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- Linguistic family
Shamanic power is described by the Mamaindê (a Northern Nambikwara group) as the possession of many objects and body decorations given to the shaman by the spirits of the dead and by the shaman who first initiated him in the techniques of shamanry. Consequently, the shamans possess the largest number of body decorations of anyone.
The two shamans active in the Mamaindê village continually wear numerous bands of black beads. One of them also constantly uses a strip of woven cotton round his head, sometimes replaced by a single line of red cotton, as well as cotton bands on his arms.
The shaman’s decorations and objects may be called wanin wasainã’ã, ‘magical things,’ or waninso’gã na wasainã’ã, ‘the shaman’s things.’ By possessing the decorations and objects of the dead, the shaman comes to perceive the world as they do, thereby acquiring the capacity to see the things that are invisible to most people.
Nonetheless, not only shamans possess body ornaments. The Mamaindê say that as well as the visible decorations, everyone possesses internal decorations that only the shaman can see and render visible during curing sessions. What makes a decoration visible or invisible is not any intrinsic characteristic attributed to it, but the observer’s visual capacity. From the point of view of the shaman, a being capable of adopting multiple points of view, the body of the Mamaindê always appears as a decorated body.
Although some objects and decorations are possessed solely by the shaman, what differentiates him from other people is the fact that he acquires these decorations directly from the spirits of the dead and thereby becomes capable of seeing them. In this sense, the term ‘magical things’ designates not so much an intrinsic quality of the shaman’s ‘things’ as the relations that he establishes with the spirits of the dead that lead to his possession of these ‘things."
The Mamaindê describe shamanic initiation as a kind of death. Walking alone in the forest, the future shaman is beaten with a war club by the spirits of the dead and faints. Some people say that the spirits of the dead may also shoot arrows at him. At this moment he receives various ‘magical’ decorations and objects from the spirits. As well as the objects, the future shaman also receives a spirit-woman who is described as a jaguar, though the shaman sees her as a person. She will accompany him wherever he goes, sitting constantly by his side and helping him during curing sessions. The shaman may refer generically to the objects received from the dead and to his spirit-wife as da wasaina’ã, ‘my things.’ Both are responsible for his shamanic power.
The initiation of a Halotésu shaman (Savannah Nambikwara) was summarized by Price as follows: a man sets off into the forest to hunt and sees the animals as people. Later he encounters the spirit of an ancestor who calls him ‘brother-in-law’ and gives him a spirit-woman in marriage, singing her name for him to hear. The man takes her home and only he is able to see her. This woman is responsible for his shamanic power and becomes his assistant, always sitting by his side. She must be treated well or she will cause harm to everyone. With her the shaman has a child who he sees as a child but who everyone else sees as a jaguar. This jaguar-child lives in the shaman’s body as the embodiment of his ‘spiritual force.’
Both for the Mamaindê and for the Halotésu and other cerrado groups, shamanic initiation can be conceived as a process of dying. For the Negarotê, according to Figueroa (1989), the process of shamanic initiation, called a ‘dream vision,’ is equivalent to a form of reclusion: the initiate shaman remains inside a small house made from burity leaves especially for this purpose and during this period of reclusion receives “a degree of instruction from a mature shaman who uses songs and speech to summon the arrival of ancestors as protectors and helpers.”
This practice is not a kind of formal apprenticeship; rather, all the techniques of shamanism (sucking out pathogenic objects, blowing tobacco smoke, singing etc.) are learnt informally by observing the performance of other more experienced shamans. Inside the reclusion house, the initiate must consume large quantities of chicha (a fermented drink) previously prepared by women and proclaim that ‘many’ are drinking for him. Figueroa states that “the candidate sings, drinks and smokes ceaselessly, covers his body in annatto dye, wears burity decorations on the wrist and a soft cotton necklace, and may use cotton necklaces with jaguar teeth.”
As we have seen, for the Mamaindê, the episode of the encounter with the spirits in the forest can be considered the emblematic case of shamanic initiation. However, a person may also be initiated by an older shaman who, as they say in Portuguese, gradually “hands over the line” to him.
One of the shamans currently active in the Mamaindê village told me that he received his line (kunlehdu) from a shaman (now deceased) who had lived in his village. He gradually passed his ‘things’ on to him until he himself became a shaman. He said that the shaman’s necklace was usually stronger than that of other people, meaning it was less likely to break. As well as body decorations, he also received a number of objects from this older shaman: stones, jaguar teeth, a gourd, a bow, arrows and a wooden sword used to kill the forest spirits during the curing sessions. He also added that some years ago he received other ‘things’ (a stone and jaguar-tooth necklace) from a Kithaulhu shaman who was visiting the Mamaindê for a girl’s initiation festival to which the Kithaulhu had been invited.
Hence the novice shaman must always accompany an older shaman in order to learn everything he knows, especially the music for curing. At a determined moment, the older shaman will force the initiate to pass through a decisive test: he must spend an entire night alone in the forest without weapons. During this period, the shaman will send various animals (snakes, jaguars) to frighten him. However, he must see these animals as people and talk to them, asking them not to attack him. If he becomes frightened and runs away, the shaman will know and will not pass anymore of his ‘things’ on to him.
It is interesting to note that, in this case, the encounter between the shaman initiate and the animals sent by another shaman is not very different from the encounter with the spirits of the dead in the forest, cited above as the emblematic case of shamanic initiation. Here it is worth recording that, according to the Mamaindê, the spirits of the dead can transform into animals, especially jaguars. As we have seen, the spirit-woman who the shaman receives from the spirits of the dead is also described as a jaguar.
As he is extremely visible to the forest spirits, the novice shaman must take a series of precautions. As well as avoiding wandering to far away from the village so that his decorations are not stolen by other beings, he must also abide by a series of restrictions to ensure his body decorations and his spirit-wife remain with him. He must not eat hot food or blow on the fire, since the heat will scare away his spirit-wife and break his body decorations. He must also avoid heavy work or carrying heavy loads lest his decorations snap, and avoid talking loudly in case he scares his spirit-wife who will think he is fighting with her.
The shaman’s dietary precautions are primarily intended to establish and maintain the marriage with his spirit-wife who, as the Mamaindê say, “begins to eat with him always.” As well as dietary restrictions, the shaman must also limit his sexual activity, particularly extramarital sex, since his wife will become very jealous and hit him, snapping his body decorations.
The transmission of the decorations from one shaman to another is a reversible operation. Consequently, the possession of body decorations is never seen as a definitive condition or intrinsic attribute of the shaman, but, on the contrary, as an unstable condition that requires continual effort in order to be maintained. As a result, many people cease to be shamans, since they cannot bear the restrictions imposed on those who relate so intimately with the spirits of the dead.
The shaman’s work is therefore essential to the living, but extremely dangerous for the shaman. Those unable to withstand the restrictions needed to acquire and maintain shamanic power run the risk of dying as victims of the revenge of the spirits of the dead who, ceasing to act as their kin, begin to act as enemies, provoking accidents and illnesses.