South American Indian Religions: Mythic Themes

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South American mythology is a vast field whose purview extends linguistically and archaeologically beyond the continent proper to include the oral traditions of Panama and eastern Costa Rica as well as those of the autochthonous inhabitants of the West Indies. This article will consider myths from the point of view of religious studies and will emphasize the cosmological patterns and sacred symbolism in narratives from nonliterate South American societies of both ancient and modern times.

Since the early sixteenth century more than one thousand languages, representing a variety of linguistic stocks and many unrelated tongues, have been listed for this areaa fact that suggests that South America was populated over a great number of centuries by successive migratory groups that trekked down from Siberia, North America, and Central America. One classification of South American languages attempts to reduce hundreds of mutually unintelligible tongues to only three groups: Macro-Chibchan, Andean-Equatorial, and Ge-Pano-Carib. This classification, however, is admittedly provisional and, in the case of the last two groups, very uncertain. These migrations began more than twenty thousand years ago. The majority of early South American archaeological sites date from between twelve and fourteen thousand years ago, but quartz tools found in Brazil in 1983 have been dated at about twenty-five thousand years before the present.

The higher civilizations of ancient South America occupied the Andean region and the Pacific coast from northern Colombia to central Chile. From the point of view of mythological studies the more or less "primitive" cultures are at least as important as the higher civilizations because the less developed societies usually possess abundant collections of sacred stories. The exceeding diversity of South American aboriginal peoples has precluded the formation of a common pantheon or mythico-religious system for the whole continent. Nevertheless, since many societies have been in contact at one time or another, more than a few myths are common to several tribes. Moreover, a large number of motifs are not only found in the mythologies of different South American groups but are also known to peoples of other continents, leaving room for speculation as to whether these motifs spread through diffusion or originated independently.

Myths of Origin

South American sacred stories about how the world originated do not, as a rule, conform to the pattern of creation out of nothing by the will of an omnipotent god. Rather, they commonly depict the coming into being and unfolding of a primordial spirit. In many cases little is said about the actual genesis of the world, but a detailed description of the structure of the universe is given. This description points out the universe's tiered levels, the axis mundi (often in the shape of a cosmic tree), and the heavenly bodies (whose existence is mostly conceived as the product of the transformation of heroes, animals, or other creatures). Many myths deal with characteristics of the sky, and not a few with those of the underworld. There are also many stories about the origin of night. Even more abundant than myths of world creation are those about the destruction of the world, the recurrent agents of destruction being water or fire or both.

Creation of the world

The Piaroa, who live on the south bank of the Orinoco and speak a language of the Sáliva-Piaroan family, believe that everything was created by the powers of imagination. In the beginning, they say, there was nothing at all. The first thing to appear was the sky, and then the air and the wind. With the wind, words of song were born. The words of song are the creative powers that produce thoughts and visions. Out of nothing they imagined and created Buoko, the first being, who developed in the words of song. Then Buoko imagined his sister Chejaru, and Chejaru was born. Because of this, humankind also has the power of imagination. The Piaroa say that thought is actually the only thing humans have.

The Koghi, speakers of a Macro-Chibchan language who live in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, have a creation story that also underscores the spiritual nature both of the first beings and of the essence of the universe. According to this myth, creation took place in nine stages, from the bottom up. Each stage is both a cosmic level and a spiritual being called the Mother, who is sometimes accompanied by a Father or another spiritual being. The first level, which lies in darkness, is also the Sea; the second, the spiritual Tiger; the fifth, the first House of Spirit. Finally, the Fathers of the World find a huge tree and make a temple in the sky above the water. They call it the House of Spirit.

The Muisca (Chibcha) lived in the highlands of Colombia at the time of the arrival of the Spanish, and spoke a language of the Macro-Chibchan family. According to their creation myth, before there was anything in the world, it was night, and light was kept inside a great thing that, according to the Spanish chronicler who recorded the story, is the same that Europeans call Godan omnipotent, universal, ever-good lord and maker of all things. The great being began to dawn, showing the light that he had in himself, and he commenced, in that primordial light, to create. His first creations were some black birds that he commanded to go everywhere in the world blowing their breath from their beaks. That breath was luminous and transparent, and, the birds' mission accomplished, the whole world remained clear and illumined as it is now.

Cosmic levels

In many South American myths, the universe is conceived as a series of layered planesthree or four in many cases, but sometimes more. The Mataco, whose language is a member of the Mataco-Mataguayo family and who live in the Gran Chaco between the Pilcomayo and Bermejo rivers, distinguish the levels of earth, sky, underworld, and (according to some) that of another earth farther down. Originally the sky had been joined to the earth, but the Owner of the Sky separated them. Afterward, a tree grew to connect the sky and the earth. People of the earth used to climb the tree and hunt in the sky, but an old man who had been given a miserable portion of the game meat avenged himself by burning the tree. The hunters could not return; they became the Pleiades. The children of the hunters, who remained on earth, received from their mother, who was also stranded in the sky, a deerskin full of honey that she dropped from above. They grew up and became the ancestors of the present-day Mataco.

The Macuna of the Lower Pira-Parana River in the Vaupés region of Colombia, who speak a language of the Tucanoan family, think that the earth is the shape of a disk. A subterranean river is united with the earth by a whirlpool. The river is inhabited by monsters and bad spirits. Over the earth is a hot-water lake on which the sun sails from east to west in his boat every day. Over Sun Lake there is a house where the Lord of the Jaguars lives, a place that only shamans, in their flights to heaven, can reach. On top of the cosmos is a layer that covers all others like a lid. Nothing beyond it is known. The earth disk consists of several concentric zones, the innermost being the Macuna homeland. At the center, just below Sun Lake, stands a sacred mountain, which supports the firmament. No stone is taken from this mountain lest it fall, taking the sky with it. At a certain point on the earth's level is the House of the Dead. The outer zones are occupied by other Indian tribes, whites, and blacks.

Sky and underworld

The sky and the underworld are cosmic levels of special interest. They appear in myths influenced by the shamans' narratives of their ecstatic trips to the upper and lower worlds. The Marikitari, a Carib-speaking people living in the Upper Orinoco area, say that in the beginning the whole world was sky. There was no separation between heaven and earth. There was only light. In the sky dwelled good, wise people who never died; nor did they work: Food was always available. In the highest sky was Wanadi, who is still there. He gave his light to the people and they were happy. One day he said that he wanted to make people on that part of the sky called "earth." He sent a spirit who made the first people and brought them knowledge, tobacco, the maraca, and the shaman's quartz power stones. Later, an evil spirit called Orosha introduced hunger, sickness, war, and death.

The sky and the cosmic tree

Some of the myths so far recounted show a close connection between the cosmic levels and the axis mundi, often represented by a gigantic tree. In the Mataco myth the danger of the sky falling down is clearly pointed out. The same motif appears in many other myths of tropical forest tribes. The Ge-speaking Kayapó of central Brazil say that in the east there was a gigantic tree called End of the Sky. It supported the heavens, which in those days were parallel to the earth. After several tries, a tapir succeeded in gnawing the trunk until it broke. Then the sky drooped down at the edges, forming the celestial vault. At the place where the tree has its roots all kinds of strange beings live. When a group of people went to explore the east, they found it so frightening that they fled back home with no desire to return to the End of the Sky.

Sky, light, and darkness

Myths in which the sky, usually associated with light, is related to the origins of night are also common. The following story is told by the Cuiba, who live in the western plains of Colombia and speak a language of the Guahiboan family. In ancient times there was no night, only an endless daytime. People could not sleep. A woman who had gone out of her mind wanted to break the sky. Her husband, who was a shaman and had had a dream, warned her to be careful and not to damage the sky, which belonged to the locusts. But she paid no attention and hurled a stone that broke the sky, which was made of mud. Directly it became dark and the earth was invaded by locusts as big as iguanas. They ate the eyes of everybody except the shaman. Then the swallows, who are able to carry heavy loads, brought all the necessary mud and repaired the sky again.

Other stories about the origin of the night suggest that it was created because girls, or wives, would not grant their favors to their lovers, or husbands, since it was always daytime. A Tupi myth from central Brazil indicates that night was kept in a coconut that was opened against the formal prohibition to do so.

Sun, moon, and stars

The sun and moon play important roles in many South American myths. Their origins, like those of stars and constellations, are due in many cases to the transformation of humans at turning points or denouements in the mythical stories. Many versions of the widespread myth of the "twins and the jaguar" end with the heroes' ascending to the sky to become the sun and moon. This is perhaps the most ubiquitous myth of South America, found from Panama to the Gran Chaco and from the eastern coast of Brazil to the Amazonian forests of southern Peru, among dozens of tribes that speak mutually unintelligible languages. Different versions of this story diverge considerably, but the following summary contains a number of essential points common to a great number of stories known to widely scattered groups. A mysterious god or a civilizing hero impregnates a woman and then abandons her. While walking alone in the forest carrying twins in her womb, she is killed by one or more jaguars, but the jaguars' mother takes care of the babies and raises them. A bird or other animal tells the twins how their mother died. The twins determine to avenge their mother and prepare themselves to do so through several ordeals. They finally kill all the jaguars except one, which escapes and becomes the ancestor of present-day jaguars. After some quarreling, the twins climb to the sky, where they can be seen as sun and moon. As an example of the differences between many versions of this story, it may be mentioned that in the rich Mashco account of this tale the twins do not appear; in this case the extraordinary boy Aimarinke kills the jaguars and then goes up to heaven and becomes Yuperax, the god of lightning.

The pre-Columbian Carib of northern South America, speakers of one or another language of the extensive Carib family, were skilled navigators of the Caribbean Sea and had a rich lore about stars and constellations, some of which has survived to the twentieth century. One of their stories tells about a newly married girl who was seduced by a man in the shape of a tapir who asked her to follow him eastward to the place where earth and sky meet. Serikoai, her husband, accidentally cut off his leg with an ax and, after being cured by his mother, set out in search of his wife. He finally found her in the company of Tapir, whom he shot, severing Tapir's head. He implored his wife to return, saying that if she refused he would follow her forever. She hurried on, chased by her lover's spirit and her husband. On arriving at the earth's steep edge, she threw herself into the deep blue sky. On a clear night, one can still watch her; she has been turned into the Pleiades, with Tapir's head (the star cluster Hyades, the star Aldebaran being Tapir's red eye) close behind, and Serikoai (Orion, with Rigel indicating the upper part of her husband's sound limb) in pursuit.

Myths of Destruction

Stories about the destruction of the world and humankind by a delugebe it from excessive rain, or by high tides, or bothare fairly common in most regions of South America. Another type of myth of wholesale destruction is that of the world fire. In some cases these stories may recall actual catastrophes, but their significance seems to be symbolic of divine punishment for transgression of traditional taboos. Often, the destruction is believed to have occurred in the past; sometimes, however, the world fire is projected into the future.

The Deluge

The earliest recorded American myth of the deluge comes from the Taino, whom Columbus met on his first voyage of discovery. According to this version of the myth, a young man who wished to murder his father was banished and later killed by him. The old man kept his son's bones in a calabash where he and his wife could see them. One day they accidentally overturned the gourd and the bones turned into fish. Another day, as the man was out in the fields, four brothers, whose mother had died at their birth, took the calabash and ate all the fish. Hearing that the father was returning, they hurried to hang the vessel back in place, but it fell to the ground and broke. The water from the calabash filled the whole earth and from it also came the fish in the sea. The theme of the Deluge as a consequence of killing forbidden fish is still present among the contemporary Mataco of Argentina and southern Bolivia. In the Andean countries, Deluge myths are generaly associated with a magic mountain where humankind takes refuge. As the waters rise, the mountain also rises, thereby saving the lives of those who have reached the top. One of the best-known examples of this motif was recorded as early as the seventeenth century; its memory persists to this day among the speakers of dialects of the Araucanian language.

In the native traditions of the Huarochiri area of Peru that were collected from Quechua speakers early in the seventeenth century, the Deluge is caused by a god whose presence is not recognized by people who are reveling. Enraged, he advises a young woman who has tended him and won his friendship to take refuge on a high mountain nearby. Soon afterward, heavy rain carries the village away, leaving no one alive. Among the Kaueskar-speaking Alacaluf of southern Chile, who were once supposed to have preserved no mythology, an increasing collection of mythic tales has been gathered since the late 1970s. Among these stories is one about a devastating flood caused by the breaking of a taboo forbidding the killing of an otter. Only a young couple is saved, again by climbing a mountain.

The World Fire

The Carib-speaking Taulipáng of Venezuela connect the deluge with the world fire. They say that after the great flood, when everything had dried up, there was a great fire. All the game animals hid in an underground pit. Fire consumed everything: people, mountains, stones. That is why big chunks of coal are sometimes found in the earth. The Zapiteri, of the Mashco ethnic group of the southwestern Amazon, say that in the beginning of time it rained blood, but later the sun began to heat up and there was a great fire. The tribes of the Gran Chaco have a rich repertoire of myths about the world fire. One of these myths, from the Mataco, says that long ago the Mataco lived in great disorder. One day black clouds broke into lightning and rain began to fall. The drops were not water but fire, which spread everywhere. There were only a few survivors, among them Tokhuah the trickster, who went underground for the duration of the fire.

Many fragments have been collected of what is thought to have been a widely diffused myth of the destruction of the world by fire. According to the Tupi-speaking Apocacuva Guaraní, the World Fire was the first of four cataclysms that annihilated almost all creatures, and it will be repeated when the creator removes from under the earth the crossed beams that hold it in place. Then the earth will catch fire, a long-lasting night will set in, and a blue tiger will devour humankind.

Such Ge-speaking tribes as the Apanyekra, Apinagé, Craho, and Ramkokamekra tell stories about the beginnings, when only two persons existed, Sun and Moon, both of them male. One day Sun obtained a beautiful plumed headdress that looked like fire. Because Moon also wanted one for himself, Sun got another and threw it to Moon, warning him not to let it touch the ground; but Moon was afraid to grab it and let it fall to earth, and it immediately started to burn, consuming all the sand and many animals.

Mythic Ancestors

Different South American myths place the origin of humans at distinct levels of the universe and variously depict the human race as being born from minerals, plants, or animals. Women are sometimes assigned a separate origin. The Urus of Lake Titicaca, speakers of a language of the Uro-Chipaya family, relate that in the time of darkness the universal creator made the Chullpas, who were the first men. They were destroyed by a cataclysm when the Sun appeared, and their survivors became the ancestors of those who now call themselves Kotsuns ("people of the lake"), but are more commonly known by the name of Urus ("wild animals"), as they are called by their Aymara neighbors. The Carib-speaking Waiwai of Guyana say that before humankind existed there were on earth sky spirits, which now have the form of birds and which fly in the second heavenly layer. Some of them, however, have human form. Present-day humankind descends from the children of a woman who was one of these spirits and who, surprised while alone in the forest, was impregnated by a grasshopper-man.

The Quechua-speaking Inca of Peru had several myths of their origins that were recorded by Spanish chroniclers. According to one of these stories, the high god Vi-racocha created Alcaviza, a chieftain; and told him that after his (Viracocha's) departure the Inca noble would be born. Alcaviza resided at the place that would later become the main square of Cuzco, the capital of the Inca empire. Seven miles away, at a place called Paccaritambo ("lodge of dawn"), the earth opened to form a cave, from which the four Ayar brothers emerged, dressed in fine clothing and gold. Fearing the colossal strength of the one who had come out of the cave first, his brothers asked him to go back into the cave and fetch some golden objects that had been left behind. While he was inside, the others immured him there forever. Ayar Manco, who had come out last, took the prisoner's wife for himself. Another brother displayed big wings, flew to the sky, and from high above told Ayar Manco that the sun had ordered that he should change his name to Manco Capac ("Manco the Magnificent") and take the winged man's wife for himself. Finally the winged man turned into a stone. In the company of his only remaining brother and their wives, Manco Capac walked to Cuzco, where Alcaviza recognized from their garments that they were indeed the children of the Sun and told them to settle at whatever place they liked best. Manco Capac, the first Inca ruler, chose the site where later the Coricancha, or court of the sun, would be built. His brother went away to settle another village.

High God

The belief in a high god conceived as omniscient and benevolent to humans rather than as an omnipotent and perfect creator (which in some cases he also is) is documented in many South American myths. It was first reported by Fray Ramón Pané in the earliest ethnological study of American Indians. He wrote that the Taino of Haiti believed in the existence of an immortal being in the sky whom no one can see and who has a mother but no beginning. At the the southernmost extreme of South America, the belief in the existence of a high god has been acknowledged among the tribes of Tierra del Fuego. The Tehuelche of Patagonia seem to have believed in a supreme being conceived as a good spirit who was also the lord of the dead. From the Araucanians (Mapuche) come testimonies of a belief, possibly autochthonous, in a supreme celestial being, Nguenechen. Very early reports say that the Tupí believed in a being they called Monan, and that they attributed to him the same perfections that Christians attribute to their God: He is eternal, and he created the heavens and the earth as well as the birds and animals.

The most famous of all South American high gods is the Andean deity Viracocha. Several etymologies have been proposed to explain the meaning of his name, among them "sea of grease" (as a rich source of life) and "lord of all created things." In any case the belief in a high creator god among the Andean peoples probably goes back to early prehistoric times. It has been suggested that Viracocha is none other than the same world creator and culture hero found in the mythology of many tribes from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Apparently, the ancient high god was obscured for a time by his conflation with the Inca sun god, but later the Inca were obliged to revert to the ancient high god of archaic mythologies in order to secure the support of their allies when Cuzco was threatened by other peoples. Another important Andean high god is Illapa, lord of rain, lightning, and thunder. As do some other Andean deities, Illapa hierophanically presents himself in trinitarian form comprising Illapa the Father, Illapa the Elder Son (or Brother), and Illapa the Younger Son (or Brother). Illapa's name is related to the Quechua word illa, meaning both "protective spirit" and "light" or "lightning."

While Illapa is a god of the Andean highlands, Con and Pachacámac belong to the Peruvian coast. Con is said to have created the sky, the sun, the moon, the earth with all its animals, the Indians, and the fish by means of his thought and breath. After having made everything, he ascended into the sky. Con was followed later by a more powerful god called Pachacámac ("world maker," or "the god who gives orders").

Origins of Plants and Culture

The introduction of seeds for agriculture and the origins of certain staple plants and their fruits are recounted as etiological motifs in many South American myths. In Peru, several sacred personages of legendary times are credited with the creation of produce. According to an ancient story, the god Pachacámac transformed the sacrificed body of a divine being into the basic food plants of the Andean peoples.

In the traditions of the Ge-speaking Apinagé, Kayapó, Craho, and Xerenté, among the tribes of the Tropical Forest, as well as among the Mataco of the Gran Chaco, many fruits of the earth came from the heavens as gifts brought by Star Woman for her lover and his people. That is the way the Apinagé first came to know of sweet potatoes and yams and learned to plant maize and make maize cakes. The Kayapó obtained manioc, sweet potatoes, yams, and bananas through the good offices of Sky Woman, who was the daughter of Rain. Maize, however, was revealed by a little mouse who showed it to an old woman. Among the Waiwai it is said that an old woman allowed herself to be burned, and from her charred bones sprouted cassava plants of the type still in use today. In a Witóto myth an old woman who was ascending the sky in pursuit of a handsome youth fell down, transforming herself into the bitter yuca, while the young man became the sun.

In many tribal societies there are traditional stories teaching how artifacts and social intitutions first came into being. Among the Ayoré of western Paraguay and eastern Bolivia, who speak a language of the Zamuco family, there is an origin myth (or sometimes several) for every single object, whether natural or manmade. According to the Ayoré, most things originated through the transformation of an ancestor. In many cases, however, cultural objects were in the beginning owned by the ancestor who, at a certain point, gave them to humankind.

Origins of Fire

Fire, the natural element required to transform the raw into the cooked, separates humans from animals and establishes the basis of culture; as such, it is the subject of many mythic stories, which can be broadly divided into myths about the origin of fire and myths about the origin of the techniques for fire-making. Most stories of the former group recount how, in the times of the beginnings, humans first obtained fire, either as a gift from a god or as an element stolen by a culture hero.

The greatest variety of myths about fire among South American societies probably occurs in the traditional oral literature of the Mataco. According to one of these stories, Raven was the owner of fire, and Toad, in an unsuccessful attempt to steal it, almost extinguished it. But Tokhuah, the trickster, did succeed in getting it, and, when chased away, waved his burning stick in all directions. The branches of all the species of trees that caught fire are now gathered to make drills for producing fire by friction. In another Mataco myth, Vulture, the guardian of fire, flapped his huge wings from time to time to fan the live coals. If someone attempted to take a burning piece of wood, however little, Vulture would flutter his wings with such force that the fire would flare up and the would-be thief would be burned to ashes. But according to the most widely reported version of the Mataco myth, the owner of the fire is Jaguar. In this story, Jaguar loses his fire to Rabbit, who puts live coals under his chin and runs away. Later Rabbit throws the embers in a meadow and the world begins to burn. People were thus able to obtain fire and to cook their meals, but Jaguar had to learn how to hunt and to eat his game raw. Then Tokhuah put the spirit of fire into the wood of the sunchu tree, which the Mataco use to make their fire-drills.

Origins of Death

Several types of myths about the origin of death have been noted among South American tribes. One of these may be called the "waxing and waning moon" type. The Ayoré of the Gran Chaco say that instead of following Moon, who waxes again after waning into nothing, their ancestor followed Tapir, who dies and never rises again.

The Warao of the Orinoco delta have several traditional stories representing different types of myth about the origins of death. One type concerns the "serpent and his cast off skin." It says that people lived happily on earth until one of them fell ill and died. He was buried, and the Master of the Palm-Leaf Fiber said that they should wail for their dead. The snakes immediately cried and shed their skins. That is why snakes do not die, but people do.

Another type of myth, and a very common one, attributes humanity's fate to its disobedience of a divine commandment. It is said that death and sickness came to the Warao as a punishment inflicted by the Master of Water Spirits because his daughter, who had married a Warao, had been obliged to go into the menstruation hut when she had her menses, according to the customs of her husband's village but against her will, and she died. To castigate the Indians, the water spirits caused accidents, sickness, and death.

Yet another myth type, the "ill-timed answer," is found not only among the Warao but also in Guyana and elsewhere. Once, when the world was young and animals could talk, a chief announced that Death would pass by that night. The chief added that Death would call to them first, and that a good spirit would call afterward. If they answered the second call, people would never die, but if they answered the first call, all would surely die. The chief asked everybody to stay awake, but a young man went to sleep. Night came and all was quiet. About midnight they heard a voice that they did not answer, but the young man who was sleeping woke up and answered it. From that time, people began to die.

The "malevolent decision" motif and the "shouting at and scaring away the revenant" motif sometimes overlap, as in the Mataco myth according to which there was a time when everybody lived for five hundred years and died only of old age. Three days after death they would return to life again, rejuvenated. Nevertheless, when Tokhuah, the trickster, saw Moon, who was a handsome young man with an oversized member, beginning to shine again, Tokhuah was frightened, shouting "Go away!" and threatening Moon with a stick. Moon fled upward until he reached the sky. Tokhuah did the same to those who returned from the dead, and it is surmised that because of his actions the dead do not come back to life any more.

Another widely scattered motif is the "resurrection ritual that fails." The Selkʾnam of Tierra del Fuego used to say that when their hero Kenos reached old age and seemed to die, he rose up again, and caused other men who died to come back to life by washing them. Subsequently, when he decided at one point not to rise again and went into the sky and became a star, he instructed Cenuke, a powerful sorcerer, to wash old people and make them young again. But Kwanip, another powerful sorcerer, ordained that no person should be raised from the sleep of age. He hurried up to the sky where he also became a star. Since then nobody comes back from the grave.

Relationship between Myth and Ritual

According to a well-known theory, myths recount rituals and rituals perform myths. Although this idea will hardly hold if applied to all myths and rituals, it is true that some myths relate the origins of certain rites. The southern Barasana, speakers of a Tucanoan language, tell a story of their culture hero Warimi, who in his childhood was called Rijocamacu and who always succeeded in escaping when pursued by the daughters of the supernatural Meni. One day the youngest daughter of Meni caught Rijocamacu, who instantly turned into a little baby. The girl put him to her breast. Her father approved of what she was doing, and kindled some wax, blowing on the smoke in order to chase away the spirits of the dead so that they could not frighten the baby and make him cry. Since that time, when a woman gives birth, the chief blows on the household fire and only then are the people allowed into the house. In many tales, Meni is said to have been the first to do the things that the Barasana do now.

The close relationship between myth and ritual has been established in the case of the complex of sacred stories, holy performances, and tabooed musical instruments and other items that are associated with the name Yurupary, known to many tribes in the western Amazon region. The stories about Yurupary differ from one tribe to another. One of these stories, told among the Macuna, was that Yurupary was an old jaguar-shaman whose female companion was Romi Kumu, another powerful being. Since he devoured many men, two ancestors decided to kill him, and they did. Afterward they burned his body; but his ashes produced a palm tree that shot quickly into the sky. The ancestors cut the palm to pieces and these became musical instruments: three male trumpets and one female flute that did not give out any sound until a hole was made to imitate the vagina of Romi Kumi. When the ancestors found Romi Kumi on an island, they stuck the flute between her legs, and that was the origin of menstruation. They gave the instruments to men, who at that time performed the agricultural work that is now performed by the women. In the Yurupary ceremonies, females are not allowed to see the instruments.

Modern Myths

The myths mentioned above are ancient stories exhibiting the characteristics of South American cultures before contact with European civilization, but the creative forces of native imagination were not totally withered by the impact. Old myths were recast in new molds, making allowance for the presence of the whites and their ways. Hundreds of legendsthat is, myths with some historical componentwere coined in colonial times, and the process is still alive today in many areas where indigenous and foreign cultures meet. One such legend is the so-called myth of Inkarri, which has been traced to several localities in the vicinity of Cuzco, but has also been found in other areas of Peru. Its gist is that the Spanish conqueror Pizarro imprisoned and beheaded Atahuallpa, the Inca king (Span., Inca rey = Inkarri), but the head, which is secretly kept somewhere, is not dead, and is growing a body, which when completed will shake off the chains and fetters that hold the Inca people in bondage. Eventually, Inkarri will reestablish justice and bring back the ancient culture of the vanquished.

See Also

Atahuallpa; Yurupary.


The best collection of sources, translated into English from the Spanish, Portuguese, and other European languages, is the multivolume The Folk Literature of South American Indians, edited by Johannes Wilbert (Los Angeles, 1970), published as part of the "UCLA Latin American Studies" series. Separate volumes have been devoted to the Warao (1970), Selkʾnam (1975), Yamana (1977), Ge (1979), Mataco (1982), Toba (1983), Boróro (1983), and Tehuelche (1984). Extensive compilations of South American myths are Theodor Koch-Grünberg's Indianermärchen aus Südamerika (Jena, 1901), which does not include the Andean civilizations, and Raffaele Pettazzoni's Miti e leggende, vol. 4, America Centrale e Meridionale (Turin, 1963).

Other sources are included in more restricted ethnological studies or in anthologies devoted to Indians of a single country, such as the following works: Walter E. Roth's An Inquiry into the Animism and Folk-Lore of the Guiana Indians (Washington, D.C., 19081909), which has myths of the Arawak, Carib, and Warao; An Historical and Ethnological Survey of the Cuna Indians, by Erland Nordenskiöld in collaboration with Ruben Pérez Kantule, edited by Henry Wassén (Göteborg, 1938); Herbert Baldus's Die Jaguarzwillinge (Kassel, 1958), with myths from Brazil; Fray Cesáreo de Armellada and Carmela Bentivenga de Napolitano's Literaturas indígenas venezolanas (Caracas, 1975); Hugo Nino's Literaturas de Colombia aborigen: En pos de la palabra (Bogotá, 1978). The Taulipan and Arekuna are represented in Theodor Koch-Grünberg's Von Roroima zum Orinoco, vol. 2 (Stuttgart, 1924); the Marikitare, in Marc de Civrieux's Watunna: An Orinoco Creation Cycle (San Francisco, 1980). Myths from some tribes of the huge Amazonian area are included in C. Manuel Nunes Pereira's Moronguêtá: Um Decameron indígena, 2 vols. (Rio de Janeiro, 1967); Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff's Amazonian Cosmos: The Sexual and Religious Symbolism of the Tukano Indians (Chicago, 1971); Gerald Weiss's Campa Cosmology: The World of a Forest Tribe in South America (New York, 1975); Manuel García-Renduelas's 'Duik Múum': Universo mítico de los aguarunas, 2 vols. (Lima, 1979); Stephen Hugh-Jones's The Palm and the Pleiades: Initiation and Cosmology in Northwest Amazonia (Cambridge, 1979), on the Barasana, important for the study of the Yurupary myth; Mario Califano's Analisis comparativo de un mito mashco (Jujuy, Argentina, 1978), based on versions from three groups of southeast Peru; Peter G. Roe's The Cosmic Zygote: Cosmology in the Amazon Basin (New Brunswick, N.J., 1982), on Shipibo mythology. Classic studies in Guaraní mythology are part of Alfred Métraux's La religion des Tupinamba et ses rapports avec celle des autres tribus Tupi-Guarani (Paris, 1928) and Curt Nimuendajú's "Die Sagen von der Erschaffung und Vernichtung der Welt als Grundlagen der Religion der Apapocuva-Guarani," Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 46 (1914): 284403. For the Kamayurá and other tribes of the Upper Xingu: Orlando Villas Boas and Claudio Villas Boas's Xingu: The Indians, Their Myths (New York, 1973). The myth of the "twins and the jaguar," widely diffused in the Amazon, is studied in relation to early Andean civilizations by Julio C. Tello in his article "Wira Kocha," Inca 1 (1923): 93320, 583606. Two recent anthologies of Andean myths are Henrique Urbano's Wiracocha y Ayar: Héroes y funciones en las sociedades andinas (Cuzco, 1981) and Franklin Pease's El pensamiento mítico (Lima, 1982). The best edition of the Huarochiri traditions collected by Francisco de Ávila is Jorge L. Urioste's Hijos de Pariya Qaqa: La tradición oral de Waru Chiri: Mitología, ritual y costumbres, 2 vols. (Syracuse, N.Y., 1984). Many South American myths, or parts of them, are included in the first three volumes of Claude Lévi-Strauss's monumental Mythologiques, translated as The Raw and the Cooked (New York, 1969), From Honey to Ashes (New York, 1973), and The Origin of Table Manners (New York, 1978), also useful for its extensive bibliographies.

There is no large-scale treatment of South American mythology from the point of view of religious studies. The best overview is Harold Osborne's South American Mythology (London, 1968). A survey of the field since the publication of the Handbook of South American Indians, 7 vols., edited by Julian H. Steward (Washington, D.C., 19461959), is found in Juan Adolfo Vázquez's "The Present State of Research in South American Mythology," Numen 25 (1978): 240276. Although dated in many respects, the Handbook has not been replaced as a general work of reference. Invaluable for the ethnological background to the mythology of many tribes, it also includes brief summaries on religions and mythologies, and an article by Alfred Métraux, "Religion and Shamanism" (vol. 5, pp. 559599). The article "Inca Culture at the Time of the Spanish Conquest" by John Howland Rowe (vol. 2., pp. 183330) provides an excellent introduction to the subject and includes sections on Inca religion and mythology. The chapters on archaeology can be updated by consulting Gordon R. Willey's An Introduction to American Archaeology, vol. 2, South America (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1971). The field of South American linguistics has been surveyed by different authors, among them Cestmír Loukotka in his Classification of South American Indian Languages, edited by Johannes Wilbert (Los Angeles, 1968).

The following periodicals have published many myths from South America: Amérindia (Paris, 1976), Anthropos (Mödling, 1906), Journal de la Société des Américanistes (Paris, 1895), Journal of Latin American Lore (Los Angeles, 1975), Latin American Indian Literatures (Pittsburgh, 19771984) Revista do Museu Paulista (São Paulo, 18951938, 1947), and Scripta Ethnologica (Buenos Aires, 1973).

New Sources

Bierhorst, John. The Mythology of South America. New York, 1998.

Gutiérrez Estéves, Manuel, ed. Mito y ritual en América. Madrid, 1988.

Fischer, Manuela. Mito Kogi. Quito, 1989.

Manuela de Cora, María Kuai-Mare. Mitos Aborigenes de Venezuela. Caracas, 1993.

Morales Guerrero, Enrique Rafael. Mitologia Americana: Estudio preliminar sobre mitologia clásica. Santafé de Bogoté, 1997.

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

Juan Adolfo VÁzquez (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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South American Indian Religions: Mythic Themes