Mysteries of the Jaguar Shamans

Mysteries of the Jaguar Shamans of the Northwest Amazon tells the life story of Mandu da Silva, the last living jaguar shaman among the Baniwa people in the northwest Amazon. In this original and engaging work, Robin M. Wright, who has known and worked with da Silva for more than thirty years, weaves the story of da Silva’s life together with the Baniwa’s society, history, mythology, cosmology, and jaguar shaman traditions. The jaguar shamans are key players in what Wright calls “a nexus of religious power and knowledge” in which healers, sorcerers, priestly chanters, and dance-leaders exercise complementary functions that link living specialists with the deities and great spirits of the cosmos. By exploring in depth the apprenticeship of the shaman, Wright shows how jaguar shamans acquire the knowledge and power of the deities in several stages of instruction and practice.

This volume is the first mapping of the sacred geography (“mythscape”) of the Northern Arawak-speaking people of the northwest Amazon, demonstrating direct connections between petroglyphs and other inscriptions and Baniwa sacred narratives as a whole. In eloquent and inviting analytic prose, Wright links biographic and ethnographic elements in elevating anthropological writing to a new standard of theoretically aware storytelling and analytic power.

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In Darkness and Secrecy

In Darkness and Secrecy brings together ethnographic examinations of Amazonian assault sorcery, witchcraft, and injurious magic, or “dark shamanism”. Anthropological reflections on South American shamanism have tended to emphasize shamans’ healing powers and positive influence. This collection challenges that assumption by showing that dark shamans are, in many Amazonian cultures, quite different from shamanic healers and prophets. Assault sorcery, in particular, involves violence resulting in physical harm or even death. While highlighting the distinctiveness of such practices, In Darkness and Secrecy reveals them as no less relevant to the continuation of culture and society than curing and prophecy. The contributors suggest that the persistence of dark shamanism can be understood as a form of engagement with modernity.

These essays, by leading anthropologists of South American shamanism, consider assault sorcery as it is practiced in parts of Brazil, Guyana, Venezuela, and Peru. They analyze the social and political dynamics of witchcraft and sorcery and their relation to cosmology, mythology, ritual, and other forms of symbolic violence and aggression in each society studied. They also discuss the relations of witchcraft and sorcery to interethnic contact and the ways that shamanic power may be co-opted by the state. In Darkness and Secrecy includes reflections on the ethical and practical implications of ethnographic investigation of violent cultural practices.

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Cosmos, Self and History in Baniwa Religion

The Baniwa Indians of the Northwest Amazon have engaged in millenarian movements since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. The defining characteristic of these movements is usually a prophecy of the end of this present world and the restoration of the primordial, utopian world of creation. This prophetic message, delivered by powerful shamans, has its roots in Baniwa myths of origin and creation.

In this ethnography of Baniwa religion, Robin M. Wright explores the myths of creation and how they have been embodied in religious movements and social action-particularly in a widespread conversion to evangelical Christianity. He opens with a discussion of cosmogony, cosmology, and shamanism, and then goes on to explain how Baniwa origin myths have played an active role in shaping both personal and community identity and history. He also explores the concepts of death and eschatology and shows how the mythology of destruction and renewal in Baniwa religion has made the Baniwa people receptive to both Catholic and Protestant missionaries.

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Native Christians

“Native Christians” reflects on the modes and effects of Christianity among indigenous peoples of the Americas drawing on comparative analysis of ethnographic and historical cases. Christianity in this region has been part of the process of conquest and domination, through the association usually made between civilizing and converting. While Catholic missions have emphasized the ‘civilizing’ process, teaching the Indians the skills which they were expected to exercise within the context of a new societal model, the Protestants have centered their work on promoting a deep internal change, or ‘conversion’, based on the recognition of God’s existence.Various ethnologists and scholars of indigenous societies have focused their interest on understanding the nature of the transformations produced by the adoption of Christianity.

The contributors in this volume take native thought as the starting point, looking at the need to relativise these transformations. Each author examines different ethnographic cases throughout the Americas, both historical and contemporary, enabling the reader to understand the indigenous points of view in the processes of adoption and transformation of new practices, objects, ideas and values.

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