Foto: Beto Ricardo, 2002

Xingu

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Cosmology and rituals

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One of the central motifs of cosmology in the Upper Xingu is the difference between the original models of beings, present in the myths, and their later renewals. For example, it is customarily said that the original pequi tree produced much larger fruits, with abundant pulp and small seeds; that the first flutes were aquatic spirits, but the one who discovered them hid them, making wooden imitations, which never could reproduce the potent voice of the original. The first human beings were carved out of wood by the demiurge, who also tried to bring them back to life; as he failed, irreversible death was then commemorated in the ceremony of the Kwarup, in which trunks of the same wood serve as symbol for the dead. The twins Sun and Moon, beyond being the modelers of the Indians of the upper Xingu, are also models for them, since the majority of their mythic adventures consists of the inaugural realization of practices that were later adopted by humans: wrestling, scarification, shamanism.

Thus, myth is not only a collection of founding events which were lost in the dawn of time; myth constantly guides and justifies the present. The geography of the region is dotted with sites where mythic actions unfolded; the ceremonies are explained by the initiative of mythic beings; the world is peopled by immortal beings which go back to the origin of the world; the creators of humanity still live on the Morená. In short, myth exists as a temporal – but, above all, a conceptual - reference.

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The ceremonies are strictly connected to the mythical universe. On the Upper Xingu, there are two main kinds of rituals. There are the festivals that receive the name of a spirit, generally a spirit which caused a sickness that attacked the host of the festival, and which are restricted to the village. The active participants of this type of ritual – dancers, singers, and musicians – visually or musically represent this spirit. The ceremonies of the other category involve various villages of the Upper Xingu, like the celebration of the deceased aristocrats (better known by their Kamaiurá name, Kwarup) and the duel of darts (Jawari, in Kamaiurá). The latter class of ceremonies was established by the twins Sun and Moon. In the myth, the participating villages are comprised of animals who live in different environments, such as terrestrial animals versus birds, or fish versus terrestrial animals.

In general, what is done in these inter-village rituals is something that is described in a myth, but which is not merely a simple repetition or re-enactment of it. What the ritual celebrates, in fact, is the impossibility of an identical repetition: "now there is only going to be festival", the demiurge said on failing in his attempt to revive the first humans who died, thus inaugurating mortality (the description of this celebration is found in the item "the long ritual of the Kwarup"). In short, the ritual is a reduced iconic model of the superhuman achievements described in  myth.

The primordial making of humans, according to upper Xingu mythology, was the work of a demiurge who gave life to wooden logs placed in a seclusion compartment, by blowing tobacco smoke over them. Thus were created the first women, among whom was the mother of the twins, Sun and Moon, archetypes and authors of present-day humanity. In homage to this woman, the first festival of the dead was celebrated, which is the most important festival of the Upper Xingu and which thus consists of a re-enactment of the primordial creation, at the same time it is the privileged moment for public presentation of the young women who have recently come out of puberty seclusion. Thus, it is a ritual that ties together death and life; the girls who come out of seclusion are like the first humans, mothers of men.

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The first humans were thus made in a seclusion chamber. The wooden girls were transformed into people after being closed up in straw compartments similar to those that shelter adolescents in their parents’ house. Echoing this myth of origin, the making of the person in the upper Xingu involves various periods of seclusion, all of which are conceived of as moments for making the body: the couvade (restrictions imposed on married couples with newborn children), puberty, sickness, shamanic initiation, and mourning. This making of the person is also a process of modeling the ideal personality, above all in the case of puberty seclusion, the most important of all seclusions.

In contrast with these periods of making the body, marked by seclusion and liminality, the displaying of the body brings up-to-date the marks of social status (sex, age, ritual role) and characterizes public life, the plaza of the village, the confrontation with other villages of the region and the ceremonial plaza. This contrast seems to strongly mark life in the upper Xingu, which unfolds as the oscillation between these two complementary moments, the dynamics of which result in the construction of the person in these communities. The plaza, plaza speech, the body wrestling, the dance, the display (typically male) of one’s own individuality in the center of the village only exist when articulated with the seclusion compartment, its silence and its secrecy, the lengthy process of making the body and rules for sexual and dietary restraint.

The cosmology and rituals of other peoples of the Park are specific, and thus we suggest visiting their respective pages: Ikpeng, Kaiabi, Suyá and Yudjá. Moreover, the pages dedicated to each ethnic group of the Upper Xingu highlight their singularities which distinguish them from this common repertoire.

[text edited from the chapter by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, "Outline of Yawalapiti Cosmology", in A Inconstância da Alma Selvagem. São Paulo, Cosac & Naif, 2002]