The Tragic Cosmovision

There is an ambiguity inherent in shamanic practice, where the dangerous work of healing and sorcery intersect. Because shamans possess spirit darts, and with them the power to kill, the boundary between sorcerer and shaman is indistinct. Such shamanism, says social anthropologist Carlos Fausto, “thrives on ambivalence.”

In the Upper Amazon, life and death are inextricably intertwined, and the cosmos is conceptualized in terms of predator-prey relationships. Indigenous Amazonian communities often draw a connection among attack sorcery, hunting, warfare, and predation — particularly by the jaguar, the ultimate predator. By forcibly inserting pathogenic darts into bodies, sorcery is a form of human predation; the sorcerer is an eater of human flesh; the Piaroa always consider a disease to be a process of being eaten. Stories among the Sharanahua explicitly relate shamans to cannibalism. The shaman Ruapitsi, they say, ate one of his wives; so powerful was his hunger for human flesh that he cut pieces from his own thigh for food. His second wife killed him with an axe. Shamans are often equated with jaguars — indeed, are thought to become jaguars.

Sorcery is the evil twin of healing. Instead of extracting harmful objects from sick bodies, the sorcerer introduces them; instead of maintaining relationships of trust and friendship, the sorcerer is antisocial, dangerous, secretive. Thus, too, healing and harming are intertwined.

The Shipibo clearly state that the healing act itself ineluctably causes harm — that to remove the sickness from one person is to cast it upon another who lacks the power to repel it. Since the illness-causing substance cannot be destroyed, the shaman, in curing one, always harms another. In the same way, Yagua shamans toss extracted sickness-causing darts toward the sun, where they reach the subterranean realms of the people-without-an-anus, causing considerable harm. Even more, the harm multiplies. In reprisal, the shamans of the people-without-an-anus fling balls of earth at the Yagua, on which their children sometimes choke.

In the same way, in return for successful hunting, the Tukano shaman must pay a fee — the lives of living people, who are sent to serve the Master of Animals. The shaman drinks ayahuasca and sees these victims in the form of birds sitting on the rafters of the spirit’s house. The lives are those of people who live far away; when the shaman learns that people have died in some other place, he knows that his debt has been paid.

And this works in the other direction as well. Among many indigenous peoples of the Guyana Amazon, the term canaima refers both to a mode of ritual killing and to its practitioners, a form of dark shamanism involving the mutilation and lingering death of its victim, who becomes, after death, the shaman’s food. But the killing of the helpless victim is also seen as a human sacrifice to Makunaima, the creator of all animals and plants, in return for his bounty to humans, and in order to ensure his continuing benevolence; the victim is food for lord jaguar and the garden spirit. Thus the killing creates life; the dark shaman contributes to the ongoing cycles of fertility and death without which humans could not live.

In this tragic cosmovision, the dark and the light, killing and curing, predator and prey are at once antagonistic and complementary; the price we pay for life is death, and out of death comes healing and life. Shamanic healers and shamanic killers represent interlocking cultural tendencies, and their battleground is the flesh of the sick, the ambiguous heart of the shaman, the valley of the soul.


  1. This is very interesting material. How much of this is still practiced? And if so, is there useful indigenous knowledge and practice that is now threatened by modernity? There is so much here thematically that resonates with what is found elsewhere...

  2. I think that this way of looking at the world is still pretty current among indigenous peoples — and many mestizos — in the Upper Amazon. Although a growing number are in increasingly close contact with colonist farmers, logging firms, cattle ranchers, and oil companies, many Upper Amazonian indigenous peoples are still pretty isolated.

    I am unsure about your use of the term threatened, at least to the extent that it implies that indigenous knowledge has up to now been static, and will now begin to change. As I have argued elsewhere, indigenous knowledge is in a constant state of dynamic change, through contact with other peoples, innovation, loss, and development. In that sense, indigenous knowledge is always threatened, because it has always been changing.

    So: Is indigenous knowledge and practice changing? Absolutely — and it may even be changing more rapidly now than it has in the past. Thirty years ago, mestizo shamanism was filled with references to flashlights and radios; now it is filled with references to lasers and spaceships. Spirits now communicate with isolated villages by satellite phone. If they soon begin to communicate by texting, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

    I am always happy to hear from you. You make me think harder. :-)

  3. Thanks for your reply. Your blog has been the most expanded breath of fresh air for me in a very long time. My gratefulness is beyond measure. AS for the issue at hand, I have seen elsewhere (India, as usual), the very same thing you are arguing here, and I have often made the same argument you are making here: that what makes "tradition" click is its dynamism, the fact that it is always changing, rather than that it is static, which it decidedly is not. It is very tiresome for me to hear people who know little to nothing about India lecturing me on the unchanging Vedic traditions. This, however, can no longer be regarded as "indigenous" knowledge, because the word indigenous embeds certain levels of culture, literacy, and emotional engagement with the earth. Modernity has danced with the indigenous "traditions" of India for at least 1500 years. I am interested to hear more about spirits that communicate by satellite (or cell) phone. This is very intriguing to me....