Sects and Drugs: A Religion in Brazil Mixes Catholicism with Powerful Hallucinogens. Alex Bellos Joined the Congregation

By Bellos, Alex | New Statesman (1996), October 16, 2006 | Go to article overview

Sects and Drugs: A Religion in Brazil Mixes Catholicism with Powerful Hallucinogens. Alex Bellos Joined the Congregation


Bellos, Alex, New Statesman (1996)


Ceu do Mapia is probably the smallest community in the world with its own time zone--half an hour in front of Boca do Acre and half an hour behind Pauini, the two nearest towns in this remote and underpopulated corner of the western Brazilian Amazon. The village of roughly 500 people is unique for another reason, too--it is the nucleus of a Catholic sect based on the regular consumption of the hallucinogenic tea ayahuasca.

As befits the village's status as a religious retreat, the main building in Ceu do Mapia is a church. I visited to attend the Easter ceremony and, as dusk fell on the eve of Good Friday, the church--a construction in the shape of a six-pointed star--filled up with worshippers.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Everyone was in uniform, a religious garb that made no concessions to the climate or the informality of jungle life. The men all wore blue pressed trousers, a blue tie and a silver sheriff's star pinned to a white, long-sleeved shirt. Each woman wore a long, blue skirt and a white, short-sleeved shirt with a blue dicky bow. The flock looked like the Plymouth Brethren on a jungle trek: hardly like followers of a religion with indigenous roots.

Ayahuasca is a brew made from boiling the Banisteriopsis caapi vine with the leaves of the chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis). The word itself means "vine of the spirits" in the Incan language Quechua, and the drug plays a prominent role in the culture of the native peoples of the western Amazon--to such a degree, it is said, that ayahuasca is the single most important instrument in creating and sustaining tribal identity.

Settlers in the Amazon at the beginning of the 20th century, introduced to ayahuasca through their contact with Native Americans, developed new uses for it. In Peru and Colombia it became the tool of shamans, faith healers and herbalists. In Brazil, however, it took a different course: a black rubber tapper who had emigrated from the rural north-east, Mestre Raimundo Irineu Serra, used the drug to create a religion, Santo Daime.

Next to the church at Ceu do Mapia is the tomb of Padrinho Sebastiao, a disciple of Irineu's who founded the Santo Daime community here in 1983. The village attracts many middle-class Brazilians, as well as a few foreigners, and they have evolved a successful way of living in the rainforest. The defining characteristic of the rural Amazon is extreme poverty. There was none in Ceu do Mapia. It felt, in fact, like being in a village somewhere in Europe.

Before the ceremony started, the worshippers queued in an orderly line for the drug--the Daime--served in a corner of the large hexagonal main hall. Each of us was given a small glass of the muddy liquid, poured from a ceramic water filter. The man who served mine, also dressed in a shirt and tie, could have been a barman in a gentleman's club passing me a shot of Bailey's. Behind him were gallons of Daime in office-sized mineral-water barrels, stacked on shelves.

Ayahuasca being a powerful hallucinogen, there are many strict rules governing its use, and these are zealously enforced by church wardens. I was almost instantly reprimanded for crossing my arms: crossing any limbs is prohibited because it breaks the free flow of good energy. …

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