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YURUPARY is the lingua franca name for an Amazonian culture hero who established order in nature and society and taught men rules of ritual conduct. The term refers also to sacred flutes and bark trumpets, taboo to women and children, played in a secret men's cult into which boys are periodically initiated, and to the celebrations held by the cult. These instruments, kept hidden under water, represent Yurupary in spirit form, and their sound is his voice. By extension the term is used throughout Amazonia to refer to cannibal forest spirits. Christian missionaries have also erroneously identified Yurupary with the devil and attempted to eradicate his cult.

The Yurupary cult is found among nearly all the Indians of northwest Amazonia living in the area of the Japurá, Negro, and middle Orinoco rivers. In particular, it is characteristic of the Arawakan groups (Baníwa, Baré, etc.) of the upper Río Negro and of their Tucanoan-speaking neighbors (Cubeo, Tucano, Desána, Barasana, etc.) of the Uaupés, whose culture shows strong Arawakan influence. The Arawakans call Yurupary Kowai, and a number of other names are used by the Tucanoans. These Indians share many cultural features, including division into patrilineal, exogamous phratries made up of a series of ranked clans, patrilocal marriage, and residence in communal longhouses.

Similar secret men's cults with flutes, trumpets, bull-roarers, and masks are a typical feature of many Indian groups of lowland South America, most notably the Mundurucú of the lower Tapajós, the Yagua and Tikúna of the upper Amazon, the tribes of the upper Xingu, and the nearly extinct Selkʾnam of Tierra del Fuego.

Yurupary Myth

Numerous versions of the Yurupary myth have been published. What follows is a synthesis of these myths, designed to bring out the major episodes and themes. Yurupary was the child of Ceucy (the Pleiades), who was made pregnant by the juice of a caimo (Pouteria caimito ) or cucura (Pourouma cecropiaefolia ) fruit. She was a virgin, and a disguised incestuous union with a father, brother, or son identified with the sun, moon, thunder, or the constellation Scorpius is implied. Yurupary is himself often identified with the Sun. Lacking a vagina, Ceucy had a painful labor and had to be pierced by a fish. Her baby, taken from her at birth, was brought up by his shaman father or brother. Yurupary had no mouth so he had to be fed on tobacco smoke. He was asked if he was man, animal, or fish, but by shaking his head he indicated that he was none of these. Only when asked if he was Yurupary did he nod his head in agreement, an agreement that, by a process of elimination, also suggested that he was connected with the vegetable world. When given a mouth, he emitted a terrible sound, and sounds emerged from holes in his body, which was that of a monkey but with human face, feet, and hands.

He grew very rapidly and became a shaman leader who taught his people rituals and a regime of taboos and fasts and decreed that no woman should see him or hear his secrets on pain of death. He ordered the men to collect fruit from trees, and he conducted the first initiation rite, at which young boys saw him dressed in full costume.

While the boys were still under initiation taboos, he took them to collect uacú fruit (Monopteryx angustifolia ), which, despite prohibitions, they roasted and ate. Angered by their disobedience, Yurupary sent a thunderstorm, and the boys took shelter in his mouth (or, in some versions, his anus), which they mistook for a cave. Having ingested all but one of them, Yurupary disappeared to his house in the sky, and the lone survivor returned home with the dreadful news.

The parents, angered by their loss and fearful of this cannibal monster, resolved to kill him. They tempted him back with offers of ever more exotic kinds of beer until, offered one he had never tried, Yurupary agreed to return. He knew they wished to kill him and made it known that he could be killed only with fire.

Arriving at dusk, Yurupary vomited up the boys (or their bones), into either an initiates' seclusion enclosure or flat baskets, along with the fruit the boys had collected. He danced and sang all night, getting increasingly drunk on beer and yagé, a hallucinogenic drink, and at dawn his hosts threw him on a fire. There followed a huge conflagration, which was the prototype of all future slash-and-burn fires. The burning of a cultivation site is now identified with this first fire. As he died, Yurupary announced that henceforth, though he would be immortal, all men would die.

From the ashes a paxiuba palm (Iriartea exorrhiza ) grew, together with vines for ritual whips and for poison and stinging ants, snakes, and other noxious creatures that shed their skins. The palm was his bone, and the poisonous plants and animals were his soft parts. The palm ascended rapidly to the sky, taking with it Yurupary's soul, which became a star in the constellation Orion. Squirrels cut the palm into sections, which were distributed among men and animals as their different voices. This distribution marked the differentiation of men from animals and, among men, the distinction between the different clans and phratries, which have corresponding linguistic differences. The sections of paxiuba palm, which correspond to paired parts of Yurupary's anatomyarm and leg bones and fingersmake up the yurupary instruments, which are also in pairs, and their sound is his voice. From other parts of his bodyskull, brain, tongue, and so onwere made gourds, tobacco snuff, coca, and beeswax, which play an important role in the rites.

Later on, the Sun told his son to rise early and play the yurupary instruments at the river. His daughter overheard and got up while her lazy brother slept on. She found the instruments and ran away with them, accompanied by the other women. With the women in possession of the instruments, the social order was reversed: While the women dedicated their lives to ritual, the men menstruated and did all the heavy agricultural work.

The men then set about regaining the stolen flutes. With the aid of ritual whips and small piston whistles, they frightened the women into submission. In punishment for the rebellion, the men caused the women to menstruate and declared that if women should ever see the Yurupary rites and instruments they would be killed.

Yurupary Cult

A number of themes emerge from this myth that relate to the symbolic significance of the cult. Most notable are the astronomical character of the major protagonists; the importance of the vegetable world and its links with human fertility and growth; the links between periodicities in the human and natural worlds; the contrasts between men and women, humans and animals, life and death, and hard and soft parts of the body; and the ambiguity of Yurupary as both benevolent lawgiver and cannibal monster. The myth also serves as a charter for rituals which form the most important expression of the religious life of the people concerned and accounts for the origin of the sacred objects used by them.

There are two kinds of Yurupary ritual, one less sacred than the other. In the former, quantities of forest fruit, gathered by the men, are brought to the longhouse to the sound of the flutes and trumpets. During the day women and children are excluded from the house, but at dusk the instruments are removed and the women join the men to dance and drink manioc beer. The men chant origin myths and drink yagé to put them in contact with the spirit world. They also whip one another and the women and children to make them grow strong. The rites are held to increase the abundance of fruit and mark the ripening of each species. They also represent an exchange, in that the fruits are a gift from the spirits and in that fruit is often exchanged between longhouse communities.

These rites also form the first stage of initiation into the cult. Young boys are brought into the house along with the fruit, shown the flutes, given coca, snuff, and yagé, and whipped to make them grow. After participation in one or more such rites they then graduate to the more sacred rites, which are held once per year at the start of the rainy season as the Pleiades set at dusk. For these latter rites greater numbers of more sacred instruments are used, together with gourds of snuff, coca, and beeswax. These and other items, when assembled together, make up the body of the first ancestor, Yurupary or his equivalent. At the climax of the rites the ancestor appears in the form of two men dressed in full ceremonial regalia and adopts the initiates as his sons. The boys are shown the flutes and whipped, then taken to the river to bathe while water poured from the flutes is "vomited" over their heads.

The initiates are then secluded for two months in an enclosure that is out of sight of the women. They must fast; rigid taboos govern various aspects of their behavior; and they are taught to make baskets, an exclusively male task. The adult men are also under strict taboos and all are in a state described as being like that of menstruating women. The women fend for themselves and a state analogous to the matriarchy of the myth pertains. This period is brought to an end when the initiates are given chili peppers to eat and hot liquids to drink, ending a taboo on contact with sources of heat. There follows a festive dance at which the initiates give women the basketry they have made, and thereafter the food taboos are progressively lifted and life returns to normal.

Themes and Interpretations

A number of different interpretations have been proposed for this cult and, given the simultaneous operation of a number of different symbolic levels, they are not necessarily incompatible. At a sociological level, the cult involves the ritualized opposition between men and women, an opposition that permeates the Indians' secular and ritual life. The yurupary instruments are the means whereby men dominate women. Not only are women excluded from important rituals but they are also excluded from the knowledge of mythology and shamanism that this entails. Such knowledge is also a source of prestige and power. In the same vein the cult emphasizes the equivalent status of women and uninitiated children and allows the subjection of young men by their elders, who have greater ritual knowledge and experience.

Among the Tucanoan Indians Yurupary is also an ancestral cult related to their patrilineal ideology. The death of the ancestor and the distribution of his flute-bones provides a model for the division of human society into discrete phratries and, at a lower lever, for the segmentation of each phratry into a number of clans descended from a common ancestor. The ritual adoption by the ancestor of his sons, the initiates, each one the potential founder of a new patriline, reenacts and repeats this initial process of segmentation. The instruments, each set of which is owned by a clan, are the sons of the ancestor and founders of the clans, and they bear the names of these ancestors.

The exclusion of women further emphasizes clan solidarity and patrilineal ideology by implying that the clan can reproduce itself without the intervention of women from outside. Latent in the Yurupary and related myths is a tension between the extremes of incestas in the start of the mythand its opposite, reproduction without the intervention of womenas when Yurupary is burned and becomes his sons, the flutes. Note too that Yurupary's bones become masculine flutes while his soft parts become things with feminine (and poisonous) connotations. This tension relates to that between a patrilineal ideology and the requirement that women must be brought in from outside for sexual reproduction. The symbolism of the cult plays upon this by dividing men and women into opposed groups while stressing the complementarity between male and female principles.

The Yurupary rituals can be seen as reenactments of elements of the central myth, and the symbolism of swallowing and regurgitation, a familiar theme of many initiation rites, is clearly present. The ritual, the myth, and statements by indigenous informants all suggest that the initiates are killed and swallowed and reborn by being vomited up again, a theme that can be linked to the etymology of Yuruparyfrom yuru ("mouth") and pary (initiates' enclosure, or a trap made of woven palm splints). The vegetable nature of Yurupary, shown in his fast growth and his associations with fruit, is clearly related to the association of the initiates with fruit and the stress on their growth. The cult involves magic designed to increase the fertility of nature and to ensure the growth and fertility of human beings. Whipping to promote growth is common throughout Amazonia, as is the use of stinging ants for the same purpose.

The myth accounts for the origin of human mortality and links it with human and natural periodicity. While death is final, society endures through sexual and social reproduction. Ritually this process is accomplished by a symbolic death and rebirth whereby young boys come to replace their ageing elders. The myth implies that death is not final: Yurupary's soul becomes an immortal star and his bones become flutes, and are his representatives on earth. The myth draws a parallel between his death and slash-and-burn agriculture, whereby new plants grow from the ashes of dead trees. The instruments thus mediate between life and death and turn their opposition into an alternating cycle.

The theme of periodicity also relates to that of menstruation, which figures in both the myth and the rites. The myth implies that menstruation and possession of the flutes are equivalent but inversely distributed between the sexes. Women are held to approximate Yurupary's immortal state both because they reproduce themselves through their children and because menstruation is seen as analogous to the sloughing of their skins by the immortal snakes and other creatures who came from Yurupary's ashes. Though men lost the power to menstruate they gained the yurupary, which, although clearly masculine symbols, have an important feminine aspect appropriated and controlled by the men. The cult implies that whereas women give birth to children, only men can "give birth" to fully social adults.

That Yurupary and his mother and father are all identified with heavenly bodies further relates to this theme of periodicity. The myths and rites relate to the apparent movement of the stars in relation to that of the sun. The azimuth of the Pleiades corresponds with the winter solstice, Orion moves along the celestial equator, the azimuth of Scorpius corresponds with the summer solstice, and the heliacal rise of the Pleiades corresponds with the setting of Scorpius. Throughout northwest Amazonia the Pleiades are a seasonal marker, their heliacal rise coinciding with the start of the dry season and their setting with the rains, and the "opposition" between the Pleiades and Scorpius is a common symbolic theme in South American Indian cultures. Yurupary himself has both solar and masculine characteristics and a lunar, more feminine side.

Many of the themes mentioned above reappear in secret men's cults elsewhere in lowland South America. Among the Mundurucú the opposition between the sexes is more pronounced and antagonistic and corresponds with an apparent fear and jealousy of female sexuality and reproduction on the part of the men. With them, as with the Yagua, the link between sacred instruments and fruit is replaced by a link between the instruments and game animals. The flutes guarantee an abundance of game and luck in the hunt, in return for which they must be constantly fed. In the Xingu area the cults are again linked with the fertility of fruit. Among the Tikúna, sacred instruments are associated with female initiation involving the pulling out of the girls' hair. Female hair figures also in the Yurupary cult, for sacred masks representing Yurupary were made from hair shorn from girls at first menstruation. Finally, myths of matriarchy are common to all these groups.


Of the many versions of the Yurupary myth published to date, the most complete is contained in La leggenda del Jurupary e outras lendas amazonicas (São Paulo, 1964) by Ermanno Stradelli (18521926). Wilhelm Saake's article "Die Jurupari-legende bei den Baniwa des Rio Issana," in Proceedings of the Thirty-second International Congress of Americanists, Copenhagen 814 August 1956 (Copenhagen, 1958), pp. 271279, is also an important source. This version is translated into English in Robin Michael Wright's work "History and Religion of the Baniwa Peoples of the Upper Río Negro Valley," 2 vols. (Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1981), which also contains another very full version of the myth, an ethnography of Baníwa religion, and some important material on the links between the Yurupary cult and messianic movements. Jonathan David Hill's study "Wakuenai Society: A Processual-Structural Analysis of Indigenous Cultural Life in the Upper Rio Negro Region of Venezuela" (Ph. D. diss., Indiana University, 1983) gives an ethnography of the Wakuenai (Curipaco) with good material on Yurupary and a valuable ethnomusicological analysis.

No really full and general account of the Yurupary cult, dealing equally with mythology, ritual, and its social structural context, exists. Silvia Maria da Carvalho's Jurupari: Estudos de mitologia brasileira (São Paulo, 1979) is a comparative analysis of the Yurupary and related myths. The analysis, while not based on primary field research, provides a comprehensive survey and makes a number of significant points of interpretation but is marred by thinly supported discussions concerning population movements, evolution, and diffusion. Hector Orjuela's Yurupary: Mito, leyenda y epopeya (Bogotá, 1983) relies also on published works and again provides a valuable compilation of the relevant myths. The interpretation is, however, patchy, and includes unsubstantiated assertions concerning the supposed Colombian origins of the myth. Jacqueline Bolens's "Mythe de Jurupari: Introduction à une analyse," Homme 7 (1967): 5066, is a structuralist analysis of several classic versions of the Yurupary myth that, though short, contains some important insights concerning the symbolism involved.

My book The Palm and the Pleiades: Initiation and Cosmology in Northwest Amazonia (Cambridge, 1979), based on field research, provides a full account of Yurupary myths and rituals among the Tucanoan Barasana and their neighbors and is perhaps the most accessible and rounded interpretation of the cult. It also gives a comprehensive bibliography.

There is no general account of secret men's cults in South America, but Yolanda Murphy and Robert F. Murphy's Women of the Forest (New York, 1974) and Anne Chapman's Drama and Power in a Hunting Society: The Selk'nam of Tierra del Fuego (Cambridge, 1982) provide accounts and interpretations, both based on primary research of such cults among the Mundurucú and Selkʾnam.

Finally, Rituals of Manhood, edited by Gilbert H. Herdt (Berkeley, Calif., 1982), describes secret men's cults, this time in the New Guinea highlands, which show striking parallels with their South American counterparts.

New Sources

Caicedo de Cajigas, Cecilia. Origen de la Literatura Colombiana: El Yurupary. Pereira, Colombia, 1990.

Clastras, Hélène. The Land-without-Evil: Tupí-Guaraní Prophetism. Translated by Jacqueline Grenez Brovender. Urbana, Ill., 1995.

Vesga Nuñez, Omar. Yurupary, el Hijo de las Pléyades que Fundo una Nación en el Vaupés: Breve Estudio Comparado. Bogotá, 2003.

Stephen Hugh-Jones (1987)

Revised Bibliography