The Santo Daime Church, founded in Brazil but now spreading all over the world, is best known for its use of the psychoactive plant drug ayahuasca. The mix used by the Santo Daime consists of the bark of a vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, which contains harmine, and leaves of a plant called Psychotria viridis which contains dimethyl tryptamine (DMT). Also known as yage, 'vine of the soul' and caapi, ayahuasca can produce visions and insights and, in Santo Daime services, these are integrated into a collective religious experience. The doctrine of the Santo Daime includes beliefs from both Christianity and nature religions, and the services, at least in Brazil, are strongly community affairs.
The Santo Daime church was founded in 1930 by Raimundo Irineu Serra, a Brazilian rubber-tapper. Ireneu, born in Brazil in 1902, reached adulthood at the time of the great Brazilian rubber boom. He migrated in 1922, along with many other young Brazilians, from the north-eastern drought-ridden region of Brazil to the Amazonian rainforest where the rubber trade was thriving. He spent six years in the new town of Xapuri, in Acre, working as a rubber tapper.
While learning the rubber trade, he was also serving a spiritual apprenticeship with the Peruvian Indians with whom he worked. Ireneu had been brought up a Catholic, but he now came into contact with spiritism (religion based on the spirits of plants and animals) and native Indian beliefs. He tried the sacred ayahuasca tea and was shown the correct way to prepare it. He was taught methods for journeying into ecstatic states, and learnt how to integrate the visions and knowledge he brought back from those journeys.
Ireneu's first significant vision was of a Divine Lady, sitting in the moon, who told him he must retreat into the forest for eight days with only ayahuasca to drink and only macacheira (boiled manioc) to eat. During this retreat Ireneu had visions of the 'Forest Queen' who told him that he must start a new faith in which the ayahuasca drink (to be called 'daime', meaning 'give me' in Portuguese) would be central. She would show him how the Daime was to be used as a sacrament and guide him through the initial hostilities he and his followers would face.
Ireneu started his new church in Rio Branco, the capital of Acre, in 1930. He was still receiving visions from the Forest Queen and he also channelled hymns. Collections of these hymns became the church's guiding principle.
Ireneu died in 1971, but his work was continued by one of his principal followers, Sebastiao Mota de Melo (who became known as Padrinho Sebastiao). He held Daime works with his family and friends until his death in 1990. Leadership passed to his son, Padrinho Alfredo Gregorio de Melo who remains President of the organisation and its main spiritual leader.
The basis of the Santo Daime belief system is Christian, and the hundred or so hymns which Ireneu received in his lifetime are considered to be a Third Testament of the Gospel of Christ. Santo Daime theology is, however, highly syncretic and includes beliefs from other religions in Brazil. The members feel a strong connection with the rainforest. Nature in general is revered, and is personified by the Forest Queen, or Virgin Mary.
The spirit of the ayahuasca vine is the teacher. The vine gives 'strength' and the leaf gives 'light', or the capacity for visions. These notions are often evident in the words of Ireneu's hymns: "daime forca, daime amor, daime luz" ("give me strength, give me love, give me light"). The Church believes that the visions produced by the Daime are not 'hallucinations' which have nothing to do with reality but are, in fact, the truest guide to reality. The tea is also seen as perfectly balanced with the vine representing masculinity and the leaf signifying the feminine. The importance of the Daime to the doctrine of the Church cannot be overemphasised. A Santo Daime leader, Alex Polari de Alverga, states that "the Santo Daime Doctrine evolved directly out of communion with this living sacrament". (1) The Church itself describes its doctrine as being centred around the consecration of the Daime "within the context of the Christian culture and symbolism and taking advantage of the American Indian, Brazilian, African and eastern transcendental wisdom". (2)
Each Santo Daime community is headed by a Padrinho or Madrinha who act as guides to initiates. They stress, however, that the primary spiritual relationship is with the Daime and that it is Daime that should act as the main guide and teacher. When initiates encounter problems they should work directly on them themselves with the knowledge given to them by the Daime, although they can also consult their Padrinho.
Initiates are members who have participated in a number of Santo Daime works and are ready to affirm that Daime is their sacrament, guide and Master and that it has helped them to get in touch with their own 'divine light'. The initiate becomes part of the community of the Santo Daime.
By 1975 the Church had grown sufficiently that a spiritual community was set up on the outskirts of Rio Branco, composed of forty-five families. The aim was to achieve deeper harmony and union among Daime members through living and working together. The community found it increasingly difficult to survive as rubber tappers due to the destruction of the rainforest around them, and Padrinho Sebastiao began to have visions in which the rainforest called to them to leave the city and settle back in the forest. Eventually, in 1981, they settled in Ceu de Mapia (Heaven of Mapia), where they still live today. The community's home was safeguarded in 1989 by a decision by the Brazilian government to create a National Forest in the rainforest surrounding Ceu de Mapia, and they form the centre of a half million acre protected reserve. There are now about 700 people there, living an ecologically-aware lifestyle.
The strong sense of community and history among Santo Daime worshippers in Brazil shows that it is a collective religious experience occurring in the services, rather than an isolated individual journey. The Santo Daime also creates a strong form of community in other parts of the world. People may not necessarily live together as in Mapia, but the regular meetings enhance a bond between members. The Madrinha or Padrinha, has an obligation to give advice and care for the members of the church. This is done from a sense of calling rather than for financial gain. Members do contribute financially, not only to support their own group, but also the leaders, members and the church in Brazil. Leaders from Brazil regularly visit churches in other places. This way a sense of world-wide community is fostered.
There are now many Santo Daime Churches in Brazil and branches of the Church have also been established in Japan, the USA, Spain, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy and France.
Since the administrative reforms of May 1997 the Churches are associated to the Head Church in Ceu de Mapia through a structure called Cefluris. Cefluris has a staff responsible for the Church's organisation and operation, and a doctrinary council overseeing the spiritual and ritual practices. The staff is presided over by Padrinho Alfredo Gregoria de Melo and the Doctrinary Council is presided over by Padrinho Waldete Mota de Melo.
Association is through a fixed monthly contribution from each initiate which covers the production and local distribution of the sacrament. This replaces the direct contribution for each spiritual work and supplies of Daime. The Church states that: "this change is to improve the administrative and doctrinary development...and on the other side taking away the monetary reference from our sacrament".
In Brazil, CONFEN (the Federal Drug Council) studied the Santo Daime, following long-running stories in Brazil's populist press claiming that the church brainwashed followers, exploited the doctrine for touristic purposes and exported ayahuasca illegally.
An enquiry in 1987 concluded that Daime had a positive influence on the community and encouraged social harmony and integration. The report warned against looking at the pharmacological aspect of the Church in isolation and without its religious, social and cultural context.
In June 1992 CONFEN stated definitively that the use of the ayahuasca drink was legal. CONFEN representatives had visited Ceu de Mapia and taken part in rituals. They found no evidence of harmful effects or potential for abuse of ayahuasca.
So far no country other than Brazil has officially permitted the use of ayahuasca for religious purposes and DMT is prohibited all over the world apart from those exceptions in Brazil. This has caused remarkably few problems, however. In Holland, the police actually raided a service and took away a sample. But instead of being charged with being in possession of an illicit drug, they were prosecuted under the Public Health Act because the tea contained too many bacteria! In Italy, Germany and Japan the police have also taken samples for analysis but no charges were brought. Followers have said that this is because they are 'protected' but an alternative explanation could be that the tea contains too little DMT to be show up in the tests- psychoactive effects can be produced by harmine alone, although the visual effects are not strong.
A further sign of the increasing official legitimisation of Santo Daime came with the Earth Summit Conference in Rio in June 1992. An inter-religious vigil was held with all of the major religions of the world represented. Santo Daime held an all-night ritual in which 600 people participated and at which Daime was served.
(1) Richman G.D. "The Santo Daime Doctrine" Shaman's Drum Winter 1990-91 pp30-41
(2) Santo Daime Official Homepage: http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/5949/
Beynon R. "The Use of Ayahuasca in Brazil by the Santo Daime Religion"
Friends of the Amazon
© Michelle Pauli, October 1997, updated June 1999
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