THE SOUL, THE DEAD AND ANCESTORS. AN OVERVIEW. South American Indian Religions

THE SOUL, THE DEAD AND ANCESTORS. AN OVERVIEW. South American Indian Religions

 

AN OVERVIEW.

DEITIES, CULTURE HEROES AND ANCESTORS.

IMAGES AND THE BODY.

INITIATION RITES.

NATURE SPIRITS, HUNTING RITUALS, AND VEGETATION RITES.

 

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELIGION

LINDSAY JONES. Macmillan Reference USA

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). One soul, called the ayvucue (“breath”), comes from one of three possible dwelling places: from a deity in the zenith, who is the tribal hero; from “Our Mother” in the east; or from Tupan, the thunder god, in the west. In its place of origin the soul exists in a finished state, and at the moment of birth it enters the body of the individual. It is the shaman’s task to determine which of the three places of origin each soul comes from. Soon after birth the breath soul is joined by another soul, the acyigua (“vigorous, strong”). The acyigua resides in the back of a person’s neck and is considered to be an animal soul responsible for the temperament and impulses of that person, which correspond to the qualities of a particular animal. Immediately after death the two souls part company. The ayvucue of a small child goes to paradise, the “Land without Evil.” The destination of the ayvucue of adults is another afterworld that lies just before the entrance to paradise. The animal soul or acyigua transforms itself into a much-feared ghost, called angéry, that persecutes mankind and must therefore be fought. Research on a number of Indian tribes indicates that meticulous preservation of the bones of the dead is a widespread practice. Such action, which is similar to the preserva tion of the bones of hunted game, can be traced to the belief that residual elements of the soul remain in the bones after death. The conceptualization of a “bone soul” has led to the ritual consumption of bone ash from dead family members. This form of endocannibalism is practiced at the present time by different groups of the Yanoama and appears to have been relatively widespread in western South America. Among the Yanoama, we find a perception of a soul that resides outside the body of a living individual, a concept seldom documented in South America. Such a soul most often dwells in an animal, but sometimes also in plants. This type of soul may reside, for example, in a harpy eagle if the soul is that of a man, or in an otter if it belongs to a woman. The predominant element of such a concept is that of an identical life pattern: when the respective animal dies, its human counterpart will also die, and vice versa. An animal soul, usually referred to as a “bush soul,” represents the alter ego of a specific individual. Some of the fundamental beliefs in an alter ego prevalent in South America stem from within the shamanic domain. The Araucanian female shaman (machi) possesses an alter ego in the form of an evergreen canelo tree (Drimys winteri) that she tends in the forest and whose fate is intimately linked to her own. If someone discovers this tree and destroys it, the machi invariably dies. Honoring the dead was an essential component within the religions of old Peru, as exemplified by the care that mummies of the ancestors were given by priests (Métraux, 1949) and by the sacrificial victims brought to them. Mummies were also taken on procession at certain festivals. One of the few cases of a developed cult of the dead in the tropical woodlands is exemplified by the ghost dance of the Shipaya of the lower Xingu, which is the most significant religious celebration of this Tupi tribe. The souls of the dead, which are well disposed toward mankind, express a desire to the shaman—through the words of the tribal chief—that the celebration known as the Feast for the Souls of the Dead should be held. It is believed that the souls of those long dead will take possession of the shaman, who is covered with a white cotton mantle; in this form, the soul can participate in the dancing and drinking enjoyed by the living in the center of the village. When souls have borrowed the body of the shaman, his own soul lies idle in his hut. The ceremony continues for eight or more nights, during which other men who have also become the embodiment of dead souls appear in similar dance mantles. An ancestor cult is also the focal point in the religion of the Cubeo who live in the northwest Amazon region. The soul of a dead person proceeds to the abode of the benevolent ancestors, which is located near the dwelling place of his sib, where all its dead are reunited. The ancestors are represented by large trumpets that are used not only at funeral rites but also at the initiation ceremonies for the boys of the tribe, who are whipped as these trumpets are played.

 The ancestors, represented by the trumpets once again, are also guardian spirits at sib gatherings. The sound they emit is believed to be a source of male strength when played during a men’s bath in the river. Among the Mundurucú in central Brazil, the large wind instruments are the embodiment of the sib ancestors when played at a particular men’s feast. Like the trumpets of the Cubeo, they are not allowed to be seen by the women. At the end of the Mundurucú ceremony, a special drink made from manioc is poured into the instruments and is collected in a calabash bowl as it comes out the other end; it is then drunk by the participants. This ritual, which is looked upon as a form of spiritual communion with the ancestors, is intended as an act of reconciliation that will win their favor and help their descendants. The combination of a memorial service for the recently dead and a commemorative ceremony for the legendary tribal ancestors can be seen in the Kwarup ritual of the Camayura, a Tupi group of the upper Xingu. The Kwarup (from kuat, “sun” and yerup, “my ancestor”) centers around a number of posts, each about three feet high, outfitted and ornamented as human beings and carved from the sacred camiriva wood from which the creator, Mavutsine, allegedly fabricated the first Camayura. The chant given as people dance around these posts is the same one that Mavutsine sang as he created mankind. In the Kwarup ritual the ancestors return symbolically for the purpose of welcoming those who have recently died.

Death cults and ancestor worship also play an important role in the eastern Brazilian cultural area, particularly among the Boróro. This tribe makes a sharp distinction between nature spirits and spirits of the dead. The Boróro believe that the souls of their ancestors (aroe) hold a close relationship to mankind that influences and maintains its daily life. On certain social occasions, the spirits of the dead are ceremonially invoked by special shamans to whom the spirits appear and whom they enlighten in dreams. As a result of this important attachment to the spirits, the funeral rites of the Boróro are highly developed and complex. After a ceremonial hunt, the successful hunter becomes the representative of the dead man at the funeral proper, which consists of a series of established rites. Among these is a dance in which the most interesting elements are large disk-shaped bundles of wood that represent the dead person. At the same time that the dance is being performed, the deceased person’s bones, which have been buried for two weeks, are exhumed and painted red with urucú. Feathers associated with clan colors are glued to the bones. The specially decorated skull is then displayed to the mourners. After a period of safekeeping in the house of the deceased, the basket in which the bones have been placed is sunk in a deep section of the nearby river. Among the Ge-speaking Canella (eastern Timbira), it is the medicine men who usually establish contact with the spirits of the dead, since they are omniscient. But even those members of the tribe who do not possess particular spiritual abilities seek advice from their ancestors in emergencies. In the first phase of the initiation ceremonies for young boys in which religion is emphasized, the initiates learn how to contact the dead. This knowledge is acquired in a race in which each person to be initiated carries a wooden block that is said to be the ghost of a dead ancestor. In the funeral rituals, the men carry much larger blocks in a similar race. The cult of the dead is not only an impressive ritual but a basic foundation of the culture of the Kaingán, the southernmost Ge tribe. The objective that lies at the core of this ritual is the elimination of the ties that connect the living and the dead. This ritual insures that the souls of the deceased will finally arrive at the resting place in the underworld, located in the west. A cult of the dead among the indigenous people in the southern regions of South America, including the Gran Chaco and the southern Andes, contains few authentic religious elements. At a funeral, the surviving family members sponsor a large feast in honor of the dead relative. The various ceremonies that take place during this feast- for example, eating and drinking bouts, lamenting, playing of music, feigned attacks, riding games, and speeches - are intended to drive from the village the dreaded spirits of the dead or the death demons, who are responsible for the death of the tribal member, to prevent them from causing more harm. Among the people in the Gran Chaco, an attempt is made to console the dead and to pacify them in their anger at having passed away. The mourning ceremonies, which begin immediately after a person dies, are meant to serve this end. Often an invalid is set outside or buried before having actually died. Little has been recorded regarding beliefs about life of the soul after death among the peoples of the Gran Chaco.

 SEE ALSO

Amazonian Quechua Religions; Ethnoastronomy; Ge Mythology; Inca Religion; Inti; Jaguars; Lord of the Animals; Mapuche Religion; Selk’nam Religion; Shamanism, article on South American Shamanism; South American Indians, articles on Indians of the Andes in the Pre-Inca Period and Indians of the Gran Chaco; Supreme Beings; Tehuelche Religion; Viracocha; Yurupary.

  

                                                              OTTO ZERRIES (1987) Translated from German by John Maressa

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