Xikrin - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. The Kayapó consider themselves an integral part of the world and circular universe; they see the process of life and the universe as a cyclical one. Cycles of ecological and structural time determine and form part of life and human activities. Kayapó migrations from east to west, like the sun's trajectory, go from the earth to a higher plane, toward new conquests. The center of the world is represented by the village's central plaza, where ritual and public life take place. The symbol of the center of the world and the universe is the rattle, in the form of a head, to the rhythm of which the Indians sing and dance. By dancing, they say, they go back to the time of mythical origins and recreate the energy required for life to continue. Xikrin myths tell of the origin and formation of Kayapó society, the origin of their institutions, and the historico-legendary incidents their group lived through, increasing their experience and strengthening their identity.

Religious Practitioners. The majority of Xikrin cultural items, stories, names, and the like were brought from nature to society by the shaman. In the performance of his (the shaman is always a male) benevolent activities, the shaman is basically a specialist who has knowledge of ritual curing. To become a shaman, a man must undergo certain trials that give him the ability to have supernatural visions and the capacity to enter into contact with supernatural beings.

Ceremonies. When a community is large enough, the ritual cycle is continuous and implies a careful schedule of expeditions for the acquisition of the materials needed for ritual paraphernalia and to procure an excess supply of food, which is ceremonially offered to the entire village. The most important rituals are male and female name-giving and initiation ceremonies. There are also festivals marking the harvests of maize and manioc and the gathering of timbó, a mat ritual for marriage, a feast that introduces new members into ceremonial societies (such as those of armadillos, birds, or jaguars), and funeral rites. At certain times the ritual cycle reaches a climax, developing for several days with great intensity.


Arts. Ornamental paraphernalia are highly developed and body painting constitutes a highly structured semiotic system with formal characteristics and individual aesthetics. Featherwork consists of a group of crests made from the feathers of macaws, parrots, hawks, and herons. Also characteristic of the Kayapó is a stiff necklace of itâ beads. They have only three musical instruments: the bamboo trumpet, the gourd rattle, and the transverse flute. After contact they began using large quantities of glass beads. Nowadays, certain traditional items are made only for commercial purposes. The Kayapó have radios and tape recorders and, sometimes, video cameras, with which they record their music and ceremonies as well as those of other peoples.


Medicine. The Kayapó believe that illness is caused by a loss of mekaron (a kind of spirit or double in the person's image) or by the attack of a forest animal's mekaron. In curing, they employ various plants to prepare bandages, baths, and fumigations. Plants related to certain game animals or to the jaguar and the anaconda are also used. If strict food taboos and prescribed diets are not obeyed, the animal mekaron can attack an individual, causing illness and even death. For wounds, the Kayapó use fumigation with tobacco smoke, and for muscular pains, light scarification. For neuralgia, they apply a fire-heated polished stone.

The Kayapó accept medical treatment introduced by Whites because they are well aware of the fact that they are being attacked by a series of grave illnesses that did not exist before contact. At the same time, however, they continue practicing their native medicine, but more with an end to recovering the mekaron and of addressing psychological dimensions of curing.


Death and Afterlife. The Kayapó are afraid to die and do not have a highly developed eschatology of humankind's ultimate destiny. A person dies because of the loss of his or her mekaron, which is believed to be on its way to the village of the dead, located on tribal land, near a mountain range. There the mekaron continues to live a life similar to that of those in the village of the living. The body of the deceased is buried in a cemetery, and after some time the bones are retrieved, washed, painted with urucú, and submitted to secondary burial.

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