Waorani - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Traditional Wao beliefs are like most of Wao culture—flexible, diffuse, and pragmatic. They explain some of the intangibles of life but with no great concern for consistency or harmony. Waengongi was the original creator of everything; he was not revered or feared until he became identified with the Christian God. Two types of terrestrial spirits exist: those manipulated by practitioners and animal embodiments of deceased Waorani. There was little expression of concern with religious matters on a daily basis, and religious beliefs had no connection with moral behavior until the introduction of Christianity in the 1960s.

Religious Practitioners. The menye waempo, "jaguar father," and his wife menye baada, "jaguar mother," can, under the influence of ayahuasca ( Banisteriopsis caapi ), send their "children" spirit jaguars to discover the location of herds of peccaries, report on the welfare of relatives living in other parts of the forest, predict impending spearing raids, and identify culprits responsible for disease or death. The spirit "fathers" and "mothers" of other animals (e.g., pumas, snakes, anacondas) can likewise send their "children" on missions. The ido, on the other hand, drinks ayahuasca to communicate with Wenae (Evil), a spirit that can be sent on missions of destruction and death. To the extent that any spirit "mother" or "father" is believable, he or she could receive some food gifts. Even to be accused of being an ido, however, means almost certain death to the accused.


Ceremonies. Except for the anahuasca ceremonies conducted in secret by practitioners, Wao life is devoid of any religious ceremonies. Community ceremonies were nonexistent until the introduction of Christianity.


Arts. Chanting and dancing were central foci of entertainment and socializing in precontact days. Nightly, the longhouse was filled with songs and yodels into the early morning hours as men sang to induce visions of successful hunting, women sang of the tasks of the day, or both sang of forest fruits and animals. During the palm season people traveled to distant parts of the forest several times a week to dance and celebrate. At this time, they all decorated themselves with bright featherwork and painted their bodies with dyes. Since contact, however, much of this has diminished or disappeared.


Medicine. Illness is caused either by a known agent (e.g., a fungus caused by walking in mud too long) or by the ido's spirit, or is ononki ("just happens"). If it is ido illness, the only one who can treat it is the one who caused it. If it is caused by one of the other two ways, anyone with herbal knowledge can treat it. The principle of association underlies all Wao assumptions and thinking: people become what they associate with. Thus, treatments are selected for their properties. A long vine is used to treat snakebite, aromatic plants will drive nausea away, and plants that fold up upon being touched will cause fever to fold and wilt away. Most Wao taboos can be explained by this principle of association. With the introduction of viral diseases carried by Europeans, much of the indigenous ethnopharmacology has proven ineffective and is being abandoned.


Death and Afterlife. At death the spirit that resides in the brain ascends to the heavens, the spirit that resides in the heart becomes a jaguar, and the body either rots or transforms into a bagai, a spirit animal that haunts the forest. The afterlife is patterned after life on this earth. Burial is accompanied by very little ritual.

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