, giant snakes, "currupiras", "anhangás", or monsters. Each animal species is also endowed with its "mother"; a protective spiritual being capable of giving out punishments such as the loss of one’s shadow for hunters who kill animals needlessly or disproportionately. Certain rivers, igarapés, wells and even ports where canoes are anchored are also considered to have mothers.
To avoid the wrath of these "mothers", the "caboclo" takes a series of precautions to avoid annoying them. These beings often appear in forms whose origins blend Indian spirits that "own" certain places or animals with European legendary figures such as fairies, mermaids, enchanted Moorish girls and the infinite versions of the Virgin (17). They are similar to the "mothers" that the Peruvian mestizo shamans attribute to certain plants. To the Amazonian "caboclo" supernatural beings such as werewolves and "matintapereras" - that are part human and part animal - may even be found in urban areas, though usually in smaller numbers.
In spite of these beliefs, Amazonian "caboclos" and mestizos generally consider themselves Catholic, although, of late, other religious systems such as Protestantism and Spiritualism have also been attracting large followings. Furthermore, on the Brazilian side, particularly in urban centers where there are noticeably large black populations, the influence of African religions is quiet strong. However, on the whole, Amazonian religiosity manifests itself mainly in the cult of the saints - or rather their images - which are often considered to have divine powers and to be able to perform miracles (18).
The cult of saints is a collective manifestation and each village has its own calendar for the various ceremonies and celebrations. In small farms and villages, the main building is usually the chapel. Adjoining it is often a "ramada", a shed built for the festivities that invariably follow the main religious celebrations. Sometimes chapel and "ramada" are both part of the same building or even the same room. In this case, the altar is separated from the area where the dancing takes place by a curtain which is kept open during the prayers and is closed on more profane occasions.
The saints are seen as benevolent domestic entities who are responsible for general well-being, healing, abundant crops, and the success of many other activities undertaken by their followers. The focal point in the man-saint relationship is the "vow", by which the caboclo promises to pray and carry out saint-glorifying activities to in return for having certain wishes granted. There is little elaboration on the nature of life after death, although there is a certainty that all will be well as long as one respects the saints and keeps one's vows to them (19).
Although powerful, the saints are thought to be impotent against "bichos visagentos" (monsters that are normally relatively harmless nature spirits until they are disrespected and become aggressive). The saints are considered to be benevolent beings, closer to man than to nature. Therefore, the way of dealing with these two different types of spiritual beings must also differ. While saints are invoked through prayers, vows and celebrations, the "bichos visagentos" are avoided or sent away through certain magical practices and special prayers that are regarded more as magical spells than as means of communication with divine spirits,.
The belief in these two types of spiritual beings does not lead to different religious orders. Neither does it give rise to different religious categories: (?) religion and popular superstition . In the "caboclo" mind, both are part of this religion whose cosmology includes both saints and "bichos visagentos". To deal with one or the other, the caboclo uses specific techniques that make up the "science" with which the "caboclo" tries to control his environment (20).
Amazonian villages are usually isolated, distant from urban centers, and far removed from technological innovations and state influence. Social life tends to be structured around religious brotherhoods that often transcend their spiritual functions and become involved in more temporal matters .
The leaders of these brotherhoods - usually the most prestigious local inhabitants - end up presenting themselves and functioning as local authorities. In recent times, the abrupt social and economical transformations taking place in the Amazon region have tended to reduce this isolation. Villages become urban and semi-urban centers and the old egalitarianism which prevailed when all were small farmers or rubber-tappers tends to break down. The brotherhoods lose their cohesion and under the tutelage of the resident parish priest or resident vicar they become mere appendages of the official church,. The "novenas", or series of prayer sessions held at certain times of the year, become distinct from the festivities and dances and reveal the increasing division between sacred and profane categories. Even the cult of saints ends up exposing class and color prejudices, rendering more apparent the process of social differentiation.
Changes also occur in the belief system, especially in relation to non-Catholic
spiritual beings that the “caboclo” now longer sees as dominating his habitat. Instead they are demoted to the status of mere superstitions amongst town dwellers.
The "vegetalistas" from the Peruvian Amazon that were studied by Luna are also deeply influenced by both urbanization and Christianity. But the importance of the Christian element in ayahuasca sessions varies according to the "vegetalista". In spite of all "vegetalistas" agreeing that Jesus is the Supreme Being, and that all evil comes from Satan, the older Peruvian shamans seldom invoke Christian elements, preferring to rely more on Amazonian cosmologies. Other shamans however, invariably begin their sessions by invoking Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Among younger shamans, it is common to hold the sessions around a cross and to say the usual Roman Catholic prayers as well as others taken from the anthology known as " La Santa Cruz de Caravacca". There are also other numerous references to popular Catholicism. Among the younger shamans in particular, there is a great interest in the Order of the Rosy Cross and other branches of European esoterism.
The shamanic quest is usually conceived of as a voyage or a battle in which the shaman may undergo several ordeals and expose himself to various perils such as attacks from evil spirits or envious vegetalistas. Enemies may take the form of snakes or other dangerous animals or may even appear as magic darts ("virotes"). As such, the vegetalista must always be on guard. One of his main defenses is the "arkana" (from the quechua "arkay", which means: to stop, to block or to close), which is a kind of armor fashioned out of tobacco smoke. His defenses may also come in the shape of animals, birds, angels brandishing swords, soldiers carrying fire arms, and even fighter planes. The shaman may count as well on the aid of the anthropomorphic spirits of teacher plants, mestizo or Indian shamans, famous Western doctors, sages from distant countries, and even extra-terrestrial beings. Sometimes, during a session, the shaman may be possessed by a healing spirit. At other times he may hold conversations with spirits.21
Apart from help of this kind, the vegetalista may also receive certain gifts from the spirits, such as magic songs or "icaros " , "virotes" or the magic pleghm known as "yachay". These comprise the arsenal of his art. He receives them during his initiation, when in isolation and undergoing special diets.
The use of hallucinogens and magical melodies or songs is quite common throughout the Americas and plays a very important part in the ritual usage of peyote, San Pedrito cactus, epena snuff, Santa Rosa herb and tobacco. It is believed that each teacher plant teaches the vegetalista a song or a melody that represents the essence of its power and that may be used by him both for healing and protection and in order to inflict evil upon others. These songs called "icaros"( from the quechua "yakaray", meaning to blow healing smoke) are used in all shamanic activities, with or without psychoactive substances.
They may be used to invoke the spirit of a teacher plant or of a dead shaman, to travel to other worlds, to heal, to hunt, to fish, etc.. Certain "icaros" may be used to focus or alter the visions produced by entheogens, and may increase or diminish their intensity, change the perception of colors, affect their emotional content, etc..
In this way the icaros play an important part in the production of visions. Their special qualities can only be perceived during the rituals. Their words are often poetic and evocative and the melodies are carried by songs, whistles, or by a combination of both. It is said that expert vegetalistas are able to use icaros to produce collective visions experienced by all those taking part in the session. Furthermore, the ability to produce beautiful and lasting visions is considered to an important way of judging the sharman’s ability. In some cases this may lead to demonstrations of rivalry during a session in which several vegetalistas are present and they simultaneously try to influence the visions being produced.
Luna reports never having heard two people sing exactly the same icaro, and, in fact, when several vegetalistas are present at the same ceremony, they often sing their individual icaros simultaneously, producing a very suggestive effect that intensifies their emotional state and has an effect on the visions produced.
Even in the absence of ayahuasca or other psychoactive substances, the icaros provoke a trance. Luna says that although one of his informants only took ayahuasca once a week, he held three or four healing sessions during this period. On such occasions he went into a trance simply by singing his icaro and smoking a few "mapacho" cigarettes made from a local variety of wild tobacco used frequently by local shamans . Since he barely inhaled any smoke, the trance could not be attributed to the tobacco. More likely, it was self-induced through concentration and through the whistling of the icaros.
Icaros are believed to be important for healing and protection. Apart from their inherent healing powers - for instance, on snake bites - they are also considered powerful weapons in battles against evil sorcerers who may be the source of someone's illness. In such a case, if the healer's icaro is not stronger than his adversary's he may even run the risk of being killed.
The social and economic conditions of the Amazon lead to great instability in the emotional life of its inhabitants. As a result, the separation of couples and the break-up of families are very common occurrences. In such instances, one of the shaman's main functions is to resolve emotional conflicts, for which herbal baths and icaros – often used as love charms - are considered highly effective. As such, a vegetalista's repertoire of icaros is one of his main sources of power and determines his position in the shamans' prestigious hierarchy. Usually, the more icaros a shaman has, the greater the respect he inspires.23
The magic phlegm and the "virotes"
Although of great importance, the two other basic instruments of the vegetalista will be dealt with more briefly here since they do not play any part in the Santo Daime tradition that constitutes our main subject. It is enough to say that all the vegetalistas studied by Luna claimed to carry in their chests a kind of phlegm given to them by the spirits known as "yachay" "yausa" or "mariri". This substance supposedly acts as a magnet in extracting harmful virotes and other dangerous magical objects used by evil sorcerers from people's bodies. The shaman usually regurgitates the phlegm and uses it in sucking the parts of his clients' bodies in which the objects causing their ills are supposedly lodged. After sucking, he releases the extracted object from his yachay and spits it out somewhere outside the house.
The virotes are also seen as gifts from the spirits and are described as a kind of phlegm that shamans of evil intent keep in their yachay in order to shoot from their mouths and strike their victims. The virotes may then take on various shapes, turning into darts, bones, thorns, blades, insects, etc..
Yachay and virotes have a common characteristic: they tend to return to those who sent them. Living beings thay obey the vegetalista's command, they may be placed in the general category of auxiliary spirits.23
As for the existence of good and evil vegetalistas, it must be remembered that in magic it is difficult to make a clear distinction between these categories. As the vegetalistas often point out, during their initiation the plant spirits offer them gifts of different kinds: icaros with assorted powers, perfumes for love potions, yachay, virotes, snakes and other animals to be used in attack and defense, etc.. It is up to the neophyte to choose the gifts he will accept. It is said to be easier to become an evil sorcerer than a healer since the spirits begin by offering gifts that cause evil. If the initiate is weak and accepts them, he will become an evil sorcerer. Only later do the spirits come with gifts he can use for healing or love potions.
It is worth noting that, where the Christian influence is weaker, the distinction between evil and good vegetalistas becomes blurred. It is in such case that the individual's personality and decisions come into play. The temptation of evil seems to be constant, and the greater the powers and knowledge already acquired, the greater the possibilities of using them incorrectly. Certain habits such as drinking may also lead to evil. Thus a vegetalista, even after a long career as a practitioner of good deeds, may end up becoming an evil sorcerer.
1. Luna 1986: 30.
2. Dobkin de Rios 1972:45
4. Luna1986: 34.
5. Eliade 1982: 105.
6. Luna 1986: 43.
7. McKenna, Luna and Towers 1986:80.
8. Eliade: 1982: 43.
9. Luna 1986: 160.
10. Luna 1986: 52.
11. Maués 1990: 205.
12. Chemical analysis shows that Bannisteriopsis caapi contains the beta-carboline alkaloids: harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine. Diploteys cabreana and the Psychotrias have the hallucinogenic alkaloid N-dimetiltriptamine (DMT). This substance, when taken alone and orally, is inactive, even in high doses, owing to the action of the monoamine oxidase (MAO). Analysis has shown that, although the beta-carbolines found in the mixtures are in too low a dosage to manifest their hallucinogenic properties, they seem to play a role in the inhibition of MAO, thus freeing the DMT from its action and allowing it to show its psychoactive properties. This process is explained phenomenologically by the users of the brew who say that the vine (Banisteriopsis) carries the "force" while the leaf (Psychotria) brings the "light". Things become less clear when one takes into consideration certain claims that the Banisteriopsismay reveal hallucinogenic properties when brewed alone, or when smoked or chewed. Apart from their psychoactive effects, the components of ayahuasca have a large range of emetic , antimicrobial and anti-helmintic effects, which make them effective in the fight against ascarid worms, as well as protozoaries such as tripanossomes and amoebas. This would explain the use of the brew as an emetic and as a laxative, to cleanse the organism of all impurities. The brew is also said to be useful against malaria (Luna 1986: 57-59).
13. Luna 1986:62-64
14. McKenna, Luna and Towers 1986: 78.
15. Monteiro da Silva 1983:23 and 41.
16 Luna 1986:73
17. Galvão 1983: 8.
18. Galvão 1983: 4.
19. Galvão 1983: 4 and 5.
20. Galvão 1983: 6.
21. Luna 1986:94.
22. Luna 1986; 97-109.
23. Luna 1986; 110 and 113.
Caboclo Conceptions of Illness and the Use of Ayahuasca
In many parts of the world where magical views on health and illness predominate, the questions asked when someone is taken ill are different from those asked by western medicine. While the latter concentrates on how a disease may occur, magical thinking is more concerned with why someone might be struck by a given illness. It should be noted that in this mode of thought, the concept of "illness" covers a wide range of problems which, apart from diseases, also includes psychological distress and an assortment of social and family difficulties.
Within this framework, the vegetalistas develop their conceptions on the causes of illnesses and the possibilities of healing, in a way which seems to be quite widespread throughout the Amazon region1. The problems they have to deal with are classified according to two basic categories: