Matsigenka - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. A Creator made the world by mounding up mud into land. He contended with a Trickster figure who created the bad things of this world, like biting flies. Many animals are the degenerated descendants of humans who violated norms in the past, for instance by theft or incest. Not all, but many features of the world are imbued with spirit. Animals have spirit rulers that must be appeased if one of their kind has been killed. Various demons, often with enlarged penises, haunt the forests and are especially dangerous to women, whom they can impregnate with a demon child. The alkaloid hallucinogen ayahuasca ( kamarampi ; lit., "death medicine") is ingested to allow the spirit to fly to the land of the Unseen Ones, spirit helpers who can inhabit one's body and perform cures, divine the future, and give instruction. The soul also lives on after death and can reach a better layer of the cosmos if not eaten by dangerous spirits during its postmortem journey. The heroically good (and bad) figures who created the world are no longer active. Good and bad spirits continue to be present, especially away from inhabited areas. Some shamans practice sorcery to bring harm to others, but these are generally thought to reside far away in other communities.

Ceremonies. Ceremonial life is minimal. Curing and spiritual encounters are conducted by individuals in the privacy of their homes. Beer feasts are occasions for drunkenness, music and dance, and ribald humor blending into ridicule and humiliation, but they do not invoke spiritual forces. Calendrical festivals and ancestor worship are absent.

Arts. The Matsigenka are good singers; they sing in groups of up to four, with hypnotic repetitions and counterpoint. Drums, flutes, and panpipes are widely used. When drinking manioc beer, men drum in rapid 4/4 time and dance by darting and whirling around the clearing. Women dance by walking behind the men, holding hands, and singing. Men and women occasionally decorate their faces with achiote (annatto). In the most traditional areas, women still wear small silver nosepieces. Cotton cloth is usually decorated with small geometric designs in the weave. Sculpture, painting, and other plastic arts are lacking, as is pottery.

Medicine. A large number of herbal remedies are known, many of the most common from plants raised for that purpose in kitchen gardens. Shamans identify spiritual causes of illness and treat them by sucking magic darts or blowing smoke and by invoking the powers of friendly spirits.

Death and Afterlife. Death can occur through natural or supernatural causes. If the soul dies through attack by an evil spirit, the body will wither and die. In any case, the soul will linger in sorrow near the house of the deceased. The house must be burned down and the remainder of the family must move away so the soul will have no reason to linger and will begin its journey to the higher level of the cosmos, where people live just as they do here on earth but without suffering or death.


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