The use of Ayahusca in Shamanism

The practice of shamanism varies throughout the world as an ancient healing tradition and a way of life for the world’s indigenous peoples.  At some point, it appears that nearly every culture has had some form of shamanistic/healing tradition.

Shamans are described in various resources as men and women who serve as intermediaries between this world and the spirit world.  They act on behalf of communities and individuals to heal, and to guide others on their own shamanistic paths.  The shaman’s focus is on connection to nature and on promoting the well-being of all creation.

Shamans are believed – trusted – to have closer relationships with spirits that others don’t.  Shamans can determine the sources of individual and community problems such as the cause of sickness or where game animals are to be found.  But more importantly, shamans are supposed to know where a lost soul has gone.

Shamanism in South America can be found in most rural communities and also in areas of large urban development. The shamans of the Amazon region believe deeply in the information the plant spirits give to them.  Other shamans embrace the plant information and also messages they receive from more traditional religion sources (particularly Catholic-based). One shaman received visions of angels and the Virgin Mary as well as the communications from the plants.  She incorporated all of these messages into her healing practices.  Other shamans have described receiving like messages from Mary, Christ, or directly from God.

The path to becoming an ayahuasca shaman is varied.  Some experience a powerful vision that leads them to shamanism. Others have followed a family tradition. But whatever reason influences the person, his or her path to shamanism typically includes long years of studying and mentoring. 

In Peru, apprentices study for long years under a Maestro (an ayahuasquero in some communities; in others, the master teacher may be the curandero or medico). They drink of the brew often during that time, living according to the “dieta”.

The apprentice shaman must establish a close relationship with the plants that will be used in healing.  The shaman-in-training will spend extended periods of time in solitude in the jungle so that the plant spirits may reveal how the plant elements will be used, and the songs (icaros) to be sung during healing ceremonies.

The apprentice learns through the dreams and visions he or she experiences as well. In dreams or visions, the student may be guided to ingest or ‘diet’ a plant into the body to allow the plant to impart its knowledge to the student.  The student will diet many plants (in addition to ayahuasca plants) over the lengthy course of study.  During these journeys of solitude the student shaman will follow very specific dietary restrictions (“la dieta”), and have no sexual intercourse.  Shamans believe that the plant spirits are very jealous, and will teach in their own time.

Some shamans will eventually specialize in certain plants but almost all will have experienced ayahuasca, because its role is to help the shaman communicate with other plants.  Ayahuasca is the foundation for plant knowledge in general.

The songs (icaros) are considered a very important element of the healing process. These icaros will be given by the plants themselves, transferred to the apprentice shaman in dreams, and assimilated with everyday sounds heard and elements of other shamans’ songs.  The songs/icaros are magic, sacred, and essential.  They also will become part of the ayahuasca ceremony itself.  The plants will sing information to the shaman during the ceremony to guide the shaman’s healing of a patient.

The role of shaman in some indigenous communities is considered basically a positive function, not to be confused with a witch or sorcerer.  Shamans of the upper Amazon region seem to have more of a mixed reputation.  They are trusted, or they are not; they heal, or they harm.  Shamans may use their knowledge for traditional shamanistic healing or they may act as sorcerers to cause mischief or harm.  And the same plants used for healing and defense can also be used to attack and harm.

A shaman may experience deep struggles between the functions of healing and harming.  A patient, a neighbor, or another member within the community may tempt a shaman to use his or her skills to harm someone else.  Only a shaman with utmost self-control can maintain a personal balance of power for true healing.

Amazonian shamans believe in the coexisting realms of reality, each with its own identities, layers, spirits, abilities, and customs.  Master shamans must negotiate these coexisting worlds to enlist assistance from all the entities.

Although many indigenous shamanist groups have disappeared, one group of shamans or healers that continues to thrive is the mestizo curanderismo of the Peruvian province of Loreto, where the city of Iquitos is located.  In this area, the mestizo healers practice in both the rural and urban areas, and many travelers come to visit in order to participate in ayahuasca ceremonies.

The ceremonies are conducted at night in the forest clearings outside Iquitos.  Each participant sips ayahuasca from a communal cup and the amount for each person to sip is directed by the healer.  The ayahuasqueros sing the sacred songs – icaros – to call forth spirits’ help for healing. The people in the drinking circle may be seeking to heal psychological traumas and depression; some will be experiencing physical illness.  The healer moves through the group throughout the long ceremony, shaking a leaf rattle and blowing tobacco smoke on patients to exorcise evil spirits, the cause of the diseases and the disorders.

Ayahuasca is a journey of dark and light for both the healer and the people participating.  The shaman/ curandero/ayahuasquero will spend time in the dark of the jungle or forest and in the dark of the ceremonial circle.  Like the patient, the healer will experience the darkness of fear, confusion, and evil.  The patient will travel through layers of trauma, the soul’s darkness.  With carefulness and commitment to healing, the shaman and patient will return to the light having cast out the demons and chaos.  Each will move forward in enlightenment.

Shamanism can seem to have layers of practices. Some shamans work with all plants; others work with some but focus much of their knowledge and use around ayahuasca.  In the mestizo populations is another layer of plant knowledge and shamanism called ‘vegetalismo’ and its practitioners are ‘vegitalistas’.

Vegitalistas follow a similar study course of spending weeks of isolation with the plants, “dieting” plants in order to learn from each plant’s spirit teacher.  Vegitalistas believe that plants host elemental spirits, capable of communication with humans.

Vegitalistas may be knowledgeable about ayahuasca, but will also be specialists in one or several other plants within their practices.  They will use ayahuasca during apprenticeship and in their own practice, because is it’s the Ayahuasca that makes communication with other plants possible.  Vegetalismo is considered a backward Indian custom to many urban mestizos.  But in the regions where ayahuasca is used, including Loreto, Peru, this form of plant shamanism thrives.


The use of Ayahuasca in Syncretic Religions

Syncretic religions combine two or more diverse, separate beliefs into one cohesive practice.  This can commonly be seen when foreign beliefs are introduced to an indigenous belief system and the teachings are blended.  It can also naturally occur when multiple religious practices exist in proximity to one another and become blended.


Santo Daime

Santo Daime is such a syncretic religion.  Santo Daime was founded in the 1930s in the Brazilian state of Acre.  Founded by Raimundo Irineu Serra (known as Mestre Irineu), a former rubber tapper on the rubber plantations.  His first congregants also were the former employees of the failing rubber tapping industry. Unemployed plantation workers migrated toward the cities in search of work and housing; Mestre Irineu began conducting ayahuasca-based spiritual ceremonies for them.

Mestre Irineu had experienced the mind-expanding effects of ayahuasca as a young man in the Amazonian forests.  During an ayahuascan ritual, Mestre Irineu received the first of several visions of the Virgin Mary.  During one vision, he received the doctrine of the Daime,
given to him by his spiritual teacher Clara (Virgin of the Immaculate Conception). The ritualistic aspects of the doctrine also came as a result of his communications with the Virgin.

Santo Daime incorporates a strong foundation of traditional Catholic Christianity with African animism (a belief that all entities –animals, plants, and inanimate objects, have a spiritual essence), and Kardecist Spiritism (more a philosophy of belief in spiritual evolution/reencarnation than an organized religion), and indigenous South American Shamanism. Santo Daime differs from traditional shamanism in that its doctrine attributes the powers of nature to God, incarnated as the Christ.  Today, Santo Daime is a worldwide movement.  Its motto is “Harmony, love, truth, and justice.”  Core values include strength, humility, fraternity, and purity of heart.

The principle elements of Santo Daime are based around Christianity, self-knowledge, and appreciation of all nature.  Originally textless, the early doctrinal learning was done through the singing of the hymns. These early instructional hymns would eventually become the content of sacred doctrine of the Santo Daime.  Dancing, prayer, concentrations (long periods of sitting in silent concentration), reciting the rosary, healing, and drinking Daime (ayahuasca) are all part of the ceremony structure.  Ayahuasca that is used in these services is referred to as Santo Daime or simply “Daime.” 

Daime, as mentioned in the hymns and doctrine, means “give me” – give me healing ( dai-me cura), or give me love (dai-me amor), give me faith (dai-me fé).  The Daime is drunk not only to heal or expel what is undesired (cleansing), but also to facilitate the visions that will guide the practitioner to reach the desired spiritual expansion.

Daime is brewed according to specific doctrine schedule and recipe, that differentiates it somewhat from the preparations of shamans.  Congregants prepare for ceremonial drinking of Daime by adhering to pre-Daime dietary restrictions and sexual abstinence – typically a period of three days before and after the ceremony.

Several controls differentiate the use of Daime from ayahuasca in shamanic healing, or any random mind-altering substance consumption.

  • The dietary and behavioral practices observed for specified periods of time before and after the ceremony.
  • Use and the séances during the ceremony are overseen by a leader and chosen “controllers”. 
  • Dosage/consumption is carefully controlled for each participant.
  • There is ritual spacial organization to keep participants in safely defined areas during the lengthy ceremony (for spiritual and symbolic reasons).
  • There also is behavioral guidance for participants.  Daime/ayahuasca is a powerful psychogenic substance and participants may experience deeply intense images and emotions for which they rely on the leader(s) for interpretation, observation, protection. 
  • Music is used to enhance the altered state and invoke spirits.
  • Hymns also help direct participants’ focus and relieve mental anguish, physical illness and ill feelings. 

Despite its potent hallucinogenic properties, Daime is taken within the strict ritual controls of Santo Daime. It appears not to trigger addiction when used in the prescribed ritual context, according to studies done, and it seems to serve as a controlled harm reduction/addiction breaker for participants who otherwise were turning to alcohol and recreational drugs. 


Uniao do Vegetal

Uniao do Vegetal is another syncretic religion. Considered by some to be an ancient, periodically dormant movement that was rediscovered and recreated by José Gabriel da Costa, Mestre Gabriel in Brazil in 1961.  The precept of Uniao was to bring peace to man by respecting the laws of the country and the spiritual laws, thus creating a path of Light, Peace, and Love.  It evolved as a Christian-indigenous religion with focus on the teachings of Jesus combined with a faithful practice of goodness, and atrust and belief in man’s union with the plants (a communion or harmony with Nature).

Like Mestre Irineu, Mestre Gabriel also worked as a rubber tapper in the Amazon.  And similarly, he first drank hoasca/ayahuasca as a young man and experienced its revelatory powers. He began his mission of organizing a belief system and gathering followers in 1961. 

Uniao do Vegetal means “union of the plants.”  The ayahuasca “tea” is a means of synchronizing with the Divinity as followers believe that Nature and spirituality are indivisible. Uniao do Vegetal’s hoasca practice is similar to Santo Daime’s hoasca/Daime in that its “brew” is prepared in ritual process and used in a structured, sacramental form.  Used as a sacrament of the Uniao from its inception, congregants revere it as a sacred tea and a sacred ritual process.  They believe hoasca has the power to heighten spiritual understanding, perception, and to link each Uniao member closer to God.

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