From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil


Photos: various authors, see here

by Pedro de Niemeyer Cesarino, 2009

‘Shamanism’ is not something one can reduce to a univocal definition or explanation. Religion, belief, ritual, system of thought, ontology, world configuration: these are just some of the polemical categories that come to mind when we begin to discuss the topic. Generic and misunderstood, the term is employed to designate one of humanity’s most ancient ritual systems, shared by peoples spanning from Asia to the far south of the Americas. ‘Shaman’ apparently derives from the word šamán, used by the Siberian Evenki to designate their ritual specialists. The word is analogous to the Brazilian Portuguese term ‘pajé,’ itself derived from Tupi-Guarani languages where the word is likewise used to refer to such specialists. All Amerindian language across the three continents possess equivalent terms.

Shamanism therefore constitutes a common basis to the original peoples of Asia and the Americas, reflecting the fact that the latter continents were occupied by successive migrations from the former. More ancient, shamanism was superimposed by large religions like Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam. Something similar happens in Brazil where indigenous shamanisms come face-to-face with the Catholic or Protestant faiths. In fact this is a good means of understanding one of the phenomenon’s essential traits: shamanism does not always vanish when confronted by large religious systems. Perhaps since it cannot be comprehended as a ‘religion’ as such, it ends up infiltrating, subverting or surviving the attempts at conversion that, in Brazil for instance, have been pursued since the European invasion.

We are dealing, after all, with a particular organization or configuration of the world without any established dogma, set of doctrines, sacred writing, fixed liturgy, body of priests organized around the State or, more importantly, faith in a single deity. Hence shamanism cannot really be defined as a belief. Such absences are especially valid for the indigenous peoples of the South American lowlands, in other words, for those peoples who did not live under the control of state organizations, such as the Inca empire. The mediation performed by Amazonian shamans is more akin to diplomacy, a form of translating and of connecting living humans to the multitude of spirits, the souls of the dead and animals, that populate indigenous cosmologies. In the latter there are no gods as such who embody or have the power to control natural phenomena or for whom temples are built and sacrifices offered (as once found among the Aztecs or Mayans). The entities with which indigenous shamans relate are of another kind. Rather than dispatching a sacrificial victim as an intermediary between gods and humans, shamans travel in person to encounter the spirits and other subjects inhabiting their worlds.

Shaman-less shamanism

Indeed rather than being focused on defined positions, as in the case of priests, shamanism concentrates on processes of transformation and transportation to the dwellings of these other entities. Not by chance, some indigenous societies, like the Parakanã of the Xingu, possess a shaman-less shamanism. In the absence of specific ritual specialists, common people are the ones to encounter people in their dreams and bring back songs to be performed later in the village when the dreamer is awake. It is as though everyone is a little bit shamanic and can, in their own way, make contact with the multitude of invisible entities. A shaman may also suddenly emerge: in a moment of crisis, usually involving a serious illness, a person may begin to establish contact with ‘other people’ who renew his body, replace his blood, introduce magical elements in his flesh and teach him songs. The person is said to have ‘shamanized,’ transformed into another person. From now on he will have ‘another eye’ capable of seeing what is invisible to common people (at least while awake).

All these phenomena are related to the basic composition of the person in indigenous cosmologies. There is always a division between the body and at least two souls or doubles – one that is transformed into a ghost or spectre after death, and another that has a special destiny, celestial in many cases. However, the body is not a physiological substrate in the way western medicine imagines it, but a kind of wrapping, an envelope, skin or clothing that shelters the souls of human appearance. In liminal states such as dreams and illnesses or those induced by the ingestion of psychoactive substances, the soul leaves the person’s body/clothing and wanders freely. On its travels it encounters other villages, spirits, men and women who the eyes ‘of the body’ are unable to see. And it is here that myth and shamanism become intertwined.

What is a myth?

In an interview Claude Lévi-Strauss was asked the following question: “What is a myth?” The anthropologist replied: “‘If you were to ask an American Indian it is extremely likely that he would answer: it is a story from the time when humans and animals were still indistinguishable. This definition seems to me to be very profound.”1 Amerindian mythic narratives are centred on this theme: they depict a time when the general image of the cosmos was ‘human,’ all species shared a generic human form, until some event ruptured this primal state, implanting limits, differences and the problem of invisibility. From then on the animals, frequently due to some error committed during these mythic times, acquired the bodies/clothing of jaguars, tapirs, peccaries or so on, but continued with the same human soul they had always possessed. Humans, for their part, are the only ones whose body remains similar to this generic soul, still shared by all the entities making up the realm we call ‘nature.’ Here we can turn to the words of Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa:

“At the beginning of time when our ancestors had not yet transformed into other, we were all human: the macaws, tapirs, peccaries, they were all human. Afterwards these animal ancestors transformed into game. For them, though, we remain the same, we are animals too; we’re the game that lives in houses, while they are inhabitants of the forest. But we, those who remained, we eat them, and they find us terrifying because of our hunger for their flesh.”2

Yet the mythic times are not yet over. For indigenous peoples they continue suspended or parallel to the present. Many animals think of themselves as people, while we see them in their animal bodies/clothing. When a person’s double or soul leaves the body, it can see what was previously hidden: the subaquatic villages and their festivals; the humanoid double or soil of a macaw; a tree that, to altered eyes, reveals itself as a society since the parakeets may conceive of themselves as people and thus as inhabitants of malocas too.

The anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro formulated this problem through an interesting contrast: indigenous worlds are multinaturalist, they conceive of a multiplicity of natures (the different bodies of the animals) and a unity of culture (the human culture shared by every species). The western world, by contrast, is multiculturalist, imagining a multiplicity of cultures (Chinese, French, etc.) and a single nature. In this conception, animals are radically distinct from humans since they lack a thinking soul analogous to our own and, therefore, a culture. They are like us, though, since they are mammals that share a common nature. Indigenous thought presumes the exact opposite: animals are like us because they conceive of themselves as people and therefore possess a culture (malocas, hammocks, festivals, body painting, headdresses and adornments) similar to what is visible in the villages. But their bodies are other.

And shamanism?

All of this is shamanism, this special constitution of reality and cosmological ethics. Shamans – diplomats or translators as the anthropologist Manuela Carneiro da Cunha suggests – are the people responsible for the risky travelling of souls outside of bodies. When sick, for example, a common man may see the anaconda-people in their houses (which if well he would see as the river) and be seduced by a beautiful anaconda-woman. If this happens, he begins to live there with his underwater family without realizing that, in the other village, his body is debilitating and his condition is worrying his ‘human’ family. He is sick because he is incomplete or empty, since the soul or double is elsewhere with the new anaconda-woman. A shaman must therefore bring the soul back to his body and thereby solve this social problem spread through the cosmos. Situations like this occur frequently in indigenous villages. The shaman is accustomed to these travels. He is already another person; he may have a family with the other-humans, living always between two reference points, journeying among the animal people, the spirits or the souls of the dead. He typically brings back news through his songs and thereby integrates the enormous contingent of invisible entities into the everyday life of the villages. Not coincidentally, some Amazonian Indians say that the shaman “is like a radio.”

One of the biggest mistakes is to imagine that shamanism is a kind of mystic new age religion, or a tradition doomed to disappear in the wake of social transformations and the problematic idea of acculturation. Shamanism – this network or grid of connections between animated principles that live behind visible bodies – is something inherently creative and directed towards alterity. Skilled negotiators of the social multiplicities present since mythic times, shamans know how to translate the news from our world into their own terms. The Maxakali are emblematic of this prowess. Confined in a small area of Minas Gerais now reduced to grassland, deprived of game and access to the landscape in which they once lived, they nonetheless possess an intense and fascinating ritual repertoire. Tuned in, during one festival they made a clay mobile phone, used to communicate with the otter spirits.3


  1. Lévi-Strauss, Claude & Eribon, Didier. De perto e de longe – entrevista com Claude Lévi-Strauss. Rio de Janeiro, Nova Fronteira, 1988.
  1. Kopenawa apud Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. "A floresta de cristal". Cadernos de Campo 14/15, 1998, pp. 319-338.
  1. Imagens do filme Hemex e Xunin, Terra Indígena do Pradinho, 2005 (acervo de Rosângela de Tugny).