Mary Jane has long been a common nickname for the buds of the cannabis plants, fairly obviously derived from the Spanish-sounding word “marijuana,” which was popularized in the 1930s by the head of the fledgling Narcotics Bureau Harry Anslinger, in his villainous attempt to harness the power of anti-Mexican racism in service to prohibition.
But to thousands of adherents of the Brazilian Santo Daime religion, “Santa Maria” is not just a slang term for weed, but the proper name of the divine feminine, as manifested in the vegetable kingdom.
The Santo Daime religion is an early 20th century syncretism combining elements of mystical Catholicism, African saint worship, Amazonian nature spirituality, and trance mediumship based on the work of French 19th century spiritism founder, Allan Kardec.
It was either created or divinely received, depending on your paradigm, by a six and a half foot tall descendant of African slaves, Raimundo Irineu Serra, who was introduced to the psychoactive brew known commonly as ayahausca in the early 1920s.
In Serra’s vision, which took place after seven days of solo tripping in the jungle, Holy Mary revealed herself to him as the Queen of the Forest; the term “virgin” taking on a new meaning as applied to the wild, untamed landscape.
The lengthy ceremonies that developed are centered on a ritualized drinking of the ayahuasca, – which he renamed Santo Daime (literally “Holy Give Me”), or just Daime for short – group recitation of prayers, some from the Catholic liturgy and some created by Serra, unison singing of chant-like hymns, and circle-dancing featuring formalized, repetitive, steps. Alcohol, tobacco and other intoxicants, including cannabis, were frowned upon and apart from their psychedelic exercises, the Santo Daime followers pursued a lifestyle of modesty, chastity, and sobriety.
When Serra left this earthly plane of existence, in 1971, a struggle for new leadership caused Santo Daime to split into several different factions. Most of these remained in Brazil but one. Under the leadership of Sebastiao Mota de Mela, the faction expanded its reach overseas, finding new followers from Europe and the Americas.
It was Mota de Melo who added the smoking of cannabis to the rituals. If Holy Mary was the Queen of the Forest, then the cannabis plant, Santa Maria, could be understood as her purest manifestation of the divine feminine. The Daime drink itself was perceived as the masculine Christ consciousness, achieved by union of male and female energies: the male represented by the twisting banisteriopsis caapi vine, and the female by the leaves of the chacruna shrub (psychotria viridis). This symbolism was reinforced by the brew’s unique chemistry in that while it is the vine that actually contains the psychoactive material, it requires the addition of the leaves to activate it so that oral ingestion will bring on the altered state of consciousness.
The hippie movement arrived quite late in Brazil, but by the mid-70s the negative association between drop-outs from mainstream society and smoking cannabis had been likewise exported to South America. But some of Mota de Melo’s youthful followers introduced him to the herb, tentatively suggesting that it had healing properties, which he quickly realized. In research published by the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies, Edward Macrae, Ph.D, quotes Mota de Melo as having said he wanted to “take the herb from the mouth of the devil and return it to its proper mistress, the Virgin Mary.” He then began “receiving” hymns dedicated to Santa Maria in the form of the cannabis plant. Here is a translation of one of them:
I’m going to tell a beautiful story
The plant that has more love
She was a little one
That Godfather saw and blessed
He said pay attention
Here there is a divine force
Whoever knows how to consecrate
Has a Mother who teaches us
It heals and nurtures
The love in our heart
Her perfume soothes us
And comforts us in our mission
An angel came and said
In the dream of our Godfather
With this plant he can also heal himself
And have more Light on his path
With the green branch in his hand
The angel came and made the prophecy
Now we are going to have union
And more respect for the Santa Maria
In the effort to distance the sacramental use of Santa Maria from its use as a street drug or something peddled in the criminal underworld, Mota de Melo developed strict proscriptions around the practice. It was never to be referred to by its slang names and its effects also, were not to be described the way it is socially, as a “buzz” or a “high.” When consumed in the ritual, the cannabis joint is first held in the hand while making the sign of the cross. The mind invokes the power of the sun, the moon, and the stars; then three little puffs are taken and the joint is passed to the right until spent. Silence is observed and those who commit to using Santa Maria in this way are meant to refrain from using it in other settings or with those who don’t regard it is as a sacred plant. The provenance of the cannabis is also very important with street buys discouraged and private cultivation specifically for rituals preferred.
Besides its esoteric properties, Santa Maria’s medicinal uses have been fully explored by Daime healers and made into teas, tinctures, salves, balms and ash poultices to treat a myriad of conditions: indigestion, infected wounds, ulcers, tumours, diarrhoea, colic, headaches and more. Smoked as usual, it was found effective in reducing labor pains, treating depression, asthma, high blood pressure, and essentially all the conditions that medicinal cannabis patients in California are familiar with.
Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, although ayahuasca is legal in Brazil, cannabis is not. Its use is unofficial, secret, and has often led to problems for Daime communities that use it, including armed raids by authorities.
It would seem that Brazil is still a long way from giving Santa Maria the respect she truly deserves.