Pandora’s Brew: The New Ayahuasca

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Christina Callicott.

I’m guessing that by now most of my readers will have heard of this stuff called “ayahuasca.” Everyone from Stephen Colbert to the New Yorker is talking about it, some in terms more cringe-inducing than others. A quick primer for those who don’t know: Ayahuasca is a psychoactive (read: psychedelic) brew developed by the peoples of the Amazon for ritual purposes ranging from ethnomedicine to divination. It’s just one in a pantheon of sacred plant and multi-plant concoctions used by Amazonian shamans, but it’s one that has sparked the fascination of peoples everywhere, from the Amazon itself to the distant corners of the urban and industrialized nations. Ayahuasca, along with other “entheogens” such as psilocybin mushrooms and LSD, is a centerpiece of the new Psychedelic Renaissance, an artistic and scientific movement which has, as one of its primary aims, the legitimization of these currently illegal substances by researching and promoting their efficacy as treatments for intractable ailments, usually psychological, including depression, end-of-life anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Once a footnote in the annals of Jesuit missionaries and Spanish explorers, Western awareness of this mind-altering and nausea-inducing beverage grew slowly throughout the 20th century, with not a little assistance from anthropologists and ethnobotanists such as Richard Evans Schultes, the father of ethnobotany; his student, the golden-penned author Wade Davis; and the well known ethnographer-turned-shamanic evangelist, Michael Harner. In Brazil, awareness and use of the tea spread to urban areas with the development and growth of two syncretic religions that use ayahuasca as their sacrament: the União do Vegetal and the Santo Daime. Elsewhere in South America and the world, Amazonian shamans traveled to urban areas and later, to distant countries to perform healing ceremonies for growing audiences of gringos looking for emotional release, a spiritual experience, or physical healing. Today, numerous US and European practitioners, some trained in the Amazon, some not, have taken it upon themselves to serve the brew and to conduct ceremonies. Therein lies the subject of my guest series for Savage Minds.

To be continued.

Richard Evans Schultes, father of ethnobotany, discussing plants with an indigenous shaman and boy in the Colombian Amazon. Photo public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.