Emberá and Wounaan - Religious and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. According to Mennonite missionary Jacob Loewen (1975, 129-132), the Emberá and Wounaan make no distinction between the physical and the metaphysical or between the material and the spiritual, believing that humans, animals, plants, and even natural phenomena have jai —generally sexless, amorphic spirits or souls that may or may not be harmful. They are the carriers of witchcraft but also the shaman's tools for both good and evil. Two personified spirit powers stand in an antithetical relationship to each other: Ewandama is the good, the creator god; Tiauru is the mischievous or evil opponent. Missionary activity, from Baptists, Mennonites, and Catholics, has greatly changed religious beliefs since the 1950s. Most Indians acknowledge Christian concepts of sin, heaven, and hell but maintain past beliefs and traditions.

Religious Practitioners. Certain religious beliefs center on the shaman ( jaibaná in Emberá/bënk'AAn in Wounaan), who, with knowledge of the medicinal, toxic, and hallucinogenic properties of plants and animals, cures with herbal remedies and by exorcising spirits. The intervention of jai is decisive for determining the causal agent of sickness. Shamans can contact these spirits to improve, alter, or worsen life's conditions. Their powers are sought to "open" rivers for settlement by "cleansing" them of evil spirits and dangers. They are not full-time specialists, and only men apprentice as shamans.

Ceremonies. Girls were formerly secluded within the house during their first menstruation; their hair was cut short, and they followed dietary restrictions. Afterward, they were bathed, painted with jagua, and honored with a chicha celebration. No formal marriage ceremonies existed. Today simple celebrations accompany life-cycle events, including baptisms, marriages, deaths, harvests, or the completion of communal work. The villagers play music, dance, and drink large quantities of maize or sugarcane chicha.

Before the dead are buried in village cemeteries, they are wrapped in parumas and placed in small dugouts or wooden caskets for visitation.

Arts. Men play flutes and small drums to accompany women in dances and songs named after and mimicking rain-forest animals.

Medicine. The Emberá and Wounaan continue to use botanical remedies from garden and forest plants for insecticides, purgatives, sedatives, diuretics, and disinfectants (Torres de Araúz 1980, 185). Today health centers with trained health assistants are increasingly common. The comarca had fourteen communities with health centers and twelve Indian health assistants in 1987. Most centers, however, lacked medical supplies, and doctors rarely visit.

Death and Afterlife. The Emberá and Wounaan believe that human souls become spirits in the land "where Ewandama is," but should a soul fail to turn right after death, it will end up in a dark and treacherous place. Incest, sex with Blacks, and child beating are three unpardonable "sins" that cause one's spirit to become harmful (Loewen 1975, 129-132).


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david stiffler
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Feb 14, 2014 @ 8:20 pm
I have learned from fieldwork in the Darien, (August 2013) that at least 2 Embera woman are Jainbanas, one in Puerto Indio and one deceased in Trampa (deceased) and 1 near La Chunga also deceased.

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