Toba - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Indigenous religion is animistic. Nonhuman or supernatural beings govern all existence. Formerly, there was a close link between humans and these beings. Any change in the natural or human condition was because of difficulties in this relationship and was generally the mistake of humans. The power of supernatural beings is ambivalent and their present-day interpretation has been influenced by Christianity. They are now identified with demoniacal powers as opposed to the benevolent nature of the Christian God and other supernatural personages of Christian origin. The universe is a structure of various superimposed levels. Three main levels are differentiated: the sky (with various skies on top), the earth, and the deep. Specific supernatural beings live on each level, dominating empirical phenomena and all living beings. There was no belief in a Supreme Being, although there are indications of the preeminence of a Uranian deity who was lord of the entire world. The world was not created, but preexisted, and its present form was produced by a series of acts by powerful mythical beings, like Caracara and Fox, and catastrophes of fire and water. Time is cyclical, and conflagrations are believed to return to renew the world, mainly by fire and water.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans ( pi'ogonaq ) were the main traditional intermediaries between humans and the supernatural. They were endowed with various degrees of power, depending on the kind of supernatural being with whom they maintained a relationship. Shamans continue to practice their art, although pastors of indigenous churches have encroached on the shaman's role.

Ceremonies. The ritual cycle used to be governed by the seasons and the daily cycle. The carob festival coincided with the ripening of the fruit, between November and December, and brought together several bands. Intoxicating drinks made from carob fruit were imbibed, and the ritual was of profound meaning with regard to the cyclical renovation of nature. In winter, collective prayers were directed to the Pleiades to assure an abundance of food and animal offspring. Male and female initiation rites were of consequence. Men were scarified with needles made from the bones of fierce and courageous animals. Women were temporarily confined to fast or keep to a strictly vegetarian diet. A general feast indicated the end of the ceremony. Presently the cult of indigenous churches is the ritual focus of Toba life. Prayer, curing, and political practice are synthesized. Within the ritual calendar, the main ceremonies are of Western origin: the Eucharist, birthdays, Christmas, and the New Year.

Arts. Until the middle of the twentieth century, there was much music making among the Toba on instruments such as the one-stringed violin, Jew's harp, reed flute, gourd rattle, and drum. These were played solo or accompanied by song. Nowadays the Toba use guitars and bass drums, especially when conducting rituals of the indigenous church. Of the old instruments, one can occasionally still hear the violin, the Jew's harp, and the flute. Games using string figures continue to be played and reflect an important artistic ability of the Toba to represent social and environmental realities.

Medicine . Illness is believed to be caused by humans or by supernatural beings who send out invisible agents that penetrate the body. In instances of the first kind, shamans cause illness by dispatching their auxiliary spirits. Male or female sorcerers can also cause illness by manipulating objects or bodily secretions of their victims. In the second sort, illness is caused by failure to observe food and/or sexual taboos. Transgressions of this kind provoke the masters of animal species or natural phenomena that have been compromised by these actions to send out their spiritual agents and cause harm. Shamanic therapy includes prayer, chanting, blowing, sucking, and sometimes dancing. Shamans diagnose the illness and extract it from the patient. In cases of sorcery, it is possible to learn the identity of the pathogen through revelations received by the victims before they die. Shamanic therapy cures illness caused by the master spirits.

Death and Afterlife. Death is considered unnatural and the result of actions by humans or nonhuman beings that cause illness in people. The dead are feared because they belong to the nonhuman realm. The soul-image of the deceased lives in a world located in the west, similar to the world of the living except that its cycles are reversed. That is why soul-images can return when the living are asleep.

When a person dies, his or her possessions are burned, including the house. Relatives of the deceased will construct a new house nearby. This destruction of personal property is intended to keep the dead from recognizing their homes when they come back at night. Formerly placed on an elevated platform, the dead are now buried in community cemeteries. Care is taken to orient the head of the corpse toward the west, for this is the side that belongs to the dead.


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