Hallucinogens in Africa

I have argued here, here, and here that the Upper Amazon is the center of a larger culture area uniquely characterized by the use of psychoactive plants and mushrooms in the practice of shamanism.

A number of people offered the counterexample of iboga (Tabernanthe iboga) in the Bwiti religion as a shamanic use of a hallucinogen outside this extended culture area.

Now, there is no question that psychoactive plants and fungi are widely used in indigenous cultures around the world. The question we are asking, however, is not whether they are used, but whether they are used by shamans for shamanizing. And that raises a number of considerations. Sometimes, of course, psychoactive plants or fungi are used outside any ceremonial context at all, for recreation, say, or to alleviate fatigue; sometimes they are used in a ceremonial context that is nonshamanic, as part of an initiation ritual, for example; and we find, surprisingly often, that they are used, not by shamans, but rather by people who are imitating shamans. We also have to look carefully at the reliability of the reports we have received about a psychoactive plant or fungus claimed to be used by shamans, and at its relevant physical effects, to see whether those effects are consistent with the demands of the shamanic performance.

The Bwiti religion, a revitalization movement in West-Central Africa, uses the hallucinogenic plant iboga in its initiatory rituals, primarily in order to contact the spirits of dead ancestors, and to provide the experience of passing over to the land of the dead. Massive amounts are taken during the initiation ceremony, and smaller amounts at other ceremonies thereafter, to keep awake and relax the body. At these lower doses, iboga does not act as a hallucinogen, but rather as a stimulant. Indeed, the original use of iboga was apparently to relieve fatigue while hunting and as an aphrodisiac. This ability to suppress fatigue is of value at Bwiti ceremonies other than initiation, where participants must dance all night; low doses of iboga lighten the body, they say, so that it can float through the ritual dances.

At initiation, however, the dose is from fifteen to fifty times the normal threshold dose, with the intention to “break open the head.” The purpose of this massive ingestion at the time of initiation is to see the bwiti. The term refers first to a superior deity and, at the same time, the ancestors in the realm of the dead, and the great deities of the Christian pantheon. Thus the plant offers revelations and power to the initiate; upon return to the normal state, the candidate is questioned by the initiated men to see whether the vision was sufficient for admission.

Anthropologist James Fernandez obtained reports from thirty-eight people regarding the content of these visions; eight people told him that they heard many voices, a great tumult, and recognized the voices of ancestors; thirteen said they heard and saw various ancestors, who walked with them and told them about the land of the dead; eight said that they walked or flew over a long, multicolored road, or over many rivers, which led them to the ancestors, who then took them to the great gods.

Two features of these interviews are striking. First, the accounts of the visions are clearly stereotyped; for example, the relatives who serve as guides through the visionary landscape are often white, clothed in white, or change to white, because white is the color of the dead. Second, nine people told Fernandez that they saw and heard nothing. Many members of Bwiti have undergone initiation more than once, presumably because of just such lack of significant visionary experiences. Subsequent initiations may involve larger doses, sometimes with untoward results.

There is no doubt that iboga, at sufficient dosages, acts as a hallucinogen, and that Bwiti initiation candidates seek visions of a specific type by ingesting it in massive quantities. But there seems to be very little about this use that has much to do with shamanizing.

At the same time, sorcerers are said to drink iboga before demanding information from the spirits, and iboga is said to be used in sorcery, like an invisible rifle, to cast spells. In addition, religious leaders reportedly eat iboga for an entire day before asking their ancestors to give them advice. I have no information about the level of such consumption, or whether the dose might be hallucinogenic, or what other ritual acts might be involved. Such uses might well qualify as shamanic.


  1. Hey there,

    I've been trying to find some contact info for you as I'd like to ask you a question if I may... the only email address I've found bounced though.


  2. Josh --

    Leave a comment with your email address in it. I won't publish the comment, so your email address will remain private, but I will know how to get in touch with you.

    -- Steve

  3. Dear Steve,

    I just discovered your blog in the course of Googling ayahuasca. I very much appreciated what you wrote about traditional shamanism and how shamans regard the tea as a spiritual X ray machine. (Having once studied anthropology which at that time tended to equate religion with the extension of kinship lines to the universe!) I was also very intrigued by your background in Tibetan Buddhism. I was a Buddhist monk myself a long time ago for about five years, and have only started to drink tea since last August. I find that it really seems to get down to the parts that nothing else ever has done – especially shame.

    The last time I drank it felt like falling back inside my heart, and realizing with a shock that there was no one there just the light that had always been ‘doing’ the seeing and hearing. Much of the time I drink in the Santo Dame and although the songs are often talking about “holding the light in your heart’ I often feel they lack a precise orientation such as Buddhism to help them realize the value of ‘taking the backwards step, of just dropping out of all that the ego ever took itself to be.

    Do you have any reflections on the crossover between ayahuasca and Buddhism that you might be prepared to share? So many people – I think – get stick on the road to Nirvana entangled in old hopes and fears – in my work as a psychotherapist my supervisor happens to have been trained as a nyingma lama – I once asked him what cessations means – and he said ‘no longer believing in father xmas’ Exactly what happened to me on tea!

    Your sin the dharma – and tea

    Bruce Stevenson