1648-1768 – The First Written Reports of Ayahuasca Made by Jesuit Missionaries
The earliest written account of ayahuasca appears to be a description brought to the world by Jesuit missionaries. Historian Jose Chantre y Herrera compiled a report in the eighteenth century based upon accounts from missionaries from 1648 – 1698; it included a description of an ayahuasca ceremony.
He reported ayahuasca being used by a shaman in the Marañón region in Peru for the purposes of summoning spirits. The shaman would lead the ceremony by singing in a large communal hut. He would then drink ayahuasca to invite the spirit’s presence. Ayahuasca’s initial effects were described as including a rise in aggression, which would eventually subside and leave the shaman in a coma-like trance, during which it was believed his soul would depart from his body and the invited spirit would speak through him. After the whole ordeal ends, the shaman would reveal what he had learned to others in his community.
Chantre y Herrera painted a very negative picture of ayahuasca. As Luna and White point out, the “object of his history was to present the Jesuit mission in the most heroic light”. Indigenous people are described as liars and sorcerers. The account reads:
“With things in their place in this manner, the diviner sits down among the men and, in full view of everyone, pours a small amount of the prepared brew into a small glass and takes one or two sips in silent. In a short time, ayaguasca begins to take effect, making the diviner grow warm, and produces the usual chant with the following words… “Let the divination begin!” The whole chorus responds in the same way… and the same thing happens with the invocation: the people continually repeat all the words of the diviner … “Listen, listen … Listen well, listen well … Come soon, come soon … I won’t do what you tell me, I won’t do what you tell me.” Everyone is then astonished and full of fear and panic when they hear these words, thinking that the devil is angry. But the diviner, who knows very well that there is no reason to be frightened, lifts his hand in a knowing way and drinks again, saying … “he doesn’t want to hear, he doesn’t want to hear.” The people look at each other, frightened and trembling. The liar repeats the same words many times, and a murmuring rises from the people, who speak in low voices, afraid of what will happen. When the sorcerer sees the assembled people possessed and fixed in fear, he screams and says … “You will hear, you will hear.” And, with this, the people are consoled and filled with high hopes.” Jose Chantre y Herrera (2016 )
In 1737, the second recorded report of ayahuasca was made by one of the Jesuit missionaries, priest Pablo Maroni, along the Napo River and its tributary the Aguarico River. He described “an intoxicating potion ingested for divinatory and other purposes and called ayahuasca, which deprives one of his senses and, at times, of his life.” In 1755 Jesuit Franz Xavier Veigl, the head of a Jesuit mission to Quito, ventured into the Amazon and traveled down the Napo River to Maynas, Peru, where the Napo meets the Amazon. There he encountered “the so-called ayahuasca, which is a bitter reed, or more specifically, a liana. It serves for mystification and bewitchment.” Interestingly, and unlike Chantre y Herrera, Father Veigl seemed to find value in ayahuasca. He did not perceive it as a threatening entity, as would be expected from a Jesuit missionary. As a matter of fact, he deemed B. caapi “a plant worth mentioning” even though it was used “only for superstitious practices and witchcraft.”
Maroni and Veigl’s texts also point out that the Quechua name “ayawaska” was used three centuries ago, as far east as the point where the Napo joins the Amazon River.
Still, all of these records of Jesuit missionaries were originally written in Latin and sent only to Rome, so their audience wasn’t very large and they were promptly lost in the archives. For this reason, ayahuasca didn’t receive interest for the entire subsequent century.
During the 1850s, the use of ayahuasca spread throughout Amazonian groups during the notorious Rubber Tapping industries. This provided the grounds from which one of the most popular religious approaches to ayahuasca was created. In the 1930s, a a rubber tapper of African descent named Mestre Irineu learned from indigenous specialists in the 1930s to create a hybrid ayahuasca church that mixed European spiritism with African religious ideas and Amazonian shamanism.
The apparently diabolical effects of ayahuasca that the early Jesuits described in the 1600s were analyzed some 400 years later, at the turn of the twenty-first century, by neuroscientists studying ayahuasca visions and brain function, and psychiatrists analyzing the long-term effects of ayahuasca on mental health. The release of scientific evidence that suggests ayahuasca is not a diabolical potion but that it is a potential medicine coincided with the global popularization of the brew in the 1990s by people such as Terence McKenna. By the 2015 groups started widely advertising ayahuasca ceremonies in the United States despite its illegality. Today, the brew continues to expand around the globe with retreat services offered across South America, North America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere.
Jose Chantre Herrera 2016 . “First Known Printed Reference to Ayahuasca (1675).” In Luna and White Ayahuasca Reader: Encounters with the Amazon’s Sacred Vine. London: Synergistic Press
Hudson, Jesse (2011). Ayahuasca and Globalization. Colorado.edu Website.
Williams, Justin (2015). Investigating a Century-Long Hole in History: The Untold Story of Ayahuasca From 1755-1865. Colorado.edu Website.