Christianity's use of Psychedelic Substances in the Ayahuasca Traditions

ayahuasca psychedelic psychedelics religion santo daime science science revealed

This article was written by Danny Nemu, author of Science Revealed (2014) & Neuro-Apocalypse (2016)

Ayahuasca religion is a strange concept to get your head around, even before you drink ayahausca. At my first session about ten years ago, I was very keen to try the brew, but the shirts and ties and general Christian vibe made me feel instantly uneasy. A question arose: What does Christianity have to do with psychedelics?

Amongst anarchists, occultists and hedonists, there is much which is objectionable about Christianity. This article is about my induction into the Christian mythos; but fear not, you proud and proper transgressives, there will be no repentance for my old devilish ways. Much of modern Christianity smells as rotten as ever, but Daime is as fresh as a starry night in the rainforest.

The number one turn-off for me is the passive nature of church imagery, in which Jesus is almost invariably completely helpless. He is either a baby in his mother’s arms, a man nailed to a cross, or back in his mother’s arms again, even more helpless as a corpse in Pietà. Considering the people of Christendom’s helplessness against the greed of their kings and the murderous zeal of their clergy, the Lamb of Christ seems infinitely inferior to the Lion of Judah, the Chinese dragon, or Indra’s charging elephant.

Be that as it may, singing and dancing whilst soaring through inner-space was far from objectionable to me. Daime was fascinating right from the start, and the more I explored the paradox, the more intriguing it became.

The Bible directly references several psychotropics, including the highly regarded frankincense and myrrh, and the hallucinogenic aphrodisiac mandrake, which Leah swapped with Rachel for an extra night with their shared husband Isaac. There are also intriguing hints about the temple incense, not least its Hebrew name ktoret ha-samim, literally “incense of drugs” (cocaine, LSD and marijuana are generically called Samim in modern Hebrew). Several linguists and rabbis agree that the kaneh bosm in the incense, which is also in the holy anointing oil of the prophets, is related etymologically to the Scythian word cannabis. As Herodotus relates, the Scythians would throw this on the fire and, “their drunkenness increasing, they often jump up and begin to dance and sing”. (Much more about drugs in the Bible here).

Furthermore, some early Christian texts suggest a radically different relationship with authority, with lines such as “do not give a law like the lawgiver lest you be constrained by it”, from the Gospel of Mary Magdalen. Later sects such as Ranters, Quakers, Levellers, Diggers and Anabaptists embodied the full spectrum of anarchistic principles; refusing to join armies, ignoring property rights, walking naked in the streets, torching buildings, and fermenting disorder wherever they passed.[1]

A radically different relationship to divinity is also suggested by the writings of Christian mystics throughout the centuries, which often bring to mind the trip reports of modern psychonauts. Meister Eckhart writes:

In the breaking through I am more than all creatures; I am neither God nor creature; I am that which I was and shall remain, now and for ever more. There I receive a thrust which carries me above all angels… For there I am the immovable which moves all things.[2]

There is also good evidence that revelation is a genuine experience, in both secular and religious life. It can bring about pioneering insights in science, and is sometimes, but not always, fuelled by psychedelics. Studies on psychedelic therapy, meanwhile, suggest that a personal apocalypse can have a very positive impact, promoting both healing and integration. The bogey man, either drugs or Christianity depending on your perspective, comes out of the shadows, and an affinity is revealed.

The New Testament hero is not helpless but often proactive, defiant, divisive and confrontational. Sadly the text, like church imagery, was subject to manipulation, and became an instrument of manipulation. Gnostic gospels were cut from the official canon in the second century. Plebs were long kept from learning Latin, whilst scripture, and with it moral instruction, was preached by clergymen who usually had an interest in preserving the status quo. Though vernacular bibles eventually became available through the efforts of heretics like Luther, the definitive English translation for the early modern period (the King James Version) was heavily massaged. This 2000 year-long saga of command and control through the manipulation of narrative is told here, but one illuminating example is Matthew 5:39, where antihistemi is rendered as:

“Ye not resist evil”

Do not “stand against / rise up against evil” would be more faithful (anti- against, histemi- stand, make firm) and it makes more sense of the rest of the verse, which contains clear instructions on how to resist evil intelligently by subverting power hierarchies.[3] When properly understood, the meaning is a million miles from a simplistic “turn the other cheek”, as it is usually transmitted.

The founder of Daime was no subversive, he was a devout Catholic and a police corporal, but the changes he introduced force a far more assertive attitude. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his rewording of the Lord’s Prayer, which opens and closes every ceremony. The Brazilian Catholic version goes:

“Venha a nós o Vosso Reino”

(i.e. “Thy Kingdom Come”)

By contrast, the Daime version is:

“Vamos nós ao Vosso Reino”

(i.e. “Let’s go to your Kingdom”)

This makes a passive plea into a collective call to action, but is that justification for hacking the liturgy, like the conniving scribes and translators of old? In fact, this edit, made under the influence of ayahausca, seems to be perfectly faithful to the original Aramaic.[4]

Another of Mestre Irineu’s impertinences was to remove the Apostle’s Creed from the ceremony. He almost certainly didn’t know, but this statement of faith was constructed at the end of the fourth century as a weapon against Gnostics, whose various and varying ideas were often incompatible with the ambitions of the Roman Empire. Most problematic was gnosis itself, the idea that living spirits could reveal themselves directly in dreams, trances and other apocalyptic moments, resurrected in spirit. The Creed codified the dogma that Jesus was resurrected not in spirit but “in the flesh”, and divinity would be mediated through a centrally nominated official, without whom one was separated “not only from the church, but from God himself.”[5] Authority was hereby placed firmly in the hands of the poimen, literally a pastor, making free men and women into flocks of sheep. Daimistas seek deeper sources of authority. Ayahuasca – “The vine of souls” – is an excellent tool for exploring the gnostic heresy that disincarnate entities incarnate in spirit.

Mestre’s conception shows a high degree of understanding, as well as courage to go against centuries of entrenched bias. Since his death, the creed has been reintroduced in one Daime line, whilst in Barquinha, which also has its roots with Mestre Irineu, they use the traditional Lord’s Prayer. Both are beautiful expressions of religion, but the evangelical and Catholic trappings are not Mestre’s.

There are no images of Jesus writhing in agony, nor stations of the cross where he is beaten and abused as he accepts his miserable fate. The crucifixion is mentioned occasionally in hymns, but not laboured as the focus of the story. In other hymns: “para seguir neste caminho, não existe sacrifício” (to follow this path, there is no sacrifice).[6]

The cross on the altar is the Cross of Caravaca. According to many Daimistas, the second beam symbolizes the end of suffering or the rebirth of Christ, and though this appeals to my sensibilities, I couldn’t tell you if it is true, because there are no equivalents of Catholic dogmas. You are free to interpret as you choose whatever “the teacher of teachers” reveals, and need not define it or share it with anyone. As the hymn goes “o meu encontro com Jesus, so eu sei destrinchar”[7] – (only I can unravel my meeting with Jesus). And as an old Daimista once told me: “If you tell people your visions, you won’t have them anymore”.

Any definition of the ineffable necessarily diminishes it. In Daime, your beliefs are your business, the hymns and the symbols are for you to contemplate, and so are the facts of your life, so you needn’t go into a dark cupboard and confess anything to anyone. My friend, running a session, was cornered by a man who began a tearful confession. “No way,” he said. “Whatever it is, it’s between you and God.”

The leader of the session wears the same uniform, drinks the same brew, and sings the same songs as everyone else. Mestre stipulated that everyone plays a maraca, so the rhythm is driven collectively, and that no-one sings louder than anyone else. Indeed, every change he introduced shifts the focus away from anyone in particular, and puts responsibility for the session in the hands of every aspirant.

Mestre was also adamant that the Bible is not to be read out in ceremony. “I believe in the Bible,” he said, “but we do not work with the Bible here. We work with conscience.”[8] With no one telling you what their tenth-hand translation of the Bible means, interested individuals can study it and discuss it, and others needn’t be subjected to unsolicited exegesis.

Another major break from tradition is that missionary work and proselytizing are not duties, but rather taboos. No invitation may be extended, again shifting the burden of volition and responsibility to the aspirant. Even Mestre did not consider himself under any compulsion to continue running sessions:

Eu entrei em conferencia              I entered into conference

Para deixar de ensinar.                 To stop teaching

A Vigem Mae me disse:               The Virgin Mother told me:

Ninguem nao pode obrigar.            No-one can be obligated

Another difference, however, in my experience is that Daime works. You might go to regular church for five years and never have a mystical experience, and if you are sensitive enough to intuit something about Mary, for example, it might be completely at odds with what you have been lead to expect. If you do three sessions of Daime, on the other hand, and have not experienced some kind of apocalypse, you are either doing it wrong – or perhaps it’s just not your gig.

Some Daimistas frame the story differently, arguing that so potent a shamanic mind-opener would never have left the Amazon had it not been undercover in a Christian format. It was perhaps true that in the past shamanic techniques would not have leapfrogged the vast Christian landmass of Latin America, but I don’t think that the Christian pantheon is a disguise, and the more rigid “churchy” ceremony does not strike me as an obstacle.

Whilst some of the neo-shamanic ceremonies growing popular outside of the Amazon are well-conducted, others have little to do with the systems they are said to be based on. With such difficulties in translating shamanic cosmologies into Western contexts, and so much left behind in the jungle, many anthropologists have argued that neo-shamanism is a poor reflection at best, and a kind of reductionist, cultural imperialism at worst.

Daime is sometimes considered a formal or rule-heavy church, and there is some truth in that, especially compared to shamanic formats. Though we can be a bit curmudgeonly at times, and the ritual is not for everyone, Daime is certainly a robust vehicle for this powerful tea and some of the ideas which come with it.

If the spirits which work through Daime do have an international agenda, this vehicle must be a tank, strong enough to resist an unholy trinity of demons: capitalism, the legal system, and mechanistic thought. Each in its way breaks down organic wholes, into cash-transactions, by-laws, and constituent parts respectively.

Daime comes as a whole – a brew, a uniform, a ritual, a body of folklore and an expanding set of hymns, all inseparably bound together. That whole is wholesome in itself. Its parts may seem bizarre or backward when analyzed according to prejudices regarding what Christianity is, what drugs are for, and what you should wear and do when you take them. If you don’t like it, don’t drink it!

Daime is not really a defined set of beliefs, however. Daimistas tend to believe all kinds of things, profound and mundane, insightful, offensive, and contradictory, just like everyone else on the planet. Our hymns evoke not codes so much as qualities, the most common being atenção (attention) and firmeza (firmness or discipline). Many gringo daimistas warm to the idea in the hymns that “the centre is free”, but are less enthusiastic about the disciplina (discipline) and obrigações (obligations), such as regular meditation sessions, and the instruction to stand in your place and behave like everyone else. This discipline is, paradoxically as in Zen Buddhism, the complement of that very freedom. It is not imposed upon anyone, as everyone attends by their own volition, and if they stop coming, no-one is going to invite them back.

What is clearly defined, however, is the ritual. This technology works and it is still working, nearly a century after its birth, despite legal snags and media scandals, and despite ayahuasca being patented with bottles being sold online, drunk in front of the Simpsons and vomited up on Youtube.

Through discipline and attention, within the geometry of the ritual and under the effects of the sacrament, Daimistas cultivate discernment and self-mastery, hopefully becoming better able to understand and resist unwanted influences over our lives. Such influences might be our addictions, our obsessions, our beliefs and conditioning, or they might be other people’s ambitions, their hang-ups and strategies. They might also include unruly spirits hovering around us like mosquitoes, waiting for lapses of attention, watching for our defenses to yawn open so they can float in to feed, to irritate us, to infect our blood and reprogram our systems to fabricate pathogens.

Not all of us need believe in invisibles, but we do need to hold our ritual in high regard, as is fitting for a path towards individuation and autonomy. A reflex kick against any and all demands made over one’s conduct is as much an obstacle to free will as is knee-jerk capitulation to authority. Daime, as I understand it, is about freedom.

If you enjoyed this article then check out Rev. Nemu’s book Science RevealedScience Revealed considers the apocalypse in science as discovery. Biographies of scientists including Tesla and Einstein reveal how our most groundbreaking ideas result not from rational thinking and tapping on calculators, but from visions, dreams, feverish delirium and other non-rational revelations. The controversies that blow up when such insights clash with received wisdom are often resolved in a manner most unscientific, and this is just one of the ways in which what is simplistically called 'rationalism' often obscures truth in a fundamentally complex world.

[1] Apocalyptic obsessions and public nudity – the world of the early Quakers – Justin Meggitt (Jan 2011) Fortean Times 271

[2] Quoted in The Perenial Philosophy – Aldous Huxley – p. 33

[3] Reverend Nemu – Nemu’s End (London, 2009) footnote, p22,

[4] Compare with Neil Douglas-Klotz – Prayers of the Cosmos: Meditations on the Aramaic Words of Jesus (San Francisco, 1994)

[5] Elaine Pagels – The Gnostic Gospels (New York 1989) p. 105

[6] Hymnal of Antônio Gomes, no. 22

[7] Hymnal of Padrinho Sebastião, no. 93

[8] Quoted in Florestan J. Maia Neto – Contos da Lua Branca, (Rio Branco, 2003)

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