Religious Beliefs. Traditional religious beliefs centered on ancestral spirits and the laws of the ancestors; the creative and generative relations among humans, animals, and the spirit world; a profound faith in the abilities of shamans and ritual specialists to mediate between humans and the deities, in exceptional cases incorporating the powers of the highest deities; and a cosmic history remembered in sacred myths, which recounts the heroic deeds of the deities and the creation of the world through various cataclysmic destructions and renewals. The most important deities of Wakuenai religion are a Transformer/Creator/Trickster/Seer-Shaman who dwells in the highest level of the cosmos, about whom there is an elaborate mythology organized in several cycles; the Creator's son, an extraordinary human/animal/spirit being whose body consists of all material things, who imparts sacred knowledge to humanity and whose song opened the world to its present form; the patron of shamans; the owner of the earth, who began the cultivation of gardens; the Anaconda Lord of Earthly Waters; and a legion of lesser water, earth, and air spirits that both help and harm humanity. The cosmos consists of approximately ten tiers of heaven, earth, and below-the-earth, each inhabited by a different class of spirits. These beliefs have served as the basis for millenarian movements since the mid-nineteenth century. Christian missionaries have greatly modified these beliefs—in many cases undermining them altogether, in others superimposing Christian notions on preexisting beliefs (e.g., millenarianism), reinforcing the latter rather than completely destroying them.
Religious Practitioners. Traditionally, shamans were key figures in Wakuenai culture. There is a hierarchy of shamans differentiated by levels of knowledge and capacity, from the most powerful "seers," prophetic and sometimes messianic figures, to lesser shamans able to perform limited kinds of cures. There is also a class of specialists, "spell-owners," similarly differentiated by degrees of knowledge, whose function is to perform spells and chants, from the most elaborate set of chants and spell blowing at rites of passage to the simplest curing spell. A third specialization is that of the ritual-dance leader, who leads ceremonial dances and songs in the annual cycle of festivals. The elders are well versed in Wakuenai myths and lore, and, as a class, elder men form the core of dance lines at initiation rites. Among Catholics, the catechists serve as intermediaries between the missions and communities; among Protestants, pastors, deacons, and elders proselytize, preach the gospel, lead the community in prayer, and organize the cycle of religious meetings and services.
Ceremonies. The traditional ceremonial cycle consisted of a series of festivals of exchange, named in accordance with the principal dance instrument used, and held whenever there was a surplus of wild fruits, fish, or game, generally among affinal groups. The most important of these were the initiation rituals, held in the early wet season, when sacred flutes and trumpets were played. In another, the Surubi festival, named after a type of fish, flutes made to resemble these fish were played; these flutes were distinctive to the Wakuenai. Mission-introduced festivals have largely replaced the traditional cycle, but, in certain areas, their revitalization is a powerful force in affirming ethnic identity and protesting domination by outsiders, as were the millenarian dances of the past century.
Arts. Ceremonial singing, ritual chanting, the playing of ritual instruments, myth telling, ornamentation and body painting, and—in prehistoric times—petroglyphs were among the important art forms.
Medicine. Traditional medicine is based on herbal remedies, curing rituals by shamans and spell-owners, and dietary restrictions. In general, illness is seen as a process of partial disintegration of the soul and curing as its restoration. Evangelical missionaries have insisted, not entirely successfully, on the exclusive use of Western medicines, whereas among Catholics, traditional medicine has developed in conjuction with the introduction of Western medicine.
Death and Afterlife. Serious illness and death are believed to be the result of sorcery, malevolent spirits, or the failure to observe ritual restrictions. At death, the two parts of a person's soul separate, the collective animal-shaped soul becoming integrated to sib ancestral houses of animal souls, whereas the individual, human-body-shaped soul, after passage through a dark netherworld of shades, is purified by fire and then journeys to the celestial paradise of the Creator, where it is reunited with its collective ancestral soul. A similar process of polarization of souls is believed to occur with animal and bird species. Traditionally, funeral rites and secondary burial were important practices.