Alex K. Gearin, Ph.D

Alex K. Gearin, Ph.D

Alex K. Gearin has a Ph.D in cultural anthropology. He has done ethnographic research on ayahuasca healing ceremonies in Australia. He is the Chief Editor at Chacruna.
Alex K. Gearin, Ph.D

Latest posts by Alex K. Gearin, Ph.D (see all)


Ayahuasca is possibly the most powerful myth-making potion on the planet, and I don’t mean that in a negative sense.

When ingested, the mysterious psychedelic brew brings people into an enchanted cosmos full of spirit allies and tricksters or what the scientists might consider as archetypes of the mind. Whatever labels you throw on the experience of ayahuasca, it is difficult to not finish a ceremony feeling somewhat enchanted and otherworldly; like you have just come from a space where fascinating mythologies of the beautiful and grotesque may spawn.

“In this article we are talking about a different type of myth, not the sacred but the annoying type.”

In this article, I am going to share with you some of the annoying myths that misinformed people peddle. Some of the myths are relatively innocent and partially true, others are completely misleading and dangerous.

The following five myths are currently traveling the ayahuasca world at the speed of satellite and modem transmissions. If you know of any other common, annoying or dangerous ayahuasca myths, please share them with us in the comments below!

1. Ayahuasca has Been Used for Thousands of Years

Ancient Ayahuasca

Image Source: Reichel-Dolmatoff

It’s very common to hear people say, “Ayahuasca has been used by indigenous Amazonian cultures for 5000 or even 8000 years.” Ayahuasca use might, in fact, be this old, but scientists have found no conclusive evidence of ayahuasca being consumed beyond a few hundred years ago.1

Anthropologists have suggested that ayahuasca was probably first used among Tukanoan speaking groups of the Upper Western Amazon. Considering archeological and anthropological studies, Bernd Brabec de Mori suggests it is unlikely that ayahuasca drinking is thousands of years old. He noted that archeologists have recorded vast ancient trade networks connecting tribes of the Tukano region to other parts of the Amazon, and there is no evidence of ancient ayahuasca trade or use there.2

It may be difficult to find records of ancient ayahuasca drinking because the jungle climate does a good job of destroying or devouring things. We may never know how old ayahuasca drinking truly is, but there is evidence of DMT-containing snuff preparations being used back in 200BC, and DMT is an important chemical element in most ayahuasca brews.3

Various anthropologists have argued that ayahuasca drinking probably spread among indigenous people over the last 200 hundred years or so.4 Bernd Brabec de Mori mapped the language of ayahuasca magical songs, or icaros, across parts of the Amazon. He found many of the lyrics and words about ayahuasca could be linked to indigenous migrations of the last few hundred years.5

But, a few hundred years of indigenous ayahuasca drinking a long time if we consider how young the psychedelic movement is in modern Western societies. Also, it’s important to recognize that other psychedelic plants were used among ancient cultures in the Amazon jungle, just as they were used in ancient civilizations across the whole globe.6

2. Ayahuasca is Legal in the United States

Ayahuasca Illegal

This is both true and false. Over the last year there have been a few ayahuasca groups in the Unites States claiming, loud and proud, to be operating legally when in fact they were dangerously illegal.

One of the groups, called Ayahuasca Healings, claimed to be offering the “first ever legal ayahuasca church in the United States.” The news went viral online, celebrated in articles published by VICE, Daily Beast and other outlets. Ironically, not only was Ayahuasca Healings operating illegally in the United States, there have been two other Ayahuasca groups operating legally in the U.S. since 20067 and 2008!8

The Brazilian ayahuasca religions Santo Daime and União do Vegetal have churches operating legally in various parts of the globe, including South America, Europe and North America. But this was not always the case.

There have been cases of police raiding ayahuasca ceremonies in Europe. Yes, that is correct! Police in both Germany and Italy stormed into ceremonies armed with guns to arrest the so-called “drug takers.”9 I cannot imagine anything more terrifying than being in the middle of an ayahuasca experience, travelling the depths and heights of my soul, and being confronted with adrenaline-pumped authorities shouting at me with guns in their hands.

In comparison to the legal hoaxes, ayahuasca is being used secretly and illegally in vast underground medicine and spirituality networks that span from Russia to South Africa, Australia, Japan, Indonesia, India and the United States. This cultural space is obviously not regulated by governments, but it is organically self-regulated by people taking risks to share the sacred medicine with their communities.

3. Vomiting is a Side Effect of Drinking Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca Purge

I have read too many mainstream news articles about ayahuasca; often, they state that one of the “side effects” of ayahuasca is vomiting. They make ayahuasca sound like a pharmaceutical drug that has the undesirable “side effects” of vomiting, sweating, and diarrhea.

Ayahuasca can, and often does invoke unpleasant bodily processes, like vomiting, sweating or diarrhea. But this is far from being a “side effect” of the brew; people who drink ayahuasca understand ayahuasca vomiting as a powerful way of attaining holistic healing. To borrow medical terminology, purging is not a “side-effect” but a “central-effect,” or perhaps, a “sub-central-effect” of ayahuasca.

Some people who drink ayahuasca express disappointment if they didn’t purge during a ceremony. The purge can cleanse the body and it is often followed immediately by strong visions. Purging can also bring psychological insight. In its most basic sense, ayahuasca purging requires a psychological commitment to surrender, trust and let-go, which is not always easy when you are in a visionary world of strong emotions. The purge is something many people initially struggle with.

There are different healing philosophies about the ayahuasca purge. They include scientific, spiritual and shamanic versions, and some philosophies incorporate elements from each of these different worldviews. But something they all share is the idea that the purge is a cleansing process that can bring more peace and vitality to the person’s life.

A friend once told me, “pharmaceuticals make you feel great in the beginning, then bad later. Ayahuasca makes you feel bad in the beginning, then great later”. This metaphor has limitations. But it has some truth; alluding to how ayahuasca is a different types of medicine to most medicines people consume in Western societies.

Some people never purge and rarely have unpleasant bodily experiences when drinking ayahuasca. They still report attaining different types of healing and spiritual insight. But the purge should certainly not be treated as an unwanted side effect of the brew.

4. Science shows DMT Flooding the Brain at Birth and Death

dimethyltryptamine

Another common myth getting around the Internet is that DMT, the potent psychedelic molecule in ayahuasca, is released by the brain when we are born and when we die.

Don’t get me wrong; this is a super cool myth, and hopefully it’s true. It would make me feel more comfortable with the idea that the universe is inherently ethical. But there has been no scientific proof that the brain produces increased amounts of DMT when we are born or when we die.

An experiment on the process of death would be pretty easy to do, right? Get a group of terminally ill people to agree to being inspected upon death to measure the DMT levels in their system.

For the time being, the idea is a hypothesis that can be traced to psychopharmacologists Jace Callaway and then Dr. Rick Strassman. Dr Strassman conducted incredibly pioneering research into DMT experiences in the 1990s. Given the types of mystical experiences people were having when they took DMT, he suggested that DMT plays a central role in near death experiences (NDE). He also believes the pineal gland in the center of the brain marks the point at which the life-force or spirit enters the foetus in the first trimester of pregnancy and then exits upon death.10

The pineal gland is the seat of the soul, according to the seventeenth century French philosopher Rene Descartes, and philosophers have had a good time laughing at Descartes for this belief for centuries. But in 2013, scientists discovered DMT in the pineal glands of rodents.11 Interestingly, the pineal gland corresponds biologically with the “third eye” or “inner eye” of mystical traditions of the East and West.

Science has not yet proven or disproven the link between DMT, birth and death, but there certainly are solid facts pointing to DMT being darn significant to what it means to be human.

5. Ayahuasca is a Female Spirit Being for Indigenous Cultures

Ayahuasca Mother

Mother Ayahuasca, La Madre, The Grandmother, and The Divine Feminine are all commonly evoked or summoned in the visions of Western ayahuasca drinkers. But is Ayahuasca considered a female spirit being for everyone?

It is a risky and often stupid endeavor when science tries to prove or disprove spiritual beliefs. This is not my object here. My object is to share with you some of the cultural diversity of ayahuasca drinking in the Amazon jungle. This, I hope, can help us build a more holistic vision of ayahuasca.

There certainly are many reports of ayahuasca being a female spirit in different indigenous cultures. And there certainly are reports of ayahuasca being a male spirit in Amazonian cultures. For instance, during her fieldwork in Iquitos, Peru, anthropologist Evgenia Fotiou described meeting male shamans and apprentices who claim that ayahuasca is a male spirit. 12 In parallel, in the Brazilian ayahuasca religion Santo Daime, the ayahuasca vine has been considered male. 13

For the famous shaman Maestro Juan Flores of the Asháninka, ayahuasca is a male spirit. Maestro Juan Flores has gained international recognition for his shamanic work. He was featured on the front cover of the French edition of National Geographic in 2013.14 In an interview available on YouTube, the shaman explains that the ayahuasca vine is male, and the chacruna plant, that is usually prepared with ayahuasca, is female. He says: “There is no Mother Ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is always a male spirit. That’s who we are. Dedicated shamans, male warriors, working for the benefit and healing of the people.”15

Finally, I would like to share with you some short excerpts from an indigenous ayahuasca initiation in the 1970s. The initiate, Alberto Prohano of the Yagau tribe, describes a vision of encountering a “man” who is the “mother ayahuasca spirit”. Unlike most Western depictions of Mother Ayahuasca, here she is ambiguous and has powers to heal and to harm. Alberto Prohano described his visionary ayahuasca initiation:

“I open my eyes. It’s a man. Then he says, ‘I am the mother of ayahuasca. Do you want to reach the world above, the second floor? … Here, change into this, taita (vocative of father), before you get sick and the virotes [magic darts] penetrate your body.’ I put on a kind of clothing and then we go down to the earth again… The mothers of ayahuasca visit each other frequently, even beyond the middle of the sky. Each time you cure, they are present… The mothers call you father. They come and go. But they can also do harm.”16

If you want to learn more solid facts about ayahuasca, and if you want to learn from ayahuasca experts, I suggest you check out kahpi, the ayahuasca learning hub. It has powerful short courses on everything you need to know to gain confidence, trustworthy knowledge and practical wisdom about ayahuasca.

I hope you enjoyed learning about these five common ayahuasca myths. If you know of more, please share them with us below!

  1. Steve Beyer 2012. On The Origins of Ayahuasca. Website: Singing To The plants. (Accessed 19th Nov 2016) http://www.singingtotheplants.com/2012/04/on-origins-of-ayahuasca/
  2. Bernd Brabec de Mori 2009. Tracing Hallucinations: Contributions to a critical ethnohistory of Ayahuasca in The Peruvian Amazon. In Labate & Jungaberle The Internationalization of Ayahuasca. Zurich: Lit Verlag
  3.  Torres C. 1995. Archaeological evidence for the antiquity of psychoactive plant use in the central Andes. Annali dei Musei Civici-Rovereto, 11, p.291-326
  4. Peter Gow, 1996. River people: shamanism and history in western Amaoznia. in Thomas & Humphrey (ed.) Shamanism, history, and the state. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press
  5. Bernd Brabec de Mori 2009. Tracing Hallucinations: Contributions to a critical ethnohistory of Ayahuasca in The Peruvian Amazon. In Labate & Jungaberle The Internationalization of Ayahuasca. Zurich: Lit Verlag
  6. Schultes, R. E., & Hofmann, A. (1992). Plants of the gods: Their sacred, healing and hallucinogenic powers. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts. See a short review here http://psypressuk.com/2012/11/05/literary-review-plants-of-the-gods-by-richard-evans-schultes-albert-hofmann-and-christian-ratsch/
  7. União do Vegetal, see https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/ayahuasca/ayahuasca_law22.shtml
  8. Santo Daime, see http://www.singingtotheplants.com/2009/03/a-victory-for-santo-daime/
  9. See examples in Labate et al (ed.) 2009. The Internationalization of Ayahuasca
  10. Rick Strassman 2001. DMT The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences. Rochester, Part Street Press. See samples here http://csp.org/chrestomathy/dmt_spirit.html
  11. Barket et al 2013. LC/MS/MS analysis of the endogenous dimethyltrytamine hallucinogens, their precursors, and major metabolites in rat pineal gland microdialysate. Biomedical Chromatography. 27(12) p.1690-700.
  12. Evengia Fotiou 2014. On the uneasiness of tourism: considerations on shamanic tourism in Western Amazonia. In Labate & Cavnar Ayahuasca Shamanism in The Amazon and Beyond. Oxford Uni Press. p172
  13. see Labate & Edward 2010. Ayahuasca, Ritual and Religion in Brazil. London, Eqionox
  14. see http://www.tonkiri.ca/the-story/
  15. “Ayahuasca is a Male Spirit” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCQUf0GrkIs
  16. Jean Pierre Chaumeil 2000. Excerpt taken from “Initiation Experience” Luna & White Ayahuasca Reader: Encounters with the Amazon’s Sacred Vine. London, Synergetic Press p.55

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