Warao Religion

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WARAO RELIGION . The Orinoco Delta, a landscape of swamps, islands, and waterways, is the territory of the Warao. Located between the modern republics of Venezuela, Guyana, and Surinam, the Warao today number approximately sixteen thousand. Heirs to a seven-thousand-year tradition of fishing adaptation, some twenty dialectal subgroups of Warao have been identified (Kirchoff, 1948, p. 869). Warao formerly was considered a linguistic isolate; recent research however indicates certain vocabulary correspondences with the Chibchan languages of northwestern South America (Wilbert, 1970, p. 22). Cultural and dialectical differences exist among the various Warao groups, but they are linked by a system of common beliefs.

Information on Warao religion is derived from three major areas: traditional narrative, cosmology, and shamanism.

Traditional Narrative

Traditional narrative is clearly cosmogenic in nature in that it recounts the origin of the plants, animals, and spirits that occupy the Warao universe. It also relates the feats of culture heroes, outlines the taboos people must observe, defines the soul, death, and reincarnation, and depicts other realms of being.

Myth explains that in precultural times the Warao lived in the sky, where a hunter's shot went wide one day. While searching for his arrow, the man found a hole. Descending by a rope to the earth, he discovered an abundance of food. On his return he informed the Warao of his extraordinary find. The other Warao immediately began lowering themselves to earth, until at one point a pregnant woman became stuck in the hole. Only her anus protruded, which became the morning star; or, in another version, her legs extruded, forming the stars in the Big Dipper. Thus some of the Indians were forced to remain behind. On earth, the Warao learned from the spirit of palm leaf fiber that they must suffer and work. And so the first baby was born, the first sickness was inflicted by evil spirits, and the first death occurred (Wilbert, 1970, p. 309).

According to another tale, the sun was originally the property of one man. The world was dark, and men could procure food only with difficulty. One man, hearing the complaints of his wife, decided to send his two daughters in search of the sun. The first failed because she took the wrong turn and was raped by a monster. The second successfully reached the house of the sun's owner, had sexual intercourse with him, and received, as a gift, the sun in a container. Before she left, the man advised the girl not to break the sun. But on the girl's return home, amid the family's rejoicing, a piece of the sun broke off and escaped into the sky.

Aloft in the sky, the sun moved so swiftly through the day that men were unable to procure food. To remedy this situation, the Indians caught a turtle that they presented to the sun as a pet. Now obliged to wait for his slow-moving pet, the sun moved across the sky much more slowly, giving the Warao many hours of daylight in which to fish and to gather food (Wilbert, 1970, p. 311).

In another tale, the origin of the moon is sketched. Every night a young man was having incestuous relations with his two sisters as they slept. Anxious to learn the identity of their violator, the women smeared black genipa juice on their bodies. Waking the next day, they discovered the incriminating dye on their brother. Overcome with shame, their brother flew into space, where he became transformed into the moon. On occasions when the moon turns pink, the Warao believe that it bleeds. They therefore consider all women to be daughters of the moon, because they bleed periodically in menstruation (Wilbert, 1970, p. 63).

With profound sentiment, the Warao narrative also describes the origin of death. At the beginning of the world, the Warao chief warned his people not to sleep that night for they all would be visited first by death and then by a good spirit. To gain immortality, he urged them not to answer the first call but to respond to the second. That night silence reigned through the settlement. Toward midnight a voice was heard. One youth who had fallen asleep woke with a start and answered the first call, the call of death. In fulfillment of the chief's prediction, from that time on all Indians have had to die (Wilbert, 1970, p. 192).


According to Warao cosmology, the earth is a disk floating on water; its crust is fractured by the many waterways of the Orinoco Delta. The sea extends to the horizon, where, contained within a vast gorge, it is bordered by mountains. At the cardinal and solstice points, these mountains soar upwards in the form of petrified trees.

The Warao universe is divided into various realms. The celestial realm is a smaller disk that parallels the terrestrial one. The maximum height of the solsticial suns determines the bell-shaped cosmic vault, which rests on the world's axis. Located to the northeast of the zenith is an ovoid house that is two-storied; the lower level is inhabited by a plumed serpent and the upper level by the Creator Bird, the ancestral shaman and his wife, and four pairs of insects. In the central space of the upper floor the male residents assemble to play a game that perpetuates humanity on earth. At the end of each game the plumed serpent emerges from below to produce a luminous ball. Ropes of tobacco smoke connect the house with the zenith and with the world's axis.

Coiled around the earth disk is a huge marine serpent that controls the tides and is the source of all forms of life. Below the terrestrial-aquatic is the subterranean realm, at the center of which resides the four-headed serpent-goddess of the nadir; her heads, crowned with deer horns, mark the four cardinal directions. The northern seas of the summer solstice are inhabited by the Butterfly God, and the southern seas of the winter solstice by the Toad God. The eastern and western seas are the domains, respectively, of the Avian God of Origin and the Scarlet Macaw. The ancient forefathers, called kanobotuma, reside at the four mountains at the cardinal points and once a year visit the Warao. At festival time, the forefathers enter the house of worship in a barrel of roasted palm pith, and, as carved images nailed to a central platform, they participate in the sacred dances of propitiatory ritual in which the Warao implore their gods of origin for protection (Wilbert, 1981, pp. 3740).


Among the Warao common maladies are treated with simple herbal remedies. A serious illness or death, however, is always attributed to the malevolent action or intention of a supernatural agent. Three major types of sickness, and three specialists to treat them, are distinguished. Bahana, which results from the introduction of material objects into the body, is cured by the healer bahanarotu. Hoa, inflicted by plant and animal theophanies, must be attended by a shaman called hoarotu. And hebu, the possession by an ancestor spirit, is treated by the wisiratu, who is the shaman or priest who presides over the house of worship and who acts as the mediator between the kanobotuma and the Warao (Wilbert, 1970, p. 24). When someone is sick, all three practitioners assemble to diagnose the illness and to determine which specialist must perform the appropriate ceremony.

At the beginning of the Warao cultural epoch, the primordial shaman ascended to the zenith, called the "bosom of the world," from which radiates a network of paths across the celestial canopy. Deities travel along these pathways, as do Warao shamans in their journeys to other worlds. Amid this traffic, men provide offerings for the gods, and the gods bestow life and health on humankind (Wilbert, 1981, p. 39).


As is evident from the above text, Johannes Wilbertt is unquestionably the most important contemporary source on Warao religion. The bibliography of his own works supplied at the end of his article "Warao Cosmology and Yekuana Roundhouse Symbolism," Journal of Latin American Lore 7 (Spring 1981): 3772, is comprehensive. Especially useful among these works is Folk Literature of the Warao Indians (Los Angeles, 1970). See also less recent publications by Basilio Maria de Barral, Guarao guarata: Lo que cuentan los indios Guaraos (Caracas, 1960), and Henry Osborn, "Textos folklóricos en Guarao," Boletín indigenista venezolano (Caracas) 3, no. 5 (1958): 163170, no. 6 (1960): 157173, and no. 7 (1961): 169189; and Osborn's "Textos folklóricos Guarao," Antropológica (Caracas) 9 (1960): 2138 and 10 (1960): 7180. Paul Kirchoff's article "The Warrau," in volume 3 of the Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian H. Steward (Washington, D.C., 1948), pp. 869881, provides a general historical account and description of settlement and subsistence patterns. Earlier ethnographic works are Walter E. Roth's "An Inquiry into the Animism and Folklore of the Guiana Indians," in Thirtieth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 190809 (Washington, D.C., 1915), pp. 103386, and Louis Plassard's "Les Guaraunos et le delta de l'Orénoque," Bulletin de la Société de Géographie (Paris) 15 (1868): 568592. Finally, it should be mentioned that in recent years many articles on various aspects of Warao culture have appeared in the aforementioned Venezuelan journal Antropológica, which is published by the Fundación La Salle, Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas (Caracas). The Fundación La Salle has also published Actas I Congreso Warao (Caracas, n. d.), the record of the First Warao Congress, which was held in Tucupita, Venezuela, 1012 October 1980.

New Sources

Vaquero Rojo, Antonio E. Manifestaciones religiosas de los Waraos, y Mitología Fundante. Caracas, 2000.

Wilbert, Johannes. Mystic Endowment: Religious Ethnography of the Warao Indians. Cambridge, Mass., 1993.

Wilbert, Johannes. Mindful of Famine: Religious Climatology of the Warao Indians. Cambridge, Mass., 1996.

AndrÉs Alejandro PÉrez Diez (1987)

Translated from Spanish by Gabriela Mahnand Pita Kelekna
Revised Bibliography