Macuna - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. According to the Macuna, the world and everything in it were created by four godlike mythical heroes (Ayawa mesa) and the Ancestral Mother of all people, referred to as the Woman Shaman (Romi Cumu). The sexual union between the mythical heroes and the Ancestral Mother gave birth to the first clan ancestors. The mythical heroes are manifest today in thunder and lightning, whereas the Ancestral Mother is alternatively conceived of as a star constellation (the Pleiades) or the earth itself. The celestial bodies—sun, moon, and stars—play a significant role in mythology. The mythical heroes and first clan ancestors are mystically represented by the yurupari instruments that are brought forth and played during the most important of Macuna rituals. According to myth, the Woman Shaman owned the primordial yurupari instruments. These were later stolen from her by the mythical heroes, who thus established the present social order of male supremacy. The clan ancestors were believed to have the form of huge anacondas, which transformed into people. The Macuna think of all animals as sharing certain fundamental spiritual properties with people; animals once were and still are—in another mode of perception—people. Hence, interaction with the animal world is guided by the same fundamental principles of reciprocity that guide human social interaction. Traditional religion is still vigorous and continues to be practiced.

Religious Practitioners. The important religious functionaries are the shaman ( cumu/yai ), the chanter ( yuam ), and the ritual dancer ( baya). Their presence is necessary at every collective religious ritual. The shaman mediates between people and the spiritual beings. There are shamans who specialize exclusively in managing the relations between this world and the spirit world of ancestors and mythical beings. Other shamans are fundamentally healers; it is their duty to cure afflicted people. The chanter is the "voice" of the shaman. Whereas the services of the shaman are required continuously, the chanter's role is essentially limited to ritual performances. The chanter ceremoniously recounts the mythical creation story, which is dramatically reenacted during the major dance rituals. The dancer is the lead dancer during all collective rituals. Today only men hold these important ritual offices, but it is said that in the past there were several female shamans.

Ceremonies. The Macuna have a rich ritual life. The major stages in the individual's life cycle—birth, initiation, and death—are accompanied by ritual acts. Perhaps the major Macuna ritual is the male initiation rite—a collective, public, and large-scale ritual during which the ancient yurupari instruments are shown to the initiates. Other major communal rituals are the exchange ritual (referred to as dabucurí in the literature), at which smoked meat, fish, and forest fruits are exchanged between affinally related groups, and the spectacular spirit dance ( baile de muñeco ), which is held during the harvest season of the chontaduro -palm fruit. During this dance, men and male children wear masks and bark-cloth costumes representing 100 or so different animal spirits and mythical beings. Throughout the year, other communal-dance rituals are held, during which the male dancers wear ceremonial headdresses of macaw feathers and the down, plumes, hairs, and bones of other animals.

During the rituals, only ceremonial foods are consumed: coca, tobacco, locally brewed beer, and occasionally the hallucinogenic drug yage. All these communal rituals dramatize and symbolically reenact mythical events related to the creation of the world and the people inhabiting it; the ancestral beings are brought back to life, represented by the dancers, and the maloca turns into mythical space, the cosmos itself.

Arts. Macuna art is fundamentally embodied in their crafts, architecture, and ceremonial property. Body painting and decoration of ceremonial regalia are basically geometrical. These arts are fundamentally structured by collective tradition but leave room for individual creativity. Pottery is undecorated, and there are no sculptured or graphic representations of deities. In the Macuna territory, there are ancient petroglyphs elaborated by those to whom the Macuna refer as "ancestral people."

Medicine. A characteristic feature of the Macuna, distinguishing them from many other Tucanoan groups, is that they utilize no plant medicines. Prevention and healing of illness basically involve the practice of blowing and silent chanting over foods, drinks, or certain magical substances. These acts of blowing and chanting can be performed by any knowledgeable adult man. Certain serious afflictions are treated by curing shamans ( yaia ; lit., "jaguars") who suck out the disease agent (usually a dart) or remove it by pouring blessed water over the patient. The Macuna disease etiology centers on food as the fundamental disease agent. All food is considered inherently dangerous; it has to be blessed by blowing before eaten. Most diseases are believed to be caused by eating food that has not been properly blessed.

Death and Afterlife. At death, the soul is believed to wander off to the sky world or down into the underworld and finally, on the earth, settle in the ancestral birth house ("peoples' waking-up house") of its clan. The Macuna believe that, at birth, the soul of a deceased grandparent enters the newborn baby, who receives the name of its soul giver; there thus exists among the Macuna a belief in the reincarnation of souls in alternate generations. The funerary ritual, like the birth ritual, is essentially a private ceremony. The body of the deceased is buried in the longhouse. The grave consists of a deep hole with a cave on one side, where the corpse is placed. After the burial, the shaman burns bees' wax in the house. The smoke is said to carry away the soul of the dead. The ritual is referred to as the "throwing away of sorrow."

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