The Controlled Use of Ayahuasca and Its Structuring Effects in
the Santo Daime Rituals
first thing Daime obliges you to do, is to abandon any pretension
of considering it a hallucinogenic beverage that will give you
"kicks". Those who go that way slip and fall. And sometimes
the fall is nasty".
Polari de Alverga
"O Livro das Miracoes"
Nowadays, it is often said that the use of psychoactive substances
has been a widespread human practice, since time immemorial. A
practice that some researchers associate to an inborn need of
man to provoke periodic alterations in his conscience.
Researchers, interested in the effects of these practices emphasize
the importance of considering different patterns of use: "hard"
and "soft" practices.
The French anthropologist Martine Xiberras , for instance, considers
the "hard" ones to be marked by a style of unrestrained
consumption of products and of violent means of absorption. They
imply a search for anesthesia for both body and soul, leading
to a withdrawal into the self and a closing to the outside world.
This results in a total submission to the power of these substances,
leading to the isolation characteristic of solitary and individualistic
drug addictions, like heroin dependence.
The "soft" practices lead to a state of effervescence
and to the use, even if in a chaotic manner, of the cognitive
and emotive faculties. This state is similar to the "trance",
when all the subject's senses are on the alert, ready to act at
the slightest internal or external stimulus. In this state of
great sensitivity or of extreme vigilance, the individual is precipitated
into a situation of excitement, that forces him to try to overcome
the usual limitations to his performances.
All these practices imply a search for the self, expressed in
the control of the use, as much as in the behavior maintained
during the effects of the effervescence. Although Xiberras develops
her observations in a European context, dominated by lay and materialistic
concepts, she maintains that the name and the specific experience
of the "trance" hark back to other cultural contexts,
where such altered states of consciousness and such sensorial
experiences are used as a means of perceiving and communicating
with "the other world", with divine or occult powers.
Among European users of illicit psychoactive substances, the "soft"
practices and the state of effervescence seem to characterize
a desire for an opening to the outside world. The users seek to
be in control, participating completely in their surroundings
near or far. The products lead to extroverted euphoria and the
beginning of the practice is built on the desire for expanded
communication; the consumption happens in a communitarian way.
Although rejected by the social body, the practice is valued by
small groups of users, among whom the experience of the "trance"
is guided and modeled so as to expand the ability to communicate
and to share sensations. Therefore, this practice acquires the
status of an initiation or of an integration with the group and
is a real apprenticeship of the use of the drug as a mean of self
control and as a new process of socialization in of an affinity
While the "hard" practices are based on a submission
to the substances, requiring no training, the "soft"
ones demand knowledge, control and initiation. This apprenticeship
of another state of consciousness does not end with the ending
of the immediate effects of the drug. A biological and psychological
memory of the alternative sensibility lingers on and continues
to act. Little by little, this experience affects the user's life
changing not only his range of perception but also his view of
Another distinction is that between the "use" and the
"abuse" of psychoactive substances. Carrying out research
among psychoactive substance users in the U.S.A, Dr. Norman Zinberg
discusses the question of "controlled" and "compulsive"
uses. The first has low social cost while the latter is dysfunctional
and intense with very high costs.
Although there are several small differences between Xiberras
and Zinberg's conceptions, Xiberras's notion of "soft practices"
and Zinberg's "controlled use" share the fact that they
are both governed by rules, behavior patterns and values transmitted
within subcultures that develop among the user groups. According
to Zinberg these social controls work in four ways:
a - Defining what is acceptable use and condemning whatever escapes
from that pattern;
b - Limiting the usage to physical and social means that will
allow for positive and secure experiences;
c - Identifying potentially negative effects. Behavior patterns
dictate precautions to be taken before, during and after use;
d - Distinguishing the different types of use of the substances;
they support the sense of duty and the relationships maintained
by users in fields not directly associated to psychoactive substance
It is, therefore, evident that the use of ayahuasca, in the Santo
Daime religion, seems like a paradigmatic example of Xiberras's
"soft practices"', or Zinberg's "controlled use".
Among the followers of the religion, the effect of the brew is
traditionally understood as a "trance", in which the
subject expands his powers of perception, becoming conscious of
phenomena, on a spiritual level, that, by their subtlety, normally
elude the senses. Besides, as mentioned above, this practice is
rigorously prescribed in its minimum details, becoming an excellent
example of the controlled use of a psychoactive substance.
As an example of the control mechanisms at work one may take an
"hinario" ritual , as performed in the Santo Daime churches
in the highly industrialized southeastern region of Brazil.
Beginning by what Zinberg would call "social sanctions, which
include values and rules of conduct, it must be remembered that
the ritual is considered to be a sacred celebration, demanding
attitudes and behavior of deep respect. In these ceremonies the
main objects of reverence are the brew and the sacred symbols,
laid on a starshaped table set in the middle of the room.
So as to ensure that all those taking part are fully aware of
the sacred nature of the occasion, those coming for the first
time are requested to attend a lecture, where they will receive
explanations and be informed of a few basic precepts, like the
need to avoid alcoholic beverages and sexual activities three
days before and three days after the ceremony. All must maintain
a respectful attitude and avoid crossing their arms or legs during
the session. It is considered that this would "cut the current".
It is, also, explained that the session is led by the "padrinho"
(god-father) or by a "commander" and that he and his
helpers must be respected and obeyed during the ritual by all
those taking part.
During the entire session, hymns are sung, the lyrics and melodies
of which are simple and easy to understand, even when the individual
is in a state of trance. These hymns impart the "Santas Doutrinas"
(Holy Doctrines) of the Santo Daime, and constantly evoke its
main themes: the need for harmony, love, truth, justice, brotherhood,
"cleanliness of heart", firmness, humility, discipline...
The frequent allusions to God, the Father, to the Virgin Mother
and to Jesus Christ and many other spiritual beings, keep reinforcing
the sacred character of the activities.
The ceremonies are frequently seen as "astral battles",
in which the group of participants are the "Army of Juramidam,
in the battle against evil". Like good soldiers they must
wear "uniforms", that, while not being military, are
quite austere, covering the body in a manner that minimizes its
erotic appeal, evoking a formality reminiscent of "Sunday
best", worn on occasions that demand solemn and contained
The services are preceded by the burning of incense. During the
entire event, candles are kept lit and incense is burnt constantly,
both inside and outside the room. The beverage, considered to
be "the blood of Christ", is usually stored in a china
container, on a high table, in a corner of the room. Under this
table there are more bottles with extra reserves of Daime. As
if to emphasize the sacred nature of the brew , a candle is lit
beside the containers. Severe rules regulate the transport and
stocking of Daime. Should a drop be spilt, the area must be washed
immediately. The sacred nature of the occasion is further reinforced
by the daimista custom of crossing oneself before drinking the
The main symbols on the central table are the two armed Cross
of Caravaca, and a rosary wrapped around it. Frequently there
are also images of the Virgin and other saints and maybe even
photos of Santo Daime leaders. Three candles are usually lit around
the cross and flowers are used both for their decorative and their
spiritual value . This table, a kind of altar, is the center of
the activities. It must be treated with respect and the participants
avoid bumping into it or altering its disposition.
Beyond these precepts, that, to use Zinberg's words, one might
call "social sanctions", there are the "social
rituals ",stylized, prescribed behavior patterns, pertaining
to the "controlled" use of psychoactive substances.
They have to do with the methods of acquisition and use of the
substance, the selection of an appropriate physical and social
setting for its consumption, the activities undertaken after substance
has been taken , and the ways of preventing untoward effects.
Under the heading of "acquisition and administration",
it must be remembered that "Daime" is generally produced
in "Colonia 5.000" on the outskirts of Rio Branco or
in the "Ceu do Mapia" community , in the heart of the
rain forest. From these places it is sent to the leaders of the
other churches, who have been entrusted by the head of the religious
movement with the responsibility of distributing the sacred brew.
The Daime is usually stored ceremoniously in the house of the
local leader, besides whom it may only be handled by a few more
trusted members of the local church .
Except for cases when people who are ill receive special dispensation
to take Daime in their own homes, the beverage may only be taken
in the church and during the sessions. These must be presided
by one of the leaders or someone designated by him. The beginning
and the end of sessions are marked by a set formula and Roman
Catholic prayers .
During the rites, the amount of Daime consumed varies in accordance
with the nature of the work. It is usually served by one of the
leader's close helpers, but, it is he who determines the right
moment and the quantity to be served. Usually, each participant
is given two thirds of a cup of brew to drink every two hours.
As for the physical setting, there is an official document which
deals with the CEFLURIS ritual which even carries architectural
recommendations for the ideal buildings for the different types
of "work". However, as many of the churches are still
relatively new, there is much improvisation in this regard. Works
are commonly held in rooms lent by followers, in the local leader's
house or in partly built Daime churches . In Sao Paulo, for example,
one of the local churches is being built on a small landholding
on the outskirts of the city. Meanwhile, the sessions are usually
held in a thatch covered hexagonal structure, open on all sides,
leading to a sense of intimate contact with Nature in keeping
with the words of many of the songs that are sung and which abound
with references to the sun, the moon, the stars and the forest.
The social setting where the beverage is taken is also subject
to regulations. With the exception of a few healing works, the
sessions are open to all the "fardados" (in uniform),
that is, those who have officially confirmed their adherence to
the "Holy Doctrines", and who have been awarded a special
medal by the local god-father: a six pointed star, showing in
its interior an eagle perched on a half-moon. These followers
are committed to following the Santo Daime doctrine and assume
the obligation of participating in the fourteen "official
hinarios" of the year, wearing a special uniform for the
occasion. They also commit themselves to attending the "concentration
works" held on the 15th and the 30th of each month.
Eventual participants, or those not wearing uniform , must have
special permission to attend. This permission depends on the participant's
being familiar with the basic principles of the movement, on the
need to strike a balance between the number of men and women taking
part and to avoid overcrowding. Visitors are usually only allowed
to take part in the more festive "hinarios" and are
excluded from the heavier "concentrations" and "healing
Even first timers and those who have not yet chosen to become
"fardados" end up behaving according to the rules, since
before the work, they are usually expected to take part in an
interview and a briefing session where they are explained the
rules and are told about the effects they should expect from the
drink . They are assured that these effects are of an essentially
beneficial nature and learn how to face the eventual feelings
of physical or psychological discomfort that might arise during
the session. Newcomers are usually accompanied by the more experienced
daimistas responsible for their invitation. During the session
they act as models of the expected behavior and as agents of social
Even the placing of participants, in the work, is pre-determined.
Like in all the activities of this religious movement, it is considered
fundamental to keep men and women separate . An imaginary line
crosses the room and the table diagonally creating two areas,
and men and women are expected to keep to their respective sides,
taking care not to "mix energies".
In each space, participants stand in line, according to their
height, the taller ones at the back, and to their degree of commitment
to the doctrine, those not wearing the uniform keeping behind.
The married and the single are also separated and in some churches
there is a line specially for children. Thus, by following reasonably
objective criteria, it is possible for each participant to find
"his/her place" and try and stay in it all during the
work, taking care not to invade his neighbor's. This is called
"se compor em seu lugar" ( to compose oneself in one's
place), an expression that crops up frequently in the hymns.
Should the participant feel exhausted or ill he is allowed to
be absent during three hymns, after which he should return to
his place or ask permission to extend his absence.
Daimistas believe that during the singing and the dancing, which
consists basically in swinging the torso to the right and to the
left, a "current of energy" is formed that circulates
through the room, around the table. This should not be blocked
or cut . So, when leaving his place, the participant must be careful
to take a predetermined route so as not to cut any of the lines.
For similar reasons, his place should not be left empty too long;
and should his absence be prolonged, this "gap in the current"
must be closed by another participant, sometimes leading to a
complicated shift of several people. In works where participants
remain seated, this criterion is less rigorous, although the separation
between male and female must always be maintained.
Thus individual movements are constantly controlled during the
duration of the brew's effects. As previously remarked, these
sessions are always considered to be religious rituals. They may
be "hinarios" ( hymn singing sessions) , when the great
majority of participants are expected to keep to their places,
dancing , for periods that vary between six to thirteen hours.
They may be "concentration works" or "healing works"
that last from two to six hours, with the participants seated,
in silent concentration or singing a given sequence of hymns.
If the work is danced, everybody performs the same simple harmonious
movements, keeping to the rhythm set by a small musical group
sitting around the table, and to the beat of the maracas played
by many of those taking part in the work. If it is a concentration
work, where the participants remain seated, they must keep their
heads high and gesticulate as little as possible. Regardless of
the type of work, no one must disturbing his neighbor: chatting,
touching or even staring at other participants is to be avoided.
Although the placing of participants in the ritual, the aesthetic
composition of the religious symbols and the words of the hymns
are a constant reminder of the solemnity of the occasion , a few
people are specifically designated, by the leader to maintain
the expected orderliness and smooth flowing of the ceremony. They
are called "fiscais" or guardians and are hierarchically
organized, each one being put in charge of specific tasks, such
as assisting those who are not well, cleaning up after people
vomit, or keeping an eye on those who leave the room. In all cases
they should act more as facilitators than as agents of repression.
Occasionally this may also be necessary , usually with inexperienced
individuals, who, under the effect of the brew, behave in a troublesome
or aggressive manner.
Thus the consumption of Santo Daime is highly controlled by values
and rules of religious conduct, very similar to those of popular
Catholicism, which are constantly brought to mind explicitly by
the prayers and the hymns, and implicitly by religious aesthetics,
that organizes the space, the symbols and the participants, These
values and rules of conduct are reinforced by the behavioral and
postural prescriptions which watched over by the guardians. Therefore,
even if the effects of the ayahuasca might bring about a momentary
breakdown in the rules and regulations governing social conduct,
which underpin the individual's sense of identity, he can still
count on a series of mechanisms to guide and protect him from
social and psychic harm.
Although, ultimately not disagreeing with these observations,
the anthropologist Nestor Perlongher, preferred to use other arguments
to interpret what happens. He criticized the notion of "ritual
control" of the use of psychoactive substances, because he
felt that they implied in something too "external".
He preferred to borrow from Nietzche the idea of a tension between
the dionisian and the apolinian which leads people "to feel
like God" during the dancing and the singing. For Perlongher
the Santo Daime ritual gives an apolinian form to the ecstatic
force which it awakens and stimulates, preventing it from being
dissipated in vain phantasmagoria. Accompanied by various behavioral
restrictions it prevents the work with this force from drifting
towards the potentially dark and destructive path normally condemned
by white Western culture .
Perlongher maintained that this was not a dionisian experience
in the sense of a pagan carnival, nor of voluptuous excess, but
that, instead of individualization, it brought about a rupture
with the "principium individuationis", as well as affording
a total reconciliation of Man with Nature and other men in a universal
harmony and in a mystic feeling of unity. Rather than stimulating
self conscience it lead to a disintegration of the superficial
ego , and to an emotion that abolished subjectivity to the point
of a total self forgetfulness.
Some people, not fully familiar with the daimista practices, still
question the harmlessness of this ritual use of ayahuasca. They
fear that the consumption of the Santo Daime might lead people
to madness and society to disorder. Yet it must be remembered
that the work-group set up to study the question by the Federal
Narcotics Council, came to the conclusion that the Santo Daime
followers were happy, tranquil people, keeping to moral and ethical
standards similar to those recommended by our society, "occasionally,
even in a very rigid fashion".
A better understanding of this rigidity, can be gleamed from the
religious and anthropological studies of Fernando de la Roque
Couto, for whom the Santo Daime rituals tend to reinforce the
social structure. He considers that in these rituals, two structural
elements are strengthened: hierarchical cohesion and ecological
harmony with nature. (6).
The regular participation in the Santo Daime rituals, frequently
leads to noticeable changes in its followers. They are often recruited
among individuals who are socially stigmatized either for their
impoverished condition, as in the Amazon, or for their adhesion
to unorthodox values, like drug taking or free sex - common among
more urbanized groups . For them the rituals stimulate a sense
of self-discipline, giving them purpose and direction to their
This fits in with Victor Turner's idea, that rituals periodically
turn the obligatory into the desirable, putting society's ethical
and juridical norms in contact with strong emotional stimulation.
His considerations befit very well the Santo Daime ceremonies.
In the ritual in action, with the social excitement and directly
physiological stimuli - music, songs, dance, alcohol, drugs, incense
- one might say that the ritual symbol, produces a quality exchange
between its two sense poles, the norms and values are charged
with emotion, while the basic and lower emotions become ennobled
by their contact with the social values.
The irksomeness of moral repression converts itself into "the
love of virtue" (7).
2. Xiberras 1989:132-159.
3. Zinberg 1984:17.
4. Zinberg 1984:5.
5. Perlongher 1990:26.
6. Couto 1989:133 and 134.k
7. Turner 1980:33. (retranslated from a Spanish version)