SOUTH AMERICA
[Note See the related article on Native North Americans in
the entry America.]
South American Indians
Throughout South America, the magician caste analogous
to the medicine men or shamans of North America were known
as piaies or piaes. Of those of British Guiana (now Guyana), W.
H. Brett gives the following account in The Indian Tribes of Guiana
(1868)
‘‘They are each furnished with a large gourd or calabash,
which has been emptied of its seeds and spongy contents, and
has a round stick run through the middle of it by means of two
holes. The ends of this stick project—one forms the handle of
the instrument, and the other has a long string to which beautiful
feathers are attached, wound round it in spiral circles. Within
the calabash are a few small white stones, which rattle when
it is shaken or turned round. The calabash itself is usually
painted red. It is regarded with great awe by the heathen Indians,
who fear to touch it, or even to approach the place where
it is kept.
‘‘When attacked by sickness, the Indians cause themselves to
be conveyed to some friendly sorcerer, to whom a present of
more or less value must be made. Death is sometimes occasioned
by those removals, cold being taken from wet or the
damp of the river. If the patient cannot be removed, the sorcerer
is sent for to visit him. The females are all sent away from
the place and the men must keep at a respectful distance, as he
does not like his proceedings to be closely inspected. He then
commences his exorcisms, turning, and shaking his marakka, or
rattle, and chanting an address to the yauhahu. This is continued
for hours, about midnight the spirit is supposed to be present,
and a conversation to take place, which is unintelligible to
the Indians, who may overhear it. These ceremonies are kept
up for successive nights.
‘‘If the patient be strong enough to endure the disease, the
excitement, the noise, and the fumes of tobacco in which he is
at times enveloped, and the sorcerer observes signs of recovery
he will pretend to extract the cause of the complaint by sucking
the part affected. After many ceremonies he will produce from
his mouth some strange substance, such as a thorn or gravelstone,
a fish-bone or bird’s claw, a snake’s tooth, or a piece of
wire, which some malicious yauhahu is supposed to have inserted
in the affected part. As soon as the patient fancies himself
rid of this cause of his illness his recovery is generally rapid,
and the fame of the sorcerer greatly increased. Should death,
however, ensue, the blame is laid upon the evil spirit, whose
power and malignity have prevailed over the counteracting
charms. Some rival sorcerer will at times come in for a share of
the blame, whom the sufferer has unhappily made his enemy,
and who is supposed to have employed the yauhahu in destroying
him. The sorcerers being supposed to have the power of
causing, as well as of curing diseases, are much dreaded by the
common people, who never willfully offend them. So deeply
rooted in the Indian’s bosom is this belief concerning the origin
of diseases, that they have little idea of sickness arising from
other causes. Death may arise from a wound or a contusion, or
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1441
be brought on by want of food, but in other cases it is the work
of the yauhahu.
‘‘I once came upon a Warau practising his art upon a woman
inflicted with a severe internal complaint. He was, when I first
saw him, blowing violently into his hands and rubbing them
upon the affected part. He very candidly acknowledged his imposture
when I taxed him with it, put up his implements, and
went away. The fate of the poor woman, as it was related to me
some time afterwards, was very sad. Though a Venezuelan halfbreed,
and of the Church of Rome, she was wedded to the Indian
superstitions, and after trying the most noted sorcerers without
relief, she inflicted on herself a mortal wound with a razor
in the vain attempt to cut out the imaginary cause of her internal
pain.
‘‘Some have imagined that those men have faith in the
power of their own incantations from their performing them
over their own children, and even causing them to be acted
over themselves when sick. This practice it is indeed difficult to
account for. The juggling part of their business is such a gross
imposture as could only succeed with a very ignorant and credulous
people; but it is perhaps in their case, as in some others,
difficult to tell the precise point where credulity ends and imposture
begins. It is certain that they are excited during their
incantations in a most extraordinary way, and positively affirm
that they hold intercourse with spirits; nor will they allow themselves
to be laughed out of the assertion however ridiculous it
may appear to us.
‘‘The Waraus, in many points the most degraded of the
tribes, are the most renowned as sorcerers. The huts which they
set apart for the performance of their superstitious rites are regarded
with great veneration.
‘‘Mr. Nowers, on visiting a Warau settlement, entered one
of those huts, not being aware of the offense he was committing
and found it perfectly empty, with the exception of the gourd,
or mataro, as it is called by the tribe. There was, in the centre
of the hut, a small raised place about eighteen inches high, on
which the fire had been made for burning tobacco. The sorcerer
being asked to give up the gourd, peremptorily refused, saying
that if he did so his two children would die the same night.’’
Franz Keller, in Amazon and Madeira Rivers (1874), observes
of the Brazilian tribes as follows
‘‘As with the shamans of the North Asiatic nations, the influence
a Pajé may secure over his tribe depends entirely on the
success of his cures and his more or less imposing personal
qualities. Woe to him if by some unlucky ministration or fatal
advice he forfeits his prestige. The hate of the whole tribe turns
against him, as if to indemnify them for the fear and awe felt
by them until then; and often he pays for his envied position
with his life.
‘‘And an influential and powerful position it is. His advice
is first heard in war and peace. He has to mark the boundaries
of the hunting-grounds; and, when quarrels arise, he has to decide
in concert with the chieftain, sometimes even against the
latter’s wishes. By a majestically distant demeanour, and by the
affectation of severe fasting and of nightly meetings with the
spirits of another world, these augurs have succeeded in giving
such an appearance of holiness to the whole caste, that their influence
is a mighty one to the present day, even with the Indians
of the Aldeamentos, where contact with the white race is
sure by-and-by to produce a certain degree of scepticism.
‘‘When I was at the Aldeamento of San Ignacio, on the Paranapanema,
Cuyaba, chieftain and Pajé of an independent
horde of Cayowa Indians made his appearance, and I had the
honour of being introduced to this magnificent sample of a
conjurer. He was a man of about fifty, with large well-cut features,
framed within a dense, streaming mane of long black
hair. The long xerimbita on his under lip (a long, thin, cylinder
of a resin resembling amber), a great number of black and
white beads covering his chest in regular rows like a cuirass,
and a broad girdle holding his cherapi (sort of apron), which was
fringed all round with rich, woven ornaments, gave him quite
a stately, majestic appearance.’’
The Chileans called their magicians gligua or dugol, and
they were subdivided into guenguenu, genpugnu, and genpiru,
meaning respectively ‘‘masters of the heavens,’’ ‘‘of epidemics,’’
and ‘‘of insects or worms.’’ There was also a sect called calcu, or
‘‘sorcerers,’’ who lived in caves, and who were served by ivunches,
or ‘‘man-animals,’’ to whom they taught their terrible arts.
The Araucanians believed that these wizards had the power
to transform themselves at night into nocturnal birds, to fly
through the air, and to shoot invisible arrows at their enemies,
besides indulging in the malicious mischief with which folklore
credits the wizards of all countries. They believed their priests
possessed numerous familiars who were attached to them after
death—similar to the beliefs of the magicians of the Middle
Ages. These priests or diviners were celibate, and led an existence
apart from the tribe, in some communities being dressed
as women. Many tales are told of their prowess in magic, that
indicate that they were either natural epileptics or ecstatics, or
that disturbing mental influences were brought about by the
use of drugs. The Araucanians also held that to mention their
real personal names gave magic power over them that might
be turned to evil ends. Regarding the wizards of the inhabitants
of the territory around the River Chaco in Paraguay, Barbrook
Grubb records as follows in An Unknown People in an Unknown
Land
‘‘The training necessary to qualify an Indian to become a
witch-doctor consists, in the first place, in severe fastings, and
especially in abstention from fluid. They carry this fasting to
such an excess as to affect the nervous system and brain. Certain
herbs are eaten to hasten this stage. They pass days in solitude,
and, when thoroughly worked up to an hysterical condition,
they see spirits and ghosts, and have strange visions. It is
necessary, furthermore, that they should eat live toads and
some kinds of snakes. Certain little birds are plucked alive and
then devoured, their power of whistling being supposed to be
thus communicated to the witch-doctor. There are other features
in the preliminary training which need not be mentioned,
and when the initiatory stage has been satisfactorily passed,
they are instructed in the mysteries under pledge of secrecy.
After that their future depends upon themselves.
‘‘It is unquestionable that a few of these wizards understand
to a slight degree the power of hypnotism. They appear at
times to throw themselves into a hypnotic state by sitting in a
strained position for hours, fixing their gaze upon some distant
object. In this condition they are believed to be able to throw
their souls out—that is, in order to make them wander. It seems
that occasionally, when in this state, they see visions which are
quite the opposite of those they had desired. At other times
they content themselves with concentrating their attention for
a while upon one of their charms, and I have no doubt that occasionally
they are sincere in desiring to solve some perplexing
problems.
‘‘One of the chief duties of the wizard is to arrange the
weather to suit his clansmen. If they want rain it is to him they
apply. His sorceries are of such a kind that they may be extended
over a long period. He is never lacking in excuses, and so,
while apparently busy in combating the opposing forces which
are hindering the rain, he gains time to study weather signs. He
will never or rarely venture an opinion as to the expected
change until he is nearly certain of a satisfactory result. Any
other Indian could foretell rain were he to observe signs as
closely as does the wizard. The killing of a certain kind of duck,
and the sprinkling of its blood upwards, is his chief charm.
When he is able to procure this bird he is sure that rain cannot
be far off, because these ducks do not migrate southwards until
they know that there is going to be water in the swamps. These
swamps are filled by the overflowing of the rivers as much as
by the local rainfalls, and the presence of water in the rivers and
swamps soon attracts rain-clouds.
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1442
‘‘The wizards also observe plants and animals, study the sky
and take note of other phenomena, and by these means can arrive
at fairly safe conclusions. They are supposed to be able to
foretell events, and to a certain extent they succeed so far as
these events concern local interest. By judicious questioning
and observation, the astute wizard is able to judge with some
amount of exactitude how certain matters are likely to turn out.
‘‘After we had introduced bullock-carts into their country,
the people were naturally interested in the return of the carts
from their periodical journeys to the river. When the wizards
had calculated carefully the watering-places, and had taken
into consideration the state of the roads, the character of the
drivers, and the condition and number of the bullocks, all that
they then required to know was the weight of the loads and the
day on which it was expected that the carts would leave the river
on their return journey. The last two items they had to obtain
from us. When they had these data, by a simple calculation they
could make a very shrewd guess, not only at the time when they
might be expected to arrive at the village, but also at what particular
part of the road they might happen to be on any given
day. A great impression was made upon the simple people by
this exhibition of power, but when we discovered what they
were doing, we withheld the information, or only gave them
part, with the result that their prophecies either failed ignominiously
or proved very erroneous. Their reputation accordingly
began to wane.
‘‘The wizards appear to be authorities on agricultural matters,
and when application to the garden spirit has failed, the
witch-doctor is called in. He examines the crop, and if he thinks
it is likely to be a poor one, he says it is being blighted by an
evil spirit, but that he will use what sorceries he can to preserve
it. If, on the other hand, he has reason to believe that the crop
will be a good one, he spits upon it here and there, and then
assures the people that now they may expect a good harvest.
‘‘Some of the chief duties of the witch-doctor consist in laying
ghosts, driving off spirits, exorcising kilyikhama in cases of
possession, assisting wandering souls back to their bodies, and
generally in the recognising of spirits. When a ghost is supposed
to haunt a village, the wizard and his assistants have
sometimes an hour’s arduous chanting in order to induce the
restless one to leave. When he considers that he has accomplished
this, he assures the people that it is done, and this quiets
their fears. Evil spirits frequenting a neighbourhood have
also to be driven off by somewhat similar chanting.’’
Through the twentieth century, practices first described in
the nineteenth century by anthropologists have been integrated
into the Spiritualist groups of the countries of South America,
especially Brazil.
Sources
Brett, William H. The Indian Tribes of Guiana. London, 1868.
Grubb, W. Barbrook. An Unknown People in an Unknown
Land. London, 1911.
Keller, Franz. Amazon and Madeira Rivers. London, 1874.
McGregor, Pedro. Jesus of the Spirits. New York Stein & Day,
1966.
Playfair, Guy Lyon. The Flying Cow. London, 1975. Reprinted
as The Unknown Power. New York Pocket Books, 1975.