DEITIES, CULTURE HEROES AND ANCESTORS. AN OVERVIEW. South American Indian Religions
The tradition of a creator as the prime mover and teacher of mankind is universal among the Indians of South America (Métraux, 1949). In the majority of cases, the mythical person most often represented is not directly involved in the daily activities of mortals and therefore does not enjoy particular veneration. There is no fundamental discrepancy between this disinterested deity and the omnipotent creator whose cultic worship is integrated into a religious system; similar characteristics are attributed to both figures. A god previously venerated may fade to the position of a mythical figure, just as a mythical character can achieve cultic significance.
NATURE SPIRITS, HUNTING RITUALS, AND VEGETATION RITES. AN OVERVIEW. South American Indian Religions
In dealing with beliefs in a superior god, I have mentioned how the lord, or master, of the animals is one way in which the supreme being is conceptualized among South American tribes. Owing to the fact that hunting belongs to one of the oldest phases of human history, gods who are associated with this category of subsistence represent archaic beliefs.
THE SOUL, THE DEAD AND ANCESTORS. AN OVERVIEW. South American Indian Religions
Most of the Indian groups of South America believe that a human being has several souls, each residing in a different part of the body and responsible for numerous aspects of life. After death, each of these souls meets a different fate. One of the most interesting examples of this idea is found among the Guaraní- Apapocuvá (Nimuendajú, 1914).
INITIATION RITES. AN OVERVIEW. South American Indian Religions
Among the Indians of Tierra del Fuego there is no trace of a cult of the dead to be found in the funerary practices. In this region, socioreligious emphasis was placed on rites that are generally associated with the initiation of members of both sexes and particularly on those rituals connected with the acceptance of young males into men’s organizations (the Kloketen of the Selk’nam and the Kina of the Yahgan). During these rites, a chain of men came out to frighten the women. The participating men wore conical masks made from bark or animal skin that covered their heads and faces. Their bodies were painted black, white, and pink in various patterns.
IMAGES AND THE BODY. South American Indian Religions
One of the few generalizations about religion that may be safely declared is that the practice of belief is always, in one way or another, a firmly embodied affair, transpiring in the medium of the human body. Even in the hands of the most zealously ascetic or scholastic adherents, religion’s deep register is the body that is denied, cloaked, disciplined, or scorned. In less repressive religious cultures, the body is celebrated as the vessel of memory, the bearer of social status, the medium of divine presence, and the richly adorned display of fecundity, transport, joy, or sexual union.
AN OVERVIEW. South American Indian Religions
Since the Indians of South America do not conform culturally, there is no religious uniformity among them. Despite this inconsistency, an acceptable overview can be achieved by subdividing the continent’s large, geographically distinct regions into the following cultural areas.