Mehinaku - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. The Mehinaku believe that their community is surrounded by spirits in the forest, the rivers, and the air. All of these spirits are potentially malignant, and include those that devour their victims ("spirits that eat") and those that cause illness by stealing away the souls of the villagers. Once induced to return a soul, however, the spirit forms a special relationship with its former victim, who becomes a sponsor of ceremonies on the spirit's behalf. These rituals, in which food and gifts are presented to the sponsor in the spirit's name, are pleasing to the spirit, which refrains from taking the souls of others, and (in some cases) ensures abundant crops. From the perspective of the villagers, there is a reciprocal relationship between them and the spirit world, in which they "take care" of the spirits and are themselves looked after in return.

The Mehinaku are aware of Christian religion and actually had a missionary living in their village for some months during the 1930s. Christianity, however, has had minimal impact on indigenous beliefs. Jesus, for example, is regarded as a spirit like many others in their pantheon. He has, however, a special role in beliefs about the after-life, in that he burns the souls of witches and thieves.

Religious Practitioners. Most of the adult Mehinaku men are shamans. They achieve their status by being taught by an accomplished shaman or by being directly chosen by spirit, who makes the novice shaman ill and remains as a kind of familiar spirit after his recovery. Crucial to being a shaman is tobacco smoking, so much so that the word for smoker is identical to that for shaman ( yetama ). Prior to becoming a shaman, the novice enters a period of seclusion during which he "learns how to smoke." Smoke is the "food of the spirits" and is essential for curing the sick (smoking and curing are also called by the same term). Once out of seclusion, the new shaman joins the circle of shamans who meet each evening in the center of the village. He (a woman may occasionally also become a shaman) is the most junior of the fraternity, and the last one in the line of shamans as they move through the village to cure those who are sick.

Ceremonies. Hardly a day goes by when the villagers are not participating in or preparing for a ceremony. Many of the ceremonies are part of an ongoing effort to propitiate spirits. Characteristically, the ritual involves "bringing the spirit" into the community, which is accomplished by dancers imitating the spirit entering the village from the direction of the forest or the rivers. Once in the village, the dancers perform in the center of the plaza. Their songs, dances, and costumes must be aesthetically pleasing to the spirit. The spirit is usually "fed," often with manioc flour produced from a garden collectively made in the spirit's name. Finally, the spirit is formally asked to leave the village and not to make anyone ill: "Go, go, go back to your home in the forest; do not harm us!"

A second type of ceremony is more political and secular in nature. Centering on the inauguration and mourning of the village chiefs, it requires the participation of the other Xingu tribes to be properly conducted and involves elaborate, yearlong preparations and dancing, wrestling, and trading between members of different Xingu tribes. To a remarkable extent, the political integration of the Xingu cultures is based on a common ceremonial life.

Arts. The villagers have a rich aesthetic life. The visual arts are represented by ceramic pots, sculpted benches, the painting on the beams of houses, and the adornment of the human body. Recurrent, conventionalized designs unify these media. A "piranha-tooth" design, for example, may appear on bowls, benches, and on the backs of wrestlers in the form of body paint. To a degree, the system of designs has a meaning when it adorns individuals, signaling age, sex, and whether the individual is a champion wrestler, a chief, or a shaman.

Medicine. Disease is said to be caused by witchcraft or spirits. Shamans cure the sick by restoring the lost soul ("shadow") of the victim or by removing foreign objects (tiny arrows or bits of material) that were shot into the body of the patient. These objects are produced through sleight of hand and shown to the audience of shamans and the patient's family, who are assured that the sickness will now pass. The Mehinaku also attempt to treat illness with herbal medicines and, increasingly, with the assistance of the medical staff at Posto Leonardo Villas Boas in the Xingu National Park.

Death and Afterlife. The dead are buried in their hammocks, in a grave dug in the center of the village plaza. An invisible road leads from the grave to "the village in the Sky" where the deceased return to the house of their fathers. There, in an immense village, they live in abundance without having to work. There is no gossip, witchcraft, or strife.

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