Amuesha - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Even before the arrival of the first Franciscan missionaries, Amuesha religion was syncretistic. Sun worship—borrowed from the Incas—was superimposed on the typical jungle aboriginal animistic beliefs. The early missionaries left numerous traces of their work in Amuesha mythology. Our Grandfather God is the supreme creator; his jealous classificatory brother Yosoper (Lucifer) created the reverse, evil counterpart of everything good. Our Fathers and, especially, Our Father the Sun, give life and breath and strength to humanity. The priestly leader led his people in ceremonial dances "making merry" to Our Father the Sun. At other times they made merry when a beautiful bird flew into the clearing to implore him to deliver messages from Our Father. Our Mother the Moon is of lesser importance. In addition, there are many demons and evil spirits as well as numerous animate and inanimate spirits. Most Amuesha in this century have been baptized by Catholic priests but have little understanding of the meaning of the ceremony except as a means to acquire a Spanish name. Beginning about 1960 small evangelical congregations were formed under indigenous leadership. Thirteen churches are now organized into two Amuesha presbyteries within the Evangelical Church of Peru.

Religious Practitioners. Until the mid-twentieth century the priestly leaders had considerable standing; they led the people in making cooperative gardens and in worship around the local temples. Shamans also enjoyed considerable status and influence, because they had contact with the jaguar spirits and other supernatural beings. There are also diviners who ascertain the cause of illness, receive messages and songs from Our Father, and advise on momentous problems, through chewing coca leaves. Today the Christian pastors share the leadership of the churches with the laity.

Ceremonies. The full moon—which provided light for dancing—was the occasion for most parties to "make merry to Our Father the Sun." Another important rite is the party at the full moon after a girl has been secluded for several weeks (or even several months) in a small leaf room following the onset of puberty.

Arts. Singing and playing the panpipes were important parts of Amuesha ceremonies and continue on a small scale in several communities. Amuesha designs were seen in intricately woven wristbands, which are rarely worn these days. Some men used the same designs in making the crowns that they wore on festive occasions and the carved wooden paddles used to stamp designs on the face.

Medicine. Until the mid-twentieth century children were accused of burning bones, a form of witchcraft, and severely punished or even killed if another relative died. Disease is also believed to be caused by the spirits of the dead; until recently, bodies were sometimes exhumed and cremated. Spirits in termite nests, the water, rocks, and so forth also cause illness. It is the duty of close relatives to burn the offending element to effect a cure. Herbal medicines and the efforts of shamans were also used. Today, Western medical help is usually sought, but shamans and specialists in medicinal herbs continue to practice.

Death and Afterlife. The Amuesha spirit was believed to be taken to heaven after death, whereas the "shadow spirit" lingered around the dwelling of the deceased or around the grave and caused close relatives to become ill. There was little ceremony connected with a burial. Today there is a wake with burial the next day, more or less following Peruvian custom.

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