Yuqui - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Again, as a result of probable deculturation, the Yuqui have only a rudimentary belief system. They are animists who practice sympathetic magic, which is reflected in most of their taboos, and concentrate many of their beliefs in supernatural beings on the spirits of the dead.

The Yuqui perceive the world as consisting of the earth, where the living reside, and the sky, where the dead live. The dead can also return to the earth, however, in the form of animals such as a small red bird, the gurai. At death, the Yuqui spirit divides into two entities, the biague ("used-to-be person"), which is greatly feared since it becomes an Aba (White) and can cause sickness and death, and the yirogue ("used-to-be breath"), which is an ambivalent spirit that can heal or cause sickness.

In addition to the spirits of the dead, the Yuqui believe in two malevolent beings that inhabit the forest and can steal children or cause sickness and death, the iguanda and the chochoi. Both are considered to be invisible or to take the form of animals and are most likely to be encountered in the forest at night.

Taboos center around the age and condition of an individual. Pregnant women should not eat certain foods because they are likely to have a negative effect on the unborn child (i.e., eating any animal with "turned" feet—an anteater, a sloth—will cause a child to have club-feet). Small children are prohibited from eating certain game animals such as peccaries, whose meat leaves a greasy film on the inside of the mouth and which is therefore associated with a fungal infection, thrush. Older women who still menstrue may have a difficult time finding someone to provide meat while they are "behind leaves" (a screen of palm leaves erected for menstruating women) because no man who is younger than a menstruating woman is allowed to hunt for her.

Religious Practitioners. The Yuqui have no religious practitioners or keepers of specialized knowledge.

Ceremonies. There are few ceremonies among the Yuqui, and even these are not elaborate. Prior to contact, at the time of a girl's first menses, the hair from her eyebrows and forehead was plucked and she was painted with Genipa juice to encourage the growth of pubic hair. If she had a mate at that time, he also was painted.

Chanting also occurred as group behavior during storms and at the time of death. The chant consisted of a high and a low note repeated continually over an extended period. The death chant is known as jirase and is the only chant still in use. The others, the iyusumano and amayaquia, which were used to ward off wind and rain, are seldom heard now. These latter chants were also accompanied by striking arrows against the bow stave in rhythm with the chant. A type of dance in which men and women grasped each other's arms behind the back and chanted was also known prior to contact, as was a mournful type of singing used during drinking bouts, when the Yuqui consumed mead. Because these activities are seen to conflict with their teachings, the missionaries have discouraged their continuation.

Arts. Other than those articles manufactured for daily use, the Yuqui practice no arts.

Medicine. All sicknesses and deaths are believed to have some supernatural cause, usually attributed to the wandering spirits of dead Yuqui. These adverse events were usually dealt with by some attempt to propitiate the spirits through chanting. The Yuqui have knowledge of approximately ninety useful plant taxa (not a great many when compared to other Amazonian peoples), but very few are used for medicinal purposes. The Yuqui do not appear to have a well-developed pharmacopoeia, and no one in the group has any specialized knowledge concerning the use of herbal remedies. The two principal plants used are urucú and dija, both of which have ritual as well as medical uses. Modern pharmaceuticals dispensed at the mission have replaced virtually all traditional medicine.

Death and Afterlife. The Yuqui believe that the spirit or soul escapes through the mouth. Thus, when someone is gravely ill or at the time of impending death, the Yuqui will blow on a person or suck up his or her saliva to prevent the soul from leaving the body. The jirase is chanted as a means of warding off death, but will be continued if death occurs. Upon death, the Yuqui destroy personal items of the deceased, there is a great deal of crying, mucus streams from the nose of mourners and is wiped on their hair, and fasting by close relatives begins. Prior to missionary presence, the Yuqui wrapped the body in large palm mats and constructed a palm-frond tipi over the corpse, then the group moved on. Later, when the body had completely decomposed, perhaps the skull and a few long bones would be collected, painted red with urucú, and carried around in a small basket for a period of time to prevent sickness and supernatural harm.

With missionary instruction, the Yuqui now bury the dead, placing banana leaves above and below the corpse. Graves are unmarked—the Yuqui do not wish to be reminded of the dead. The name of the deceased must not be mentioned. If a child is born who greatly resembles someone who has died, however, it is thought to be that person's reincarnation. Thus, the infant will receive the name of the deceased Yuqui. Grave-side prayers conducted by the missionaries and the religious leader trained by them typically accompany burial.


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