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Freaky Friday: Ayahuasca Past and Present

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note:  In his short commentary on “The Stoned Ages” a couple of weeks ago, co-managing editor Joe Spillane mentioned that viewers who hoped to learn more about ayahuasca would be disappointed by the show, given its obsession with psilocybin mushrooms.  Reader, if he was talking about you, fret no more!  Counterprogramming against this weekend’s rerun of “The Stoned Ages,” Freaky Friday today treats ayahuasca in all its glory, courtesy of several members of the Working Group on Psychoactive Plants and Religion (WGPR) at the University of Florida.  The post was written by James C. Taylor and Lucas de Biaji Moreira, graduate students under the supervision of Robin Wright, Associate Professor of Religion. James Taylor, a graduate of Jacksonville University, is at work on an M.A. thesis entitled “The Trees are Human: Psychoactive Plants, the Subjectivity of Nature, and an Engagement with Modernity in the Napo Runa Kichwa Culture of Ecuador.”  He serves as the web administrator for the WGPR and its affiliate website, New Studies on Shamanism. Lucas Moreira graduated from the College of Charleston. The working title of his M.A. thesis is “Religious Counter-Nationalism and Counter-Religious Nationalism: Encounters with the State in Spaces of Inclusion and Exclusion.”

The Department of Religion and the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida will host a conference entitled “Humans, Plants, and Religion: a Multi-Disciplinary Approach” December 12-16, 2011.  Points readers interested in participating or attending should contact Robin Wright at rowrightrobin@yahoo.com.

How much of the clamor surrounding ayahuasca in the last few years comes down to the thrill of the exotic, the strange mystique of the dense jungle condensed into a murky brew–especially a brew with a reputation for bringing strange and vivid visions of other worlds?  Or is the uproar fostered, rather, by a yearning for a kind of reconnection, through the remarkable transformative power of this tea that supposedly opens up unimagined spiritual horizons? Both desires fuel the interest in ayahuasca tourism, which both resonates with neo-colonial expectations of/projections onto the “other” and speaks to an authentic urge for spiritual renewal.  Ayahuasca seeking is an experience composed from parts of both, but not reducible to either one alone.

Vine of Souls, Plant of Gods, Trip of Lifetime


Ayahuasca – the “vine of the souls” in Quechua – first became known to the Western world through the ethnobotany of Richard Spruce and his disciple Richard Evans Schultes,  Containing chemicals once dubbed “telepathine” for their seeming power to grant mind-to-mind contact when ingested, Banisteriopsis Caapi was later recognized to contain both harmine and harmaline, the same beta-carboline alkaloids present in Peganum Harmala, or Syrian Rue.  The word ayahuasca refers both to the B. caapi vine and the brew created from it.  This tea is created in conjunction with the leaves of the Psychotria Viridis bush, a species known in parts of Peru and Ecuador as “chacruna,” which containing the chemical compound known as DMT. Though normally inactive orally, when combined with the harmine and harmaline of B. caapi DMT becomes active and passes the brain-blood barrier.  It is the DMT that is thought to produce the significant majority of the intense visions for which ayahuasca is known.

Indigenous peoples throughout much of the Amazon have long histories of ayahuasca use. It has served as a primary means of divining the causes and cures of both naturally occurring illness and harms caused by sorcery.  It was, and still is, often employed by ritual experts – shamans – seeking both the pathological elements (in Western terms, something like the disease or infecting agent) as well as the social roots of a particular illness.  In many indigenous and mestizo Amazonian cultures, disease and death are rarely considered “natural” by-products of daily life.  Rather, they are understood to result from the ill-will of some other party–whether human, or other-than-human, as animal, plant, spirit, ghost, or god.  In some cases, the shaman alone drinks the ayahuasca brew, and acts as the sole mediator between the human and the spirit world; in others, ayahuasca is drunk collectively. 

Shipibo Tribe Figurines with Ayahuasca-Inspired Designs, Peru


The latter cases cannot be strictly understood in terms of “healing” given their significant social and religious components.  The visions seen in collective ayahuasca rituals are regularly expressed in indigenous material culture such as weaving, pottery, body and face painting, among others.  Designs often draw on the extraordinarily complex geometric patterns witnessed as part of the ayahuasca visions, though they cannot be understood simply as translations of visual effects.  They are embedded in and part of a complex web of cultural and religious meanings that cannot be understood solely as artifacts of a psychoactive experience, nor as solely culturally derived formulations, but must be seen as some combination of the two.

The surge of interest in ayahuasca reflects the increasing urbanization of ayahuasca use: the popularization of the brew has gone hand in hand with its movement into the cities, where its use has been adapte, and innovated upon to suit a different place and different needs.  Though there are no hard and fast distinctions to be drawn between indigenous use of ayahuasca and its many urban and mestizo uses, there are qualitative differences in who uses it, the social and religious structures surrounding the brew, the training required of those who will brew and serve it, and their range of knowledge about other forest medicines.  At the risk of over-generalizing, in many cases, the urban ayahuasca  ritual specialist may not have the same degree of ethnobotanical knowledge found among more traditional ritual specialists.  Shamanic use of ayahuasca among urban mestizos tends to focus on disease and calamity rooted in human social dysfunction, and cures tend to be less involved with ethnobotanical understandings of flora and fauna than with the restoration or alteration of strained social relationships.  This is not surprising: since urbanization in many ways implies a physical and social distance from the forestit makes sense that urban ayahuasca users are oriented less to “nature” than to human social interaction.

I Have a Feeling We're Not in the Jungle Anymore


With its presence and reputation growing in certain Latin American urban centers, ayahuasca has increasingly begun to figure in the Western imaginary.  Cities in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Brazil among others have seen an increasing number of tourists  searching for an opportunity to drink the brew.  Like the broader eco-tourism trend from which it springs , ayahuasca tourism is driven by differing narratives of religious commodification, spiritual transformation, neocolonial appropriation, and sincere pilgrimage.  There are very real ethical concerns over its growing popularity among a global  urban elite who can afford trips to Latin America for the privilege of drinking ayahuasca.  The brew has been in many cases isolated out of the socio-historical situation where it was originally used.  The healing techniques, the spiritual knowledge, and the deeply meaningful cultural traditions that long guided its use are often simply brushed aside as the tea is drawn into a broader New Age rhetoric by popularizers.

Lima's Bar Ayahuasca. Recommended by Conde Nast Traveller, May 2010


However, at the same time, some users do report powerful changes changes for the better in terms of both spiritual and psychological health after working with ayahuasca shamans, even when the healing methodologies fall distinctly beyond their own cultural ways of knowing.  This raises the question of whether a person who, in good faith, comes seeking healing, should be labeled a “tourist.”  Are they not better described as a kind of pilgrim?  This, in fact, is what many non-native users say of their experiences with ayahuasca, whatever their original intentions for seeking the experience out: that they found healing, and a sense of reconnection, both to themselves and to the world.

Thus while cultural and religious appropriation and commodification are very real, unsolved, and still pressing issues, the story of contemporary ayahuasca does not lend itself to a simple moralizing prohibitionist stance.  Shamans, both indigenous and mestizo, have begun to work directly with tourists, simultaneously finding in the surging interest a source of revenue and a means of revitalizing aspects of their own cultures.  While there are real questions about the authenticity of some shamans working in popular tourist destinations, others have long histories of working within their communities and now see an opportunity to extend their work to others who may benefit.  Many of these shamans describe their work as healing, albeit in new contexts and in ways that do not always follow original traditions.  But they believe themselves to be healing all the same, addressing the psychological and spiritual wounds carried by “tourists.”

Ride the Snake...but Be Careful (Image by Howard G. Charing)


The expansion of this market has led young people within mestizo and indigenous communities to take a renewed interest in many of the cultural forms of shamanism that had begun to decline.  The question remains open, however, as to whether or not this renewed interest raises the ethical difficulties of opportunism.  The tea is powerful, as any trained shaman will warn.  Putting it in the hands of someone who is untrained, or who is trained but has motives that are not oriented toward healing—this can put the patient, whether indigenous, mestizo, or Western, in danger.  Ayahuasca is not, and has never historically been, something to be taken lightly, for purely “recreational” use.  Those who do so find themselves physically and psychologically purging in unpleasant ways, in situations that may very well prove to be dangerous.  Its salutary potential is not to be ignored, but there are reasons ayahuasca has a reputation for being used in sorcery as well as for healing.

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