The Yanomami comprise a society of hunter-agriculturists of the tropical rainforest of Northern Amazonia, whose contact with non-indigenous society over the most part of their territory has been relatively recent. Their territory covers an area of approximately 192,000 km2, located on both sides of the border between Brazil and Venezuela, in the Orinoco-Amazon interfluvial region (affluents of the right shore of the Rio Branco and left shore of the Rio Negro). They make up a culturo-linguistic group composed of at least four adjacent subgroups who speak languages of the same family (Yanomae, Yanõmami, Sanima and Ninam).
The total population of the Yanomami in Brazil and Venezuela is today estimated to be around 26,000 people. In Brazil, the Yanomami population numbers 12,795 people, split into 228 communities (National Health Foundation Census 1999). The Yanomami Indigenous Territory, which covers 9,664,975 ha (96,650 km2) of tropical forest is recognized for its importance in terms of protecting Amazonia’s biodiversity and was ratified by Presidential decree on 25th May 1992.
The Xapiripë Spirits
The initiation of shamans is painful and ecstatic. During initiation, which involves inhaling the hallucinogenic powder yãkõana (the resin or inner bark fragments of the Virola spp. tree, dried and pulverized) for many days under the supervision of older shamans, they learn to ‘see/recognize’ the xapiripë spirits and respond to their calls.
The xapiripë are seen in the form of humanoid miniatures decorated with colorful and brilliant ceremonial ornaments. Their presentation dance is compared to the noisy and exuberant arrival of richly decorated invited groups during an intercommunity reahu festival. Above all, these spirits are shamanic ‘images’ (utupë) of forest entities. There exist xapiripë of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, lizards, turtles, crustaceans and insects. There are also spirits of various trees, leaf spirits, vine spirits, wild honey spirits, water, stone and waterfall spirits. Many are also ‘images’ of cosmic entities (moon, sun, storm, thunder, lightning) and mythological personae. There also exist humble household xapiripë, such as the dog spirit, the fire spirit or the clay pot spirit. Finally, there are the spirits of ‘whites’ (the napënapëripë, activated through symbolic homeopathy to combat epidemics) and their domesticated animals (chicken, cattle, horse).
The Shamans’ Work
Once initiated, the Yanomami shamans can summon the xapiripë to themselves in order for these to act as auxiliary spirits. This power of knowledge/vision and communication with the world of ‘vital images/essences’ (utupë) makes the shamans the pillars of Yanomami society. A shield against the malefic powers deriving from humans and non-humans that threaten the life of members of their communities, they are also tireless negotiators and warriors of the invisible, dedicated to taming the entities and forces that move the cosmological order.
They control the fury of the thunder and winds brought by storms, the regularity of the alternation between day and night, dry season and rainy season, the abundance of game and the fertility of swiddens; they keep up the arch of the sky to prevent its falling (the present earth is an ancient fallen sky), repel the forest’s supernatural predators, counter-attack the raids made by aggressive spirits of enemy shamans, and primarily cure the sick, victims of human malevolence (sorcery, aggressive shamanism, attacks on animal doubles) or non-human malevolence (coming from the malefic në waripë beings).
Seeing the xapiripë spirits: To conduct their sessions, shamans inhale yãkõana powder, considered the food of spirits. Under its effect, they are said to ‘die:’ they enter a state of visionary trance during which they ‘summon’ to themselves and ‘lower’ various auxiliary spirits, with whom they then identify themselves, imitating the choreographies and songs of each one as they become active in the shamanic process (the shamans are designated xapiri thëpë, ‘spirit people’, while shamanry is called xapirimu, ‘to act as a spirit’). Thus, when ‘their eyes die,’ shamans acquire a vision/power that, in contrast to the illusory perception of ‘common people’ (kua përa thëpë), gives them access to the essence of phenomena and to the time of their origins, and therefore the capacity to alter their course.