I have argued here, here, and here that the Upper Amazon is the center of a larger culture area uniquely characterized by the use of psychoactive plants and mushrooms in the practice of shamanism.

A number of people offered the counterexample of iboga (Tabernanthe iboga) in the Bwiti religion as a shamanic use of a hallucinogen outside this extended culture area.

Now, there is no question that psychoactive plants and fungi are widely used in indigenous cultures around the world. The question we are asking, however, is not whether they are used, but whether they are used by shamans for shamanizing. And that raises a number of considerations. Sometimes, of course, psychoactive plants or fungi are used outside any ceremonial context at all, for recreation, say, or to alleviate fatigue; sometimes they are used in a ceremonial context that is nonshamanic, as part of an initiation ritual, for example; and we find, surprisingly often, that they are used, not by shamans, but rather by people who are imitating shamans. We also have to look carefully at the reliability of the reports we have received about a psychoactive plant or fungus claimed to be used by shamans, and at its relevant physical effects, to see whether those effects are consistent with the demands of the shamanic performance.

The Bwiti religion, a revitalization movement in West-Central Africa, uses the hallucinogenic plant iboga in its initiatory rituals, primarily in order to contact the spirits of dead ancestors, and to provide the experience of passing over to the land of the dead. Massive amounts are taken during the initiation ceremony, and smaller amounts at other ceremonies thereafter, to keep awake and relax the body. At these lower doses, iboga does not act as a hallucinogen, but rather as a stimulant. Indeed, the original use of iboga was apparently to relieve fatigue while hunting and as an aphrodisiac. This ability to suppress fatigue is of value at Bwiti ceremonies other than initiation, where participants must dance all night; low doses of iboga lighten the body, they say, so that it can float through the ritual dances.

At initiation, however, the dose is from fifteen to fifty times the normal threshold dose, with the intention to “break open the head.” The purpose of this massive ingestion at the time of initiation is to see the bwiti. The term refers first to a superior deity and, at the same time, the ancestors in the realm of the dead, and the great deities of the Christian pantheon. Thus the plant offers revelations and power to the initiate; upon return to the normal state, the candidate is questioned by the initiated men to see whether the vision was sufficient for admission.

Anthropologist James Fernandez obtained reports from thirty-eight people regarding the content of these visions; eight people told him that they heard many voices, a great tumult, and recognized the voices of ancestors; thirteen said they heard and saw various ancestors, who walked with them and told them about the land of the dead; eight said that they walked or flew over a long, multicolored road, or over many rivers, which led them to the ancestors, who then took them to the great gods.

Two features of these interviews are striking. First, the accounts of the visions are clearly stereotyped; for example, the relatives who serve as guides through the visionary landscape are often white, clothed in white, or change to white, because white is the color of the dead. Second, nine people told Fernandez that they saw and heard nothing. Many members of Bwiti have undergone initiation more than once, presumably because of just such lack of significant visionary experiences. Subsequent initiations may involve larger doses, sometimes with untoward results.

There is no doubt that iboga, at sufficient dosages, acts as a hallucinogen, and that Bwiti initiation candidates seek visions of a specific type by ingesting it in massive quantities. But there seems to be very little about this use that has much to do with shamanizing.

At the same time, sorcerers are said to drink iboga before demanding information from the spirits, and iboga is said to be used in sorcery, like an invisible rifle, to cast spells. In addition, religious leaders reportedly eat iboga for an entire day before asking their ancestors to give them advice. I have no information about the level of such consumption, or whether the dose might be hallucinogenic, or what other ritual acts might be involved. Such uses might well qualify as shamanic.

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13 Responses to “Hallucinogens in Africa”

  1. Josh A. says:

    Hey there,

    I’ve been trying to find some contact info for you as I’d like to ask you a question if I may… the only email address I’ve found bounced though.


  2. Steve Beyer says:

    Josh –

    Leave a comment with your email address in it. I won’t publish the comment, so your email address will remain private, but I will know how to get in touch with you.

    – Steve

  3. bruce stevenson says:

    Dear Steve,

    I just discovered your blog in the course of Googling ayahuasca. I very much appreciated what you wrote about traditional shamanism and how shamans regard the tea as a spiritual X ray machine. (Having once studied anthropology which at that time tended to equate religion with the extension of kinship lines to the universe!) I was also very intrigued by your background in Tibetan Buddhism. I was a Buddhist monk myself a long time ago for about five years, and have only started to drink tea since last August. I find that it really seems to get down to the parts that nothing else ever has done – especially shame.

    The last time I drank it felt like falling back inside my heart, and realizing with a shock that there was no one there just the light that had always been ‘doing’ the seeing and hearing. Much of the time I drink in the Santo Dame and although the songs are often talking about “holding the light in your heart’ I often feel they lack a precise orientation such as Buddhism to help them realize the value of ‘taking the backwards step, of just dropping out of all that the ego ever took itself to be.

    Do you have any reflections on the crossover between ayahuasca and Buddhism that you might be prepared to share? So many people – I think – get stick on the road to Nirvana entangled in old hopes and fears – in my work as a psychotherapist my supervisor happens to have been trained as a nyingma lama – I once asked him what cessations means – and he said ‘no longer believing in father xmas’ Exactly what happened to me on tea!

    Your sin the dharma – and tea

    Bruce Stevenson

  4. Jean says:

    Traditional healers in Africa are using plants very much to shamanize; that is to spirit journey, get info, divine, heal etc…recently published on this in 2008. lots of future research potential there.
    The biggest concern-personal one- i have about buddhism and shamanism is the engagement of spirits; dharma and buddha taught not to get involved iwth that while in shamanism its difficult not to engage these “fields”

  5. Brian says:

    I live in Kenya. Having a yen for such things, I started to research the occurrence of hallucinogens in the region. I was amazed about the ancient use of Acacia Nilotica (the Egyptians’ Tree of Life, known as “ol’erbat” to the Maasai). It is found throughout the Nile basin, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Kenya. Choc full full of DMT, it’s the African Ayahuasca. There’s even a depiction of the tree, with someone smoking beside, in the pyramids.

    • Kasa says:

      Hello Brian,
      I am also from Kenya, and I have been deeply researching on psychoactives for well over a year now. Please email me at kasaroland@outlook.com

    • Njenga says:

      Traditional practices went underground in this day and age of Christianization and Islamization due to their blanket association with sorcery. They are also kept secret due to the potential for abuse. Some of these herbs are known to awaken abilities that can only be handled after a lengthy process of initiation…which is why you would be hard pressed to find readily available information about African herbs of this variety…how did your experience with acacia Nilotica go Brian?

  6. Brian says:

    Maasai herbalists consider the plant to be a ‘nerve stimulant’ (obviously in low doses) and I am currently seeking a local supply.

  7. Jean says:

    Its been a while since Ive been here and I have subsequent to the last post been formaly trained-initiated by my Sotho (Southern Bantu speaking) diviner in South Africa. What I have learnt is that the strong visionary plants in Africa are used to contact ones ancestors but what is more important is to keep oneself clean using ubulawu or what I call the subtle acting psychoactive plants. By vomitting with these medicines you keep your body clean and your intuition and sensitivity open-that is the best way to connect to ones ancestors according to my teacher as it is familiarizing oneself with those states like a constant flame, not an explosive flame that then extinguishes like the strong visionary plants, which can leave one shocked or disturbed. Strong visionary plants I believe have an important place on the path, to awaken one from slumber, yet many are relying on these tools to be the answer. Many are chasing visions-the grandiose, yet its much harder to do daily practice with ubulawu that takes discipline. By using ubualwu you feel healthy, whole and integrated and in this way you can be clear and have clear insights and thinking and to know what your ancestors are saying-whatever the ancestors are ultimately: higher intuitive self or real ancestral spirits, it makes sense to be clean and have a centered mind to listen to the messages.

  8. Jean says:

    Hi Steve its been a while. I am curious what you can share about the amazonian shamans beliefs regarding their ancestors and their role with the spirits of the plants-do they differentiate them?
    Personally I am doing much pondering on the nature of ourselves and the role of ancestral spirits? That is are there really ancestral spirits that our psyches intersect and have inklings from or is it just a metaphor of our own psyche or rather complex psychology and who we are as being a product of the past?

  9. Ayahuasca is really helpful if handled in a right way. Few months back one of my friend went through a retreat in Ecuador by the help of Dr. Christine Breese of Gaia sa grada retreat center and it worked really good for her.

  10. Zoe says:

    I am a writer, anthropologist, medical herbalist and teacher – now retired. Have been interested in hallucinogenic herbs since I discovered Terrence McKenna some five years ago, linked through from Rupert Sheldrake. Love them both! Want to know specifically anything you or anyone else on this site, know about such herbs in NW Tanzania used by the remote Maasai people (resistant to western enculturation and modernity). What are these herbs? How are they used? I know of Acacia polyacantha containing 0.004% DMT in leaf. Also, according to Cavallo there are four species of Psilocybe found in Africa, including cubensis and subcubensis. “These mushrooms grow on the dung of wild animals that serve as fertile organic-rich islands in places like the Serengeti plains and grasslands on the Maasai Steppe near Kondoa where migratory species of ungulates congregate seasonally”. I am mostly interested in anything that is very easy to obtain, like from trees – especially wattles. Any information or references appreciated.

  11. Zoe says:

    Steve, you have a fabulous collection of articles here, haven’t read many, only just discovered you! Could you please point me to any of yours on shamanism in Africa, specifically among the Maasai people. I am going to brows them now, picking what I think might be relevant to my writing. Cheers.

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