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Ayahuasca, Yagé and Harmaline
One wonders how peoples in primitive societies, with no knowledge of chemistry or physiology, ever hit upon a solution to the activation of an alkaloid by a monoamine oxidase inhibitor.
~ Richard Evans Schultes
HistoryA seventh psychedelic compound-cluster of importance includes three ringed molecules that chemists refer to as harmala alkaloids or beta-carbolines. To date, harmaline has been the most significant of these compounds tested.Its formal names are 4,9-dihydro-7-methoxy+1-methyl-3H-pyrido-[3,4-b] indole and 7-methoxy+1-methyl-3,4-dihydro-B-carboline. Harmaline and other harmala alkaloids, principle psychoactive substances in the “magical” beverage yagé, appear throughout the plant world. These substances are also present in cigarettes and even in the human pineal gland. Although these three-ringed compounds are widespread in the plant kingdom, their use as a psychedelic is known in only two specific, geographically separate traditions: (1) scraping of the bark of Banisteriopsisvines to make a drink in northwestern South America and (2) ingestion of the seeds of Syrian rue (Peganum harmala), a wild desert shrub, in the Near East. The Amazonian practices are better documented and colorfully illustrate purgative, healing, visual, telepathic, sexual, artistic and therapeutic potentials in psychedelics.
Harmala alkaloids are little known to the psychedelic subculture in the U.S., although they are legal and are stocked by a number of chemical supply houses. These indolic compounds should be of special psychedelic interest because of the highly specific character of the experiences they produce. Unfortunately, the literature on this compound-cluster and Banisteriopsis use in the Amazonian region is somewhat confusing: it describes several barks and leaves as well as a drink, which is made with several different recipes and is activated by at least three chemical compounds. Each form has a number of names, and sometimes the same name is used for both botanicals and beverages. In what follows, ayahuasca (EYE-a-wasca) refers to the psychedelic species of Banisteriopsis, yagé (yah-Hey) to the drink made from their outer bark and harmaline to the primary psychedelic compound in the bark.
from South American Explorers
Use of ayahuasca
for visionary experiences appears to be primeval, to judge from the richness of associated mythology. Pre-Columbian rock drawings are similar to contemporary ayahuasqueros’ paintings, which are said to represent yage visions (see page 127 of Plants of the Gods for a fine example of such a drawing on granite). However, the earliest known record of the practices associated with this botanical wasn’t set down until the middle of the nineteenth century.
The author was Richard Spruce, at one time a British schoolteacher, who was among the early explorers to make the perilous journey into the Amazon. Spruce almost died of dysentery and malaria but survived to become one of botany’s greatest collectors. In 1851, while exploring the upper Rio Negro of the Brazilian Amazon, he observed the use of yagé. In 1853, he came upon it twice in Peru. In his Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes, he described its sources, its preparation and its effects upon himself. Unfortunately, Spruce’s experience was characterized mainly by his getting sick.
Spruce’s Notes didn’t appear in print until 1908. (They were edited by Alfred Russel Wallace, who simultaneously with Darwin conceived the theory of evolution.) Spruce suspected that additives were responsible for the psychoactivity of this beverage, although he noted that Banisteriopsis by itself was considered mentally active. The samples he sent to England for chemical analysis weren’t located and assayed until more than a century later. Examined in 1966, they were still psychoactive.
The first widely read description of yagé practices was published in 1858 by Manuel Villavicencio, an Ecuadorian geographer. The experience made him feel he was “flying” to most marvelous places. Describing how natives responded, he reported that natives using this drink were able to foresee and answer accurately in difficult cases, be it to reply opportunely to ambassadors from other tribes in a question of war; to decipher plans of the enemy through the medium of this magic drink and take proper steps for attack and defense; to ascertain, when a relative is sick, what sorcerer has put on the hex; to carry out a friendly visit to other tribes; to welcome foreign travelers or, at least to make sure of the love of their womenfolk.
Several early explorers of northwestern South America, Martius, Crevaux, Orton, Koch-Grunberg and others also referred to ayahuasca, yagé and caapi, all citing a forest liana but offering little detail. In the early twentieth century, it was learned that the use of Banisteriopsis vines for healing, initiatory and shamanic rites extends to Peru and Bolivia.
In 1923, a film of Indian yagé ceremonies was shown at the annual meeting of the American Pharmaceutical Association. Other noteworthy publications drawing attention to the effects of this drink came from Rusby and White, who observed yagé practices in Bolivia in 1322, from the Russians Varnoff and Jezepezuk, who did Colombian fieldwork in 1925+1926, and from Morton, who in 1931 published Klug’s southern Colombian notes about Banisteriopsis inebrians.
Harmaline was first isolated in 1841, from Syrian rue. Its chemical structure was established in 1919, and it was first synthesized in 1927 by Richard Manske.
In 1923, Fischer assayed yagé isolating an alkaloid that he named telepathine. The same year, Barriga-Villalba and Albarracin isolated two alkaloids from this drink; they called these yajeine and yajeinine. In 1928, Lewin isolated banisterine. Shortly afterward, Wolfes, as well as Rumpf and Elger, asserted that all these alkaloids were identical: they were harmaline, an indole derivative earlier found in seeds and roots of Peganum harmala (Syrian rue). This conclusion was in doubt for some time, until Chen and Chen, working with clearly identified botanicals, demonstrated that all these substances were harmaline.
Hochstein and Paradies determined in 1357 that results from ingestion of yagé (without other botanical additives) came mainly from interaction of three molecules-harmaline, harmine and d+1,2,3,4-tetrahydroharmine. These findings have been accepted since then by investigators of this plant family.
Considerable interest in this psychoactive complex arose from the 1960’s fascination with LSD, and reports that ordinarily would have been restricted to the technical literature received fairly wide circulation. Psychedelic Review and The Psychedelic Reader, for instance, reprinted Richard Evans Schultes’ efforts to straighten out confusion about yagé. After collecting plants and searching out rubber sources on the Amazon for over a dozen years, Schultes gave his account of yage in lectures to the College of Pharmacy at the University of Texas and in Harvard Botanical Museum Leaflets. Republication in more popular periodicals, issued by Leary associates, spread the word about yagé and its use for divinatory and prophetic purposes. Schultes reported that the effects upon natives of the upper Rio Negro of Brazil,
“…with whom I have taken caapi many times, is pleasant, characterized amongst other strange effects by colored visual hallucinations. In excessive doses, it is said to bring on frighteningly nightmarish visions and a feeling of extremely reckless abandon, but consciousness is not lost nor is use of the limbs unduly affected.”
Heinz Kusel wrote about “Ayahuasca Drinkers among the Chama Indians” in Psychedelic Review #6 (1365). Having spent seven years trading in the Upper Amazon region, he observed that “Indians and low-class mestizos alike visit the ayahuasquero … when they are ailing, or think they need a general check-up, or want to make an important decision, or simply because they feel like it.” Kusel added that for a long while it “never crossed my mind to try the liana myself.” Eventually, he drank the brew three times. The first two instances were disappointing. He was glad, though, that he persisted.
“There were two very definite attractions, I enjoyed the unreality of a created world. The images were not casual, accidental or imperfect, but fully organized to the last detail of highly complex, consistent, yet forever changing designs. They were harmonized in color and had a slick, sensuous, polished finish. The other attraction of which I was very conscious at the time was an inexplicable sensation of intimacy with the visions. They were mine and concerned only me. I remembered an Indian telling me that whenever he drank ayahuasca, he had such beautiful visions that he used to put his hands over his eyes for fear somebody might steal them. I felt the same way.”
In 1963, the first book having yage as a subject appeared; it undoubtedly increased interest in this brew made from a “vine of the soul.” In The yagé Letters, the writers William Burroughs and Alien Ginsberg related their search for and use of this “magic” drink. A few anthropologists criticized their descriptions as misleading, and many readers were interested in the book as literature. Nonetheless, it has drawn continuing attention to this psychedelic drink.
Among those fascinated by native use of psychoactive plants was Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo. Naranjo traveled into the Amazon because he wanted to go where people ate people. “Naranjo took along two contemporary items: a polaroid camera and blotter paper, on which he had drawn stars, moon and sun to mark different dosages of LSD. When he met some natives, he conveyed the idea that he was a “medicine man” and distributed the blotters, inviting the natives to try the star-doses (those of lowest potency) while gazing at the night sky. Upon his return several days later, Naranjo learned that the natives liked his “medicine,” considering it very powerful. In exchange, they gave him ayahuasca, which influenced his subsequent practice of psychotherapy. He described his using harmaline and harmine in The Healing Journey (1967).
Since then, a number of people interested in making scientific observations or hoping to have a yagé experience have traveled to South America in search of ayahuasqueros. “Sean” roamed around the Amazon basin in a boat called “The Visionary Vine.” The brothers Dennis and Terence McKenna recounted an ayahuasca-psilocybe experience that lasted allegedly for a month in the jungle; their fascinating speculative volume, The Inner Landscape, called attention to yagé while considering topics of mind-body interactions.
Bruce Lamb’s Wizard of the Upper Amazon (1971) presented the romantic turn-of-the-century jungle story of Manuel Cordova-Rios, who became an ayahuasquero after being kidnapped at age fifteen by the Amahuaca Indians of Peru. This account details his use of Banisteriopsis in hunting, healing and telepathy, including group visions.
In 1972, Marlene Dobkin de Rios issued a study of yagé use in folk healing in an urban setting in Peru. A professor of anthropology at California State College at Fullerton, Dobkin de Rios observed that the supply of ayahuasca was becoming depleted in the jungles near Iquitos, site of her investigations, and that suppliers had to search much further for it. Although her fieldwork was done largely in a slum section of Iquitos, she saw ayahuasca being used throughout the region for religious and magic rituals (to receive a protective spirit or divine guidance from the plant spirit); for diagnosing and treating disease; for divination (to learn an enemy’s plans, for instance, or to check on a spouse’s fidelity); for “witchcraft” (to prevent harm caused by others’ malice or to cause harm to others); and for pleasure.
Her report and other shorter accounts increased worldwide awareness of yagé and indicate that some practices that have been associated with it are unlike those common to other psychedelics. For example, yagé is the only mind-enhancing concoction that has been absolutely taboo on occasion for women. When a trumpet signalled the start of the puberty rites for the Yurupari, female members of the tribe fled into the jungle to avoid a death penalty for their seeing the ceremony or even the drink. In other regions, it was thought that if a woman set eyes on prepared caapi, the vine would be rendered ineffective. More generally, women were allowed to drink yagé but were discouraged if they wished to become adepts, which frequently involved a year of regularly drinking ayahuasca infusions spiked with tobacco juice.
Yurupari puberty rites also differed from the psychedelic rites of other cultures in that adolescents whipped furiously at each other after drinking brown, bitter ayahuasca elixirs until their bodies were bloody with welts. A recent account of such a ceremony, which is little practiced now, can be found in Plants of the Gods p. (123+124). Interest in harmala compounds arose as well from reports that among the Jivaro headhunting tribes of the upper Amazon and the Cashinahua of Peru, the “dream” contents of yagé experiences were commonly regarded as constituting more important guiding principles than ordinary consciousness.
Andrew Weil is among those who feel that “No drug plant has excited more interest than yagé”. In The Marriage of the Sun and the Moon, he remembers being offered this “tiger drug” (so called because it was said to inspire visions of big jungle cats) in the Haight-Ashbury in 1967. Later, he tried to find a more authentic experience in Colombia. Each time he got near it, the result was a “fully debased yagé ritual”. He concluded that “Today, alcoholism is replacing the ceremonial use of safer drugs” and that “traditional peoples do not automatically form good relationships with psychoactive plants”. In the August 1973 High Times, Weil reports on a more recent Colombian trip when he was successful in finding a healer using ayahuasca. His “yagé-The Vine that Speaks” details with ten color photographs how it is prepared and used in treating illnesses.
Botanical understanding of what causes yagé effects has been, as Schultes put it, more “fraught with confusion” than is the case with other psychedelics. Schultes and Hofmann described these confusions almost apologetically in 1973, writing that “It is difficult for the nonbotanist to understand our lack of understanding of specific delimitations of drug plants, the use of which has been known for more than a century”.
Richard Spruce had set identification efforts off to a bad start by suggesting that yagés peculiar qualities were from the roots of “painted caapi.” This was a vine he called Haemadictyon amazonicum, of which no known other example exists than what he collected (it’s since been assigned to the Prestonia genus). Although he said that the Indians considered a Banisteriopsis vine an essential ingredient, his misdirection was repeated by others. The Colombian chemist Fischer, isolating the first alkaloid in yagé placed it in the Aristolochia genus. Banisteriopsis caapi first became known as a main source in 1327, after French pharmacologists Perrot and Hamet reviewed this psychoactive complex in terms of its botany and chemistry.
Essential to any yagé concoction is bark from specific Banisteriopsis vines–generally B. caapi, often B. inebrians and sometimes B. quitensis. B. caapi climbs up adjacent tropical forest trees and keeps climbing until its flowers are exposed to direct sunlight. It is so greedy for sunlight that sometimes it eventually kills supporting trees. It is occasionally started in greenhouses, where it has been known to take over the roof, leaving only shadow below. The flowers are small and pink, much like apple blossoms. At its base, the vine often has a diameter of six inches.
Schultes and Hofmann report that South American natives…
“often have special names for diverse “kinds” of Ayahuasca, although the botanist frequently finds them all representative of the same species. It is usually difficult to understand the aboriginal method of classification: some may be age forms; others may come from different parts of the liana; still others may be ecological forms growing under varying conditions of soil, shade, moisture, etc. The natives assert that these “kinds” have a variety of effects, and it is conceivable that they may actually have different chemical compositions. This possibility is one of the least investigated yet most significant aspects in the study of Ayahuasca.”
Natives distinguish at least six different botanical sources of ayahuasca. Two that are said to be the most powerful haven’t yet been described botanically or chemically.
Ayahuasqueros often include at least one additive to yagé infusions to enhance states of mind brought about by B. caapi, inebrians and quitensis. In Colombia, Datura and closely related species of Brugmansia are sometimes used; they undoubtedly give this drink added kick but are potentially dangerous. Tobacco is often used.
Other additives are listed by Schultes and Hofmann:
“Maloiletia tamaquarina and a species of Tabermaemontana of the Apocynaceae; the acanthaceous Teliostachya lanceolata var. crispa or Toe Negra; Calathea veitchiana of the Maranthaceae; the amaranthaceous Alternanthera lehmannii and a species of Iresine; several ferns including Lygodium venustum and Lamariopsis japurensis; Phrygylanthus eugenioides of the Mistletoe family; the mint Ocimum micranthum; a species of the sedge genus Cyperus; several cacti including species of Opuntia and Epiphyllum; and a member of the genus Clusia of the Guttiferae.”
The main additives are Psychotria carthaginensis, P. viridis, Tetrapterys methystica and Banisteriopsis rusbyana. Leaves and stems of the last, known as oco-yage or chagrapanga, don’t contain the b-carboline alkaloids produced by B. caapi and inebrians; instead, they have a large amount of N,N-DMT, 5-methoxy-N,N-DMT, 5-hydroxy-N,N-DMT and N-B-methyltetrahydro B -carboline. The other added species contain DMT-type compounds, rendered orally active by the harmala compounds in ayahuasca.
Harmala alkaloids (beta-carbolines) are manufactured by plants within at least eight botanical families. Except for the Banisteriopsis vines, only a small bushy shrub known as Syrian or Asian rue (Peganum harmala) is thought to have been used traditionally for psychoactive effects. Known from antiquity, this species belongs to the Zygophyllaceae family rather than to the Malpighiaceae family to which the Banisteriopsis species belong. Preferring desert habitats, it grows some three feet high, has leaves cut into long, narrow segments and produces small, white flowers.
Although Syrian rue was native only to Central Asia and Syria, it now grows wild along the Mediterranean coasts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East. It is esteemed from Asia Minor across to India and northeast Tibet. Its bitter, brown seeds contain beta-carbolines identical to those in psychedelic Banisteriopsis vines and in about the same proportions.
Syrian rue has been employed in folk medicine as well as being used for dyes in Turkish and Persian rugs. Among Egyptians and a few other peoples, the dried seeds have long been associated with preparation of a love potion (despite the nauseating effects common to most harmala alkaloids). David Flattery has recently brought more attention to this shrub in a published Ph.D. dissertation entitled Haoma. He theorizes, almost entirely on linguistic grounds, that P. harmala was the “Haoma or “Soma” of ancient Persia and India.
Syrian rue is the only botanical source of harmala alkaloids other than ayahuasca that is known to have been used as a mild-alterer. It has lately been linked to the “Drink of the Immortals” once known as “Soma“. During the 1960s, harmala alkaloids were identified in a number of plants, including tobacco. About 10 to 20 mcg. harman and norharman have been detected in smoke from a single cigarette, or forty to a hundred times that found in the tobacco leaf.
(See “Nicotiana An Hallucinogen?” by Oscar Janiger and Marlene Dobkin de Rios in the July-September 1376 of Economic Botany for a review of these studies.)
This compound-cluster exhibits an extra ring attached to its basic indolic chemical structure. The resulting three-ring beta-carboline system has an unusually placed methoxy (CH3O) group, “in marked contrast to the orientation found in serotonin and the related tryptamines” (Shulgin).
By gentle oxidation, harmaline is converted into harmine, the other main psychoactive constituent in the botanicals. Upon reduction, harmaline yields d+1,2,3,4-tetrahydroharmine, a third but minor contributor.
Since these molecules have been isolated and synthesized, a number of other B-carboline alkaloids have been developed in the laboratory. Michael Valentine Smith describes the preparation of several analogues in his Psychedelic Chemistry. The 6- or l0-methoxy isomer of harmaline, sometimes known as l0-methoxy-harmalan, is about half again as potent by weight as harmaline.
At least one harmala alkaloid is present in the pineal gland of both humans and several animals. This compound is more abundant in the pineal glands of highly advanced yogis, according to some reports, which has led to speculation that its presence may impart power to the “third eye” in mid-forehead, where the pineal gland lies.
Discussing harmaline’s effectiveness in psychotherapy, Naranjo has written:
“I want to mention that this alkaloid is of special interest because of its close resemblance to substances derived from the pineal gland of mammals. In particular, l0-methoxy-harmaline, which may be obtained in vitro from the incubation of serotonin in pineal tissue, resembles harmaline in its subjective effects and is of greater activity than the latter. This suggests that harmaline (differing from l0-methoxy-harmaline only in the position of the methoxy group) may derive its activity from the mimicry of a metabolite normally involved in the control of states of consciousness.”
At a 1977 conference in San Francisco, Bo Holmstedt, a pioneer in research on harmala alkaloids from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, suggested that similar substrates and enzymes are in the pineal gland for endogenous production of DMT, 5-methoxy-DMT and the N-methyl analogues of harmine and harmaline. Brimblecombe and Finder, in their Hallucinogenic Agents (p. 116), discuss possible metabolism routes by which adrenoglomerulotropine and malatonin, normally present in the pineal body, may be turned into 6-methoxy-harmalan, So far, however, no evidence has conclusively shown that this conversion actually takes place in the human brain.
As with DMT, theories have again been advanced that schizophrenia is associated with increased production of harmala alkaloids. As Shulgin has remarked, consensus among researchers now is that this approach is “a red herring”.
Jeremy Bigwood found in the course of experimentation that DMT could be made orally active in doses of 100 mg. when combined with a sub-threshold dose of harmaline. Many reports from natives indicate that the addition of certain leaves (almost all containing DMT-like substances) makes the yagé visions “brighter.” Investigators almost unanimously agree that significant potentiation occurs when beta-carbolines and short-acting tryptamines are mixed together.
Although beta-carbolines are essential to the psychoactivity of yagé, the tryptamines are most important in producing the mental effects. The harmala alkaloids enable DMT-like substances to become active and prod synergistic effects. Schultes and Hofmann, commenting on the expanded length and vividness of results when DMT-like compounds are included, indicate how important in terms of color the presence of monoamine oxidase inhibitors can be: “Whereas visions with the basic drink are seen usually in blue, purple, or gray, those induced when the tryptaminic additives are used may be brightly colored in reds and yellows.
In the preparation of yagé, appropriate Banisteriopsis vines are generally cut into 6 to 8-inch pieces. The bark is then pounded or shaved off and either soaked in cold water or boiled for hours, sometimes a full day, usually with one or more admixtures. Boiling produces a brown or reddish-brown concoction that’s bitter and salty; boiled ayahuasca is said to cause nausea to a greater degree than the cold-water infusion. The usual course is to drink a couple of cupfuls, which produce an experience lasting three or four hours. Then, if desired, users drink more yagé.
Harmaline, when taken orally by itself, takes a comparatively long time to prompt psychological effects, often about two hours. Potions containing both DMT-like and harmala alkaloids, however, take effect rapidly. Spruce noticed responses from yagé within two minutes, an unusually quick onset from oral ingestion; others have observed initial effects taking hold within five minutes. Bigwood has contrasted the slow onset of harmaline alone against his ayahuasca experiences and his harmaline/DMT experiences: the latter were “almost identical as far as the time course and visual effect – they both came on quite rapidly.
Andrew Weil found that yagé’s taste did not cause as much gagging as peyote. However, the nausea in his case was worse:
“Vomiting is the first stage of the effect of yagé. It is not fun, and I say that as someone who likes to vomit in certain circumstances. I held on to a tree and brought up a small quantity of intensely bitter liquid with wrenching spasms. yagé tastes much worse on the way up than on the way down–so bad that it left me shuddering for a few seconds ….
“After a few minutes I had to answer another call of nature. The second action of yage is to purge the intestine. The effect is spectacular and painless. When I went back in, Luis asked me if it had been “a good purge.” I told him yes. Eventually, he and Jorge also made trips to the jungle.”
At first, Weil could swallow only two cups of yagé, though he was encouraged to take more. Eventually he did get another one down. He reported “Luis wanted me to drink more of his brew, but I could not.” This element of the yagé experience has been treated prominently in accounts from other mind-explorers as well.
In some tribes, stringent dietary procedures are practiced for up to two weeks before ingestion of ayahuasca, although many natives use it weekly. Peruvians getting yagé from healers commonly abstain from salt, lard, sweets and sometimes sex a day before and a day after taking an infusion. Such procedures help to minimize nausea, but they certainly don’t eliminate it. Weil was advised not to eat anything before noon; he hadn’t eaten since breakfast the evening he received yagé from Luis.
yagé concoctions are often referred to as a purge, and ayahuasca has gained a reputation as “the purgative vine.” Harmaline and harmine by themselves also bring about violent diarrhea and vomiting in many users. Naranjo found that about half of his harmaline subjects felt nausea, which he attributed largely to “blocking attempts” to avoid a full psychedelic experience.
Nausea, purges and retching are closely associated with use of beta-carbolines, but physical coordination is otherwise hardly impaired. In most accounts, it actually seems enhanced.
When Weil met him, Luis had been preparing yagé weekly for curing sessions over a long time, having first drunk it twenty-two years earlier. Weil described Luis as youthful for his age, a typical comment about ayahuasqueros, who have been noted for possessing much energy and unusually smooth skin. Weil records much physical movement on the part of this old man:
“In the course of the evening Luis drank nine cups of the stuff. Each one sent him to the jungle for further purging, but his animated chanting continued without pause. With each cup he became more energetic. Finally, Jorge helped him into a heavy necklace of jaguar teeth and a fantastic headress of parrot feathers. Then, palm-leaf rattles in his hands, Luis began a stomping, turning dance around the house, all the while uttering the sounds of yagé .. . . Luis went out to vomit too but I could barely hear a break in his chanting ….
He would dance our the door and we would hear him chanting and singing off into the jungle, circling the house, disappearing into the night. Then he would burst through the doorway in an explosion of feathers and palm leaves, growling like a jaguar.”
Aside from the vomiting that frequently accompanies every cupful of the drink, the body’s main physical responses include slight increases in blood pressure and heart rate (unless Datura, Brugmansia or other scopolamine containing substances have been added, which make the yagé more potentially dangerous). Some users feel a buzzing in the ears, pricking of the skin at the extremities, giddiness, profuse sweating or tremors. When Schultes first tried yagé, he had severe diarrhea the following day.
After taking large amounts of yagé natives often become frenzied, displaying agitation for ten or fifteen minutes. More generally, users exhibit lassitude and drowsiness and become withdrawn.
Harmaline is about twice as toxic as harmine in most lab animals; the half-lethal dose (half the animals die) of harmine in dogs and mice is about 200 mg./kg. of body weight. No human deaths have been reported from these compounds. Weil writes:
“Luis gives yagé to anyone who wants it, to young and old, men and women, sick and well. He says it cannot hurt anyone, and though he gives it to pregnant women, young children and people with high fevers, no one suffers bad effects. Victor and he are both in good shape after taking enormous doses for years…. And many of the patients say they are helped. I talked with people in Mayoyoque who say that visits to Luis cured them of various ills.”
Yagé is known as “the great medicine” in northwestern South America, where it is used for healing much like peyote. Through its assumed intercession with spiritual entities, yagé reveals the proper remedies or brings about healing spiritually or magically. In contrast to Western notions of medicine, yagé is believed to be curative whether the patient or the healer swallows it. “Nature cures the disease,” someone said, summing up these processes, “while the healer amuses the patient.” Others speak of ayahuasqueros “singing the illness away.”
In Visionary Vine, Marlene Dobkin de Rios outlined many of the procedures used in “curing sessions.” In Wizard of the Upper Amazon, Manuel Cordova-Rios gave another remarkable account: he continued to use ayahuasca medicinally when he returned to city life, seven years after his capture. “My cures,” he comments, “for human ailments such as diabetes, hepatitis, leukemia, cancer, paralysis, rheumatism, epilepsy, suicidal depression and the dysfunctions of various internal organs have been called miraculous by some people.”
Ayahuasca, yagé and harmala alkaloids prompt a wide range of experiences, which reflect dosage to a considerable degree and the influence of psychoactive additives. Descriptions vary from no psychoactive effects to effects rivaling those of LSD or psilocybin.
Four or five half-foot pieces of bark from a medium-sized vine (an inch or two inches of thickness) are often provided per person in yage brews. Estimates of dosages presented here are rough, being generally based on experiences in the field rather than in the laboratory.
Villalba reported in 1925 that he saw natives use about 20 cm. of the stem, which Hoffer and Osmond estimated as containing about 0.5 gm. of beta-carboline alkaloids. “Under its influence,” they wrote, “they jumped, screamed, and ran about wildly but continued to take it for days to maintain the state of excitation.” They add that Villalba tried the concentrated liquid and had no reaction, whereupon he concluded that other white people who had seen visions of the future, of things lost, and visions of distances and illusions, were exaggerating the effect. It is not unusual for people who have not seen, to be skeptical of the claims of others who have.
Michael Valentine Smith suggests in Psychedelic Chemistry that harmaline and harmine are both active at about 200 mg. oral dosage. Jeremy Bigwood disputes this, saying that to get effective potentiation from the hydrochloride salts an adult should swallow at least 300 mg. harmaline or 500 mg. harmine. Shulgin puts the “effective dose range” of harmaline at 70 to 100 mg. intravenously or 300 to 400 mg. orally.
The pamphlet Legal Highs, published by High Times and Level Press, lists chemical houses that supply harmala alkaloids and states as its rough estimate that the equivalent of 100 mg. harmine is “50 mg harmaline, 35 mg tetrahydraharman, 25 mg harmolol or harmol, and 4 mg methoxyharmalan.”
A dark, quiet environment is generally preferrable. Pupil dilation is rare, but sharpened night vision is common, as Emboden observes:
“It has been demonstrated to the astonishment of foreigners that an Indian may run through a forest at night under the influence of the drug and not stumble or lose his footing. The vision is remarkably clear and the footing sure.”
Ayahuasqueros describe long sequences of dream-like imagery; geometrical patterns; manifestations of spirit helpers, demons and deities; and tigers, birds and reptiles. They see dark-skinned men and women. They experience sensations of flying and of their own death; they see events at a great distance. Many users claim that these visions appear in a spiritually significant progression. Luis told Weil that the stages become increasingly complex with practice and greater dosages: “First come patterns, then plants, then animals, then fantastic architecture and cities. If you are fortunate, you see jaguars.” Some claim that the ultimate experience is seeing into the eyes of the “veiled lady”.
A few Americans who have experienced yagé in the Amazon concur with these views. One young woman, for example, said she “got only plants” until her fourth session. “Amazonian TV”, as ayahuasca ingestion has been termed, is usually described as beautiful; even the lower-level phantasmagoria is regarded as basically enjoyable. However, more significant experiences are possible. Heinz Kusel was told that the “aesthetic climax of the spectacle” was a vision of “the goddess with concealed eyes (la diosa con los ojos vendados)”, who dwelt inside the twining tropical vine.” The first two times he tried ayahuasca, Kusel was disappointed. The third time he wasn’t:
“The color scheme became a harmony of dark browns and greens. Naked dancers appeared turning slowly in spiral movements. Spots of brassy lights played on their bodies which gave them the texture of polished stones. Their faces were inclined and hidden in deep shadows. Their coming into existence in the center of the vision coincided with the rhythm of Nolorbe’s song, and they advanced forward and to the sides, turning slowly. I longed to see their faces. At last the whole field of vision was taken up by a single dancer with inclined face covered by a raised arm. As my desire to see the face became unendurable, it appeared suddenly in full close-up with closed eyes. I know that when the extraordinary face opened them, I experienced a satisfaction of a kind I had never known.”
The harmala alkaloids, with and without accompanying DMT-like compounds, have fascinated psychologists and others because of the unusually wide incidence of particular images. Outstanding in this regard are visions of tigers, snakes and naked women (often Negro); the color blue seems to predominate when ayahuasca is taken without additives. Although this imagery is not universal, it is common, sometimes frightening, and is closely aligned to the archetypal symbolism that so fascinated Carl Jung.
When Naranjo gave harmaline and harmine in psychotherapeutic situations to city dwellers (people who had never been in the jungle), he observed that much of the imagery that was aroused had to do with snakes, panthers, jaguars and other large felines. The recurrence of such images led him to speculate about the action of harmaline on “the collective unconscious.”
The anthropologist Michael Harner is one of those claiming to have seen what the Indians are talking about, after having doubted throughout his year of study among the Jivaros of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Four years later, in 1961, he returned and was “turned on” to yagé by another tribe. Marlene Dobkin de Rios recounts his experience:
“For several hours after drinking the brew, Harner found himself, although awake, in a world literally beyond his wildest dreams. He met bird-headed people as well as dragon-like creatures who explained that they were the true gods of this world. He enlisted the services of other spirit helpers in attempting to fly through the far reaches of the Galaxy. He found himself transported into a trance where the supernatural seemed natural and realized that anthropologists, including himself, had profoundly underestimated the importance of the drug in affecting native ideology ….”
Michael Harner and Claudio Naranjo made much of the “constancy” of both yagé and harmaline visions in separate essays in Hallucinogens and Shamanism. An essentially similar case has been put forth in Furst’s Flesh of the Gods, where Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff writes of the Tukano Indians of the western Amazon region of Colombia. These were the aboriginals Spruce first observed using yagé Koch-Grunberg described their yagé practices again half a century later:
“According to what the Indians tell me, everything appears to be larger and more beautiful than it is in reality. The house appears immense and splendrous. A host of people is seen, especially women The erotic appears to play a major role in this intoxication. Huge multicolored snakes wind themselves around the house posts. All colors are very brilliant…”
The Tukanos still live in relative isolation. What caught the eye of Reichel-Dolmatoff was their use of representational paintings on house fronts, rattles and bark loincloths. The natives claimed that these designs were observed during yagé inebriation. During 1966-67 a number of adult males who frequently partook of this brew were offered sheets of paper and a choice of twelve colored pencils. “The men showed great interest in and concentration on this task and spent from one to two hours finishing each drawing.”
The colors they selected spontaneously “were exclusively red, yellow, and blue, on very few occasions adding a shade of hazel brown.” Certain design elements were regularly repeated. Here’s Reichel-Dolmatoffs listing of the Top Twenty:
1. Male organ
2. Female organ
3. Fertilized uterus
4. Uterus as passage
5. Drops of semen
8. Group of phratries
9. Line of descent
12. Box of ornaments
13. Milky Way
16. Vegetal growth
20. Cigar holder
“Garden of Eden” and other imagery is more specific to yagé than any image pattern is to LSD, mescaline or psilocybin. The near-universality of many yagé images suggests that the beta-carbolines are a good deal closer than other psychedelics to being a “pure element” in a Periodical Table of Consciousness. These beta-carbolines, however, cannot be entirely “pure,” as they are accompanied by many negative side-effects.
Ingestion of yagé often results in an enhancement of auditory acuity. To minimize distractions, urban users generally gather in the jungle at night, from about 8:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. rather than in someone’s home. In Wizard of the Upper Amazon, Manuel Cordova-Rios described his frequent ayahuasca visions but also stressed the improvement in his sense of hearing, which enlarged his understanding of jungle ways.
As with peyote, Banisteriopsis vines are known for “announcing” themselves. Kusel writes:
“Once a Campa Indian in my boat, when we were drifting far from shore, was “called” by ayahuasca, followed the “call,” and later emerged from the forest with a sampling of the fairly rare liana that today is cultivated by the ayahuasquero in secret spots. I myself certainly did not hear the call.”
More typically, B-carbolines-like B-phenethlamines and psilocybian molecules seem to inspire chants and singing. Here are comments from Weil about the two times he took yagé with Luis:
“From time to time he would pick up a harmonica and turn into a one-man band. He would dance out the door and we would hear him chanting and singing off into the jungle ….
Victor and Luis sang and danced all night, periodically going out into the jungle to sing under the trees, then returning to the candle-lit house. Victor congratulated Luis on having made a really strong batch.”
Weil’s High Times article is subtitled “The Vine That Speaks.” He substantiates the title in this way:
“A yagero’s chant is his most precious possession. It comes to him in dreams and stays with him all his life. Until a man receives his chant from the spirit of the vine, he cannot conduct ceremonies. Luis’s chant was strangely hypnotic, a mixture of sounds, tunes and words. There were Spanish words, Ingano words and words of a sort I had never heard before. I asked him what one particular word meant. “It is yagé speaking,” he answered. “It doesn’t mean; it is yagé speaking.”
After Cordova-Rios became familiar with ayahuasca, he discovered that he could “direct”, or at least greatly influence, resulting visions by songs and chants. This technique has been much used by native curanderos. Among some tribes, it is even said that “without singing, only visions of snakes appear”.
Extrasensory perception is fairly prominent in the use of most psychedelics. Banisteriopsis vines, throughout their history, have had an unusually high incidence of such effects, as reflected in the name given the first alkaloid isolated (“telepathine”). The reports persist, despite the skepticism of many investigators. Schultes and Hofmann dismiss these claims as “unfounded” in their Botany and Chemistry of Hallucinogens (1373). In the Journal of Psychoactive [previously Psychedelic] Drugs, William Burroughs expressed reservations about yagé having any exceptional telepathic properties:
“Medicine men use it to potentiate their powers, to locate lost objects and that kind of thing. But I’m not impressed much by their performance. Everybody has telepathic experiences all the time. These things are not rare. It’s just an integral part of life. The faculty is probably increased to some extent by any consciousness-expanding drug.”
Flying and long-distance perceptions seem to be characteristic of the telepathic element. Villavicencio, in the first published report about yagé use, wrote, “As for myself, I can say for a fact that when I’ve taken ayahuasca I’ve experienced dizziness, then an aerial journey in which I recall perceiving the most gorgeous views, great cities, lofty towers, beautiful parks, and other extremely attractive objects. Many natives claim not only to see but to travel great distances under the influence of yagé, like users of peyote and San Pedro. ‘Though he had been no farther from his home than Mayoyoque, writes Weil, “Luis says that under yagé he has left his body and visited distant towns and cities, including Florencia and Bogota.”
Writing of Banisteriopsis caapi practices observed among the Cashinahua of Peru, the anthropologist Kenneth Kensinger reported that “informants have described hallucinations about places far removed, both geographically and from their own experience.Several, who have never been to or seen pictures of Pucallpa, the large town at the Ucayali River terminus of the Central Highway, have described their visits under the influence of ayahuasca to the town with sufficient detail for me to be able to recognize specific shops and sights.”
Citing an even more convincing instance, Kensinger adds: “On the day following one ayahuasca party six of nine men informed me of seeing the death of my chai, ‘my mother’s father.’ This occurred two days before I was informed by radio of his death.” A similar experience was reported by Manuel Cordova-Rios. After the most intense effects he’d ever had on yagé he had seen his mother dying. He returned to the home of his youth. There he learned that she had died as he had “seen” it at just that time.
The previous edition of this book mentioned (a) the recurring motif of naked women in yagé visions, (b) flagellation in rites-of-passage ceremonies, (c) increased sexual activity in mice given harmala alkaloids and (d) Near Eastern use of Syrian rue as an aphrodisiac.
Jeremy Bigwood took exception:
“I’d suggest that you try active doses of these alkaloids and attempt sex before writing this section. Or take it from me, harmine, harmaline, ayahuasca, DMT/harmaline, etc. are anaphrodisiacs.”
The sexual component is thus an ambiguous question at present. Schultes and Hofmann, while disputing claims of extrasensory perception, discuss erotic usage of both yagé and Syrian rue in their many writings. Naranjo was impressed by the archtypal sexual imagery evoked by harmaline. Here are additional comments from William Emboden:
“In addition to acting upon the central nervous system, harmine and the related harmaline and harmalol have produced sexual responses in rats under laboratory conditions. Five milligrams of harmine alone produces measurable sexual activity. This is doubtless one of the reasons why ayahuasca is used in coming of age ceremonies which sometimes involve flagellation and may be heavy in sexual content. Marlene [Dobkin] Rios, who has worked among the Peruvian Amazon tribes, mentioned in her extensive writings on the various uses of ayahuasca that one of the reasons for using the drug is “for pleasurable or aphrodisiacal effects.” This was observed earlier by Wiffen in 1915 and Reinburg in 1921. Such phenomena, if not completely ignored, are usually dispatched to an obscure anthropological journal or only obliquely noted. The psychoerotic effects of ayahuasca are well worth more careful documentation and attention.”
In Chapter Nine of Visionary Vine, Marlene Dobkin de Rios says that many of the patients at jungle ayahuasca sessions go (in the language of Western medicine) “for psychiatric help.” She calls “drug healing in the Peruvian jungle . . . . a very old and honored tradition of dealing with psychological problems that predates Freudian analysis by centuries.” Much of the treatment she enumerates is nonverbal. In some places, natives refer to Banisteriopsis as “the vine of death“–meaning that it causes one to “die,” and then be “born anew”.
Some seven years after William Burroughs went out looking for yagé (on his first buy he got twenty pounds of it), Allen Ginsberg followed his path to South America. Ginsberg soon had a number of yagé sessions. One produced the feeling that he was all covered with snakes; later he felt “like a snake vomiting out the universe.” Ginsberg soon learned what was meant by “vine of death.” He wrote, “the whole fucking Cosmos broke loose around me, I think the strongest and worst I’ve ever had.” He had fears that he might lose his mind. An epilogue, written by Ginsberg in 1963, puts the experience in perspective:
“Self deciphers this correspondence thus: the vision of ministering angels my fellow man and woman first wholly glimpsed while the Curandero gently crooned human in Ayahuasca trance-state 1960 was prophetic of transfiguration of self consciousness from homeless mind sensation of eternal fright to incarnate body feeling present bliss now actualized 1963.”
Transforming experiences interested Naranjo when he gave out harmaline. More than other psychedelics, he found this one to be nonverbal, with mechanisms of psyche-interaction much less clear. Yet:
“Of the group of thirty subjects who were our volunteers, fifteen experienced some therapeutic benefit from their harmaline session, and ten showed remarkable improvement or symptomatic change comparable only to that which might be expected from intensive psychotherapy.”
Naranjo summed up the quality of harmaline-aided psychotherapy in this way:
“For one sharing the Jungian point of view, it would be natural to think of the artificial elicitation of archetypal experience as something that could facilitate personality integration, and therefore psychological healing. Yet the observation of the psychotherapeutic results of the harmaline experience was not the outcome of any deliberate attempt to test the Jungian hypothesis. These results came as a dramatic surprise …even before the recurrence of images became apparent ….
It would be hard to offer a simple explanation for the instances of improvement brought about by the harmaline experience. Such improvement usually occurred spontaneously, without necessarily entailing insight into the particulars of the patient’s life and conflicts. As in all cases of successful deep therapy, it did involve greater acceptance by the patients of their feelings and impulses and a sense of proximity to their self. Statements like these, however, are not very explicit, and only case histories can adequately illustrate ….
The more successful experiences with harmaline have a characteristic spontaneity, and these pose little problem to the therapist. In contrast to experiences of self-exploration at the interpersonal level, it is probably in the nature of an archetypal experience to develop naturally from within, so that th most a person’s ego can do is stand by watchfully. Yet such experiences of easy and spontaneous unfoldment of images and psychological events occur only in about every other person, so that it is the business of the psychotherapist to induce them when they will not naturally occur ….”
Naranjo brought up the issue of intervention because he sees this as a permanent dilemma in the guidance of harmaline sessions: the balance between stimulation and non-interference. He explains:
“Little intervention may well leave a patient to his own inertia and result in an unproductive session; on the other hand, uncalled-for intervention may disrupt the organic development which is characteristic of the more successful harmaline experiences. As a consequence, more tact is needed in conducting these sessions than any other ….”
Apart from Naranjo’s The Healing Journey, little has been published about the psychiatric use of harmala alkaloids. Lewin tried harmaline clinically on mental patients in the late 1920s; he wrote a monograph about Banisteriopsis caapi as he lay dying. There was no further study until 1957, when Pennes and Hoch gave harmine to hospitalized subjects, mostly schizophrenic. Their results presented in the American Journal of Psychiatry indicated that harmaline acted like LSD or mescaline, though the mental effects seemed more clouded. (Hoffer and Osmond describe and criticize this work on pages 476-477 of The Hallucinogens.)
While profiling harmaline for the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, Shulgin made an intriguing remark: in psychotherapeutic studies, he wrote, it “has often been used in conjunction with other psychedelic drugs (e.g., MDA, LSD, and mescaline) in which the effects of the latter appear greatly prolonged, and qualitatively modified.” He did not elaborate.
Once Banisteriopsis caapi and B. inebrians take root, they are quite hardy and can attain great heights. Frequently cultivated in South America, they have been grown only rarely in U.S. greenhouses. After the vine has been cut into half-foot to eight-inch pieces, it is pounded to break open the bark, or the bark is scraped off. The bark is then put in water to soak or it is simmered for up to twenty-four hours. When it is boiled, the bark has a light chocolate or reddish color with a slight greenish tinge. Villalba noted in 1925 that standing yagé changed “to a topaz color with a bluish green fluorescence”. After six or seven experiences of the cold water infusion, as prepared in the Colombian Amazon, Schultes judged the effects as differing little from the boiled concoction used in the Putumayo. The intoxication is longer in setting in, and much more of the drink must be taken, but the symptoms of the intoxication and their intensity seem to me to be very similar.
These vines have now become relatively rare in their native jungle growing area, so genuine yagé is rarely seen. (Several people who have searched for it report that a decent ayahuasquero is hard to find these days; many have given in to “alcohol abuse”.
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