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(cover picture) Labate, Beatriz Caiuby & Edward Macrae (eds.)
2010 Ayahuasca: Ritual and Religion in Brazil. London and Oakville, Connecticutt: Equinox Publishing.

Notes: xvi, 236 p. : ill. ; ISBN 9781845536794
Reviewed 26 Feb 2011 by:
Jack David Eller <>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Written Literature
Indians of South America - Brazil - Religion
Indians of South America - Brazil - Rites and ceremonies
Indians of South America - Brazil - Drug use
Ayahuasca ceremony - Brazil
Hallucinogenic drugs and religious experience - Brazil
Brazil - Social life and customs
Brazil - Religious life and customs

ABSTRACT:    This well-crafted collection of essays explores three versions of ayahuasca religion in Brazil and ends with an analysis of the governmental policies controlling such mind-altering substances and the potential medical uses outside of religion.

Along with the enduring interest in new religions among anthropologists and other social scientists, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain the distinction between ‘new’ and ‘old’ religions: old religions fragment and fission into new ones, and new religions adopt and retool aspects of old ones. The case under consideration in this interesting and well-organized set of essays is new religions in Brazil that use the hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca—part of pre-Christian practice in various Amazonian societies—in their rituals and sacraments. Even more, these Brazilian religions are not restricted to Brazil anymore, so they are not entirely ‘Brazilian’ either, just as Christianity is not entirely Middle Eastern or European today.

As the editors express in their introduction, the theme of the collection is “the emergence of religious groups in the Brazilian Amazon that build their systems of ritual, myth, and principles around the use of a psychoactive brew known by several different names, one of which is the Quechua term ‘ayahuasca.’ These religions—Santo Daime (in its Alto Santo and CEFLURIS branches), Barquinha, and the Uniao do Vegetal—are generically labeled as ‘Brazilian ayahuasca religions’ in anthropological writings” (p. 1). Thus we notice one of the pervasive issues in the text, the fact that there is not one ayahuasca religion but several, each with its related but specific beliefs, behaviors, and organizational structures. It should be noted too that the volume is not a completely neutral academic piece but has something of a political agenda, namely to contribute “to the ongoing journey of ayahuasca religiosity toward full and equal recognition as a legitimate mode of religious expression” (p. xvi).

After laying down some useful basic history of the diverse ayahuasca movements and defining some of the key concepts to come (such as ‘ayahuasca religion,’ ‘religion,’ and ‘sacrament’), the book moves in a pleasantly systematic way through a number of related topics on the subject. Anthologies of this sort are often much less conceptually and topically integrated, so the tightness of essays is very welcome (especially given that the chapters are not organized into named sections). The first chapter provides an orientation to the use of ayahuasca among the rubber tappers of the Upper Jurua region, establishing the link between native culture, colonialism, and the eventual new ayahuasca religions. The authors also discuss in general the preparation of the ayahuasca ‘brew’ and its ritual use.

This is followed by two chapters on each of the three major divisions of ayahuasca religion. Arneide Cemin analyzes the rituals of Santo Daime, which are perceived as ‘work’ by their performers, in particular work “done on the body and thought: symbolic productions, the imaginary” (p. 39). The details of the ritual are thus appropriately seen as “a multiplicity of techniques in which the body serves as support: uniforms, concentration, coordination of movements in the dance steps, the singing of hymns and the rhythm of the maraca rattle, and even the physical effects of the liquid” (p. 40). This treatment is very much in keeping with the contemporary anthropological interest in embodiment and the efficacy of ritual. Luiz Eduardo Soares’ much shorter article relates Santo Daime to “the new religious consciousness” (p. 65), as scholars such as Campbell (1978) and Ley and Martin (1993) have suggested, taking a cue from Ernst Troeltsch that certain kinds of religion (i.e., ‘mystical’) might suit the modern urban person better than the familiar ‘church’ and ‘sect.’ Indeed, a longer and more detailed presentation would have been possible and appreciated here.

The next two chapters present the Barquinha variation of ayahuasca religion. Wladimyr Sena Araujo, in another quite short offering, describes the “symbolic space” (p. 73) of Barquinha (literally, ‘little boat’) as an instance of cosmology-making. Christian Frenopoulo more extensively focuses on healing or “the therapeutic transformations effected from the consumption of ayahuasca in these [religious] settings” (p. 85). This includes presentations on the ‘charity works” in which Barquinha practitioners indulge and their performative genres and biographical narratives.

The Uniao do Vegetal receives more extensive treatment in its two extensive chapters. Sandra Lucia Goulart gives us a deep and informed survey of the ‘religious matrices’ of the movement, not only its history as a movement but the diverse sources of which it is a confluence, such as Kardecist Spiritism (an under-appreciated force in Brazilian and other religions), Afro-Brazilian spirituality, and Amazonian native tradition (filtered through the colonial settlers, as mentioned above). Sergio Brissac’s fascinating contribution zeroes in on the religious experience of UDV participants, viewing it as an altered state of consciousness that unites knowledge, feeling, memory, and piety into a sense of what Brissac calls “encompassment” (p. 154). This is a concept, I think, that could be profitably brought to bear on other religious traditions.

The final three chapters represent the more political or even activist side of the compilation. For instance, Domingos Bernardo Gialluisi da Silva Sa, in the longest essay in the book, discusses the chemistry of ayahuasca, its religious use and meaning—as “a means, an instrument. Its rules must aid the participant to accomplish a desired objective” (p. 168)—and most significantly the governmental response to it. This is the real point of the other elements of the chapter: to determine how and why the Brazilian federal narcotics board, CONFEN, came to determine that ayahuasca should be excluded from its list of banned substances. Da Silva Sa concludes, as they did, that ayahuasca is not a dangerous or deleterious drug and that there is no evidence that it causes long-term harm (although it can apparently make those who consume it acutely uncomfortable or ill). In fact, he ends the chapter with the assertion of his “serene conviction that the search for the particular form of perception that ayahuasca users engage in during their ‘sessions’ or ‘works’ must not be defined, unreflectively, as hallucinations, in the sense of mental insanity or deviation” (p. 189). The remaining two essays round out the case for the legalization of ayahuasca by recounting the development of public policy on the substance and by reflecting on the potential therapeutic value of ayahuasca in the medical context.

The articles assembled in this anthology have almost all been previously seen in the journal Fieldwork in Religion (published by the publisher of the book, Equinox), but it is worth gathering them together in this format, first because many anthropologists may not know that journal and second because they are ultimately so closely related. The book is a model for well-integrated anthologies that seek to promote not only ethnographic knowledge but also a social agenda. The essays also contribute to our mounting awareness of the standard processes of new religious movements, and they incorporate some of the state-of-the-art thinking about religious experience and religious efficacy. Scholars working in the area of religion and religious change will find much in the collection that supports their thinking but also gives them new things to think about.


Campbell, Colin. 1978 The Secret Religion of the Educated Classes. Sociological Analysis 39 (2): 146-56.

Ley, David and R. Bruce Martin. 1993 Gentrification as Secularization: The Status of Religious Belief in the Post-Industrial City. Social Compass 40 (2): 217-32.