Written by Robin Wright (PhD, Anthropology)
One of the more spectacular cinematic productions this year is the film Embrace of the Serpent, directed by Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra. Nominated for an Oscar in the category of best foreign language production,1 the story has everything to do with the sacred plant mixture of ayahuasca vine and chacruna leaf, reflecting a quest for spiritual knowledge and transformation of the main actors. As an anthropologist and scholar of religions, I have researched in and about sacred plants, shamanism, and the Amazon for four decades; so, when I first heard of the film, I eagerly waited for it to see what else I could learn from one with such an enticing title.
The sacred plant in the film is called “yakruna,” a fictitious entity that is the primary motivating force throughout the film’s drama. With considerable artistic skill, Guerra weaves together the stories of two well-known Western scientific explorers—the German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg and the North American botanist Richard Evans Schultes—both of whom did extensive research in the Northwest Amazon region of Colombia. Embrace of the Serpent was “inspired” by the diaries of these two explorers who supposedly searched for yakruna in different eras: Koch-Grünberg in the early twentieth century during the first Amazon rubber boom, and, 34 years later, Schultes during the second rubber boom.2
“The young Karamakate received signs in his dreams that Theo was the chosen one to receive the ancestral knowledge of his tribe, so he agrees to help Theo find the yakruna”
As depicted in the film, both explorers are searching for yakruna, but for different medicinal purposes: “Theo” is physically sick and yakruna is the only cure, while “Evan” is metaphysically ill and cannot dream, for which, again, yakruna will cure him. For both, yakruna represents a plant that Western scientists need and that only the Amazonian natives, who were victims of brutal exploitation during both rubber booms, know its power.
The third main actor is Karamakate, the last living member of his people, the “Cohuiano,” who received the two explorers and guided them to the yakruna. The sacred plant was very important to the Cohiuano, as it was to all native peoples of the Northwest Amazon, because it was used to make caapi, or ayahuasca, which induced dreams in those who consumed it, and these dreams were what guided the shamans. Shamans would meet with the spirit “Master of Caapi,” and have visions of the ancestral anaconda. To Karamakate, the last shaman of his people, spirituality was everything.
The young Karamakate received signs in his dreams that Theo was the chosen one to receive the ancestral knowledge of his tribe, so he agrees to help Theo find the yakruna if Theo will lead him to the last of his people, from whom he had been separated. The experiences they have on their trip awaken all the resentment of the shaman for the White Man, given what the White Man has done to his people and their culture; even more so when they finally arrive at the small town location of the Cohuiano, because it had become a war zone of Colombian military and indigenous people. There, the Cohuiano were found abusing the yakruna by cultivating it around a tree. Karamakate is appalled, and sets fire to both plants and tree—if the sacred is so disrespected, then no one will have access to its mysteries, not even Theo who was presumably then left to die from his illness. The jaguar shaman Karamakate wins over the serpent White Man who threatened to strip him of his knowledge.
Thirty four years later, old and fragile from the loss of his own shamanic abilities, a shadow of his former self, Karamakate can only find peace in his soul if he assists Evan by completing the quest for yakruna. The old shaman seems to sense that the American is a kind of reincarnation of the German, and decides to rectify his steps. The words of Manduca, Theo’s travel companion, to Karamakate now make urgent sense: “If we can’t get the Whites to learn, it will be the end of us.” Karamakate begins to teach Evan how to understand the indigenous way of life, and to respect the forest. He instructs Evan to “listen for real,” to stop listening to his manmade music, and instead, hear the music of the earth. The shaman does his best to teach the botanist the foundations of his culture, especially detachment from the material to attain the spiritual.
“Karamakate, the revitalized young shaman, whose eyes emit the powerful beams of light of the ancestral anaconda.”
Finally, they complete their journey to the place called the “Workshop of the Gods,” supposedly the only location where yakruna grows. After scaling an immense tepui (flat-topped hill), they find the last yakruna plant. But then, Evan reveals his perverse plan to take the flower and cultivate it further to make a purer form of rubber. That matters little for Karamakate who reveals to Evan that he had one better than that, for not only did he destroy all but the last yakruna plant, his true purpose for the second journey was to teach the White Man the ways of the indigenous people: “I was not meant to teach my people. I was meant to teach you,” he declares. Showing great remorse, Evan promises that he will not take the yakruna back to make rubber. Karamakate then uses this yakruna to make caapi and finally passes his knowledge of the sacred plant on to the White Man. It is at this moment that Karamakate gives him the gift of meeting the serpent that is the ancestor to all of his native peoples (one recalls here anthropologist Jeremy Narby’s vision of caapi as DNA molecules). Karamakate gives him the last yakruna flower in the world and then expects him to come back to this world a new man.
The final scene is Schultes being engulfed by a swarm of butterflies on the riverbanks, a scene similar to the way Schultes found Karamakate. It is a beautiful scene, spiritually suggestive, but not as powerful as the final one of Karamakate, the revitalized young shaman, whose eyes emit the powerful beams of light of the ancestral anaconda. The power of yakruna, is such that, though the Western scientist knew nothing of it, he was nevertheless transformed by the spiritual knowledge it gave.
One can, perhaps, forgive the distortions of the historical record in Ciro Guerra’s film. It is art and was, after all, nominated for an Oscar. Its magnificent use of black-and-white throughout, the metaphors of photography in freezing the images of the actors, and the poetic use of the river as a symbol of time were certainly elements that weighed in the nomination. The preference for the use of indigenous languages throughout the film was a stroke of brilliance. Koch-Grünberg, however, never was interested in hallucinogenic plants, though Schultes hailed ayahuasca and chacruna as “truly plants of the gods, for their power is laid to supernatural forces residing in their tissues, and they were divine gifts to the earliest Indians on earth.”3
They were gifts from the indigenous peoples to the West, the film says, to teach the secrets of the Amazon rainforest. A gift must be reciprocated; there is no better way than if the West, made aware by this film, learns to respect indigenous cultures and the forest.
- The film has won an impressive number of awards: 37 in all, including 16 major nominations, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of 2016. ↩
- The film is partly fictional and partly historical; as such, the director uses a great deal of poetic license. In representing two actual scientific explorations, the film avails itself of a rich ethnographic material and is set in the visually stunning environment of the upper Vaupés in Colombia. If evaluated for its historical accuracy, however, the film is a total distortion of the real events, e.g., its misrepresentation of historic prophet movements among the indigenous peoples, about which I have undertaken decades of research, plus the fact that Koch-Grünberg never was interested in hallucinogenic plants, as the film asserts. ↩
- Schultes, Richard Evans, Albert Hofmann & Christian Rätsch. 1998. Plants of the Gods. Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press. p.124 ↩