A Maranhão Vision

In the late 1980s, I attended, at PUC-SP, a roundtable on legislation and the use of ayahuasca, with the participation of several experts, including Professors Drs. Edward MacRae, Edgard de Assis Carvalho, Elisaldo A Carlini (from the Brazilian Center for Information on Psychoactive Drugs), the jurist Dalmo Dalari and others, who debated several interesting aspects related to this religious and cultural manifestation that was spreading in different regions of the country. I remember that, at the time, I asked anthropologists present about the problem of how to reconcile field research with participant observation in the study of a religion in which adherents have to assume the altered state of consciousness. After that, I already supervised the work of a student who faced this situation without major problems. (1)

Shortly thereafter, I had the opportunity to participate, with some colleagues, in a Santo Daime ceremony at the Castelo da Mombaça site in Taboão da Serra, belonging to an artist who is a member of the Daime. On the eve, we had to attend a preparatory meeting in which we were informed about the necessary conditions for participating in the ritual, such as abstinence from red meat, alcoholic beverages and sex, use of light clothing as well as other guidelines.

The ceremony in which we participated was held for an entire night in a beautiful place, with lots of vegetation, on the outskirts of São Paulo. The space where the ritual took place was a kind of open and wide castle that held a hundred people separated by wings, male and female, with a predominance of men, which was said not to be good due to the imbalance of energies. In the central space there was a large table, covered with a white crochet tablecloth, with various objects such as crystals, roots, a double-barred cross made from acrylic and other mystical symbols. Around the table, a dozen chairs where musicians and some people sat. The instruments used were: two guitars, a flute, a Bolivian guitar, a violin. The accompaniment was very well performed by excellent musicians. At one end of the table, one of the adepts played a maraca decorated with ribbons. Around the space, some guards also held maracas and controlled so that the participants did not stray from the enclosure.

All uniformed devotees wore a gold and/or silver star and women wore a crown on their heads. They sang hymns, took steps left and right in a half circle formation. We take the ayahuasca three times over several hours, all being involved in the mystical environment of the ritual. On the occasion, I noticed that I was also able to carry out the anthropological exercise of participant observation.

Upon returning, I immediately remembered the Baile de São Gonçalo that I like and usually attend in Maranhão. It is a ritual of popular Catholicism, a form of payment of promise, of Portuguese origin, probably brought by Azoreans and very common in the lake region of Viana da Baixada Maranhense. (2)

The players dance in rows, dressed in clothes similar to the Daime costumes, all in white with colored ribbons, the women with crowns or wreaths on their heads and the men with embroidered velvet hats. The Baile de São Gonçalo, with the sound of string instruments, is usually held in the summer, in the second half of the year, when it doesn’t rain. People from Viana, São Vicente Ferrer, Cajarí, São João Batista and neighboring municipalities gather and pay promises with the São Gonçalo dance, which is often held in neighborhoods on the outskirts of São Luís.

The Santo Daime ritual also recalls aspects of the drumming of Tambor de Mina, an Afro-Brazilian religion from Maranhão in which chants or doctrines sung are repeated several times by the choir. It also has relationships with the Pajelança (indigineous shamanism) or Cura (healing works), which is included in the universe of popular Afro-indigenous religiosity in Maranhão. It has elements of the Feast of the Divine, as commented by Labate and Pacheco.

Since then, we have been talking to some researchers who study the Daime, pointing out relationships between its rituals and elements of the Maranhão popular culture and religiosity, especially with the Dance of São Gonçalo and the Tambor de Mina, considering that the founder of this religion he was a black native of São Vicente Ferrer, in Baixada Maranhense. In an article published in 2002, Labate and Pacheco state that, in the universe of “Maranhense enchantment” there are several concepts and terms that are used in Santo Daime, such as doctrine, healing, firmness, devotion to Nossa Senhora da Conceição and other entities, some with titles of princes and princesses. They mention the relationship between the Daime and the Divino Espírito Santo festival, widely spread in the Tambor de Mina do Maranhão environment, in which a group of children represents an empire or kingdom. They show some verses from the cashiers at the Festa do Divino that have similarities with hymns from the Daime.

Analyzing the relationship between the Daime and the São Gonçalo dance, Labate and Pacheco (2002) note that “the stylistic similarities […] are remarkable”. The presence of white clothes called uniforms, the use of suits, ties and hats by men, skirts and crowns by women and colored ribbons by both stand out in these relationships. They show similarities in instruments and rhythms with waltzes and marches. They consider it likely that, in the composition of the daime rituals, Mestre Irineu was inspired by the São Gonçalo ball. They also remember the importance of maraca, in bumba-meu-boi and shamans from Maranhão, as in the ritual of the Daime, and comment that these influences are also present in Barquinha, another ayahuasca religion founded by Maranhão Mestre Daniel Pereira Mattos.

The book Eu Venho de Longe, Mestre Irineu and His Companions, by Paulo Moreira and Edward MacRae, presents a great number of details about the life story of the founder of the Santo Daime religion, Raimundo Irineu de Matos, born in Maranhão at the end of 19th century in São Vicente Ferrer, who measured about two meters and with about twenty years old, moved to Acre, arriving there at the end of the rubber cycle.

Although the authors meticulously reconstruct the life of Mestre Irineu, they state in the introduction that they do not intend to present the only and true story of this charismatic leader, aware that various interpretations can be given about multiple aspects of each life story. They discuss elements of the research methodology, participant observation and their long experience with the daime manifestations, stating that, without this, the work would have been practically impossible to be carried out. They mention sources and documents consulted, talk about prejudice and discrimination against black people and Afro-indigenous religions, especially on the part of neo-Pentecostal fundamentalism that is now widespread.

The work highlights the founder’s origins from Maranhão and his roots among slaves and indigenous peoples in the Baixada Maranhense. It presents details and documents about its history and family testimonies, with illustrations relating to the time when Irineu Serra lived in his native land. Elaborates detailed reconstruction of the master’s life among his family members. He traces his departure from Maranhão in 1909, at around 18 years of age and arriving in Acre in 1912. The entire text is illustrated with several photos and maps indicating places where he passed through and stayed, commenting on his work at the Commission on Limits between Peru and Acre, contacts he maintained with other (4) Northeastern migrants with blacks and fellow countrymen from Maranhão. It also comments on the indigenous origins of ayahuasca and narrates myths of the foundation of Mestre Irineu’s religion. It presents and discusses Irineu’s relationships with spiritists, esoterics, military and politicians.

Among other themes, the book analyzes the formation of the Daime, showing that many indigenous names appear in the hymns, probably as a result of Irineu’s contacts with elements of the Tupi culture, in his native land and in the Amazon. It shows that several entities invoked in the Daime are members of royal families, Magos do Oriente, or forest entities, as occurs in Afro-Amerindian popular religions and other manifestations of popular culture in Maranhão and the North of the country.
It mentions the use of tobacco, snuff and teas, such as lemongrass, tasteless cassava and the various works and calls for healing carried out by Mestre Irineu. (5) It refers to the presence of the Tucum line, to the use of the concepts of irradiation and backrest, common in Spiritism, in the Tambor de Mina and today widespread in Pentecostalism.

He comments on the periodic creation of new hymns and the creation of new uniforms that marked different moments in Mestre Irineu’s doctrine. He notes that certain table works organized by Mestre Irineu should be performed with an odd number of participants (3, 5, 7 or 9), which also occurs (6) in some rituals of Mina’s drum, such as the “banquete dos cachorros”. He comments on the custom of using cigars and smoke to heal, of drinking or passing urine for healing work. It highlights the presence of waltzes, marches, mazurka and maraca. It points to the adoption of the Catholic calendar for certain festivities, the use of candles and popular prayers such as Ave Maria, Our Father, Hail Holy Queen, Praised be N. S. J. C. Highlights the presence of the custom of “delivery of the feast”. It refers to the non-use of the black color in the bands of the uniform. It is easy to see that most of these practices are commonly found in religions and popular culture in the Amazon and Maranhão, such as Bumba-meu-boi, Tambor de Crioula, Tambor de Mina, Pajelança and other Afro- Brazilian companies in the North and Northeast.

The authors comment on the adoption of cultural elements linked to Afro-Amerindian religions and popular Catholicism, the Esoteric Communion of Thought Cycle and the Master’s relationship with the astral line, closer to Spiritism. We verified that this Brazilian religion, born in the North, which today is spread in the country and abroad, like every religion and like every cultural manifestation, presents characteristics of cultural syncretism (7) and religious, which does not detract from its authenticity as a religious practice, as some who consider the phenomenon of syncretism to be an indigestible mixture that would diminish the purity of religion.

They comment that, in the search for an intellectual partnership, Mestre Irineu sometimes attended and joined the Esoteric Circle Communion of Thought, bringing to the Daime philosophical principles inspired by this doctrine and including symbols such as the Caravaca Cross in rituals. He also brought teachings from an Indian guru and other theosophical principles. He added knowledge of Jewish Kabbalah, astrology and Buddhism, influenced by reading esoteric texts. According to our authors, the search for approximations with the Catholic religion, with Protestantism and with other traditions, demonstrates the need to legitimize their doctrine to minimize stereotypes arising from their phenotype of black, to avoid persecutions of Daime and healers, related to accusations of witchcraft that were attributed to the founder.

The book mentions several incidents in the master’s personal life, who, at times, was feared and regarded as a black sorcerer, who killed children, who throughout his life had different wives and at the same time was a charismatic figure, with great leadership. , respectful of laws and respected by local authorities as a guide who organized, guided and directed a large number of followers.

Several passages mention the Mestre’s network of social and political relationships in Acre, his participation in supporting candidates for elected positions and the benefits of these contacts for his religious group. They comment that Mestre Irineu was always a man who was on the side of the Government and, therefore, many politicians would ask for his support. He developed friendship ties with governors and deputies from the Territory and later from the State of Acre, who frequented his house and took Daime for health treatment. They show his proximity to the top of the local government, saying he was courted by politicians looking for votes. They claim that the master never had a vocation for opposition. He was always a man of law. He maintained good relations with the military governments and was regarded as a spiritual leader and political adviser as he brought together many people and had great leadership. Intending to safeguard his group, he possibly worked for an accommodation with political power. They also remember that a Daime leader, a friend of the master, was tortured by the military for being on the left. They inform that currently the staff of Daime maintains close proximity to left-wing parties in Acre. It is verified by this information that Mestre Irineu was in fact a charismatic religious leader with great capacity to influence people. I remember that great popular religious leaders such as Mãe Menininha do Gantois, from Candomblé from Bahia, Mãe Andresa Maria and Dona Celeste Santos at Casa das Minas in Maranhão, and several others, had similar characteristics, joining forces and bringing people together. Mestre developed a new, original religious system, coming from multiple origins, which he knew how to masterfully synthesize. His doctrine has elements of Catholicism, Umbanda, folk medicine, Amerindian religions and reveals knowledge of supernatural inspiration.

The work shows the consolidation of the Daime after Mestre Irineu returned from a trip to Maranhão in the mid-1950s, mentioning the adoption of several changes in the rituals and uniforms of the devotees. He comments on the approximation, especially since then, of the uniforms used in the Daime rituals with the costumes of the São Gonçalo Maranhense ball. The book shows photos and mentions the proximity of Irineu Serra to his cousin Mestre Elpidio, an excellent Creole drummer from São Luís, and Daniel Mattos, from Maranhão from Vargem Grande, who was later the founder of the ahyuasqueiro ritual of Barquinha , which has similarities with the umbanda line.

It narrates, with a detailed description, the ways to make Daime, showing that the plants must be harvested at the new moon, stating that, when properly prepared, the drink can last up to 30 years outside the refrigerator. Moreira and MacRae also comment on several problems that Irineu Serra faced at the end of his life, such as controversies, tensions and rivalries between the followers, who threatened the power he had always had and which was reflected in the title of Master Empire or Emperor (8).

His death, on July 6, 1971, at the age of 80, caused great consternation, leaving his 33-year-old wife, Mrs. Peregrina, a widow. The wake was very popular and he was buried as a great leader, as a military chief, or a political authority. Photos of the wake and the coffin covered with the national flag are presented.

The work also contains ten pages of bibliographical references and several appendices and annexes. It has a large number of notes, photos, maps, written documents, lyrics and music from hymns and doctrines. It includes family trees and kinship schemes of Mestre Irineu and some of his closest collaborators. It also exhibits a sketch with a graphic of the arrangement of a Daime meeting room.

The book presents many details and information about circumstances in which the hymns were received. It shows aspects of the identity of Mestre Irineu, a black from Maranhão who left the interior at around 20 years of age and went to the Amazon, taking with him elements of the black and cabocla, Amazonian and Northeastern and, above all, Maranhense personality as we can see throughout the whole period. work and in many passages of his life.

According to Motta, in the Baixada Maranhense region where Mestre Irineu was born, the “Pajelança de negro” is widely spread. (9)

In it we find beliefs in enchanted beings who are princes, princesses, Indians, caboclos, etc. In Christiane Motta’s book (2009), Mundicarmo Ferretti states that, in Maranhão’s pajelança (practices of popular medicine in the Amazon), therapy cannot be separated from religion. The shaman emerged from the meeting of cultures in this region with the joining of beliefs, practices and rituals of European Catholicism, the beliefs of the Amerindians and the rites of Afro-descendants. The Santo Daime religion founded by the Maranhense Mestre Irineu has much of its homeland.

Quite long and detailed, the book, in some passages, may be excessive, almost baroque of details and information, but its reading is easy and pleasant. It is a breath-taking work of great interest precisely because of the meticulous study, as a filigree on the life story of a black man born in the interior of Maranhão a few years after the abolition of slavery and who founded a religion. Like other people from the Northeast, at the age of 20, he arrived in the Amazon at the end of the rubber boom. He faced problems in the new environment, having settled in Acre since before the First World War. Faced with life’s difficulties, he looked for and found with the natives a combination of magical plants, which, with the help of enchanted and supernatural entities, taught him to organize the foundations of a new religion of healing material ills and spiritual guidance. The combination of knowledge of plants from the Amazon region, preserved by the indigenous people and adapted by Mestre Irineu, with the teachings obtained from his spiritual protectors, led him, with his companions, to organize a new Brazilian religion, which emerged among rubber tappers of the Amazon, which today spreads everywhere. The rituals of this religion are inspired by the religiosity and popular culture of their land and the Amazon. This religion came to bring encouragement and cure to the caboclos of the rubber plantations of Acre, it expanded throughout the country, abroad, among different social classes and presents itself to new devotees in large cities, eager for a faith that brings more courage to face the current difficulties of urban life, in search of a return to nature and a simpler world.

São Luís, November 2010
Dr. Sergio F. Ferretti
Anthropologist and Professor Emeritus at UFMA


1 On the use of ayahuasca at União do Vegetal in São Luís, see: SOUZA, Valdir Mariano. Ayahuasca, identifying meanings: the ritual use of the drink in the União do Vegetal. 2010. 180 p. Dissertation (Masters) – Postgraduate Program in Social Sciences, Federal University of Maranhão, 2010.
2 On the São Gonçalo Ball in São Luís and São Vicente Ferrer, see Pereira (2008).
3 LABATE, Beatriz C.; PACHECO, Gustavo. Maranhao Headquarters of Santo Daime. In: LABATE, B.C.; ARAUJO, W.S. (Org.). The Ritual Use of Ayahuasca. Campinas: Letters Market; FAPESP, 2002. p. 303-344.
4 See: PANTOJA, Mariana Civatta. The Miltons: a hundred years of rubber plantation history. With a postscript about the Kuntanawa. Rio Branco, AC: [s.n.], 2008.
5 In the Tambor de Mina do Maranhão, the tucum line also appears in rituals known as the Tambor de Índio. In this regard, see: FERRETTI, Mundicarmo M. R. The representation of the Indian in Terreiros de São Luís. Research in Focus, São Luís: UEMA, v. 6, no. 8, p. 47-57, 1998.
6 About the dogs’ banquet at Casa das Minas. Check out FERRETTI, Sergio. Rethinking Syncretism. São Paulo: Edusp, 1996.
7 On Syncretism see Ferretti (1996).
8 Title that refers to the figure of the Empire of the Divine, an essential element of the Feast of the Holy Spirit that is present in practically all the terreiros of Tambor de Mina do Maranhão. (FERRETTI, 1996)
9 MOTTA, Christiane. Shamans, curators and enchanted: pajelança in Baixada Maranhense. São Luís: Edufma, 2009.

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