Talking Shamanism and Black Magic with Ayahuasca Researcher Evgenia Fotiou

By Daniel Oberhaus on December 8, 2018

Ayahuasca is a potent psychedelic brew used ritualistically for centuries by indigenous people in the Amazon. The bitter medicine takes its name from a vine native to the Amazon rainforest that also endows the drink with its psychoactive properties. When the ayahuasca vine is combined with Psychotria virdis leaves, the chemical interaction allows users to experience the dimethyltryptamine (DMT) naturally found in the leaves, which would otherwise be broken down by stomach acids. Unfortunately, the same chemical that allows humans to experience the DMT also tends to cause users to “purge” the contents of their stomach after taking ayahuasca.

An ayahuasca brew is traditionally made and administered by a shaman, who also guides practitioners on the hours-long psychedelic journey. This may involve icaros, a type of healing song, cleansing with a leaf raddle called a chakpa, and other rituals. Ayahuasca was once an exclusively indigenous phenomenon, but in recent years there has been a huge influx of tourists from around the world traveling to South America to try the potent psychedelic. Although ayahuasca is used throughout the Amazon, Iquitos is a city in northern Peru that's accessible only by boat and plane, and it has become known as the ayahuasca capital of the world.

Evgenia Fotiou is a cultural anthropologist at Kent State University who spent the last 15 years studying ayahuasca rituals and tourism in Peru. In 2003, she spent a year and a half living in Iquitos, where she participated in nearly 100 ayahuasca ceremonies and interviewed dozens of shamans and tourists about their experiences with the plant medicine.

PRØHBTD spoke with Fotiou about her research on ayahuasca tourism, what it means for an academic to study sorcery and whether it’s possible for Westerners to ethically participate in Peruvian ayahuasca ceremonies.

Had you tried ayahuasca before you began researching it?

I didn't have any experience with psychedelics, only cannabis. I had been reading about indigenous religions, and a lot of them used plants to access the divine directly. One of the most impressive plants in this was ayahuasca because it seems that from the literature I was really impressed with its ability to induce these direct experiences with spirits and other experiences with very radically different realities. At least that's how it was described. I was interested in that.

Initially I didn't even know much about it. Ayahuasca tourism was just starting when I went down. My initial goal was to work with an indigenous community, [so] I spent some time there on my first trip. I realized that there was very little interest in these ceremonies. There was one shaman in the community I visited who was almost 90 years old. He wasn't training anyone. Most of the people I spoke to in the community said they didn't believe in it or they weren't interested. It was a little disappointing. During the same trip, I visited Iquitos and noticed there was a lot of interest, a lot of foreigners looking to have these experiences. I think at that point there were a handful of centers offering these experiences. That seemed to be the most understudied aspect of this so that's how I decided to do my research on that.

Why study ayahuasca in Peru as opposed to the Brazilian Amazon?

I think it had to do with preference. I spoke a little Spanish, so I took more classes before going down. I didn't have any Portuguese knowledge. I was thinking either Colombia or Peru, and Colombia, I had concerns about safety. Peru had problems with safety in the '90s and '80s because of the [revolutionary group] Shining Path, but Peru was safer at the point when I went down, I spoke the language, and I had read a little about the Western Amazon. Brazil wasn't even a thought.

How many times did you visit Peru?

I lived there for a year and a half between 2003 and 2005 and then I went back in 2007. Now I’ve been going every other year or so for one or two months. Once you start having a full-time job that's pretty much what I can do.

What’s doing that research like? Do you partner with a particular lodge or shaman?

I wanted to get a broad sense of the different contexts in which people have these experiences. I didn't want to partner with one lodge or one shaman because that would give me a limited point of view. I was based in Iquitos, I had an apartment there, and over time I met people and told them what I was doing.

I spent some time at a couple of lodges. I would go back and forth between the lodges where I had contacts and also drink with some of the shamans who were in Iquitos. There are shamans who have ceremonies in a room in their house. People would know about them through word of mouth, and they'd get a lot of traffic this way. Eventually I did a few ceremonies with Western or “gringo” shamans who had apprenticed with local shamans and they were doing their own ceremonies at someone's house usually. It was mostly word of mouth how I talked to these people. 

Were the shamans receptive to your research?

They were receptive because I was participating. This was something I thought about a lot. My professors were a little uncomfortable about discussing my participation in the ceremonies, but I felt that it would've been a huge obstacle if I were just sitting there taking notes. I don't think people would've trusted me, and they wouldn't have respected me. Ayahuasca is a difficult experience. To them, the fact that I was participating and going through this whole really challenging thing to learn, they took that as a sign that I was respecting the tradition, was serious about it.

It takes some time to build the rapport, but I think eventually people really respected that. I remember they'd tell me, especially [this] one shaman, loved to tell this story of a psychologist who took ayahuasca with him many times. Eventually he said that he didn't have much experience, it didn't have any effect. In the end, he told them that he didn't believe in God. So the shaman said, “Why are you working with me then?” I think they appreciated that I was making an effort to learn hands on, the way everyone else was doing. 

How often did you use ayahuasca? Did it ever get exhausting?

I was there for a year and a half, and I think I ended up doing maybe 70 ceremonies. It's not a lot. I was living there so I had time and was pacing myself. I wasn't doing it twice a week every week. In between I'd interview people. I know people who came down and because they had limited time, they might do ceremonies every other day. There was no reason for me to do that.

What was your experience like using ayahuasca?

My experiences were probably different because I was doing research at the same time. I'm an academic, and we have to approach things in a scholarly, rational way, and I felt that sometimes got in the way. I was kind of going back and forth between having an open mind and trying to be critical about what is going on.

I think on some levels I'm not very visual because I didn't have a lot of visual experiences. It was more a lot of bodily sensations, a lot of hard bodily experiences. The whole purging thing can be really challenging. I had a few experiences that did challenge my worldview in the sense that I was pretty sure about what is real and what is not. By the end of my fieldwork, all of that had kind of flipped. Now I can tell you I don't know what is real. I have a more open mind. I was definitely challenged about the reality of certain things, especially with sorcery.

Can you tell me about the research you’re doing on shamanic sorcery now?

Sorcery is when people will take steps or use spiritual means to harm other people. That is part of the ayahuasca shamanism. Traditionally, shamans heal, but at the same time they need to learn sorcery in order to heal from sorcery, and they occasionally use it against other people. Nobody will admit that. It's a constant something people talk about a lot, at least the shamans. When I lived there, the shamans and I built a close relationship, and they started talking about it at one point and made it seem like a big part of what they're doing. It meant that on any given ceremony, it was a possibility that some rival shaman would attack, and they'd have to deflect attacks. I'm writing about that now. It's very challenging. How do you translate that into a scholarly work? We don't have concepts like that. 

You asked me before if this changed me. I'd say yes, but my experience is different than other people's because I was there to do research. I lived there for a long time. I feel like the whole experience of doing fieldwork in a foreign country changes you anyway. I met all these people from all over the world, all these new relationships with locals. The whole experience of living there, doing research, of adapting and trying to understand this very different worldview, all of this has changed me. 

Has ayahuasca tourism changed since you started your research 15 years ago?

It's a huge difference. First, it’s much bigger. When I started, this was a very new thing, there were a few centers, and over the last 15 years, a lot of centers have been established. They come and go. It's a difficult business from what I've seen. There's a lot of flux in the number of centers, but the volume of people who go down there for ayahuasca has escalated in the last 10 years because ayahuasca has gotten so much attention in the media. Ten years ago when I gave a presentation on ayahuasca and asked how many people had heard of it, maybe two people would raise their hand. Now it's maybe half the room. More people know about it, and it's getting a lot of positive exposure. People do not see it as a drug, they see it as a medicine, as something that transforms their life. More and more people go down there because of that.

Iquitos is the gateway to that. There were a lot of centers around there. What I've noticed in the last few years is when you go to Iquitos, there are more restaurants that cater to tourists, there are foreigners living there acting as mediators between the tourists and shamans, and many more foreigners who are shamans themselves. The restaurants, for example, now offer “ayahuasca menus” because there is a diet you're supposed to follow before and after taking ayahuasca. You see more and more restaurants have that option. There is of course many, many more people traveling and shamans traveling abroad to offer these ceremonies to people who can't travel to Peru.

The other thing I noticed was that, when I first started, indigenous communities were not particularly interested in continuing this because it is a difficult path and for generations they were told these traditions were useless. There was a lot of stigma and effort. In a lot of communities, there weren't people interested in continuing it. The thinking was why go through years of rigorous training for something that is useless? Now they see that the entire world is suddenly valuing their tradition, and of course, there are some monetary aspects of this, too. This is a way for them to earn a living while doing something traditional. I predict there is going to be more young indigenous people training to do this. 

What are the downsides of ayahuasca tourism?

Something I noticed early on was that a lot of shamans will abuse their power in different ways. What I noticed back then was that a lot of people who were psychologically vulnerable seek these things. They are more vulnerable to psychological manipulation. I saw a little of that early on in my research. It took me awhile to figure out what I was witnessing. I doubted my own observations sometimes. That is a real issue, I think. Some people will abuse it. It's very seductive sometimes, power.

People elevate these shamans and treat them like gurus. They're not. They're just regular people who have certain skills and knowledge. In the Amazon, for example, you don't have that—shamans had spiritual knowledge for the group, but they were not beyond reproach. They were capable of doing harmful things. They didn't have that 100-percent admiration from the people. Now you have this situation where people admire them, they elevate them, and they treat them like gurus. It's very easy for that power to go to their heads. I've seen people use it to manipulate people psychologically because they want their money. I've seen it with male shamans to seduce women. This has been discussed a lot in the last few years. There have been many, many cases of shamans doing that. At the end of the day, when you're in a ceremony with someone, you're putting your life in their hands.

There is this issue of abuse, and there's the issue that a lot of people, a lot of shamans, don't have enough experience with these things. Traditionally you'd train for years. Now you have people who, after a few months, end up leading ceremonies, and I'm not sure they have enough experience to do that, especially if something happens that they haven't dealt with before. There are risks, [and] some deaths have happened in the last few years. We don't really know what happened in each one of these cases. I wonder how much is due to lack of experience or recklessness.

Is it possible for tourists to ethically consume ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca had already expanded from the few indigenous groups that used it to the city through mestizos, especially during the rubber boom era. Before tourism started happening, the syncretic churches in Brazil and Santo Daime had already expanded and become something else because of the rubber boom. I wouldn't say that this was something that was already open to outsiders, [but] it wasn't something like peyote that was used by specific groups. Ayahuasca kind of exploded almost 100 years before tourism started.

The other thing about Amazonian shamanism is that people would trade with other shamans because they thought they would get knowledge and power from them. The exchange itself doesn't have to be problematic. What is problematic today is that there is a global power difference between people from the west to the countries who engage in this. They are not as privileged and have a less of a choice in ways to make a living. I want people to be aware of that. Sometimes we look for authentic experiences, but for a lot of people this is their livelihood. That tends to shake the exchange. I hope there can be an ethical way to engage with the traditions. The hard part is changing our minds. There are a lot stereotypes about these traditions, and that's the hard part—changing the way we see things.                    

I wouldn't say don't do it. I'd say educate yourself and go to a place that you think is doing something for the local people or employs local people and pays them fairly. I've heard of a lot of stories of people not paying enough. I believe there are a lot of problems in the way ayahuasca tourism is done, but they're fixable.

From top to bottom: Evgenia Fotiou studying ayahuasca, preparing ayahuasca, and with a shaman named Jose. All photos courtesy of Evgenia Fotiou.

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