Amahuaca - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Amahuaca believe that Indian peoples were first nonhuman animals and that they themselves originated from a xopaan, the gourdlike fruit of a begonia. Their principal culture hero, Rantanga, is equated with the sun and regarded as the source of fire, cultivated plants, and stone axes, as well as the creator of animals. Themes of Amahuaca myths include floods, earthquake, holocaust, an arrow-cane ladder to the sky, ancestral twins, the sun and moon as incestuous siblings, and female frog spirits with vagina dentata. Eclipses warn of the imminent arrival of cannibalistic spirits. A deformed baby is thought to be sired by an incubus spirit. The universe is inhabited by a host of spirits ( yoshin ) that are feared but can be manipulated. The most dangerous animal spirits are those of predators. Celestial bodies, including aurora borealis, are spirits of people who once lived on earth. Angry spirits of the dead ancestors can kill the living with epidemic diseases.

Ceremonies. At about the age of 3 years a youngster's ears and nasal septum are pierced for ornaments. Adolescent boys are expected to participate in an ordeal of wasp stings. Harvests of the main crops are marked by festivals to which relatives from a neighboring hamlet are invited. After many days and nights of singing and dancing to ripen a crop, a large quantity of soup is jointly prepared by men of the host group and served to all. To communicate with tutelary jaguar spirits or friendly ancestors, adult men drink a decoction of ayahuasca and chant throughout the night. Datura is smoked with tobacco for the same purpose.

Arts. Various geometric designs are painted in red and black on the body, on bamboo arrow blades, and on headbands and are incised on wooden clubs and occasionally on ceremonial bowls. The only musical instruments are small three-hole bamboo "flutes" (recorders) and tiny musical bows.

Medicine. A healer ( hawaai ) drinks ayahuasca and blows smoke into a patient's nostrils. By swallowing powdered tobacco and ayahuasca, he can send his jaguar alter ego to retrieve a lost soul. A childless woman who does not menstruate may eat sour seeds of a certain fruit or be beaten lightly with a paddle club to induce menstruation and pregnancy. To help infants grow fast, become strong, and learn to walk, mothers rub juice of genipa fruit or leaves from sturdy plants on their skin. Soup is blown or vomited onto the bodies of youngsters during harvest ceremonies to make them strong. Nasal and head congestion are treated with tobacco blown through a short, bone snuff tube, one end of which is inserted in one's mouth and the other in the nose. A virulent toxin secreted through the skin of a small frog called kambó is rubbed into open wounds to bring visions, purge the body, and increase hunting skill. Infusions of aromatic plants are rubbed on the skin to increase hunting success by camouflaging body odor. Individuals use chants and many kinds of fruits, seeds, leaves, and roots to treat their own illnesses, as well as to make them irresistible to a desired mate or repel an unwanted spouse. Scratching the caudal scales of a boa constrictor is thought to lessen the pain of stings by large black ants in the gardens.

Death and Afterlife. The body of a deceased person is buried temporarily in the house floor and then cremated after relatives arrive from other communities. The ashes are reburied and charcoal from the funeral pyre is thrown into the river. Fragments of charred bones and teeth are ground, mixed with soup, and consumed by the closest relative. To remove all reminders of the deceased and discourage the spirit from lingering, personal possessions are burned or broken, including garden crops and the house built by the deceased. Spirits of dead relatives are thought to fly to a place in the sky near the sun, where hunting is easy and they visit with others who have preceded them.

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