Ayahuasca, Ritual and Religion in Brazil

Originally published in 2010 ‘Ayahuasca, Ritual and Religion in Brazil’ is a collection of essays and articles, edited by Beatriz Caiuby Labate and Edward MacRae, on the emergence of ayahuasca-using religious movements in Brazil. Many of the articles are available for the first time in English and as a collection it represents a wide range of approaches on the topic, generally derived from the human sciences.

The story of the Brazilian ayahuasca-using religions finds its roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when migrant workers, on the rubber plantations in the Acre area of Brazil, came into contact with the indigenous, Amazonian peoples. A combination of the local shamanic practice of ayahuasca use, elements of Catholicism and the emerging Afro-Brazilian religions, helped create a hotbed of spiritual movement in Brazil, which continues to evolve and expand to this day.  This collection of anthropological writings seeks to help fill the gap of English-language research in the area, which to date is relatively sparse. And as these movements begin to make inroads into North America and Europe, these articles are timely in helping to develop the groundwork for a more global understanding.

Primarily, the collection deals with the three major ayahuasca churches who are as follows: Santo Daime, founded on March 26th 1931 by Mestre (Master) Irineu; the União do Vegetal, founded July 22nd 1961, by Mestre Gabriel; and the Barquinha, founded in 1945 by Mestre Daniel. Each organization displays its own particular symbologies, cosmologies and practices, which are expertly explored in these texts. What makes them a combined object of study is that they all utilise the plant-based hallucinogen ayahuasca in some manner. By examining, through various perspectives and methodologies, all three religions, the collection brings to light their nuances, in regard to the wider culture and each other, which is very useful in mapping the phenomena. Missing from this collection are perspectives on the new urban ayahuasca groups, as is noted in the introductory essay, but I think perhaps their inclusion would stretch the reach of the collection too far.

A number of observations the editors make in their introductory essay seem pertinent enough to repeat here, for the purposes of contextualising the difficulties faced in the anthropological research of these religions. Firstly, the use and standardisation of language. Ayahuasca is the main term applied to the mix of Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis but the groups themselves uses names like ‘daime’ and ‘vegetal’, and researchers use a plethora of terminology including ‘brew’ and ‘tea’. This perhaps points to the need for a standardisation of terminology, certainly academically, although understanding the specific applications of terms by the religions themselves is a study in itself. Also, the term ‘religion’ itself can be contentious for it is ill-defined, whilst some researchers apply the term ‘sect’, which has pejorative connotations in the Western world and could potentially be the cause of misunderstanding.

Two other interesting issues are raised as being central concerns for this field of study. Firstly, is there an overemphasis on the pharmacological dimensions of these religions? And, secondly, without this dimension, to what extent can they be grouped together, especially when all three religions see themselves as having independent histories? Ultimately, these questions are both asked and answered simultaneously by the production of articles, texts and collections such as this. In themselves, the religions may see themselves as having independent histories but if one pushes the historical timeframe back further, then their cultural roots appear to converge on the rubber plantations around the turn of the twentieth century. Also, ayahuasca use was historically limited to the Amazon (having now spread of course) and they therefore retain a shared, geographical space. Perhaps the inclusion of an article delineating/examining shamanic use from religious use might have been illuminating for the collection. Needless to say the editors raise these issues and it goes to making the collection much more engaging for the novice reader.

Alongside the introductory essay Brazilian Ayahuasca Religions in Perspective, by Beatriz Labate, Edward MacRae and Sandra Goulart, there is a look at ayahuasca use among rubber tappers by Mariana Ciavatta Pantoja and Osmildo Silva da Conceição. Each of the three religions have a couple of texts dedicated to them, which explore symbolic systems, practises and religious matrices, among other perspectives. There are also a number of texts on their involvement with the political world of the State. Ayahuasca religions are in exchanges with governments all over the world because their sacrament raises concerns among politicians who usually take hard-line stances with hallucinogenic substances. In Brazil, however, ayahuasca use has been legalised by the State. One can’t help but think that the extent of anthropological and academic interest has been an immeasurably beneficial aid for their cause, by establishing social coherence and acceptance.

Academic, anthropological texts about the ayahuasca religions in English are lacking and this collection goes a long way to redressing this problem. In the face of the small cultural explosion of interest in ayahuasca in the Western world, it only seems right that the academic community keeps apace of this phenomena and academics in South America have done much in the way of interesting work, which can be built on and expanded. Ayahuasca, Ritual and Religion in Brazil works on many levels; firstly it is engaging enough for the novice to be able to take a great deal of information, especially historical and cultural, away with them. Secondly, it provides the seasoned academic with important structural, linguistic and socio-historical perspectives, all interesting tools in understanding the ayahuasca religious movement. Overall this is an excellent and insightful collection of articles and is highly recommended for academics and ayahuasca enthusiasts alike. You can buy a copy here.

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1 Response

  1. October 12, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Meta Trance, PsypressUK. PsypressUK said: New Literary Review: 'Ayahuasca, Ritual and Religion in Brazil': http://t.co/ZNt8nzF […]

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