Ayahuasca is Quechua word for “spirit vine” or “vine of the souls”; aya means “spirit” while huasca or waska means “vine”. The vine is considered to be the “spirit” of ayahuasca, the gatekeeper and guide to the otherworldly realms. It is a “medicine” made of psychoactive plants. The name ‘ayahuasca’ specifically refers to a botanical decoction that contains Banisteriopsis caapi. The brew was first described academically in the early 1950s by Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, who found it employed for divinatory and healing purposes by the native peoples of the Amazonian Colombia.
How indigenous peoples discovered the synergistic properties of the ayahuasca brew remains unknown.
In the 16th century, Christian missionaries from Spain and Portugal first encountered indigenous peoples using ayahuasca in South America; their earliest reports described it as the work of the devil.
Religious use in Brazil was legalized after two official inquiries into the tea in the mid-1980s, which concluded that ayahuasca is not a recreational drug and has valid spiritual uses.
Ayahuasca is used largely as a religious sacrament. Users of ayahuasca in non-traditional contexts often align themselves with the philosophies and cosmologies associated with ayahuasca shamanism, as practiced among indigenous peoples like the Urarina of Peruvian Amazonia.
While non-native users know of the spiritual applications of ayahuasca, a less well-known traditional usage focuses on the medicinal properties of ayahuasca. When used for its medicinal purposes ayahuasca affects the human consciousness for less than six hours beginning half an hour after consumption, and peaking after two hours. The remedy also has cardiovascular effects, moderately increasing both heart rate and diastolic blood pressure. The psychedelic effects of ayahuasca include visual and auditory stimulation, the mixing of sensory modaltities, and psychological introspection that may lead to great elation, fear, or illumination. Its purgative properties are important (known as la purga or “the purge”). The intense vomiting and occasional diarrhea it induces can clear the body of worms and other tropical parasites, and harmala alkaloids themselves have been shown to be anthelmintic.
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