May 24, 2012
By G. William Barnard
For the last several years, I have been researching the Santo Daime tradition, a relatively new Brazilian religion that draws upon folk Catholicism, West African religions, the Kardecist Spiritist tradition, neo-esoteric modes of discourse, and indigenous "vegetalista" practices and assumptions. The heart of the Santo Daime tradition is the sacramental ingestion of a psychoactive tea called the "Daime" (known in other contexts as ayahuasca, hosca, or yagé), which is said to open doors into spiritual realms, enabling Daimistas to commune in powerfully convincing ways with various spiritual beings.
During the summer of 2010, I spent two months in Céu do Mapiá, an intentional "ecovillage" of more than 1,000 people located deep in the Amazon rainforest, which is the institutional center of the most well-known lineage of the Santo Daime. For the next stage of my research, I wanted to explore how this tradition that began deep in the Amazon rainforest has adapted itself to more urban settings. (The Santo Daime tradition was officially recognized by the Brazilian government in 1986 and since then has opened numerous churches throughout Brazil.) Therefore, with the invaluable assistance of the individual research grant that I received from the AAR, I flew into Rio de Janeiro on October 28, 2011. Not long afterwards I made my way to Lumiar, a small town about four hours north of Rio, where I spent several weeks participating in Santo Daime rituals with members of Mãe D’Agua ("Mother of the Water," a name that refers to Oshun, the West African goddess of fresh water and beauty). The community is led by Baixinha, a tiny, cross-eyed, highly revered, seventy-five-year-old Santo Daime and Umbanda matriarch.
I was warmly welcomed into Mãe D’Agua. During my time there I took part in numerous Santo Daime rituals. One of the first took place in early November. The all-night dance ("trabalho"), called "Os Finados," was held in honor of the deceased members of the Santo Daime tradition. The dance took place in their large, open-air church, with at least two hundred members of the community in attendance. During this ten-hour ceremony, women gathered on one side of the church and men on the other, each wearing a distinctive uniform ("fardado"). Then, after drinking the bitter brown brew of the Daime (it was served several times during the night), we danced back and forth in predetermined steps, arranged in disciplined lines that had previously been painted on the floor of the church, circling the central altar ("mesa") that, like the church in Mapiá, had the shape of a six-pointed star.
While dancing to music played by several guitarists and two extremely talented flautists, and while vigorously shaking our maracas (hand-held rattles), we sang the often hauntingly beautiful hymns of the four closest disciples of Mestre Ireneu, the seven-foot-tall Afro-Brazilian spiritual healer and poet who founded the Santo Daime tradition in the early part of the twentieth century. Daimistas believe that these hymns were "received" by his disciples from the "astral world"; they had been memorized by many of the participants.
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