Apalai - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditional Apalai religion is based on the belief in various categories of primal beings, creators, and founders of social norms. Their deeds are recounted in a complex series of mythical narratives, among which those relating to Mopό, a culture hero, are particularly prominent. Myths further recount the origin of natural elements and refer to cultural values. A great deal of influence is exerted on Apalai life by the spirits of the forest, the jorokó, and by supernatural water spirits, the ipore, among whom Okoiimó, the Anaconda, stands out as the paradigm of supernatural beings.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans possess knowledge of curing practices. There is a hierarchy of shamans that includes specialists who attract game animals and ensure a good harvest as well as specialists in herbal medicine and food exorcism. Other specialists lead singers or dancers in rituals. Old men are regarded as keepers of knowledge about myths and traditions.

Ceremonies. Contemporary Apalai ceremonies are indistinguishable from those of the Wayana, because of the small Apalai population and the ongoing process of fusion. There are two main groups of festivities; those consecrated to the flutes, lué, and those of female and male initiation, the latter being the most important. The puberty rituals are referred to as okomoman in Wayanan and as festa da tocandeira in Portuguese. The rituals are conducted according to Wayana custom, although the Apalai now have a similar ceremony where songs are sung to the arrows ( pyrau eremiry), masks are worn, and basketry frames containing ants or wasps that represent supernatural beings are applied to the skin.

Arts. The arts, including rhetoric, song, dance, music, and the visual arts, constitute one of the privileged axes of Apalai life. Handicrafts and body decoration assume a multiplicity of forms. Decorative motifs, generically called menurú are of mythic origin. They were obtained from the skin of the supernatural Anaconda and are believed to be its body painting, even though individually each motif represents a supernatural or primal being.

Medicine. Therapeutic practices are related to shamanic cures. In curing, the use of medicinal herbs, food taboos and restrictions in behavior and sexual abstinence are of equal importance. The shaman, piaxi, is a person who acts as a mediator between the world of human needs and the dangerous realm of superhuman forces, especially the jorokó spirits, which cause illnes. Curing shamans use tobacco and rattles; this is a characteristic element of Apalai shamanism, which is recognized and well known in the western Guianas. Western medical examinations, vaccines, and medicines are well tolerated by the Apalai, but surgery and hospitalization are not.

Death and Afterlife. Serious illness and death are believed to be the result of the actions of malevolent beings: shamans, spirits, or supernatural beings. The Apalai traditionally buried their dead in the home or abandoned a shaman's corpse in the forest. The village had to be abandoned after many deaths had occurred or upon the death of a chief or a shaman. Nowadays, the missionaries have persuaded the Indians to have a cemetery in the vicinity of "Apalai Village." After death, the vital elements of a person have different destinies. That which is found in the seat of knowledge, the eye, disappears at death, but that which is found on the back of a person and manifests itself as his or her shadow leaves the body and begins a long and dangerous journey to the land of the dead, where it reunites with the ancestors.

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