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date: 30 November 2020

Assault Sorcery

Abstract and Keywords

This article is an in-depth study of the cosmology and practices of assault sorcerers. While it concentrates mostly on indigenous Amazonian societies, comparisons are drawn from other ethnographic areas of the world. It shows that assault sorcery is an integral part of a nexus of religious knowledge and power, in which primordial spirits of sickness and sorcery are embodied in all manner of assault sorcery. The world of humanity today, according to indigenous cosmogonies examined here, is imbued with violent death through sorcery, the legacy of the primordial world. Prophet movements have often been associated with sorcery among indigenous societies throughout the world. Their principal objectives include the control of assault sorcerers, although the prophets themselves have often succumbed to their violent attacks or even deployed sorcery as a mode of defense against enemies. This world has been corrupted by the incessant violence of sorcerers, which the community elders, shamanic healers, and prophets have all sought to manage and control. What the future holds with the drastic decline of shamanic healers is cause for grave concern among traditional communities.

Keywords: shaman, sorcery, spirit, cosmology, prophet, prophet movements, tradition, assault sorcerer, violence

Assault sorcerers are at the opposite end of the spectrum of the shamans who cure. Some authors have called them “dark shamans.” In many cultures, the shamans who cure are the same as those who practice sorcery, much like two sides of the same coin. During shamans’ apprenticeships, they learn all of the art and practice of curing first, and then, when they are at a point they can withstand the harmful effects of assault sorcery, the master instructs them about the other side of the practice. For that reason, among others, in those cultures where the shamans can practice both healing and sorcery, they are considered highly ambiguous figures.

In this article I look at the variety of practices associated with assault sorcery worldwide and at various moments in history. While many of the examples cited are from indigenous societies, assault sorcerers are not exclusively found there. On the contrary, examples of urbanized sorcerers demonstrate how, for example, non-indigenous politicians can harness shamanic powers to do their dirty work.

The examples I cite come primarily from northern Amazonia, North America, Melanesia, and Australia; the literature on African witchcraft and sorcery is abundant and has been well-analyzed already (Douglas, 1970; Wilson, 1973). The principle source is the ethnography of northern Arawak-speaking cultures in the Northwest Amazon, where I have conducted long-term research over the past three decades. The advantage of this in-depth study of an ethnographic region is that it reveals multiple situations, comparable across societies that comprise the regional culture. Sorcery is an ancestral tradition, yet it poses existential dilemmas in which cultural continuity is jeapordized by negative elements of change translated into acts of assault sorcery. There are multiple levels at which sorcery must be understood, however, not all of them having to do with culture change.

Sorcery is a form of violence against a victim in order to harm or damage, physically and spiritually, the victim and his or her family. The motives are varied: sometimes sorcery is deployed as a means for redressing perceived and felt wrongdoings. One of its outstanding features is that it is performed secretly, often under the cover of darkness, in silence, sometimes with effigies symbolizing the victim or sometimes as the result of a shaman’s dream or inquest. In some cultures, sorcerers’ cults, or witches’ covens, made human sacrifices to the deities. Although it is more often the case that an individual performs sorcery alone against his or her victim, he or she may be backed up by a group until the act is finished. An increase in sorcery could represent consequences of historical circumstances in which the deities or spirits have become displeased with humans and their apparent willingness to give up traditional culture and convert to Christianity. Alternately, the deity could order shaman intermediaries to execute sorcerers believed to be the cause of social unrest and conflict.

The case studies presented in this article engage discussions of (a) conversion to Christianity and its implications for modifying, though never eradicating, sorcery; (b) prophet movements aimed at transforming sorcery and conflict into harmonious conviviality; (c) the traditions of primordial sorcerers which are, at the same time, the ancestors of humanity; (d) death from sorcery as the price for the failure to observe ritual restrictions; and (e) sorcery as a sociopolitical-economic leveling mechanism in societies that seek to be egalitarian. The implications of this “leveling mechanism” for revitalization movements, as well as sustainable development programs, are also explored.

Shamanic Specializations in Amazonia

The specialization in shamanic functions recorded for several Amazonian societies is directly connected to the spatio-temporal dimensions of the cosmos. C. Crocker (1985) proposed that Amazonian shamanism can be understood in ideal-typical terms as consisting of two interlocking and complementary forms. The first is the “horizontal” shaman whose primary responsibility is to defend humans from the sickness-giving spirits of the visible, material world. The second type is “vertical,” referring to shamans who produce categories of being that transcend the spatio-temporality of the visible world. Among the Bororo Indians of western Mato Grosso, Brazil, the first type ministers to the mystical beings of change, transformation, and decay, called the bope. They are most akin to sorcery-giving spirits, which are dialectically opposed to the aroe spirits, the immortal, incorporeal, and individuated spirit possessed by all creatures, especially man. These aroe spirits are ministered to by the ‘vertical’ shamans. The term aroe is also applied to the collectivity of souls of deceased Bororo and the ancestors.

In other regions of Amazonia, similar sorts of spatio-temporal division of shamanic knowledge and power can be seen in the distinction between healer shamans, who deal mainly with sickness-giving spirits, and the priestly shamans, whose main job is to officiate at the principal rites of passage, activating dangerous primordial powers in order to regenerate society. In the Northwest Amazon, the priestly chanters do this by sanctifying the earth with the music of the ancestors, while preventing any future harm from befalling the new generations of adults. While the healer shaman is known for his or her capacity to search for the lost souls of the sick by journeying to “other worlds” in the universe, the priestly chanters have the arduous task of bringing the ancestral powers from the other world into this—manifest and material—world, in order to shamanize it through the chants. To do so, however, also opens the door to potentially unleashing the powers of primordial sorcery which can easily destroy humanity. These priestly chanters, like the Bororo ‘vertical shamans’, transcend local conflicts with spirits by universalizing their protective and regenerative functions.

Features of Dark Shamans/Assault Sorcerers

The true dark shamans/assault sorcerers are distinct from the healers and priestly chanters in a number of ways. The sorcerer derives his or her powers from cosmological principles that are the total opposite of the healer. Among peoples of the Northwest Amazon, a person is not born with the powers of a sorcerer; rather, a person acquires knowledge about poisons and poisoning informally from other, more experienced sorcerers. Any person can use sorcery to take vengeance against an enemy, but the true “poison-keeper”, as they are called, is one who has committed sorcery repeatedly until his or her only thoughts are to kill. This person has then transformed into the mythical prototype of the sorcerer, a mixture of a hairy animal (e.g., night monkey) with a spirit of the dead. In other words, the “person” has lost his or her true humanity and has become an enemy spirit in an animal body and human clothing. These sorcerers are believed to have the powers to manipulate the spirits in certain plants, insects, and reptiles, as well as any of the innumerable creatures that are believed to inflict pain.

Violence of Sorcerer Attacks

The Warao of the Orinoco Delta have a very highly developed system of dark shamans called hoaratu, whose cosmological origins lie in the relations between humanity and the ancient ones, who still reside at the cardinal points of the earth. It has been the particular responsibility of the hoaratu to ensure that the scarlet macaw god and his spirits do not become enraged and are appeased with a supply of human victims (J. Wilbert, in Whitehead and Wright, 2004b). Thus to be killed by the hoaratu is to be utterly extinguished without hope of immortality in the other world. Like the kanaima sorcerers among Carib-speaking peoples of northern Amazonia, and the iupithatem sorcery deployed by the Guahibo of the Orinoco Valley (Wright, 2013), the individual is to be completely terminated and erased ontologically, ultimately becoming the food of the gods.

Assault sorcery may involve extremely aggressive physical attacks in the dark of night against powerless victims (children or women). Sometimes effigies are used in the course of stalking the victim. The kanaima, dark shamans of the Cariban-speaking peoples in northern South America, appear to follow a logic in the initial attacks, the objectives of which are, first, to stalk and maim their victims, weakening them sufficiently so that it is impossible for them to recover. The victims are chosen from the “weaker” and more vulnerable members of a community, making the kanaimas’ job easier. The kanaima maim the bodies of their victims first by dislocating bone joints, leaving bruised bodies and incapacitating the victim from launching any counterattack. The sorcerers then provoke the total loss of control over a victim’s orifices by inserting the jagged edges of armadillo tails into the rectum of the victim, shredding the sphincter muscles by rapidly pushing and pulling the tail in and out, after which they insert bunches of aromatic leaves into the lower intestine. The victim does not survive more than a week after such an attack. Following the victim’s burial, the kanaima conduct nocturnal, necrophagous rituals at the graves of the deceased where they suck the juices, called maba, from the deceased’s intestines through a long tube or straw. From these juices, the kanaima obtain a much-desired power that is his sustenance (Whitehead, 2002).

Among the northern Arawak-speaking peoples of the Northwest Amazon, sorcerers are called poison-owners. The poison-owner’s principal assault action is to secretly put some type of poison (among the several dozen kinds of poisonous berries, ash, thorns, leaves, or roots) into the food or drink of the victim. Depending on the poison’s strength, the effects are immediate or prolonged, but the overall effect is to incapacitate the person, forcing him or her into seclusion. Biomedically speaking, the poison provokes a gastric lesion, internal hemorrhaging, uncontrollable vomiting or diarrhea, severe anemia, and eventually death. Treatment by the shaman is prolonged and sometimes successful; surviving the attempt may result in that person’s conviction that he or she should learn the shamanic arts of chanting or reciting healing formulae not only for him or herself but also to assist others. Alternatively, the victim may seek refuge by relocating from the village to urban settings, for example.

The main reasons for giving poison have to do frequently with envy, the noncompliance of a trading agreement, failure to reciprocate in a marital exchange, and gossip. All of these motives relate to the intolerance of social, political, economic differences in a relatively egalitarian society. Poison may also be used to avenge the death of a loved one; in that case, the assault sorcerer has two options: equalize the imbalance by eliminating the same number of victims, or kill as many people as necessary until the burden of the loss has dissipated. The burden of grief due to the loss of a close kin demands that the assassin involved in the crime and all of his or her cohorts become targets for retaliation.

For many indigenous peoples, social friction may inspire strategies of violence, leading to subversive inscriptions in new media, as in bodies. While not comprising written texts, the acts of assault sorcery—traditional performances of ritualized chants, spells, and bodily manipulations—have been noted to articulate a competing cosmology resistant to hegemonic control among populations in Papua New Guinea and Amazonia (Stewart and Strathern, 2004 Whitehead, 2002).

Thus the sorcerers encrypt subversive “texts” onto individual and social bodies, aiming for lethal intent. (Bacigalupo, 2005). In some Melanesian traditional societies, the colonial suppression of traditional modes of justice, such as revenge and vendetta, and the imposition of European-based modes have spurred expansions and mutations of assault sorcery (Stewart and Strathern 1999, 2004). When older forms of warfare become futile or nearly so, new syntheses of mystical ideas and ritual practices, intending deadly assault, emerge from the interstices of the old and the newly encountered systems.

Curiously, Christian evangelizing seems to have augmented shamanic warfare in Amazonia, inspiring “Alleluia prophets” with distinct mystical codes and practices to battle more traditional shamans in numinous warfare (Whitehead, 2002: 128ff). Resonating with Michael Taussig’s (1986) explorations, recent research on assault sorcery reveals a flourishing discourse of violence with symbolic and mystical features at cultural margins. (Whitehead and Wright, 2004a; Vidal and Whitehead, 2004; Santos-Granero, 2004). Rumors of preternatural violence may inspire fears of ritualized cruelty and enchantments within the hegemonic societies. Whitehead has called such cultural formations a “poetics of violence” (2002: 191–194), read differently by the various sides.

Kanaima sorcery constitutes “a distinct poetic of violence within a cosmological theater of predatory death at the hands of divine forces” (Whitehead, 2002: 208). While it might seem paradoxical, the threat of these kanaima may actually serve to deter unwanted outsiders from entering indigenous territory; in that sense, they may be a frontline defense against intruders such as anthropologists, missionaries, miners, and so on:

[D]ark shamans are not simply vilified and hunted down, but can become, the source and symbol of a potent indigenous society and culture that is capable of defending itself against the depredations of the outside world…. Its current florescence is an aspect of native self-affirmation in the face of colonizing modernity.

(Whitehead 2002: 204–209)

Comparative: Australian Kadagi Men and “Clever Men”

Some very striking comparisons are possible between the sorcery beliefs and practices in Amazonia and those of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. The Aborigines believe in the figure of the Kadagi man, a sorcerer who stalks and kidnaps children. The kadagi are hyper-traditionalists regarding the protection of societal norms, following the regulations of ritual seclusion, and maintaining and honoring sacred sites, but they can sometimes kill for sheer malice. They are believed to always wander around at the edges of society, unseen and invisible, but they can then materialize, threatening with death anyone who has transgressed a norm. Like the kanaimas, they stalk when kidnapping. The Kadagi’s counterpart is called the “Clever Man,” the guardian of powerful, ancient healing knowledge. With his hands, he can take out a person’s internal sickness. Presumably, the Clever Men may work counterattacks against the Kadagi (Elkin, 1994).

Vengeance Sorcery at a Distance

Another aspect of the cosmology of sorcerers involves a wider system of intertribal relations: among Arawak-speaking peoples of the Northwest Amazon, the victim’s kin seek vengeance through a form of long-distance sorcery called iupithatem. This system may connect shamans and sorcerers of very distant regions in a network sustained by long-term mutual support. External sorcerers are believed to be more powerful than sorcerers from one’s own family, clan, or ethnic group. These other sorcerers constantly wander on the borders between the universes of different peoples; thus they know where and how to penetrate the cosmos in order to track whomever it is they are paid to kill. In looking for their victim(s), these long-range sorcerers provoke attacks of madness and behavioral disturbances in which the victim becomes an other kind of being, most often by exhibiting the behavior of an animal, mutilating parts of his body, most especially his tongue and genitals, and ultimately destroying himself. In the absence of warfare under contemporary circumstances, sorcery at a distance can prove to be effective through belief in the method’s efficacy supported by narratives of actual cases.

Appeasing Deities, Malevolent Spirits: The Existential Condition of Humans

Every culture has available to it some manner of reverting the sickness and sorcery transmitted by malevolent spirits. Cosmogonic narratives explain how primordial humanity reverted its condition of being the prey of cannibal spirits. For example, the Arawak-speaking Wauja of the Xingu River Basin in Central Brazil believe that, in primordial times, humans lived a persecuted existence due to the giant yerupoho spirits, who cannibalized them, until one day the great sun deity decided to help humanity and put on a powerful mask that made the yerupoho run in fear and hide. Thousands of them then made masks to cover themselves from the sun’s rays; others jumped to the bottoms of the lakes where they waited to cannibalize unfortunate humans who failed to observe the boundaries of human and yerupoho realms.

The yerupoho today are said to have an enormous curiosity for humans and want to live with them, make them into their own images, incorporate them into their own population, and animalize them. The danger in this relation is they may rob human souls, and the more dangerous yerupoho may practice monstrous cannibalism. In stealing human souls, or parts of them, they provoke sickness, although they reportedly do not do so intentionally, and, if a person falls sick, they are the first ones to help in curing him or her. Humans, on the other hand, are interested in domesticating these spirits, for sickness to the Wauja signifies an imbalance in the desires of the soul, which is what attracts the yerupoho in the first place and makes them want to steal the souls of humans. By domesticating the yerupoho—that is, reversing the fear that the sick have of the yerupoho and transforming it into one of friendship and intimacy—humans can later use their power to prevent further attacks by other yerupoho. So humans summon the yerupoho spirits in the form of giant masks (some of them 9 feet in diameter) and aerophones (or flutes and clarinets), celebrating their presence, in order to reestablish the balance—through cure—between the sick and the social. In this way the predatory power of the yerupoho is domesticated or transformed into harmonious conviviality through ritual.

Likewise, the Arawak-speaking Enawene-Nawe peoples of the upper Juruena River in southern Amazonia, believe that a legion of spirits, called the yakayriti, inhabit the immediate subsurface of the earth. The Indians have established a very highly developed relation of balance and reciprocity with them; for example, they produce food for the spirits to keep them satisfied. If the yakairiti are not satisfied, they become so furious as to inflict sickness that kills all humans (in the Enawene Nawe idiom, the yakayriti throw pieces of their flutes into the bodies of humans, which provoke pain and sickness). Whenever an Enawene Nawe gets sick or has a problem, he attributes it to the yakairiti spirits, which are angered at something and are threatening to take the individual to the other world. Enawene Nawe mythology is full of catastrophes produced in the past by these spirits, including a series of epidemics that almost decimated all humans. Presently the Enawene Nawe are undergoing a period of intensive change due to the construction of a large hydroelectric dam near their territory, the results of which have been total imbalance between humans and the spirits of nature, making it impossible for the Enawene Nawe to sustain the relations of balance as in the past.

Among the Yanomami of northern Amazonia (Kopenawa & Albert, 2014), a shaman in training receives the spirits called xapiri from his mentors through a gradual introduction of their powers into the shaman’s chest. Evil spirits for attacking enemy peoples can be transmitted only at a certain time of instruction, as the masters advise their apprentices:

“Do not ask for new spirits at this time ! If you receive dangerous spirits from us, you will want them to attack the white people. That will not be a good thing. Your thought is worried, and once you are angry you will become aggressive. As soon as these outsiders make you hear their bad talk, you will want to send your evil spirits to devour them and their kin will seek revenge !” (414)

Similarly, among the Baniwa, instruction of shamanic apprentices in the art of killing enemies is reserved for “advanced” apprentices, near the conclusion of their training, given the extreme peril of harboring such powers.

Managing the Spirits of Sorcery

As with many other Arawakan-speaking peoples of South America, Baniwa cosmogony begins with a situation of catastrophic predation by cannibalistic animal beings on humans. In some versions of this cosmogony, violent deaths occurred very early in the formation of the world. In one of the first cycles-of-creation narratives, humans lost their immortality because of sorcery. The animal tribes stole the poison of the Creator and with it killed his younger brother. The centrality of poison (manhene) to the notion of death is elaborated in the myth of Mawerikuli, the first person to die in the primordial times and who produced death for all times. The Eenunai—whose descendants are seen in actuality as various species of monkeys, sloths, and other animals (the anteater and tapir)—are, in the primordial times, sorcerers, for they have manhene.

Thus death entered the world, for all future generations. The ensuing struggle in the narratives over which of the primordial beings will control the power to kill is without resolution; it is the equivalent in present-day society of the struggles between the jaguar shamans/wise people and the sorcerers, and it continues to be a problem for those who have converted to evangelicalism as well (Wright, 2013).

Death and regeneration from death are central themes throughout Baniwa stories. The creator, whose name means “Inside the Bone” is devoured by primordial animals but is brought back to life and becomes immortal. Two modes of death are then held up for reflection: reversible and irreversible, systematically contrasted with one another through different classes of spirits, sacred substances, and notions of time. Death is seen as a process involving the alienation of the individual from the social, the disintegration of all physical and spiritual components of the person and their re-integration into the cosmos. Immediately following a person’s death, evil spirits called kamainiri afflict humans. These are “omens” that bring terrible fright and may provoke manhene sicknesses on the deceased’s relatives; hence every effort is made to avoid them or reverse their malefic actions. Death is seen as a product of misfortune and evil in the world, as well as a sign of the possibility and imminence of collective catastrophe, as occurred in primordial times.

Nevertheless, death is also seen as a necessary evil for the production of future generations or new life. In the sacred narrative of Kuwai, we find the interconnections among themes of death and rebirth, powers of men and women to produce new generations of adults, the nature of the cosmos (especially the relations among the different kinds of beings), all the forms of sorcery, and the indelible connections between the new generations (walimanai) and the ancestors (waferinaipe), as well as their ways of life. The story of Kuwai concentrates northern Arawak-speaking peoples’ belief in why or how sorcery came into being.

Orations to Avert the Attack of a Sorcerer Against a Village

To protect the village from a sorcerer’s attack, a Baniwa shaman creates, through the words of an oration, an impenetrable stockade made of quartz stone all around the settlement. The shaman then takes a blowgun with darts and raises it vertically upward to the place in the Other World “where there is no more sickness.” The shaman then takes the souls of all the people of the community and joins them together onto the cotton swab that encases one end of the blowgun dart. Raising the blowgun toward the sky, the shaman sends the souls of his kin upward to the sanctuary. The shaman then uses his mirrors to deflect the light of the sun so that it blinds the sorcerer and prevents him from seeing where the children of the community are located. The shaman chants that he sets a lasso trap on the trail that leads into the village. When the sorcerer comes flying at full speed into the village in the body of a hawk, the shaman pulls tightly on the lasso as the hawk’s head passes through it, killing it instantly.

To prevent a person who has evil intentions from even thinking about utilizing sorcery, another oration first seeks to remove the “ashes of Kuwai” and the smoke that arose from his burning-place, as these generate evil spirits that assault humans. Then, the chanter either ties the sorcerer’s hands behind his/her back, or places things in their hands which will keep them occupied and prevent them from giving poison. The chanter invokes insects to make holes in the earth to bury the sorcerer’s poison. Finally, the chanter ties instruments, such as the shaman’s rattle, around the neck of the evil-intentioned person, so as to make him/her not think anymore of doing evil.

Kuwai: The Keeper of Sorcery and the Sun Father’s Heart/Soul

Kuwai is the primordial “Keeper of Sicknesses and Sorcery,” for his “body” is said to be exceedingly poisonous; yet the narrative of his life and death recounts how his body emitted the most beautiful and powerful musical sounds. From his sacrificial death in an enormous conflagration and from the ashes of his body emerged not only all sickness-giving spirits but also a giant tree from which the sacred flutes and trumpets were fabricated, and it is with these flutes that traditionally the men initiated boys and girls in the major rituals held at the beginning of the rainy season, at the same time as the ripening of forest fruits, the change of seasons, and the spawning of fish.

Assault Sorcery

Figure 1. The Body of Kuwai (reprinted by permission of Omar González Ñáñez).

Line drawing produced by a Baniwa shaman with the assistance of a Venezuelan anthropologist.

Before we can understand this narrative—considered by the Indians as the most significant narrative of world-making among all their traditions—we must have a sense of Kuwai’s body as the source of sickness from which different kinds of sorcery were generated (refer to line drawings in Figure 1).

To do this, we make reference to ethnological interpretations of “the body” as the locus of multiple layers of meaning:

  1. 1. the body as cosmos and the cosmos as body (cf. David Carrasco, 2014), with various parts of Kuwai’s body, viscera and fluids transforming into animals, plants, and spirits of the environment.

  2. 2. The body as (de)generative principle: the primordial source of life, health, sickness, and death—defining a vast field of relations between shamans and sorcerers.

  3. 3. the body as porous boundary, the mediator, go-between, and marker of interdependence, belonging, and amity (affinal relations), as well as of difference and enmity.

  4. 4. the body as the dynamic strata for becoming other (Viveiros de Castro’s [1998] notion of “multinaturalism”), which also points to transtemporality in the relations of the shaman to the ancestors.

  5. 5. the body as poiesis and aesthetics: the interchangeable identities with the sacred flutes and thus with music, chant, body ornaments, and the recitation of the myths of creation.

  6. 6. the body as One and Many: as integration but without totalization, reduction, and closure.

The body parts of Kuwai are considered to be sources of both sicknesses and remedies: (a) the crown of his head (Kuwai ithipale), (b) throat (liweda), (c) the heart (ikaale), and (d) the umbilicus (hliepuhle). All of these are key points of soul passage from the crown of the head down to the umbilicus. These critical points link Kuwai to the knowledge and powers of the sorcerer and the shaman, as well as to the principal points of entry and exit of all souls at birth, coming of age, sickness, and death. Two other points of soul passage are the eyes and the mouth.

At the end of the first rite of initiation that Kuwai conducted, his father, the Creator Nhiaperikuli, pushed his son into a world-burning fire. As Kuwai burned, parts of his body transformed into material forms. His liver (lixupana) became the poisonous plant called hueero. Following that, a class of spirits called Yoopinai emerged from the ashes of Kuwai’s body. These spirits took the material forms of sickness-giving plants, insects, lizards, spiders, and so on. The poisonous fur from Kuwai’s body then “entered” the body fur of the black sloth wamu, which is Kuwai’s animal-body “shadow-soul” in this world. The sloth’s fur in fact contains an enormous variety of fungae that may make humans sick and the sloth, along with certain monkey species, are considered omens of peoples’ deaths.

Based on these associations, a plausible interpretation of the significance of poison, manhene, is that it is the “vengeance” (likoada) of animals on humans. Animals consume humans in intense heat (burning fever, one of the effects of sorcery attacks) produced by the human consumption of their food (raw and uncooked, poisonous fruits, berries, plants), which transforms into venomous hair in the stomachs of their victims. This is exactly the opposite process of what occurs at initiation rituals, or Kuwaipan, when young boys and girls consume sacralized pepper, which burns the rawness from their bodies and souls. This moment is the equivalent of the great conflagration in the myth of Kuwai when the body of the great spirit that represents all-animals-in-one and all-sorcery-in-one is consumed by the fire, dissipating into a multitude of sicknesses. Pepper blessed by the elders is the sine qua non in all daily meals for everyone who has undergone initiation. Initiation symbolizes the triumph of vitality in a healthy world against the dark forces of sorcerers’ powers.

In the drawing of Kuwai, various icons of sicknesses are clustered around the crown: the hair, said to be tucum fibre, from the moriche palm (Mauritia flexuosa), is associated with sicknesses produced by a sorcerer’s poison (manhene); a white stone “that gives headaches”; and a snake that produces a debilitating and often fatal sickness called hiuiathi.

The “heart/soul” concentrates in the form of darts, four major sicknesses that shamans must learn how to cure first during their apprenticeships: the yoopinai, spirits of the environment; the walama, darts that come from shamans; haikuita, slivers of wood that provoke pain in the joints; and sicknesses of the blood, such as hemorrhaging.

The umbilicus is said to contain the most powerful remedy (tápe) against sorcerers’ poison—“our umbilicus” is the connection between the first ancestors of the phratries and all their descendants. The umbilical cord constitutes the very first “soul” of every person who enters a body in this world at birth. It is also the first of several souls to leave a person at death and return to the “Other World” (places of the great spirits and deities) to where all the souls of the deceased from the beginning of time are located. For the shaman who made the drawing, the shaman takes medicine for ifiukali, a grave sickness of the digestive tract that makes one thin and anemic, out of the umbilicus of Kuwai.

This internal axis of sickness and health in Kuwai’s body consists of the major sources of sicknesses, and the sources of remedies that shamans can use to cure the same sickness. This double-sided feature of the powers contained in Kuwai’s body is essential knowledge, as is how each type of sickness and remedy came into being, by whom, and why. As one elderly shaman narrator explained,

“After Kuwai had gone away, Nhiaperikuli filled a pot of manhene (poison) and then, a friend of his drank the plant poisons called hfero, lixupana. He began to have diarrheia. Nhiaperikuli took the ceramic pot to his house and left it there in order to keep it from others’ wanting it. He ordered his people the Kuwaikere to make sure that no other people could come and take away the poison. The Eenunai (sorcerers), however, succeded in tricking them and stole the poison.”

The hair of Kuwai’s body is one of the most potent types of poison that a true shaman must obtain, in spirit form, from Kuwai in order to cure a patient in this world. Kuwai’s body was covered by hair or fur, which seems like a paradoxical mixing of the “open” and “closed” features of his body. Similar to the sloth’s habits, Kuwai’s orifices are “closed” most of the time, with great control over his diet, which is appropriate for the fasting period he imposes on initiates (a diet of ripe forest fruits). When his body “opens,” it is either to breathe out creative sounds (the sounds emitted from his body ranging from a melody sung in harmony to a chaotic bellowing), to eject seminal fluids that pour like rain on the earth, or to monstrously devour initiates who disobey his orders to fast.

Kuwai’s saliva (liahnuma) can be a creative, seminal fluid that regenerates the physical world, but it can also figure in acts of sorcery. A sorcerer will cast a spell by spitting along a trail where the victim will walk. Sorcery produces a condition of physical, spiritual “openness” in its victims in which an excess of fluids is involuntarily expelled from the body (vomiting, diarrhea). The sickness called Purakali (wasting away sickness) is another horrible form of “other”-becoming, disintegration of the person’s body that may occur during seasonal changes, for example from dry to wet, and as the result of not obeying restrictions at these critical moments of time. When this occurs, a devastating reaction from the “Owner of Sicknesses” can be expected against the initiate, just as happened in primordial times.

Kuwai can transform into various spirit-others who are considered to be dangerous “enemies”, including Inyaime, a cannibalistic ogre and transformative spirit of death who is known as the “Other Kuwai”; Yoopinai, sickness-transmitting spirits of the forest, rivers, and riverbanks; or the White Man, yalanawinai. The inyaime spirit is said to become embodied in a living sorcerer’s “heart-soul,” for a sorcerer by definition is someone who has transformed from a cultural “person” into an “enemy other.” The “other Kuwai “ sorcerer has the power to destroy life through violence; through chaotic and loud sounds, like the crashing of thunder; and by unleashing sickness and sorcery, which take on numerous forms throughout the world.

Sorcerers and Prophets—Perennial Struggles

In many indigenous cultures, highly experienced and gifted healers are considered visionaries, seers, and messengers of the deities. These spiritual leaders have had extensive experience at all levels of the cosmos; in addition, they have survived sorcerer attacks and, subsequently, accumulated ever greater powers. They understand and can explain the sacred narratives with coherence and depth and have demonstrated an ability to divine, foresee, and communicate directly with the spirits at any time. In several documented cases, these visionaries form part of a genealogy of powerful shamanic leaders who have gone before them. Often the literature refers to these leaders as prophets, or “messiahs,” though their indigenous titles highlight their powerful knowledge to see and to make things happen or not happen.

In some cultures, healer shamans, priestly leaders, and prophets can be the same person at different stages of the person’s career. When the appeal of their messages reaches an ethnically diverse population and resonates with their expectations, a spiritual leader may be considered a divine being. The dominant themes of their messages relate to overcoming an enemy considered responsible for the evil in the world. This may be translated into movements to eradicate sorcery, moral reforms internal to society, or inversions of power relations between non-Indians and Indians. These visionaries, who are considered to be emissaries of the divinity, have an open line of communication with both the deities and the souls of the deceased.

The Baniwa and their neighbors of the Northwest Amazon have traditionally participated in prophet movements, led by powerful jaguar shamans, in which the central question has been the moral problem of the existence of assault sorcerers and how to control them. From the historical documents, we can see that external intervention by non-indigenous society into the Indians’ lives occurred at precisely the time when the prophet movements emerged. Such intervention might easily have translated into increased levels of violence and disruption and the outbreak of sorcery. During the time of the rubber boom, for example, in the early to mid-20th Century, violent conflicts occurred between the Indians and the rubber bosses. Assault sorcery increased disproportionately, provoking a grave internal crisis that the traditional mediators (the shamans) were unable to control. At these times, the prophets emerged seeking to restore harmony amongst their followers.

Anti-witchcraft movements have been documented in numerous other indigenous cultures throughout the world. This phenomenon is related to the doubts raised during the unfolding of the anti-witchcraft movements and the desire to extirpate those who might betray the secrets or the weakest elements among the followers. Alfred Cave (2006) in his Prophets of the Great Spirit clearly shows the inordinate increase in witchcraft accusations during the colonial history of North America. Prophet movements led by the Shawnee shaman Lalawikatha (later Tenskwatiwa), prophet and brother of the great warrior and political leader Tecumseh, leveled accusations of sorcery against individuals who did not follow the ways he preached. These ways involved discarding everything related to the colonizers and their culture by revitalizing ancestral traditions.

Around the time of the pan-Indian Revitalization movement led by the Shawnee brothers, among the Six Nations Iroquois (Haudenosaunee, People of the Longhouse) in western New York state, a spiritual leader Handsome Lake had visitations of spirits from the other world. The visions advised him of the new way of life that people should adopt in order to be saved from the condition of perdition, despair, and abandonment they were then experiencing. The “Code of Handsome Lake” is a hybrid of the Seneca religion and Christianity, transformed by the interpretations of the prophets into words that made sense to the native peoples (see Wallace, 1969) and that gave them hope.

“Per the Code of Handsome Lake, the traditional Seneca held beliefs in

witches [who] were able to assume the form of ancient monsters, the nia?’gwahe: or mammoth bear being the favorite form. They had power of transforming people into beasts, of imprisoning them within trees without destroying the human nature or sensibilities of their victims. Many stories are related of how chivalrous young men fresh from the dream fast were able to release the unhappy prisoners from the spells that bound them.”

(A.C. Parker, 1913, p. 3)

Handsome Lake’s Code provided a systematic reform of the Seneca way of life, ridding it of whatever types of behavior that could lead to sorcery attacks.

History as Sorcery

In the 1850s, the native peoples of the Northwest Amazon expressed for the first time their hopes that the world would be delivered from poison-owners, the sorcerers. The prophets Kamiko and Uetsu interpreted Christianity, more specifically popular Catholicism, as a source of spiritual power, on the hybridized model of indigenous shamans with the trappings of friars, but their beliefs were sustained by the already existing native practice of communication with the divine beings through gifted, elderly, wise people. These savants were and are considered councilors who recognize evil spirits wherever they may be. They are not infallible in the material world, however, for narratives state they eventually succumb to the sorcerers. They are immortal in the spirit world, however, and their souls return to stay by their graves in order to protect their people (Wright, 2005, 2013).

In the early twentieth century, the German ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grunberg lived for two years among the Indians of the Northwest Amazon. During that time, he observed that, following the death of a kin, there was extreme anger against the “poison-spirits” (manhenenai). The dynamics related to poison (manhene), as a focus of conflict, tension, and sorcery among affinal and enemy groups, is complex and intertwined into the fabric of the culture.

Sorcery came into existence with the beginning of the universe, according to Northwest Amazonian traditions. When the Creator brought the first night, a gift from the affines, into being, sorcery came with it, spreading throughout the world. The first period of time came to an end when the Great Tree of Sustenance, the first axis mundi, was felled, bringing with it shamans’ powers into the world (Wright, 2009). The second creative period came to an end with the conclusion of the first rituals of initiation, when Nhiaperikuli killed Kuwai by pushing him into a huge bonfire, which burned the world. From the ashes of the fire, another huge tree burst forth—the transformed body of Kuwai. This was the second axis mundi connecting this world to the other world of the sky. Nhiaperikuli had this this tree cut down and transformed the pieces of it into the sacred flutes and trumpets with which the men were to initiate all future generations of children. As told by evangelical Indians of the region, humanity lived in the third epoch until the first evangelical missionary, the North American Sophie Muller, came in the 1950s and instructed them to do away with their ancient culture including shamanism and ceremonies of their ancestors. Before her coming, it is said that shamans had foreseen that great transformations were imminent, as had been told in their stories of the history of the cosmos. Thus many northern Arawak-speaking peoples abandoned the traditions of their ancestors to become evangelicals. This rupture from the past paralleled other ruptures in the history of the cosmos; indeed, in some communities the rupture was marked by the burning of the sacred flutes on the plazas of villages. The fiery transformations that had in primordial times produced the second axis mundi connecting the Other World of the ancestors with the present world of humans, reduced that spiritual and material connection to ashes.

Sophie Muller herself states in her accounts of her mission that she was poisoned by sorcerers (1952). In fact, the Indians state they were testing her to see if she was the one whom their traditional elders had stated would be coming to make things better—the new prophet. She survived the test and became their “goddess”; today, the Kuripako of Colombia and Brazil consider her their creator goddess, replacing Nhiaperikuli. She was their savior. For the evangelicals, it was Sophie Muller who “saved the world” from perdition; for the nonevangelical―traditionals who still abide by the shamanic point of view—it was Nhiaperikuli who saved the world from the demonic spirits and cannibalistic sorcerers that once tried to destroy humanity and that can eventually reappear in the form of sorcerers.

Evangelicalism and Revitalization Movements

The evangelicals of the Northwest Amazon have had a relatively long history of insertion into local, regional, and global markets to sell their products, such as artwork, generally through intermediaries such as nongovernmental organizations, which, since the 1980s, have emerged as key players, along with carefully chosen young leaders, in determining the directions of the so-called “sustainable development” projects. Today, young evangelicals are spearheading both political movements and the new wave of interest in sustainable development projects. Yet, these leaders have become the victims of sorcery assaults in a tense relation between internal and external politics, local production, and the external market. Like the prophets of the past, these young leaders serve as intermediaries in directing change relative to the surrounding society. Given that these leaders do not represent all communities, those who are left out resort to sorcery to even out the inequalities in the newly found prosperity.

History has shown how, in indigenous Amazonia, Melanesia, and other areas of the world, radical changes can take the form of conscious decisions indigenous peoples take to put an end to the destructiveness of predation as exemplified by assault sorcery. In so doing, they affirm that to live morally is to live in harmony—although they do not necessarily arrive at a definitive resolution to the problem of sorcery. Dangerous sources of power—such as shamanism and the relics of the primordial world—may be altogether rejected, explicitly abandoned in favor of other virtues such as harmonious conviviality.

In conversion movements to evangelical Protestantism and Pentecostalism, with its immediatist cultism, salvation is dependent on freedom from ancestral traditions associated by the missionaries and their faithful disciples with “sinful” ways of being. It is inadequate to say that evangelical Christianity simply has wiped away, or made a clean slate of, traditional indigenous religious identity. In some fashion, the newfound salvation has transformed the ancestral ways in the process of forging a new identity.


This article has shown that the following features of native cosmologies are imbued in the construction of the sorcerer as a specialist in the antiproduction of life:

  1. 1. “other-becoming” of the body: the sorcerer’s body’s capacity to transform into a variety of beings that are all engaged in some manner to the transmission of sorcery or sorcery assaults.

  2. 2. transtemporal relations of ancestors and descendants: given that these consist of links with the deceased, direct and unmediated contact with material representations of their bodies have the effect of a sorcery attack.

  3. 3. constructional ontology (cf. Santos-Granero, ed., 2008): from the body comes all types of sickness-giving spirits; sorcery-giving spirits derive from a single source out of which innumerable material forms of sorcerer’s poison came into being.

  4. 4. the “poisonous” view of this world, overrun by sorcery: this is a view held by high-level shamans whose message to their followers is that people themselves have made the world a haven for sorcerers against whom people must maintain constant vigilance.

  5. 5. poiesis of violence: the kanaima, the kadagi, the poison-owner are silent performers, with appropriate tools of their “art” of killing, maiming; their ultimate goal is to de-person-alize their victim, destroying that which distinguishes human from animality and consuming the souls or life-forces of their victims: predation par excellence.

  6. 6. history as sorcery: as discussed in the evangelical and prophet movements. All of these were or are efforts to eradicate sorcery and to create the conditions for a new morality.

  7. 7. the cosmos as governed by a (de)generative principle: the primordial source of life, and health, is also the source of sickness and death—here we have the primordial connection between shamans and sorcerers.

  8. 8. the body as having a porous boundary, the shaman and the sorcerer as intermediaries, markers of interdependence, belonging, and amity, as well as of difference and enmity.


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