From the Solitary "Vegetalistas" to the "Collective
Shamanism" of the Santo Daime
Shamanism, also called "pajelanca"
in Brazil, is the most important Amerindian religious institution
preserved by the Amazonian mestizo. In spite of having adopted
Christian prayers, placing Catholic saints in place of familiar
spirits, side by side with supernatural water and forest spiritual
beings, shamanism is still of the least modified Indian cultural
In the Shamanism practiced by the Santo Daime cult adepts it is
possible to detect innumerable traces of Indian and "caboclo"
As already mentioned, the man, sometimes referred to as Don Crescencio,
to whom Mestre Irineu's initiation to the use of ayahuasca is
attributed , was probably a vegetalista, very similar to the ones
studied by Luna and Dobkin de Rios. In this comparison, Mestre
Irineu is similar to the more urbanized shamans, who maintain
in their beliefs and practices an Indian influence coexisting
with elements of Roman Catholic, Spiritualistic, Esoteric and
African traditions. The very title of "Mestre", given
him by his followers and also used by members of another Brazilian
ayahuasca-using sect, the Uniao do Vegetal, reminds one of the
Spanish "Maestro" used by the Peruvian ayahuasqueros.
The reports of Mestre Irineu's initiation show the basic elements
present in the shamanic tradition, specially his solitary retreat
to the forest, where he followed a series of rigorous dietary
and other behavioral ritual prescriptions. Although the period
normally attributed to his isolation in the woods is short (only
eight days, vis-a-vis a minimum of six months, for the "vegetalistas"
studied) one must remember how, as a rubber-tapper, it was part
of his routine to spend long periods alone in the jungle. And
in spite of his first experiences with the brew having been in
the end of the 1910's or the beginning of the 1920's, it was only
in the 30's that he felt himself ready to perform works in public,
and subsequently develop his doctrine. Therefore it might be justified
to suppose that his initiation extended itself for many years
and that, in the 20's, he had spent other periods of retirement
in the woods, learning the secrets of the brew he named Daime.
To the Amazon "caboclo", the forest and the rivers are
the domains of a great variety of evil spiritual beings, the "anhangas".
There are also guardian spirits that protect certain animals ,
plants, mountains and rivers. They are generally conceived as
feminine spirits, called "mothers", that must be propitiated
in various ways by hunters, fishermen, or others who for one reason
or another wander through their domains. They have their place
in the caboclo's religiosity but, though they might be occasionally
propitiated they are not worshipped. Worship is reserved to saints
conceived as providers of the means of attaining well-being, good
crops, good health, etc..
With regard to "teacher plants", it is their "mothers"
who are the real holders of the wisdom passed down to those who
know how to use them. One of the main plants that have "mothers"
is the ayahuasca. Therefore, when having visions where a "lady",
the "Queen of the Forest" came to deliver her teachings,
Mestre Irineu was keeping himself strictly within the traditions
of the "ayahuasquero" shamans. As a "caboclo"
strongly influenced by Western and Christian traditions, he does
not perceive her as Indian spiritual being but as the great Catholic
archetype of motherhood, Our Lady of the Conception, widely revered
in the region. This way, the pagan tradition of Indian origin
could be incorporated to the cult of the Catholic saints, becoming
legitimate and socially acceptable.
The adoption of the double armed cross of Caravaca, under the
name of "Cruzeiro", mandatory in all Daime "works",
is another important symbolic support for the Christianization
of the ancient "ayahuasquero" traditions. This version
of the cross of Christ, though not very common in Catholic ceremonies,
was already well-known to the people in the Amazon. In all of
Latin America it is usually associated to magic and Esoterism,
due to the use practitioners of such arts, make of the compendium
of prayers that carries the name and has its image stamped on
Maybe the main consequence of this process was the incorporation
of basic values of Christian ethics, pushing aside the ancient
moral ambivalence that made it difficult to distinguish the good
from the bad "vegetalistas". There is no place in a
doctrine revealed by the Virgin Mother for the use of magic poison
arrows or "virotes" and other types of sorcery used
by the "vegetalistas". Maybe as a result of this christianization,
the Daime shamanic work has lost many of its bellicose characteristics
necessary for engaging evil spirits or witches in battle. In their
place, more diffuse and generalized ideals of the "struggle
of Good against Evil", relief pain etc., were adopted. The
daimista's protection was more dependent on his moral rectitude
and on his obedience to rules of good conduct than on a defensive
armor, like the "arkana" of the "vegetalistas".
The virotes and the magic phlegm "yachay" used by "vegetalistas"
to protect them or to withdraw evil from the patients' body, are
conceived as being made of the same substance, simultaneously
material and spiritual. The spiritual substance can also be the
ritual knowledge which gives spiritual strength or the spirit
itself. So, the generic term for shaman is "yachak",
in quechua, meaning " owner of a yachay" (2). With christianization
, this complex and morally ambivalent conception of being "the
owner of a spirit" seems to have been substituted by the
concept of holy beings, like the Virgin Mother, the Celestial
Father, Jesus Christ and other divine members of the Celestial
Court. It is they who are requested for the power, firmness, light,
wisdom and love, which the "daimista" needs in order
to perform his works.
It would be unwise at this distance in time , to try to guess
the reason or intentions behind certain aspects of the doctrine
as taught by Mestre Irineu. Its inspired nature makes this especially
difficult, and it is not our intention to suggest that it might
have been the result of conscious planning to achieve certain
material advantages. It is more probable that the doctrine was
merely a result of Mestre Irineu's life experience and of his
religious sensibility. The support he occasionally received from
influential politicians, shows how well adapted his teachings
were to his social milieu. But one must be careful not to overestimate
such support, remembering that, on occasion, he and his followers
were the target of official persecution.
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 "Colonia
5.000". They played a decisive role in the spreading of Mestre
Irineu's and Padrinho Sebastiao¡¯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 Colonia 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, orixas, Don Juan's teachings, as related by Carlos
Castaneda, 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 Ceu do Mapia, 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 Mapia, in 1989, I was able to observe
these differences. Going up the Rio Purus, 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 Mapia, 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 Sebastiao, 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
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 Sebastiao, himself, received medical treatment
quite often, traveling to Rio de Janeiro on many occasions, with
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 Colonia 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. Galvao 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