Ayahuasca is a plant that is used for healing primarily in South America. It is considered to be a sacred spirit among the natives. It is combined with other plants and brewed together. After ingested, this plant allows the healing of the patient. Amazonian shamans have known the medicinal value of this plant for a long time. There are different elements that make up a shamanic ceremony in Mestizo shamanism. Before the ceremonies start, the shamans insist on a dieta — the dietary and sexual restrictions implemented to prepare the body for its journey. The use of sounds is also important among Mestizo shamans. Shamans and the plants communicate with each other through magical songs known as icaros. These songs are performed in such a way that transcends intellectual thinking. They come from deep within the shaman. It is similar to chanting a mantra. They are a point of focus for anyone who is participating in the healing ceremony. Many Westerners make the trip to South America to partake in Ayahuasca ceremonies. Their intentions are to heal themselves, seeking refuge from the modern world. In Ayahuasca ceremonies, there are certain preparations that need to be made by both the shaman and the patient in order to ensure a healthy atmosphere. Shamans, the singing of icaros, and the dieta all create a supportive environment that allows the healing of the participants during Ayahuasca ceremonies.
The guidelines for being a shaman in the Amazon indicate the depth of one’s practice as well as one’s dedication to the art of healing. In Mestizo shamanism, there are certain criteria that determine the prestige of a shaman:
“There is often an unspoken hierarchy among Mestizo shamans. There is, first, a relatively informal ranking based on length of practice, the number and length of dietas, the number and types of plants that have been mastered, and the number and quality of icaros in their repertoire” (Beyer, 199).
This is interesting because in the United States what qualifies one to be a doctor is similar. There are a certain number of years one must attend a school to learn medicine. However, in Mestizo shamanism, the experiences and reputation of shamans themselves are considered greatly. In the United States, we tend to go to doctors that accept our insurance. Rarely ever do we check up on the history and background qualifications of our doctors. We simply expect and accept that they know what they are doing.
Prestige is also acquired when the shaman honors indigenous traditions as well as Western biomedicine. The indigenous traditions are thought to be “the ultimate source of shamanic knowledge,” and the Western biomedical tradition is revered for its social status and acceptance in the modern world (Beyer, 199).
Shamans are incredibly important in the use of Ayahuasca. They set the mood for the journey. They are respected individuals, but being a shaman is also dangerous. Since they are healers, they can take on the disease of the person they are trying to cure, thus possibly harming themselves. Mestizo Shamans can use their magic for evil purposes, thus gaining the title of “brujos” or sorcerers. Shamans may use different things during their ceremonies. For example, some may use stones and seeds, while others use scents and resins (Beyer, 197).
While there is competition among the shamans in the Amazon, they share certain similarities. They all share information among others, seek learning, and care for patients outside of their own group (Beyer, 285). There is a loose classification system among Mestizo shamans:
The Banco is the term used to describe those healers who hold the greatest power and reputation. They have remarkable abilities, such as being in two places at once. They can transform into different kinds of animals. To become a banco, one must diet for more than forty years (Beyer, 200).
- ✦The Muraya literally means “one who meets.” This particular rank requires a diet of a full year, living alone in the jungle, sexual abstinence, eating only rice, plantains and occasionally monkeys. Within this level, there are several other distinctions. There is the muraillo (little muraya), the muraya, the alto muraya (high muraya), the altomando (high command muraya), and then finally the banco. (Beyer, 201).
- ✦The Sumi is a master shaman who has the ability to go into underwater realms. “The other-than-human persons who live under the water are often viewed as having great knowledge of healing and magic songs . . .” (Beyer, 201). The underwater realm is considered to be a sacred place, and they are often linked with sexuality. Mermaids are thought to sometimes seduce shamans who go into their world.
- ✦Onanya literally means “one who knows.” This is the ordinary Ayahuasca healer (Beyer, 201).
These terms are very general. There is a tendency for them to be used interchangeably depending on who is talking about them. It is evident that experience is a primary factor because one must experience something in order to know anything about it. In the cultural view of the United States, the building up of facts leeched from books in considered to be knowledge. There is more room for creativity in mestizo shamanism than in the Western ideology of medicine.
Icaros are the healing songs that are used for the communication between plants and the shaman. The word icaro has roots in the Quecha verb ikaray which means “to blow smoke for healing” and in the Shipibo word ikarra which means “the shaman’s song” (Beyer, 69). The spirits of plants are believed to communicate through songs.
Sound is an important part of the creative healing process during Ayahuasca ceremonies. The following quote shows the impact of sounds: “Music has a metaphysical dimension; where music affects the body, the distinction between outside — where the music comes from — and inside — where the music is felt is radically called into question” (Beyer, 79).
Hearing is a primary sense used in the jungle because it is thick with trees, vines, and other plants. It is hard to step away and observe from any particular vantage point. If one wants to make his/her way through the jungle, he/she must rely heavily on the smells and sounds, rather than the sight. The sounds of animals throughout the jungle are learned and respected.
There is a basic structure to the icaros, but there is wide room for free expression and improvisation. The intonation of the icaros matters more than the words being used. The feeling of the words is more important than the actual meaning of the words. Fotiou notes that “the way the ayahuasquero feels at the moment is what determines the words” (18). The shamans’ ingenuity with these songs therefore affects their reputability.
“Icaros become increasingly prestigious as they incorporate words from indigenous languages, unknown archaic tongues, and the languages of animals and birds; the more obscure the language, the more power it contains — and the more difficult it is to copy” (Beyer,199).
There is great competition among the shamans over their icaros. Some shamans make their songs incomprehensible so that they are not stolen by others. However, one shaman notes that it does not matter if another shaman steals his song because the icaros come from within the body of the shaman:
“ . . . it is not enough to learn an icaro and sing it. Each icaro has a particular power or energy that can only be transmitted by the master ayahuasquero to the apprentice by will or by the spirits themselves — when they give the icaro to the ayahuasquero. Therefore, although someone can copy someone’s icaros and sing them in ceremony, these icaros have no power and therefore are not able to heal, protect, or perform any other function” (Fotiou, 18).
Direct experience is what this tradition is pointing towards. It is not merely a memorization of words and chants uttered to “get” to a particular-sounding song at the right pitch. It is a dance of words and movements of the mouth that create a vivid picture in the participant’s mind. This is why there has to be a lot of faith between the shamans and the participants. Trust is a large component.
There are many different types of icaros that all aim toward one thing: positive healing and protection.
“There are icaros for calling, for protection, for learning, for exchanging knowledge, and for healing. There are icaros to stun a snake, cure a snakebite, make a distant loved one return home, make a person into a good hunter, call the soul back to the body . . .” (Beyer, 66).
The icaros are a point of focus for anyone who is struggling with negative energy or a painful experience during the ceremony. The icaros directly affect the visions one has, and it is believed that the shamans can alter the state of a person’s journey by changing the song. The songs bring on the vision, subir mareación; they can take away the vision, sacar mareación; and they can call the vision, llamar mareación. The icaros often come to the shaman during the dieta, through dreams, visions, and the heart (Beyer, 69).
The dieta is an important part of the Ayahuasca ceremony. The dieta is a series of restrictions on food and sex that is intended to purify the body, mind, and soul before and after the Ayahuasca ceremony. The human relationship to food and sex is closely related with stress and emotions. When we are stressed, we look for outside material resources to numb the pain. In the United States, food is treated culturally as more of a security blanket than a way of providing nourishment to the body. Overeating and emotional eating are common terms in our vocabulary. During the dieta, the body and spirit work together with the mind to create purification. During the dieta and the ceremony, purging, crying, yawning, and sweating are all considered to be good cleanses that further assist the body in its purification process (Fotiou, 15).
If the dieta is not followed, the consequences can be detrimental. For example, it is generally prescribed that one eat a light meal in the morning or no meal at all before partaking in an Ayahuasca ceremony. One man ate a huge meal beforehand, against the proper instruction that warns otherwise. The ayahuasquero told him that he should not drink Ayahuasca that day, but the man persisted and was fixated on drinking the brew. Eventually, the ayahuasquero let the man drink Ayahuasca. During the ceremony, he felt very sick and was violently vomiting. He was also having scary, negative visions. The ayahuasquero told the man that Ayahuasca was punishing him for not fasting before the ceremony (Fotiou, 14).
Sexual abstinence is another part of the dieta. There are different theories surrounding this precept. Some shamans claim that the spirit of Ayahuasca is very jealous and does not want anyone else interacting when she is doing her work. Other Western approaches reason that sex is a very powerful energetic exchange. When the energies of the people involved mix together, they could overwhelm and distract them from their spiritual work (Fotiou, 14).
The dieta also serves as a way of loosening the ego’s grip on the soul. Anthropologist Bethe Hagens and psychologist Steven Lansky made their way to Peru in hopes of participating in the pre-ceremony dieta as well as the ceremony itself. They describe how their 2-hour journey through the country and their 2-hour boat ride on the river deeper into the heart of the jungle was really a practice in letting go. They had to release any expectation of what was to come when they reached their destination (Lansky; Hagens, 107).
Bethe asked Steven many questions before she committed to her trip to the jungle. But to all her questions, Steven would respond, “The dance with giving up control is intense, and it’s important to remember to breathe . . . and to remember that everything passes” (Lansky; Hagens, 105). Their dieta was designed by a woman who works with a shaman from Peru when he comes to the United States. They were both communicating with this woman through email. The woman responded with general guidelines surrounding the dieta. The participants are given the chance to diet with a specific plant in order to further facilitate their detox, connection to self, restore strength, and open the heart (Lansky; Hagens, 105). The diet was salt and sugar-free, consisting primarily of oats, quinoa, brown rice, baked platanos and fish. Alcohol and coffee were not permitted. Red meat, pork, spices, and fatty food were also prohibited as well as sexual intercourse (Lansky; Hagens, 106).
While Ayahuasca is illegal in the United States, in the Amazon it is revered and treated as a sacred plant. The scientific name for Ayahuasca is Banisteriopsis caapi. It is referred to differently in different regions of South America. In Colombia and Brazil, it is called caapi. In Peru and Ecuador, it is called ayhuasca. In the Western Colombian Amazon, it is called yajé (Schultes, 178).
There are other plants that are used in conjunction with Ayahuasca to enhance the intensity and length of the intoxication. Two of the major plants used are chacruna and oco-yajé (Schultes, 180). It is generally preferred by the shamans to use older vines for making the drink because they have a stronger narcotic bark. In Vine of the Soul, S. Hugh-Jones is quoted saying the following:
“Yajé [Ayahuasca] is grown from cuttings and is thus thought to be one continuous vine which stretches back to the beginning of time . . . yajé itself is compared to an umbilical cord that links human beings . . . to the mythical past” (Schultes, Raffauf, 24).
In Vaupés, which is a region in the Colombia Amazon, the Ayahuasca brew is drunk from the sacred caapi pot. This pot is decorated in red and black with designs that resemble the visions brought on by the drink. After use, it is carefully cleaned, but never washed, and hung outside of the house always in the Eastern corner of the overhanging roof (Schultes, 184). This pot is passed down through generations.
Schultes explains his experience with the Makuna medicine-man starting the caapi-ceremony in Rio Popeyaká — a region in eastern Colombia. In the early afternoon, the stems of the vine are collected. They are then broken up with a wooden pestle while chanting and telling stories about the discovery of Ayahuasca. The caapi pot was taken down from the roof and cleaned with a feather. The broken stems are put into the pot with cold water, resting like this for several hours until it turns to a milky white color. The remnants are strained out, and by this time, it is nightfall: “the men went into the maloca to dress in their feather ornaments and fit rattles to their elbows and ankles for the dance. At this time, the head man of the festival lighted the pitch-torch and chanted for at least twenty minutes.” Throughout the chanting, the caapi pot is passed around and the ceremony begins (Schultes, 186). An interesting point made by the Indians of the northwest Amazon is that all sickness and death are inflicted by evil spirits from other realms. It is the duty of the medicine-man to diagnose the problem after communicating with the spirits (Schultes, 188).
The effects of Ayahuasca depend upon the setting, the size of the dose, the additives, and the state of the patients within the ceremony. The visions induced after drinking the brew have a blue hue to them; they are dull. If other plants are added to the brew, the visions become vibrant with brilliant color. Some of the other effects noted are an increase in the size of everything one sees. Many people and animals may appear to the participant, such as colored snakes, jaguars, rushing mountains, and giant mountains with colored mist surrounding them (Schultes, Raffauf, 24). However, visions don’t necessarily occur the first time someone drinks the brew. Shamans may add a plant called toé to induce visions so it does not disappoint the traveling Westerner (Beyer, 232).
There are many different features of the Ayahuasca experience. One of the main results of drinking Ayahuasca is vomiting. This is why it is commonly referred to as “la purga.” One of the phrases that is common is “La purga misma te enseña,” which translates to “Vomiting itself teaches you.” Vomiting is viewed as a cleansing; it is a good thing, however painful and torturous it may be at the time. Another characteristic of Ayahuasca experiences is that time seems to expand and feel longer than in normal reality (Beyer, 208–9).
Ayahuasca does not affect one’s ability to rationalize or think clearly, regardless of whether one has visions. Beyer reported about an experience he had where he saw black cast-iron lawn furniture around him. The furniture was visibly clear, blocking the space behind it. He walked around these objects to avoid hitting his shins, and they changed size spatially: “I do this even though I ‘know’, in my fully functional rational mind, that there is no lawn furniture in the jungle (Beyer, 233). He could physically maneuver around these obstacles, but he knew that they were not “real.”
Another effect of Ayahuasca is synesthesia. Senses converge and become intertwined. Music can create visions, and smells can create sounds. Sounds can have visible textures; the body parts can have their own sense of listening; visions can be sensed with the voice. Poet Cesar Calvo reports that all his senses merged into one sense that communicated intricately with itself. Pablo Amaringo is an artist who captures Ayahuasca visions in his work; his work is described as “visual expressions of music” (Beyer, 233–4).
One the most significant aspect of reports of Ayahuasca visions is the presence of some other being. Many different experiences of people all have general similarities in them. One person notes that “a group of tall, dark figures, shapeless, faces hidden, as if dressed in the hooded robes of monks” appears to him during his experience. Another person describes a group of young, tall men wearing white shirts, white pants, and dark suspenders appeared as graceful helpers. Another describes a dark woman with messy hair, wearing a red and black elegant dress, offering a white cylinder which was later interpreted as the inner part of the ingested plant stem (Beyer, 240–2).
Ayahuasca visions are frequently compared with DMT visons. Rick Strassman, a medical psychiatrist and author of DMT: The Spirit Molecule, conducted a research experiment using DMT. Most of the people reported contact with other beings and entities. A volunteer reports that there were many beings who spoke to her without making a sound. Their communication existed outside of language. They were encouraging her that life was beautiful and good.
Ayahuasca has become increasingly appealing to Westerners who are in search of their own healing and spiritual experience. Lewis warns about the implications this has on the sanity of Westerners. She claims that it is very important to be aware of the fact that Westerners are not part of a culture that involves Ayahuasca use, and thus will respond differently than the natives and the shamans who have a culture that expects to see spiritual beings and be transported to spiritual realms. The visions and experiences caused by Ayahuasca can be overwhelming to the participant and hard to make sense of without any cultural context to which the experience can be applied (Lewis, 113). Beyer writes, that “ayahuasca uses the raw material of the visual world to construct the outward manifestation of our inward reality (Beyer, 266).
Ayahuasca is a plant teacher. Many believe that it does not show one what is not there; it only reveals what is ever-present yet hidden. They claim that there is only one world where all spirits, beings, entities, animals, and humans reside. Regardless of whether someone actually meets other beings and entities, the visions and messages that ayahuasca brings can be life-changing. Only those who are willing and open will learn from their experiences. Although hallucinations are considered to be “made-up,” they can reveal hidden gems of mystery and personal meaning. Healing occurs when one is willing to look at his/her own habits and recognize the pain he/she have been put through. It requires a desire to make a movement beyond suffering.
Beyer, Steven. Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon. New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 2009. Print.
Fotiou, Evgenia. “Working with ‘La Medicina:’ Elements of Healing in Contemporary Ayahuasca Rituals.” Anthropology of Consciouness. 23.1 (2012): 6–27. Academic Search Complete. Web. May 1, 2013.
Hagens, Bethe and Steven Lansky. “Personal Report: Significance of Community in an Ayahuasca Jungle Dieta.” Anthropology of Consciousness. 23.1 (2012): 103–109. Academic Search Complete. Web. May 1, 2013.
Lewis, Sara. “Ayahuasca and Spiritual Crisis: Liminality as Space for Personal Growth.” Anthropology of Consciousness. 19.2 (2008): 109–133. Academic Search Complete. Web. May 1, 2013.
Raffauf, Robert and Richard Schultes. Vine of the Soul. Santa Fe: Synergetic Press, 2004. Print.
Schultes, Richard. Where the Gods Reign. London: Synergetic Press, 1988. Print.