Pemon - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Pemon traditional beliefs centered on soul concepts, plant and animal spirits, Kanaima (the spirit of evil in all its forms and manifestations), and spirits of the dead ( mawari ). Various celestial and subterranean spirit worlds can only be reached by shamans in ceremonial trance. Spirits of the dead live inside the mountains and can cause harm to the living. Plant spirits, such as the "grandfather of tobacco," are helpers and can be used by a shaman to combat the evil effects of the spirits of the dead. Kanaima, the spirit of evil, is mostly believed to come from outside one's settlement or neighborhood, never from close by, and there is a tendency to implicate non-Pemon outsiders as Kanaima. Kanaima may take possession of a person and cause the person to do evil. Ancestral beings are portrayed in a magnificent oral literature that documents the origin of the Pemon world and its spiritual, geographical, and social aspects. Religious movements led by prophets combining Pemon and Christian beliefs have sprung up over the past 100 years, including Hallelujah, Chimiding, Chochiman, and San Miguel. Shamans cure disease by communicating with the spirit world. Knowledge of plant medicines is commonly held, and masters of magical formulas ( taren ) provide others with specific invocations serving to ward off disease or to ensure a successful outcome from a dangerous situation, such as childbirth. Various food taboos surround pregnancy and the period immediately after the birth of the child; these taboos are to ensure the health of the child and the strength of its soul.

Ceremonies. Dancing and beer accompany Pemon ceremonies, except in Adventist Pemon settlements, where manioc beer is prohibited. Lines of male and female dancers, arms linked, circle inside the round house for Hallelujah ceremonies or traditional dances, while people slip in and out for conversation or a gourdful of manioc beer. Informality is the key to the ceremonial gatherings, which are often held in the dry season. Smaller neighborhood gatherings may occur throughout the year with no fixed schedule. Mission services are attended by some Pemon living at mission sites.

Arts. Storytelling, basketry, and pottery are the principal Pemon art forms, and outstanding persons are recognized in all of these areas for their individual skills. Pemon distinguish quickly between everyday basketry and the more elaborate forms, which can become valued trade items. Some women are renowned for the quality of their clay bowls—the making of pottery is not a skill possessed by many females. Good clay sites are limited. Clay bowls are mainly made in the Kamarata area by women who have acquired the skill from their mothers; the bowls are then dispersed in the trade network.

Medicine. Pemon use bark and leaves to make poultices for wounds and cuts. Specific food prohibitions apply to various illnesses. Pemon quickly attribute injury and illness to natural causes—only if healing does not occur in the expected time or if the patient dies are supernatural causes invoked. Death is attributed to Kanaima, even though a natural cause is also cited. Introduced diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, and measles have at times caused wide-spread illness. Mission-provided antibiotics and vaccines have reduced Pemon infant mortality rates. A hospital is located in Santa Elena.

Death and Afterlife. Upon death, the soul joins the mawari and migrates beyond the sky. The death of an adult is accompanied by much wailing and mourning by the female relatives of the deceased; sorrow over the death of a child is deeply felt but mostly private. Pemon may have a memorial service held at a mission if the deceased is to be buried there rather than near the settlement.

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