“With Ayahuasca we purify our soul”

“With Ayahuasca we purify our soul”esse

Nowhere is the psychoactive substance ayahuasca as widespread as in Brazil. Indigenous people have used them for rituals for generations. Researchers rely on it as an alternative antidepressant – and as a remedy for drug addiction.  

By Matthias Ebert, ARD Studio Rio de Janeiro

Monotonous and throaty, Chief Iba Huni Kuin forces ancient verses through his lips. His sung prayer penetrates the moonlit jungle. First he repeats the verses, then new ones are added, and his singing seems to blur with the chirping of thecrick

Iba Huni Kuin leads an Ayahuasca ceremony in Acre, in the extreme west of Brazil, where the nearest highway is many hours by boat. Around him sit the shaman of his village, women, some children and Paulo and Daniel, two tourists from Sao Paulo.

Some stare at spots in the jungle, others sit by the fire and bob their heads back and forth. “With Ayahuasca we cleanse our soul and learn what we as humans want to achieve mentally and spiritually,” explains Chief Iba with a serious expression.



The “Liana of Ghosts”

Ayahuasca means “liana of the spirits”. It grows in the village of the Huni Kuin tribe right next to the river. Chief Iba senses that the demand for ayahuasca ceremonies is increasing. Foreigners and Brazilians are increasingly coming to Acre to have spiritual experiences with indigenous people.

A few thousand kilometers to the west, neurologist Draulio Araujo from the National University of Rio Grande do Norte is researching the psychoactive substance. Initially, in 2008, he began studying the brain activity of ayahuasca users during intoxication. With the help of magnetic resonance tomography, he found out that various regions in the brain are particularly activated – including the visual center, so that visual perceptions occur during intoxication like during intense dreams.

The analysis has also shown that self-insight into one’s own psyche is stimulated in the brain and one is able to recognize and question habits. “We see ayahuasca as a possible drug to overcome drug addiction – i.e. the intensive use of cocaine, tobacco, alcohol or crack -” explains Araujo.

What happens during intoxication? Scientist Araujo is investigating this question. Image: ARD Rio de Janeiro

A remedy for drug addiction?

There are examples of this not far from the Sugar Loaf in Rio de Janeiro. The Santo Daime Ayahuasca Church has many members who share stories of overcoming addiction.

Emerson Agulha says he used to be a chain smoker, drank heavily and used cocaine regularly. However, he has been clean for a few years since he became a member of Santo Daime: “My family says I’m a better person now and less aggressive.”

At Santo Daime, the intoxicating ayahuasca plant is the focus of religious ceremonies that take place several times a month. The church leaders serve the brown ayahuasca brew to the faithful from small niches with green shutters. It’s been legal since Brazil’s government approved ayahuasca for religious purposes in the 1970s.

Queuing for the brew: Ayahuasca is served in small glasses in the Santo Daime Church. Image: ARD Rio de Janeiro

Intoxicated by ritual

The concoction consists of the psychoactive compound DMT from the ayahuasca vine and a leaf of a coffee-like plant. Cooking both for hours puts consumers in a frenzy.

At the Santo Daime service, ayahuasca is the holy sacrament – in a ritual that blends Catholic faith with Afro-Brazilian spirituality and indigenous religion.

Hours of ceremony

Women and men are strictly separated on different sides of the church. For more than ten hours they sing verses that the church founder once wrote down. Sometimes they pay homage to Jesus Christ, sometimes to nature and its perfection. Some appear blissful, others dazed.

They call it work on and with one’s own psyche: “We drink a substance with incredible powers and at this festival we praise the earth for us and all life on the planet,” explains Gabriel Holliver during the ritual.

The ceremony fills almost half a day: the church members in Acre sing for up to ten hours. Image: ARD Rio de Janeiro

subject of studies

For scientist Draulio Araujo, the popularity of the ayahuasca cult comes as no surprise. His latest studies show that the substance can help with depression.

“Our subjects stated that they felt an improvement in their condition after just 24 hours. We therefore see ayahuasca as a possible alternative drug for mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorders.”

The ayahuasca active ingredient does not make you dependent, explains Araujo. And: For an overdose, you have to drink 30 liters at once – “you can’t even do that with water”.

Brazilian tourists, who let him guide them through the Amazon, are also interested in the knowledge of the medicine man of the Huni Kuin tribe. Image: ARD Rio de Janeiro

What tourists struggle with

Nevertheless, there are always reports of horror trips and negative experiences on Ayahuasca. Chief Iba claims that such a thing has never happened to the Huni Kuin.

Only one side effect worries some tourists who come here: Many would have to vomit during the intoxication.

That’s normal, says Iba, as part of the “cleansing” where you question your own thoughts and perceive yourself and your feelings differently.

The world view of the Huni Kuin tribe

The day after the ceremony, Chief Iba stands in a house with a thatched roof and chants the verses of the ritual again. Meanwhile, his son Bina paints their meanings on a canvas: snakes, rivers, trees, nature gods.

At the end, a colorful picture of the jungle emerges. “This is our traditional world view. The verses are older than my grandfather and come from the primeval times of our planet. They stand for our cultural roots and our indigenous pedagogy.”

A religious ritual becomes art: the pictures by Bina are now also in demand internationally. Image: ARD Rio de Janeiro

Museums show interest

Iba’s and Bina’s pictures have also been hanging in museums in Munich, Chile and Sao Paulo for a few years. Some are several meters high. The Huni Kuin are increasingly receiving requests to exhibit their ayahuasca paintings. They are currently experiencing an enormous appreciation of their art and culture.

Iba wants to put the proceeds from the exhibitions and sales of pictures into Amazon reforestation: “I want to use the proceeds to buy deforested land in this area and plant trees. I know how it works and I want to make a contribution with it.”

The indigenous people are now also benefiting from the boom in the psychoactive substance ayahuasca. Researchers are hoping for approval as a drug for depression. And the Santo Daime Church wants to expand. There is already an offshoot in Germany.

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