Pubdate: Thu, 12 Oct 2006
Source: New Statesman (UK)
Copyright: 2006 New Statesman
Author: Alex Bellos
Note: The author is the author of "Futebol: the Brazilian way of life"


A Religion In Brazil Mixes Catholicism With Powerful Hallucinogens.

Alex Bellos Joined The Congregation

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.

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.

The taste was dreadful, but I didn't vomit as many people do. I was 
then shown to where I should stand. In the centre of the church, 
musicians were sitting around a small, star-shaped table covered in 
flowers and candles. The men stood separately from the women, with 
everyone positioned in con centric hexagons around the table. Virgins 
and non-virgins had their own sections within both groups. The 
virgins sang the first few words of each hymn, and then the musicians 
joined in. Once they got going, the rest of us picked up the tune and 
the dancing began.

One, two, three, four. We all moved left. One, two, three, four. We 
all moved right. The congregation revolved in one direction and then 
the other, like a circular chorus line on an endless loop. Almost 
everyone had his or her own rattle with which to beat out a rhythm. 
The ritual had a distinct beauty. The white-and-blue flock swayed 
back and forth like the tide. We were due to sing about 60 hymns and 
the ceremony was scheduled to last until dawn.

The hymns were short songs with simple lines and catchy tunes, like 
nursery rhymes, or even advertising jingles. The melodies hardly 
varied from one hymn to the next. The style alternated between march, 
waltz and mazurka.

To believers, the altered state that the Daime creates is a spirit 
world. The path to happiness and self-knowledge is through the work 
done in this spiritual realm.

Unlike most drugs, which require the user to take ever-increasing 
doses to get the same buzz, the more Daime you take, the less you 
need, because your mind becomes more res ponsive. It follows that 
those unaccustomed to Daime, like me, often need a larger amount than 
others to trigger any effect. I did not hallucinate. I did feel 
sensitive to the intense energy that the service was creating. The 
sense of belonging was great. I felt part of a giant wheel.

An accordionist joined in, adding a lovely warm texture to the 
overall sound. And - even if this doesn't count as an epiphany - I 
achieved at least some kind of intellectual enlightenment. The 
accordion playing was in the unmistakable style of the folk music of 
north-eastern Brazil. The lyrics stood out as belonging to that 
region's traditions of improvisational poetry. The church service 
represented the early-20th-century culture of rural north-eastern 
Brazil, as perfectly preserved in the rainforest. Even the uniforms 
made sense: they were expressions of hill-billy Brazilians' Sunday best.

Santo Daime may appear to be like a religion invented on LSD, yet it 
is an immaculate syn thesis of Brazil. In it, you can see influences 
of the three continents that have populated this country: the circle 
dancing is Afro-Brazilian, the hymns and iconography are Catholic, 
and the Daime is Native American. In fact, in view of its indigenous 
basis, Santo Daime is perhaps the most authentic of all Brazil's faiths.
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MAP posted-by: Elaine