Piaroa - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Native religion can be considered biotheistic, including belief in mythical culture heroprogenitors, good and evil spirits associated with environmental elements that control human destiny, and the hallucinogenic experience as the vehicle for communicating with the spirit world. A pantheon of culture heroes or gods lived in mythical times and created the world, bringing the gift of culture and knowledge of agriculture, fishing, and hunting to humankind. The hero Wahari, who was incarnated as the tapir, is considered the benevolent creator of the Piaroa. A complex of harmful, sickness-causing spirits is associated with various animals, the most dangerous being that of the jaguar. Counteracting these is a set of human-aiding spirits, associated with both animals and plants, that are invoked by shamans through songs and other ritual language.

Religious Practitioners. Although many adult men are shamans to a varying degree, each household has only one or two highly regarded curers or spiritual leaders. Their function is to cure sickness and give spiritual protection. There are two grades of shaman, the meñerua (master of song) and the more accomplished ñ œwœrua (master of hallucinogen). The constant aid of the shaman is the hallucinogenic snuff ( nuce ) derived from the seeds of Anadanthera peregrina. Taking it enables him to sing superlatively all night long in order to contact the spirits of good will.

Ceremonies. The most prominent ceremony is the sãr - drinking and dancing festival held in the rainy season and attended by visitors of neighboring households. Other group rituals are the manhood tests given yearly at the end of the rainy season and the exorcism rites upon the death of a community member. Individual rites usually imply food taboos during different life-cycle stages.

Arts. Singing is the art of the shaman. The songs are composed of an archaic language form stylized by metaphor and set to musical cadence and pitch.

Medicine. All sickness is believed to be brought by evil spirits ( mœr ) and caused by violating taboos and norms, failing to placate the spirit of killed game animals, or being the target of an enemy sorcerer. Shamans sing to their special spirit helpers among the pantheon of good spirits to defeat the evil spirit and cure the patient. Plant medicines are also used alone or in combination with songs to cure ailments. Western medicine is highly valued, however, and is replacing many of the native remedies.

Death and Afterlife. In traditional culture the dead are mummified and placed with personal items in a cave in the rocky hilltops. Among the Christian Piaroa, corpses are buried in the ground. No matter what the circumstances, death is always attributed to mær . The soul or ghost ( aweti ) of the deceased wanders on earth until the killer spirits are exorcised ( warawœ ) by ritual acts. The soul then returns to the spirit world and the spirit clan ( hœdõk w œt'ï ) whence it originated.

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