Desana - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The shamanic universe consists of three superimposed layers: the celestial vault, our earth, and the netherworld; each one can be subdivided into smaller units. The most important part of the heavens is the Milky Way—a stream, a fissure, a calendar, a celestial anaconda. In shamanic language, the universe is an immense womb shaped like a hexagonal rock crystal, inside which is an abstract cosmic brain charged with energies. This brain is represented by the sun (Sun Father), the origin of all fertilizing forces. The entire universe is conceived as a circuit of energy flow of limited potential. The task of human beings is to maintain this flow by balancing all ecological aspects so that the interaction between humankind and the physical and social environment will not be upset. There is no sun cult but a strong awareness of human/nature interdependency, expressed in the control of all exploitative activities. Belief in the Master of Animals is widespread, and fear of his retaliations constitutes an effective control of overhunting. He is often associated or confused with other forest or river spirits, some of them appearing as cannibalistic monsters or doppelgängers. Small, koboldlike night spirits are considered frightening but rather harmless.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans tend to specialize in ritual dancing and singing, in reciting genealogies, divination, healing, casting spells, and other esoteric activities. All of them exercise control over hunting, fishing, and harvesting strategies and have a keen understanding of local ecological problems. Catholic and Protestant missionaries have had little influence upon shamanic beliefs and practices.

Ceremonies. The principal metaphysical experience is provided by collective rituals during which the men take hallucinogenic substances ( Banisteriopsis, Virola ) under the guidance of shamans and elders. On their ecstatic flights the participants return to the cosmic womb and visit different dimensions in which they become witnesses to cosmogonic episodes. Male initiation rituals introduce the novices into the complex lore referring to the historical origins and importance of exogamy and male dominance. Periodic exchange rituals between complementary exogamic groups reaffirm lineage origins and alliances. In all these ceremonies, hallucinogenic substances play a major role.

Arts. Dancing, singing, and recitals are major art forms. Many objects, both for ritual and for everyday use, are decorated with design motifs derived from phosphenes perceived during hallucinatory trances. Since many of these motifs are culturally coded with reference to marriage rules and fertility concepts, this applied art constitutes a body of visual reminders of important cultural truths. The shamanic orchestration of multiple sensorial experiences in collective ceremonies during which hallucinogenic substances are consumed is an important artistic manifestation.

Medicine. Herbal lore is highly developed, and the Indians' knowledge of ethnobotany (pharmacology, toxicology, narcotica, etc.) is one of the least-known but most important aspects of Desana culture. Shamanic diagnostic practices include crystal gazing and the interpretation of dreams and hallucinations. Curing practices combine medicinal plants, dietary restrictions, chants, blowing of smoke, aspersing with water, and the sucking out of supposedly pathogenic substances.

Death and Afterlife. Death originated in mythical times as a result of incest and adultery. Canoe or pit burial is the rule, sometimes inside the maloca. The soul-stuff wanders over a perilous trial to a land of blissful annihilation or, in the case of a person who led a sinful life, he or she is transformed into an animal and thus enters the dark abodes of the Master of Animals, to replenish his charges. Funeral ceremonies are of little importance and consist mainly of shamanic spells and chants. Old people are sometimes abandoned on an uninhabited river island or in an isolated spot in the forest.

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