Foto: Gustaaf Verswijver, 1991

Mebêngôkre (Kayapó)

  • Autodenominação
  • Where they are How many

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

The living and the dead


The Kayapó believe that the spirits of the dead live in a secluded village, somewhere in the hills. This village is organized like that of the living: in the form of a circle with one or two men’s houses, possessing male and female associations, age sets, etc. The essential difference resides in the fact that the spirits live by night and fear the light of day. For this reason, the Kayapó are afraid to remain alone in the forest during the night.

Women smoke almost the whole time they stay in the swiddens since the spirits fear the smoke. Without this precaution, many spirits would lurk near them as they went to collect potatoes and manioc and then follow them as far as the village. To confuse the plane of the spirits, the women spit in all directions before leaving the swiddens and surround themselves with a cloud of smoke. Spitting and blowing smoke are acts endowed with the same efficacy as the male songs after a successful hunting trip: both have the aim of driving away spirits.

The Kayapó bury their dead in a very precise space, outside the village circle. The grave comprises a circular well in which the body is placed in a seated position, the face always pointed to the east. The hole is covered after various personal objects of the deceased are placed below, such as gourds, weapons and some ornaments. The spirit will take these objects to its new dwelling place. In the first weeks following the death, relatives leave a small amount of food and drink everyday by the side of the grave, since the spirit does not always immediately find the path leading to the village of the dead.

The spirits may succumb to nostalgia, which provokes a fear among the living that they may try to ‘fetch’ a member of their own family. As a result, relatives of someone who has recently died are extremely prudent: in order to scare away the spirits, they illuminate the house with large fires that produce a lot of smoke. The simple fact of looking at a spirit is mortal and the latter typically awaits for an opportune moment to capture the soul of a sick person or a weak relative.

During the naming ritual, the honoured children are placed in a situation of extreme weakness: at the start of this rite, they are so to speak unfinished beings, submitted to an intense process of socialization by means of body painting, the wearing of very fine ornaments, ritual dances by male or female groups and, finally, by the ritual confirmation of their names. At the end of this process, the honoured children become whole human beings again. For these reasons, the honouring of very young children is avoided during such ceremonies, since this would place them in danger, even when accompanied by adult ritual friends.