NeoShamanic Dialogues

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  • (Neo)Shamanic Dialogues: Encounters between the Guarani and AyahuascaAuthor(s): Esther Jean Langdon and Isabel Santana de RoseSource: Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, Vol. 15, No. 4 (May2012), pp. 36-59Published by: University of California PressStable URL: .Accessed: 29/11/2013 20:12

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  • (Neo)Shamanic Dialogues

    Encounters between the Guaraniand Ayahuasca

    Esther Jean Langdon andIsabel Santana de Rose

    ABSTRACT: This paper is a reflection on the ritual incorporation ofayahuasca, an Amazonian psychoactive ritual substance, by members ofa Guarani Indian village on the Atlantic coast of the state of SantaCatarina, Brazil. Their shamanic leaders have adapted the use of thisbeverage into their ritual practices and recognize it as part of their cul-ture and tradition. This process of appropriation is a result of the for-mation of a network that involves various actors, among them theGuarani Indians, members of Sacred Fire of Itzachilatlan, followers ofthe Brazilian ayahuasca religion Santo Daime, and a health team em-ployed to provide primary attention to Indian communities. Based onthis case study, we demonstrate that shamanisms today emerge out ofspecific political and historic contexts. If the concept of shamanism isuseful as an analytical paradigm, it must be thought of as a dialogicalcategory constructed through interaction between actors with diverseorigins, discourses, and interests.

    KEYWORDS: Guarani Indians, ayahuasca, shamanism, neo-shamanism

    S ince the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Guarani fromClear Waters village, located on the coast of southern Brazil, haveincorporated ayahuasca into their traditional prayer and chanting


    Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, Volume 15, Issue 4, pages3659, ISSN 1092-6690 (print), 1541-8480 (electronic). 2012 by The Regents of theUniversity of California. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission tophotocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California PresssRights and Permissions website, at 10.1525/nr.2012.15.4.36.

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  • ceremonies.1 They claim that this beverage, a tea-like substance usedin Amazonian shamanic practices and widely known for its psychoactiveand visionary properties, is part of Guarani culture and tradition.2 Thenature and process of this appropriation is related to the formation of aformal network of relations between several different groups over the lastten years. This network includes participants from the Guarani communi-ty, the international spiritual group Sacred Fire of Itzachilatlan, theBrazilian ayahuasca religion of Santo Daime, and the health team thatprovides services to the Guarani. We examine in this article the dialoguesand negotiations involved in this network, called Aliana das Medicinas, orMedicine Alliance. On the one hand, its formation reflects local,national, and international processes that involve diverse representationsof shamans and indigenous medicine, while on the other, it is a result ofthe relations and interactions between the members of this Guaranicommunity and the surrounding society in the context of Brazilian publichealth policies that have favored innovative actions to address racialinequalities.

    Historically, shamans and shamanisms have been the object of spec-ulations regarding magic, primitive mentality, and madness. Earlyanthropological analyses viewed forms of shamanism as archaic survivalsdoomed to disappear in the face of modernity.3 Contrary to such a view,shamans today circulate in many parts of the world, and their practicesare perceived by many individuals as representing primordial truths thatoffer solutions for the afflictions of contemporary society. In Brazil,shamans and their knowledge are regarded to be the essence of indige-nous traditional medicine, an image held by medical personnel workingin Indian health programs as well as by many New Age therapists andclients. This representation of the indigenous shaman plays an impor-tant role in the dialogues that we are examining here. Based on this casestudy of the introduction of ayahuasca and other ritual practices in theClear Waters village, we demonstrate that the shamanism that hasemerged out of this particular historical and political context is moreadequately comprehended as a dialogical category resulting from theinteraction between actors with different origins, discourses, and inter-ests, and not as a historically and politically disembedded philosophy,logic, or spiritual consciousness.


    Shamanism has been a favorite topic in anthropology since the dis-cipline emerged over a century ago. Classic studies were concernedwith understanding primitive mentality in contrast to the civilizedmind through binary classifications such as rational/irrational, magical/religious, and natural/supernatural. Shamans activities and social roles

    Langdon and de Rose: (Neo)Shamanic Dialogues


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  • confounded western classifications, and they were often designated byambiguous and contrasting categories such as magician/priest or doctor/sorcerer. Classic studies interested in shamans as individuals focused ontheir mental states, in which ecstatic practices, transvestism, and otherbehaviors were perceived as deviant, abnormal, and primitive. Amongthese some argued that shamans had schizophrenic personalities.4

    In the 1960s, a revival of ethnographic studies in shamanism began,along with a growing popular and multidisciplinary interest in alteredstates of consciousness and transpersonal psychology.5 The investiga-tion of psychotropic substances, referred to as hallucinogens, was char-acterized by an interdisciplinary focus accompanied by a strongexperimental ethos on the part of many researchers. The number ofpublications and symposiums dedicated to examining shamanism andthe use of hallucinogens multiplied, and some researchers became sha-mans themselves. While many of the studies in psychology and alteredstates of consciousness searched for universal characteristics of theshamanic experience, the new impetus of research in anthropologyreflected changing analytical interests away from a preoccupation withdefinitions, essential traits, and cultural boundaries of shamanism, andtoward understanding its dynamics, particularly in interethnic contexts.This trend is in accord with current anthropological theory that in-cludes situating the local within wider political and historical processes.6

    By the beginning of the 1990s, anthropologists were talking aboutshamanisms in the plural,7 and rejecting its characterization as a unifiedtranscultural phenomenon.

    The 1960s also marked the beginning of a more intense phase ofethnographic research on lowland South American indigenous groups,a trend that has continued and has resulted in a deeper understandingof these cultures and the development of new analytical models.8

    Recent scholarship on Amerindian cultures has allowed us to perceivethat there are certain underlying aspects of Amazonian shamanisms,while recognizing the diversity of shamanisms and the kinds of practi-tioners that may be grouped under the general label of shaman;those identified as shamans range from generalized religious-politicalleaders and other more limited roles that work for the benefit of thecommunity to those who are dedicated only to evil through chants orpoisonous substances.9 In spite of this diversity of roles and practices,there is no one generalized emic designation or category in Amazoniathat refers to them. In this sense, it is the anthropologists who interpretthem as shamans or pajs, as they are frequently called in the litera-ture in Portuguese.10 The use of a single gloss is an anthropologicalinterpretation.11 However, most authors agree that the varieties ofindigenous shamanisms in the Amazon nonetheless share a number ofaspects grounded in a common cultural tradition and cosmology.12

    Shamanism is perceived as a collective institution, central to lowland

    Nova Religio


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  • Amerindian cosmologies and societies, which expresses the culturescentral themes, such as the principle of transformation, concern withthe flow of vital energy, and the influence of occult forces on humans.As a cosmological vision, it provides the basis for the interpretation andunderstanding of daily events, as well as for the attempt to mediate withthe invisible forces that affect them. In its broader sense, shamanismis concerned with the well being of soci