Cosmology: South American Cosmologies

views updated


The complex spatial and temporal constructions of South American cosmologies, and the values associated with them, allow only the broadest of generalizations. Vertical structures of the universe vary widely in composition from three-layer arrangements to massive twenty-five layer compositions inhabited by a great variety of beings. In general, the upper worlds are associated with the creative and life-renewing forces of light, lightness, and liquids (river, lakes); the underworlds, associated with places of darkness, the netherworlds of the dead, and animal spirits; and this world, the center of the universe, associated with human life. Different kinds of space and places of being in the universe are systematically associated with one another so as to constitute a whole. Horizontal space highlights the center (or centers), associated with a wide variety of images (cosmic trees, mountains, waterfalls, ladders, vines) symbolizing communication between spatial planes; the periphery, or outer margin, which often expresses in inverted form key values of the center; and a variety of mediating elements, openings, and penetrations connecting inner and outer realms. The places where sacred beings first appear often become models for innumerable spatial constructs.

Such spatial constructions are intrinsically dynamic. For example, the Kogi (contemporary descendants of the ancient Chibchan-speaking Tairona of the Sierra Nevada area of Colombia) universe consists of nine different levels, from zenith to nadir, and is shaped like a spindle, centered on the all-important vertical axis. Like an immense whirling spindle, the universe weaves life from its male (central shaft) and female (whorl) elements, spinning the thread from which the universe's fabric is woven. The beam of sunlight which, during the year, is cast onto the floor of the Kogi temples is considered to be the pattern of life woven by the sun in the universe. A highly respected class of priests, the mama, during some eighteen years of training, learn the lore and practice necessary to maintaining yuluka (harmony or balance) in the universe as the "law of the mother." The essence of their task is to turn back the sun when it threatens to burn the world, or to avert rain when it threatens to flood it. The cardinal directions of the universe are associated with colors, emotions, animals, mythical beings, the ideal village-plan, the structure of the temple with its four ceremonial hearths, the four principal clans, and so on. The center of space is where the mama communicate with divinity.

South American cultures recognize multiple types and units of time independently of chronological history. Cosmic, meteorological, and sonic cycles, the seasonal ripening of fruits, the appearance of animal species, and so on, all represent different modes of time. Festival rounds, ordered in calendric cycles, maintain the order of the universe, reenacting the mythic events that created temporal order in the first place. In these rounds, distinct cycles of time are interwovensolar and lunar, seasonal, flowering cycles, cycles of song and sounds, the human life cycle, and periodic manifestations of emotions and colors. Ritual music, above all, is the symbol of cosmic time, transforming spaces (dwellings, bodies, etc.) into dynamic containers of changing life. Ritual drunkenness, combat and noise, all prominent aspects in religious festivities, refer to temporal constructs rooted in the primordium and its demise.

One of the central motifs of cosmology among the indigenous peoples of the Upper Xingu of central Brazil is the difference between the original models of beings, present in the myths, and their later renewals. For example, it is customarily said that the original pequi tree produced much larger fruits, with abundant pulp and small seeds; and that the first flutes were aquatic spirits, but the one who discovered them hid them, making wooden imitations, which never could reproduce the potent voice of the original. The first human beings were carved out of wood by the demiurge, who also tried to bring them back to life; because he failed, irreversible death was then commemorated in the ceremony of the Kwarup, in which trunks of the same wood serve as symbols for the dead. The twins Sun and Moon, beyond being the modelers of the Indians of the upper Xingu, are also models for them, since the majority of their mythic adventures consists of the inaugural realization of practices that were later adopted by humans: wrestling, scarification, and shamanism.

Thus, myth is not only a collection of founding events that were lost in the dawn of time; myth constantly guides and justifies the present. The geography of the region is dotted with sites where mythic actions unfolded; the ceremonies are explained by the initiative of mythic beings; the world is peopled by immortal beings that go back to the origin of the world; and the creators of humanity still live in a specific place in the region. In short, myth exists as a temporalbut, above all, a conceptualreference.

The primordial making of humans, according to upper Xingu mythology, was the work of a demiurge who gave life to wooden logs placed in a seclusion compartment by blowing tobacco smoke over them. Thus were created the first women, among whom was the mother of the twins, Sun and Moon, archetypes and authors of present-day humanity. In homage to this woman, the first festival of the dead was celebrated, which is the most important festival of the Upper Xingu and which thus consists of a reenactment of the primordial creation, at the same time it is the privileged moment for public presentation of the young women who have recently come out of puberty seclusion. Thus, it is a ritual that ties together death and lifethe girls who come out of seclusion are like the first humans, mothers of men.

The first humans were thus made in a seclusion chamber. The wooden girls were transformed into people after being closed up in straw compartments similar to those that shelter adolescents in their parents' house. Echoing this myth of origin, the making of the person in the upper Xingu involves various periods of seclusion, all of which are conceived of as moments for making the body: the couvade (restrictions imposed on married couples with newborn children), puberty, sickness, shamanic initiation, and mourning. This making of the person is also a process of modeling the ideal personality, above all in the case of puberty seclusion, the most important of all seclusions.

A Transformational Universe

Two key notions for understanding South American cosmologies are transformation and perspective. Various ethnologists of Lowland South America, and also historians of religion, have noted the central importance of the notion of transformation for indigenous traditions. Peter Rivière, for example, in his article "AAE na Amazônia" (1995), discusses the notions of transformation as found in mythic narratives, cosmologies, and social practices. Human nature is seen as varied and complex, which is symbolically expressed through clothing, masks, and body ornaments, which are understood, in turn, as ways of domesticating an "animal" component, which is essential to human nature. Clothing and body decoration mediate between the interior self, society, and the cosmos. "The native peoples of Amazônia live in a highly transformational world, where appearances deceive" (p. 192).

In many creation mythsfor example, those of the Mbyá-Guarani, Desána, Xavantecreation blooms from the thought, dream, or intention of the original divinity, but the very notion of "blooming" implies a transformation of something that already exists. Thus, creation is more of a self-transformation than a creation, as in the Christian tradition. For example, in the Xavante traditions, the primordial beings, through their powers, transform themselves into the sun, moon, animals, and plants. They are able to do this because they possess the principles of manifestation of certain cosmological possibilities, which are contained in their ontological nature. The primordial beings conjugate in their own nature the duality of being and becoming, for they manifest phenomenal beings (the sun, moon, animals, etc.) from their own beings, but without losing their original nature.

Transformations were also critical for the introduction of periodicity, cyclicity, and differentiation in the universe. Many creation myths begin with the description of a prior condition of stasis, which, due to the actions of the primordial beings, comes to an abrupt end, a watershed moment that initiates change in the cosmos. In traditions of the Northwest Amazon, for example, night did not exist in the beginning; it was always day, and the routine of the creator was always the same until, one day, his wife advised him that her father was the owner of night and that night was a good thing. The creator sought night and ended up introducing night into the world. From that moment of rupture, two cycles were initiated, diurnal and nocturnal, each with its own order.

Native views of the world are also defined by what Viveiros de Castro (1996) has called perspectivism. According to this theory, the way in which humans see animals and other subjective entities that populate the universegods, spirits, the dead, inhabitants of other levels of the cosmos, meteorological phenomena, and at times even objects and artifactsis profoundly different from the way in which these beings see them and see themselves. "Typically, humans see humans as humans, animals as animals and spirits as spirits; the animals (predators), however, and spirits see humans as animals (game), while game animals see humans as spirits or as predatory animals. Further, the animals and spirits see themselves as humans" (p. 117). This perspectivism has profound implications for the way in which indigenous peoples understand relatedness among the beings of the universe and its dynamics.

Transformation and Metamorphosis in the Life Cycle: The Kulina

The Kulina are an Arawá-speaking people of the Amazon region in Brazil. Their cosmography defines spaces for the spirit beings, plants, human beings, and animals. This cosmography presupposes the existence of layers and, in each layer, places. The layers are basically: meme (sky), nami (earth), and nami budi (below the earth). There is also dsamarini (the place of the water) and two other differentiations of the sky that are infrequently mentioned.

Human beings, animals, and plants live on nami, the earth, while the spirits occupy the underworld, nami budi. The animals and game animals also live in nami budi, coming up to the earth to be hunted by the men. The shaman, when he drinks rami (ayahuasca) or through his dreams, makes contact with the world of nami budi, visiting the great subterranean villages where the spirits live or bringing the animals up to the surface, near the village. To do this, he transforms himself into an animal, given that the animals of nami budi are metamorphosed spirits.

For the Kulina, transformation refers to the process of modification of an animal into a person, while metamorphosis is the process of modification of a spirit into an animal. This cycle of transformations is based on a system of oppositions that can be synthesized in the following manner: spirit/metamorphosis; shaman/death; body/transformation; and newborn/game animal. According to the cycle, an undomesticated being, the newborn nono, represented by the forest (nature, male), is domesticated through the ingestion of foods produced in the gardens through female substances (maternal milk and saliva), and through learning and understanding the myths and music, until it becomes a social being. After passing through adult life, this social beingmaqquideje or jadahi has two ways in which he may return to nature, his origin: after death, when his spirit will go to nami budi, to the villages of his ancestors, being transformed into a game animal, or through the metamorphosis of the shaman into a wild animal (normally a peccary).

The shaman, assisted by his tokorimé (spirit, double, image, normally the peccary), goes to nami budi, the place of the dead, and, by identifying his animal tokorimé with that of the other spirits of the dead metamorphosed into peccaries, succeeds in bringing them to the surface, near the village, where they then will be, by indication of the shaman, hunted and later devoured. In the final cycle of transformations, the spirits are hunted and eaten by the living, which suggests a kind of endocannibalism, but this is necessary in order for the spirit of the dead to be incorporated once again into the system of reciprocity, which it abandoned abruptly upon dying. During this cycle, the physical undomesticated body goes in the direction of the village, the world of sociability. The other part, the spiritual domesticated part, goes in the direction of the forest, the savage undomesticated world. There is a relation between the physical body and the social world, as well as between the spiritual body and the world of nature, where the world of sociability is that of the living, while the wild world of the forest is related to the spirits, the dead. In this way, the spiritual domesticated body, in its highest degree, goes in the direction of the world of nature and returns as a physical wild body, through shamanic practices or deaththe transformations of each occurring in the extremities of each place.

Ritual Relatedness and Transformation: The EnawenÊ NawÊ

For the Enawenê Nawê, Arawak-speaking peoples of southwestern Brazil, rituals are associated with two categories of spirits: the Enore, spirits of the sky, and the Yakairiti, spirits that live underground, in the hills, and in generally inhospitable places. When an Enawenê Nawê gets sick, he attributes his misfortune to the Yakairiti spirits, whom he believes are upset with something and are threatening to take him to the other world. In the Yãkwa ritual, there is a generalized exchange between humans and the Yakairiti spirits, enacted by ritual groups involving all the village inhabitants. Everything is done with the intent of satisfying the desires of the Yakairiti, so that, on the one hand, they will have no reason to threaten life in the village and, on the other, to maintain the harmony of the world.

The Enawenê Nawê perform several rituals during the year: from January to July, the Yãkwa, and from July to September, the Lerohi (both dedicated to the Yakairiti); in October, the Salumã; and in November and December, every other year, the Kateokõ (dedicated to the Enore). The Yãkwa is the longest and most important of the Enawenê Nawê rituals. It begins with the harvest of the new corn and ends with the planting of the collective manioc (cassava) garden. Each of the nine Enawenê Nawê ritual groupscollectively known as Yãkwa (and which, in reality, are the Enawenê Nawê clans)is associated with a specific group of Yakairiti spirits. The Enawenê Nawê believe that the Yakairiti spirits are likewise organized in groups and inhabit a specific part of their traditional territory.

To perform the Yãkwa, the groups divide into the Harikare (hosts) and the Yãkwa (clans). The Harikare (or hosts) are responsible for the organization of the ritual and have to fetch firewood, light the fires, and offer the food, while the others (the Yãkwa) sing and dance on the plaza together with the Yakairiti. For a two-year period, one of the ritual groups is the main host and is in charge of the garden, making vegetal salt (an offering to the Yakairiti), and organizing the ritual. At the beginning of the ritual, following mythical traditions, a group of men and boys leave the village for a two-month fishing expedition, during which they construct a dam and set fish traps. The Enawenê Nawê believe that large quantities of fish are provided by the Yakairiti in exchange for the vegetal salt they receive in the course of the ritual. On returning to the village, the men and boys dress and adorn themselves to represent (that is, transform into) the Yakairiti and, carrying the large quantities of fish, they enter the village, at which time there occurs a mock battle between the Harikare and the Yakairiti. After that, the Yãkwa and Yakairiti dance and play the flutes together. Each of the nine ritual groups plays instruments specific to the group. During the course of the ritual, it is as though the Yakairiti become humanized, thus dramatizing the relation of ambivalence and symbiosis that characterizes their coexistence with humans in the cosmos.

A Violent Universe

In many native South American cosmologies, there exists a dialectical tension between dark and light consciousness, manifest as two historically opposed forces: witches, or predatory spirits that kill; and shaman prophets, or priests, with direct access to the sources of creation. Both are represented symbolically in mythical consciousness and both are necessary, the traditions seem to say, to the dynamics of cosmological and historical existence, illustrating the point that dark and light, predatory killing and curing, are complementary opposites rather than antagonistic possibilities of the cosmos. Thus, among the Carib-speaking peoples of the region of the Guianas and Orinoco, we find myth cycles that recount the story of creation as the struggle between two brothers whose deeds set the framework and conditions for human society and individual destiny. One is associated with darkness, evil, and the creation of plants and animals; the other with light, shamanism, and patronage to humanity. These mythic struggles set the stage for the unceasing warfare between kanaimà sorcerers ("dark shamans" who specialize in violent killings) and piai (light) shamans. Similar sorts of dialectical tensions between the benevolent and malevolent forces of the cosmos may be seen among the Warao of the Orinoco delta, the Baniwa of the Northwest Amazon, and among many Tupian groups.

For the Tupian Cinta Larga of the Juruena River region in Brazil, for example, the universe is seen through the prism of unity. The creation myth is a detailed account of how Gorá created human beings, members of different tribes who populate the region, and conferred on them specific identities and characteristics. Animals, birds, and other living beings were created through the transformation of human beingssome became jaguars, others tapirs, and so on, all through the work of Gorá. Gorá and other minor heroes of Cinta Larga mythology are responsible for all that is positive in the social and cultural universe. The counterpart of these beneficial acts of creation is a spirit called Pavu that inhabits the forest and incarnates the dark side of existence. Pavu wanders through the forest in search of victims and, as soon as it comes upon a solitary hunter or anyone passing through, it launches its mortal attack. No one can resist its power, and, from this encounter, victims get fever that is inevitably followed by death.


Instituto socioambiental (Socio-Environmental Institute). Povos indígenas no Brasil. Available in Portuguese and English at A basic, though incomplete, reference on indigenous peoples in Brazil.

Rivière, Peter. "AAE na Amazônia." Revista de antropologia (São Paulo, USP) 38, no. 1 (1995): 191203. A brief but important article highlighting the importance of the notion of transformation to South American cosmologies.

Sullivan, Lawrence. Icanchu's Drum: An Orientation to Meaning in South American Religions. New York, 1988. Outstanding source on native South American religions by a historian of religions. Examines the cosmogonies, cosmologies, anthropologies, and eschatologies of native peoples across the continent. Masterful work of interpretation of myths, rituals, and beliefs.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. "Os pronomes cosmológicos e o perspectivismo Ameríndio." Mana 2, no. 2 (1996): 115144. Classic article on Lowland South American Indian cosmology, defining key notions of perspectivism, multinaturalism, and animism.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. A inconstância da alma selvagem e outros ensaios de antropologia. São Paulo, 2002. Collection of the author's most influential articles in ethnology, including revised versions of articles on the Xingu rituals.

Whitehead, Neil. Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death. Durham, N.C., 2002. Superb historical and cosmological analysis of the Kanaimà complex (dark shamanism) among Carib-speaking peoples of the Guyanas region and Roraima in Brazil.

Wright, Robin. Cosmos, Self, and History in Baniwa Religion: For Those Unborn. Austin, Tex., 1998. Monograph on the Baniwa peoples of the Northwest Amazon, focusing on cosmogony, cosmology, eschatology, and conversion to Protestant evangelicalism.

Robin M. Wright (2005)

About this article

Cosmology: South American Cosmologies

Updated About content Print Article