The Sacred Vine

Yukuna ritual ceramic vessel for yagé. The designs on this vase depict the light patterns seen under the effect of hallucinogens. Collector:R.E. Schultes, Mirití-Paraná River, Colombia. PM 54-21-30/7536
Siona ritual ceramic pot. The designs on this vase probably depict the light patterns seen under the effect of hallucinogens. Collector: Víctor W. von Hagen, Orito (Putumayo), Colombia. PM 48-17-30/7089
Quimbaya style double-spout vessel. The incised decorations with rounded ends closely resemble those made by the Tukano of the Amazon rainforest, thought to represent light patterns seen under the effects of hallucinogenic substances. Collector: H.O.
The yagé vine (Banisteriopsis sp.) collected by Victor W. von Hagen from the Kofan Indians. San Miguel River (Putumayo), Colombia. PM 48-17-30/7158
Kofan feather headdress. A headdress like this is used by shamans and their apprentices during special ceremonies when hallucinogenic drugs are taken. San Miguel River (Putumayo), Colombia. PM 48-17-30/7102
Kofan string of feathers used as ornament in ritual ceremonies. Collector: Victor W. von Hagen, San Miguel River (Putumayo), Colombia. PM 48-17-30/7103.1
Kofan string of feathers and whole birds used as ornament in ritual ceremonies. Collector: Victor W. von Hagen, San Miguel River (Putumayo), Colombia. PM 48-17-30/7104.3
Kofan wooden stool. Sitting stools are used by shamans and high-ranking individuals. They are a symbol of political and religious power. Collected by Victor W. von Hagen, San Miguel River (Putumayo), Colombia. PM 48-17-30/7146
Quimbaya-style human figure. The stool as a symbol of power is present from archaeological times as can be inferred from this piece. Collector: H.O. Wheeler, Department of Caldas near Manizales, Colombia. PM 92-29-30/55131
Kofan headdress. Essential in shamanic rituals, for shamans, feathers have particular energies and are to be used carefully and perform a ritual purpose. Collected by R.E. Schultes, Department of Putumayo, Colombia. PM 42-33-30/3769

The use of hallucinogenic plants in rituals was common in almost all of South America centuries before the arrival of the Spanish invaders. The plant species known to the Indians then were several and were considered sacred, just as today. The Natives ascribe to these the faculty of transporting the user into the world of spirits, and it is particularly the shamans who possess the knowledge to interpret the visions. That is why they prefer to call them “plants of knowledge”, and not hallucinogenic plants.

A powerful drink is made from a tree vine of the genus Banisteriopsis. To produce a more potent beverage, other hallucinogenic plants are sometimes added to the concoction, such as leafs of the genus Brugmansia —popularly called “borrachero”: the inebriant—and many others, to reach the desired effects. A snuff made from plants of the genera Anadenanthera or Virola is also common. It is blown directly into the nostrils to produce a quick and powerful effect.

But it is the vine of the botanical genus Banisteriopsis that has become legendary. Commonly known by its Quechua term ayahuasca in Ecuador and Peru, yagé in the Andes foothills and Putumayo, and caapi among the Tukano and other Amazonian groups, this beverage is a central component of Amazonian sacred ritual life, and also of the Andean highlands in Pre Hispanic times. Several hallucinatory stages are set in motion by the action of its psychotropic components over the central nervous system. Under its effect, the user sees shiny geometric designs known as phosphenes, and true hallucinations like monstrous anacondas, fiery jaguars, and other supernatural beings. The designs seen under the effect of the drug are commonly depicted in various objects made by the Indians, for example ceramic vases, dresses, façades of ceremonial houses, dancing batons, and facial painting.

In rituals where yagé is taken, shamans wear special headdresses of feathers, usually yellow, blue, green, and red. They also wear strands of feathers, beads, and rattles around the neck made from the seeds of trees, as well as feather crowns and necklaces made of jaguar and tapir teeth, sometimes carefully decorated with incisions. All these ornaments are indicative of power and protect the user from evil witchcraft sent by enemy shamans. Traditionally, the shamans sit on a low wooden stool that is a symbol of their predominant position in the community. The stool as a symbol of power was already present in pre-Hispanic times, as can be inferred from the ceramic figures recovered in archaeological excavations.