Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo de la Serpiente) is a newly released film based in part on the experiences of ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes (author of Synergetic Press’ Vine of the Soul) in Colombian Amazonia. The film, directed by 34-year-old Ciro Guerra, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in the 88th Academy Awards and is the first film from Colombia to ever be nominated. Guerra poured through the early diaries of the first foreign scientists to live and work with the native people of the Amazon, was drawn in by the writings of Richard Evans Schultes and Theodor Koch-Grünberg, and based the film on their accounts.
Embrace of the Serpent tells the story of an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate who is the last surviving member of his tribe. Karamakate travels with ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg in search of a sacred plant at the beginning of the twentieth century and then again goes on the same search decades later with ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. Schultes, who is known as the father of modern ethnobotany, came to the Amazon to research the plants used by the indigenous population. The comprehensive writings, notes, and photographs left by Schultes provide an intimate look into the Amazonian world.
The way Schultes documented his experiences with plant medicines was encyclopedic. Early interest in the rainforest and plant medicines influenced his academic career from the beginning. While studying at Harvard, Schultes wrote his senior undergraduate thesis on ritual use of the peyote cactus among the Kiowa. His research led him to uncover the identity of mystical mushroom species in Mexico for his doctoral thesis. He was the first person to study ayahuasca academically, and his work in the rainforest brought global attention to the destruction taking place in the Amazon.
In Schultes’ classic book Vine of the Soul: Medicine Men, Their Plants and Rituals in the Colombian Amazonia, he details the world of Amazonian sacred, healing plants. This mystical photographic essay is accompanied by detailed descriptions of the Amazon Indians’ use of medicinal and other sacred plant substances, and their active chemical ingredients.
“Although exploitation of medicinal plants has become a political issue in much of the world during the last decade at a time when there are many serious questions regarding the exploitation of native peoples, it is refreshing to find the essays written with such an obvious respect for the payés, their belief systems, and their extensive knowledge of plants. Schultes conducted his field research in an open and straightforward fashion, taking a direct approach to the communities he worked with, and demonstrating his respect for their customs and beliefs.”
–Indigenous Nations Journal, Vol 6, No. 1, Spring 2008
“Quite simply a masterpiece… Vine of the Soul deserves to be read by everyone interested in rainforests, indigenous peoples, shamanism, hallucinogens, ethnomedicine and conservation.”
—Mark Plotkin, President, Amazon Conservation Team
As the Academy Award nomination of Embrace of the Serpent shows, interest in the healing plants of the Amazon is at an all-time high throughout the world. The information originally obtained and organized by Schultes himself remains one of the most valuable resources we can access. Through books such as Vine of the Soul we’re able to explore and uncover the rainforest world where healing with plants is the norm, and ritual and magic play essential roles in everyday life.
To dive deeper into the world of Amazonian sacred plant medicines, explore a copy of Vine of the Soul: Medicine Men, Their Plants and Rituals in the Colombian Amazonia by Richard Evans Schultes.