LINDSAY JONES. Macmillan Reference USA

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. Under certain conditions, a creator, a culture hero, or an ancestor may rise to the position of a deity or supreme being. Such a case occurred in the old cultures of Peru with the religious figure Viracocha. Perhaps originally a culture hero of the Quechua or some other Andean people, Vira cocha eventually ascended to the ranks of the highest pantheon as a result of speculation on the part of the Inca priesthood. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Viracocha was represented in anthropomorphic sculptures that appeared in special Inca temples and was venerated through prayers and sacrificial offerings. Inti, the Inca sun god, is portrayed with a human face within a golden disk, and as the tribal god of the ruling Inca dynasty he was embodied in the Inca emperor. The establishment of an elaborate cult for an indigenous supreme being is a typical occurrence in highly advanced cultures, but such cults are seldom found in South America outside the Andes region. When they do appear elsewhere they are likely the result of the influence of these advanced civilizations on compatible cultural and geographical situations. A report by Karin Hissink and Albert Hahn (1961) on the cultures from the lowlands of Bolivia, near the Andes, points out that the Tacana Indians of the Beni River area maintain the belief in a supreme being known as Caquiahuaca, who created the earth, human beings, animals, and plants. An old man with a white beard, Caquiahuaca lives in a cave in a mountain that bears his name and that forms the center of the world. In temples he is represented by a small beeswax figure surrounded by a series of larger wooden statues that represent the lower gods, known as edutzi, who assist him. As the instructor of the priest-shamans, or yanacona, Caquiahuaca assists them in the performance of their office, and as their master he is responsible for their religious vocation.

In addition to this, Deavoavai, the lord of the animals, also represents a creator, culture hero, and master of the dead. In his capacity as ruler of the game, Deavoavai is rooted in an earlier cultural-historical level—that of hunters, fishers, and gatherers. Such a deity is also found among other agricultural peoples, including peoples of the Amazon lowlands.

Despite their reliance on an economic subsistence that has long since undergone the transition from a hunting to an agricultural base, these groups of the Amazon Basin maintain a religious emphasis that incorporates a dependence on a powerful being who controls the game, an aspect that will receive attention below. It is sufficient here to point out that within this region a relationship exists between the master of the hunted game and the supreme being, a concept first recognized by Adolf E. Jensen (1951). Culture hero as supreme being. Konrad T. Preuss was convinced that Moma (“father”) was the paramount, indeed, the only true god of the Witóto of the Putumayo area of the northwestern Amazon and that he was identified with the moon. According to creation legends among these people, Moma came into existence from the “word,” that is, he was a product of magico-religious incantations and myths that are endowed with supernatural powers. He was also the personification of the “word,” which he bestowed upon human beings, and the “word” was the doctrine that represented the driving force behind all religious ceremonies that Moma in troduced. The original father created the earth and all things of the world from the archetype (naino), the “not-substance,” of each individual entity. On the other hand, in a myth that explains the creation of the organic world, Moma extracts all the plants and animals from his own body. The blossoms of the food plants used by humans are evidence of his omnipotent presence, and when the trees of the earth no longer bear fruit they go to Moma in the underworld. In addition to being the moon in the heavens, he resides below as master of the dead. He was the first being to experience the suffering of death, but in the fruits of the plants he is continually resurrected.

 Among the Witóto, such a representation demonstrates intensely the character of a particular form of culture hero, that is, one who is at the same time a supreme entity. Jensen applied the term dema deity in describing such a culture hero among the Marind-anim of New Guinea (Jensen, 1951). The distinguishing characteristics of this deity are revealed in his slaying, which occurred in primal times, and the consequent growth of all food plants out of his body. Waríkyana supreme being. A supreme god is also manifested among the Waríkyana (Arikena), a Caribspeaking tribe of the Brazilian Guianas. The highest deity in the religion of the Waríkyana is Pura (a name that, according to the Franciscan missionary Albert Kruse, means “god”). With his servant Mura, Pura stands on the zenith of heaven’s mountains and observes all things that take place below (Kruse, 1955). At the command of Pura, the rain is sent from the sky. Pura and Mura are small men with red skin and are ageless and immortal. They appeared at the beginning of the world, together with water, the sky, and the earth. In early times Pura and Mura came down to earth and created humans and animals. Because mankind did not obey the ethical precepts of Pura, he retaliated by sending a great fire that was followed by a deluge. A segment of the human race survived this catastrophe, and the Waríkyana people believe that when the end of time comes, Pura will create another holocaust. It was therefore Pura to whom prayers were directed, and in his honor a celebration took place in which manioc cakes were offered to him. Protasius Frikel, another Franciscan, completed Kruse’s description, noting that the Waríkyana view the supreme being as a reflection of the primal sun (Frickel, 1957). Pura continues to qualify as the superior god, and in addition he was also thought of as the world onto which the primal sun pours its blinding light. Pura also represents universal power, a belief that Frikel considers to be relatively recent among the Waríkyana. In another instance, Pura is considered to be a “primordial man” or culture hero (ibid.). In any case, Pura resides in heaven and reigns over all elements. His companion and servant Mura is somehow connected with the moon and displays some features of a trickster. Such dual relationships as sun and moon, god and companion, culture hero and trickster—pairs that are often represented as twins—are encoun tered frequently in South American mythology. According to the Waríkyana, death is the beginning of the soul’s journey to heaven, where it will be reincarnated—a journey that is modeled after the eternal cycle of the sun. Yanoama and Mundurucú supreme beings.

Kruse’s work stimulated Josef Haekel to write an article about monotheistic tendencies among Carib-speakers and other Indian groups in the Guianas, as well as among those groups bordering the western areas of the Guianas (Haekel, 1958). According to Haekel’s findings, reference to the name Pura in connection with a supreme being occurred in no other Caribspeaking tribe except the Waríkyana. To the west of their territory in the Guianas, however, the expression is used with only slight variation, even among different linguistic groups such as the isolated Yanoama (Yanonami) on the Venezuelan and Brazilian borders. According to the beliefs of some groups in Brazil, Pore is the name of a supreme being who descended to earth (Becher, 1974). Together with the moon, who is known as Perimbo, Pore established a dual relationship composed of both sexes—male and female—that was conceptually unified as a supreme entity who controls heaven, earth, and the underworld. As the most well-informed researcher of the Brazilian Yanoama, Hans Becher considers their mode of life to be strongly influenced by myths connected with the moon; the sun, on the other hand, is entirely unimportant. The awe in which these Indians hold Pore and Perimbo is so intense that they do not call on this supreme being directly. Instead, they employ the indirect services of intermediaries in the forms of plant and animal spirits (hekura) that reside on specific mountain ranges. Shamans identify with these spirits and when intoxicated with snuff come into contact with them. There are strong similarities between the supreme being, Pura, of the Waríkyana and the figure of Karusakaibe, the “father of the Mundurucú” (an expression coined by Kruse, who was also a missionary among this central Tupi tribe). Karusakaibe once lived on earth and created human souls, the sky, the stars, game animals, fish, and cultivated plants, together with all their respective guardian spirits, and he made the trees and plants fruitful. Karusakaibe is omniscient: he taught the Mundurucú how to hunt and farm, among other things. He is the lawgiver of the tribe and the originator of its dual social structure. Karusakaibe is immortal. Because he was treated badly at one time by the Mundurucú, he went off to the foggy regions of the heavens. He is also credited with having transformed himself into the bright sun of the dry season. When the end of the world comes, he will set the world and all mankind on fire. But until that time he will look after the well-being of his children, the Mundurucú, who direct their prayers and offerings to him when fishing and hunting and in times of sickness. Martin Gusinde (1960) is of the opinion that Karusakaibe was once a superior god among the Mundurucú.

 Later his status changed to that of a culture hero. Tupi-Guaraní supreme beings. Resonances of a supreme being concept among the Tupi-Guaraní linguistic groups are mentioned by Alfred Métraux, who was the most important specialist in their religious systems (Métraux, 1949). Among these groups, the creator often has the characteristics of a transformer, and as a rule he is also the lawgiver and teacher of early mankind. After he fulfills these tasks, he journeys westward to the end of the world, where he rules over the shades of the dead. Among the ancient Tupinamba of the Atlantic coast and the Guarayo of eastern Bolivia, traces were found of a cult devoted to the creator, Tamoi. In Métraux’s opinion, the various culture heroes, including Monan and Mairamonan) were derived from a single mythical figure—the tribal grandfather, Tamoi. The occurrence of an eclipse of the sun or the moon is a signal that according to the beliefs of the Tupinamba relates directly to the end of the world, and the men must sing a hymn to Tamoi. These eschatological beliefs are characteristic of the Tupi-Guaraní and may be connected to the messianic movements of the Tupinamba at the beginning of the Portuguese colonization period. Such movements frequently led to mass migrations in search of the mythological land of Tamoi, a region perceived as a paradise where the inhabitants share immortality and eternal youth. A similar cult devoted to the worship of the great ancestor among the Guarayo was coupled with messianic movements at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In this case, Tamoi was considered the ruler of the celestial western kingdom of the dead as well as the dominant figure at burial rites and in beliefs about the afterlife. The most revered god of the Guaraní-Apapocuvá according to Curt Nimuendajú, the outstanding authority on this tribe at the beginning of the twentieth century, is the creator Nanderuvuçu (“our great father”). Nanderuvuçu has withdrawn to a remote region of eternal darkness that is illuminated solely by the light that radiates from his breast (Nimuendajú, 1914). He holds the means to destroy the world but retains the privilege of using this power for as long as he pleases. Because he is not concerned about the daily activities that occur on earth, no cultic practices are directed toward him. His wife Nandecy (“our mother”) lives in the “land without evil,” a paradise that at one time was believed to be in the east and then again in the west; this paradise also became the goal of various messianic movements of the Guaraní-Apapocuvá. Ge solar and lunar gods.

 In the eastern Brazilian area, the majority of the northwestern and central Ge tribes (Apinagé, Canella, and Xerente) hold that the Sun and Moon are the only true gods. Both Sun and Moon are masculine. Though not related to each other, they are companions; the Sun, however, is predominant. The supremacy of a solar god among the Apinagé led Jensen to the conclusion that here the mythical concept of a sun-man has a secondary identity, that is, he is also a supreme god (Jensen, 1951). To support this theory, Jensen directs attention to the fact that human begins alone have the privilege of addressing this deity as “my father.” He finds ad ditional support for this theory in the prayers that are offered to the solar god and in the role he plays in visions. An Apinagé chief spoke of an encounter he once had on a hunting expedition in which he met the sun-father in human form. The Apinagé consider the establishment of the dual organization of the tribe, as well as the placement of the two moieties within the circular settlement, to be the work of the Sun. A final supporting element observed by Nimuendajú (1939) is the Apinagé’s consumption of round meat patties, which are eaten at feasts and are said to represent the sun. At the beginning of the harvest season, a four-day dance festival is celebrated in honor of the Sun at which the dancers apply red paint to themselves in patterns representative of the sun. The Canella also publicly implore the heavenly gods, the Sun and the Moon, for rain, the safety of the game animals, the success of their harvest, and an abundance of wild fruit. In a similar manner, the Xerente call the sun “Our Creator” and pay the same devout tributes to the Sun-father as do the Apinagé. The Sun and the Moon themselves, however, never appear, but the Xerente receive instructions from these solar and lunar bodies through other celestial gods (the planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter) who are associated with the Sun and the Moon moieties. The most important ceremony of the Xerente is the Great Feast, at which a pole is erected so that the tribe members may climb to the top and pray to the Sun. At the end of the celebration, the master of ceremonies climbs this pole. Once at the top, he stretches his hand outward to the east and receives a message from a star within the constellation Orion, who acts as a celestial courier. In most cases, satisfaction is expressed and rain is assured.

The ceremonial pole as a link to the heavenly world is also believed to have been employed by the Botocudos, who were among the hunting tribes that once lived near the Atlantic Ocean but are now extinct. Their religion was apparently characterized by a belief in a supreme being in heaven, named White Head because of the image he created (the top of his head is white and his face is covered with red hair). He was also the chief of the heavenly spirits, who were known as maret. The maret spirits could be called to earth by the shaman, but in a form that is visible only to him; they also had to return to heaven in the same way. They took on the function of intermediaries between mortals and the supreme being when the shaman, through prayers and songs, turned to them in times of sickness or in an emergency. No one ever saw Father White Head face to face; although he was sympathetic toward mankind, he punished murderers and was responsible for sending rain storms. Mother goddresses.

As Métraux (1946) pointed out, the missionaries who searched for belief in a supreme being among the Indians of the Gran Chaco were not at all successful. The only mythical personality who comes close to the concept of a superior god, in Métraux’s opinion, is Eschetewuarha (“mother of the universe”), the dominant deity among the Chamacoco, a Samuco group in the north Chaco region. She is the mother of numerous forest spirits as well as of the clouds. As the controller of all things, Eschetewuarha ensures that mankind receives water. In return for this favor, she expects her people to send songs to her nightly, and when such expectations are not fulfilled she punishes them.

Herbert Baldus (1932), who provided in-depth information about Eschetewuarha, compares her with the universal mother of the Cágaba (Koghi), a Chibcha tribe in Colombia that had been influenced by more advanced cultures. This comparison facilitates postulating at least a phenomenological relationship between the two. The obvious characteristics of a supreme god are apparently present in Kuma, the goddess of the Yaruro, who subsist on fishing, hunting, and gathering along the Capanaparo River, a tributary of the Orinoco in Venezuela. She is considered to be a moon goddess and consort of the sun god, who is unimportant. Kuma created the world with the help of two brothers, the Water Serpent and the Jaguar, after whom the tribal moieties were named. Although she apparently created the first two human beings herself, her son, Hatschawa, became the educator and culture hero of mankind. Kuma dominates a paradise in the west in which gigantic counterparts for every plant and animal species exist. Shamans are capable of seeing the land of Kuma in dreams and visions and are able to send their souls there. As a reliable informant explained, “Everything originated from Kuma and everything that the Yaruro do has been arranged so by her; the other gods and cultural heroes act according to her laws” (Petrullo, 1939). Métraux drew attention to the typological affinities between Kuma and Gauteovan, the mother goddess of the Cágaba, who in turn is connected with Eschetewuarha of the Chamacoco (Métraux, 1949). Supreme beings of Tierra del Fuego. Among the people living in the southern regions of the continent, a belief in a supreme being is common in hunting and fishing tribes, especially the Selk’nam (Ona) of Tierra del Fuego and the Yahgan and Alacaluf of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. Despite many years of European influence in this area and the astonishing similarities of their beliefs to aspects of Christianity, Métraux believed that the religion of these three tribes remained substantially independent of Christianity (Métraux, 1949).

 Martin Gusinde, a member of the ethnological school of Wilhelm Schmidt, provided us with research information about these tribes shortly before their cultural extinction (Gusinde, 1931, 1937, 1974). The Selk’nam, the Yahgan (Yámana), and the Alacaluf (Halakwulip) maintain belief in a supreme being who is an invisible, omnipotent, and omniscient spirit living in heaven, beyond the stars. He has no physical body and is immortal; having neither wife nor children, he has no material desires. Among the Alacaluf, the creator god is named Xolas (“star”), and despite the great distance that separates him from the earth, he concerns himself with the daily life of human beings. Through his initiative a soul is allowed to enter the body of a newborn baby; it remains in the human being until death, at which time it returns to Xolas. The Alacaluf were obliged to abstain from any form of veneration of this perfect supreme being, since any attempt to influence his will would have been fruitless. For this reason, it is not known what formal prayers were addressed to Xolas nor whether cultic practices associated with him were performed. Watauineiwa (“ancient one, eternal one”) behaved quite differently, according to the beliefs of the Yahgan. He preferred to be addressed as “my father,” and he was reputed to be the lord of the world and ruler over life and death. He was an astute observer of the actions of humans and punished violations of the laws he had established in relation to morals and customs. Such rules were inculcated into the young (boys and girls concurrently) during initiation rituals, which formed the core of Yahgan religious life. In seeking contact with Watauineiwa, the individual Yahgan could draw upon numerous established prayers. A person would implore Watauineiwa, who was the controller of the game animals and of all food plants, to help him to secure his subsistence needs and would turn to Watauineiwa to ensure his continued health, to cure him of sickness, and to protect him from inclement weather and from drastic environmental changes. But Watauineiwa was also the target for harsh complaints in cases of ailments and misfortune, and in the event of death he was accused with the words “murderer in heaven.” The supreme god of the Yahgan maintained a closer contact with human beings than did Témaukel, the Selk’nam’s supreme god. Témaukel (“the one above in heaven”) was considered to be the originator and protector of mankind’s moral and social laws, although he was otherwise uninterested in daily life on earth. Témaukel had existed from the beginning of time, but he entrusted Kenos, the first ancestor, with the final configuration of the world and the institution of social customs. In spite of the respect they accorded Témaukel, the Selk’nam prayed to him less frequently than did the Yahgan to their supreme god.

 Contrastingly, the Selk’nam meticulously observed the practice of throwing the first piece of meat from the evening meal out of their huts with the words “This is for him up there,” an action that can be considered a form of sacrificial offering. The dead were also believed to travel to Témaukel. Supreme beings of the Pampas, Patagonia, and the southern Andes. Although our knowledge of the religious practices and beliefs of the earlier inhabitants of the Pampas and Patagonia is sparse and relatively superficial, it is almost certain that the Tehuelche had a supreme being. Like Té- maukel of the Selk’nam, the god of the Tehuelche was characterized by his lack of interest in worldly activities; he was also lord of the dead. This supreme being was, in general, sympathetic toward human beings, but there is no proof of a public cult devoted to him. Traditionally he was called Soychu. A benevolent supreme being of the same name was also found in the religious beliefs of the Pampa Indians, at least after the eighteenth century.

It would appear that the tribal religions of the southern areas of South America were, in general, marked by a belief in a supreme god. The Araucanians of the southern Andes, and in particular the Mapuche, have left behind traces of the concept of a superior god, as well as a devout veneration of him that survived well into the eighteenth century. In most instances the supreme being is referred to as either Ngenechen (“lord of mankind”) or Ngenemapun (“lord of the land”). Other, more feminine descriptions may reveal an androgynous character. Ngenechen is thought of as living in heaven or in the sun and is credited with being the creator of the world as well as the provider of life and of the fruits of the earth. Although he is responsible for the wellbeing of mankind, he is not associated with the moral laws. An individual would turn to Ngenechen in personal emergencies with prayers, the sacrifice of an animal, or an offering of the first fruits of the harvest. A public ritual known as the Ngillatun, which has survived up to the present time among the Araucanians, consists of offering the blood of a sacrificial animal to him. Two important objects employed at this feast are the rewe, a thick, step-notched pole, and a sacrificial altar, both of which are circled by the participants at the beginning of the ceremony. In addition to the master of ceremonies, the female shaman (machi) takes over some of the most vital functions at the Ngillatun. With a flat drum (kultrun), she climbs the ceremonial pole and upon reaching the top turns to Ngenechen, who is now symbolically nearer. Métraux (1949, p. 561) and John M. Cooper (1946, pp. 742–743) have both come to the conclusion that in this instance the older features of god among the Araucanians have been conceptually modified through the centuries to conform with the concepts of the conquering Western civilization. Earlier Spanish chroniclers viewed the thunder god Pillán as the central, if not the supreme, being of the Araucanians. Ewald Böning, in a more recent account, pointed out convincingly that the Mapuche describe Pillán in general as a powerful, extraordinary, and tremendous apparition (Böning, 1974, p. 175). Pillán primarily represents an impersonal power, but he can also manifest himself in a personal form. The concept of impersonal power seldom occurs in the mentality of the South American Indians. The Nambikwára of the Mato Grosso, for example, believe in an abstract power, known as nande, that is present in certain things and that contains a magic poison or a real poison. Although any individual can, to a certain extent, achieve contact with nande, it is the shamans above all who can manipulate this power.


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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