Kuikuru - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Gods cannot be said to exist in Kuikuru religion, but Sun is a culture hero of considerable importance. Sun, the older twin brother of Moon, created all the "Wild Indians" and also taught the Kuikuru many of their arts and crafts as well as several of their customs. But Sun no longer intervenes in human affairs. The Kuikuru believe in a large number of spirits ( etseke ), most of whom are associated with a variety of animals and a few trees. As a rule, spirits are ill disposed toward people and therefore dangerous. Anyone except a shaman who comes face to face with a spirit is liable to sicken and die. Harm comes not only from the malevolence of the evil spirits but also from witches, who are deemed to be actual individuals living in the village.

Religious Practitioners. The shaman is the only supernatural practitioner. His main function is to diagnose and treat illness, including soul loss and ailments brought on by witchcraft. A shaman is aided in his practice by spirit helpers, whom he contacts by smoking tobacco and through the use of religious paraphernalia, especially a gourd rattle. A shaman may also be asked to locate lost or stolen objects and to determine the identity of a thief or a witch. He is paid for his services, but not in food—he engages in normal subsistence activities, like other men.

Ceremonies. The Kuikuru have some seventeen ceremonies, all of them named after a particular spirit. Yet a ceremony is never performed to attract or placate its spirit. Indeed, the Kuikuru prefer not to have a spirit attend his ceremony, lest people see him and die as a result. Each ceremony is organized by a ceremonial team consisting of the owner, who must give permission to have his ceremony performed and then provide food and drink during it; petitioners, who formally request the owner to allow it to be held and then help arrange the performance; and musicians, who play the instruments and sing the songs associated with the ceremony. The most important ceremony in which the Kuikuru take part is Kuarup, the Feast of the Dead, which takes place during the dry season, rotating among the nine villages of the upper Xingu. Each year, the eight other upper-Xingu villages gather at the host village to help commemorate persons of the chiefly line from that village who have died since the ceremony was last held there. This ceremony, which takes place in the evening, is followed the next morning by intertribal wrestling, during which an upper Xingu champion usually emerges.

Medicine. The Kuikuru regard most illness as supernaturally caused. Witchcraft is blamed for many ailments, from toothaches to fatal illnesses. An invisible magical dart blown into the victim is the sorcerer's principal weapon. For serious ailments, the shaman is called upon for diagnosis and treatment. Lesser complaints are treated by the ill person or a close relative, using mainly medicinal plants gathered from the forest.

Death and Afterlife. The death of a person occasions a villagewide funerary rite. Sewn into its hammock, the corpse is carried around inside its house and then taken outside and buried in a grave dug in the plaza. Most people are buried, flexed and wrapped in their hammock, in a cylindrical grave. However, anetï, persons of a chiefly line, have a more elaborate grave. Two cylindrical holes are dug 3 or 4 meters apart and then connected by a tunnel. A post is set into the bottom of each hole and the hammock containing the anetï's corpse is then strung through the tunnel and tied at each end to the posts. After this, the holes are filled in and the grave is temporarily marked with a low log fence of hourglass shape.

The village of the dead is said to be in the sky, directly overhead, and the journey to it involves hazards and obstacles that the soul must avoid or surmount if it is to reach its destination. Should the soul slip and fall while crossing a slippery log bridge, for example, it would go up in a puff of smoke and disappear forever. Once in the village of the dead, a recently arrived soul is nurtured and brought back to health. It then continues to live there, enjoying a life not unlike that on earth, but easier and more pleasant. Kuikuru souls in the village of the dead are occasionally attacked by the souls of the dead birds, however, which live in their own village nearby. If killed in such a raid, a Kuikuru soul ceases to exist.

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