Guided by the moon- shamanism and the ritual use of ayahuasca in the Santo Daime religion in Brazil


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Although the Daime works keep within the traditional shamanic parameters, one should take into consideration the remarks made by Couto, that, here, one is dealing with what he calls "collective shamanism". The command of the works is held by more experienced shamans, but the shamanic activity is not, exclusively in the hands of a few initiates and all participants are considered apprentice shamans and even potential shamans. Taking part in the rituals is a way of learning the art, and it is thought that any of the participants of the ritual may display shamanic powers which are considered to be latent in human nature (3).

Maybe this democratic aspect of Daime, which allows all who are interested to have access to its secrets, is the reason for the attraction it has been exerting on a new generation of followers which is quite different from the inhabitants of the outskirts of the town of Rio Branco , where the first Daime churches sprang up. According to the anthropologist Luiz Eduardo Soares, since 1988 the Rio de Janeiro research center Institute de Etudes da Religion ( Institute for Religious Studies) has been carrying out research under his coordination on what is being called the "new religious consciousness". This new consciousness has shown itself to be important from a social and cultural point of view, since it questions the direction taken by modern culture, in general and that of Brazilian society, in particular (4).

Summarizing his description of the phenomenon, one might say it involves members of the urban middle class, individuals with a high degree of learning who identify with the typical modern ethical and political ideals, and who consider themselves as being "liberated", "libertarians", "open" and critical of traditional values ,especially of the "repressive burden" of religious traditions. These individuals, which may be considered to be examples of the modern individualistic lay model, have been showing themselves increasingly attracted to religious faith, to the wonders of mystic ecstasy, to the challenge of esoteric learning, to the efficacy of alternative therapies and "natural" food. For them, ecological-mystical holism substitutes the clamors of the social and sexual revolutions.

As mentioned in chapter III, from the 70's onwards, hitch-hikers with many of these characteristics, began frequenting "Colônia 5.000". They played a decisive role in the spreading of Mestre Irineu's and Padrinho Sebastião’s ideals and in the founding of Daime centers in several urban and rural areas, in Southeast Brazil, which congregated a new type of follower, from the urban middle classes, young and well educated. Although the rituals were kept almost unaltered, and the same hymns were sung, the differences in physical and social context ended up having their reflections in certain practices and conceptions.

An important difference lies in their way of conceiving and relating to Nature. As already mentioned, a great part of the old frequenters of Alto Santo and Colônia 5.000 had direct experience of living near the forest, on which they relied for their survival. From this experience they retained the memory of isolation from a wider society, of the consequent need for self-sufficiency, and of the communitarian organization of villages, where the influence of religious brotherhoods was strong.

The forest was simultaneously threatening and bountiful, demanding from all who lived near it a familiarity with its secrets. This could include a profound knowledge of the many plant and animal species it comprises, as well as the correct way to deal with the spirits and "bichos visagentos" (monsters) that inhabit it. Contact between this population and Indians was difficult. As civilized people, they considered themselves superior. Yet, they recognized the Indian's vast understanding of nature and were constantly resorting to it, also adopting many native cultural traits. In the absence of any type of medical infra-structure, shamanic practices were frequently the sole healing techniques they disposed of.

Urbanization had a strong impact on these individuals. Class' differences appeared and the "brotherhoods" began to lose prestige. Certain beliefs that in the forest are an expression of the caboclo's reality, become distant or unimportant superstitions in the urban environment. Monteiro da Silva situates the Santo Daime religion in this context, considering it a transition ritual between the two cultures.

But the urban middle class follower from Southeast Brazil sees it in a different manner. He hardly knows the forest or nature in a rough state, not previously prepared for him to enjoy and consume . Frequently, educated in good schools, within the rationalist and illuminist world view, he is completely ignorant of the Amazonian culture and its conceptions of the supernatural. In place of forest beings, his spiritual repertoire is made up of flying saucers, extra-terrestrial beings, crystals, pyramids, violet flames, Tibetan lamas, Yogis, orixás, Don Juan's teachings, as related by Carlos Castañeda, and other exotica. Nature is conceived of as intrinsically good, as long as it is respected and ecological equilibrium is maintained. The Indians are "noble savages", that hold secrets, capable of saving the planet.

These romantic and idealized conceptions, may can be understood as the result of frustration and disillusion, resulting from constant involvement in a highly technological culture, that is, however, incapable of providing satisfactory answers to the great existential questions life presents, when illness, pain, the end of emotional relationships, insecurity and death must be faced. So, the Santo Daime doctrine may become very attractive to some. As Soares says: "The model seems strong, attractive and seductive, maintaining a dialogue with theological traditions, in spite of its declared affiliation to Christianity, and with the uncertainty of the times, weaknesses and the great human dreams ;besides, it operates on a sensorial register, allowing for an ecstatic experience of a very particular type, significantly in tune with the known stock of life experiences of the generations who had dared to alter the flow of consciousness by artificial means with aim of finding that which the 60's called "self knowledge" (5).

The doctrine and the quest for initiation makes up for the need some of the Santo Daime urban followers feel to distance themselves from society for a time, so as to get a better understanding of it. In a way this dropping out of society happens, during every the ritual, when the effects of the brew, the singing and the dancing , allow a "different reality" to be experienced for a period of time..

But, those wishing to deepen the process must end up traveling to Céu do Mapiá, in what is often their first contact with the Amazon region. The distance to be overcome, the precariousness of the means of transport, the very poor accommodation and the strangeness of the area turn the enterprise into a veritable initiation. The high point here is the taking part in the ceremonies, taking Daime, alongside the wise men of the tradition, in the heart of the forest. Many mention having the experience of being in a monastery, where all action and thought revolve around the spiritual world. Day-to-day life is left behind on boarding the canoe for a trip that usually lasts two days . Few are those who do not feel deeply and irreversibly changed by the experience.

The Southern "daimistas" relate to the forest in a romantic way that is the result of their lack of familiarity with it while the "daimistas" from the Amazonian region, see the forest with all the difficulties it presents to them in their daily life. During an expedition to Mapiá, in 1989, I was able to observe these differences. Going up the Rio Purús, for example, the boat was constantly surrounded by dolphins. The Southerners who at every moment expressed their wonder at the natural setting around them, were delighted with these animals. They were even more delighted at the sight of the pink dolphin. However, among the caboclos, these animals are considered to be inauspicious, requiring, at times, shamanic works to fight what is supposed to be their malignant influence. I have no reports of the views of old Amazonian "daimistas" on this aquatic mammal, but it seems reasonable to suppose that sharing other regional beliefs they, too, might have a negative feeling about the dolphin.

Another sign of differences in attitude can be detected in relation to different foods. The Southerners, who are usually very keen on whole foods are frequently shocked by the consumption of white rice , white sugar, canned foods, cigarettes etc. that occurs in Mapia. Except for their low consumption of alcoholic drinks, the local inhabitants tend to follow the eating habits prevailing among the "caboclos" of the region. These are marked by a generalized scarcity of provisions, and by the regular consumption of rice and beans and manioc. When it is accessible, they will seldom refuse processed foods, in some cases even preferring them. When Southern daimistas try to teach them other, healthier, more natural food habits, they are ridiculed. There was a story current , some time ago, in Mapiá, that if you wanted to label someone as boring, you called him "macrobiotic".

Mestre Irineu was known, first of all, as a great healer, a central feature in the doctrine he taught. In all churches, healing works are regularly performed, and to belong to the "healing teams" is often taken as a sign of prestige, among "daimistas". As mentioned before, though, performing cures is an individual ability, distributed in a highly heterogeneous fashion among the population. Those who have this gift highly developed , often perform in an idiosyncratic way, using specific prayers and even apparently eccentric methods - like when Padrinho Sebastião, had a young man who was prey to fits of violence, clean an ox carcass with the use of a very sharp, pointed and menacing knife.

But, in the day-to-day routine, the healing sessions, performed in the various "daimista" churches, follow the CEFLURIS ritual norms . Results are usually unspectacular, being more of a source of comfort and stimulus for the patient. On certain occasions, there is no specific patient and the works are considered to be held for maintenance of the collective well-being.

These vague conceptions, although they may not produce very visible immediately efficacious results, do not discourage followers as much as might be expected. In fact, they are in keeping with the conceptions of body and health current among adepts, of the so called "new religious consciousness". To these individuals, the body, the psyche, and the spirit are inextricably linked together and the concept of health includes elements not always perceived as articulated to the functioning of the human body such as, a values system, the way an individual relates to others, or to his surroundings. Among them, health is conceived as the maintenance of a balance and a harmonious unity with the whole, almost a synonym for virtue, beauty and truth (6).

Therefore there is not necessarily the expectation of an immediately detectable, physical result, in these "healing sessions" , which are seen as analogous to other "alternative" healing methods , like the use of crystals or of pyramids. It should also be pointed out that the daimista leaders seldom claim their methods to be the only correct ones and allow their patients to undergo the mainstream scientific medical treatments while undergoing spiritual healing. Once more the differences between individual "ayahuasquero" shamans become apparent. The "daimistas", with a greater familiarity with forest traditions, frequently use medicinal Herb's, as aids in the treatment they prescribe their clients while the more urbanized shamans have, sometimes, only Daime to offer.

With regard to healing, another difference between modern "daimista" practices and the "caboclo" shamanism of the vegetalistas, is the classification of the illnesses that may befall someone. Traditionally, ayahuasca was used as a diagnostic tool, to determine whether an illness had a natural or magic cause. If it were natural, a treatment based on medicinal plants would be preserved. Were it magic, "ayahuasca" might be resorted to in order to help, in the shamanic work carried out directly in the spiritual world, to undo witchcraft and to fight the agents responsible for it.

Nowadays, the official disease categories and their direct causes, are accepted by urban followers of the Santo Daime. Generally speaking this population has access to medical treatment and frequently resorts to it. Padrinho Sebastião, himself, received medical treatment quite often, traveling to Rio de Janeiro on many occasions, with that aim.

Many urban "daimistas", who are educated and generally inclined to think positively of Nature and Humanity, on a whole, do not really believe in evil being engendered by hostile spiritual entities, much less in the powers of witchcraft to harm them. They believe, though, in psychosomatic reactions and are capable of understanding, in that sense, words of one of the hymns frequently sung in healing works, that says: "The illnesses that appear

Are discipline for the deserving".

In this context, although the use of Daime may lose a little of its diagnostic attributes, it is seen as an instrument which helps restore the patient's equilibrium with the Cosmos, necessary for him to summon those self-healing forces that are latent in everybody.

One should point out another manifestation of the influence of urban middle class culture on the religion with regard to the use of tobacco. Among Brazilian "daimistas" of the large metropolitan centers, smoking tends to be regarded with certain reserve. Although it is not forbidden, smoking during rituals must be done at a certain distance since tobacco smoke is considered to counteract the effect of the incense, lavishly used on these occasions. Although it is less disliked than alcohol, to many middle class daimistas, tobacco is almost the antithesis of Daime. One must remember, however, that in many reports on the traditional use of ayahuasca its use is closely linked to tobacco. As we have seen, the vegetalistas' initiation is generally considered to depend on their dominating the use of both ayahuasca and tobacco.

Among Indian and mestizo shamans, locally grown tobacco is smoked in cigarette form, during healing sessions and frequently plays an important role in the preparation of the brew when its smoke is ritually blown over the boiling liquid.

In the Santo Daime tradition tobacco also used to play a relevant part. As anthropologist Monteiro da Silva, says:

"The informers report the use of tobacco (Nicotine tabaccum) by Mestre Irineu, for topic therapeutical ends and during the rituals. Its use, linked to the immemorial religious history of the whole Amazon region continues, though, not always occupying the central role in ceremonies. However, in Colônia 5.000, it is increasingly used for both purposes. One informer (Chico Corrente) tells us he uses roasted tobacco, in the form of snuff, when "working" in the forest, since tobacco serves to balance the beings of the Queen of the Forest court. It is a sacred plant, brought in by healers, who, before disincarnating had used it, in their villages. My informer tells me these healers appear to him in order to teach him how to use it." (8)

I have never seen this use in any of the rituals I have attended, and I believe that since Monteiro da Silva wrote his report it has been discontinued, and is generally ignored by younger daimistas. Even Chico Corrente seems to have given up its use. It is worth noting that the abandonment of the ritual use of tobacco is a common characteristic of traditional popular Brazilian religions when they begin to reach the middle classes who have been taught to think about tobacco in purely negative terms, forgetting its spiritual importance for the Indian population.

From an anthropological point of view, dietary and other types of behavior restriction, must be examined in a wider context. So, we see that ayahuasca users, certain types of food are considered to be completely inappropriate. Yet, on close examination, the restrictions vary so much among different groups that it is almost impossible to find any kind of consensus on the matter (the ban on pork, being one of the few points of general agreement). This leads one to the hypothesis that the very existence of rules is in this case, more important than their contents or, putting it differently, that taking ayahuasca must always be a treated as a special activity, requiring a change in the day-to-day routine.

This break in daily life must be marked in a manner that it touches people deeply, not only in terms of rational understanding, but, also, in more basic and physiological levels. A good way of achieving this is through a special diet. Another, equally fundamental way, is a change in several behavior patterns. Maybe, this helps understand Couto's report that, according to his informers, Mestre Irineu's followers initially used to drink sugarcane spirits and frequent prostitutes (9). This leads Couto to speculate that the taboo on sexual intercourse for three days prior and after taking the brew, and the ban on alcohol consumption during the same period, might have arisen as a means of to encourage the daimistas to keep away from drink and from prostitutes.

It is likely that Mestre Irineu's intentions went beyond mere moralism (10), and that he perceived these as some of the most important alterations of the daily patterns of life and identity, that might be imposed, once such behavior was at the core of the notions of virility and free individual expression current at the time among the caboclo population. It must be remembered that, to this day, following these precepts, presents difficulty and many "daimistas" only manage to understand and accept them completely after taking the brew many times.


1. Galvão 1976:137.

2. Luna 1986:112.

3. Couto 1989:221.

4. Soares 1990:265.

5. Soares 1990:270.

6. Soares 1990:276.

7. The grammatical patterns of the hymns reflect their popular origin and very seldom follow cultivated norms.

8. Monteiro da Silva 1985:11.

9. Couto 1989:57.

10. The importance of the precaution against alcoholic abuse among the "caboclo" population can be evaluated by the observation of Colombian Indians, inhabitants of the Sebundoy Valley, who up to the 60's held a vast knowledge of medicinal and entheogenic plants. Nowadays, due to the white man's influence, alcoholism dominates the area and ancient rites were degraded and turned into "tourist traps". During sessions, alongside ayahuasca they now drink sugarcane spirit, which provokes drunkenness and general indisposition.
- Conclusion -

We have seen that the origin of the practices and concepts of the Santo Daime religion go back to ancient Indian traditions. We have also seen that Mestre Irineu learnt the secrets of the brew from someone belonging to the tradition of "vegetalistas", who, to this day, practice shamanism among the mestizo population, in the Amazon Region.

Mestre Irineu, however, came from a slightly different context. He was a Black Brazilian , with no Indian ancestry. Although, the forest was familiar to him, he spent a good part of his life on the outskirts the Acrean towns. But, as Chaumeil puts it, the non-dogmatic and questioning character of shamanism, makes it easier to incorporate new models to its traditional conceptual framework (1). Therefore, important conceptual and practical changes were introduced in response to a given social cultural context . The main one was, probably, the emphasis given to elements of Christian origin, incorporating the Christian pantheon and most important of all, its moral code.

Attending a clientele coming from the poorest strata of Rio Branco, Mestre Irineu, exerted a comforting and assuring influence. The rituals, over which he presided, kept within the shamanic tradition of the use of entheogens, where they were not used recreationally, but to establish contact with the sacred. In this process, rather than of an escape from day to day pressures, they were used evoke and validate cultural values.

More recently, the Santo Daime doctrine has spread to other parts of Brazil and even to other countries, gathering followers, frequently young adults, from more privileged social layers, bearing the, so called, new religious consciousness. This spread has led to concerned and even repressive reactions, like in the case of the attempt to ban the use of the brew. It is occasionally alleged that its long term effects are unknown and that it might cause physical and psychological harm and contribute to social disintegration.

Researchers answer these concerns demonstrating that the use of this brew occurs in a ritual context, endowed with a very conservative ethic which has as one of its important aims the development of communities where the individual can be well integrated with his physical and social habitat.

As for possible negative long term effects on health, it has been pointed out that ayahuasquero shamans often enjoy exceptional physical and psychic vigor, even after they grow old. The followers of these religions do not usually present any health problems that might be attributed directly to the use of ayahuasca.

When such assertions show themselves difficult to deny, critics change their arguments, admitting that it is legitimate that the brew be used in the Amazon Region, among the Indians, but, not among civilized and urban groups, who would not have the necessary cultural mechanisms to control its use.

The ignorance of the Amazonian population revealed by such a view is the result of the common disregard for the social-cultural aspects of the subject and a concentration on exclusively pharmacological considerations. Commenting on paper on the subject, produced in 1992 by the Brazilian Federal Narcotics Council, that once again emphasized the psycho-cultural-social aspects of the ritual use of the ayahuasca, the doctor and Federal deputy, José Elias Murad, for instance, made an official statement criticizing the document (2). His criticisms are all of a pharmacological nature and demonstrate stereotyped and uninformed thinking when referring to anthropological concepts. Thus, he says he is against any interference in the cultural, folk and/or religious use of the brew by the natives of the Amazon Region once the ban of any of their traditions might lead to a loss of their culture as well as being very difficult to carry out in practical terms.

But, continues Murad, there is a great difference between that assertion and the contention that the Santo Daime Brew is not a hallucinogen and is a harmless product that should remain liberated and not be listed among psychoactive drugs.

This type of argument has been refuted on many occasions, including in the 1987 report, presented by the Narcotics Council work-groups that studied the question. In this report, for instance, it was shown that even though certain activities pertaining to rural areas are not to be found in the towns, the conversion, to the Santo Daime doctrine, can lead to ritual practices and to ways of living that maintain the basic characteristics of the Amazonian religious communities. To restrict the ritual use of ayahuasca to the inhabitants of the Amazon forest means, in fact, to forbid the most important religious ceremonies of the many ayahuasca religions, which, like the Santo Daime, are predominantly to be found in the suburban countryside of large towns outside the Amazon area. This would have the self defeating effect of weakening the church structures which up to now have proven to be notably successful in the control of the use of the brew. It would also be highly damaging to the lives of the daimistas.

One should remember that the foundation of the "Círculo de Regeneração e Fé" (The Regeneration and Faith Circle), an important milestone in the history of the Santo Daime religion, happened in the 19 20's, at approximately the same time as, in Rio de Janeiro, the "Umbandista" afro-Brazilian possession religion began to be structured. This religion ,which has much in common with Daime, after a period of official persecution became very widespread and legitimate. It is inconceivable that nowadays anyone would try to ban Umbanda in Brazil again. Just as in this case and in that of other Afro-Brazilian religions, so to with the ayahuasca religions, one will find that they have come to play a crucial part in the lives of countless followers who have invested their lives in them, making them central to their individual, social and spiritual identities.

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