Ayahuasca is the name given to both the central ingredient of a South American Indian psychoactive potion (a species of the Banisteriopsis genus) and the potion itself. Almost invariably other plants are mixed together with the jungle vine Banisteriopsis; about a hundred different species are known to have been added to the potion at different times and places. Ayahuasca has been used in a number of countries in South and Central America, including Panama, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, and by at least seventy different indigenous peoples of the Americas. In addition to ayahuasca, other native names include yajé, caapi, natema, pindé, kahi, mihi, dápa and bejuco de oro, the last meaning 'vine of gold'. Ayahuasca itself means 'vine of the soul'. Ayahuasca is made in the form of a drink or potion. The bark of the Banisteriopsis vine is either mashed to a pulp and then mixed with cold water or, in other regional methods of making the potion, it is boiled for a number of hours and then the resulting liquid is consumed. Ayahuasca gained a reputation for providing telepathic powers and a psychoactive alkaloid found to be present in it was named telepathine (now known to be the same as the alkaloid harmine found in Syrian rue). Harmaline is also present in both ayahuasca and Syrian rue. The reports of its telepathic powers have long since been rejected by experts, although the legend lives on in some quarters.
The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances
by Richard Rudgley
Little, Brown and Company (1998)
The presence of other plants alongside the Banisteriopsis species significantly increases the overall psychoactive effects of these native preparations. The psychoactive tryptamines contained in these additives are inactive when administered orally, unless substances called MAO inhibitors (monoamine oxidase inhibitors) are present. As both harmine and harmaline are MAO inhibitors they complement the tryptamines and the conjunction of the two kinds of alkaloid facilitates the powerful hallucinogenic effects of the ayahuasca mixtures.
Richard Schultes, during his many years of botanical research in the Amazon region, encountered a number of indigenous peoples who use ayahuasca. His overview of its effects and uses is highly illuminating:Ingestion of Ayahuasca usually induces nausea, dizziness, vomiting, and leads to either an euphoric or an aggressive state. Frequently the Indian sees overpowering attacks of huge snakes or jaguars. These animals often humiliate him because he is a mere man. The repetitiveness with which snakes and jaguars occur in Ayahuasca visions has intrigues psychologists. It is understandable that these animals play such a role, since they are the only beings respected and feared by the Indians of the tropical forest; because of their power and stealth, they have assumed a place of primacy in aboriginal religious beliefs. In many tribes, the shaman becomes a feline during the intoxication, exercising his powers as a cat. Yekwana medicine men mimic the roars of jaguars. Tukano Ayahuasca-takers may experience nightmares of jaguar jaws swallowing them or huge snakes approaching and coiling around their bodies … shamans of the Conibo-Shipibo tribe acquire great snakes as personal possessions to defend themselves in supernatural battles against other powerful shamans. The drug may be the shaman's tool to diagnose illness or to ward off impending disaster, to guess the wiles of an enemy, to prophesy the future. But it is more than the shaman's tool. It enters into almost all aspects of the life of the people who use it, to an extent equalled by hardly any other hallucinogen. Partakers, shamans or not, see all the gods, the first human beings, and animals, and come to understand the establishment of their social order.Schultes' understanding of the cultural significance of ayahuasca is in stark contrast to the derisory accounts of early travellers. The earliest Europeans to mention ayahuasca were Jesuits travelling in the Amazon. One of the earliest such reports of this 'diabolical potion' from 1737 describes it as: 'an intoxicating potion ingested for divinatory and other purposes and called ayahuasca, which deprives one of his senses and, at times, of his life.'
The serious scientific study of ayahuasca began with the field investigations of the English botanist Richard Spruce throughout the 1850s. In 1851 he collected samples of Banisteriopsis among the Tukanoan people of Brazil and sent them home for chemical analysis. Ayahuasca-type potions are still used by the Tukanoan peoples of the Colombian north-west Amazon, who call such preparations yajé. Yajé-induced geometric images play a highly significant role in shaping their cultural life. These hallucinatory signs are the raw visual data upon which is constructed a complex cultural code, each different sign representing a number of key social beliefs and institutions. These geometric forms and the states of visionary consciousness that they are perceived in are considered by the Tukano as pertaining to a higher reality than that experienced in ordinary states of consciousness. The powerful nature of these geometric forms is so pervasive in their cultural life that their decorative art is almost completely based on such designs. Their architecture, decorated pottery, sand drawings, masks, musical instruments, necklaces, stools, weapons, etc are all adorned in the same fashion. Even many of their songs and dances are said to be based on auditory and visual hallucinations resulting from their use of the potion.
The hallucinatory experiences of these people also have a marked sexual content. This applies not only to yajé but to hallucinogenic snuffs and other psychoactive substances used by them. Shamans in discussion with the anthropologist Reichel-Dolmatoff described hallucinogens as 'all semen' and the visions that they induce are states of sexual arousal and orgasm, often involving fantasies of incest. For the majority of native users of yajé' the experience is a very positive one (although some find it literally nauseating or sometimes even terrifying) and in a few instances the erotic visions are transmuted into a mystical union with the mythical age and cosmic womb.
Among the Tukanoan peoples each of the tribes is the traditional 'owner' of one or more types of yajé. This indigenous form of classification is not based on botanical distinctions but on the different psychoactive effects of particular plants and their parts. Thus, the different altered states of consciousness, distinct fields of inner space, and the specific kinds of the drug are apportioned to the prevailing order and structure of Amazonian societies. Similar ways of classifying ayahuasca or yajé exist elsewhere in the Amazon. The Harakmbet Indians of the Peruvian south-west Amazon distinguish over twenty different types according to their meaning, effect and associated symbols. For example, one type, boyanhe, induces visions of hunting and fishing; sisi, known as 'the flesh of the ancestors', gives visions of heaven; benkuje, or 'woodpecker', has leaves which contain a spirit that chops apart illness and so assists the healing process; yari huangana is a particularly potent type which causes delusions and should only be used with great caution: unconsciousness, even death await the reckless user. These selected examples can only give a glimpse of what is probably the most complex cluster of hallucinogen-using societies in the world today. The actual number of ayahuasca additives and preparations is impossible to calculate; many are the sole prerogative of single shamans. Whilst usage is by no means restricted to shamans, there is often a qualitative difference between the visions of shamans and others. The shaman's special knowledge of ayahuasca embraces the entire process of selecting, collecting, preparing and consuming the jungle vine and its additives in the potion. By supervising the doses administered to both themselves and other they are able to control, to an extent, both the content and intensity of the altered states of consciousness.
Ghillean Prance, now Director of the Botanic Gardens at Kew, has recorded an amusing anecdote he picked up in Amazonian Brazil: 'I met an air force captain who had once taken movies to show at Tarauacá to the Indians up river. He said that the Indians were distinctly disappointed by the movies (one a cowboy film, and the other a documentary about Brazil). They told him that they had seen all that and even more while under the influence of cipó, and they said that in the future they would use cipó instead.' Whilst the use of ayahuasca is culturally sanctioned in a great many Amazonian societies its use is shunned in others. In an ethnobotanical report on an isolated Indian group of eastern Ecuador, Wade Davis and James Yost note that:Amongst most Amazonian tribes, hallucinogenic intoxication is considered to be a collective journey into the subconscious and, as such, is a quintessentially social event. The Waorani, however, consider the use of hallucinogens to be an aggressive and anti-social act; so the shaman, or ido, who desired to project a curse takes the drug [Banisteriopsis muricata] alone or accompanied only by his wife at night in the secrecy of the forest or in an isolated house.
With the urbanisation of Amazonian peoples ayahuasca continues to be used for its magical and medicinal properties. The anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Rios undertook a special study of its use among inhabitants of the city of Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon. The slums of Iquitos are populated by people who have come in from the forest, and poverty, unemployment, malnutrition and crime dominate social life. Many of the slum dwellers seek out traditional ways of dealing with the myriad problems that they encounter; among these is the use of ayahuasca for its curative powers. Surgeries conducted by native healers take place at night in forest clearings on the outskirts of the city. These healers carefully screen their prospective patients and will not allow those suffering from extreme mental disorders to take part in the ayahuasca ceremonies for fear of disrupting the entire healing session. A communal cup is passed around and the amount consumed by each patient is monitored by the healer, who makes his or her assessment of the appropriate dosage according to each individual's body weight, physical condition and mental health. When all the patients have drunk from the cup the healer will then also take ayahuasca. Throughout the ceremony the healer moves around the gathering shaking a rattle, blowing cigarette smoke on some patients (tobacco smoke is considered to have healing properties) and exorcising evil spirits which are seen as the cause of various diseases and disorders. Many of the problems which the native healers try to cure are what we would call psychological traumas and depression. In the eyes of the slum dwellers they are more often seen as caused by the evil eye, witchcraft, and sorcery.
Rather like the Native American Church, whose members use the peyote cactus as a sacrament, Neo-Christian churches have arisen in South America that use ayahuasca in a similar way. These religious cults appear to have begun at the beginning of the twentieth century and the most well-known of them is called I>Santo Daime. Some of these cults have thousands of members, many of whom do not come from societies where ayahuasca was traditionally consumed. Santo Daime now has branches in the United States and various European countries, including Spain. Although these urban-based cults seem likely to guarantee the continuing use of ayahuasca as an entheogen there is also a growing interest in ayahuasca among Western drug users. This has led to the growth of what Jonathan Ott has called "'ayahuasca' tourism", i.e. groups of tourists visit the rainforest to partake in the 'jungle drug', usually paying high prices for the privilege. Since ayahuasca is not readily available in the Western drug scene, its price is fairly prohibitive. Ott reports that ayahuasca potions brewed in greenhouses in the United States sell for as much as $800 a time. Bearing in mind that such extortion is really pricing itself out of the market, Ott has noted that:Americans, ever on the lookout for innovations, particularly in an open and unregulated field such as the underground drug market, have put considerable effort into the creation of temperate-zone analogues of ayahuasca, that is, combinations of temperate-zone plants which will supply a source of DMT and a source of Beta-carbolines that, when combined, will yield an entheogenic potion similar to the decidedly tropical ayahuasca. Dennis McKenna [the brother of Terence McKenna] has proposed the name ayahuasca borealis for temperate-zone ayahuasca analogues.
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