Foto: Camila Gauditano, 2001


  • Autodenominação
  • Where they are How many

    MT424 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
  • Linguistic family

Smell, Vision, and Witchcraft

Unlike the faculties of speech and hearing, which are highly elaborated and positively valued in Kĩsêdjê society, the eyes do not have a similar degree of ornamentation or vision a positive evaluation. The Kĩsêdjê verb "to see" has a more restricted sense than is commonly applied in English. The eyes are not considered to be the "window of the soul," but rather a faculty that can be dangerous and antisocial. The symbolic emphasis on vision among the Kĩsêdjê is in the importance of the extraordinary vision possessed only by "witches" (wayangá). (The word "witch" is an unsatisfactory translation of this word; because they are antisocial people who can make people ill or kill them, it is the best rough approximation in English, but the terms are not identical).

A person becomes a witch when an invisible “witch-thing" enters his or her eyes. Certain species of birds also have a witch-thing in their eyes. People with the "witch-thing" in their eyes have extraordinary acuity of vision (resembling that possessed by the comic-strip hero Superman), allowing them to see the village of the dead in the sky and to look through the earth and see the fires of the people who live underground. They can also look around and see enemy Indians in distant villages, as well as what is going on in all of the houses in the village. They can turn themselves into birds, and fly into houses as well as travel long distances.

Since being a witch is neither congenital nor inherited, the "witch-thing" only enters the eyes of a person who is in some form or another immoral or "without shame" (animbai kidi). Witches are antisocial, selfish, and vindictive people who kill other people when they are angry. Men or women may be considered witches because they do not share their food or their belongings or because they do not observe appropriate sexual and elementary restrictions during critical periods. Other ways to become a witch include stepping on a new grave, having sexual relations with a witch, or touching a dead witch. People who do not listen to the exhortations of their elders, their political leaders, or the ritual specialists, are said by others to be without shame and thus run the risk of becoming thought to be witches by the rest of the community.

Kĩsêdjê witches see things that normal people are incapable of seeing. They do not hear-understand-know like normal people (in the sense of following the instructions of their elders). They have their own way of speaking, called "bad speech" (kaperni kasaga; kasaga means bad, or ugly). Witch's speech is something like malicious gossip, and can be distinguished from a political leader's plaza speech in several ways. It is only spoken in the interior of the houses and outside the village, never in the plaza; it is private rather than public; it is selfish rather than community-oriented.

The Kĩsêdjê say that witches are responsible for almost all deaths and sickness, which they cause by stealing the soul or spirit. When someone dies, the survivors attempt to discover the identity of the witch responsible. In the past someone would kill the one thought to be responsible for the death of important people. Not all witches caused death; soul theft could cause illness as well. People who became ill because of a witch but recovered could become "people without spirits" who were able to introduce new songs into the repertory of the village. They could do this because their souls had been carried by the witch and hidden in the village of some species of animal, plant, or fish. Those who were sick discover that they could understand the language of the species with which their spirit has been hidden, and from that time on they get better and sing songs learned from the species with which the spirit continues to live.

The sense of smell is thought to be most developed in animals and certain enemies who were said to track the Kĩsêdjê using their noses. The nose is not ornamented, and is rarely emphasized with body paint except to paint it black. Odors, however, are important parts of Kĩsêdjê cosmology. Odors are used to classify animals and human beings. Animals are divided into three groups by their odor; "strong," "pungent," or "bland" smelling animals each have specific attributes. Animals and other things classified as having a "strong smell" tend to be powerful and to a certain extent dangerous, like carnivorous animals, sexual fluids, and women. Things that are classified as having a "pungent" smell tend to be symbolically less dangerous. Pungent smelling animals are usually edible; almost all medicinal plants are said to be pungent smelling, as are many other things without great symbolic importance. The "bland" category includes animals and things that are safe to eat for most people most of the time, and fully initiated men