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Ayahuasca and the concept of reality. Ethnographic, theoretical, and experiential considerations. (cont.)
By Luis Eduardo Luna, Ph.D., F.L.S.

The role of ayahuasca among indigenous groups

The Amazon area is not only biologically, but also culturally diverse. There are cultural differences between the various indigenous groups of the Upper Amazon in terms of social structure and habitats. There is for example a contrast between humans living in nutrient rich vàrzea forests versus those living in relatively unproductive terra firme forests. There are also commonalities, such as the institution of shamanism and what has been called animism, the belief that nature, including rock and winds, rivers and thunder, is animated and intelligent, and that it is possible to establish a rapport with it. Another common belief is that human beings posses various souls, some of which transcends the dissolution of the body and may interact with the living. Certain plants, if taken under certain conditions, facilitate access to normally occult knowledge through altered states of consciousness. These are sacred plants such as tobacco (especially strong varieties of Nicotiana rustica), coca (there are 403 described species of Erythroxylum), Anadenanthera peregrina (locally known as yopo, paricá, cohoba and many other vernacular names), Virola especies, of which potent psychotropic snuffs are made, and of course the plants involved in the preparation of yajé and ayahuasca.

Chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis). Photo by Luis Eduardo Luna

Ayahuasca plays an important role in many Upper Amazon societies. Jean Langdon (2000:21), who worked among the Siona of Colombia, points out the centrality of yagé and its rituals to their notion of well being and health, as well as for their acquisition of knowledge about the occult reality. In Siona society most narratives can be characterized as shamanic in the sense that they deal with shamans and/or with experiences in the occult world when dreaming or taking yagé. Their universe is characterized by two superimposed realities, “this side”, every day reality, and “the other side”, each composed of five disks arranged hierarchically beginning with the level under the earth and extending up to the end of the heavens, all populated by entities. Each domain has specific sounds, rhythms, music, smell and colors that can be visited, although these are full of dangers, and the inexperienced can be trapped in the evil spirit domain.

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