The Changing Forms of Shamanism and Ayahuasca Ritual


    In this paper I intend to outline some forms of shamanism found throughout Amazonia in which the psychedelic brew ayahuasca is used in a ritual context. Although I will be focusing primarily on the Mestizo population of Iquitos and Pucallpa, Perú,. Because there is a strong continuity between this cultures brand of shamanism and that of indigenous groups living in the Amazon, (from which the Mestizo Peruvians most likely gained much of their knowledge and practice)  I believe that many of their religious practices are fairly representative of Amazonian shamanism on the whole. But increased urbanization has inevitably brought about significant changes, and this group can be seen as occupying a space of "transitional shamanism" (Luna p. 36). I will also detail the syncretic nature of shamanic practices and towards the end of the paper  show how the nature of shamanism and ayahuasca ritual is being further adapted and transformed by increasingly urbanized South Americans to form new religions and offer speculations as to why this is occurring.

Logistics and Terminology

    My primary ethnographic source is that of Luis Eduardo Luna and I will therefore follow his use of the term mestizo in being a cultural rather than racial term. The defining traits among mestizos can be said to lie in the fact that Spanish is their native language yet they are ideologically operating within the "large and diffuse Upper Amazon cultural complex" which encompasses Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, and Bolivia ( Luna p. 15, 16).
    There has been much debate over the definition of the term shamanism. For the purposes of this essay I will follow Åke Hultkrantz definition: "The central definition of shamanism is to establish means of contact with the supernatural world by the ecstatic experience of a professional and inspired intermediary, the shaman. There are thus four important constituents of shamanism: the ideological premise; or the supernatural world and contacts with it; the shaman as the actor on behalf of a human group; the information granted him by his helping spirits; and the extraordinary, ecstatic experiences of the shaman" (qtd. in Luna p. 14).
    The word ayahuasca is derived from the Quechua indian language, aya glossed as dead person and waska as vine, and therefore roughly translated as "vine of souls" or "vine of the dead" (Luna p. 57; Schultes, Hoffman, and Rätsch p. 124). Ayahuasca itself, is an admixture of plants made into a psychedelic brew. Most commonly, the two main ingredients are the liana jungle vine Banisteriopsis caapi and a shrub from the coffee family Psychotria viridis. There are occasions when other plants are employed for specific purposes which I will more thoroughly detail later on. The primary biodynamic constituents found in B. caapi are beta-carboline alkaloids: harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine; while the primary alkaloid in P. viridis is N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) (McKenna, Luna, and Towers p. 351). DMT has been shown to be orally inactive unless it is accompanied by MAO inhibitors, which the beta-carbolines in B. caapi contain. It seems that DMT is primarily responsible for the psychoactive qualities of the brew, and while the constituents of P. viridis may primarily serve to potentiate DMT and render it orally active, the beta-carbolines themselves also contain psychoactive properties resulting in a powerful synergistic effect between the two plants (Davis p. 48).

Socioeconomic and Historical Factors

    As mentioned earlier, the mestizos of the Peruvian Amazon can be viewed as occupying a "transitional" space within shamanism, somewhere between a fully urbanized culture and that of indigenous communities of the rainforest, both from which they have incorporated different elements of practice. They may also be viewed as occupying an intermediary economic sphere due to the fact that they simultaneously rely on a subsistence as well as a market economy (Luna p. 36). Many of them have their own swidden gardens where they grow some food and medicinal plants but they have also held numerous and varied jobs throughout the Amazon region including involvement with rubber tapping and the military.
    Iquitos and Pucallpa are two of the largest urban centers in the Peruvian Amazon due to their natural resources or oil and rubber, respectively and because of this there has been historical and continued migration to these centers from people looking for work (Luna p. 28). Luna's main informant told him that the use of ayahuasca was discovered by the rubber collectors, and others have confirmed this: "At the beginning of the 20th century, mestizos apprenticed themselves with increasing regularity to Indian shamans during the social upheavals of the rubber boom, often after a life-threatening illness from which they had been cured. They in turn had trainees, which resulted in the spread of vegetalismo, a widespread syncretic mix of herbalism and shamanism in Amazonia..." (Pendell p. 145).
    Furthermore, Christian missionaries have been present throughout the area since the 16th century and even when the Christians themselves did not achieve direct contact with Indians, their ideas did (Luna p. 29, 89). And looking even further back before the arrival of the European colonizers, there was widespread cultural diffusion among Indian groups, one custom being the exchange of brides between groups that did not necessarily speak the same languages. All of these factors help to explain the syncretic mixture of religious elements we find in this culture. Thus, Luna states that "we may even say that syncretism was thus built into the system [of shamanism]" (Luna p. 26).
    Shamanism has traditionally not been a text-based religion, and in fact has no texts whatsoever, and neither does it have a standardized oral tradition. Instead, its premises are based on highly "individual formulations of religious ideas," there is no "dogma or doctrine" and it is "a matter of practice, interpretation, and inspiration" (Luna p. 18). This is yet another element that allows shamanism to be so open (perhaps even vulnerable) to assimilation and acculturation.

Cosmology and the Spirit World

    In shamanic cultures, the secular and the sacred are two aspects of everyday life that are not held in sharp contrast (McKenna, Luna, Towers p. 352). Almost all elements of the supernatural world are thought to have an effect on the lives of human beings and it is the shaman's job to maintain the proper health and functioning of the sacred or supernatural world and in doing so the natural world and human beings living in it as well. It is essential to note that "intelligence is not considered to be a prerogative of the human species" (McKenna, Luna, Towers p. 352). Not only does every plant, animal, and mineral have it's own spirit and knowledge, but other autonomous spirits also exist in the forests, lakes, and rivers. Certain spirits of plants, animals, and people (once living human beings and supernatural people) may become the helping spirits of shamans and impart to them knowledge and powers. The spirits come in an astonishing variety of forms including "indian or mestizo shamans, black men, foreign enterpeneuers, rubber bosses, princessses from western fairy tales, angels with swords from christian iconography, armed officials, famous deceased western doctors and.... even as extraterrestrials from different planets and solar systems" (Luna. p. 73). Another point to stress is that the shamans maintain that they receive all of their religious knowledge and power from these spirits, and that the main way they gain access to the spirits is through the ingestion of certain plants such as ayahuasca.
    Just like the invisible, supernatural world, the shaman's powers are also invisible but nonetheless perceived of as very real and consist of a series of magical objects and substances. The shaman's magical powers and objects have a variety of different purposes, they may be used for healing, harming, and protecting, with certain items being used for multiple purposes. The three primary magical tools of the shaman are his icaros (magic melodies), virotes (magic, pathogenic darts), and yachay (magic phlegm). All of these objects have complex and different roles yet they also "constitute three aspects of the same magic power" (Luna p. 113). The icaros are magic chants that are taught to the shaman not by other shamans but by the spirits of the supernatural world while under the influence of ayahuasca or other plants. The shaman can then use these chants in order effect certain kinds of healing. The other main purpose the icaro serves is to guide the content and quality of visions produced under the effects of ayahuasca. A shaman's rank corresponds to the quality and quantity of icaros that he has mastered and they may be sung in several different languages.The yachay is another magical tool bestowed on the shaman by his spirit helpers after the sacramental ingestion of plants which is also used for healing. There are several different varieties which come in different colors and serve different purposes, but the primary one is for healing. The yachay is a phlegm that is contained within the shaman's stomach. When someone is struck with a virote through whitchcraft, the shaman brings his yachay into his mouth (through the use of camphor and tobacco smoke during an ayahuasca session) in order to extract the pathogenic dart; he sucks at the place of the body where the dart is believed to be, the yachay acting as a magnet. The virote is then spit outside the house and believed to be returned to the shaman who attacked with it. Virotes are sent to attack people by evil shamans (sometimes hired by jealous enemies) and are considered witchcraft, and this is a principle reason that many patients seek a shaman. It is interesting that as settlements become increasingly urbanized and disconnected from the natural world, we can see a shift in cosmology relating to the origins of illness. Magical attacks are increasingly coming from humans instead of spirits of the forests, lakes, and rivers.

Uses of Ayahuasca and Theories of Illness

    The primary use of ayahuasca is to effect healing of or protection against illness. Ayahuasca is mainly used as a diagnostic tool and in most cases is not seen as being curative in itself. Ayahuasca allows the shaman access to the supernatural world through which he can determine the origin of illness and ultimately the cure as well which may or may not be carried out during an ayahuasca session. The cure may involve singing icaros or extracting virotes with yachay by the shaman, or taking baths with magic herbal preparations, following certain dietary and sexual prescriptions on the part of the patient.
    Just as it is not easy to make sharp distinctions between natural and supernatural worlds, it difficult to make them between natural and supernatural illnesses as well (Luna p. 125). Shamans may treat natural illnesses as well as supernatural ones and employ natural and supernatural cures, but it seems that even in the case of a supernatural illness the physiological aspects are stressed (Luna p. 50). Illness may also include psychological/emotional disturbances on the part of the individual or in his/her relationship with others as well as economic problems. Usually when Western medicine has been ineffective at curing the illness of a patient, witchcraft is suspected and s/he will seek the aid of a shaman. Other reasons that people may seek a shaman to cure illness is the fact that hospitals may be too expensive, foreign and/or frightening to the patient. The shaman is capable of providing a more personal and intimate healing method which may involve taking the patient into his home, paying close attention to the details of the patients concerns, giving emotional support, telling stories, and even providing family therapy in certain cases (Luna p. 161).

Initiation and Ritual

    The initiation of a shaman involves an apprenticeship under the guidance of a more experienced, senior shaman. Shamans may choose to undergo initiation due to pure personal desire, supernatural election, or familial inheritance (which can be caused by the spirits of ancestors) (Luna p.30). Oftentimes some sort of illness will befall the subject and he undergoes initiation in order to cure himself and in the process gains shamanic power and knowledge to heal others. The initiation involves intense periods of social isolation, a strict dietary regimen, and celibacy usually for a minimum of six months.These restrictions are not only applicable to the initiatory period and may be repeated at various points in the shaman's career in order to strengthen his powers and gain new knowledge and are also repeated before and after every ayahuasca session. Shamans "do not identify themselves or their ancestors with any specific tribal group...[there is] no concrete community or social group backing and supporting their initiation, nor is there any public ritual in which they are officially recognized as shamans... and there seems to be a gradual recognition on the part of the individual and the community that he is endowed with shamanic powers" (Luna p. 43).
    The ayahuasca rituals that shamans perform when healing patients are highly variable and individualistic. First the shaman(s) and patient(s) consume the brew. While waiting 10-30 minutes for effects to take place prayers for protection are performed. Some incorporate many Catholic elements such as observing prayers to Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Usually traditional spirits are called upon for protection of the space and the participants. These spirits may take quite varied forms such as angels with swords, soldiers with guns, fighter aircraft, or electric eels all of whom are called with the appropriate icaro (Luna p. 93). Patients may be called on individually by the shaman who treats them in which a variety of techniques are used such as the ones mentioned in the above section as well as the shaking of a rattle and blowing smoke. The effects of the brew come in waves of roughly one hour and consist of purgative and visionary features. Vomiting and diarrhea are quite common and normally occur four to five times in a session, the visions are usually strongest at the points before and after purging. Ayahuasca's purgative and emetic properties are viewed as part of its strong cleansing and purifying effects. The icaros are also chanted in intervals and in the space between all members may make comments and jokes relating to the experience as well as after the effects start to fade. The preparatory hours immediately preceeding the ayahuasca session are an important time when stories are told which reinforce religious beliefs and create social cohesion (Luna p. 142).

The Ecosystem and Role of Plants

    Many studies of shamanism involving ayahuasca tend to minimize the importance of the numerous other plants in the pharmacopeia of the shaman. Among shamans (also self-termed vegetalistas, which highlights the significance of plants) there are various specializations. Some may specialize in the use of ayahuasca (ayahuasqueros), some tobacco (tobaqueros) and a long list of other types of plants as well (Luna p. 32). And many shamans may specialize in several different plants. As noted earlier, ayahuasca allows shamans to directly communicate with the spirit of different plants. And this is in fact one of ayahuasca's main purposes, "a tool for studying the properties of other plants" as well as the ecosystem of the natural world (Luna p. 66). By adding new and different plants to the ayahuasca admixture, the shaman can interpret the effects and potential healing use of these other plants based on how they alter the perceived effects caused by standard preparation (Luna p. 66). Through experimentation with various admixtures which seem to be unlimited the shaman is able to expand his pharmacopoeia. A quite interesting approach to bioassay!
    Specific plants have specific kinds of powers or knowledge which they can impart to the shaman. Essentially "the central idea is that certain qualities or properties of plants, animals, minerals, or metals can be incorporated by ingestion of some part of them" (Luna p. 104). Any given plant may contain qualities that are positive, negative, or both. If a shaman follows the prescribed diet and behavior he will take on the positive qualities, and otherwise the negative.

"Modern" Ayahuasca Religions: Santo Damie, Barquinha, and the União do Vegetal

    These three religions based on traditional ayahuasca ritual have developed in Brazil over the past half century starting in the 1940's and continue to grow even claiming followers around the globe. And even these three religions have fractured and spawned numerous sub-cults. These religions are also similar to traditional shamanism in that they are open to various formsof syncretism including forms of Afro-Brazilian spirituality such as spirit possession. But while these religions have traditional shamanism as their basis and all involve the ritual drinking of ayahuasca many essential elements have been not only transformed but completely rejected. So we can see that while the elements of dynamism inherent to shamanism remain, with each shift certain characteristics are lost while others are gained. In the case of these somewhat recently formed religions there seems to be a continuing trend towards more rigid and hierarchical structuring. It may be that the change in religious structure is reflective of the social needs and expectations of the new class of people involved whom are most often white, urban, and middle-class.
    The UDO has officially rejected healing as well as the use of tobacco; elements that would be incomprehensible to reject in traditional shamanism. Some other notable changed include members being required to pay fees on a regular basis, formulaic dance steps, recorded music, the memorization of hymns and chants, and ridiculously complicated social structures of rank and hierarchy with some members even being demoted and punished for certain behaviors. The everyday practical connection to nature has been lost, and with it the reliance on the natural world as the source for power and knowledge which are now transmitted through members on the group based on their social/religious rank. Pendell says one member stated the conundrum of the church as such "We will accept the risks of institutionalization to preserve the spiritual focus on community rather than on the solitary explorer" (Pendell p. 147). We can only imagine how these religions will continue to be transformed in the future. As the geographical locations and social contexts shift, so too will the forms of shamanism and ritual use of ayahuasca.

Works Cited

Davis, Wade. "Ethnobotany: An Old Practice, A New Discipline." Ethnobotany: Evolution of a Discipline. Ed. Richard Evans     Schultes and Siri Von Reis. Cambridge: Timber P, 1995. 

Dobkin De Rios, Marlene. Visionary Vine: Hallucinogenic Healing in the Peruvian Amazon. Prospect Heights: Waveland P,     Inc., 1972. 

Harner, Michael J., ed. Hallucinogens and Shamanism. New York: Oxford UP, 1973. 

Luna, Luis Eduardo. Vegetalismo: Shamanism Among the Mestizo Population of the Peruivian Amazon. Stockholm:                 Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1986. 

MacRae, Edward. "The Ritual Use of Ayahuasca by Three Brazilian Religions." Drug Use and Cultural Context 'Beyond the     West' Ed. Ross Coomber and Nigel South. London: Free Association Books, 2004. 

McKenna, Dennis J., Luis Eduardo Luna,  and G. N. Towers. "Biodynamic Constituents in Ayahuasca Admixture Plants: an     Uninvestigated Folk Pharmacopeia." Ethnobotany: Evolution of a Discipline. Ed. Richard Evans Schultes and Siri Von         Reis. Cambridge: Timber P, 1995. 

Pendell, Dale. "Ayahuasca Dreams: Banisteriopsis Caapi." Pharmako Gnosis: Plant Teachers and the Poison Path. San         Francisco: Mercury House, 2005.

Schultes, Richard Evans, Albert Hofmann,  and Christian Rätsch. Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and                         Hallucinogenic Powers. 2nd ed. Rochester: Healing Arts P, 1992.

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