Ayahuasca – Literally, “vine of the dead” in Quechua; also known as yagé and cognates in various indigenous Amazonian languages. A blend of extracts of the Banisteriopsis vine and Psychotria virdis or a similar (DMT-containing) plant from which a vomit- and vision inducing drink is brewed and ingested by shamans and healers in many cultures and religious complexes (including some forms of Christianity). For example, vegetalistas (plant-inspired shamans such as Pablo Amaringo), who are justly famous for the elaborate and colourful paintings that represent some of the resulting visions, treat the vine as a powerful other-than-human person and teacher. Marlene Dobkin de Rios demonstrates that ayahuasca is not used as a curative agent, a medicine in the Western sense, but “gives the healer entry into the culturally important area of disease causality, enabling him to identify the nature of the illness from which a person is suffering, and then to deflect or neutralize the evil magic which is deemed responsible for illness.” She has also commented critically on the rise of “ayahuasca tourism” conducted by “common drug dealers” rather than “authentic ayahuasca healers,” in which Western tourists (including psychonauts and others interested in “entheogens”) are charged for drug experiences disguised as “advanced shamanic training.” Dobkin de Rios’s background in medical anthropology and psychotherapy provide her with tools for judging the psychotic results of much of this tourism.

Benny Shanon has systematically charted the phenomenology of the ayahuasca experience and characterized it from a cognitive psychological perspective as well as discussing philosophical ramifications. Principally, he characterizes the effects of ayahuasca as manifestations of unusual enhancement of cognitive functioning, creativity, and intuition.

Ayahuasca is central not only to traditional indigenous practices but also to Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal that have spread from Brazil to many other countries. These groups were preceded or are paralleled as ayahuasca enthusiasts and missionaries by William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Wade Davies, and Dennis and Terence McKenna. The psychoactive ingredients of ayahuasca and many other plants were first scientifically analyzed in the 1930s by Richard Schultes.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007