Wáiwai - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The universe is said to have five tiers: an underworld, the earth, and three heavens. Each is the locale of different powers, which the Wáiwai attempt to control in various ways. Many myths recount the origin of cultural practices, social groups, and natural features. A wide pantheon of spirits inhabits the forests, rivers, and heavens, some malevolent and some beneficient. The Wáiwai still believe in their spirits, although under the influence of Christian doctrine these are now considered manifestations of the "devil" and opposed to the Holy Trinity. The missionaries inculcated shame in the Wáiwai over their traditional religious beliefs and practices, many of which have been suppressed but not entirely replaced.

Religious Practitioners. Formerly, the shaman was responsible for invoking helping spirits for curing rituals and summoning the game through "game masters"; nowadays, Wáiwai pastors are the ritual specialists who invoke the Christian God in much the same way.

Ceremonies. Transitions in the life cycle of individuals (birth, initiation, and death) were marked by seclusion and rituals. The two most important collective rituals were shodewika festivals (intervillage dancing feasts) and yamo rituals (when fertility spirits, invoked through masked dancers, resided in the village for several months). Today festivals combining traditional dancing and feasting with Christian features are held at Christmas, Easter, and the start of the dry season.

Arts. The aesthetic elaboration evident in basketry, beadwork, featherwork, and body ornamentation is linked to the notion of "beauty," which expresses social integration and control over external powers. Most social occasions include songs and the music of various wind and percussion instruments.

Medicine. Before missionization shamans cured illness through contact with spirits by using tobacco smoke and "spirit stones." The Wáiwai do not have an extensive medicinal-plant lore. They readily took to the Western medicines introduced by the missionaries, whose health care programs kept Wáiwai mortality from contact diseases low. Trained Wáiwai health attendants now care for the daily medical needs of the village.

Death and Afterlife. Death is explained as soul loss caused by spirits, witchcraft, disease, or neglect of taboos. The personal possessions, pets, and house of the deceased are destroyed by his or her spouse or siblings in their grief and to avoid contact with residues of the deceased's soul. The corpse used to be cremated; nowadays it is buried. Male and female relatives mourn the deceased with wailing rituals. At death a person disintegrates into several souls; some take on animal forms that can become menacing invisible spirits, whereas the eye-soul travels up to the first heaven, a place of light, beauty, and immortality where all dance and feast unceasingly.

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