"In the Master's House": History, Discourse, and Ritual in Acre, Brazil

Meyer, Matthew, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Bashkow, Ira, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

The “Brazilian ayahuasca religions,” as they have become known since the publication of the important collection edited by Labate and Araújo (2002), are a congeries of associations that emerged, in the mid‐to‐late 20th century, from the Brazilian experience of the Amazonian rubber boom. Since the 1970s, these groups have become increasingly present in nationwide Brazilian and international discourse as some of them expanded beyond Amazonia. Discourse about these groups has focused on two thematically linked notions. The foremost of these is the ingestion of ayahuasca, a psychoactive “tea” decocted from two native plants that is widely used in indigenous and emigrant contexts in the Amazon, and which is strongly marked by its cultural and geographic origins. The other notion, particularly prominent in the case of Santo Daime (the most widely known of these groups), is the New Age and countercultural aspects of the groups’ identity.

The focus of this dissertation is on Alto Santo, the name by which the first Daimista center in Brazil is known. It is based on 15 months of fieldwork at Alto Santo and in the region between 2002 and 2007. Alto Santo is located in a rural neighborhood on the periphery of Rio Branco, capital of Acre state, which borders Peru and Bolivia in the westernmost portion of Amazonian Brazil. Daimistas at Alto Santo regard the adoption of Santo Daime by countercultural, usually middle‐class southern Brazilians as a usurpation that upset the web of local negotiations that were navigated by the center’s founder, Raimundo Irineu Serra, from the beginning of his work with ayahuasca in the 1930s to his death in 1971. Of especial concern to them, given the Daimista emphasis on moral reform and civic participation, is the danger of ayahuasca’s being profaned by association with countercultural drugs. (Ayahuasca contains DMT, a “scheduled” substance under international law.)

The dissertation’s first three chapters analyze the process by which ayahuasca, rebaptized as “Daime,” was symbolically brought from the forest to the town, made fitting for “civilized” use, and incorporated within Irineu Serra’s “house” (casa). This, I argue, was a novel event in the history of emigrant ayahuasca use in Amazonia. As the dissertation shows, the successful establishment of the “Master’s House” involved multiple mediations by Irineu Serra, as a Brazilian “big man,” of “his” people’s relations with local officials, international esoteric associations, the Brazilian nation at large, and the (Christianized) spiritual powers of the forest. I view this process primarily through the lens of Roberto Da Matta’s model of a Brazilian “ritual system,” in which the hierarchically‐ordered casa is the preeminent form of Brazilian sociality, complemented by the depersonalized space of the “street” (rua) and the transcendent “other world” (outro mundo).

The final two chapters treat Alto Santo ritual, showing how it is framed by discourse about the advent of Irineu Serra’s Doutrina (“doctrine”) in Acrean society. The feitio (“making”) process that produces Daime is analyzed for its material significance to Alto Santo practice, as well as for what it contributes discursively, as the conduit by which the forest’s power is translated to the worship hall for use in Daimista “spiritual work.” This spiritual work, conceived in accordance with esotericist ideas about intentionality and vibrational communication at a distance, is most visible in the collective performance of corpuses of hymns on Catholic feast days. The final chapter examines discourse about the hymns, using the concept of “entextualization” in showing how it, together with the formal features of the hymns themselves, supports Daimista ritual experience of hymn‐singing as a confrontation, in the presence of divine law, with one’s moral misadventures.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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