Foto: Gustaaf Verswijver, 1991

Mebêngôkre (Kayapó)

  • Autodenominação
    Mebêngôkre
  • Where they are How many

    MT, PA11.675 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
  • Linguistic family

Cosmology and ritual

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The villages is the centre of the Kayapó universe, the most socialized space. The surrounding forest is considered an anti-social space, where men can transform into animals or spirits, sicken without reason or even kill their relatives. Beings who are half-animal, half-people dwell there. The further from the village, the more anti-social the forest becomes and its associated dangers increase. As there is always the danger that the ‘social’ may be appropriated by the natural domain, escaping human control, the Kayapó engage in a symbolic appropriation of the natural, transforming it into the social through curing chants and ceremonies which establish a constant exchange between man and the world of nature.

The section of forest in which the village population hunts, fishes and cultivates land is first socialized by the attribution of place names. Thereafter, human modifcations of the nature world are accompanied by rituals. For example, the opening of new swiddens is preceded by a dance presenting many structural similarities to the war ritual. Opening up new swiddens is indeed a symbolic war against a natural rather than human enemy. Returning from the hunt, men must sing to the spirits of the game they themselves have killed in order for the spirits to remain in the forest. Each animal species designates a song that always begins with the cry of the dead animal.

The Kayapó ritual complex consists of a very particular language: the rites express and actualize fundamental values of the society, reflecting in equal portion the image the group has of itself, the society and the universe. Each rite translates a part of this cosmological vision and establishes a link between man and nature, in which above all the human-animal relationship is reinforced.

Kayapó rituals are numerous and diverse, but their importance and duration varies greatly. They divide into three main categories: the large ceremonies for confirming personal names; certain agricultural, hunting, fishing and occasional rites – for example, those performed during solar or lunar eclipses – and, finally, rites of passage. The latter are frequently solemn affairs, though short and only rarely accompanied by dances or songs: they are organized so as to announce publicly the passage of some people from one age set to another.

Examples of rites of passage include all the ceremonies qualified by the term mereremex (‘people who extend their beauty’), a reference to the highly elaborate fashion in which people decorate themselves on such occasions. Such ceremonies comprise group-based activities whose purpose is to socialize ‘wild’ or anti-social values. This applies to the attribution of names, a central theme of most Kayapó ceremonies; in fact, personal names are borrowed from nature. Shamans enter into contact with the natural spirits and learn new songs and names from them. These names, alongside the songs to which they refer, are elements borrowed from the ‘natural’ world, which must be introduced into culture at the moment of the large naming ceremonies.

On these occasions, most of the ritual sequences take place in the village’s central plaza. Here an inversion of ordinary social space may be noted: the centre of the village, normally organized on the basis of friendship and non-kinship, is converted into the domain of activities in which both personal family bonds and natural – and therefore ‘wild’ elements, such as the personal names or those of killed prey – are central. The true nature of ‘beauty’, referred to by the Kayapó by the term mereremex, is not only visual, but also constituted by an interior beauty that results from the group’s activity, from the common effort required to ‘socialize’ the names of people or of other precious objects.