What’s a “Traditional” Ayahuasca Ceremony? Hint: It’s Not What You Think

Art credit: Noa Knafo

Many ayahuasca centers in South America, namely in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, advertise their retreats as inclusive of “traditional” or “ancient” Master Plant ceremonies. If you are considering joining one such retreat, one of the first things to be aware of is that these terms are not much more than marketing buzzwords aimed at evoking a yearning for an authentic, indigenous experience in the centers’ future clients.

Present-day ayahuasca retreats can offer participants tremendous therapeutic value and opportunity for personal growth in supportive, nurturing environments which often provide ample convenience, and are located in pristine, lush rainforest settings. The shamans working in the centers are usually indigenous or mestizo (of mixed descent). The retreat center staff on hand are there to assist all guests’ needs, and larger centers may have medical staff available on call to perform health check-ups, and assist in cases of emergencies. All in all, ayahuasca retreat centers create an opportunity for full immersion into the ayahuasca experience with fellow spiritual seekers in an atmosphere of safety, comfort, and support.

With no intention of downplaying the benefits these retreat centers can facilitate, in this article we will take a closer look at the notion of traditionalism they claim to offer. Comparing this contemporary version of traditionalism to actual indigenous use of ayahuasca, we can paint a clearer picture of what you should expect when booking into a “traditional” ayahuasca retreat.

What are the Elements of a Traditional Ayahuasca Ceremony?

The earliest printed accounts of traditional ayahuasca ceremonies come to us from Jesuit missionaries who entered the Amazon in order to evangelize the indigenous peoples. These early accounts tell us a fact that has since been confirmed by numerous ethnobotanists who explored the indigenous use of plant medicine during the 19th and 20th centuries – in some indigenous societies, ayahuasca was traditionally consumed only by the shamans. The main purposes of its consumption were communion with the spirits, magic, divination, diagnosis, and healing.

Invocation of Spirits

The first written trace of ayahuasca use was penned by Jesuit historian Jose Chantre y Herrera, who described missionary efforts along the Marañón river in Peru during the second half of the 17th century.[1] He reported that the drinking of ayahuasca in this region was performed by shamans only, in large communal huts with community members present. The shaman would start the ceremony by singing, and then proceed to drink the brew and invoke the presence of spirits.

According to Chantre y Herrera, ayahuasca would have an intense effect on the shaman, making him aggressive and eventually leaving him passed out in a catatonic trance. It was believed that his soul would leave his body at this point, and the summoned spirit would deliver its message by speaking through him. Upon the ceremony’s end, the shaman would disclose what he had learned through this journey to the spirit world.

Divination

Shamans would also drink ayahuasca in order to cross over into spirit realms and attain powers of divination. By communicating with the spirits they could learn a variety of information not available in ordinary reality, such as: what and when to plant, harvest, and hunt; what their community is doing well and how they could improve; where a missing object or person is; or what ailment their patient is suffering from.

By conveying this information to their community members, they could help steer them in the right direction, and keep them well supplied and healthy. Aside from being adept healers, this clairvoyance is why shamans were, and are, such important and revered figures in indigenous culture.

Healing

In many indigenous societies, ordinary community members would rarely partake in ayahuasca. They would sometimes be offered and would maybe try it once out of curiosity, find the experience grueling, and would not want to repeat it.

They would typically only take it upon shaman’s insistence in case of serious illness. In these healing ceremonies, ayahuasca’s divinatory effect would be vital for the shaman to be able to diagnose the illness and ascertain the cure, and its purging effect would be primary for the patient who needs to rid their body of toxins (whether spiritual or physiological ones).

Witchcraft (brujeria)

Using ayahuasca, shamans could wage spiritual wars with each other by sending evil sorcery or defending their patients against it. There was a strong belief that the most serious illnesses could be attributed only to dark magic of evil brujos (ayahuasca sorcerers). The defending shaman would then drink ayahuasca, ascertain which brujo had sent the tsentsak (magical dart), and attempt to send it back and heal the sufferer.

This aspect of shamanism was also unearthed early, by Jesuit evangelist accounts of ayahuasca use subsequent to Chantre y Herrera’s. In 1768, Father Franz Xavier Veigl reported that this “bitter reed […] serves for mystification and bewitchment” and is used “only for superstitious practices and witchcraft.”[2]

There is little mention of sorcery in ayahuasca retreat advertisements, and rightfully so – few would sign up for a ceremony knowing their guide may be a witch. Shamans are usually portrayed as enlightened, saint-like humans whose sole purpose is to heal. However, brujeria is a very real aspect of the Amazon, even more so in recent decades as the encroachment of capitalism has catalyzed unethical practices among some community members, including shamans.

Community Building

Other records describe ayahuasca being used for strengthening of communal bonds by some indigenous communities, in contrast to the typical practice of shamans drinking ayahuasca alone. According to anthropologist Siskind (1973), among the Sharanahua indigenous peoples, ayahuasca would be ritually drunk by the whole community (usually meaning only the males).[3] The Tukano community in Colombia would hold ceremonial dances while under the effect of yajé (the Colombian indigenous name for ayahuasca). Miller-Weisberger (2000) reports that the Waoranis in Ecuador would communally fast on ayahuasca in order to sharpen their senses and reflexes, and become better hunters and warriors.[4]

Rite of Passage

In her major study of mestizo shamanism conducted on communities in the Iquitos area in Peru, Anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Rios noted that some indigenous societies would traditionally employ the use of hallucinogens, likely including ayahuasca, to mark the passage from youth to adulthood.[5] She described: “The plants were used for their hyper-suggestible properties, in order to create a state in which the moral and social values of the tribe would be easier to accept and assimilate. The visions or dreams were subsequently interpreted by the elders of the community in a way that agreed with the specific beliefs and values of the society – which reinforced in the young ideals of society to make them more fit to survive in their culture.”

Spiritual Therapy

Finally, and notably late in the history of ayahuasca use, we can see the emergence of a form of ayahuasca ceremonies that resemble present-day ones held in retreat centers. Dobkin de Rios also studied the population of the urban slums in Iquitos, which consisted of destitute mestizos and indigenous people who had moved from rural and remote jungle areas to the city in search of work. The urbanization that transpired in this area in the second half of the 20th century had caused their land and prey to dwindle, which forced them to transition to an environment completely foreign to them and attempt to assimilate there. This was largely unsuccessful, and caused some of them massive psycho-spiritual damage.

These suffering people would seek out help from local shamans, who would organize ayahuasca ceremonies for them. In these group healing sessions, or, as de Rios refers to them, “folk psychotherapy with the harmine drink, ayahuasca,” they would get a chance to gain some insight into, and overcome their current situation.[6]

Art Credit: Paula Duro

The Medicine Then and Now

Throughout the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon, not only is the potion referred to as ayahuasca (or yajé in the Colombian area), but the vine itself that is its main ingredient – Banisteriopsis caapi. The name ayahuasca comes from the indigenous Quechuan language, and the words aya and waska roughly translate to “soul” and “vine” respectively. B. caapi itself, not other ingredients, is referred to as the Master Plant and the Plant Teacher. This is all indicative of the importance the vine has in indigenous medicine and lore.

According to researcher Gayle Highpine, in many indigenous societies, such as the Napo Runa, the Sharanahua, the Tukano, and the Waorani, ayahuasca is traditionally prepared mostly only using the B. caapi vine.[7] Additional ingredients, such as DMT-containing plants, are, traditionally, barely present in the brew, and, if they are added, serve only to brighten up the visions that the vine already induces.

At the beginning of their training, shamans would be given vine-heavy brews in order to see the visions clearly. In due time, however, as their ayahuasca dieting progresses, they would reach a stage at which they could not only see clear visions from drinking a regular-dosage vine-only brew, but even by smelling the brew or touching the vine.[7] The effect of DMT would be regarded as a “distraction” through which the shaman would need to navigate in order to make sense of what is being shown.

The visions themselves, somewhat unlike present-day use, had very specific intentions behind them, such as diagnosing an illness, communing with the spirits of the jungle for specific purposes, locating a missing object or person, or ascertaining the identity of an attacker.

The vine is also traditionally revered for its powerful emetic properties. In many indigenous societies, purging is regarded as the primary healing aspect of ayahuasca use, so much so that, in some areas of the Amazon, the brew is commonly referred to as ‘La Purga.’ Purging is important to the indigenous peoples because this is how the medicine helps the ill rid their bodies of toxins and parasites. Modern science has indeed shown that the β-carboline alkaloids in B. caapi have antiparasitic and antimicrobial functions.

Ayahuasca Admixtures

DMT admixture plants started becoming a common component in the brew only with the development of ayahuasca tourism. This standardization of DMT content came as a response of the indigenous communities to the visionary expectations their visitors had, and which had been built up by the popularization of DMT by noteworthy proponents such as Terence McKenna. As untrained shamans, gringo visitors would not be able to see the visions coming from the vine without the help of DMT “training wheels” and would thus come out disappointed from their ayahuasca experiences. Seeing the benefit in serving DMT-containing brews, the shamans kept P. viridis and D. cabrerana as standard admixtures.

On the other hand, a few other admixtures, which are sometimes traditionally employed by highly skilled curanderos, are nowadays often recklessly brewed by novice ayahuasqueros who care more about delivering visions than ensuring their guests’ safety and health. These additions include tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) and toé or Angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia sp.), whose improper dosage can lead to serious psychophysical complications, and even death. If you’ve read or heard a report about a fatal ayahuasca ceremony, it’s highly possible that the cause was a tainted brew. This is something to be aware of when looking for an ayahuasca ceremony outside the vetted retreat center context, and is surely one of the main points of trust to inquire about with a prospective shaman.

The Economy of Shamanism

Finally, let’s discuss the monetary aspect of ayahuasca. It’s no secret that some retreat centers charge exorbitant rates for their services. Combined with transportation costs, it’s fair to say that ayahuasca retreats are prohibitively expensive for many who may need them.

It’s tempting to succumb to the thought that shamans, who may be viewed by some as ideals of pure, caring, and healing humans, should not wish to be compensated for their services and should renounce money as a malevolent product of the deviant Western culture. However, the reality is quite different, and it has been this way for as long as curanderos have been providing their services.

It’s important, and interesting to understand that the Amazon basin is an open and interconnected system in which communities have been conducting numerous and various exchanges up and down the river since they could build boats. Exchanging goods and resources, information, and people was common, and it is how the indigenous peoples developed into such knowledgeable and vibrant communities, and how knowledge of medicinal plants spread throughout the indigenous Amazon. Shamans would go to other shamans up the river for training, and patients with specific illnesses that certain shamans could treat well would go to the specialists to seek out healing.

Healers would, of course, host their patients while they are recovering, which means that, at times, there could be multiple people staying at a shaman’s home. In practical terms, the implication is that the healer would need to provide resources for these people to bring them back to health and nurture them for a while. It goes without saying that he would be remunerated not only for the resources, but for saving their lives. This compensation could be made by food, work, goods, or, ideally, money.

With that said, it is true that this economy used to be more geared toward the purchasing abilities of the patients and that the rates would commonly be more modest than what is largely being charged today (not only for ayahuasca sessions, but for all types of healing work). It’s also true that shamans used to exclusively operate independently, not as employees of an organization; and that they served their patients in their own humble huts, not in luxurious villas with a view.

Accumulational Shamanism?

Although exchange of goods and money for healing services has existed in the Amazon since ancient times, the development of the healing market was indeed majorly influenced by the introduction of capitalism and its accumulation ideals. In traditional indigenous societies, shamans, as the only specialists being sought out for their skills and earning from them, would need to share their gains with the others, lest they be robbed, accused of sorcery, or cast away from the community. Nowadays, almost anyone can declare themselves a shaman, build up a maloca (ceremonial hut), and start charging for serving the medicine they don’t even make, but buy from the market. This is where the retreat centers’ value becomes obvious – health, safety, and peace of mind in the competitive “shaman economy” may be worth the (relatively) steep price.

Another aspect of change that the market-driven dynamics brought to the ayahuasca healing landscape is the shift from private one-to-one sessions offered by a healer to a sick client to group ceremony experiences for people seeking spiritual transformation. The indigenous societies themselves participated in ushering in this reorientation – as Marlene Dobkin de Rios noted, suffering people in Iquitos were among the first groups of patients to receive this kind of healing. However, the bulk of the change came from healthy and wealthy Westerners looking to take the journey to a higher self.

In a similar fashion, market dynamics are also pushing ayahuasca ceremonies to shed their ritualistic, shamanic elements (icaros, sopladas) in favor of personal transformation modalities that Western consumers prefer (NLP, breathwork, timeline therapy, etc). Popular with those already familiar with them or just more comfortable with practices closer to the Western idea of mindfulness, these extraneous techniques are becoming more and more present in a wave of flourishing neo-shamanic retreat offers.

Art Credit: Paula Duro

Tradition is Constantly Changing

Times change and the way things are done adapt to the flow of conditions around them. Modern ayahuasca retreats may not always be as “traditional” as they are marketed, but what truly matters is the purity of intention and integrity behind them. After all, indigenous ayahuasca use was also sometimes plagued with malevolent intentions, so we need to distinguish between the implication of the term “traditional” and that of “authentic,” as well as ceremonies that are “lineage based.”

Tradition is always changing. In the Brazilian Amazon, ayahuasca ceremonies would traditionally be conducted with the entire community chanting their sacred medicine chants together. Nowadays, these same tribes consume ayahuasca, singing the same words of their ancestral chants in songs now accompanied by guitars, ukuleles and flutes. None of this is traditional, and indeed the elder wisdom keepers still struggle with acceptance of the younger shamans’ new ways of holding ayahuasca ceremonies with guitar music.

However, while not traditional, this development can be seen as authentically “lineage-based.” It is a conscious choice by emerging cultural leaders to adapt their traditions by embracing new practices, learned from guitar-toting nawas (outsiders). It is the inevitable result of increased cross-cultural exchange and a response to market demand that is propelling the most musically talented indigenous and mestizo shamans into world-traveling ayahuasca music celebrities. After all, gringos love the all-night concerts, and popular, musically-rich ceremonies sell out. Traditional chanting is respected, but the music is the draw.

Don’t Get Too Hung Up On “Traditional” Ayahuasca Retreats

So, if you’re looking to join an ayahuasca retreat, hopefully, after reading this text, you will be more aware that there is no such thing as a “traditional” ceremony; ancestral ayahuasca practices vary widely throughout the region, and “tradition” is always changing.

When ayahuasca retreat centers claim that their ceremonies are “traditional,” it’s simply to indicate that the ceremony format includes practices that have been employed in the locale for the past 10-20 years, and perhaps even longer. The word “traditional” is used to distinguish their service offerings from the growing body of neo-shamanic ceremonies that blend ancient, as well as contemporary traditions from disparate parts of the world with ayahuasca use in order to cater to the preferences of Western consumers.

Perhaps the term “lineage-based” is a more accurate description of the ever-evolving schools of ayahuasca shamanism, as knowledge and practice is passed down from teacher to student, and modified generation after generation. In this diverse landscape of ayahuasca ceremony options where some are retaining more of their ancestral roots while others are choosing to adopt practices foreign to the Amazon tradition, it’s more important to know your own spiritual inclinations than to have tradition as a primary condition. This is why our advice, above all, is to seek out what really speaks to you and to go for what feels right.

References:

[1] José Chantre Y Herrera – Historia De Las Misiones De La Campañía De Jesús En El Marañón Español

[2] Veigl, Francisco Xavier – Noticias detalladas sobre el estado de la Provincia de Maynas en América meridional hasta el año de 1768.

[3] Siskind, J. (1973c). Visions and cures among the Sharanahua.

[4] Miller-Weisberger, J, S, (2000). A Huaorani myth of the first Miiyabu. In L. E. Luna, & S. White (Eds.), Ayahuasca reader: Encounters with the Amazon’s sacred vine.

[5] Marlene Dobkin de Rios – Visionary Vine: Hallucinogenic Healing in the Peruvian Amazon

[6] Marlene Dobkin de Rios – Ayahuasca, the Healing Vine

[7] Gayle Highpine – Unraveling the Mystery of the Origin of Ayahuasca

About Xavier Francuski

Born in India, grew up in Serbia, lived and traveled throughout the world, Xavier's uprooted existence fuels his instinct for exploration. With a masters degree in research psychology, he is a passionate educator on the topic of psychedelics, trying to reconcile the astounding nature of the realms beyond with what sense we can make of them in this one. Currently living in Southeast Asia and working as a staff writer for several major psychedelic websites.

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