19-year-old Henry Miller – a gap-year student from Bristol – died in Colombia after taking part in a shamanic ceremony.
The papers are reporting that he died after drinking a “drug” called yage, which is actually just another name for ayahuasca, a plant that – among South America’s indigenous tribes – is brewed with another plant called chacruna and used in shamanic rituals for its apparent healing properties.
Reports on the healing experience vary. Some people will tell you it was the most mind-blowing transcendental experience of their lives. Others will say it was a prolonged and slightly trippy vomiting session.
However, a more sinister element of the ayahuasca tourism industry has grown to meet a recent boom in the number of young Westerners travelling to South America for a trip. As reported by Motherboard last year, “slimy pseudo shamans” – untrained opportunists who’ve merely taken crash courses in ayahuasca delivery – had begun operating in Peru, hooking people up with wildly exorbitant and dangerous doses to make a quick buck. Writing for Men’s Journal, the journalist Kelly Hearn reports that since 2011, two French pilgrims and a Californian 18-year-old have died at ayahuasca lodges, while a German woman was apparently beaten and raped by two men who’d given her ayahuasca.
To try to find out a little more, I spoke to Robert Tindall, an ayahuasca expert and the author of two books on shamanism, The Jaguar That Roams the Mind and The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience.
VICE: Hey Robert. First off, did you hear about the British teenager who died in Colombia? Ayahuasca isn’t generally known to be that dangerous, right?
Robert Tindall: What I read on the internet is that this young man was probably given a brew containing toé, which is a member of the datura family. It’s a very potent hallucinogen.
Would you ever use toé in one of your ayahuasca sessions?
Oh my god, I won’t touch it. You can go away and never come back. The European analogues are mandrake, henbane, deadly nightshade – all those plants in the medieval witches’ brew. It’s very powerful stuff.
Why are tourists falling victim to these supposed shamans?
It used to be that it took about at least 20 years to really apprentice as a shaman, and now there are people claiming they are shamans within two or three years. There’s no quality control – there’s no knowledge of lineage – so Westerners go online, see “Amazonian retreats” and It doesn’t even occur to them to enquire who the shaman is, what his lineage is, whether he has recommendations… it doesn’t even occur to them. It seems to be a Disneyland mentality.
It’s a set-up for disaster, because with all these naïve people bringing money in, there’s an explosion of people setting up centres, making brews of different levels of quality – people without expertise. People are going to keep dying as long as this goes on.