Part 4


by Andrew Woznicki

Urihi and Yahi

In his speech delivered to the Brazilian National Congress, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami said: "I [also] want to say that our Federal Government thinks that if we have a lot of land, we are going to make another country. It's not true. The government is wrong. That's not what we want--to make another city. For us, what's important is the forest, to gather fruits, to kill game, tapirs, and pigs, and to fish. For us, that is what is very important. Without land, there is no life. The Indian has to have land in order to live.1"

In the mentality of Yanomami, 'land' is not experienced as an inanimate and motionless object, which can be possessed by some particular individual or any specific group of people. For Yanomami, as for any aboriginal population, their land' is perceived as a cosmic living organism, an animated habitat populated not only by visible creatures, but filled with innumerable spiritual beings with their supernatural powers. As a matter of fact, these spirits had been dwelling on earth a long time, and intermingling with all other creatures. Moreover, Yanomami are living not only "in intimate association with the monkeys, tapirs, deer, and birds of the forest but also have been--or might be--these very creatures."2 But in opposition to animals and spirits, Yanomami are "human beings" by belonging "to one of the teri groups that speak a comprehensible language,"3 and by having access to wahahirai through which they possess the power of transmutation and permutation of different forms of urihi and yahi.

Waha hirai, then, conceived as the transcendental power of man for spiritual permutation of all the natural things, is the very principle of unity and diversity of the theantropic nature of urihi and yahi, through which Yanomami is able to live according to his natural desires and his supernatural wishes. As a matter of fact, the world of urihi and yahi constitutes a specific unified and diversified cosmic order, and which is--in the theantropic consciousness of Yanomami--experienced in both horizontal and vertical mode of their perception; in the former the world of urihi and yahi manifests itself as a diastatic living Organism composed of innumerable diverse natural forces, and in the latter as a diathetic spirited Whole with a specific supernatural power(s) dispersed within the entire Universe. Now, living in this twofold cosmic order of urihi and yahi, Yanomami is convinced that the natural and supernatural powers are at his disposal for self-transformation, the powers which he inherited from his mythical ancestors (no patapi tehe).4


In the beginning of the World, all the natural things constituted one living cosmic unity, and all creatures were like humans. These humanoid predecessors of all the natural things, became prototypes for all living creatures of the forest: the plants, insects, birds, animals The process of transformation began with the transformation of urihi, and with the transformation of yahi, when the original humanoid creatures have been changing into different classes of creatures: "The first people transformed as the forest was transformed. Those people who were created first became animals when this earth was created; they became parrots, agoutis, tapirs, caimans. The macaws, the red brockets, the jaguars, the toucans, the sloths, the armadillos that we see now, they are these people who were transformed in primeval times, and then scattered as game in all directions. First there were no animals. The meat we eat today is from these people who were transformed into animals from animal ancestors."5

Now, this diathetically unified zoistic reality and diastatically diversified subsisting totality, constituted one divine millieu. This zoistic divinity reflects Yanomami God, but who--in words of L. Cocco--"does not remain good, hearty, and benevolent, but become irascible and revelrous as well."6 As a matter of fact, this primeval divinity between space and time, splits itself, so-to-speak, into the opposite attributes, thus undergoing various self-transformations. Therefore, in this divine millieu there emerges a specific creative discord between the humanoid ancestors and the succeeding creatures, a spiritual tension through which various forms of living creatures emanated. The Catrimani interpretation of the zoistic strife between space and time of all the natural things can be seen in the myth of Yaori, Parori and Titi.

In the beginning of time, Yaori and Parori could not sleep because Titi (the mythical curassow) was all the time keeping the sun high in the sky by his constant singing h++ h+ h++ h+. For Yaori and Parori this situation was unbearable, and in order to create the night for sleeping (and dancing) Parori kills Titi, thus introducing a peace and tranquillity into urihi and yahi by establishing a proper harmony between "day and night spirits."7 In general, this process of self-transformation of day and night cycle is spectral in form and mutual in character.8

The mutual process of divine self-transformation of urihi and yahi is without any causality, and it subsists by its self-creative power. As a matter of fact, everything which exists has a vital principle which manifests itself in a spectral form (bei a neutubi).9 Now, due to this inner vital principle of bei a neutubi the whole reality constitutes one zoistic world system both from the primeval to the present times. In the Catrimani myth of creation, Yanomami recall that "... in the beginning, the spirit ancestors lived in the upper sky. The earth below was empty. No one knows why, but the ancestors became angry with one another and began to destroy their home. As they fought, they cut a hole through their world. Mountains, forests, animals and people fell through the hole to the earth, leaving the upper sky empty, like an old woman. It was very dark. It rained all the time. Oman and Yoasi--two brothers--lived there. They had no women. Poripo--the moon was walking on the chest of the sky looking down at the world filled with spirits and people. This was how the world began." 10

Midway between the empty nowadays upper sky and earth there is the resting place of the departed souls of Yanomami, where they can "garden, hunt, make love, eat, and practice witchcraft on each other."11 Finally, underneath the earth there is a place where the Amahiritheri live, i.e., the spirits of pre-Yanomami who were previously dwelling on earth, and who fell down from here as a result of the original cataclysm of the upper sky (Utumusi).12

This fourfold cosmic order of Reality is a result of some catastrophic occurrences and disasters, first in the dramatic event of the falling of the Sky, and second of a huge deluge. Due to these cosmic cataclysms, the whole primordial world underwent a universal transformation, and the present structure of urihi and yahi began to exist. In one of the Yanomami poems of Mitopoemas Yanomam, the cosmic cataclysm is described as follows:

"The sky fell in, / A chasm opened up. / A small hole appeared in the heavens, riddled with cracks. / The sky fell in, a chasm opened up in the heavens. / The sky burst open; / A part of it remains quite still, / While the other killed the agami birds in the dense forest as it fell. / There is a jaguar [in the painting], a crouching jaguar. / In the distance / There lies a beautiful Yanomam hut. / The river began to swell, / Immense, swelling and swelling. / Game scatters on the river banks; / Capivari, agami and jacu birds, / Parrots hen "yambu, "tiger bitterns, "cuxiu" apes, the jacu birds, / They all scatter. / A valiant jacu clings perched on the branches of a tree. / Few Yanomami remained behind; / They all died out. / The few who survived stayed on living there. / The great flood did away with them. / Water no longer springs forth from the earth. / All the children have perished / After climbing the trees to escape the flood./ Other Yanomami attempt to flee, / But the water, the chasm is terrible in its depth. / The sky bursts open but a part of it remains quite still. / The sky burst apart. / A chasm opened up in the sky / Where the sky had fallen in, a chasm appeared on earth. / It lies over there, far, far away. / Hitao, (a Yanomam still alive) has been there./ The chasm is very deep. / And its bottom is bright, as bright as here."

However, although "the sky bursts open" and "all [the things] scatter," and only "a part of it remains quite still," the original utumusi was not completly destroyed, because only a "part of it fell down [by] bringing down ancestors and shamans with it."13 Moreover the cosmic catastrophe did not cause complete chaos, and not everything have been destroyed. A new cosmic order emerged and a new reality has been created by the primeval shamans. The primordial order of utumusi has been changed into a new cosmic harmony by creating a new life on earth. Furthermore, when for unknown reasons a tension has been build up in the original utumusi, and the ancestors had cut down the central pole that support the sky"s vault, shamans still have the power to hold the broken sky's vault, and by magical power they still can control over all the things.

In general, the new cosmovision of Catrimani Yanomami has been introduced with a new diathetical order, and urihi/yahi receives anew diastatical harmony between chaos and cosmos. In the version of Catrimani story of the Fallen Sky:

- At the beginning of time, the ancestors were living in utumusi peacefully in their yano and in harmony with each other.
- Maxita (the earth) is a piece of the utumusi.
- Amahiritheri are the former people living where the earth was formed. Now they are dangerous people of the underworld-world.
- Patape (ancestors) and shamans build houses and gardens.
- Yanomama's xapuripe (shamans) are the holders of the sky's vault. Without them the sky's vault will fall down and crash all the Yanomama and nape (foreigners) as it did with the Amahiritheri at the beginning of time.
- Xapurimou (spiritual cure: shamans holding the sky's vault with their hands) is the proper answer to the chaos.

Once "the sky bursts open," the whole urihi became vulnerable and unstable, and the yahi has been exposed to further transformation. The reason for it, is the fact that the new diathetical order of urihi and yahi demands (after the original fall of the sky) to preserve the proper balance between the natural and the ritual, as it is symbolized in the cases of Catrimani ritual of yupumou and couvade:

- Rituals must be performed and respected. Rituals make happenings sacred--like the first menstruation--separating them from everyday profane chores, activities or situations.
- Through the first menstruation ritual, a girl becomes a woman and a wife. The husband--if she has already one--will perform with her the ritual of coming to age (couvade).
- The spreading of the Yanomama population and the making of foreigners were the fortunate consequences of both a disrespect of a ritual and a natural disaster. The flood (waters coming out from a hole inside the darkness of the communal house) is the consequence of a profane--un-ritualized--first menstruation (blood coming out from the vagina's hole).
- In the case of couvade observance, if the ritual is not performed properly, the wife can become a spider monkey: an easy target for her in-laws and the source of endless quarrels between her lineage and the husband's lineage.
- In the myth of Terema, for instance, sharing the monkey meat with guests during the last day of the feast means mutual exchange and cooperation.
- During the last day of the feast (reahu), after having settle down any disagreement (through fists or club fights), the hosts give to the guests spider monkey's meat--the most desired venison for a Yanomama--and "cassava" bread to eat during the trip back home. It is a powerful reminder for cooperation and generosity to the different tribal groups that gather together to celebrate the feast. Before sharing the food other exchanges take place (exchanging of women, goods, etc.).

However, preservation of the harmony between the natural and the ritual will not endure for ever, and Yanomami realize the real possibility of an eschatological age to come for urihi and yahi. In the poem "The end of the World," Mitopoemas Yanomami, we read:

"Everything comes to an end. / The sky will vanish, / Along with the napepe everything will fall. Everything comes to an end. / Everything falls, tumbling down from on high. / Everything falls and is swallowed by the deep. / Everything tumbles down and comes to its end. / That lovely layer of sky up there, that too will fall. / The sky will be swallowed up by the deep. / Everyone is weeping. / All the napepe are tumbling down. / Everything comes to an end. / From that day forth there will be no more YÐnomam. / The huge sky falls down. / The entire sky crumbles and vanishes. / There are no more Yano-mam. / The feet of the sky; / There, one of its feet is grappling down; / There, another foot has grappled down; / There, far, far away another foot has grappled down. / The heavens above are falling. / Everyone is weeping. / The heavens are going to come to an end. / The structures still support the sky. / Everything comes to an end. / Heaven will come to an end. "


In this waning and ceasing, but still vital and dynamic cosmos of Yanomami, "everything that exists on earth has its counterpart in hedu, as if hedu were a mirror image of human life,"14 and as if all things were interconnected by an omnipresent spiritual energy of hekura. Yanomami believes that the spirits of the original people/animals and plant ancestors are still alive and dwelling in the forest. When Yanomami kill or gather food, they release the spiritual specters of the animals and plants, and the ghosts of those slaughtered creatures will try to revenge their death, for example, by causing some affliction or disease. While hunting, Yanomami must know how to live from the fruits of the forest, and how to behave in his natural habitat. As a matter of fact, Yanomami must, before undertaking any activity, perform an appropriate ritual, and in case of a specific misfortune he has to know how to propitiate enraged spirits.15 In short, Yanomami realize that the natural habitat is a living and most powerful force, created by ancestors and inhabited by spirits, and which must be handled with special respect, care and caution.

In his self-consciousness, then, Yanomami creates his own image as if he has to have a transcendental power of self-transformation, and as if he would be able to become a microcosmic synthesis of both visible and invisible reality. Now, Yanomami believes that his transcendental power of self-transformation consists in wahahirai with its naming/wording power of transformation of everything into hekura/spirits.16 In this way wÐhÐ hirai becomes the very religious foundation of Yanomami zoism with its magical and shamanistic mentality.

The magical and the shamanistic zoism of Yanomami, manifests itself in their beliefs in supernatural activities and creative powers of the mythical heroes of Omawe and Yoawe. In general, Omawe and Yoawe are the divine image of Yanomami, and who became thus the spiritual prototype of their theantropic faith in/of the possibility of self-transformation in both a positive (Omawe) and a negative (Yoawe) way. In a word, the present life of Yanomami reflects both their ancestral and present spiritual power of the Divine Demiurge Brothers, because their magical and shamanistic powers of self-transformation are timeless, and waha hirai is the very source of their humanness.

But, in the pre-Yanomami times, at the very beginning of time itself, "there were other people long ago who had first come into being by themselves, without the cause they simply existed and [when] the world was not yet in order the people kept transforming into animals."18 Urihi, then, has been previously populated by various and different human races, and yahi underwent three distinct stages of metamorphosis of human nature with their prototypes: of Porehimi, of Peribo-riwe, and of Omawe. Now, all the prototypes have had a "successive" supernatural image (utube) which the shaman can see during his seance in the forms of spectral beings: "We who are here now, we were like ghosts up there on the back of the sky, and we fell in turn and were created in the form of other Yanomam. It was Omawe,19 also in the form of a ghost, who created us in turn. This terrestrial layer, when it used to be the back of the sky, was inhabited by the revenants of the first ancestors, those who died. That is why we are the spectral form of those ancestors who fell."20

1 Urihi, 9 (1989), p. 19.
2 William J. Smole, The Yanoama Indians (Austin & London: University of Texas Press, 1976), p. 23.
3 Ibid., p. 217 n. 1.
4 Jose Bortoli, ms., p. 43f.: "Pero la vida tiene sus origen y su soporte en unos poderes arquetipos individualizados no por la corporeidad sino per su nombre y tan como las manifestaciones mismas de la vida: los arboles, los animales, los astros, cada uno con sus poderes especificos. Los arquetipos son personificados/socializados en relacion con el hombre del cual son modelos pues han representado su 'historia' anterior (un no patapi tehe; el 'tiempo de los antepasados') modeladora/provocativa de la actual. Ellos son parimi, eternos, como el principio de identificacion, el 'yo,' que tiene el hombre y que quedara liberado por la incineracion. Ellos son hekura, origen de esas fuerzas vitales presentes en la naturaleza, por un proceso de transformacion/alejamiento de su condicion originaria. Se 'transformaron', se 'conviertieron en:' son terminos expresados linguisticamente por un sufijo verbal, -prou, que resalta el cambio interno, de naturaleza; 'se alejaron,' termino con el cual los yanomami expresan tambien la transformacion provocada por la muerte. Al mismo tiempo modelaron el sistema cultural al cual los Yanomami hecen referencia mediante su mitologia."
5 FLYI, p. 36.
6 Iyewei-teri (Caracas: Liberia Editorial Salesiana, 1987), p. 462.
7 Ms. from Equipe de Missao Catrimani.
8 Quoting Jacques Lizot, the editors of FLYI, p. 337, n. 401, write: "Curiously the myth among the Yanomami is inverted: the killing of the paluli brings night for the Yanomami and day for the Sanema."
9 Cf. Albert Bruce, Temps du Sang, Temps des Cendres (Paris: Laboratoire d'ethnologie et de sociologie comparative, 1985), pp. 146-150.
10 Quoted by Giovanni Saffirio, Ideal and Actual Kinship Terminology Among the Yanomama Indians of the Catrimani River Basin, Brazil, Ph.D. dissertation University of Pittsburgh, 1985), p. 82.
11 Napoleon A. Chagon, Yanomamo (San Diego-New York-London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), p. 118.
12 Cf. Mitopoemas Yanomami (San Paulo: Olivetti do Brazil S.A., 1978), where the cosmic spheres are reduced to three environs: "The universe is made up of three levels of thin layers of earth, one on top of the other. The highest level Utumusi is populated in its higher areas (Utumusi iaup, the sky's back) by pores, thunder, lighting and various hiima). The place is like a promised land overflowing with fruit and game. The most generous Yanomami, once dead and cremated, are destined for these regions. They will all go there, for there is no such thing as an ungenerous Yanomami. The lower part of the highest level (Utumusi paruk---the sky's belly) is where the sun and moon are. The middle level (Maxita---earth) is the earth on which we live. Beneath the earth (Maxita-paruk) there is another moon and sun. The lowest level (Maxita- pepiham---earth beneath the earth) is very much like the middle level. You can still find the hide-out of the hekuras there, hidden among the dark recesses of the craggy mountain cliffs."
13 Ms. from Equipe de Missao Catrimani.
14 Napoleon A. Chagnon, Yanomamo, p. 118.
15 Cf. Mitopoemas, p. 50ff.
16 Cf. Jacques Lizot, No Patapi Tehe en Tiempos de los Antepasados (Puerto Ayacucho: Vicariato Apostolico de Porto Ayacucho, 1989), p. 135. Cf. also FLYI, p. 256.
17 Yanomami: Un Popolo da Salvare (Boa Vista: Roraima Diocese Archives), p. 3: "Anticamente non c'erano animali. I primeri esseri umani si trasformarono animali. I primi uomini, Oma e Yoasi, erano due fratelli: Non avendo donna, Oma ai uni con la gamba di Yousi, dietro il ginocchio e la gamba divenne gravida, portando alla nascita di un bambino."
18 FLYI, p. 41.
19 Cf. P. Luis Cocco, Iyewei-teri, pp. 464-474.
20 FLYI, p. 41f.
Andrew Woznicki is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Francisco.

TST, Vol. 4, No. 12-13/1996

The Summit Times

© Copyright 1996 by Andrzej M. Salski