The Collective Ecstasy
by Gerlado Reichel-Dolmatoff
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"Amazonian Cosmos" by Gerlado Reichel-Dolmatoff, pp 171-175 F2270.2 D4 R413
The Collective Ecstasy
The fundamental basis of Desana religion is the interpretation of visions
induced by the use of hallucinogenic drugs. The use of these drugs is
very widespread in the Northwest Amazon and has been observed by many
ethnologists, although detailed descriptions of the diverse aspects of this
complex are still lacking. Considerable work has been done by botanists who
have identified several plant species used by the Indians, but little is
known about the pharmacological, psychological and cultural aspects;
the last particularly promises to be a fertile field for further research.
The principal hallucinogenic drug is prepared from Banisteriopsis caapi, a
vine commonly called yaj (Lengua Geral) or gahp! (Desana). Short pieces of
the stem are pounded in a wooden mortar, and cold water is then added. After
straining, it is taken in small doses on the occasion of ceremonial
gatherings. Several times a year, the kum# or the pay, assisted by several
other men, prepare the infusion and invite others to participate in the
ceremony. [The informant says that different vines are distinguished, and
that they are classified by colors: yellow, reddish, and brownish red.]
The liquid is kept in a special pottery vessel (gahp! sor") that has a
sacred character. The vessel is manufactured by an old woman who, before
firing it, polishes the surface with a very hard, smooth stone of a yellowish
color, called uarar!-ye. The stone represents a fertilizing phallus that
"keeps on modeling" the vessel, itself a uterine symbol. The vessel is
globular, with a short cylindrical base and low neck. Like other ceremonial
objects, this vessel also consists of three parts: the "yellow" base, the
"red" body and the "blue" upper part through which communication is
established with the supernatural world when the liquid is served. The body
of the vessel is painted in red, white and yellow, repeating the designs that
adorned the mythical Snake-Canoe, especially with its prow. "... the part
that leads, that carries, that explores. As mankind arrived in this world in
the Snake-Canoe, so will it now undertake the journey of the return. The
point of pamur!-gahs!ru explored, and now it is the yaj that explores,"
says the informant.
The participants are exclusively men of some thirty years or older, and they
sit in the center of the maloca. A man fills a small cup (gahp! koa) with
the drink and, carrying it toward the others, says rapidly: ma-ma-ma-ma-ma!
(Take!). While they are drinking, they must smoke tobacco because this is
said to help to produce the desired hallucinations.
In the rear part of the maloca are the women who, although they are not
allowed to drink yaj, play an important part in the ceremony. The mend rink
in silence until, after a while, the first effects are produced by the drug.
Now the kum# filfills his principal role. In a loud voice, the kum# says: "I
am the central person (dyag; do re mahs the "person seated"), I am the
only who is left. Therefore I am going to teach you." The kum# means to say
that the old traditions are in danger and that he is the only one who can
still teach the religious bases. Then, step by step, the kum# explains and
interprets the development of the hallucinations and the diverse visual and
acoustical sensations that accompany them. Speaking in a hypnotic tone, with
great precision and insistence, he explains what the men see and feel. The
hallucination has several phases, and during the first the person feels and
hears a violent current of air, as if a strong wind were pulling him along;
the kum# explains that it is the ascent to the Milky Way; in order to arrive
at their final destination, they must leave this world and first find the
current of communication with the winds. Now, following the Milky Way, the
men descend to Ahpikondi . They now feel enclosed by a floating sheets that
move and flutter, as if they were in a room whose walls consist of cloth;
yellow lights appear that become stronger and stronger, until they give the
impression of a mass of luminous bodies in movement. [According to our
informant, the colors vary notably with each phase of the hallucination.]
The second phase is the arrival at Ahpikondi . Now shapes and figures of
different colors appear that move and change in size, and the kum# explains
that these shapes are pamur!-gahsir#, Va!-mash in the "houses of the hills,"
Emk"ri-mahs, Diro -mahs, and the Daughter of the Sun. The sound of the
stick-rattle that the kum# shakes becomes the voice of the Sun. Vih"-mahs
appears, together with the "ancient eagles," and the Daughter of Arac#, and
beyond the blue sphere the men can see the yellow light of the Sun. At the
same time they hear the buzz of the hummingbird; they see it suck honey; they
see the squirrel, the cock-of-the-rock, all the animals and beings of myth
During the first phase the men talk and ask the kum# about their visions,
and he interrogates each one about what he is experiencing, always
explaining, pointing out details, and interpreting them. Some men, usually
the younger ones, still do not have well-defined hallucinations but only see
lights and feel nauseated: in that case they withdraw, followed by the
deprecating laughter of the women whose function consists in animating the
men. The women sing: "Drink, drink! This is why we were born. Drink, drink!
Because this is our task. By drinking they will know all of the traditions of
their fathers. By drinking, they will be brave. We will help them!"
After about half an hour the effect passes. Music can still be heard in the
distance, but the forms, colors and movements have disappeared. The men
gather together and continue drinking chicha.
Taking yaj is called gahp! ir!-iny ri (from iri/to drink, iny ri/to
see), and is interpreted as a return to the cosmic uterus, to the "mine,"
to the source of all things. It has the objective of reaffirming religious
faith, through the personal experience of seeing with one's own eyes the
origin of the Universe and of mankind, together with all the supernatural
beings. On awakening from the trance, the individual remains convinced of
the truth of the religious teachings. He has seen everything; he has seen
Va!-mahs and the Daughter of the Sun, he has heard her voice; he has seen
the Snake-Canoe float through the rivers, and he has seen the first men
spring from it. The voice of the kum# has guided him and has explained
everything to him in detail.
During the ceremony of yaj, the presence of a kumu, or another person of
wide esoteric knowledge, is certainly of the highest importance. Speaking or
singing continually, explaining each phase of the hallucinations, which he
has experienced on many previous occasions, the kum# imprints his
interpretation of the sensations in such a manner that a new hallucinatory
experience is readily founded on a preestablished basis. The power of
conviction of these hallucinations must be truly extraordinary in these
Of course, two factors are combined here: trance, or the separation of the
"soul" and its mystical union with the divinity, and, simultaneously, an
accelleration of time. "To take yaj is do die," the informant says, and, as
a matter of fact, the "return to the uterus" is considered the anticipation
of death. The person not only passes from one cosmic plane to another but
enters a fourth dimension, the temporal one, the one that permits the
establishment of divine contact. This accelleration of time is consciously
produced and does not occur exclusively with the drinking of yaj. As we
have already seen, a similar mechanism operates in the "dialogues"
(veretam#ri) or confessions in which the kum# offers catharsis by the same
return to the uterus.