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
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 "yage" 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:
- 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
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.
- Ayahusca and Healing - to determine the cause of illness and
to cure it.
- 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
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 cliche 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 .
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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).
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 "colocacoes"
(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
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",
"anhangas", 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, igarapes, 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
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
Changes also occur in the belief system, especially in relation
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.
from the spirits
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
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
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
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
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. Maues 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. Galvao 1983: 8.
18. Galvao 1983: 4.
19. Galvao 1983: 4 and 5.
20. Galvao 1983: 6.
21. Luna 1986:94.
22. Luna 1986; 97-109.
23. Luna 1986; 110 and 113.