Saturday, 10 March 2007

New book on Ayahuasca

Alto das Estrelas has an inteview with Gover Derix, a dutch philosopher who after many years of research has published a book on ayahuasca. When asked about shamanism in Europe Derix answers:

"It's multifaceted, and very interesting, but it is also impossible to tell what is authentic. The only criteria that makes sense using is that of sincerity. Some people can really feel that they are a shaman (or a mestre in the UDV, o padrinho in the Daime) they can feel that they have a real relationship with Ayahuasca, "the teacher´s teacher". At the same time it is an illusion to think that there is such thing an "original" shamanism. A "return to nature, or to shamanism" makes no sense, but what might have a great value is the movement forward, towards a new relationship with nature and a re-invention of a living shamanism..."

I can't agree that sincerity alone should be the main criteria when telling one shaman from the other. I've seen enough sincere people with the best intentions take completely misguided routes fast leading to troubles for themselves and for others. I mean, Would you let a sincere but ignorant person take your car's engine apart?

Would you be comfortable having a student fresh out of dental school do a root a canal on you?

No, I think sincerity (although very important) shouldn´t be the main criteria

015 - ignacio

Anthropologists have argued that shamanism was mankind's first profession, in the sense that it was the first specialized occupation, separated from the survival occupations: hunting and gathering. Shamans, they argue, were the first professionals. Wouldn't it make sense to judge them using the same criteria as other professionals? I am talking about things such as experience and reputation. Would you pick a car mechanic or a doctor by his appearance?

...and yet I've seen people pick curanderos like they picked t-shirts, by their outwards appearance. The more "indigeous" they looked the more gringo clients they got. Never mind that it was an obvious show, that none of their own neighbors wore anything other than tshirts and Nikes. The more feathers they put on the more gringos they got. Never mind that a shaman that only treats gringos, a local that no longer treats his own neighbors is, by definition, no longer a shaman.

But there is something else at play here, although the book looks very interesting, most of Derix ayahuasca experiences have taken place around the UDV church, the uniao de vegetal, and it shows in the ultimate ignorance towards curanderismo that he displays. The gap that separates the Brazilian drinkers (and those foreigners who drink with them) from the rest of South America (the mestizo and indigenous drinkers and those foreigners who drink with them) is as wide as ever. Right now there is so little contact between the Brazilian churches and real vegetalistas, they know so little about each other, that one encounters all sorts of misconceptions, specially when it comes to the origins of Ayahuasca and its role in precolumbian societies... Specially when it comes to curanderismo.

Here is another example, also form Alto das Estrelas. It talks about a CONAD meeting (Brazi´s anti-drug body) these people are very important because they were the first governmental body to do to do an open, serious, scientific study of Ayahusca's effects, and -in defiance of the US- the first to legalize its use within a religious context. This is very important news- It is *the* legal reference to the rest of the world when it comes to enlightened governmental approaches ayahuasca, and the UDV was in no small way instrumental in this decision. However, here are some of the topics discussed at the CONAD meeting

- Ritual use of Ayhuasca (definitions) - "Uso Ritual da Ayahuasca (definições)"
- Therapeutic use (research, methodology) - "Uso Terapêutico (pesquisas, metodologia, etc.)"
- Curanderismo (ways to avoid) - "Curandeirismo (formas de evitar)"

That's right, the respectable members of the multidisciplinary group, many of them Ayahuasca drinkers, many of them UDV members, many highly educated people, were sincerely, and with the best of intentions, discussing with the Brazilian drug agency ways to avoid curanderismo.

I can think of a million reasons why this would have happened, all of them stemming from sincerity mixed with ignorance. The same ignorance that leads the UDV to use words like "mariri", "chacruna", "vegetal" without acknowledging the Quechua vegetalista tradition from they obviously stem from.

Very pure, very sincere, ignorance.


It has taken me many years to reconcile the fact that most Brazilians, whom I love dearly are -in their origin- foreigners in their own country, colonizers. They are the descendants of European and Asian immigrants, of African slaves, mixed together with the occasional indigenous blood. This makes them very different from the majority of the population in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and the rest of the countries of the Amazon basin, who are mestizo cultures, that is: mostly of indigenous mixed with some colonist.

This difference shows clearly in their Ayahuasca traditions. You look at mestizo vegetalismo and you see that at the base it is an Amazonian indigenous tradition, with Christian saints and symbols thrown on top. You look at the Brazilian traditions and you see a non-Amazonian base that mixes Christianity, African traditions, European 19th cent. movements e such as Kardecism, and even traces of fremasonry, and on top of all this they put Ayahuasca (*)


Make no mistake, it's a fantastic mix, going on a hundred years old, an incredible Ayahusca tradition of its own, but it is a new tradition, and a new tradition that does not factor in the very vegetalistas from which Irineu (founder of the Daime)as much as Gabriel (founder of the UDV) learned about Ayahuasca in the first place. The Daime and the UDV are Ayahuasca without the curanderos, ayahuasca without the Indians... which is fine, I don't think Ayahuasca belongs to any one group in particular. I have a great deal of respect for the Brazilian traditions, and I don't think they are missing anything. It just worries me when I see how most of its members, because of ignorance, see themselves as *the* true carriers of the Ayahuasca tradition. So that we find that Ayahuasca drinkers from the UDV, people with the utmost devotion to the drink, who are working hard to establish it as the important medicine that it is, are subconsciously denying other traditions its rightful share of the credit, down to persecuting the very curanderismo from wich they sprang.

It is now more important than ever to bridge the gap between the Brazilian traditions and the vegetalistas, to have those members of CONAD visit Perú, Ecuador, Bolivia, and see with their own eyes where the word Vegetal that so prominently figures in their name, really comes from...

(*) For those interested in more of the churches' story here's a good summary by Jimmy Wesikpof

UPDATE 28/12/2008 - I came across some new information, indeed there seems to be more and more contacts between those two groups. I talk about it in this post

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