Book review “O Uso Ritual da Ayahuasca”

Beatriz Caiuby Labate and Wladimyr Sena Araújo(eds.)

Campinas, Mercado de Letras, 2002


Ayahuasca, also known as Santo Daime or Vegetal, is a brew made from two plants: the vine Bannisteriopsis caapi and the rubiacea Psychotria viridis which must be boiled together for many hours. It contains the psychoactive substances DMT (from the Psychotria) and Harmine, Harmaline and Tetrahydroharmine (from the Bannisteriopsis). DMT is inactive when taken orally and thus must be only mixed with an Monoamineoxidase inhibitor so that its psychoative effects may be felt. The discovery of this synergic combination of two plants is considered to be one of the most significant ethnobotanical achievements of the Indian cultures and one that most intrigues scientists. There have even been attempts at patenting in the US this formula lifted from the Amazonian indigenous cultural knowledge of phytochemistry. It took much mobilization on the part of the Indian communities to stop them.

Ayahuasca, the Quechua name of this drink , means “vine of the spirits”, and the expansion of its use beyond the Indian and mestizo Amazonian population has been considered the most important phenomenon to happen in the world of entheogens in the last decade.

Since the last decades of the XXth century, a new way of consuming hallucinogens has spread from the Amazon to the Brazilian metropolitan centres and, from Brazil to several different parts of the world. This new form of consumption has a strong spiritual component derived from several syncretic religions which are the result of fusions of popular Catholicism, Amazonian Indian traditions and Afrobrazilian religions. The religions that use this brew are a case apart in a world where the persecution, repression and stigmatisation of drugs, carried out by the international war on drugs campaign, affects in a general manner all psychoactive products that are included in the lists of globally proscribed drugs.

Apart from the traditional North American Indian peyote cults, which are authorized under ethnical criteria for the members of the Native American Peyote Church, and the African Bwiti religion, which is practiced in Gabon and the Camaroons, the only other entheogenic religions (that use sacred psychoactive substances), which have legal permission to function and are institutionally accepted, are the Brazilian ayahuasca religions.

After great initial repercussion in the media, due to the participation of well known artists in one of these religions, the Santo Daime, the phenomenon reached many other countries. In these, Santo Daime churches have been set up where the sacred drink is taken during rituals of Amazonian shamanic origin which include dancing and hymn singing in Portuguese.

This has led to the opening of a fertile new field of anthropological studies on the ritual uses of ayahuasca and at present the different ayahuasca religions are being studied by many different researchers. The pharmacological aspects of the brew have already been studied by Alexander Shulgin, Dennis MacKenna, Jace Callaway and Jonathan Ott.

The anthology “O Uso Ritual da Ayahuasca” (“The Ritual Use of Ayahuasca”) published in 2002 and organized by Beatriz Labate and Wladimyr Sena, is the first compilation of studies of this phenomenon to be published and carries articles by anthropologists, pharmacologists, doctors and representatives of the three main Brazilian ayahuasca religions (Santo Daime, União do Vegetal and Barquinha). It is a compilation of work presented at the I CURA (First Congress on the Ritual Uses of Ayahuasca), which was held at the Instituto de Filosofia e Ciências Humanas at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), on the 4th and 5th of November 1997, and is a good presentation of the state of the art in the field of international ayahuasca research.

The book is made up of twenty five articles and is nearly seven hundred pages long. It is divided in three parts: “Ayahuasca among the people of the forest”, which deals with traditional Indian and Mestizo uses; “The Brazilian ayahuasca religions”, on the syncretic religions that appeared in Brazil in the beginning of the XXth century, with articles by anthropologists and spokesmen of the different religions. The third part “Pharmacological, medical and psychological studies on ayahuasca” has articles by doctors, psychologists and pharmacologists on the most recent scientific researches on the effects of ayahuasca.

The breadth of the coverage, the novelty of many of the studies and the variety of approaches, make “O Uso Ritual da Ayahuasca” the most complete work ever published on the subject, making it an essential reference book not only for researchers but also for all those of the general public who may be interested in the relation between sacred drugs and religions, between Indian cultures and different types of interethnic relations, mixtures and syncretisms, between the traditional healing techniques and scientific medicine, between psychotherapy and shamanism. Other subjects of great contemporary import make this anthology a mature set of reflections on some of the most important themes of our time such as: the philosophical content of extatic experiences, the relations between the Amerindian religions and the Christianisation of America, the physiological and psychological nature of psychedelic effects and the ritual and political regulation of the use of psychoactive substances. The wisdom of archaic cultures confronts the refinement of the neurosciences and faces the difficulties of a world where the much needed fusion of cultures must overcome economic and political barriers that threaten not only the survival of precious Indian cultures and their hybrid and mestizo forms, but Humanity as a whole.

The book deals with questions that are at the centre of classic philosophical and anthropological debates such as: What is a ritual? What is the definition of religion? How are they formed and how do they subdivide? What is the difference between religion and healing practices?

The study of shamanism leads us back not only to the old comparison already made by Lévi-Strauss of the shaman and the psychoanalyst, but also to the discussions on the nature of illness and healing. The central role played by ayahuasca in South American shamanism gives rise to debates on the way different cultural traditions can be integrated and the limits to the defense of traditional purity. Traditional and modern uses and how they may live alongside each other amicably, the different degree to which different uses of different substances are tolerated and criticism of the systems of social control that exist at present, are themes that cross all the discussions on the meanings of the various uses of ayahuasca.

The first part of the book is made up of ethnographies on Indian uses of the brew (Esther Jean Langdon on the Siona, in Colombia; Barbara Keifenheim on the Kashinawa, in Peru; Pedro Leite da Luz with a review of the bibliography on the Pano, Arawak and Tukano language groups) as well as those of the mestizo population, such as the rubbertappers in Acre. It also carries polemical statements on the legitimacy of Western appropriations of traditional knowledge, which Gérman Zuluaga considers to be an authentic way only among the Indians themselves. The French doctor Jacques Mabit, who lives in the Peruvian Amazon and is responsible for a therapeutic centre in Tarapoto where ayahuasca is used, discusses the nature of visionary production among the healers of the Upper Amazon and Luis Eduardo Luna focuses on the relations between shamanism and the natural world.

The second and longest part of the book comprises the writings of anthropologists and of spokesmen for the ayahuasca religions, who are given a chance to expound on their practices and doctrines. Among the anthropologists, Beatriz Labate makes an inventory of the Brazilian literature on the ayahuasca religions, while Sandra Lúcia Goulart, deals with the Santo Daime, Arneide Bandeira Cemin studies the Alto Santo, Wladimyr Sena the Barquinha and Lucia and Henrique Gentil and Sérgio Brissac the União do Vegetal. The greater number of articles on the CEFLURIS, one of the branches of the Santo Daime, corresponds to the greater media coverage this branch has suffered at national and international levels. The historical aspects of each of these religions, the biographies of their leaders, their doctrinal and ritual differences, their ruptures and dissidences are exhaustively dealt with, as is their international repercussion in an article by Carsten Balzer on the Santo Daime in Germany. The anthropologist Edward MacRae discusses a subject which is taboo to many ayahuasca religions: the role of Cannabis sativa as a sacred plant alongside the Santo Daime in the CEFLURIS, where Cannabis is identified with the Virgin Mary. Other branches of the Santo Daime, like all the other ayahuasca religions, condemn this vigorously. The nature of the Santo Daime rituals is examined by Fernando de la Roque Couto and the possibilities of their therapeutic use by Maria Cristina Pelaez.

The last part of the anthology deals with some of the most recent research on the human pharmacology of ayahuasca. There is a study of the psychological and physiological effects of ayahuasca among habitual União do Vegetal users, carried out with the participation and supervision of important Brazilian and foreign medical institutions. Here the clinical conditions of chronic use and cases of acute ingestion were put under observation. In another article the Israeli psychologist Benny Shanon proposes the opening of a new field of studies, apart from the medical-pharmacological and the anthropological ones. This one should be psychological, or as he says, should deal with the experience as seen from inside. Shanon proposes a classification of the visionary contents among many different groups of experimenters. Finally, Jonathan Ott contributes with an article on the nature of the synergy that occurs among sources of DMT and Monoamineoxidase inhibitors, presenting a vast range of combinations of substances that produce the same effect as ayahuasca, which he calls ayahuasca analogues, anahuasca and pharmahuasca. He also analyses jurema, another plant traditionally used by Indians in Brazil and which also contains DMT.

Brazil is already at the centre of the phenomenon of the religious use of ayahuasca. Now the anthology “O Uso Ritual da Ayahuasca” puts it in a priviledged position in the academic and scientific research into such practices. Despite the unevenness of the different articles in the book and a few proofreading slips, it is a priceless work that helps bring light to an experience which is described as visionary. It is an important part of the effort to establish a dialogue between the science of Pharmacology and the Indian ethnobotanical knowledge that faces the difficulties of having its secrets revealed, and its wisdom robbed. It describes ecstasies but, above all, the mechanisms of their control and regulation.


Henrique Soares Carneiro is Professor of History at the University of São Paulo (USP), Brazil

Translated to English by Edward MacRae

Published originally in:, MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies), 2004.