The Summit TimesTHE SUMMIT TIMESISSN 1090-0071

TST, Vol. 6, No. 18-19/1998

Endocannibalism of the Yanomami

Andrew N. Woznicki

In the initiation rite of hekuramou, the shapori experiences both death and rebirth with its variety of the diathetical tension between bios and thanatos, thus becoming a paradigm of shamanistic transformation of Yanomami religious life-experiences, e.g., at birth a transformation from animal to human nature, as time goes on the change from childhood to adulthood, from individual to social life, from sickness to health, and at the most traumatic moment of death, when the Yanomami experiences the final passage from the natural to the supernatural life, from the mortal conditions of life to an immortal existence.
During the funeral rite, the deceased has to be ultimately transformed from his physical to his spiritual life, when the noreshi is lost:
When an illness is deemed incurable, immune to the attacks of the shapori, and when it is discovered that the hekura or other forest spirits are not blameworthy, the conclusion is clear: the current state of affairs, fevers, nausea, pains, disappearance, the hardening of members, etc., is due to the fact that the reflection, shadow or the alter ego, which is to say the noreshi, has been lost, misplaced... The quest to find the noreshi begins. The ritual develops as such: They prepare by the sick one's side a jar, symbolic of the tree where the animal noreshi dwells. The jar is empty, since the noreshi fell out or got lost. The group directs itself toward the place where it supposedly got lost: the forest, the river, as well as the sick one's station. They are armed with leaves that they shake against the floor and shout: hai hai! They walk in single file, one behind the other, in solemn procession. They come near the jar, leaving the stems alone, placing the sick person in it, which symbolizes the home of the noreshi. So those mosquitoes will not bite him when he lies on the floor, they touch his body with leaves and they bathe him and repeat the process amongst themselves. The rite concludes with the individual or collective hekuramou of the shamans.
The funeral rite itself can be divided into the following three "ceremonies" of no mai:
1. ritus separationis with the ceremonies of puhi hushuo (manifestation of anger); ikii, praiai (ostentation of grief by weeping); p (putting tobacco into the mouth); thora (container with arrows);
2. ritus purificationis with a ritual of paushimou (decoration of the body) and cremation;
3. ritus communionis with a sacramental consumption of the cremated ashes.

When a Yanomami dies, the first reaction of his tribesmen is a deep unconstrained anger (puhi hushuo), since a Yanomami's death is not a natural phenomenon, but is caused by an evil spirit which was sent by a shaman of a hostile tribe.  Due to this belief there are many holy wars among the Amazonian tribes.
 The Yanomami, like all human societies, possess a rite for resolving the crisis that death introduces to society. This rite implies for them the identification and punishment of the cause of death and the completion of the already inevitable dissolution of those elements that guaranteed the social being of the individual: in the first place, the body. The ridding of the cadaver is carried out by means of cremation; to bury a corpse would mean to abandon the individual and leave it bound to the slow decomposition of the flesh rather than to liberate it. It is equally important to eliminate from the social air any trait that might leave the deceased tied to a condition that no longer pertains to him: his ashes are consumed, and the vessel that contains him is burned, along with any final objects he may have possessed.
Death is announced by way of great sobs, screams, brusque and scandalous gestures, hatchet blows against the floor or the pillars of homes; such gestures are repeated by any late arrivals. These are the moments of greatest drama and tension that the community lives, as if they had been victims of a warlike attack. The noise, the weeping, and the shrieking are the manifestations of pain for the loss of a kinsman, and, at the same time, the fulfillment of a ritual.
On this occasion the entire community is concentrated around the fire pit of the deceased, pressed tightly against each other, some squatting close to the hammock where the body lies. Shortly, they begin to adorn it and paint it, placing feathers in the perforations of the ear lobes and large white feathers about the head. One of the Yanomami cries to the rhythm of the dance, exhibiting some of the deceased's belongings, drawing them toward the body, "reminding" him of their use. Into the mouth, under the lip, is placed the p, a mouthful of chewed tobacco; the new mouthful that is given to the recently arrived guest, the new mouthful that a woman prepares for her husband when he returns from the hunt, the new mouthful that is enjoyed complacently in moments of leisure spent reclining in a hammock. With their fingers, the women spread their tears about their cheeks, renewing the brilliance of that streak of black that they wear as a sign of mourning. The brief phrases of lament that are repeated continually are intended indirectly for the deceased, with each tribesman calling him by his term of kinship. It is as if they want him to be convinced of his new condition. In every case, the conviction is evident that "he" is there, listening but unable to respond. Now begins what we paradoxically would call the "life of the dead." "He" lives, but as a defunct, that is to say in a dimension whose fundamental condition is that of no contact with society; the body is there, but its relational function has already ended, and for that reason, it is something strange, unintelligible, dangerous. This contradictory "something," without feeling, affects the society in its very being. Thus, the society itself searches for mediation in the funerary ritual that might give reason not only to the deceased, but also to death and its cause.
Before they make reconciliation with the fact of the death of one of their tribesman, they try to find the soul of the deceased, because possibly it has not yet entirely exited the body. They sing, calling the soul, trying to lure the soul back to the body. When I came to the Yanomami, before even meeting with Padre Bortoli, I could see a Yanomami woman walking around the Mission building, singing and calling the soul of her brother to come back. It was hereabouts that the soul of her brother visited the nuns every day helping them in their work in the kitchen. The Yanomami are convinced that just after death, the soul wanders around its own body and around the places it knew when the person was alive.
However, when all efforts to find the soul of the deceased fail, they begin to cry for the deceased (ikii praiai). Mourners are heard in the whole village until midnight, and again the next day early in the morning. All of the tribesmen grieve for the deceased, saying not his assumed name but his real patronymic name.
It is prohibited to pronounce the name of the deceased, as that has the function of individualizing the person's face to the society. This function has already ended, like that of the corporeity and that of all the defunct's belongings: body, name, belongings become kamakari, prohibited and, at the same time, dangerous. Their evocation, their naming, their very memory is not only dangerous for society, but could also be somewhat of a joke of bad taste toward the deceased, creating the illusion that he is in some manner still related to the living world, making him present in a world where he no longer belongs. To name the dead is an extremely grave offense, comparable to the very will of killing someone.
Having ascertained that the deceased is really dead, the tribesmen begin the appropriate burial rites. The ritual ceremonies of purification of the body and its soul begin with putting a plug of tobacco to the mouth of the deceased, and then the body is put on a hammock, curled like a child in the womb of a mother. The smell of tobacco aids in finding the proper place in heaven and the position of the body is necessary so as to be born to the new eternal life. Meantime, before the fire is ready for the ultimate separation of the soul and body, some of the members of the tribe embellish the body, using cotton and birds' feathers, in order to increase the soul's eagerness to go to heaventhe sky.
As soon as possible, the cremation proceeds. This can be delayed until the following day if it is already late or if an absent kinsman must be awaited, especially if the deceased is a person of social importance. Some of the deceased's closer relatives, always males, prepare the central plaza, reserving the part closest to the fire pit where the body is found for the funeral pyre. One section of the floor is cleaned and a kind of rectangular receptacle, proportioned to the size of the body, is constructed of dry logs; into this the corpse will be placed. The bottom of the receptacle is also covered with logs, and these must be burning well before the body, together with the very hammock in which it lies, is transported to the pyre; the body is slid from the hammock to the interior of the flaming receptacle and the top is rapidly covered with more logs. Someone takes care to cover with more wood whatever crack might open up and leave the body uncovered. The majority of the people remain at a certain distance from the pyre; the yells and cries diminish; only one of the closest family members remains cast on the ground next to the pyre, making gestures of not wanting to detach himself from the corpse, and he must be forcefully drawn away by someone.
When the ashes are cold, the deceased's relative who organized the cremation dedicates himself to the recovery of all the fragments of bones, digging meticulously so that none of them, no matter how small, should be forgotten among the ashes. The incinerated bones, enveloped in leaves and deposited in a basket that will be kept next to the fire pit, are guarded by one of the elder women of the family. In case of a fire at the dwelling or some mishap that requires the family to flee, the ashes will be the first things saved.
The ritual of the paushimou proceeds for a week from the incineration. The Yanomami set off for the heniyomi, the collective hunt. At the conclusion of the hunt, which has provided the opportunity to notify and invite even the most distant family members and friends, the crushing of the calcinated bones proceeds. This is executed with a mortar, obtained from one of the relatives, which measures one meter in length and some twenty centimeters in width. The mortar is polished carefully within to allow better recovery of the ashes. It is adorned and painted externally with onoto. This ceremony takes place inside the home, and the crushing is executed by two individuals who, standing on either side of the mortar, grind and pound the bones with poles of one and a half meters in length, while another person, squatting, firmly supports the mortar, observes, and cautiously directs the operation. The ashes, recovered in several small totumas and sealed with wax, will be distributed among relatives and allies of the deceased, not without haggling and oppositions intended to reinforce the commitment and alliance. Each possessor of a totuma, in effect, must organize a reahu, during which the ashes will be consumed. This part of the funeral rite occurs at a distance in time from the death, often many months, and with such delay because it is brought to an end not just in the community to which the deceased belonged, but also in the communities where he had relatives and alliances who are now depositories of the containers that contain the ashes.

Pei K Mi Amo and Wh Hirai

The biggest obstacle in the process of liberation of the soul from the body is mi amo, a cosmic vital power that constitutes the deepest center of each man as a human being.  The soul is nonmaterial and immortal, and the mi amo constitutes the internal center of life, a natural powerthe nightmarish ghost that reveals the biological vitality of a human being. Therefore, the power of mi amo must be taken away from the body, so that the deceased is able to live the eternal life quietly. Mi amo will be disintegrated when the power becomes liberated. Since mi amo constitutes the natural power, a fire of life, therefore it is necessary to burn the body of the deceased corpse entirely. Then, when the body is burned, the tribesmen have a ceremony of the endocannibalistic communion.
The finest concentration of mi amo is in the bones of the body. Therefore, after the body is burned, it is necessary to completely consume the grind bones as a powder added into plantain soup. The soul of the deceased may fly to heaven, but his various spiritual powers, especially his internal spiritual double self (noreshe) wanders around and scares his tribesmen. Consequently, it is essential to destroy everything that had belonged to the deceased and has become kamakari: bows, pikes, and clothes... It goes so far that nobody is allowed to even say the name of the dead tribesman. After the endocannibalistic communion ceremony reahu is followed, a rite similar to a funeral banquet. When it is over, life in the whole village returns to its normal condition with all of its joys and sorrows.
Mi amo, conceived as a vital living power, is for the Yanomami the principle of identity through which he can integrate urihi and yahi within himself, namely, of his personal and social life, his material needs and spiritual wants, his worldly and religious knowledge. Wh hirai, on the other hand, is the very activating ability to express this identity of Yanomami of urihi and yahi in their diathetical unity and diastatical diversity, and as such is the underlying principle of their mythical thinking and magical doing. Consequently, wh hirai and mi amo is the doubleness of the Yanomami existence, through which they can control urihi and yahi and satisfy their human and divine nature.
In the mythical consciousness of the Yanomami, the primordial natural powers of the urihi and the present conditions of their yahi are intrinsically interdependent and respectively coordinated according to space and time. As a matter of fact, all of the cosmic powers of the urihi are endlessly recurring, thus permitting the Yanomami to shape various forms of human yahi. Consequently, these cosmic vital powers of the world as eternally recurring are the ultimate principles of all the transformations which take place in reality, thus integrating all the natural things into one living Whole.
The diathetical powers of urihi and yahi, then, are by the same token the very essence of the magical doing, through which the shapori/shaman is able to transform the power of mi amo for the existential needs and wants of Yanomami life. In this way their shamanism can be defined as an inner dialog between the human and the divine forces in man by entering into an ecstatic mediation between this world and the other world.
However, entering into a dialog with the human/divine forces is twofold: ceremonial in natural shamanism, by participation in the cosmic forces of the world at large, and ritual in the "supernatural" shamanism, by an active engagement into the hekura spirit; the latter can be conducted only by an initiated shapori, and the former by any member of Yanomami society. Moreover, although ceremonial mediation of natural shamanism can be induced by some hallucinogenic substances as in the case of epenamou, the shapori can enter into hekuramou only by means of toxicants such as hisime, yakana, yaporo, etc. In other words, ceremonial shamanism does not have by necessity a strict religious character and can be performed during any sociopolitical activities or cultural festivities; but hekuramou has an exclusively religious meaning and is performed in a specific and significant existential border situation of Yanomami life, e.g., health & sickness, life & death, peace & war...
For Alfonso Calderon "in the language of indigenous populations the word possesses the power to transform reality. The primordial beings in the mythologies create a universe through the word, with which they deride the disobedient human being; the effects of such transformations are irreversible. Finally, in everyday life, it is through the word, like in ritual acts, that the primordial powers are re-actualized,' and it is through the word that the shaman holds the power to cure or to cast curses."  In this way the Word becomes the universal principle of communication of all the creatures: "If between man and nature there could exist an understanding mediated by the word, it is understood that the word facilitates man's power of transforming nature. In these populations the word is the principle of communication between men, and with this medium what is also transmitted is knowledge. But reality, life, and the word are intimately connected."
A question arises: what kind of reality can one ascribe to the mythical and magical power of the Sacred Word? It will be hard to assign to the Sacred Word an absolute actual realityor to attribute to it only a pure potentiality. The Sacred Word seems to possess rather a virtual power of man's spiritual nature, according to the order of both passive actuality and active potentiality.
The virtual reality of the heroes of Yanomami mythology as having magical power on account of Wh hirai is found in the theantropic consciousness of their inner complexity of man in his human (anthropoi) and divine (theion) elements, both in the order of being (in a sense of activated potentiality of human innerness) as well as in the order of becoming (in a sense of vital "virtualization" of human consciousness itself), namely, as it is taking place in the process of visualization of the human mind in its "cognitivization" of its object-subject as such. This theantropic doubleness of man's perplexity manifests itself in the manner of reciprocal interaction between the active potentiality and passive actuality.
Speaking about the virtual reality of the Sacred Word as a possible and conceivable source of mythical and magical mentality in religious matters, it is not to be understood in the sense of a pretensional meaning of contemporary cybernetics, that is, as a simple simulation process of a three-dimensional synthetic reality, being the result of a cybernetic manipulation with computerized images on the Internet.  Any attempt of such a "computerization" of the Divine Word is, of course, a pure fiction, an artificial creation, without any virtuality, as has been hinted at in the case of the French bishop Jacques Gaillot. Being nominated by the Vatican authorities as a titular bishop of Partenia, a diocese that had been created in the IV century and ceased to exist long ago, Jacques Gaillot in cooperation with John Sheer has "revitalized" its existence on the Internet claiming that the Website of Partenia is a real "virtual" diocese with full ecclesiastical jurisdiction. As stated by Jennifer J. Cox in her book Cybergrace, "instead of a metaphysical idea of a bishop, attached to a real place, we would have a metaphysical idea of a place attached to a real bishop."
From the theology of grace, cybergrace is not only a complete fiction, but is plainly a contradiction and linguistic absurdity. On the virtual reality of grace, St. Ambrose writes:
"We see that grace can accomplish more than nature, yet so far we have been considering instances of what grace can do through a prophet's blessing. If the blessing of a human being had power even to change nature, what do we may say of God's action in the consecration itself, in which the very word of the Lord and Savior are effective? If the words of Elijah had power to bring down fire from heaven, will not the words of Christ have power to change the natures of the elements? You have read that in the creation of the whole world he spoke and they came to be; he commanded and they were created. If Christ could by speaking create out of nothing what did not yet exist, can we say that his words are unable to change existing things into something they previously were not? It is no lesser feat to create new natures for things than to change their existing natures."

  1. Maria Isabel Eguillor Garcia, Yopo, Shamanes y Hekura Puerto Ayacucho: Libreria Editorial Salesiana, 1984, p. 170.
  2. The following description of the endocannibalistic funeral is based on my personal observation and participation in such a burial ceremony in Ocamo (1995), yet following the manuscript of Padre Jos Bortoli pp. 2932; this manuscript was later published in a collection of Ensayos San Pablo "Los Yanomami," in Etnias Indigenas de Venezuela (San Pablo, 1996), pp. 166169.
  3. C.f. Jacques Lizot, "Los Yanomami" in: Los Aborigenes de Venezuela, eds. Walter Coppens & Bernarda Escalante (Caracas: Fundacin La Salle de Ciencias Naturales, 1988), p. 567: "Todo Yanomami lleva un pei k mi amo, palabra que significa centro y que creemos podra ser traducida como principio o fuerza vita; est presente en todo el organismo, pero dicen que se concentra, sobre todo, en el pecho."
  4. Reflexi en la Culturas Orales, Puerto Ayacucho: Ediciones Abaya Yala, 1984, pp. 40f.
  5. Ibidem.
  6. Cf. Tony Thorne, "Fads, Fashions & Cults".
  7. Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. New York: Crown, 1998.
  8. On the Mysteries, Nn. 52f: SC 25 bis, 186.

TST, Vol. 6, No. 18-19/1998

The Summit Times

Copyright 1998 by Andrzej M. Salski