Set and Setting in the Santo Daime

This observational review (2021) describes ayahuasca use within the set and setting in the Santo Daime church and outlines complex layers of intentions, expectations, visual, auditory, and symbolic environments, social and cultural systems that form a rich tapestry of contextual factors that foster unique experiences. While also describing how the Santo Daime setting can also go wrong, it highlights the role of contextual factors to mitigate harms and facilitate social and personal benefits.


Introduction: Set and setting is a fundamental concept in the field of psychedelic drug research, which points to the profound dependence of psychedelic effects on psychological, social, and cultural factors. Santo Daime is a Brazilian religion that makes elaborate use of ordering principles, techniques, and symbology to shape and direct the effects of the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca.

Methods/Results: This paper systematically explores the tapestry of, inter alia, symbolic, social, cultural, psychological, aesthetic and musical elements that participate in the shaping of the psychedelic experience in the context of the Santo Daime ayahuasca religion.

Discussion: The methodically rich under the hood description of the mechanics of entheogenic initiation within the Santo Daime tradition provides a template for future studies of the role of context in psychedelic experimentation.”

Author: Ido Hartogsohn



Recent years have seen a surge of interest in psychedelics for therapeutic, spiritual, and creative purposes.

The complex web of contextual, extra-pharmacological factors determining response to psychedelics has been a cornerstone of sociological, and anthropological research on psychedelics, as well as a theoretical and practical foundation for clinical analyses of these agents.

The general principles of set and setting were first described in the early 1960s, and recent years have seen novel attempts to examine the mechanisms and elements involved in shaping experiences with psychedelics. This paper aims to provide a comprehensive account of the sonorously orchestrated extra-pharmacological elements that lend flavor and meaning to actual experiences.

The case of SD provides a highly structured, carefully studied, example through which to examine the principles of set and setting, while also providing fruitful, thought-provoking exceptions and counterpoints.

This paper describes the set and setting conditions that shape experiences in SD rituals, and shows how these conditions participate in creating a certain mode or style of entheogenic experience.

The Concept of Set and Setting

The use of contextual cues to shape experiences with psychoactives has been prevalent in diverse cultures from times immemorial. The role of contextual factors in shaping drug effects has been discussed sporadically by anthropologists, drug enthusiasts and the occasional maverick psychiatrist.

Psychedelic research has resurged over the past 20 years, with renewed interest in set and setting, and attempts to gauge the relative significance of factors shaping psychedelic drug effects.

Previous writing on Brazilian ayahuasca religions has placed emphasis on the fundamental role of ritual environment, but has left much to be desired in terms of describing the immediate and profound implications such ritualistic aspects have over member experiences.

This paper seeks to fill a gap in the literature by presenting a detailed, broad and systematic analysis of the elements involved in the SD set and setting, and their complex interrelationships and implications.

Brief Introduction to Santo Daime Religion and Its Set and Setting

Santo Daime (SD) is a Brazilian ayahuasca religion that emerged in the Amazon region in the 1930s. It split into several lines following the death of its founder in 1971, and eventually became internationalized with centers in Europe, Asia, Australia, North and South America.

SD rituals are collective endeavors performed by congregations (churches), centered around the joint musical performance of ritual hymns (hinos), within a ritual space referred to as the salon (salo). Members believe to be receiving visions and guidance from the astral during such works.

My analysis of the set and setting of SD works will focus on standard SD ceremonies, and will include the role of preparation, expectation, and intention, as well as the physical environment and the social aspects of SD religion.

The Divine Origin of Ritual Set and Setting

The SD set and setting is traceable to the foundational story of Master Irineu’s encounter with the Queen of the Forest, who was simultaneously representing the Christian virgin of Conception. This encounter was a seminal moment in which the foundational elements of the SD set are received from divine origin.

Over the next decades, the ritualistic repertoire of SD evolved and developed under the direction of Master Irineu, achieving sacrosanct status through the established position of Irineu as a prophet and reincarnation of Jesus Christ within daimista faith.

Following Irineu’s death, the development of novel ritual structures continued, and the Alto Santo group fought with the ICEFLU line over the proper set and setting of works.

Padrinho Alfredo introduced a new type of ritual, the St. Michael work, to SD, and this led to a third stage of adaptations.

Despite the dynamic and diverse nature of SD ritual, a fundamental communality of principles, regulations and conventions remains at its core. Padrinho Alex Polari wrote an official document in 1997 called Norms of Rituals, which can be consulted in cases of doubt.

Few churches follow all the instructions contained in Norms of Rituals, but SD ritual prescriptions remain a central part of the doctrine. They allow members to transcend their individuality by serving the holy ordinances of ritual.

The Sanctity of the Santo Daime Beverage

The sacred status accorded to the daime beverage itself and the meticulously prescribed and ritualized manner in which it is prepared during SD feitio (beverage preparation) rituals serve to distinguish it symbolically from otherwise chemically similar preparations of ayahuasca.

The daime beverage is accorded a supreme spiritual status, and is said to be a teacher of all teachers, a divine being transformed into a liquid, and the divine eternal father and his son the savior.

The belief in daime as a superior, benign being is crucial to the shaping of the SD experience. This trust in the beverage fortifies the daimistas in their struggles.

The Symbolical World of Santo Daime

Psychedelic experiences are deeply shaped by the surrounding cultural environment, and the symbolic network of figures, motifs, and patterns is crucial for SD.

Ritual elements include dietary restrictions, references to forest plants and animals, and the use of spirit calls. The So Paulo based Esoteric Circle also exerts notable influence. The influence of Brazilian spiritism, Afro-Brazilian religion Umbanda, and Christianity can be recognized in the cosmology and hymns of SD, which include the Archangels St. Michael and St. Raphael, St. John, St. Joseph, the Virgin Mary, the holy spirit, the eternal father, and Jesus Christ himself.

The conceptual language used by daimistas to describe their rituals, such as the designation of rituals as works, and the frequent reference to lofty values and ideals such as love, faith, truth, harmony, justice, and forgiveness, shapes the types of visions and inner processes daimistas experience.

The Holy Calendar

Daime works are held at dates specified by the SD calendar, including the day of St. John, St. Peter, Christmas, the Three Kings Day, and the birth and death dates of Master Irineu.

SD rituals are held at specific dates charged with religious significance, and are held simultaneously at numerous locations worldwide. These rituals are bigger-than-life global and cosmic proportions, and fit well with Mircea Eliade’s concept of sacred mythical time.

SD doctrine is replete with military references, including the General Juramidam, battalions, uniforms, and the six pointed star. These elements were originally even more central to the ritual, including military-like hierarchical ranks and salutes exchanged between members.

Daimista rituals are understood as spiritual battles, with participants urged to fight the battle of love and stop the phalanges of Lucifer from infiltrating the salon. Military language is used to unify, motivate and energize daimistas as they enter into long and arduous spiritual battles.

SD works/battles are thought to be a sort of spiritual bootcamp that allows participants to cultivate useful cultic virtues such as strength, joy and firmness, which are in turn capitulated in the lines “Iaminsidethebattle/ Suffering but happy” (Melo Rita, 25).

Preparing for a Work

Studies have shown that dedicating time, attention and intention to prepare before a psychedelic experience helps orient a person towards a meaningful experience. Diets, sexual abstinence and prayer are often recommended as part of this preparation. Ayahuasca rituals include prayers immediately prior to the beginning of a work, as well as in the days leading up to a work. These prayers prime the body for a meaningful experience.


Early psychedelic research suggested that personality structures played a large role in determining therapeutic outcomes, while more recent writing focused on identity.

SD space is strictly divided between the male and female, who are kept separate, confined to their respective zones. Gender identities are also basically inflexible, with men guarding the entrance to ritual space and making celebratory ‘Viva’ calls, and women leading terço prayers, preparing the flower arrangements and filling the role of lead singer.

Participants in a church are often divided into two distinctly gendered sections, and they are embedded in different types of environments during the ritual.

The strongly delineated gender roles of SD rituals complicate the inclusion of non-cisgender non-binary individuals and might be considered non-inclusive or even repressive by members of the LGBTQ community.

Order in the House: The Arrangement of Space in Santo Daime Rituals

Daimista ritual space is most commonly organized hexagonally, with male participants and female practitioners occupying one half of the floor. The other half is occupied by a six-pointed star-shaped table, which is laid with flowers, incense sticks and candles.

The hexagonal arrangement of space in SD ritual works is significant on several levels, including the visual, aesthetic, auditory, symbolical, proxemic, and social. The spatial ordering of SD ritual works is also determinant of social and ritual hierarchies. Participants are typically positioned in accordance with their status in the group. This positioning has spiritual benefits for those well positioned.

Visual Components

The role of imagery in healing and placebo has been noted by numerous scholars. In therapeutic and spiritual work with psychedelics, the arrangement of space is paramount and can induce strong subjective responses.

Classic psychedelics enhance visual perception and induce visions, which in turn enhance aesthetic appreciation. SD religion utilizes this enhanced visual impressibility to facilitate transcendental experiences of beauty and harmony.

The star table is set with elements that evoke feelings of awe and reverence, and involves the calculated use of symbology, including Christian symbols such as the two-armed Caravaca Cross and non-Christian symbols of ecumenical appeal.

The star table is the centripetal hub of ritual activity in the SD ritual space. It serves to plant and reaffirm faith and hope in the hearts of participants facing it throughout the ritual.

The daimista ritual uniform is another important visual element of the ritual, deriving from traditional Catholic festivals.

The blue farda uniform is composed of blue trousers, a white buttoned-up shirt and a blue tie for men, and a blue pleated skirt and a white blouse for women. The white farda uniform is composed of a white suit with green stripes and a tie.

The white uniform of the SD ritual lends a reassuring air of respectability, order, symmetry and cleanliness to the ritual, and inspires trust in oneself and others.

Both types of uniform conform with a broader prescription of ritual colors, which are evident in the daimista uniforms and the SD flag.

The universal nature of color preferences has been amply debated by scholars. The cool, nature-related colors of the SD palette are symbolically associated with the earth, sky and the astral.

Musical Components

Psychedelics enhance visual acuity, musical acuity, and auditory appreciation, and music plays a central role in guiding experiences with psychedelics.

Music plays a central role in psychedelic therapy and in entheogenic ritual settings. It is a central force enabling the convergence of the visual, olfactory and other kinds of discourse composing the rites.

Santo Daime’s hymns are the main conductors of religious ritual, and music is a technology that permits intersubjective communication between persons, species, and peoples.

Music creates rituals, creates narrative, activates deep emotions, produces religious ecstasy, and permits spiritual transcendence. It creates the religious universe.

SD music is generic in nature, and is led by three types of basic rhythms: the march, the waltz and the mazurka. The guitar and the maraca are the principal musical instruments.

Despite its plain nature, SD music can be beautiful and enchanting, and the unison character of the music contributes to a feeling of closeness among the participants.

Music guides the ritual, raising sound levels to new heights and bringing the work to a nadir. It is almost like a computer’s magnetic tape, instructing the calculating machine in a particular course to follow.

This article describes the role of music in hallucinogenic experiences as similar to a computer program, leading the listener through diverse internal landscapes and mindstates.

Olfactory Dimensions

Research on the effects of odors on human cognition, emotions and mood has led to rich but inconclusive findings. These effects are mediated by the cultural significance awarded to different odors and by personal preference.

Labate and Pacheco (2004) found that scent plays an important role in SD rituals, and that guardians blow incense smoke over participants to purify them of evil influences.

The use of incense in SD borrows from Brazilian Umbanda religion, which makes elaborate use of diverse types of incense mentioned in the popular Umbanda hymn. These scents are associated with cleansing and purification.

Kinetic and Proprioceptive Experience

SD rituals include three main types of ritual dances consisting of repeated balanced movements from left to right. SD works typically consist of between eight to twelve hours of continued, festive, synchronized dance.

The concentration work, healing works, mass works etc. are conducted seated on a chair. This respectful, upright body posture arguably fosters an active, composed, and reassured state of mind, though it might also lead to feelings of constriction and discomfort.

In order to learn in the school of the Lord, one must have love for the teacher and pay attention to the lessons taught.

The notion of skillset is discussed by Godasi as a set of cultivable techniques, strategies, and approaches for navigating experiences with psychedelics. This notion is notably implicit in the worldview of shamanism.

SD makes ample reference to the need to cultivate traits that are valuable for navigating ritual space, including the need to stay firm and hold one’s place even under challenging circumstances.

SD rituals involve frequent sensations of physical discomfort, which are considered inseparable from their cleansing, elevating qualities. The daimista ideal is that of a balance: gracefully receiving the often-fierce presence of divine light while remaining firm.

Significantly, the hymnal admonitions to stay firm, remain in your place, pay attention, and firm your thoughts are conducive to the development of participants’ personal skillset and merit, as well as the successful performance of the collective ritual.

SD doctrine is characterized as a pedagogical enterprise, with members visiting lessons and acquiring skills and degrees. This idea recurs across many of the hymnaries, and is aligned with traditions where hallucinogenic use is considered an evolving practice and expertise.

Daimistas may assume varied types of roles associated with varied strengths and qualities. Each role offers different types of challenges, curricula, and skills to be perfected, as well as different types of set and setting and profoundly different types of experiences.

Different churches offer different routes of education and development for daimistas. Small, non-official SD congregations often allow members to take on responsibilities and acquire first-hand knowledge of ritual.

SD confers other educational opportunities, such as encountering SD dignitaries and learning SD ritual from seasoned daimistas.

Social Setting – Community

Social environment plays a large role in shaping experiences with psychedelics. A familiar, friendly environment produced pleasant effects, while an unfamiliar, unfriendly environment exacerbated netgative effects.

Social environment is discussed by anthropologists who argue that socially sanctioned use of hallucinogens leads to greater social cohesion and solidarity.

SD rituals are indeed a strikingly social enterprise, and the communal nature of daimista congregations is thought to benefit all involved. The language of daimista faith employs what MacRae terms “familial ideology”, further enhancing the idea of close relationships between ritual participants.

While the newer urban-professional constituency of SD doesn’t follow this communitarian ideal in full, SD churches nevertheless retain strong communal aspects. These ties are supported by the oft-observed ability of classic psychedelics to support social connection.

The tight-knit character of SD communities nevertheless presents distinct quandaries, such as communal conflicts and rivalries that can linger for years without reaching resolution, or even the breakup of communities.

The intense, viscerally challenging nature of SD ritual acts as an additional catalyst for communal intimacy. Members often feel an intensified sense of camaraderie and intimacy after battling together for entire nights to achieve victory.

Strong interpersonal links are also required for SD church activities to run smoothly, such as organizing long and frequent hymnary works, or entertaining visiting entourages.

The long-term nature of relationships within SD communities supports the creation of long-term social settings, which tend to be dynamic, changing and evolving across the years. This gives rise to intriguing implications regarding the mind-altering properties of social relationships themselves.

Contact high is a phenomenon that occurs in long-standing entheogenic communities, where members have repeatedly entered altered states of consciousness. This phenomenon is readily predicted and explained by the conditional nature of placebo response.

Some daimistas continue visiting works even when their faith or desire to drink daime are attenuated, solely in order to reconvene with dear friends. This can profoundly complicate the relationship between ritual, social contacts, and psychoactive sacrament.


The subject of post-session integration has lately received growing attention in scholarly and popular discourse on psychedelics, and is defined as the environment to which a person returns after a psychedelic experience.

The living conditions to which daimistas return after rituals are as varied as the communities and the different circumstances of their members.

The SD religion offers certain fundamentals for the processing and integration of the entheogenic experiences. The divine status accorded to SD ritual leads to favorable interpretations of transpired events, reinterpreting even difficult events as potentially ‘healing,’ ‘purging’ or otherwise beneficial.

When Set and Setting Goes Wrong

The SD set and setting might be less than perfect for some individuals, especially LGBTQ individuals or non-Christians upset by frequent references to Christian figures.

This section addresses some potential trappings of the set and setting of SD, demonstrating how these strengths can turn into weaknesses.

Daimistas can be incredibly devoted to serving their congregation in the spiritual battlefield of ritual, but they can also become too zealous – committed to the point of injury – because this is what ritual calls for.

Daimistas need to be aware of the possibility of spiritual injury when they push themselves too hard and obliterate their needs. This can lead to exhaustion, a mental ‘overdose’, and the need to distance oneself from rituals.

SD works are ideally orderly and well-held, but a strict adherence to ritual protocol can feel constricting to some. Allowing elements of disorder to express themselves can thus prove vital for the current of the work.

Excessive ordering in spiritual settings can lead to feelings of guilt, inadequacy and shame, or resistance toward doctrinal rules. SD churches need to strike a balance between structure and order to keep the current flowing smoothly and harmoniously.

Psychedelics are often described as ego dissolving, ego-eradicating pharmacological tools, but they may under some circumstances also intensify and augment egoic structures.

SD ritual aims to diminish the ego, but the architecture of SD ritual space, the feeling of being observed, and the potentially ego-enhancing effects of psychedelics may end up not obliterating but augmenting an ego preoccupied with questions such as how one is heard, viewed, thought of etc.

SD ritual setting can go wrong in several ways, but informed and conscientious members should always avoid the traps of set and setting.


Ayahuasca effects are profoundly mediated through complex layers of intentions, expectations, visual, auditory, and symbolic environments, social and cultural systems, etc. These contextual factors produce a distinct form of experience, which is often markedly different from other contextual environments.

This paper explores the crucial role of elements that have so far been overlooked in the analysis of SD ritual. It offers a first of its kind analysis which contextualizes SD ritual using insights from the literature on set and setting and the social and cultural history of SD.

Study details

Compounds studied


Authors associated with this publication with profiles on Blossom

Ido Hartogsohn
Ido Hartogsohn is a writer and assistant professor at the program for Science, Technology and Society at Bar Ilan University. In his work he focuses on the set and setting (context) of a psychedelic experience.

PDF of Set and Setting in the Santo Daime