Shamanistic Healing: Ebena Snuff in South America

Publication Year: 
1991

Psychoactive plants are an integral part of the traditional healing practices of many indigenous groups in parts of Africa and throughout the Neotropics. The Waiká shaman's snuff is a composite of three plants, each of which contributes compounds that enhance the bioactive power of the others. One of the components, Virola theiodora [Myristicaceae], was first described by Richard Spruce in 1851 during his explorations in the forest near Manaus, Brazil. At the time, however, he did not realize that it was used in hallucinogenic snuff.

Virola sap has been found to contain such powerful psychoactive compounds as tryptamines, particularly N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), N-monomethyltryptamine (MMT), and 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethlytryptamine (serotonine), which is found in the human brain. Virola also contains various beta carbolines, compounds that enhance the effects of orally administered tryptamines and are psychoactive in their own right as well. The Waiká may not know the chemical composition of Ebena snuff, but they have discovered how to prepare it for maximum potency. The Waiká use only fresh material. Removing the tree's outer bark, the shaman strips off the iner bark in pieces of 50 centimetres by 5 centimetres and wraps them in a large leaf for transport back to the village. He heats the strips over a fire, releasing a red sap, which he then mixes with two other plant materials, the ash of the tree Elizabetha princeps [Caesalpiniaceae] and the dried, powered leaves of the herb Justicia pectoralis [Acanthaceae]. The ethnobotonist Peter de Smet of the Royal Dutch Association for the Advancement of Pharmacy in the Hague suggests that calcium barbonate crystals in the cells of J. pectoralis may facilitate the extraction of several tryptamine alkaloids from Virola and their absorption through the mucous membranes. The selection of these three plants, which exert such powerful synergistic action, is striking testimony to the skills of the shaman who made this mixture from forest plants and certainly to the abilities of his predecessors who first discovered an compounded this mixture.

The snuff must be prepared carefully, for any error will render it lethal or less effective. Ebena is so potent that it can kill an older shaman even when it is prepared properly. The shaman kneads the three plants together between his legs till they have the consistency of putty. He then toasts the mixture, and when it is hard he grinds it into a powder. He carefully places the powder on a Geonoma [Arecaceae] palm leaf which protects it from the elements so it will be clean and usable for the next day's ceremony

- Text & image from: pp, 153 - 154 Plants, People, and Culture The Science of Ethnobotony Balick, Michael J. & Cox, Paul Alan

indigenous, sacred, tradition, snuff, hallucination, dmt
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