Canelos Quichua - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Transformation ( tucuna ) is crucial in understanding relationships among animate essences of inanimate substances and spiritual essences in interaction with soul substances. Unai (mythic time-space) provides a rich cosmographic source of contemporary and ancient knowledge; callarirucuguna (beginning times-places) embraces the period of transformation from unai to times of destruction and times of the ancestors. The future is thought of both as a continuation of the past and present and as a pending transformation of the initial chaos of unai. One origin myth of the Canelos Quichua is that of an incestuous brother-sister relationship between the moon (male) and the Potoo bird (female); part of this myth involves the origin of pottery clay.

The origin of the kinship system is told in mythic segments that deal with the transformation of the Anaconda from the human penis. Soul ( aya ) and spirit ( supai ) are fundamental concepts that apply to both eschatological knowledge and quotidian life. Humans and spirits interact when one or the other moves to a new plane of existence. Spirits have souls, just as humans do. Three spirit masters serve as focal symbols by which patterned transformations in the spirit would occur. Amasanga is forest-spirit master; his/her transformation is the dangerous master spirit of other people who live in other territories. Sungui is the spirit master of the hydrosphere and first shaman. Nungwi, a strictly feminine spirit, is master of garden soil and pottery clay. Canelos Quichua must balance experiential knowledge ( ricsina ) with cultural knowledge ( yachana ) and visionary experience ( muscuna ) with learning ( yuyana ). Central to the transformative paradigm involving these critical concepts is the yachaj, the "one who knows," the "possessor of knowledge." This concept often means "shaman" when applied to males, but may also be used to refer to master potters.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans (male) and master potters (female) constitute the twin nodes of ongoing interpretation through which the system of parallel transmission of cultural knowledge takes place.

Ceremonies. The ayllu festival is held once or twice a year in all hamlets where a Catholic chapel or shrine exists. In it is enacted the cosmogony of the Canelos Quichua, their embeddedness in Catholic and national hegemony, and the invocation of the ultimate source of power, the hydrosphere, as embodied by the Anaconda ( amarun ), which may break all bonds of hegemony but contains within itself the genesis of destruction and reemergence of chaos.

Arts. All Canelos Quichua women are potters who manufacture a very fine ware that seems, according to archaeological evidence, to derive from ancient red-banded ware associated with westward-moving Tupí migrations. The potters make black ware for cooking and serving cooked foods, and polychrome ware for storing and serving manioc brew ( asua ). The sporadic art markets for fine and crude ceramics provide income to many families, and there is considerable innovation, within traditional boundaries, regarding the size and shapes of vessels made for sale. Men make blowgun quivers, darts, net bags, fish nets, traps, canoes and paddles, carving boards, feather headdresses, and wooden bowls and pestles for pounding manioc mash. Many men and women traditionally wove small bands for blowgun quivers. Blowguns are usually acquired from the Achuar, as is curare dart poison which, in turn, the Achuar acquire from the Cocama.

In 1975 Canelos Quichua men in the Puyo area began experimenting with carved animals and birds for the ethnic-arts market, and carving balsa birds has become a major occupation of many families, allowing them a degree of financial independence.

Medicine. Shamans use Banisteriopsis caapi, called ayahuasca (soul vine), in curing and diagnosing illness. Individuals occasionally use Brugmansia suaveolens ( wanduj ) in lone quests within the spirit world. Many other medicines from the rain forest are known and utilized.

Death and Afterlife. Death is associated with the malign action of evil individuals in interaction with evil spirits. The soul leaves the dying person through the mouth as death approaches and remains in the vicinity of the corpse for the one to three days and nights of a wake. To interact with the soul, those not in the immediate ayllu of the deceased play games, some with maize or black beans, but the major one being with a carved die called "canoe." The body is interred along a west-east cardinal line and begins an underground and underwater trip with its soul, over the course of which many transformations of the soul's inanimate existence take place. Souls visit the living, may be captured by a spirit, and may exist in various domains.

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