One Plant, Many Applications: The Different Tribal Uses of Ayahuasca

A Three-Fold Model of the World’s Oldest Religion

Many anthropologists agree that as long as there have been humans on the planet, there have been shamans. Widely considered the “world’s oldest religion” and the most archaic of all spiritual practices, to follow the development of shamanism is to track the evolution of human consciousness.(1),still%20existing%20in%20our%20planet.

Although the word shamanism is now used as a catchall term for a variety of different magico-religious rituals and beliefs practiced throughout the world, anthropologists have identified at least three distinct sub-categories of shamanic rites: shamanic flight (spirit journeys), possession (mediumship) and summoning the spirits.(2) While these categorizations are useful when trying to understand the shamanic world from an intellectual standpoint, the reality is that shamanism is a lot more fluid and nuanced than anthropologists would have us believe and nowhere is this more evident than in the rituals practiced by Amazonian curanderos.

With that being said, this three-fold model is useful to bear in mind when discussing shamanism because it helps to contextualize a vast web of magico-religious ideas, giving the layperson a more linear and “rational” way of understanding the numinous world of traditional Amazonian curanderismo.

The Endless Variety of Amazonian Curanderismo

Shamanism is ubiquitous and the global variety of shamanic practices are endless, however, there are few other places on earth that boast the breadth and expansiveness of Amazonian curanderismo. This may in part, be due to the jungle’s vast terrain – the Amazon covers over 40% of the entire South American continent(3) … Continue reading – as well as to the bricolage of different tribes and mestizo populations that call the world’s largest rainforest their home.

The staggering variety of ayahuasca rituals that have developed over millennia reflect the topographical diversity of the Amazon as well as the potpourri of its inhabitants. This means that if you imbibe ayahuasca with mestizo communities living in Brazil you will be following a very different set of rules compared to those followed by tribal people in Venezuela or Ecuador. What’s more, is that the reason ayahuasca is consumed will often vary from shaman to shaman as this will be determined by the disparate needs of the community that the shaman serves.(4) Put simply, a curandero’s motivation for drinking ayahuasca often defines the kind of formalities he must undertake in order to achieve his desired aim.

In other words, conducting an ayahuasca ritual in order to manipulate a new love interest or locate a reliable food source varies tremendously from a ceremony aimed at tourists or curious newbies. In fact, the standard “ayahuasca ceremony” that most westerners associate with ayahuasca consumption is only a recent development and was pioneered by mestizo populations living in and around the Amazonian city of Iquitos in Peru.(5)

Although tourist-driven ayahuasca ceremonies follow a very similar structure, there are in fact countless different ways that both mestizo and indigenous communities can – and do – imbibe “the sacred vine.” These variations don’t just reflect a difference in tribal beliefs and customs, they are also inspired by the various uses of ayahuasca – that is, the consumption of ayahuasca to bring about specific results that are unrelated to the desire to simply “trip out” and navel-gaze.

When it is not being served to tourists in ayahuasca ceremonies, “the sacred vine” continues to be used for a range of different purposes and in a variety of ways by diverse communities across South America. For example, urban dwellers in Brazil who belong to the ayahuasca church of Santo Daime often imbibe this psychedelic tea in order to experience religious ecstasy and/or to commune with Christ. Their ayahuasca-based rituals share few similarities with the tourist-focused ceremonies that are now popular in the west and while Santo Daime is becoming more well-known around the world as a “novel” and “different” approach to consuming ayahuasca, there are in fact countless other ways in which ayahuasca can be imbibed.

An Indigenous Understanding of Ayahuasca and its Role in Divination

Although the majority of westerners use “the sacred vine” as a tool for self-enquiry, this is actually the most recently “discovered” way of using ayahuasca and conforms to what American psychologist Abraham Maslow called “the hierarchy of needs” which posits that humans will always seek out physical survival as their top priority.(6) This suggests that when early humans started to develop a relationship with healing plants such as ayahuasca, it was in order to optimize their chances at surviving in a world full of hidden dangers.

Since Amazonian people have evolved to live a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, their survival is intimately linked with being able to locate new sources of food in the jungle.(7) Subsisting on a diet of wild game, fish, berries and edible roots, native Amazonians have always lived in close contact with nature, however, in times of scarcity, tribal people had to turn to the community’s shaman in order locate reliable food sources.(8)P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.74

The link between ayahuasca and physical survival is one of the many reasons that ayahuasca is considered a sacrament in pan-Amazonian cosmology. This is because, without ayahuasca, medicine men would not be able to go on “spirit journeys” and without these shamanic divination rites, tribal people would not be able to find enough fish and game to survive. This means that drinking ayahuasca has ensured the continuity of certain tribes over thousands of years and represents the oldest form of ayahuasca usage in the Amazon.(9)P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.99

For certain indigenous communities, such as the Shipibo and the Shuar, the location of fish and wild game could sometimes only be identified when the tribal shaman imbibed ayahuasca.(10)P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.67 A crucial factor in this divination ritual also allowed the shaman to see if the tribe was living in accordance with the laws of nature since certain varieties of fish and bush meat are off-limits at different times of the year due to breeding patterns that make the consumption of their flesh taboo during specific seasons.(11)

By going into a trancelike state, the medicine man was able to receive messages about whether or not the tribe was following seasonal hunting limitations. If there had been any transgressions on the part of the tribe, the spirit of ayahuasca would be able to instruct the shaman on what needed to be done in order to appease the spirits and reinstate the tribe’s access to food.(12)

This means that while self-enquiry is all very well and good, the desire to use ayahuasca for this purpose is driven by a privileged western understanding of the plant’s functionality and presupposes that the individual imbibing ayahuasca already has all their basic needs taken care of. For native people, ayahuasca has always had a more practical application than merely wishing to indulge in a spot of navel-gazing. This is because the plant’s spirit is believed to have the power to reveal hidden sources of food, guiding entire communities to the location of life-giving nourishment.

For tribal people, drinking ayahuasca in divination ceremonies and waiting for her spirit to reveal a reliable source of food to the shaman can literally spell the difference between life and death. This is why anthropologists believe that ayahuasca was originally used by tribal communities to divine the source of fish and wild game(13) and supports Maslow’s theory that human beings have always prioritized their physical security and survival needs above all else.

Ayahuasca and its Role in Sustainability

Sustainability and survival of the species are interchangeable for people living traditional lifestyles. In the Shipibo language, this is called Jakon Nete (literally, “life giving world”) and is a key concept in understanding native Amazonian cosmology which posits that the health and well-being of mankind is intimately linked to the health and well-being of the natural world.(14) An imbalance in nature is reflected as an imbalance in humans and vice versa. This is because, in the native mind, mankind and the environment are seen as part of the same mythic continuum and one cannot be separated from the other.(15)

A native person traditionally derives their sense of well-being from their sacred relationship to the environment. This is why sustainability has always been of utmost importance in traditional Amazonian societies and by regularly drinking ayahuasca to receive information from the spirit world, the shaman ensured that his tribe always had access to food and fresh drinking water. For many tribal people, the inability to locate fish and game can often indicate a lack of equilibrium between humans and the spirit world and so it is the responsibility of the shaman to maintain an open channel with the spirits through the ritual consumption of ayahuasca.(16)

This allows them to contact the spirit world in order to “check in” and see that everything is in balance. If the spirits are displeased with the conduct or hubris of humans, they have the power to withhold access to food and water. For indigenous people, food scarcity is often seen as a “warning” from the spirit world and signals to humans that the tribe’s shaman must undertake a journey into the medicine world so that the spirits are able to instruct him on what steps need to be taken in order to restore a harmonious, mutually beneficial relationship between the various kingdoms of nature.(17)

By doing this, it was believed that the spirits could then show them where to hunt or fish, linking the tribal use of ayahuasca to basic physical survival, which, for Amazonian people, is intimately connected with sustainability and collective healing.

Ayahuasca and its Role in Love Magic


According to Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” once our basic survival requirements are taken care of, human beings start to seek out love and belonging.(18) This has led anthropologists to speculate that once indigenous people had established that ayahuasca could be used to secure reliable sources of food, it could then be put to use in rituals and spells that harnessed the power of love.(19)P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.33-34

Love-spells involving ayahuasca have a wide range of applications, however they are most commonly invoked when someone wants to make a specific person fall in love with them.(20)P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.59 Some argue that these spells are the most popular way in which indigenous and mestizo populations consult the spirit of ayahuasca and it is not uncommon for laypeople and shamans alike to visit shaman’s markets – such as the famous “Pasaje Paquito” in Iquitos’ Belen Market – to procure the ingredients necessary for invoking love magic.(21)P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.22-23

Pusangas: Shamanic Love Charms

There are a number of ways in which ayahuasca is used to perform love spells. The most popular of these applications is through the use of pusangas – herbal elixirs that may or may not contain ayahuasca as one of the main ingredients.(22)P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.81 Pusangas are usually made by vegetalistas – medicine men with an extensive knowledge of jungle plants and there are literally countless ways to make and “activate” these magical concoctions.(23)S. Beyer, “Singing to the Plants,” p.78 Although there’s nothing to stop an untrained layperson from picking up the ingredients necessary to make a love pusanga – this happens frequently in markets across the Amazon – many people prefer to seek out a specialist who is then charged with overseeing the entire process.(24)S. Beyer, “Singing to the Plants,” p.78-79

After praying over this specially formulated concoction of herbs, the pusanga is “activated” with icaros sung over it by a knowledgeable vegetalista who then consecrates their love-sick patient with a few sprinkles of the elixir. It is then buried underground for a specified period of time and then secretly unearthed and used as a perfume to attract a would-be lover. This process may sometimes involve a series of ayahuasca ceremonies in which the patient and the vegtetalista engage in secret rituals to strengthen and “energize” the pusanga. The name of the person that the patient wishes to attract is used over and over again throughout the various rituals as this is considered a vital component in the spells’ eventual success and is also believed to help ayahuasca “acquaint” herself with the energy of the missing lover.(25)P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.88

Not all love pusangas are concocted to ensnare a specific person and can be made to elicit public adulation from others. These concoctions tend to take longer to “activate” than those that are tailor-made with specific lovers in mind and often involve strict dietas on the part of both the patient and the vegetalista. Secret ayahuasca rituals are also included as part of the spell’s “activation” process and are a key to its success. This is because, in the hierarchy of jungle plants, ayahuasca is considered all-powerful and all-knowing and it is believed that if you can get ayahuasca “on your side,” there is no limit to what she can help you achieve in matters of the heart.(26)P.Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.88-89

Pusangas can be made for a variety of other reasons besides love and attraction although it is believed that they were first concocted for use in love and erotica. Vegetalistas can also be enlisted to create pusangas that are then energized and activated during public ayahuasca ceremonies because the presence of a large number of people is believed to increase the pusanga’s power.(27)P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.63 These magical elixirs can be used for almost any human affliction ranging from success in business to power over one’s enemies and are still popular all over the Amazon region.

Some Miscellaneous Uses of Ayahuasca  

Although ayahuasca consumption often has a very specific focus, there are many examples in which “the sacred vine” is consumed recreationally – with no end-goal or aim enlisted by the drinker. For example, there are Pano-speaking tribes in which men drink ayahuasca as a socializing and bonding experience. They drink the medicine as a way of exploring the astral realm and engaging in “spirit journeys” to other dimensions.(28)

In Sibundoy communities in Colombia both men and women drink ayahuasca in order to understand the natural world – and how it is connected to the spiritual realms – while many other tribal people use it as a means for diagnosing the spiritual causes of an illness. Apart from its use as a diagnostic tool, it can also be used to treat illnesses as ayahuasca is believed to help purge both physical and non-physical impurities from the body while purifying the mind and emotions.(29)

Different groups use ayahuasca differently and have done for millennia. This is still evident today and whether a person is a member of one of Brazil’s three “ayahuasca churches” or an indigenous Pano-speaking male indulging in some spirit journeying with his friends, there is really something to suit every need. 

Final Thoughts

The Iquitos-inspired ceremony now used as the de facto ritual in ayahuasca tourism is merely one of the many styles of magico-religious practices that center around ayahuasca consumption. As modern humans are now more likely to have all their basic survival needs taken care of, ayahuasca is being increasingly used as a plant that can aid in psychological healing and spiritual self-discovery. This reflects a desire for self-actualization and transcendence, the last and final “requirements” in Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.”(30)

Societies are not static; they change and evolve over time because the priorities of the people who make up these societies are always in flux. Mankind’s relationship with plants involves a complex series of factors that governs how certain florae are perceived – and used – by the collective at any given moment in history. This cultural lens shifts and changes like the patterns of a kaleidoscope, glorifying the properties of certain plants one minute and then vilifying them the next.

The way ayahuasca is being approached and consumed by the mainstream at the present moment is the result of a collective desire to interact with the plant’s spirit in a way that highlight’s its capacity for self-enquiry and psychological transcendence. Ayahuasca – and the way it is ritually consumed – is subject to the same fickle laws that explain why yesterday’s gutter weeds become today’s superfoods.

Even though there are countless different ways in which ayahuasca can be consumed (as we have just discussed), we are now living in an age which calls for spiritual self-enquiry on a mass-scale and, until we reach another collective milestone that ushers in a shift in our relationship with ayahuasca, we will continue to use it as a bridge to help us understand our innermost selves.


4, 5, 13, 28, 29
8 P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.74
9 P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.99
10 P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.67
11, 12, 15, 16, 17
18, 30
19 P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.33-34
20 P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.59
21 P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.22-23
22 P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.81
23 S. Beyer, “Singing to the Plants,” p.78
24 S. Beyer, “Singing to the Plants,” p.78-79
25 P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.88
26 P.Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.88-89
27 P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.63