Shipibo - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. It is difficult to separate traditional from Christian-influenced beliefs among the Shipibo; there is a blend of animism with Christianity. Moreover, accounts of religious concepts are often vague and vary among villages. Generally, it is believed that spirits and "gods" reside in the sky, and there is a stairway that joins the sky and earth along which spirits pass. Under the influence of ayahuasca, a vegetalista (herbalist) may climb this stairway and enter the spirit world. The Shipibo refer to supernatural beings as yoshinbo. These are spirits that reside in animals and plants and against which one must constantly be on guard. Those who have undergone religious instruction at nearby missions have adopted Christianity and its supernaturals.

Religious Practitioners. Vegetalistas traditionally possessed the most esoteric knowledge about the spirit world and the use of medicinal plants. To become a vegetalista, a man served an apprenticeship and observed strict dietary prohibitions. Some men who have worked for Protestant missionaries have established churches in their communities and function as self-ordained pastors.

Ceremonies. In the past, the ani shrëati (big drinking) was the most important ceremony, a time when young women were initiated into society and men settled disputes. This ceremony often lasted for three or four days and involved much drinking, fighting, dancing, and singing. It has all but disappeared and has been replaced by national fiestas.

Arts. The Shipibo are known for their intricate rectilinear designs on pottery, clothes, paddles, and the human body. Old men and women still tell vivid stories about the discovery of fire and crops and of legendary "great" floods. Traditional line and circle dances are gradually being replaced by more modern forms. Many old men and women are known for their songs, and the power of a vegetalista is, in part, determined by the "force" of his chants. Flutes and drums are still played during fiestas, but these, too, are gradually being replaced by modern recorded music.

Medicine. According to the Shipibo, there are two categories of disease—those of the "flesh" and others caused by yoshinbo. Although Western medicines are recognized as being effective for treating the former, one seeks the curing powers of a vegetalista to treat the latter. To effect his cure, a vegetalista must travel to the spirit world, where he can divine the cause of his patient's illness. The vegetalista's techniques include chanting, blowing tobacco smoke, and massaging. It is believed that one becomes sick when a foreign object has entered the body; by applying the above treatments, the object can be moved to an appendage where the vegetalista can "suck it out" and throw it away.

Death and Afterlife. After one dies, his or her soul passes into a spirit world, but this spirit may frequent a family's house for some time afterward. If a spirit is thought to be malignant, one may seek the assistance of a vegetalista to drive it away.

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