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TIPITI – Laura Gil

Book Review by Laura Pérez Gil Beatriz Caiuby Labate & Wladimyr Sena Araújo (orgs). Campinas (SP, Brazil): Mercado das Letras / São Paulo (Brazil): FAPESP. 2002. 686 pp. Ayahuasca, a drink with psychoactive properties generally prepared by combining the vine of Banisteriopsis Caapi with the leaves of Psychotria Viridis, has spread considerably in the last three decades within the Brazilian, European and North-American urban contexts. Traditionally used in shamanic rituals by Panoan, Tukanoan and Arawakan indigenous groups of western Amazonia, it was adopted by the folk healers (‘vegetalistas’) of the rainforest areas of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, becoming central to their therapeutic rituals. Later, the rubber tappers, who worked in the Brazilian region of Acre during the Rubber Boom in the first quarter of XX century, learned its usage from de Indian and caboclo populations and appropriated it for their own purposes. With ayahuasca as the thematic axis of the book which moves beyond cultural and academic frontiers, O uso ritual da Ayahuasca, organized by Beatriz Caiuby Labate and Wladimyr Sena Araújo, provides an overall view of the usages of ayahuasca in different cultural contexts: indigenous groups, mestizo and caboclo rituals, Brazilian ayahuasca religions and the expansion of these in Europe. This book is the result of the First Congress of the Ritual Usage of Ayahuasca (I CURA), held in 1997 in Campinas (São Paulo, Brazil), and represents an attempt of interdisciplinary dialogue. Although most of the chapters are written by anthropologists, other authors are specialists from medicine, cognitive psychology, psychiatry, chemistry, pharmacology, law and theology. The purpose of going beyond usual boundaries is reflected in other characteristics of the book. On the one hand, its authors belong to institutions of American and European countries. On the other hand, the book gives space not only to academic researchers, but also to members of the Brazilian ayahuasca religions and therapeutic practitioners. In this way, it offers an academic point of view as well as that of the users of ayahuasca. The result is a polyphonic book, where researchers’ and natives’ voices coexist. In fact, they are sometimes indistinguishable, since some researchers are themselves members of those religions and/or use their own personal experience with ayahuasca as the basis of their analysis. The book is divided in three parts, which, in some sense, reproduce the expansion process of ayahuasca from indigenous societies to its current spread in developed countries. Part one, entitled “Ayahuasca among People of the Forest”, includes articles examining the ritual uses of ayahuasca among indigenous populations, folk healers and Acrean rubber tappers. In her analysis of Kaxinawa use of ayahuasca, Keinfenheim suggests that its consumption is not restricted to specialists; on the contrary, it is an essential practice beneficial to daily activities. With increased dependence on agriculture and less hunting and gathering as a result of contact, these practices are changing and women have ceased to consume it. Langdon examines a Siona man’s narrative, which describes his personal process of acquisition and loss of shamanic power. She employs this narrative as a means to explore the relationship between the subjectivity of personal experience and the orientation given by the culture for its interpretation, a question rarely discussed by ethnology. The second part of the book, the largest, contains papers describing and analyzing the three Brazilian ayahuasca religions: Santo Daime, Barquinha and União do Vegetal (UDV). Some authors (Goulart, Monteiro, Couto) are concerned with the process of the emergence of these religions. They analyze their historic, social and economic aspects, connecting their development to the wider national context. They also attempt to discern the specific roles played in this emergence by the existing Brazilian religious traditions: folk Catholicism; indigenous shamanism; Afro-Brazilian cults, mainly Umbanda; Kardecism. In addition, western ideologies arising from liberation movements of the 60’s reached the remote lands of Acre through the backpackers from Brazilian, European and North-American cities traveling there in order to experience ayahuasca. The latter stage of this historic process is the diffusion of ayahuasca religions, firstly to the Brazilian urban context and from there to North American and European cities. This movement is an effect of the eagerness for religious and spiritual alternatives in modern society. Nevertheless, its transposition to developed countries is not without problems. Balzer’s article describes the failure of a Santo Daime ritual performed in Germany. Most of its participants had a disagreeable experience with ayahuasca, which is interpreted by the author as the consequence of the incongruity between Daime’s ritual symbolic expression and the Germans’ expectations, inspired primarily by the New Age movement. They anticipated an esoteric shamanic ritual providing the chance for individual experience, but instead, they experienced a ritual inspired by a doctrine that emphasizes collectiveness and was impregnated with catholic principles and images, which caused deep rejection. Apart from the sociological aspects, some authors also tackle the study of symbolic elements in ayahuasca religions. They describe the rituals and explore some of their doctrine’s central concepts, such as the relationship between soul and body (Goulart); the concepts of sickness and cure (Sena Araújo, Peláez); the category of Person (Peláez); and the notions of shamanic flight and possession (Monteiro, Brissac, Couto). Some of these works look at the origins of the elements constituting ayahuasca religions and reflect on the way of dealing with their eclectic and heterogeneous nature. The fact that ayahuasca religions are composed by the confluence of different traditions has caused them to be characterized as syncretic. However, the pertinence of this concept is refuted by some researchers (McRae, Sena Araújo, Labate), who consider it inappropriate since it implies the idea of an inarticulate amalgamation of elements. The connection between ayahuasca religions and shamanism is another issue discussed by several papers. Most regard certain aspects of ayahuasca religions as shamanistic. Their opinion is grounded on restricted interpretations of the essence of shamanism. For example, Couto reduces his definition of shamanism to Eliade’s “technique of ecstasy” and claims that the visionary experience in ayahuasca religions is analogous to the shamanic flight. Monteiro equates the experiences of the Santo Daime founder to those of shamanic initiation. However, these arguments reproduce a common sense understanding of shamanism. In contrast, the studies describing the indigenous shamanic systems, such as those of Keifenheim and Langdon, allow the reader to realize that there are substantial differences between indigenous cosmologies and the doctrines of the ayahuasca religions. Consequently, the characterization of ayahuasca religions as shamanic systems requires more careful considerations. However, despite the fact that some authors utilize anthropological analytical tools in a simplistic way (Bandeira, Couto), they have the merit of providing first-hand descriptions of these little-known religions and are pioneers in their research. The last part of the book is dedicated to pharmacological, phytochemical and psychological research linked to the active principles found in ayahuasca. Three articles report the results of one research project carried out in collaboration between members of UDV’s Medical Council and researchers from European, Brazilian and North American Universities. The main objective of this project was to examine the physical and psychological effects of ayahuasca. Although not stated explicitly these articles, as well as several others, are concerned with showing that ayahuasca consumption is not harmful. Several articles emphasize that ayahuasca does not create chemical dependency and argue that, on the contrary, its ingestion in controlled ritual contexts has several beneficial effects. UDV’s members underline the substance’s capacity to promote transformation, allowing people to overcome existential problems, such as the tendency for violence, alcoholism or drug dependency. At the same time, it permits the development of some desirable virtues, like maturity, self-confidence and sociability. These religions consider that the benefits produced by ayahuasca are mainly psychological and spiritual, and their doctrines are highly charged with morality. The approach to ayahuasca proposed by Mabit, a French doctor, has some significant differences. In the Peruvian village of Tarapoto, he directs a program for the recovery of drug addiction using ayahuasca as its key element. His therapeutic practices are based on the vegetalistas’ understanding of ayahuasca and its ritual use. Mabit affirms that his usage of ayahuasca is exclusively therapeutic without moral implications. One reason for the general concern with the physical and psychological effects of frequent ayahuasca ingestion is the problem of its legal status. The active principle (DMT) present in the beverage is prohibited by international treaties as well as national narcotic laws. Although the Brazilian government does not prohibit the religious use of ayahuasca, this is not true for Europe, excluding Holland, where ayahuasca religions were obliged to become clandestine. Zuluaga and Mabit raise another relevant question. They consider that increased search for psychedelic experiences in Western societies, the pursuit of ayahuasca and shaman rituals being one example, contains the risk of new misappropriations of indigenous wisdom and threatens indigenous people’s Intellectual Property Rights. Its illegal and indiscriminate trade in the face of international prohibitions could lead to its proscription among the populations that traditionally use it. By raising these ethical questions regarding ayahuasca usage, the book contributes to an important discussion that is especially relevant in the current process of globalization. “O Uso Ritual da Ayahuasca” is definitively an heterogeneous book, both in its diversity of topics and viewpoints, which reflect various forms of understanding ayahuasca in different cultural contexts, and in the disparity of quality of the articles. However, its value goes beyond the contribution of knowledge to this specific theme. It also challenges conventional frontiers and it points out new issues and questions with regard to the subject, epistemology and methodology of scientific knowledge. Finally, it is necessary to highlight that this book is one of the few published works which offers a “state of the arts” about ayahuasca studies in different cultural contexts. The survey contained within it is, without doubt, the most extensive up to now. Among its main achievements are the articulation between the ethnographic and analytic richness provided by case studies and the provision of an overall view through its more synthetic chapters, which serve as a guide to the reader unfamiliar with the topic. Published in: Tipiti, Journal of The Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America. Volume 1, number 1, june 2003, pp. 126 a 130.