Rituals and CeremoniesBelow you will find an overview of the most common ways of how ayahuasca is taken.
Learn more about the importance of how and where strong mind-altering substances like ayahuasca are taken
Traditional Amazonian HealingA shaman is a person who knows his or her way around altered states of consciousness and enters these states to heal patients. Typically induced by a combination of psychedelic plants and music, the shamanistic trance enables one to perceive part of what can't be perceived in ordinary states of consciousness. This is usually performed for the purpose of healing, divination or communication with the spirit world.
Obviously ayahuasca is a shamanistic tool, if not the most important Amazonian one. According to many indigenous curanderos (healers) much of their botanical knowledge comes directly from ayahuasca inebriation. In healing sessions, which are typically held at night and on fixed days of the week, there are about four to eight patients present. The ritual begins around eight or nine in the evening, lasting up to seven hours. It takes place in the shaman's house or 'clinic' in complete darkness, which stimulates the visionary element of ayahuasca.
The shaman drinks ayahuasca so he can see the spiritual causes for his patient's illness. Sometimes the patient drinks as well. Most of the time the shaman is singing icaros or 'power songs' to invite good spirits and to perform healing. Sometimes patients are invited to sit with the shaman, who will then sing softly especially for each one of them.
Tobacco is an important tool in this tradition, together with the chapada, a bunch of leaves. Tobacco smoke is blown over the ayahuasca and the patient for the purpose of attracting positive energies. The chapada is used like one would use a percussion instrument, beating the air with a regular interval. Other tools are various perfumes, incense, rattles, crystals and other power objects. The day after the ayahuasca healing, there is usually some more individual treatment involving other medicinal plants.
If you want to learn more about ayahuasca shamanism, we recommend reading Singing to the Plants, an elaborate ethnography of Amazonian mestizo shamanism by Stephan Beyer, published in 2009.
The Church of Santo DaimeFounded in the early 1930s by Raimundu Irineu Serra, the Santo Daime is probably the most wellknown ayahuasca drinking tradition. It is an ideosyncracy integrating Catholic, Christian beliefs with the use of a native entheogenic ('manifesting the god within') plant. This is interesting in the light of the inquisition of some four centuries ago, which also entailed an almost total eradication of (ayahuasca) shamans and their cosmologies. This was fuelled by authorities operating in the name of Catholicism.
They call ayahuasca Daime and it is their sacrament in the so-called trabalhos (works or sessions). Besides the actual brewing, all rituals are held in a closed, fully illuminated hall, led by the padrinho. It is a widespread tradition nowadays, with many centers in Brazil and several more in Europe.
Although Santo Daime have fifteen types of sessions ranging between 4 and 800 participants, they distinguish five main sessions. The concentração (concentration or meditation) are held twice a month. The brew is taken by everyone present at the beginning of this regular session and typically there’s another serving later. The concentração pivot around a period of around two hours in which the participants sit in silence. Before and after this period of silence, there is praying and singing. Usually a session starts at eight in the evening and lasts for about six hours.
The cura is another regular session that mainly focuses on healing. The session usually has the same length as a concentração and Daime is served twice. There's a special book of hymns that is sung at cura rituals.
Santo Daime have festive sessions on fixed dates, including Christmas, New Year’s Day and sometimes marriages and anniversaries. They dance and chant while standing aligned in ordered formations, with a group of people playing guitar and sometimes other instruments, like electric organ or flute or clarinet. Many participants rattle the maraca, made from a tin or aluminum can with seeds inside. The festive sessions typically last around eleven hours and are held during the night. Daime is served up to five times during the session. After the second serving there’s an intermission, in which participants go outside and relax.
Sometimes a small number of participants have an intimate session, called trabalhos de estrela, referring to the star-shaped table at the centre of the hall in which all sessions take place. These sessions focus on somebody’s illness, and chanting for the purpose of healing takes place. There is another kind of session that takes place only rarely, a missa (mass) for the dead.
Held outside, the fifth kind of session is the preparation of the brew, called feitio. Large doses of Daime are served during this ritual, in which hymns are sung and the ayahuasca vine is collected and pounded with a hammer by eight to fourteen men. The chacrona has been collected and cleaned before the feitio by the women. Helped by members of the community, the padrinho is the one who actually makes the brew and decides the preparation method and the quantities of the ingredients.
The Santo Daime church is known for its hymns, or hinos, which are said to be received from the astral world under the influence of Daime, by the padrinho or other prominent members. These are the only written teachings of this church and form the core of a session. Functionally they can be somewhat compared to the icaros of ayahuasca shamans, songs sung by the shaman to support the drinker in his spiritual journey.
União do Vegetal
The União do Vegetal was founded on the 21st of February 1961 in Porto Velho Rondonia, Brazil by José Gabriël da Costa, a rubber tapper. Working in the rubber camps, he got acquainted with native Indians in Bolivia who introduced him to ayahuasca right there in the jungle. The ritual that evolved from his ideas is repeated every first and third Saturday of the month in all of Brazil by roughly tenthousand men and women. There are about 40 to 50 rituals every half year where ayahuasca is served, generally in milder doses than daime.
The sessions take place under the guidance of a leader ('Mestre'), who distributes the tea and guides the collective and individual experience. This is mainly done through the chanting of chamadas, special chants about the origin of ayahuasca, the meaning of the effects of ayahuasca (which is called the burracheira) and the meaning of the life of an ayahuasqueiro (somebody who regularly drinks). People listen to music and there's space for asking questions to the leader and for addressing the group.
Like the Santo Daime, the UDV is gaining popularity amongst all walks of life, having centers, called nuclei, in all major cities of Brazil and several oversea. 'União' means 'union', and rudimentarily refers to the unification of seemingly disconnected principles. A simple example is the unification of the various plants used in the brew. In the UDV Banisteriopsis caapi is called mariri and represents power. Psychotria viridis is called chacrona and represents light. Another example is the unification of masculine and feminine principles. Members of the UDV refer to various kinds of unification, and especially unification with the universe in its totality through drinking vegetal, ayahuasca, with the phrase 'fazer a ligação', making the connection.
Like many other religions, the UDV has scheduled her gatherings and festivities within an annual framework. They are held in a closed, illuminated hall where the participants sit in armchairs. The most important gatherings are the sessões de escala, the sessions of the ladder, which are held every first and third Saturday of the month. Starting at eight o'clock in the evening, they end a quarter past midnight.
Besides the official sessions there are sessions on Christian holidays (Christmas, Easter), on the days of several Christian saints (St. John, St. Peter), on the birthday of the founder of the UDV, on the birthday of the foundation date of the UDV, on Mother's Day, on Father's Day and during reveillon, the transition to the new year. Experienced ayahuasqueiros also have sessões instrutivas, instructive sessions, in which the drinkers explore the more esotheric aspects of the UDV. The last kind of session is the preparo, in which the vegetal is prepared and, like Santo Daime's feitio, drunk.
The official sessions every first and third Saturday of the month use the following program:
- Drink ayahuasca together (20.00h)
- Focus on the effect of the tea (until approximately 21.00h)
- The leader of the ceremony starts chanting the first chamadas to guide people in the process of making the connection
- Experience the effect of the tea, opportunity to speak towards the group and ask questions, to listen to popmusic with lyrics with a message and to sing chamadas (until 23.30h)
- The master sings several closing or goodbye chamadas (around midnight)
BarquinhaFounded in 1945 in Rio Branco, Brazil, this church combines elements from the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda religion and the Santo Daime. The name means 'little boat', referring to the boat the founder, Frei Daniel Pereira de Mattos, saw in a vision. In his mind it represented the spiritual voyage. Barquinha has more rituals than the Santo Daime and UDV, apparently serving a brew that is more potent as well.
In some sessions which are based on Umbanda rituals, Barquinha members, often dressed in seamen's uniforms, enter into trance and 'incorporate' spirits. During some sessions the gira is performed, a circle dance taken from the Umbanda tradition. Three times a year there is a pilgrimage, or romaría, involving an up to thirty day period of nightly sessions with drinking. In non-festive sessions salmos are sung by a cantor and the rest, while seated, joins in for the refrains. These hymns are typically much lengthier than the ones of the Santo Daime.
Hybrid rituals and ayahuasca in the West
In addition to the churches, other hybrid ayahuasca rituals have been developed over time. Groups and persons in the home countries of ayahuasca integrated working with this plant medicine in various spiritual and therapeutic practices.
When westerners stumbled upon these traditions, many became inspired. Not only have we seen an increase of ayahuasca tourism to the Amazon during recent years, ayahuasca shamans have also been invited to travel all over the world to guide rituals.
Some westerners went into training with indigenous or mestizo shamans themselves and started to conduct their own ceremonies. Nowadays you don't have to travel to the Amazon anymore to partake in an ayahuasca ceremony.
Here you can read more about the different (modern) traditions of ayahuasca use.