Freaky Friday: Ayahuasca Past and Present

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

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. 

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