Foto: Gustaaf Verswijver, 1991

Mebêngôkre (Kayapó)

  • Autodenominação
  • Where they are How many

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


The Kayapó distinguish two categories of names for people: the ‘common’ names and the ‘beautiful’ or ‘great’ names. The sources inspiring common names are multiple, potentially referring to an element of the environment, a part of the body, a personal experience and so on. The beautiful names have two parts: a ceremonial prefix and a simple suffix. There are eight untranslatable ceremonial suffixes, each corresponding to a ceremonial category.

Some days after birth, the child receives a certain number of common and beautiful names. Both can be used, but it is more elegant for the latter to be confirmed at a later time during a ceremony. This confirmation occurs after the child has developed elementary motor and linguistic abilities, and, especially in the case of boys, before being formally integrated into one of the associations linked to the centre of the village. In other words, the confirmation of names attributed to birth takes place between the age of two and eight years, during a naming ritual.

Each person’s beautiful names are based on different ceremonial prefixes. Ideally, each child should be honoured more than once. But in practice this is rarely the case, due to the large expenditures demanded from the child’s parents. The latter act as sponsors of the naming rites, who must feed the people who sing and/or dance. As the ceremony may last months, enormous quantities of foods have to be assembled and prepared. The father and mother obviously turn to their more distant relatives to request help, but not everyone wants to – or can – contribute towards such a heavy economic sum.

The Kayapó distinguish twelve naming rituals. Each of these possesses a particular name and consists of a long series of specific dances, songs and ritual practices. During one of these ceremonies, between two and five children are ‘honoured:’ these are called mereremex (‘those who extend their beauty’). The honoured children are assisted by two or more ritual friends, non-related people of both sexes who will thereafter have the task of assisting the child during all the difficult phases of his or her future life. The attribution of a name is one of the most crucial occasions when the help of a ritual friend is required. In fact, the ceremonial confirmation of names is considered to be a dangerous undertaking. This is partially explained by the origin of the names which, as we recall, derive from natural – and therefore frightening – elements. But there is also a second threat: during performance of the rites, the spirits of the dead relatives attempt to take away the spirit of the decorated children.