Brazilian Ayahuasca Religions and their Ceremonies

Santo Daime and the Origin of Brazilian “Ayahuasca Religions”

Outside of the indigenous context of ayahuasca usage, there exists in Brazil several different “ayahuasca religions” that fuse together various cultural and ethnic worldviews, blending Portuguese Catholic, native and African elements. The most famous of these “ayahuasca religions” is Santo Daime, a syncretic religion that was founded in Brazil in the 1930s.

Santo Daime came into existence when Mestre Irineu, an illiterate Afro-Brazilian man attended an indigenous ayahuasca ceremony in eastern Brazil where he was working as a rubber tapper. He spent eight nights hallucinating alone in the jungle and during this period in isolation, he received clear instructions from a forest spirit who taught him how to use ayahuasca to heal others.(1) After this life-changing experience, he started conducting ayahuasca ceremonies which attracted increasing numbers of people who could not afford conventional medical treatment. As rumors of Mestre Irineu’s spiritual healings continued to spread, people who had seen no improvements using western medicine started flocking to him in order to receive healing.

Besides Santo Daime, Brazil is also the birthplace of Barquinha (founded 1945) and União do Vegetal (founded 1961) which grew out of the church of Santo Daime and are also based on the consumption of ayahuasca in a formalized church-like setting that fuses Catholic, indigenous and African-animist cosmovisions.

The Rituals of Harnessing the Power of Nature

All three religions are centred on the ritual consumption of ayahuasca and draw on Brazil’s rich racial and cultural heritage, using prayers and ceremonial practices that utilize Christian and indigenous religious elements as well as the worship of west African gods and goddesses.(2) … Continue reading For example, the Brazilian sea-goddess Iemanjá is at the forefront of the Candomblé religious pantheon and her power is often invoked by “pastors” during ayahuasca ceremonies to harness the primal force of water.(3) Considered to be the most powerful of all west African deities, Iemanjá is also referred to as the Mother of humanity, which is not dissimilar to the indigenous conception of ayahuasca who is considered to be a feminine deity and the Mother of all vegetative and animal life. Likewise, the Virgin Mary – whose name is etymologically linked to an epithet which means “drop of the sea,” – is also connected to the primal force of water and she is often invoked during Brazilian ayahuasca rituals in order to harness her healing love as well as her compassion for mankind.(4)

Many Santo Daime practitioners claim that they are following in the footsteps of early Christians who they believe imbibed similar psychotropic substances during their sermons.(5) The name Santo Daime literally translates to “sacred” (Santo) and “give me” (Daime) and imbibing ayahuasca (referred to as “Daime” by devotees) bears some similarities with the tradition of drinking wine (“the blood of Christ”) at holy communion. In fact, some scholars suggest that the ritual consumption of psychotropic medicine forms part of the bedrock of Christianity and claim that the earliest followers of Christ drank a sacramental elixir called kykion, which had once been used in the Dionysian Mystery Schools of the ancient Romans and Greeks who were among the first converts to Christianity.(6)

The main unifying factor in all three Brazilian ayahuasca religions is that there is no specific framework or belief system that is followed which means that ceremonies may take one of countless different directions. Generally speaking, several rounds of “Daime” are given in a single ceremony and sometimes attendees receive “hymns” which are then transcribed and sung again during subsequent ceremonies. Since these songs are believed to contain magical frequencies and healing energies that have been transmitted from the astral realm, they are recorded by the church’s scribe and are used in future ceremonies to call upon the spirits to facilitate healing and transformation for the congregation.(7)

A Cultural, Social and Spiritual Cure-All

The enduring popularity of Santo Daime and its offshoots is hardly surprising given today’s political climate of social division and socioeconomic disparity.(8) Brazil, like many Latin American countries, is a deeply divided nation with an enormous gap between the rich and poor factions of society. Systems of devotional worship such as Santo Daime and its offshoots unite the sacred and the mundane facets of spirituality so that there is no separation between them. In fact, all three systems share a holistic, all-embracing approach to life where everything is seen as holy and nothing is suppressed or disregarded for being ungodly or ritually impure.

Because these religions center around the consumption of a hallucinogen, everything that is revealed to a person in ceremony is considered auspicious; a sign that the numinous spirit of ayahuasca is working to heal and transform consciousness. The Christian influence on these religions means that the ayahuasca brew itself is likened to the physical essence of God, making it a sacrament that imbues drinkers with divine and otherworldly qualities.(9)

Unlike the crushing moral standards espoused by orthodox Catholicism, Santo Daime and its offshoots nurture all things equally and plays on the idea that “nature knows no kings,” meaning that all things are acceptable according to their context. There is no morality applicable in 100% of circumstances which echoes the flexible and pliable philosophy of Nature herself.  This attitude of openness allows the many different layers of Brazilian identity to come together to form a unified, cohesive whole which means that a person is just as likely to attend an ayahuasca ritual to heal from a physical illness as they are to get in touch with a higher power.

Nature does not moralize or judge; Nature simply “is” and the rituals of Santo Daime and its various branches are merely a play on the immutable laws of divinity, which can reveal itself to us in a multitude of different forms. This is reflected, for example, in the numerous ways the divine feminine chooses to reveal herself to participants during a ceremony and is the reason why a pastor is just as likely to call on the power of the Virgin Mary during a medicine rite as they are to harness the healing waters of Iemanjá or the river-goddess, Iara who is considered to be the indigenous counterpart to Iemanjá and the protectress of all fresh-water sources.

Embracing the Life-Affirming Power of Ayahuasca through Worship

Instead of following a set of formalized codes and mores, Santo Daime as well as sister-religions draw on the principle of religion as a process of direct revelation. This means that there are no “absolutes,” an idea which is exploited by the pastor who will tap into the unique energy of any given ceremony in order to direct it in the way that it wishes to be directed.(10) This means that attendees may find themselves dancing frenetically for several hours, sitting in quiet meditation or singing devotional hymns that praise the power and benevolence of Jesus – sometimes even a combination of all three. These ceremonies can go on for as little as an hour and a half or, in some cases, they can last for up to seven or eight hours.(11)

It is important for attendees to come to ceremonies with an attitude of openness; to have no expectations as to what might take place so that they can completely surrender themselves to the experience of the ceremony. In order to fully embrace the multivalent beauty of Santo Daime and its sister religions, it is better to leave one’s morality and prejudices at the door so that the spirit of ayahuasca is able to heal and transform a person’s consciousness without impediments.

A ceremony may metamorphose into countless different forms and this inevitability is one that should be embraced rather than feared and resisted. Accepting and surrendering to the spirit of ayahuasca is a prerequisite and one of the first steps an attendee must take in order to allow the vine’s spirit to enter into them so that it may bring about a transformation of consciousness.(12) … Continue reading

Ayahuasca’s Use in Social Cohesion and Healing

The religion of Santo Daime owes its popularity to the grassroots faction of Brazilian society because it appealed to people who didn’t have the money or literacy skills to receive conventional medical treatment. It also appealed to the unmet spiritual and religious yearnings of the proletariat during a time when the Brazilian Catholic church was trying to consolidate its influence on society by asserting its hold over the nation’s political institutions.(13)

The politicization of religion – and the sacralization of politics –alienated the grassroots of Brazilian society from codified religious and political life and so the church of Santo Daime appealed to many working-class people who felt alienated and disconnected from the religiopolitical elite of the nation. Not only did Santo Daime offer reprieve from the strict morality of the Catholic church, it also appealed to many multiracial Brazilians who could honor and pay homage the traditions of each of their ancestral lines by participating in the rituals that once nourished and sustained all of their ancestors.(14)

In the church of Santo Daime, ceremonies were free and available to all who wished to participate in them and there was no judgment or fear of banishment or shame based on a person’s perceived moral failings or ethnic and socioeconomic background. Because the ayahuasca-based rituals of Santo Daime disseminate ancestral wisdom and nourishment in a way that is both therapeutic and religious, its first followers were able to unify physical needs and spiritual yearnings using the practices of a single institution.

Santo Daime is utterly unique in that it not only represents a branch of spiritual beliefs and worshipful devotion, it also started off as a grassroots movement that sought to heal Brazil at a racial, social and cultural level.(15) … Continue reading By making space to accommodate the needs and beliefs of every caste and creed, this religious sect – and its subsequent offshoots – have the power to unite people at a basic human level through the shared gift of ayahuasca.

Spirit-Possession and Mediumship: A Brief look at Barquinha

Barquinha which means “little boat” in Portuguese was the second of Brazil’s ayahuasca churches to be established. Founded in 1945, it is considered the most dangerous and arcane of all three belief-systems because its medicine rituals are focused on mediumship and spirit possession.(16)

Braquinha’s founder, a man called Frei Daniel, had been a member of the church of Santo Daime up until he decided to found his own sect. After an amicable split, he decided that he wanted his ayahuasca-based religion to focus more on west African shamanic elements that includes physically invoking spirits to illicit profound healing and occult knowledge.(17)

The dangerous nature of spirit possession means that the church has not tried to expand beyond the state of Acre in northwestern Brazil where it was founded and the ayahuasca ceremonies that take place within the consecrated walls of its churches are some of the most elaborate and mystical of all ayahuasca ceremonies.(18)

Much like Santo Daime, Barquinha is marked by the distinct lack of boundaries between different religious and cultural traditions. Each Barquinha church features a room in which spirit-guides are called forth to facilitate healing and to impart occult teachings through the act of spirit-possession.(19) Rather than simply watching ayahuasca visions play out before one’s eyes, spirit-possession allows a person to actively participate in their healing through visceral, hands-on contact with the spirit world.

Members of the Barquinha church are able to purify themselves with the help of ayahuasca as they would by attending a Santo Daime ceremony, however the difference is that spirit-possession is a vital component in their ceremonies and it is through the ritual use of ayahuasca that Barquinha worshippers are able to make contact with the spirit world with relative ease.(20) … Continue reading

A Secret Society in the Tropics: A Brief Look at União do Vegetal (UDV)

União do Vegetal (“Union of the Plants”) was founded by Mestre Gabriel in 1961. As the most secretive of all Brazilian ayahuasca sects, it is not easy to be accepted into UDV because of a long history of persecution that has made its members weary of outsiders.(21) As well as being the most exclusive of the three churches, UDV is also the most hierarchal due to a unique four-tier system which places members in one of four “groups” which then determines a person’s role within the church.(22)

Although the philosophy and ceremonial aspect of UDV very much embraces the divine quality of nature and approaches all natural phenomena with a spirit of openness and curiosity, it remains a secretive sect that doesn’t readily accept new members. Another reason for this is that UDV believes that it has a moral duty to protect the sacred vine, believing that too many ayahuasca drinkers will lead to sustainability issues in the future.(23)

Perhaps more than any of the Brazilian ayahuasca religions, UDV draws heavily on Catholic mythic imagery and there is a strong tradition of singing devotional hymns known as “chamadas.” Along with the consumption of ayahuasca (called “vegetal”), members participating in a ceremony are encouraged to ask group leaders different theological questions about doctrinal principles as well as reading internal documents that constitute the basic principles of their worldview.(24)

Final Thoughts

In a country where racial segregation and interethnic tension once ran deep, the various syncretic religions of Santo Daime and its offshoots allow the spiritual values of African, European-Christian and Amerindian worldviews to merge to form one cohesive voice which is informed by the teachings of the sacred vine, ayahuasca.

Initially transmitted by Mestre Irineu, the son of African slaves, these three religions have helped articulate the silent voices of the oppressed and marginalized people of Brazilian society over the decades, bringing Amerindian and African shamanic traditions to the forefront of the nation’s official religions where in the past only Catholicism was officially recognized.

Despite the strong Catholic signature that colors the cosmovision of these various churches, the otherworldly wisdom of ayahuasca is what ultimately informs their overarching philosophy. As a supreme nature spirit with the power to reveal to us the secrets of the universe, the veneration of ayahuasca also keeps the indigenous flavor of Brazilian culture alive. As more and more tribal members die off or become absorbed into wider Brazilian society, indigenous shamanism has risked extinction since the arrival of European settlers in the year 1500.(25)

Santo Daime and its offshoot religions have helped to revive native belief-systems in mainstream society by bringing them to a wider audience. As well as making room for European and African cosmovisions, Santo Daime and its various branches are helping to preserve native wisdom in a way that makes it accessible to people of all ethnic backgrounds. As “New Age” beliefs and practices continue to surge in popularity, Santo Daime, Barquinha and UDV are still flourishing in Brazil and continue to expand their influence to all factions of society in Brazil and beyond.


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