What A Traditional, Indigenous Ayahuasca Ceremony Is Like

Are the growing number of Western tourists partaking in “traditional” ayahuasca ceremonies being deceived?

Ayahuasca retreats have boomed in popularity in the past few decades. Each year, thousands of Europeans and North Americans travel to the Upper Amazon, the Orinoco Basin, and the Pacific Lowlands of Colombia and Ecuador, to consume this medicinal botanical brew. 

Inspired by revolutionaries such as the great pioneer in the study of Amazonian psychoactive plants, Richard Evans Schultes, and the mystical ethnobotanist, Terence McKenna – both of whom led courageous expeditions to indigenous communities deep inside the Amazon — a growing number of Pasajeros (passengers) are journeying to the amazon for spiritual and healing purposes. 

However, tourist-centered “traditional ayahuasca ceremonies” that Westerners flock to today diverge in important ways from how indigenous societies traditionally use ayahuasca.

For instance, esoteric rituals associated with abstract Amazonian concepts of spirituality, magic, divination, spiritual warfare, and healing, which according to 19th and 20th-century ethnobotanists and anthropologists are traditionally the most important elements of ritualistic ayahuasca use, have been significantly watered down or eliminated to accommodate Western cultural frameworks. 

This, of course, does not belittle the therapeutic or spiritual value of contemporary, modernized retreats. That said, an understanding of how the medicine is actually used among indigenous communities would not go amiss. 

Evolution of the Ayahuasca Brew

In many indigenous societies, including the Napo Runa of Amazonian Ecuador, the Sharanahua of Peru, the Tukano of Colombia, and the hunter-forager-horticulturist Waorani community of Ecuador, ayahuasca contained only the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, aka “the ayahuasca vine.” 

Additional ingredients such as Psychotria viridis, a leafy shrub containing the powerful psychedelic substance N, N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), were rarely present in the brew. 

These so-called “compañeros” (companion plants) that contained DMT, such as Psychotria viridis, Diplopterys cabrerana, and Psychotria carthagenensis, became a main ingredient of the brew only when the popularity of ayahuasca started to grow. The inclusion of companion plants came merely as a response to the psychedelic, shapeshifting expectations of Western visitors. 

Types of Indigenous Ayahuasca Rituals 

Regular members of the community would seldom consume ayahuasca in indigenous communities. On the very rare occasions that they did drink the brew, it was likely upon the insistence of the shaman in cases of serious illness.

It is important to note, too, that ayahuasca rituals vary significantly between indigenous societies.

For instance, in his bookThe Shaman and The Jaguar,’ Austrian anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff explained that the Colombian Tukano tribe had two kinds of ayahuasca rituals. 

The first one entailed a large ceremony that focused on the divine origin of the community’s social laws, initiations, burials, and ancestral communication. This ceremony typically involved lots of dancing and singing. 

The Tukano would also use ayahuasca in more intimate ceremonies devoted to the shamanic concepts of healing and divination, locating and tracking down game, or learning about the warfare tactics of enemies. This more intimate use of ayahuasca, which typically involved just a few community members, has been somewhat preserved in modern-day Mestizo communities. 

Divination: Use of Ayahuasca to Invoke Spirits 

One of the main reasons shamans ingest ayahuasca is to enter otherworldly realms that are impenetrable in ordinary consciousness.

As “specialists in the pharmacology of consciousness,” to use the words of anthropologist and ayahuasca researcher Luis Eduardo Luna, shamans, particularly among the Shuar of the Ecuadorian Amazon, believe that the forces in control of everyday affairs reside in these metaphysical, supernatural realms which can only be reached through an ayahuasca-induced alteration of consciousness.

In his classic bookThe Cubeo, Indians of the Northwest Amazon,’ American anthropologist Irving Goldman states that the Cubeo, an ethnic group from the Vaupés department of Southeastern Colombia, revere the profundity of the sacred subjective effects of ayahuasca, and primarily use the brew for ancestral communication. 

Shamans also consume ayahuasca as a means of entering spirit realms where they can attain supernatural powers of divination. Communicating with spirits enables shamans to gather valuable information on matters of horticulture, agriculture, hunting, medicine, and the whereabouts of lost community members. 

Communication with Animals and Plants 

One of the most common motives for shamanic consumption of ayahuasca is to be transformed into an animal to perform very specific animalistic tasks. Transformation into a jaguar for the purposes of attacking enemies, for example, is particularly common. 

Shamans also report transforming into other animals, such as apex predators like the harpy eagle and the anaconda. Alternatively, the animal or plant into which the shaman transforms can adopt anthropomorphic qualities, thus enabling communication with humans.

Ayahuasca Visions for Diagnosis and Healing 

On his quest to understand the culture of the Jibaro Indians of Eastern Ecuador and Peru, Finnish social anthropologist and philosopher of religion Sigfrid Rafael Karsten quizzed the Shuar on the motivations behind their ritual use of ayahuasca, which they call natéma. According to Karsten, the Shuar consume the brew to enhance their awareness of potential dangers threatening the health and wellbeing of their community members.

Indigenous communities also use ayahuasca to diagnose those presenting with a particular set of symptoms and to look for the etiology of specific illnesses.

Once the illness has been diagnosed, and the etiology of the ailment revealed (often found to be the loss of one’s soul due to fright or sorcery), shamans will then suck or blow on specific body parts of the sickly, such as the solar plexus, the top of the head, the temples, and arms and legs.

This practice is reflective of indigenous beliefs regarding the central contribution of harmful spirits to the development of illnesses. 

Additionally, or alternatively, shamans will treat the sick by blowing tobacco smoke over them or over other medicinal Amazonian plants. In most indigenous societies, songs and incantations are also crucial elements of the healing process. 

The Shaman: Protector and Healer 

Ayahuasca is also used by shamans as a means of engaging in spiritual warfare. Remember, illness is thought of as having transpired via the evil acts of a brujo (sorcerer), and so fighting against it is central to the healing process. A spiritual duel of tit for tat, fighting typically takes the form of defense and counter-attack.

Traditional shamans assume the role not only of healer, but also that of a community protector, using ayahuasca to obtain revelatory insights as to the origin of illness, and send it back to where it came from.

In his Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes, the great English botanist, Richard Spruce, who spent 15 years exploring the Amazon, explained how after consuming ayahuasca, shamans would “burst into a perspiration, and seem possessed with reckless fury,” and seizing whatever weapons were at hand, shamans would rush to the doorway to “inflict violent blows on the ground or the doorposts.”

The Acquisition of Songs and Designs through Ayahuasca 

There seems also to be a relationship among indigenous societies between the visionary experiences occasioned by ayahuasca, body painting, and the patterns used in the decoration of communal houses, ceramics, textiles, and tools. For example, in The Shaman and The Jaguar, Reichel-Dolmatoff reveals that the extraordinarily intricate and beautiful designs on material possessions belonging to the Shipibo of the Ucayali River in Peru are inspired by “nishi-pai'' (ayahuasca). 

So too do the Shipibo acquire songs from ayahuasca-induced realms. According to author Angelika Gebhart-Sayer, ayahuasca facilitates transcendence to higher realms where shamans listen to melodies, before singing with the spirits to obtain visions of designs. The Shipibo also intone songs from the appearance of certain painted or embroidered designs.

These songs and “song patterns” are then used in what Gebhart-Sayer termed “aesthetic therapy,” and reportedly play a very important role in healing ceremonies. 

Using Ayahuasca to Promote Social Order 

Ayahuasca and other medicinal Amazonian plants are used by some indigenous groups to promote social cohesion, facilitate coordinated productive activity, and maintain relationship structure.

For example, in his 1985 book ‘Tsewa's Gift: Magic and Meaning in an Amazonian Society,’  Professor of Anthropology Michael Brown explains how elder members of the Peruvian Aguaruna people believe that the younger members of their community are not as wise as they perhaps should be because they no longer undergo training in the sacred use of medicinal plants.

The Tukano believe that ayahuasca gives them their life and the rules by which they should live it.  

Ayahuasca improves one’s ability to meet responsibilities and carry out specific tasks, according to the Shuar. For instance, they believe that ayahuasca enables the men to maintain their physical strength and tactical nous for fishing, hunting, and fighting, while the medicine aids women in matters of agriculture, education, and care of domestic animals.

Thanks to the work of anthropology professor David Brownman and anthropologist Ronald A. Schwarz, specifically their 2011 book Spirits, Shamans, and Stars: Perspectives from South America,’ we know that the Siona, an indigenous ethnic group of the Ecuadorian Amazon, use ayahuasca to maintain general health and well being and to acquire knowledge.  

Drinking Ayahuasca: An Ambiguous Tradition

So, there you have it. There seems to be no such thing as a “traditional” ayahuasca ceremony. The use of this ancient plant medicine varies widely among indigenous societies throughout the Amazon, and it is continually changing and evolving. 

It may be helpful to understand that while contemporary ceremonies typically do include elements of age-old Amazonian ayahuasca sessions, terms like “traditional” may be deceptively employed to seduce eager Westerners yearning for a mystical experience.

That is not to say, of course, that contemporary ayahuasca ceremonies cannot be helpful. Traditional or not, they can, and very often are, life-transforming.

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