The Santo Daime Religion
- by Steven Mizrach


In this paper, the reader will be introduced to the sect of Santo Daime, a Brazilian religion which combines Christianity with the indigenous practice of using ayahuasca, a native entheogenic plant. This group should be of interest to ethnobotany because they represent a clear case where indigenous religious uses of a psychotropic plant were transferred wholesale to another (mestizo) culture through contact and exchange. The author will use Santo Daime as a case to explore the critical role human-plant relationships may have played in the formation of religious awareness.

Introduction: the sect of Santo Daime

Although the Brazilian religious sect Santo Daime has been called a "new religion," it was actually founded back in the 1920s. A seven foot tall black rubber tapper living in the state of Acre named Raimundo Irineu Serra came into contact with indigenous groups (probably Tukano Indians) who used the ayahuasca vine for healing and for contacting the spirit world. Serra was probably influenced both by Catholicism and also the Spiritism which was prevalent in Brazil at the time. While using the visionary vine, Serra met with a personage he called the Queen of the Forest, a white woman clad in blue whom he identified with the Virgin Mary. (MacRae, 1992.)

The Queen of the Forest told Master Irineu (as many of the members of the sect know him today) to found a new religion with the ayahuasca tea as its main sacrament. He wrote (or "channeled," as some might put it) many of the hymns which make up the liturgy of the new religion. "Daime" in Portuguese is not actually the name of a saint, as some people have thought. Instead, it means the imperative "give me," and this appeal for divine illumination appears so much in Serra's liturgy that it has become synonymous with the sect and the plant itself, which is sometimes simply called daime . "Santo Daime" literally means "the holy give me herb."

The tenets of Santo Daime include ideas of reincarnation, salvation, and protection of the rainforest. The Queen of the Forest is worshipped as a teacher. But primarily its hymns and rituals are focused on the use of the daime for enlightenment and healing. By the 30s, Santo Daime was gaining many adherents among Serra's fellow rubber-tappers and other (primarily poor and black) rural Brazilians, and it spread to the town of Rio Branco. Eventually it even reached many of the major urban areas in Acre. The Catholic authorities looked askance at some of the aspects of the sect, and they often harassed its adherents, charging them with apostasy.

As a result, Serra's successor, a man named Sebastiao, moved the headquarters of the church in 1981 to a village named Ceu do Mapia ("the heaven of Mapia,") where 700 followers lived a communal existence centered around the daime, and sans many of the trappings of urban life. This move had the paradoxical effect of attracting the interest of many starry-eyed Brazilian celebrities and metropolitan sophisticates, and these people, often to the consternation of the mostly poor and illiterate members living in Mapia, founded churches in major metropolitan centers, including this time Brazil's capital. This in turn provoked the concern of the Brazilian federal government, who began investigating claims that the sect was duping people and swiping their money. (Saunders, 1996.)

The Brazilian Federal Drug Council investigated the group, and to the surprise of many Brazilians, released a report claiming that the use of ayahuasca by the group posed no danger, and in fact had "positive beneficial" impacts on the community and on social integration. The government explicitly permitted the use of the plant by the religious sect, much in the same way that the U.S. authorized the use of the peyote cactus by the Native American Church. What followed next in the late 80s was a dramatic expansion of the Santo Daime sect overseas, with churches opening in Europe (especially Holland and Portugal), the United States, and Japan, often being started initially by Brazilians travelling and living in those countries, but being joined by local New Agers and others.

This has caused some problems, again, because so far no other country besides Brazil has officially permitted the use of the ayahuasca vine for religious purposes, and in the U.S. and elsewhere harmine and harmaline (derivatives of the vine) are still controlled substances. Because it is a tropical woody liana, it's fairly difficult to grow in non-equatorial climates, except in climate-controlled greenhouses, so many of the international churches have to continue "importing" their sacrament from the mother country, which also runs into some thorny issues as well. Still, many countries like Holland have basically adopted a de facto policy of non-harassment of the sect, whose members often do a variety of good works for the surrounding community, and display little signs of violence or other anti-social behavior. In Europe, the churches also attract the occasional celebrity, who either observes or participates in their ceremonies, and professes that they are "harmless."

The Santo Daime sect got another boost in international recognition during the 1992 Earth Summit. In 1992, Mapia was made the center of a million acre ecological preserve, through the help of the international group Friends of the Amazon, and there are also efforts underway to create an international center there which will offer workshops in traditional healing, ecology, and consciousness studies. (Beyran, 1995.) During the Summit, Santo Daime members joined an inter-faith religious pavilion area, and set up their own tent where 600 people (observers and faithful alike) took part in their all-night ceremonies of tea drinking, rhythmic dancing, and singing hymns for the protection of the rainforest. One of those participants was Domingo Bernardo de Silva, head of CONFEN (the Brazilian Drug Council), who used the occasion to pronounce that "altered states of perception do not necessarily signify a harmful situation."

Santo Daime is not the only ayahuasca-using sect in Brazil. There is actually another well-organized group known as the UDV or Uniao de Vegetal. This group calls ayahuasca simply "Hoasca" or "the Vegetable." They were founded by a mestizo named Jose Gabriel Costa in 1961, and use a mythology based on both the Old Testament and ancient Andean civilization. UDV is considerably more low-key than Santo Daime, and prefers to work with researchers and government agencies behind the scenes. Beginning in 1993, they began quietly working with ethnobotanists on studies of their sacred plant, which they called the Hoasca Project. In 1995, they held their first annual Hoasca Studies Conference, inviting researchers from all over the world to discuss new insights about the pharmacology and botany of their sacred plant. Between the UDV and Santo Daime, there are now probably anywhere between 10 and 20,000 Brazilians participating in ayahuasca-based religions. No one is certain of the number of adherents abroad.

Ayahuasca in South America: pharmacology and phenomenology

The vine ayahuasca, official species name Banisteriopsis Caapi, grows throughout the jungle areas of South America. It is found in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and throughout the Amazon. Ayahuasca literally means "the vine of the dead" or the "vine of souls," and the name is based on the belief of the Tukano Indians and others that ayahuasca users use the vine to climb the Milky Way ("the white road" or "road of the dead") to join the ancestors. (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1978.) It is also known in some areas as hoasca, caapi, and yage. Pharmacologists have found that the two primary active ingredients in yage are harmine and harmaline, which were isolated earlier this century from Syrian Rue, peganum harmala. Harmaline is a mild hallucinogen that some researchers in the 60s thought actually contributed to psychic abilities, which is why in some labs it was referred to as 'telepathine.'

However, the vine is almost never taken alone; in almost every traditional preparation a tea is made by boiling the vine, and other ingredients are added to that tea. The primary additive has almost always been a snuff prepared from the leaves of Psychotria Viridis, although the Tukano have also reportedly used B. rusbyana and B. inoxians , which are "cousin" species to caapi. The interesting thing is that this plant additive almost always contains N-N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT, for short.) It turns out that DMT is a much more powerful hallucinogen than harmaline, and that it acts far more rapidly. But DMT is not normally orally active - under ordinary circumstances ingesting it has no effect. This is where the ingeniousness of the Indians' binary preparation becomes evident. (And it's the same way that Santo Daime uses ayahuasca today.)

Harmala alkaloids are also Monoamine Oxidase (MAO) inhibitors. When used in conjunction with MAO inhibitors, DMT becomes orally active, even in very small doses. But since MAO inhibitors also inhibit ordinary processes of digestion, they cause great nausea and discomfort, which results in the "purgative" effect of the preparation. In Santo Daime churches, worshippers often begin vomiting profusely after taking the tea, but this is seen as normal (it is called the "purgatario"), and as the body's process of expelling pollutants and toxins in order to become more spiritual. In any case, if a person has ingested certain foods (meats, cheeses, etc.) while MAO inhibitors are active, some elements of those foods which would normally be digested can become potentially lethal, which also explains the church's insistence on fasting for 12 hours or more prior to the ceremony.

The ayahuasca visions are thus thought to emerge from the synthetic effect of harmaline and DMT interacting. Tukano Indians often report visions of jaguars and snakes and brilliant "phosphene" like bursts of light. Their shamans often use ayahuasca to enable their "spirit flight," at which point they can travel the Milky Way to commune with the ancestors or descend into the underworld to locate the sources of illness. The vine's name is well-earned, because many people report terrifying Near-Death-like experiences (including Western researcher Michael Harner) (Harner, 1973), regardless of their cultural background. But interestingly, like many 'true' NDE experiencers, those having these visions almost always claimed they had found some kind of new insight or illumination.

Santo Daime tea drinkers report visions of the Virgin Mary as Queen of the Forest and of Christ. The experience usually begins with vomiting and watching dancing brilliant motes of light and geometric patterns. The physical "purgatorio" is often accompanied by a deep sense of inner anxiety as the person visually contemplates the ways in which they have not lived up to their full "spiritual" potential and have not treated others properly. This is then often followed by a sense of flying or floating and dark infinite space and being drawn to a distant, brilliant Light. It is at this point that many worshippers will cry out, "Dai-me!," imploring the Light to fill them with its radiance. There are often encounters with strange initiatory beings in this space, described variously as angels, saints, spirits, or sometimes even aliens. (Brazil also has a very active UFO subculture.)

Western psychotherapists have experimented with harmaline both in isolation and in conjunction with DMT, and Claudio Naranjo reports that he had considerable success in using the psychedelic to treat alcohol and cocaine addiction. (Naranjo, 1974.) There is some reason to believe it may be useful even in a clinical psychotherapeutic context. He also claimed that it was useful in other mental illness contexts because it often helped the patient gain "clarity" regarding their situation. Unfortunately, outside of Brazil, today's controlled substance regulations make even careful laboratory research with the drug almost impossible to do, so research on the compound has stalled since the 60s.

Syncretic religions in Brazil: roots of faith

It's impossible to understand the nature of the Santo Daime religion without looking at the peculiar nature of religion in Brazil. Brazil is the largest country in South America, and contains a good portion of the entire Amazonian rainforest within its borders. Unlike many other South American countries, Brazil probably contains a large number of indigenous Indian groups that have only minimally been exposed to Christianity or other European influence. However, in a curious role reversal, these groups (perhaps like the Indians in the U.S. who met with the pilgrims) have had a large impact on the largely uneducated, rural population of rubber tappers, gold miners, and others that have begun moving to the more underpopulated Amazonian areas thanks in part to a national development policy that subsidizes this migration. (Pollock, 1992.)

Brazilian religion has also been tremendously affected by African influences as well. Portuguese slavery, for various reasons, did not put as much importance on eliminating African religious practices and cultural traditions among the slaves. (Ireland, 1991.) As a result, African traditional practices that disappeared during slavery in the U.S. survived in Brazil. (Race relations in Brazil have always been somewhat complex, in that the composition of the country is largely black and mixed-race, yet the government, the media celebrities (like Xuxa), and the upper classes have almost always been blonde, blue-eyed, and lily-white. The country openly acknowledges its African heritage while at the same time proclaiming the "typical" Brazilian to look anything but.)

Entering this mix of Portuguese folk Catholicism, native Indian beliefs, and African traditions has been a strong influence from European Spiritism. In the 19th century, following the mysterious "apports" of mediums in the U.S., many Spiritualist churches were started in which Christianity was combined with seances, reincarnation, mediumship, and spirit contact. European Spiritism began as an offshoot of U.S. Spiritualism, with the primary additions being a healthy addition of French Cartesian rationalism (hence efforts to create concise cartographies of the spirit world), ideas about Mesmerism and "animal magnetism," and Theosophy. European immigrants to Brazil brought Spiritism, in particular a variant known as Kardecismo (based on the teachings of the medium Allen Kardec), to Brazil around the turn of the century. (Halperin, 1995.)

The Catholic Church in Brazil has had varying degrees of reaction to the religious experimentation within the country, but nowadays seems more concerned with the penetration of Pentecostal Protestantism from the North more than anything else. There is a certain obvious class and race-based stratification within the religious structure of the country. The darker mestizo groups tend to join the syncretic folk religions, but they have always drawn adherents from the lighter-skinned upper classes as well. Lately even some elected officials within the Brazilian government have started becoming more open about their participation in the 'unusual' rituals of these sects. This has led to a new openness about their existence, and a recognition of their role in national life. (Brandao, 1993.)

Many of the Brazilian "new religions," including Umbanda, Candomble', and Macumba, are very similar to Afro-Catholic syncretic religions in the Caribbean, such as Voudoun and Santeria. However, they also add elements of Kardecism and Indian belief to these doctrines. Santo Daime emerged out of the same curious religious mix that these other doctrines did. What is unique about Santo Daime and the UDV is their use of a psychotropic or entheogenic plant. Umbanda and these other sects utilize trance possession and other forms of Altered States of Consciousness (ASCs), fostered by drumming, meditation, and chanting, but almost all these groups eschew all psychotropics, including alcohol, coffee, and tobacco. Santo Daime relies on its mystic daime plant, but its rituals also involve rhythmic dancing, drumming, and singing of hymns, which probably play a role in the state induced by the vine.

Sky, song, and vine: curious links

Dobkin de Rios found that vegetalistas, who were mestizo curanderos that lived in Iquitos, Peru, often used the plant in curing ceremonies. (Dobkin de Rios, 1972.) There were special melodies or icaros that were chanted along with the ceremony, and depending on the nature of the ritual, both the healer and patient might use the yage, or just the healer. The use of special kinds of music in yage ceremonies seems to be fairly universal; de Rios found that healers also often used a special kind of whistle which produced tones in a very precise fixed range. She speculated that there might have been a connection between these whistles and some of the mysterious dual-chambered "whistling vessels" found among earlier Moche cultures.

In any case, she came to soon realize that this special music was an integral part of the ceremony. She described the icaros as "witchcraft or healing orations, exorcisms... some people perform icaros to be sure their friends do not betray them." The kind of "urban shamanism" which utilizes yage, it turns out, can also be found in Brazil. There are two types of practitioners: the "paje-sacaca," or aquatic shaman, who supposedly uses anaconda skin to travel underwater rapidly without getting wet; and the benzedor or raizero, a "phyto-therapist" or herbalist who uses plants and prayers to cure patients. Both of these groups use a special kind of magical rhythmic chanting. (Chaumeil, 1992.)

Although exhaustive analysis has not been done on this subject, some people have noticed that the Daime hymns have a cadence and melody which is similar to those of shamans, curanderos, and the icaros. Although research on the effects of entheogens on the human brain is in its infancy, psychoacoustic research is considerably more regressed, for the simple reason that few people in the Western world have considered extensively the question of what affects sound, music, and/or rhythm have on human consciousness. However, traditional peoples are in fairly uniform agreement that without the ritual music, their ceremonies would be totally ineffective. It may well be the case that an important synergistic effect between the plant, the music, and the person is involved. (Rheingold, 1989.)

It has long been known that set and setting are primary variables in determining the outcomes of a psychedelic experience. For those reasons, one might expect a different outcome from taking mescaline in a lab and chewing a peyote button in the middle of the desert. But the strange thing that Naranjo and other investigators have found is that even people outside the South American cultural context tend to see snakes and jaguars when they take yage. This may point to some interesting cross-cultural, cognitive substrate to the ayahuasca experience. The very nature of the human mind may mean that certain elements of the experience are universal. It's a question worth investigating further.

Another curious factor involving Yage shamanism is its almost universal association throughout South America with the Milky Way. Even in Mesoamerica, where ayahuasca is not found, Maya shamans attached great importance to the Milky Way as a "road of the dead," and a veridical link between the cosmos and the earth. Santo Daime sect members often report visions of flying through or above the galaxy in space, and meeting aliens who claim to come from the center of the galaxy. (Villoldo, 1990.) These things could be purely coincidence. Or there might be some archetype within the collective unconscious that is being activated. Only further research could answer these questions.

Conclusion: plants, consciousness, and religion

What the Santo Daime religion demonstrates is a possible exposition of R. Gordon Wasson's theory about the relationship between plants and religion. Wasson aroused controversy when he suggested that the rites performed at Eleusis in Greece may have been based on the use of LSD-like compounds in claviceps purpurea. He has suggested that human religious awareness, which may be dateable to when Neanderthals began burying their dead, arose out of the first proto-shamanic use of entheogenic plants. (Wasson, 1986.) Sometimes this theory has been taken to ridiculous extremes, such as when Dead Sea Scroll scholar John M. Allegro suggested that Christianity evolved out of a "mushroom fertility cult" that used Amanita muscaria. According to Allegro, the symbolic figure of Christ was actually an allegory for the sacred mushroom. (Allegro, 1970.)

Most Biblical scholars laugh at this theory, but, scholars of religion do not scoff at the more general hypothesis that among prehistoric early humans, the use of psychotropic plants played a primary role in the formation of religion. Some, like ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, suggest that plant-human symbiosis explains why so many of the psychedelic compounds (like DMT) have close analogues within the brain, and declare that the human attributes of language, self-awareness, and visual acuity may be a result of our use of these plants. (McKenna, 1992.) Again, how much of this is true is uncertain; but it can be shown that among many indigenous people, an integral part of their sense of identity and of the sacred is dependent on psychotropic plants. Almost all religions involve various forms of ASCs, and one of the most time-honored means of attaining ASCs in human history has been the use of these plants. (DuToit, 1977.)

Although many modern "Appollonian" religions eschew the use of intoxicants and inebriants, one need only look at the cult of Dionysus in Greece or the medieval Sufi to find religious groups that likened religious experience to intoxication and sometimes even attained enlightenment through it... among the Santo Daime, ayahuasca is believed to force people to confront their inner flaws, to promote healing and social integration, to learn ecological awareness, and to awaken the spiritual or veridical dimension of their lives. These have always been the goals of most major religions, especially the indigenous ones, since time immemorial. One can take to heart Wasson's speculation that behind many of the 'symbolic' sacraments of world religions may have originally been a very real sacrament of a psychotropic plant consumed by the community of believers.

The Santo Daime sect may be a particularly important one for the modern world, especially in the way that it acts as a bridge between the rainforest and the cities, between white, black, Indian, and mestizo, and now perhaps between Brazil and the South and the northern, developed world. The term "religion" is derived, after all, from the Latin re-ligio or re-connecting... The Daime religion's emphasis on protecting the rainforest is certainly one that any ethnobotanist can say "amen" to, and like some of mankind's earliest religions, it also seems to be based more on direct experience and less on dogmas, doctrines, and religious hierarchies and functionaries. In that sense, it just might provide insight into the very core of human religious nature.

One need not be a Santo Daime believer or curandero to recognize some of the potential therapeutic value of ayahuasca, even within the purely secular medical system of the Western world. But overzealous U.S. laws continue to make this area of scientific inquiry a hazard for the researchers who are involved. The "war on drugs" has led to an inadvertent war on traditional ethnobotanical knowledge of psychotropic plants. The Brazilian equivalent of the DEA realized that this plant had positive effects on the community who used it, and that besides recreational "abuse" there were people using the same substance within the context of a living, practicing faith. Some day, our U.S. drug control authorities may wake up to the same fact, and at least permit scientific and ethnobotanical research with ayahuasca to continue, even if they remain in denial about this critical religious relationship between people and plants.


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Reprinted with permission from Steven Mazrich