By Barbara Arisi
The ancient drink ayahuasca or daime is one of the powerful forces that connects the seemingly distant worlds of Amazon and Europe, ‘indigenous’ and ‘metropolitan’. It is born from the encounter and circulation of many traditions such as popular Catholicism, local shamanism and the Afro-Brazilian pantheon. Forest beings such as the snake, the jaguar and the humming bird coexist in rituals with saints, gods and spirits. The result is a unique and powerful experience for those who humbly surrender to learn what ayahuasca, a beverage prepared with the jagube vine and the leaves of the chacrona, has to teach.
Ayahuasca is a beverage capable of producing visions or, from the native’s perspective, capable of establishing contact between its users and other worlds which occupy a space that can intuitively be translated as religion. The first scientific records date from 1908 when Spruce published about an experience he had in 1852. Reichel-Dolmatoff is among the first anthropologists that called attention to ayahuasca. Daime is the name of one of the ayahuasca ‘churches’ which originated in Acre, Brazil. In Portuguese, ‘daime’ can be translated as ‘give me’. The word daime is an invocation – “Give Me Strength, Give Me Light and Give Me Love,” is one of the Daime hymns.
Under a blue Sunday sky, we, a Brazilian academic colleague and myself, arrived for a Daime ceremony at the ‘Buiksloterkerk’ in the northern part of Amsterdam. My colleague was the one who invited me to the ritual. We met because he wanted to learn to speak Matis, the language of the indigenous people with whom I studied. The Matis united us and here we are in Holland, so far from the forest, but with our thoughts and life projects intertwined in a transnational entanglement. We visited the session to meet the spiritual masters of the forest. It would be the first time that I would take ayahuasca in Europe. The use of ayahuasca during ritual became legal in the Netherlands in 2000.
This Sunday’s ritual was in memory and honor of Geraldine, one of the creators and founders of the Ceu de Maria parish in 1994 The Netherlands. She had been diagnosed with cancer and the ayahuasca helped her healing. We sang a hymn from her and another one from the godmother of Céu do Mapiá, a Daime community located in the state of Amazonas. We left our heavy coats at the entrance, and dressed up in the white clothes of those who are not members – members wear uniforms. As we entered, I recognized the painted faces of Mestre Irineu, Mestre Sebastião and Madrinha Maria Rita looking at the people from the walls of this old Protestant church that now houses the doctrine that came all the way from the Amazon.
The ritual begins. Many older Dutch people attend, but there are also several young ones. The hymns are sung in Portuguese, but some of the prayers are in Dutch. Before taking the substance vine with the leaf, we sing to the Daime, whom we call the ‘teacher of teachers’. One of the people who introduced themselves to me before the ritual began is a colleague from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Here we are, the university professors, ready to learn from the masters, to receive and to give love.
We drink daime and some also smoke Santa Maria (marijuana). Musicians sit around the table playing violin, transverse flute, guitars. Soon chanting fills up the room. I remember the times when I took ayahuasca in several places in Brazil, sometimes with riverine people or indigenous peoples, and some other times with non-indigenous daimists.
Calavia Saez wrote that the indigenous Amazonians were subjected to many missionary enterprises, but that the ayahuasca religions can be understood as a reverse missionary action, one that goes from the forest to the metropolises. Currently there are ayahuasca churches in South Africa, Australia, the Netherlands and other countries.
Amazonia is a place where people from many corners of the world meet – some get lost in it and many others died there. Unfortunately, various wars and massacres are still being fought there for oil, logging, drug trafficking and state-led projects. Ayahuasca is one of the ceremonies that brings together different people: indigenous, people of color, whites and Asians. The indigenous are expert chemists and they always experiment with the rich plant flora of the Amazon. We owe to them and to the heirs of Afro-Brazilian traditions and devout popular Catholicism the union that ayahuasca offers.
Many of the old ladies and gentlemen who danced and sang between 2 pm and 8 pm at Buiksloterkerk had visited the community of Céu do Mapiá in the Amazon – some of them had been there almost 40 years ago. The masters had gathered at the Ayahuasca ceremony in these distant lowlands. We drank it again in another ceremony held on 6th June in a ‘White Table ceremony’, led also by Daime godmother Maria Alice Campos Freire, that brought more Afro-Brazilian umbanda and some spiritist influences into the ritual. This is how Amazonia is present in contemporary Europe.
In the middle of Amsterdam, I feel a great wave of gratitude while staring at the calm face of Master Irineu on a picture, watching us dance and sing around him. Irineu, founder of Santo Daime, was born in Maranhão in the late 19th century, and migrated to the jungle to work on the rubber plantations, which is where he encountered the shamanic drink from Peruvian shamans. Maybe it isn’t that strange or exotic, because all of us are in need of a little more strength, light and love, as Mestre Irineu had taught.
(A previous version of this article has been published in Amazonia Real)
Barbara Arisi is an anthropologist and journalist, a professor at the Federal University of Latin American Integration (UNILA), and currently a visiting researcher at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands.