Suruí - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Suruí have several shamans ( pajé ), who either inherited this office from their father or grandfather or assumed it as a consequence of some revelation by spirits in dreams or when they came into close contact with death, through illness or snakebite, and have hence made a visit to the land of the dead. A shaman always carries a naraí, a bamboo staff crowned with brightly colored macaw feathers; it is believed that the staff is inhabited by spirits. The shaman must serve a long period of apprenticeship under an older shaman; he remains confined for several months, during which he is said to learn the chants and stories of his craft directly from the spirits. At the same time, he must overcome terrible obstacles such as fire or monsters, walk along the path followed by the souls of the dead, and visit the kingdom of the waters and that of the heavens. Many lack courage and give up before they are through. The last trial consists of running at top speed in circles around a tree until consciousness is lost.

There are several categories of spirit, ranging from those of the waters to those of the skies and the forest. They comprise hundreds of beings, each with its own history, narrated in the form of a myth and sung as a chant familiar to the entire community, even the children, who can recite or sing it. For example, there is the Moon, the name of which women may not utter and which in mythical times was a man who broke the incest taboo by falling in love with his sister. Or there is the Cricket, which makes people lose their way in the forest but can also help to find a lost person. These beings are both menacing and comforting. They are invoked in ritual festivals ( hoeietês ) to confer plenty and cure the sick. The day-to-day life of a village is permeated with fear, prohibition, and ill omens, necessitating the assistance of the spirits and the shaman's magic, in word and deed.

Ceremonies. The hoeietês may last many consecutive days and nights. They are led by the shamans, who, holding their staffs, dance in a circle of men who carry long bamboo poles of up to 4 meters, which are believed to be inhabited by spirits. In another circle, men play reed flutes 1 to 2 meters long, also said to house spirits. These ceremonies are held whenever anyone is gravely sick. Another important ritual is the Mapimai, a feast held to celebrate the harvesting or sowing of crops. Here one moiety is host to the other and receives presents and help with farming its own plot in return. It takes months to prepare for the festivities, which require huge amounts of the traditional fermented drink. The complex ceremonies last several days and involve all members of the community, who wear necklaces, headdresses, and painted cotton waistbands. On the day when the ceremonial beverage is to be consumed, a long procession departs from the forest and walks to the village, chanting and performing ritual drama on the way. The wives of the ceremonial chiefs carry torches, which they must take care to keep alight; if the flames were to go out, this would be a sign both that they are to die soon and that the demiurge and creator of humankind (Palop, meaning "Our Father") refuses to visit and protect the village.

Medicine. The Suruí believe that sickness is caused by the various categories of spirits, which are also responsible for curing or preventing disease when invoked. Each of these beings has a myth of its own, with which all are familiar. The animals, for example, were originally humans; their metamorphosis into animals meant, in most cases, that they became supernatural beings with power over humans. The myths refer not only to these disease-inducing spirits but also to the origins of the moon, sun, night, fire, humanity, and so on. They are considered true as a history of the world, to which the Suruí compare European history, for example, when it is recounted to them.

Death and Afterlife. The Suruí believe that the souls of the dead must travel a long road full of hazards. These include a giant vulture that devours them; a rock that crushes them; the excrement of a huge lizard, which buries them; a man or woman with outsize genitals with whom they are obliged to have sexual intercourse; and many other strange torments. Courageous souls manage to reach the other side, an eternal safe haven inhabited by all the former shamans' souls. Cowards and violators of the incest taboo die a second time or have to remain in villages of useless souls. Death rituals are relatively insignificant. The name of the deceased must never be pronounced, so that his or her soul is not forced to hover among the living and can make the final journey in peace.

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