Re-reading Ayahuasca: Cultural complexities of the vine unpicked
“You are the shaman,” announced Terence McKenna at the beginning of a new phase of the archaic revival. With thousands of you-shamans going to Iquitos every year to get their feathers, it may be time to unpack that idea, and for that reason the new edition of the 15-year-old classic Ayahuasca Reader (AR) is extremely timely. As Jeremy Narby comments in the book, aya-tourists are bringing hard cash for access to indigenous knowledge, whereas earlier generations of visitors usually brought hard labour, and this is a welcome development, notwithstanding the impacts on Amazonian economies. Meanwhile, the ayahuasca vine continues to spread abroad from its indigenous roots, into diverse legal, social, ritual and moral spaces. All of these areas are explored in the book, often with exquisite writing.
Synergetic Press threw parties last November in London and New York for the book launch. The London proceedings were introduced by Dr David Luke, parapsychologist and resident raconteur at the Ecology Cosmos and Consciousness Salon, who took great care to distinguish between shamanism and non-shamanism in his breakdown of the scene. Jeremy Narby followed, describing his experience of fieldwork among the Ashaninka in the eighties, seeking to challenge the rationale of capitalism in the Amazon, where the logical thing to do is sell the timber and extract the minerals. His argument was that his hosts had uses for a large proportion of the plants around them, meaning that they were using the forest rationally. The conviction his subjects held, however, that it was the plants themselves that communicated their uses to the physicians of the forest, had struck the young Marxist as psychotic rather than rational, and so was the idea that this knowledge could be divined by drinking a powerful emetic roughly translated as “snake-vomit”.
At that time, ayahuasca was almost unknown outside of the Amazon, and so were indigenous cosmologies. The shamanic worldview, so beautifully explored in Francoise Barbira Freedman’s talk on divination and plant synergies, is yet to be taken seriously by Western academics, but plenty of people on the fringes of popular culture are learning to vomit and be grateful. They are also channeling their insights into transformation, of both the self and the outside world – with activism for example; David Luke found that one in five attendees at Breaking Convention had taken part in ecological activism as a result of taking psychedelics, and according to the introduction of AR, “Ayahuasca may already be joining people into alliances that will work towards social change, especially with regard to governments and corporations that are destroying the habitats of the sacred plants themselves on a massive, hitherto unseen, screen [vii].” In my own fantasy, those alliances have jaguar teeth fixed at the jugular of late capitalism, jaguar claws slashing at neo-colonialist ideology and the economies of exploitation. Shamans prepare poisons to paralyse and kill, as well as medicines to cure; their principle role was to protect the tribe, including thwarting its enemies. Ayahuasca itself was a weapon of war before it was a tool of psychotherapy, as Oscar Calavia Sáez points out in his chapter. Many indigenous and mestizo communities in the Amazon are engaged in lethal territorial battles of one sort or another, with oil and mining companies, paramilitaries, drug lords or state-sponsored death squads.
Ayahuasca also inspires art, and the book contains many beautiful images from Alex Gray, Pablo Amaringo and others including Martina Hoffmann, who gave a talk and shared other works. “Maybe the visionary artists have, in a way, taken [the shaman’s] place,” she wondered, “because we work in very similar ways – we open ourselves to spirit and bring in information for ourselves, for our communities.” And yet there are differences. Her art is clearly inspired by the spiritual world, and such work can be healing and visionary, glowing with power and meaning; but gaining access to those worlds is not the same as mastering them. To my traditionalist mindset, the shamanic path follows dietas completed in isolation and includes the acquisition of power and allies – but then what claim do I have on a word from the Siberian plains foisted upon Amazonia by racist anthropologists of the 19th century? Outside the lecture hall, chaos magician Julian Vayne explained to a shifty-looking group huddled by the datura tree that one knows a shaman by two signs: they provide the gear, and they wear the crazy hats.
Meaning shifts as culture drifts, and the shaman walks between the worlds, talking between tongues, his language twisting-twisting (to use Narby’s translation of an Ashaninka term). With “alternative facts” in the “fake news”, we seem to be sliding into the slippy abyss of epistemology, and perhaps we could all benefit from learning how to tongue-twist. Beginning with various indigenous creation myths, AR presents us again and again with multiple truths, ranging from scientific hypotheses concerning alkaloids to anthropological analyses unpacking power relations. Ayahuasca is prepared and consumed in many different ways, served to different users, and with different ends in mind. It catalyses very different experiences.
Trip reports can be boring sometimes, but AR has some truly superb examples of the genre. Wade Davis’s rolling prose takes the reader on a trip along the river of consciousness, and Alex Polari’s perspective as a Marxist revolutionary initiated into the syncretism of Santo Daime unravels the redemptive power of confusion. Michael Taussig contributes a fragmented and yagé-fueled meditation upon the dynamics of montage, shot through with wide-ranging scholarship and pinpointed genius. Taussig’s books did a great deal to bring experimental writing into anthropology (as well as taking anthropology into popular culture). The relevance of experimental writing to the matter of ayahuasca is amply demonstrated in AR.
In the words of Janet M. Chernela, quoted in the introduction, the “postmodern humanistic critique asserts that ethnography is a literary creation whose false “scientism” obfuscates underlying interest in both ethnography and native” . Even scientific approaches become gloriously multi-disciplinary in AR, such as the “biopsychosociospiritual paradigm” described by the Hungarian HEART research team  – put that in your cup and drink it! Morality is also complex in a culture where pre-Colombian and Catholic philosophies have been boiled together for centuries, where saints and shamans work side by side to cure and to curse. In the retreating jungle, where oil is extracted and cocaine manufactured, where tourism may be keeping traditions alive even as those traditions are modified for the tourists, there are no easy answers. The concluding section, ‘Writing Ayahuasca’, collects work from Allen Ginsberg, Graham Hancock and other well-known names. Mario Villafranca Saravia’s haunting magical tale of a journey into the void is a superb piece of penmanship.
This scene growing at the edge of capitalism, shamanism and fascination is fast-evolving and unstable, but so is everywhere else in the 21st century; there is no solid ground for us to rest our minds upon. If ever there was it was an illusion or worse, an instrument of empire – an idealised doctrine of scientism and rationalism that deprives the world of enchantment and threatens its biodiversity. If ayahuasca is “a propitiator of ecological literacy, a way of giving voice and agency to the nonhuman world” [vii], then those who drink it should pay close attention to what it demands of them. As the founder of Santo Daime puts it, in one of the excellent translations in AR: “Don’t talk, be someone who listens”.
The shaman draws upon hard-won experience from repeated ordeals of discombobulation; there are few dogmas or fixed formulas. “The game never seems to be secured, only played at different levels as one acquires more power… defenses escalate from animal spirits and souls to cosmic forces and elements. ” Experience is primary; explanations are multifarious. Wherever our loyalties lie, and however we may balk at the iconography of the ayahuasca religions, the woo of the neo-ayahuasqueros or the materialism of the scientists, we are all cooking together in this extraordinary melting pot, and we would do well to follow the example of the shamans in Francoise Barbira Freedman’s account:
“There was clearly a cleavage between the interpretations of the two shamans, one Indian-born, who had a long acquaintance with the rainforest in the midst of various indigenous peoples, the other mestizo, who spent some time in a forest environment with his shaman father but whose frame of reference was mainly urban… I sensed a mutual respect and a tacit aknowledgment of difference in their contracted relationships.” 
Like the brew itself, this book is a work to return to again and again. Each sip reveals something different when Taussig, Ginsberg and Hancock are distilled together with ancient myth and modern psychopharmacology. AR does a great job of bringing together the pious, the curious and the indigenous, and any sincere student of the mysteries of ayahuasca can expect to have some of their illusions ruptured – and maybe to see some light shining through the cracks.