Amazonian Quechua Religions

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AMAZONIAN QUECHUA RELIGIONS . Persistent confusion permeates the comparative study of the religious beliefs and practices of the peoples of Upper Amazonian rain forests that abut the foothills of the Andes Mountains. This is because Quechua-speaking peoples of that region and Quechua-speaking people of the Andes share a religious complex, which, in turn, is also shared with Jivaroan-speaking and Zaparoan-speaking peoples of the Upper Amazonian region. This article deals with some commonalities of Quechua and Jivaroan religious concepts. The Quechua language has long been associated with the Andes Mountains and with the Inca conquest of the Central Andean peoples radiating out of Cuzco in the late fifteenth century. Jivaroan peoples have long been associated with the Upper Amazonian rain forests and with resistance to Inca conquest, and, thereby, to the permeation of the conquest religion borne by the Inca northward to what is now Colombia and southward into what, today, is Bolivia.

In Ecuador and Peru, Jivaroan and Quechua-speaking peoples of the Upper Amazonian rain forest share not only many core beliefs but also variants of the same terms for these beliefs, even though their languages are completely unrelated. The specific people referred to here are the Canelos Quichua and the Achuar Jivaroans of Ecuador. (Quichua, pronounced Kichua, is one proper spelling of the name for speakers of northern Quechua dialects.) The Canelos Quichua inhabit the region drained by the Bobonaza and Curaray Rivers and the regions that radiate out of urban Puyo, Ecuador. The Achuar discussed here are those who inhabit the regions of the Copataza, Capahuari, and Conanbo Rivers and also those who live in the vicinity of urban Puyo, including those living on the Llushín River. Many Achuar and Canelos Quichua people intermarry. Many of the Achuar are fluent in Canelos Quichua and in Spanish, and many of the Canelos Quichua are fluent in Achuar and in Spanish. Cultural congeners who speak Jivaroan include the Aguaruna, Huambisa, and Achuar (including Maina-Achuar) of Peru; the Shuar of Ecuador; and the Murato Candoshi and Shapra Candoshi of Peru. The two latter Candoan-speaking people may or may not speak Jivaroan, but their cultural and religious systems are virtually the same as the Jivaroans and Canelos Quichua. Zaparoans of Peru and Ecuador (including Andoa-Shimigae, Záparo, Iquitos, and Arabela) also share this religious complex, though there is no known linguistic relationship between Zaparoan, Jivaroan, and Quechua languages. The Quijos Quichua and Napo Quichua of Ecuador, the Inga of Colombia, and the Napo Quichua of Peru also share segments of this complex.

The history of the Canelos Quichua intertwines with the history of Catholic mission expansion in a manner distinct from the history of the Achuar. Nonetheless, the primary streams of traditional culture and the primary emphases of contemporary ethnic affiliation that constitute modern Canelos Quichua culture stem from Achuar, Zaparoan, early Canelos Quichua, and Quijos Quichua peoples. The Canelos Quichua, in myriad ways, provide ample evidence by which to refute the spurious but pervasive dichotomy made by many scholars between cultural orientations and religious-cosmological structures of the "Andean," or highland, regions and the "Amazonian," or lowland, regions of western South America.

Control of power and recognition of the devastating consequences of its release are fundamental to Canelos Quichua and Achuar Jivaroan cultures. Concepts of such control are embedded in a paradigm centered on knowledgeable ones: shamans for men, potters for women. Strong shamans and master potters continuously increase their knowledge of spirit forces that exert control in human affairs. Spirit forces configureespecially for the Canelos Quichuainto three dominant images: Amasanga, forest spirit master; Nunkwi, spirit master of garden dynamics and of pottery clay; and Tsunki, spirit master of water, or the hydrosphere. Whereas Tsunki and Nunkwi are dominant images in all or most of the aforementioned cultures, Amasanga is specific to the cosmogony of the people addressed in this article.

The concepts of these dominant spirit beings (supai ), each with a soul (aya ) and life force (causai ), evoke mythic and legendary imagery to illuminate the known and unknown cosmos and to relate cosmic networks of souls, spirits, beings, forces, and events to contemporary and past quotidian life. Each dominant image evokes and indexes a myriad of spirit beings specific to various natural and supernatural domains. For example, imagery of Amasanga not only evokes the spirits of thunder and lightning above and within the rain-forest canopy but also the spirit of the mighty trees that dominate sectors of the forest.

The imagery of Amasanga (called Amasank in Achuar) also includes principles of transformation, called tucuna in Canelos Quichua. For example, for a given group of Canelos Quichua speakers, Amasanga represents the master spirit force of their own territory. One powerful transformation of Amasanga is that of the feared spirit Jurijuri (called Jirijri in Achuar). Jurijuri is the master of monkeys. All monkeys are associated with other peoples. But Jurijuri is not a "separate" spirit, he/she is a transformation of Amasanga, a transformation from "ours," who protects, to "theirs," who harms. Jurijuri spirits dwell in hillside caves and move under the forest's surface. As the shaman of the forest, Amasanga sits on an iguanid or tortoise seat of power; his/her corporeal manifestation is the black jaguar, and he appears in humanlike form in deep purple garb wearing a red and yellow toucan headdress.

Tsunki evokes spirits of the water worldthe entire hydrosphere of airborne and undersoil moisturewhich must be kept under spirit or human control if catastrophe is to be avoided. Tsunki is chthonic in association with dwelling sites under rivers or lakes; aquatic in association with waterfalls, rapids, and whirlpools of rivers and with quiet lakes; celestial and radiating in association with the rainbow and, tenuously, with the sun. As first shaman, Tsunki sits on the Amazon turtle (charapa ) as his seat of power; his/her corporeal manifestation is the mighty anaconda (amarun in Quichua, panki in Jivaroan). He sometimes appears as one dressed in rainbow colors, or as a naked white man. (Anaconda symbolism permeates the cosmography of power in the rain-forest territories of Upper Amazonia, Central Amazonia, the Northwest Amazon, the Guianas, and beyond.)

Nunkwi is associated with feminine dynamics of undersoil and leaf-mat-root-fungi systems by day, and with growth and renewed fecundity of manioc (cassava) by night. Her corporeal manifestation is the black coral snake with mouth too small to bite. She may appear to women as one garbed in deep purple who dances with hopping steps while tossing her hair to and fro.

Knowledge (yachana ), which is fundamental to the control of power, derives from ancient cultural mythology and historical legend. It is shaped by strong shamans and by master potters to resonate with immediate historical events and current activities. Knowledge of the cosmos (bound to the concept yachana, "to know, to learn") provides the basis by which knowledge from the experiential world (bound to the concepts ricsina, "to experience, to perceive, to comprehend," and yuyana or yuyarina, "to think, to reflect") is shaped by all individuals. Such shaping is bound to another concept, muscuna ("to dream, to perceive"). Muscuna and yachana are, in turn, closely associated with the spirit-master images Amasanga and Nunkwi, both of which are thought to be from datura (Datura suaveolens ), a narcotic plant of the nightshade family.

When a man or woman ingests datura (called huanduj in Quichua, maikua in Jivaroan), he or she "perceives" and "knows" human self, human soul, human substance, others, spirits, and all entities and beings in existence. Domains and boundaries that are part of everyday life dissolve in a datura trip as the questing individual enters mythic time-space, called unai in Canelos Quichua. Reincorporation into the world of humans, souls, spirits, and beings takes place through reordering by the individual of the relationships previously characterized in his or her life. For example, after taking datura the individual may "know" that someone he thought was his trading partner and true kin is, in this newly found reality, an enemy who seeks to harm him. Accordingly, the domains of kinship and trade are reordered by the individual, who now "sees" the entire kinship network and relations of trade in a new light. Such reordering of domains spreads to other domains, as well. For example, if an individual now perceives another as his enemy rather than his friend, then the powerful shaman who is father or uncle to the new-found enemy becomes a major threat to the health of the questing individual's kinship system, rather than, as previously thought, one of its buttressing ancestors. As the individual continues to reorder the relationships within such domains as kinship, economics, and shamanic protection and harm, his thought patterns and convictions continue to branch out to others both near and far, extending the effects of domain reordering further and further.

A successful datura trip gives the questing individual a sense of power. This sense is derived from knowledge of control of spirit, soul, life force, body, and visionary or imagined features of cosmic beings and events in mythic time-space, and in various past times. For example, a Jivaroan seeks the vision of an ancient being (arutam ) in such quests and may acquire, thereby, a second soul that "locks in" his own immortal soul. If a person correctly perceives the image-vision, the lock-in mechanism prevents his death, so long as he tells no one of the vision of the acquired soul. Such a lock-in of one's soul gives to others in association with the individual a sense of pending power that must be controlled.

As a questing individual and his or her immediate associates seek to control the power rising from the datura experience, they maintain a sense of religious community in the face of, or in the midst of, possible chaos. To the extent that a person speaks of, or otherwise releases, such newly acquired power, he or she loses control of the knowledge manifest in a successful quest; the results of such release and consequent loss can be devastating. For example, increased shamanic activity aimed at harming those perceived to be enemies, and/or physical violence against such enemies, may erupt from such a release. This eruption causes social and political upheaval that can alter quotidian life and cosmic networks sufficiently to produce a historical marker.

Knowledge derived from cultural mythology and historical legend is fundamental to Quichua and Jivaroan senses of "ours" and "others.'" Figure 1 illustrates how, from Canelos Quichua perspectives, knowledge of "our" culture is juxtaposed to knowledge from "other" cultures. Here the yachaj, or more properly sinchi yachaj (uwishin in Achuar) has attained a level of control such that he is sufficiently strong to balance his knowledge with his visions, to relate his visions to cultural knowledge, and to relate his thoughts and reflections to his knowledge and his visions. He acquires the ability to cure by sucking out magical substances (tsintsak ) and to harm others by blowing projectiles into them. Shamanic performances take place at night, while the shaman is in self-induced trance aided by ayahuasca (soul vine). Among the Canelos Quichua the soul vine is Banisteriopsis caapi. Juice from the vine is brewed with the leaves of another Banisteriopsis vine, or with Psychotria viridis leaves, to produce the chemical bonding necessary for visionary experience. The shaman, seated on a turtle seat of power, is visited by spirits as hethe shamanvisits spirits seated on their seats of power.

To know more about that which is within, the shaman must increasingly know more about that which is without. The shaman becomes a paradigm manipulator. His knowledge of the cosmos and his perceptions derived therefrom are stronger than the knowledge and perceptions embodied in other minds and psyches. He moves into a shaman's class (yachaj sami ) of humans, which parallels a similar class of spirits. He continuously reproduces cultural knowledge, continuously transforms that very knowledge, and imbues it with novel insights. He also maintains the contrast between "our culture" and "other cultures" (from Quichua and Jivaroan perspectives) while transcending the very boundaries that he enforces.

The work of the shaman must, in part, be based on his experience with other peoples who speak other languages; this kind of contact gives the shaman "other-speech knowledge." The shaman maintains Canelos Quichua and/or Achuar paradigms while expanding the paradigms by drawing from his knowledge of other cultures. The shaman controls the process of syncretism. In this control lies the interface between cultural continuity (or reproduction) and cultural change (or transformation).

Among the Canelos Quichua, master potters, all of whom are women, do the same thing. Working with designs that signal the anaconda, the Amazonian turtle, the tortoise, and the iguanidall representing imagery of shamanic powermaster potters produce an array of decorated ceramic containers for storing and drinking manioc porridge. The

designs on the containers link cosmic networks to quotidian events, the general to the specific, the ancient to the present, the mysterious to the mundane. A female paradigm-manipulator may, in Canelos Quichua, be called sinchi muscuj huarmi ("strong image-shaping woman"), or even yachaj huarmi ("woman who knows").

Among the Canelos Quichua, every master potter is related closely to a strong shaman. In some cases the shaman is a father, in some cases a father-in-law. In many cases there is a complex of shamanic males and master-potter females. Cultural transmission is parallel: female paradigm-manipulators pass their skills to women, male paradigm-manipulators transmit to men. But men and women are conversant with the alter-gender paradigm and, upon the death of a strong shaman, a wife may assume the shamanic activities of her deceased husband.

Male shamanic performance and female ceramic manufacture draw in a parallel way on certain concepts that are fundamental to religious convictions and insights. One of these is that everything is sentient and that, accordingly, everything has a soul (aya ). Another is that differential power imbues various objects in manners relatively analogous to the ways by which differential power of humans vis-à-vis one another is organized. Inasmuch as power is shaped and organized into various hierarchies by different humans, human groups, spirits, and beings, there is no single power-pyramid; rather, there are many overlapping and interfacing power-pyramids through which humans, spirits, beings, and the souls of each may move.

Another fundamental concept of Canelos Quichua and Achuar Jivaroan religion is that all life exists on different planes of existence at the same time. For example, in the thought of the Canelos Quichua, unai refers to mythic time-space. In unai everything was (or is) human, and people (like those in present time-space) crawled on their hands and knees like babes and spoke only in a two-tone hum: mmmmmmmm. One enters different planes of existence through dreams associated with sleep, through insight, through conscious imagery constructed deliberately or accidentally, through imagery induced by the ingestion of Banisteriopsis or datura hallucinogens, through shamanic instruction, through fatigue, through accident or by shamanic (human or spirit) design, and recently by drinking alcohol. In the transformation from unai to ancient times, spirits, animals, trees, celestial bodies, colorseverythingunderwent reformulation to something other than human. Today, in the worldview of the Canelos Quichua, it is not altogether certain that people speaking other languages emerged fully "human" from unai.

The sentient power of breath (samai, in Canelos Quichua) is another key Jivaroan and Quichua religious concept; the powers embodied in breath must be carefully controlled. In the transformation from unai to ancient times, once-human beings blew on one another and on other beings and spirits, causing them to "stay that way," to be as human beings know and perceive them today. Male shamans breathe gently onto polished stones to "see" whether the stone "lives." Female potters breathe on their pottery-burnishing stones for the same purpose. A strong shaman must have the inner ability to sing his shaman's song well enough to control the spirit defenses needed to thwart incoming shamanic projectiles from rival shamans, which all shamanic songs invoke. Similarly, a master potter must control the breath of fire that releases the souls imparted to, and the spirits associated with, her ceramics, or retribution from the imparted and subsequently liberated souls may result. A man must also control the sounds of spirits that come from unai to pass outward on his breath when he plays a flute or musical bow, while women control analogous sounds that come to them from unai when they sing songs. The specific knowledge of songs comes to them from other forebear women in other times and places.

Male/female parallelism in cultural transmission is enacted annually by the Canelos Quichua in a ceremony that expands the universe to include all spirits, souls, beings, and people. Enactment takes place only in hamlets with a Catholic church or chapel, where the chaotic and destructive merger of "outside" foreigner's force and "inside" native power may merge. All facets of Canelos Quichua cosmology are enacted as, for three days and nights, celebrants pass back and forth from the male festival house (ritual enclosure of the Moon) to the female festival house (ritual enclosure of Moon's sister-lover, the whippoorwill-like potoo). The ceremony ends with a powerful and palpable ritual reversal. In this enactment, which the Canelos Quichua call Dominario (from the Spanish word dominar, "to control"), the mighty anaconda is brought from the water to move on the land.

In Canelos Quichua thought, the anaconda (amarun, or amaru, as in the Andes) only comes on land to devour humans. In the Dominario, the anaconda, corporeal representative of master-spirit Tsunki, is borne on the back of four men who represent jaguars, corporeal representatives of Amasanga. Instead of controlling Tsunki's domain (the hydrosphere), Amasanga releases it. Instead of the externally imposed social control (dominario ) represented by the church, indigenous power becomes an embodied apotheosis of stylized resistance. As the Dominario begins, an outsider, downriver (deeper Amazonian), powerful shaman gently plays a combination of flute and drum associated with Andean masked ceremonies. The melody itself is a skillful blend of his private Amazonian shaman's song (taquina ) and a public Andean ceremonial melodic motif. As the four men come forth bearing a bamboo pole with four copal fires burning within it (the stylized anaconda brought from the water), festival participants begin dancing through arches constructed for the Catholic mission. Then the transformation, called tucuna, begins. The pole, as amarun (anaconda), Tsunki's corporeal form, is carried in a lurching, going-out-of-control manner. It becomes destructive; the bearers and the pole crash right into and through the church, slamming, falling, rising again, running, frightening everyone, going completely out of control while still in a cultural domain characterized by Catholic mission control, or domination.

Acting against such domination within a domain of domination, the festival reaches a crescendo that is, quite literally, terrifying to the participants. Women dance with their hair flying to and fro, their sideways motion being the analog of the male-performed two-tone hum of shamanic chanting that evokes the imagery of mythic time-space (unai ). Men beat snare drums, circling and circling while producing a resonating pulse-tremolo signifying Amasanga's rumble of approaching thunder. All souls and spirits and beings are indiscriminately summoned. As escalating chaos reigns, the church is said to be destroyed in one great transformation of the world of forest and garden and earth and mire into an encompassing, rushing, surging, eastward-flowing sea. When performing this event, the Canelos Quichua say that they fear tucurina, which derives from tucuna ("transformation"), and means "ending everything." The concept of tucurina is one of the most powerful ones in Canelos Quichua thought, particularly when applied reflexively to one's own group. It means, in this sense, that to truly destroy the dominating authority of the church by the invocation of the ultimate power of Tsunki, as devouring anaconda, the Canelos Quicha may also destroy themselves, embedded as they arein a revelatory manner through the vehicle of this ritualin that very domination.

The festival sketched here embodies and syncretizes many elements of Andean and Amazonian symbolism, as well as wide-flung Catholic and indigenous symbolism. The controlled analysis of its structure and enactment in terms of Andean/Amazonian religions and Christian/animistic religions should take the comparative study of religion far toward dissolving such rigid polarities by establishing new, more productive bases for deep and meaningful comparative understanding.


Bottasso B., Juan. Los Shuar y las misiones: Entre la hostilidad y el diálogo. Quito, 1982. An accurate portrayal of the historical relationships between the Shuar Jivaroans of Ecuador and the Salesian mission.

Brown, Michael Forbes. "Magic and Meaning in the World of the Aguaruna Jivaro of Peru." Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1981. A highly readable doctoral dissertation that seeks to understand the cosmology of the Aguaruna together with the ecological imagery that such a cosmology organizes.

Chumap Lucía, Aurelio, and Manuel García-Rendueles. "Duik Múun ": Universo mítico de los Aguaruna. 2 vols. Lima, 1979. A splendid two-volume rendition of Aguaruna mythology.

Harner, Michael J. The Jívaro: People of the Sacred Waterfalls. 2d ed., rev. Berkeley, 1983. Pioneering ethnography of the Ecuadorian Shuar with an easy-to-read description and analysis of the famous arutam (ancient image) and tsantsa (human trophy head) complex.

Karsten, Rafael. The Head-Hunters of Western Amazonas: The Life and Culture of the Jibaro Indians of Eastern Ecuador and Peru. Helsinki, 1935. A weighty tome that deals with the Canelos Quichua, the Achuar, and the Shuar of Ecuador. Oscillations between firsthand data and speculations are disconcerting, as is the excessive lumping together of data apparently gleaned from bilingual Achuar-Canelos Quichua at Canelos and other Bobonaza River sites with those from a non-Jivaroan informant in Sucúa about the Shuar. This book must be used with care, and information in it must be cross-checked against other sources.

"Mundo Shuar." Quito, 1976. Series F is devoted to monograph-length publications on key Shuar images, including Arutam (no. 1) and Tsunki (no. 2), and on shamanism, as in El Uwishin (no. 3).

Reeve, Mary-Elizabeth. "Identity as Process: The Meaning of Runapura for Quichua Speakers of the Curaray River, Eastern Ecuador." Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1985. The history and identity system of the Canelos Quichua of the Curaray River region are portrayed from indigenous and Catholic mission perspectives. Convincingly demonstrates close relationships between Canelos Quichua, Zaparoan, and Achuar cultures and identity systems, as well as the striking parallels between Andean Quechua and Canelos Quichua social structure and ritual enactment.

Taylor, Anne-Christine. "God-Wealth: The Achuar and the Missions." In Cultural Transformations and Ethnicity in Modern Ecuador, edited by Norman E. Whitten, Jr., pp. 647676. Urbana, Ill., 1981. A sensitive portrayal of Achuar cosmological transformations in the face of radical social, economic, and political change.

Whitten, Dorothea S. "Ancient Tradition in a Contemporary Context: Canelos Quichua Ceramics and Symbolism." In Cultural Transformations and Ethnicity in Modern Ecuador, edited by Norman E. Whitten, Jr., pp. 749775. Urbana, Ill., 1981. A penetrating look at the symbolism embedded in Canelos Quichua ceramics not only in terms of traditional cosmology but also by reference to radical social change.

Whitten, Dorothea S., and Norman E. Whitten, Jr. Our Beauty, Our Knowledge: The Expressive Culture of the Canelos Quichua of Ecuador. Urbana, Ill., 1985. Script of a thirty-minute video documentation of the key concepts set forth in this article, thoroughly and dramatically illustrated through Canelos Quichua art and music.

Whitten, Norman E., Jr., with the assistance of Marcelo Na-ranjo, Marcelo Santi Simbaña, and Dorothea S. Whitten. Sacha Runa: Ethnicity and Adaptation of Ecuadorian Jungle Quichua. Urbana, Ill., 1976. Definitive ethnography of the Canelos Quichua culture area based on modern techniques of description and analysis.

Whitten, Norman E., Jr. Sicuanga Runa: The Other Side of Development in Amazonian Ecuador. Urbana, Ill., 1985. Deals extensively with the cosmological underpinnings of remarkable endurance in Canelos Quichua culture. Relationships between women's art and male shamanic performance profusely illustrated by over 150 plates, drawings, photographs, and other illustrations.

New Sources

Harrison, Regina. Signs, Songs, and Memory in the Andes: Translating Quechua Language and Culture. Austin, Tex., 1989.

Hess, David J. Spirits and Scientists: Ideology, Spiritism, and Brazilian Culture. University Park, Pa, 1991.

Hill, Jonathan, ed. Rethinking History and Myth: Indigenous South American Perspectives on the Past. Champaign, Ill., 1988.

Mills, Kenneth. Idolatry and Its Enemies: Colonial Andean Religion and Extirpation, 16401750. Princeton, 1997.

Skar, Sarah Lund. Lives TogetherWorlds Apart: Quechua Colonization in Jungles and City. Oslo, 1994.

Thomson, Sinclair. We Alone Will Rule: Native Andean Politics in the Age of Insurgency. Madison, 2003.

Urban, Greg. A Discourse-Centered Approach to Culture: Native South American Myths and Rituals. Austin, Tex., 1991.

Urban, Greg, and Joel Sherzer, eds. Nation-States and Indians in Latin America. Austin, 1991.

Norman E. Whitten, Jr. (1987)

Revised Bibliography