Written by Oscar Calavia Sáez (PhD, Anthropology).
What differentiates indigenous ayahuasca use from the universe that has erupted out of it is, in the first place, its indefiniteness. Used across the globe and far from the Indian villages, ayahuasca now means religion, whatever that may mean: be it legal or clandestine, redemptive or dangerous, primitive or spiritual fruit of the New Age, it is still religion. In the indigenous context it is much more difficult to say what ayahuasca is.
To make ayahuasca the center of an indigenous religion would be misleading in many cases and in other cases, completely false. Yet, in indigenous cultures ayahuasca is sometimes treated similarly to how it is treated in the Western ayahuasca religions like Santo Daime and União do Vegetal: the brew is (or was) the central element of key rituals in many indigenous groups’ lives, a relevant sacrament to a collectivity, or at least the proper territory of those specialists whose hands are entrusted with the task of maintaining good order.
In many cases ayahuasca organizes a therapeutic system; however, it would be stretching the term to describe this as religious. Ayahuasca can play a role as a remedy in such cases, working directly on the body of the patient; but it may likewise acquire another value, becoming a diagnostic instrument which, through its use in seeking to identify the source of an illness or to enter into contact with the agent that caused the illness, serves the healer as much as the patient.
“It is possible to find ayahuasca used as an intoxicating drink in feasts of song and dance”
Or ayahuasca can become the center of a whole shamanic methodology of training and research: through drinking ayahuasca the apprentice learns the songs, meets and forms alliances with helper spirits, or makes his body, steeped in the bitter substance of the brew, into a proper body for shamanic work.
Quite apart from its therapeutic use, and therefore from its most well-known aspect, it is possible to find ayahuasca used as an intoxicating drink in feasts of song and dance. At these events, sensory enjoyment and mutual seduction between the groups of men and women gathered there trump any other motive. It should not be surprising that alcohol, the drink of the whites, ayahuasca’s antagonist, can at times be ayahuasca’a shadow, heir to a whole wicked lineage of the sacred potion. Ayahuasca has a dark side that is sometimes manifested in systems of aggression: ayahuasca can be the vehicle that the spirits of dead kin use to communicate their desire for vengeance to the living, and it can also be the mark of this violent retribution. To sit down with a group of recent arrivals and drink ayahuasca and sing with them could occasionally be a dangerous action, recorded in absences and scars.
In many cases ayahuasca appears as an important element within a system of plants (alongside tobacco, peppers, datura or the sap of the samaúma) constituting a symbolic system parallel to that of the kitchen, in which ayahuasca occupies the “cooked” pole, that which plays a civilizing role. Alternatively, ayahuasca may stand for this whole complex, assuming by itself this group of functions, or condensing it into an agent of a civilizing process sui generis: more than an ancient tradition, ayahuasca may be a sign of a reformation in indigenous shamanism.
“Ayahuasca is the center of a whole practice and theory of vision”
In fact, it would be possible to view ayahuasca as the key to a certain cultural ecumene that extends over much of the Western Amazon: songs, designs, and myths which find, through their differences, a common denominator. If on the local level ayahuasca serves communication with spirits, in the region as a whole it facilitates cultural communication and translation. In another sense, ayahuasca acts in indigenous socio-cosmologies like an “othering key”, something akin to the mirror in the Western tradition.
If the mirror returns us, inverted, our own image, ayahuasca opens the door to a universe in which the same images are presented with their signs reversed; in which the anaconda, which sees itself as human, also drinks ayahuasca and for its turn may see us—who knows—in the shape of anacondas. It is an inversion not of images but of points of view, which can help us understand others, be they spirits, dead people, or foreigners.
This brings us to another aspect that needs to be emphasized, as obvious as it may appear. Ayahuasca is the center of a whole practice and theory of vision. Let us not understand this in too facile a way. One might easily fall into the temptation to take ayahuasca visions as a shortcut to explaining indigenous cosmology, making it an effect of the drink’s pharmacological properties. Or, who knows: going further along the same path, one might make ayahuasca into a complementary visual organ that activates other perceptual potentials. Ayahuasca may be much more than this. Ayahuasca could, in fact, represent an equivalent to what “perspective” meant to European art: a way of articulating perceptions and a sense of reality.
Image Source: Reichel-Dolmatoff
In the European tradition the notion of perspective served, in the first place, to show the limitations of the senses. The eyes deceive, and this deception can be domesticated and redeployed by the artist, as in illusionist painting—the trompe-l’oeil—which suggests depths to flat surfaces or presences where there are only representations. Later, in a kind of philosophical trompe-l’oeil, that tradition postulated, beyond illusion, a reality, as it exists, whose common denominator was extension, the set of measurable attributes. Perspective, that is to say naturalistic perspective, was one of the pillars of the knowing success of nature. Ayahuasca may undergird another perspective, another theory of vision, and of the central vision, not of a dimension complementary to everyday vision.
It is hard to know how much this theory of seeing has been transferred from the indigenous world to the ayahuasca religions of Western societies. A certain doubt always hovers over religious or literary movements that claim an indigenous origin, as though indigenous thought outside the jungle could generate nothing more than hollow evocations. I do not believe that the ayahuasca religions, steeped though they may be in an ultimately Christian metaphysic, are entirely at odds to this logic of the concrete that ayahuasca may potentiate in an extraordinary way.
If the Indians have been perceived as objects of the Christian mission, ayahuasca provides the best example of a counter-mission. Not because the Indians have set themselves to the task of proselytizing, although more than a few shamans leave the village to work their science over the whites, presenting interesting similarities to the proclaimers of the gospel who traveled the inverse path.
Much might be said about what this expansion of ayahuasca means to the Indians. But I prefer to think about ayahuasca here as an especially expressive case of indigenous creativity later adopted by other peoples, one whose vitality is sufficient for us to take it seriously. The Western ayahuasca religions are not effects of a psychedelic agent, as powerful as it may be. They are variations on an indigenous cultural theme that increases in potency the further they extend from it.
-A version of this article first appeared in the book Ayahuasca Religions, edited by Beatriz Caiuby Labate, Isabel Santana de Rose, Rafael Guiaraes dos Santos, 2007.