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AYAHUASCA: SORCERER'S BREW



Vine of the Souls


By Charlie Kidder


PRESENTED BY:
the Wanderling


"My Uncle knew the curandera Maria Sabina. In later years, because of that association and his knowledge of Sacred Datura, peyote, and other halluciogens, he was interviewed by Carlos Castaneda apparently in the process of gathering information for future use in his series of Don Juan books. In 1960 Castaneda was an anthropology student at UCLA and while on a Road Trip collecting information and specimens of medicinal type plants used by the Indians in the desert southwest the two crossed paths. My uncle had field searched thousands and thousands of plants, herbs, and mushrooms, even to having had several previously undiscovered species named after him. As a boy I joined him on a bio-search trip to the sacred Native American astronomical site called Fajada Butte where the then secret Sun Dagger was eventually "discovered." Because the butte has it's own micro-climate there are a variety of plants used by the indigenous population for traditional and ruitual purposes that are not found on the surrounding plain. Special plants also are said to grow on the mounds thought to be the one-time homes of the ancient astronomers. Although others felt that the plants were equally powerful wherever they grew my uncle thought that the power of the plants was increased by being on the butte, the basic reason we went. On another occasion we were traveling together and he was called in by the noted scientist and astronomer Dr. Lincoln La Paz to give his opinion regarding the scorched plants along the suspected flight trajectory of the mysterious downed object related to the Roswell Incident.

"My uncle died years later after being medi-vacked back to the United States following a personal expedition trip to explore the Vortexes at Machu Picchu high in the Andes of South America. Afterwards he had gone over to the Brazilian side to bio-search the banisteriopsis caapi vine associated with the Ayahuasca Sorcerer's Brew along the upper reaches of the Amazon when he broke his leg. Weak from the complications of that break, with age and his body defenses down, cancer took over and he died two years later at age eighty-six." (see)



DEEP IN THE HEART of the Amazonian rainforest grows a sacred vine known for its magical powers. This vine is known by many names, but the most well known of them all may be ayahuasca (aye-yah-wah-skah). In the Quechua language, aya means spirit or ancestor, and huasca means vine or rope. It is reputed that those who consume this vine of the souls are bestowed with the ability to commune with spirits, diagnose illness, treat disease, and even predict the future. While the existence of this vine is certainly no big secret, it is only recently that western science has decided to study the magical properties of this sacred medicine. Archaeological evidence may date ayahuasca use in Ecuador back five millennia. However, western knowledge of ayahuasca dates back only as far as 1851 when a group of Tukanoan Indians invited British botanist and explorer Richard Spruce to participate in a ceremony which included a visionary drink they called caapi. Spruce only drank a small amount of the "nauseous beverage," but he couldn't help noticing the profound effect it had on his new friends. The Tukanoans showed Spruce the plant from which the caapi was made, and he was able to collect good specimens of the plant in full flower. Spruce named the plant Banisteria caapi, and further research led him to conclude that caapi, yage, and ayahuasca were all Indian names for the same potion made using this one vine.

Since these early findings, indigenous use of various ayahuasca potions has been reported throughout the Amazon as far east as the Ro Negro in Brazil and as far west as the Pacific coastal areas of Colombia and Ecuador. It is also found as far north as the Panama coast, and southward into areas of Amazonian Per and Bolivia. At least 72 indigenous groups have been found to use similar preparations known by a total of over forty different names.

Shamanic Use of Ayahuasca

The Shamans of the Peruvian Amazon generally refer to themselves as vegetalistas. These plant-doctors help the people of rural areas and the urban poor who often have no other available help in critical situations requiring medical attention. Most vegetalistas tend to specialize, using just one or few plant teachers in their practices. Thus there are tabaqueros who use tobacco; toeros who use various Brugmansia species; catahueros who use the resin of catahua (Hura crepitans); paleros who use the bark of various large trees; perfumeros who use the scents of various fragrant plants; and ayahuasqueros who use ayahuasca.

The shamanic use of ayahuasca is usually within the context of healing. The shaman or ayahuasquero takes ayahuasca to better diagnose the nature of the patient's illness. Vegetalistas claim they receive their healing skills from certain plant teachers, who are believed to have a madre or spirit-mother. The role of the shaman is to mediate the transmission of medicinal knowledge from the plant teacher to the human world for use in curing.

The plant teachers are believed to teach the neophyte shaman a number of power songs or supernatural melodies called icaros, either during an ayahuasca session or in dreams following the ingestion of other plant teachers. The plant teachers give the magical songs to the vegetalista so that he or she may sing or whistle them during healing sessions. Some shamans place so much emphasis on the healing power of the icaros that once he or she has learned a good number of them, the ayahuasca is no longer necessary for healing.

When a person becomes sick, their energy pattern becomes distorted. Under the influence of ayahuasca, the shaman can see the distortion in the patient's energy pattern and attempt to restore a healthy pattern using suction, massage, medicinal plants, hydrotherapy, and restoration of the patient's soul. The similarities between these shamanic methods and techniques used in traditional Chinese Chi-Gong, or "energy directed" medicine, should be noted. Interestingly, a shaman usually chooses medicinal plants based on visible characteristics, like shape or color. For example, a plant which produces flowers shaped like an ear may be used to treat ear diseases. Part of the novice shaman's training involves scrutinizing nature to learn about the properties or "hidden virtues" within the surrounding plants and animals. See as well POWER OF THE SHAMAN: Where Does It Come From, How Does It Work?.


Preparation

Ayahuasca potions are normally prepared by soaking or steeping lianas of Banisteriopsis caapi or related species for various lengths of time. The specific method varies from group to group, but the simplest method is a cold water infusion where pieces of the stem are first pounded and allowed to stand in cold water, after which the plant material is strained off and the remaining potion drunk. Some groups will immerse the pounded stems in hot water, cooking the plant material anywhere from an hour to all day long. The longest of these preparation methods involves repeated boiling and filtering of the plant matter and extract until only a thick concentrate remains. This process normally comprises a whole day's work, taking up to fifteen hours to prepare a single batch.

Banisteriopsis caapi is often the only plant used to make ayahuasca. However, it is not an uncommon practice to add one or more admixture plants to the brew during its preparation. Admixture plants help to flavor the experience of each specific batch of ayahuasca, and often contain stimulants or visionary compounds, like caffeine, nicotine, or DMT (di-methyl-tryptamine). In ayahuasca potions made using DMT-containing additives, it is most likely that DMT is the key visionary ingredient, responsible for most if not all of the potion's powerful entheogenic effects. See Branched Calalue. See also Aushadhis, Awakening and the power of Siddhis through herbs.

Pharmacology of Ayahuasca

DMT was first synthesized in 1931, fifteen years before it was discovered to be a naturally occuring compound. DMT is found in many psychoactive Amazonian snuffs prepared from the resin of numerous species of Virola trees, and was first naturally extracted from a shamanic snuff made from the crushed seeds and pods of Anadenanthera peregrina in 1955. In 1956, Stephen I. Szara and colleagues became the first to experience the effects of the hydrochloride salt of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine via intramuscular injection at doses ranging from 0.7 to 1.1 mg per kg body weight. He found the drug to produce what he described as a "psychotic effect partially similar to that caused by mescaline or LSD-25." Szara found that after injecting 50 to 60 mg of DMT, entheogenic effects commenced within two to three minutes, lasting about 45 minutes to an hour. He described the effects thus: "Eidetic phenomena, optical illusions, pseudo-hallucinations and later real hallucinations, appeared. The hallucinations consisted of moving, brilliantly colored oriental motifs, and later I saw wonderful scenes altering very rapidly. The faces of the people seemed to be masks. My emotional state was elevated sometimes up to euphoria..."

By 1977, it was established that smoking DMT free base produces a more potent and rapid effect than does injection. Thirty mg of DMT smoked was found to produce almost instant peak effects, lasting a total of only five to ten minutes. However, DMT has been tested in doses of up to an entire gram ingested orally without producing any effects whatsoever. So the question remained: Since DMT appears to be completely inactive orally, how can the average 29 mg found in an orally ingested dose of ayahuasca produce a visionary effect?

The answer to this question lies in the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO). This enzyme normally functions in our digestive systems to break down any monoamines present within the foods we eat so that they do not upset the balances of monoamine neurotransmitter metabolism going on in our brains. DMT, being a monoamine, is completely oxidized and decomposed by MAO in the gut when it is ingested orally. However, the -carboline alkaloids from the Banisteriopsis liana are know to inhibit MAO to the point where the accompanying DMT from the admixture plant can survive in the digestive tract and make its way to the brain.

The structure of DMT (as well as those of other entheogenic compounds) is remarkably close to that of the important modulatory neurotransmitter serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine, or 5-HT). Such neurotransmitter shuffling is thought to bring about the disinhibition of normally controlled and regulated processes within the brain. The binding of serotonin-like molecules to the 5-HT receptors affects serotonergic neurons which can stimulate a wide range of things - from repressed emotions and memories to the brain's image-processing system. This unique combination of neural stimuli results in a wondrous explosion of transcendent emotion and internal kaleidoscopic imagery.

Modern Interest in Ayahuasca

From the first written mention of ayahuasca by a Jesuit priest near the end of the 17th century to current research dealing with ayahuasca, our knowledge of this ancient Amazonian ethnomedicine has grown considerably. In just the last few decades, a fair number of publications have been written on the topic; anthropologists have begun studying how ayahuasca is used to heal; and research groups have started studying the potion's long-term physiological and psychological effects. Another interesting modern phenomenon is the growing number of Christian churches throughout South America who have opted for ayahuasca as their sacrament during communion instead of the usual symbolic bread and wine sacraments. These churches claim that the potion helps to promote intense concentration and direct contact with the spiritual plane.

The first of these ayahuasca churches were initially formed in the 1920s in Brazil, and today two groups, the Unio de Vegetal (UDV or 'Herbal Union') and the Santo Daime [see related article], continue to flourish. These neo-Christian churches now mainly exist in urban areas, and represent the modern movement of ritual ayahuasca use from the primal rainforest into the big city.

In these churches mass is held once a week. The church members cultivate the plants needed to make the potion, and oversee its preparation and storage. On special occasions, ayahuasca is dispensed in small cups at communion. The dose is only a couple of ounces, but the ayahuasca they produce has been reported to be very strong. As the celebration usually lasts all night long, it is not unusual for members of the church to take several doses during the course of the evening.

In 1985, the Brazilian government added the ayahuasca liana to its list of controlled substances. The UDV soon petitioned the ban and the Brazilian government appointed a commission to investigate the issue. The commission found no evidence of social disruption associated with the sacramental use of ayahuasca (which the commission members tried themselves) and ayahuasca was removed from the Brazilian controlled substances list in August of 1987. More problems arose in 1988 when an anonymous source alleged that the churches consisted of fanatics, drug addicts, and ex-guerrillas given to smoking Cannabis and taking LSD during their rites. Yet another study of the issue was ordered by the government, this time to investigate the physiological aspects of ayahuasca's pharmacology. The conclusions of this study prompted the Brazilian government in June of 1992 to exempt Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis - as well as the ayahuasca potion - from its illicit substances list. This legal decision has opened the doors to the further expansion of these churches, which have since held ceremonies in several cities all over the world. An international scientific research team, the Hoasca Project, has recently begun studying the long term effects, both psychological and physiological, of chronic ayahuasca use by these church members.

Ayahuasca and the Future

It is hard to say what the future may hold for ayahuasca. It could prove to be a useful tool in helping science better understand the biochemistry of consciousness and the genetics of pathological brain function. Pharmaceutical MAO-inhibitors are widely used in western medicine as anti-depressants, and further research into the psychotherapeutic benefits gained from the tryptamines remains to be done.

As far as religion is concerned, the potential for expansion of ayahuasca-using churches seems unlimited. Incorporation of a powerful psychoactive sacrament into religious ceremonies could have far-reaching effects on modern spiritual practices and beliefs. However, it remains to be seen whether entheogen users here in the U.S. would be attracted to the idea of psychedelic Christianity.

All in all, ayahuasca represents a unique plant-based medicine. The fact that its traditional use by Amazonian Indians has survived the continual influence of Western acculturation is testimony to the central and important role it has in their world-view. In fact, in many Amazonian tribes the first thing the parents will give a newborn baby is a drop of ayahuasca - right in the mouth. To them it is the supreme medicine, and a true gift from the gods.



SEE:

OBEAH

SHAMANISM

WHAT IS A SHAMAN?

WHAT IS NOT A SHAMAN?

ZEN, THE BUDDHA, AND SHAMANISM

MIDEWIWIN: Secret Ojibwa Medicine Society

POWER OF THE SHAMAN: Where Does It Come From, How Does It Work?



REFERENCES

Luna, L.E. 1984a. "The healing practices of a Peruvian shaman" Journal of Ethnopharmacology 11(2): 123-133.

Luna, L.E. 1984b. "The concept of plants as teachers among four mestizo shamans of Iquitos, northeast Peru" Journal of Ethnopharmacology 11(2): 135-156.

Luna, L.E. and P. Amaringo 1991. Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA.

McKenna, D.J. et al. 1984. "Monoamine oxidase inhibitors in South American hallucinogenic plants: Tryptamine and -carboline constituents of ayahuasca" Journal of Ethnopharmacology 10(2): 195-223.

Ott, J. 1994. Ayahuasca Analogues: Pangaen Entheogens. Natural Products Co., Kennewick, WA.

Ott, J. 1993. Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic Drugs, Their Plant Sources and History. Natural Products Co., Kennewick, WA.

Ott, J. 1995. The Age of Entheogens & The Angels' Dictionary. Natural Products Co., Kennewick, WA.

Schultes, R.E. and A. Hofmann 1980. The Botany and Chemistry of Hallucinogens. Revised and Enlarged Second Edition. C.C. Thomas, Springfield, IL.

Schultes, R.E. and R.F. Raffauf 1992. Vine of the Soul: Medicine Men, Their Plants and Rituals in the Colombian Amazon. Synergetic Press, Oracle, AZ.


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