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The Culture of Invention in the Americas Anthropological experiments with Roy Wagner

Pedro Pitarch & José Antonio Kelly

The Culture of Invention in the Americas

First published in 2018 by Sean Kingston Publishing Canon Pyon Editorial selection, introduction © 2018 Pedro Pitarch and José Antonio Kelly Individual chapters © 2018 Marcio Goldman, Martin Holbraad, Marianna Keisalo, José Antonio Kelly, Sergio Lopez, Roger Magazine, Chloe Nahum-Claudel, Johannes Neurath, Pedro Pitarch, Alessandro Questa, Lydia Rodriguez, Marcela Coelho de Souza and Roy Wagner All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the written permission of Sean Kingston Publishing. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. The moral rights of the authors have been asserted. Cover image by ‘Nyla’, Cristina Cedillo Ruiz, and inspired by Roy Wagner’s ‘cat/no cat’.

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ISBN 978-1-912385-02-7

The Culture of Invention in the Americas  Anthropological Experiments with Roy Wagner

Edited by Pedro Pitarch & José Antonio Kelly

Sean Kingston Publishing Canon Pyon

This book is a celebration of Roy Wagner’s life work. We know he was very eager to see the final results, but unfortunately this was not meant to be. Roy passed away on the 10th of September 2018, a little before publication. Given the now posthumous character of this commemorative volume, we sincerely hope the chapters here collected serve as a tribute to Roy's intellectual brilliance and stamina, and above all, generosity, which all of those who knew him found so special. Roy was one of our discipline's most innovative and inspiring thinkers, and his combination of academic rigour with humour and poetic flare gave him a style all of his own. May the legacy of this anthropological shaman live on.

Contents List of contributors Introduction José Antonio Kelly and Pedro Pitarch

ix 1

Chapter 1

Blood, initiation, and participation 31 What is given and what is made in Afro-Brazilian religions Marcio Goldman

Chapter 2

How myths make men in Afro-Cuban divination Martin Holbraad

Chapter 3

The domestication of the abstract soul 73 Pedro Pitarch

Chapter 4

Invented gifts, given exchange The recursive anthropology of Huichol modernity Johannes Neurath

Chapter 5

Child-snatchers and head-choppers A highland Meso-American reverse anthropology Roger Magazine




Chapter 6 Invention, convention and clowning Symbolic obviation and dialectical mediation in the Yaqui Easter ritual Marianna Keisalo


Chapter 7 Visible dancers and invisible hunters Divination and masking among Masewal people, in the northern highlands of Puebla, Mexico Alessandro Questa


Chapter 8


The crossroads of time Lydia Rodríguez and Sergio López

vi Chapter 9 Cross-twins and outcestous marriages How kinship (under)determines humanity for the Kĩsêdjê of central Brazil Marcela Coelho de Souza


Chapter 10 The curse of Souw among the Amazonian Enawenê-nawê Chloe Nahum-Claudel


Chapter 11

Figure–ground dialectics in Yanomami, Yekuana and Piaroa myth and shamanism José Antonio Kelly

Chapter 12 Commentary Roy Wagner



c o ntrib u t o rs

Marcio Goldman is Professor at the Postgraduate Program in Social Anthropology, National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro; researcher for the Brazilian National Council of Research (CNPq); and a funded scholar at the Rio de Janeiro Foundation of Support for Research (Faperj) and the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES). Recent books include Some Anthropology (1999); and How Democracy Works: An Ethnographic Theory of Politics (Sean Kingston Publishing, 2013) and Some More Anthropology (2016). Martin Holbraad is Professor of Social Anthropology at UCL. His main field research is in Cuba, where he focuses on Afro-Cuban religions and revolutionary politics. At present he directs a 5-year ERC-funded research project on the anthropology of revolutionary politics. Recent books include Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination (2012), Framing Cosmologies: The Anthropology of Worlds (2014) and The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition (co-author, 2016). Marianna Keisalo has worked as a post-doctoral research fellow at Aarhus University and as a University Lecturer in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Helsinki. Her work is focused on the semiotics of comedic performance. She has conducted field work in Sonora, Mexico studying Yaqui ritual clowning and in Finland studying stand-up comedy. José Antonio Kelly is Assistant Professor at the Univeridade Federal de Santa Catarina (Brazil). He has done fieldwork among the Yanomami people in Venezuela since 2000, focusing on the political anthropology of health, and published State Healthcare and Yanomami Transformations: A Symmetrical Ethnography (2011). Sergio Lopez is Assistant Professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam. He is the President of the Network of Iberoamerican Anthropologists, and managing director of AIBR, Journal of Iberoamerican Anthropology. He has conducted fieldwork in Chol Mayan indigenous communities since 2006, and in international corporations since 2004. Recent publications include Antropología de la Empresa (2016).



Roger Magazine is Professor of Social Anthropology at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.  He was a student of Roy Wagner as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia in the late 1980s.  His work has focused on football supporters and street children in urban areas and on local notions of personhood, sociality and ethnicity in rural Mexico. Chloe Nahum-Claudel is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow at the London School of Economics. Between 2006 and 2013 she conducted fieldwork with the Enawenê-nawê in Brazil’s Mato Grosso State. Since 2015 she has been pursuing a project on witchcraft in rural Simbu Province, Papua New Guinea. Recent publications include Vital Diplomacy: The Ritual Everyday on a Dammed River in Amazonia (2018). Johannes Neurath is a researcher at the Museo Nacional de Antropología and Lecturer at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico. He has done fieldwork among the Huichol and Cora peoples since 1992. His most recent book is La vida de las imágenes: Arte Huichol (2013). Pedro Pitarch is Professor of Anthropology at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. For the last 30 years he has carried out research among the Maya of Chiapas, Mexico, focused on cosmology, personhood and shamanism. Recent publications include The Jaguar and the Priest. An Ethnography of Tzeltal Souls, with a foreword by Roy Wagner (2010). Alessandro Questa is Professor in Social Anthropology at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. He recently received his PhD from the University of Virginia under the supervision of Roy Wagner. He has studied different indigenous communities in Mexico for over two decades. In recent years, he has been interested in the relations between ritual and environmental concerns among Masewal people in the highlands of Puebla, Mexico. Lydia Rodriguez is Assistant Professor of Linguistic Anthropology at the State University of New York at Potsdam. She worked with Roy Wagner at the University of Virginia for five years. She has conducted research with speakers of Chol Mayan in Chiapas, Mexico, since 2006. Marcela Coelho de Souza is Lecturer of Social Anthropology at the Universidade de Brasilia (Brazil). She has worked extensively among Gê indigenous peoples in central Brazil on a variety of subjects including kinship, indigenous knowledge systems, intangible cultural heritage and



intellectual property. She is co-author of Conhecimento e Cultura: práticas de transformação no mundo indígena (2010). Roy Wagner was a professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Virginia for the last forty years. His ethnographic work with Daribi and Barok peoples in Papua New Guinea and New Ireland, respectively, forms the base for his vast body of publications, comprising nine books, as well as many articles, on topics ranging from kinship and mythology to poststructural anthropology, ethnographic methodology and trickery, and fiction. Some of this work serves as the inspiration and guiding line of enquiry for this book.

Introduction  José Antonio Kelly and Pedro Pitarch

This book honours the work of one of anthropology’s most innovative thinkers, Roy Wagner, by showing the potential of his wide-ranging oeuvre in the anthropology made in and about the Americas. The chapters collected in this book were originally presented at a seminar entitled ‘The Culture of Invention in the Americas’, held in Trujillo, Spain, in 2013. The seminar brought together a number of anthropologists, from young graduates students to established professors trained and active in very different anthropological schools: Britain, Mexico, Spain, the United States, Finland and Brazil. This diversity renders no canonical or unified reading of Wagnerian anthropology, and it could not be otherwise lest we betray the spirit of Wagner’s work, which, in the manner of the mythical corpus of a people, offers a differentiating array of poignant commentary on social life, and an exploration in human imagination; less a creed or doctrine than a basis for improvisation – as Wagner himself characterized Daribi religion (Wagner 1972). In different chapters, the book puts the full range of Wagner’s concepts in relation to ethnographies of indigenous American peoples (specifically peoples of Mexico and Lowland South America) and Afro-American peoples (of Brazil and Cuba). The connection between often hard-to-comprehend concepts and detailed ethnography brings new light, both to the understanding of ritual, kinship and myth among these peoples, and to Wagner’s theoretical contribution. Our authors’ engagement with Wagner’s work ranges from his first monograph, The Curse of Souw (Wagner 1967), through to his most recent poetic-theoretical work, Coyote Anthropology (Wagner 2010). Even some


José Antonio Kelly and Pedro Pitarch

unpublished material is insightfully put to use. In this way, the chapters gathered here converse both with Wagner’s more systematic and sustained theoretical propositions such as the ‘dialectics of invention and convention’ (Wagner 1981), ‘figure–ground reversal’ (Wagner 1986a) and ‘symbolic obviation’ (Wagner 1978), as well as with his more recent ideas such as ‘antitwinning’ (Wagner 2001) and ‘expersonation’ (Wagner 2010). That Roy Wagner’s work was of seminal importance to innovations in the anthropology of Melanesia during the 1980s is well known – he is perhaps the key author to be credited with what came to be known as the ‘new Melanesian ethnography’ (Josephides 1991). Much less known is the extent to which Wagner’s ideas have been applied in the anthropology of the Americas. This is mainly because Wagner’s influence in this ethnographic region – itself not a unified study area – is a much more recent phenomena. This collection of essays is the first attempt to acknowledge the recovery of Wagnerian anthropology and to show its fertility in Americanist anthropology.1 As such, it is worth noting the ways in which this contributes to different regional studies. To begin with, this is first time that the potential of Wagnerian anthropology for Afro-American religious studies is explored. Two of the chapters (by Goldman, and Holbraad) engage with Wagner’s ideas to bring about original insights into the understanding of Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban religious practice. This should not surprise us. So-called Afro-American studies have always been marked by an opposition between the first and second terms of the hyphenated expression – between the search for a traditional and always preserved ‘culture’, and the insistence on ‘invention’ of new forms and strategies. In this closed scenario, the Wagnerian dialectics between convention and variation could not but bring a breath of fresh air. Moreover, notions such as the ‘fractal person’ (Wagner 1991) and his hypotheses such as the creative character of cultures (Wagner 1981) could not leave unaltered the way in which the notion of the person and the constructivism of religions of African origin are understood. Secondly, this is also the first time that Wagner’s influence on the study of indigenous peoples in Mexico is made so forcibly explicit. Six chapters (by Pitarch, Neurath, Magazine, Keisalo, Questa, and Rodríguez and López) apply 1

Being ethnographically restricted to indigenous and Afro-American peoples in the Americas on the one hand, and exploring the full range of Wagner’s work on the other, this collection contrasts with, and expands on, the special issue of the journal Social Analysis organized by David Murray and Joel Robbins (2002) to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original publication of Wagner’s The Invention of Culture.



different aspects of Wagner’s work to ethnographic accounts of the Yaqui, Huichol, Nawa and Maya. Considering the traditionally particularistic and historicist character of Meso-American anthropology, applying Wagner’s concepts to this area represents an ethnographic and conceptual experiment. The types of problems that emerge from Wagner’s work on Melanesia illuminate aspects of Mexican indigenous cultures in an unexpected way, highlighting partial connections among Meso-American groups, as well as with regions such as Amazonia and Melanesia. Thirdly, three of the chapters (by Coelho de Souza, Nahum-Claudel, and Kelly) continue exploring the usefulness of several Wagnerian concepts for the study of Amazonian peoples in ways that extend and renew the already acknowledged kinship between Melanesianist and Amazonianist anthropology (see e.g. Kelly 2001; Strathern 1999; Gregor and Tuzin 2001). While there are a few important articles that draw on Wagnerian anthropology for the formulation of theoretical approaches to Amerindian ethnographic problems (e.g. Viveiros de Castro 2001, 2013), individual ethnographies that put Wagnerian anthropology to use are harder to locate (see e.g. Kelly 2011; Pitarch 2010), its influence most present in a number of recent master’s and doctoral dissertations written in Brazil. Roy Wagner has become the object of a small cult of dedicated readers despite the fact that his anthropology seems to have little impact on current theoretical debates – with the exception of recent literature on the ontological turn in anthropology. Currently considered either an expression of a bygone ‘phase’ in symbolic anthropology or a bit of a freak, mainstream anthropology in places like the United States and England would consider his work outdated. But from the perspective of Brazil and Mexico, things look different. In Brazil, and in the particular case of Amazonianist anthropology, Wagner’s work was brought to our attention and made relevant to a series of issues by the influential anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. Perhaps the most evident connection between the two authors’ work is to be found in Viveiros de Castro’s theory of Amerindian perspectivism, and Wagner’s theory of symbolism expounded in The Invention of Culture (Wagner 1981). Consequently, Wagner’s work is today studied in Brazil in most postgraduate programmes in the context of contemporary anthropological debates. As a consequence, The Invention of Culture was translated by Brazilian initiative into Portuguese in 2010. In Mexico, there has been a recent but intense upsurge of interest in Wagner’s ideas, especially in the work of Pedro Pitarch, Johannes Neurath and Roger Magazine. Although Wagner’s books have yet to be translated into Spanish, his works are currently required texts in various programmes in anthropology, and a new generation of anthropologists who are now


José Antonio Kelly and Pedro Pitarch

writing their doctoral theses utilize Wagnerian concepts. Alongside his recent influence on the ethnography of Mexico, Wagner himself has recently written on Meso-American cultures, especially pre-Columbian civilizations (Wagner 2013). As a result, we have a handful of illuminating insights, such as a reinterpretation of the workings of the Mayan calendar (Rodríguez and López, this volume).

Some essential Wagnerian concepts

Any attempt to summarize Wagner’s theoretical import is a risky enterprise. Beginning with ethnographic descriptions and analysis of the Daribi people of Papua New Guinea, Wagner’s work seems to slide along a gradient, from explanation to metaphor, as communicative technique. A shift from ethnography to theory is also evident, as is the increasing role of humour, irony and poetry. The clarity of exposition of native categories relating to social organization and religion found in his books, from The Invention of Culture (Wagner 1981) onwards, is substituted by increasingly metaphorical means of making his points. To many this may seem purposeful obscurity, making things overly complex or just a matter of style. But it seems there is method to this madness, for the metaphoric means of pedagogy is rigour of a certain kind: that which seeks to communicate about other peoples in form as well as content. This difficulty notwithstanding, and given that many of this volume’s authors take some basic elements of Wagnerian anthropology for granted, we now outline some of his most long-lasting concepts and methodological principles for the unacquainted reader. We begin with a brief account of what could be called the ‘early Wagner’, that is, his first works, and those where the main elements of his thought appear and develop. These are also the more conventionally pedagogic works of his oeuvre. Next we present some of Wagner’s most recent work, some of which remains unpublished, where the aforementioned shift in narrative style is most evident, as is the broadening of Wagner’s topics of interest, particularly in the area of Meso-American anthropology. This also includes Wagner’s long-lasting interest in the writings of Carlos Castaneda. The Curse of Souw (Wagner 1967) is a monograph based on Wagner’s first field experience among the Daribi of mainland Papua New Guinea. It is a book about kinship and social organization, classic subjects of British social anthropology, written by someone raised in the American cultural tradition, a mixture that yields a fertile and fresh understanding of established topics. At least three of Wagner’s most durable ideas can be traced to this early book. First, exchange of gendered wealth items are understood by Daribi not as connecting pre-existing clans, as standard alliance theory would suggest,



but rather as means to cancel or redeem claims made by maternal relatives over a sister’s offspring on the grounds of innate bonds of blood. This was perhaps the first clear statement of a socio-cosmological regime where people and many other agents in the world are presumed to be innately connected by shared similarity, and that human social action must then be devoted to cutting or countering these connections, or otherwise appropriately directing flows of similarity. That relations may be a matter of separating what is already connected is counter-intuitive for Euro-American kinship and sociology, which presumes persons are prior to the social connections they must actively make. In another famous article, Wagner (1974) showed how the complexity and ultimate failure of studies of social organization bent on finding corporate social groups in the New Guinea Highlands was, in essence, due to analysts remaining oblivious to this inversion between native and Western assumptions about persons and relations. Second, Wagner tells us that in Daribi understanding it is only consanguinity that ‘relates’, and that it is exchange and reciprocity that ‘opposes relationships’. Consanguinity is a principle that extends relations, whilst exchange is the principle that restricts these same relations, and in doing so instantiates ‘groups’. Basically, cognatic relations are recast as interactions between lineally constituted groups. The interaction between these two principles, at the heart of kinship and wider social organization, is dialectical, for it involves contradictory yet interdependent principles; they are processes that work against each other but that are nonetheless complementary. In the long run, this interaction generates cycles of kin-making and unmaking, and of clan definition, dissolution and reconstitution, in a larger-scaled dialectical process. This kind of ‘dialectic without synthesis’, with mutually negating principles or effects supporting each other, where each is what the other acts upon in recursive fashion, is at the heart of Wagner’s semiotic theory (see Wagner 1981) and the derivate method of ‘obviational’ analysis applicable to myth (see Wagner 1978), as well as kinship and historical change (see Wagner 1986a). Third, Wagner concludes The Curse of Souw with a long comparative commentary on natives and anthropologists as both users of symbols and builders of models, the only difference being the ends to which such symbols and models are put. It could be said this is the first sketch of what Wagner would synthetically call ‘reverse anthropology’ (Wagner 1981) and of the methodological premise that dissolves any epistemological hierarchy between anthropologist and native where the latter can only provide ‘data’ for the former to do the explaining and the ‘theory’. In his second monograph, Habu: The Innovation of Meaning in Daribi Religion (Wagner 1972), Wagner begins to lay out the semiotic theory that is later completed in The Invention of Culture


José Antonio Kelly and Pedro Pitarch

(Wagner 1981). The focus here is on metaphor and innovation, stressing their necessity as means of keeping meaning meaningful, as it were. Here, one of the marks of Wagner’s semiotics becomes clear: the important opposition in his theory between metaphor, by which Wagner means any form of trope in which one thing or word stands for another, and lexical denotation. The latter can only signify tautologically, whilst the former is necessary for the creation of non-tautological meaning. Metaphor extends the symbols of a culture establishing new relations of both contrast and analogy between previously unconnected elements. The crux of this distinction is that, ‘[a] lexical “coding” signifies an isolated element, but a metaphor signifies a relation’ (Wagner 1972:5). Later, in The Invention of Culture, Wagner will call these metaphorical extensions ‘symbols that stand for themselves’ or ‘differentiating symbols’ precisely because, instead of pointing to a referent, a metaphor signifies only the new relation it has just struck. Introducing symbol and referent at the same time, it affects the collapse of the symbol/referent distinction with which we normally think of symbols. As Wagner further develops his theory he will talk about how sets of metaphors in a culture will either be mutually complementary or contradictory, entering in a dialectical relation of innovation, which is how a culture keeps its symbols ‘charged’ and compelling. There are two corollaries of these propositions: first, thinking of culture as the process of extending analogies, and thus much more to do with change and transformation than with stasis and reproduction; and second, thinking of innovation as the expressive or differentiating aspect of any act, thought or phrase, however habitual or markedly novel. The Invention of Culture (Wagner 1981) is Wagner’s most renowned book. More theoretical than ethnographic, it complements his theory of metaphor and lays out what could be called an ontology of symbols and the attendant consequences for the practice of anthropology. A series of additions to the ‘Habu model’ must be introduced in The Invention of Culture to reach a more comprehensive theory. First, Wagner defines a more clear distinction between conventional and differentiating modes of symbolization. The first mode is responsible for introducing the opposition between symbol and referent and of ‘bestowing order’ and ‘rational integration’ upon disparate elements of the latter. Differentiating symbolization collapses the previous distinction, undoes the separation between subject and object and has a particularizing or individuating effect. This is the innovatory symbolic mode described in Habu (Wagner 1972) and now linked to ‘invention’. Conventional symbols collectivize: all that aids in the recognition of something as an instance of a category pertains to, or is the result of, convention. Differentiating symbols



particularize: all that accounts for expressiveness and specificity of an action pertains to, or is the result of, invention. Second, these modes of symbolization interact dialectically. Conventional and differentiating modes of symbolization are mobilized in any and all action, and are at the same time supportive of, and against, each other. Convention and invention work through each other’s meshes, and in the process the conventional is particularized – think of a national constitution that in time becomes a myriad of laws, decrees and clauses; and the particular is conventionalized – think of the standardization of once novel linguistic expressions. Third, it follows that there is no one-sided symbol that ‘refers’ or ‘points to’ a given external reality, only different symbolic modes mutually impinging on one another. The symbolizer, the one who acts, must ‘mask’ their active role in creating both what they see as a product of their action and what they consider their internal motivation, external necessity to act or that which they are acting upon. Something must be invented as what we are doing, and in doing so, something is ‘counter-invented’ as what is innate or given. The core of any and every set of cultural conventions is a simple distinction as to what kind of contexts, the non-conventionalized ones or those of convention itself, are to be deliberately articulated in the course of human action, and what kind of contexts are to be counter-invented as ‘motivation’ under the conventional mask of ‘the given’ or ‘the innate’. Of course, for any given set of conventions, be it that of a tribe, community, ‘culture’ or social class, there are only two possibilities: a people who deliberately differentiate as the form of their action will invariably counter-invent a motivating collectivity as ‘innate’, and a people who deliberately collectivize will counter-invent a motivating differentiation in this way. As contrasting modes of thought, perception, and action, there is all the difference in the world between these two. Urban, middle classes socialized in the Euro-American tradition tend to think of the conventions of their culture as products of human action and correspondingly see the ‘world of natural incident’ as innate or given. This is pretty much how anthropology has traditionally thought of culture and nature, and it is the basis of a multicultural or social-constructivist world view. Tribal and peasant peoples like the Daribi assign their conventions to the innate and are motivated to differentiate or deliberately create the incidental and particular. As this binarism might appear obsolete, it is worth noting that Wagner does not deploy these distinctions in either an absolute or an evolutionist manner, but rather in a sophisticated way that threads everyday symbolic action – common to all peoples – with more overarching meta-ideological


José Antonio Kelly and Pedro Pitarch

commitments distinguishing the ways of inhabiting the world of, say, Amerindians on the one hand, and the colonial and postcolonial agents of the encroaching societies they have historically related to on the other. Moreover, all cultures, be they predominantly collectivizing or differentiating, have specific people and moments that invert their conventional orientation as a necessary means of ‘recharging’ their symbols. This semiotic theory has some serious implications for anthropological practice that are dealt with in the opening and closing chapters of the book. If at the semiotic level we can no longer speak of ‘symbol’ and ‘reality’, neither can we think of anthropological discourse as organizing or ‘imposing rational integration’ in the fashion of conventional symbolization, upon natives’ discourse, as if it were mere reference or raw data (see Viveiros de Castro 2013). Anthropology must then reflexively become aware that its reality (nature) is part of its invention, not just culture. Put otherwise, anthropological relativity is not a principle limited to things cultural. If we are to avoid describing other peoples’ creativity as mere replicas or variations of our own, relativity is pertinent to nature as well, and we must come to terms with the fact that people invent the whole of their realities not just a (cultural) part of it. Reverse anthropology, another of Wagner’s concepts that recurs in several of the chapters in this volume, is not just a matter of adding an ‘ethno’ suffix to the categories we are familiar with, like science and history, for this simply reduces other peoples’ creativity to the form of answers to the questions that are important for us. Reverse anthropology cuts through our assumptions trying to uncover other peoples’ questions, and the result yields nothing like our anthropology. In Wagner’s own example, the Melanesian counterparts to our anthropology are their cargo cults: anthropology and cargo metaphorize the same relation in opposite directions. Reverse anthropology illuminates a relation between distinct forms of creativity as opposed to having one (the anthropologist’s) analyse the other (the native’s). Wagner argues in The Invention of Culture and elsewhere (Wagner 1974) that these propositions do not just have theoretical implications, but also ethical and political ones – implied when Wagner talks of anthropologists, missionaries and colonial administration agents in the same breath. Goldman eloquently refers to these implications when he suggests that Wagner’s anthropology provides guidelines to the issue of ‘how to proceed so as to avoid the reproduction, on the plane of the production of anthropological knowledge, of the relations of domination that the peoples with which anthropologists work with are subjected to?’ (Goldman 2011:200). Let us close this summary of Wagner’s early conceptual apparatus with obviation, another notion that abounds in this volume. Symbolic obviation is mentioned in The Invention of Culture but is developed more fully in Lethal



Speech (Wagner 1978). It is a return to a discussion of metaphor, as in Habu (Wagner 1972), though focused this time on Daribi myths and other narrative genres (see Holbraad, this volume). As Wagner himself says: Lethal Speech is ‘about’ obviation, as indeed Habu is about metaphor, and The Invention of Culture, concerned as it is with the relation of these forms to convention, thus becomes the middle term of an unintended trilogy. 

(Wagner 1981:xvi)

At the level of semiotics, obviation is the effect of differentiating symbolization, ‘supplanting a conventional semiotic relation with an innovative and self-contained relation’ (Wagner 1978:31). This we knew from Habu, as Wagner hints: ‘[o]bviation, then, is a metaphor for metaphor, “naming” it by substituting its effect’ (ibid.:32). Obviation turns on the two senses of the term: an analogy will always highlight some connection between distinct elements – making them apparent or ‘obvious’ – but at the cost of other possible connections, the conventional ones, being negated or ‘disposed of ’ – hence also ‘obviated’. In this simplest sense, whenever a new metaphor is introduced in speech, obviation is what draws our attention to an unexpected connection, thereby overlooking conventional contexts. But in Lethal Speech Wagner takes this further, for obviation is also ‘the definitive paradigm of semiotic transformation’ (ibid.:31). These semiotic transformations occur in myths – understood as ‘expanded tropes’ – as sequences of successive obviations where the interaction between the two (conventionalizing and differentiating) semiotic modalities renders ‘a self-containing and self-closing dialectic – or better, perhaps, a dialectic that becomes something’ (ibid.:35). Dispelling any possible idea of his method being only adequate for the analysis of myth, Wagner later deploys it in a reanalysis of Daribi kinship (Wagner 1986a:34– 57).2 Even if she does not cast her analysis in these terms, Nahum-Claudel’s analysis of Enawene-nawe kinship is a good example of an obviational sequence. In this case, a number of gendered exchanges of vital wealth propitiate the reconversion of kinship relations, initiated with the substitution of cognatic for lineal kin ties at betrothal, and followed by a series of relational reconfigurations spanning three generations, to finally reach the point where cognatic connections must be unmade again, beginning the sequence anew. Over the past few years Wagner’s work seems to have taken a partially different tack. We are referring now to Coyote Anthropology (Wagner 2010), but also to some unpublished work that Wagner has very generously shared 2

For other possible applications, see also the chapters by Holbraad and Keisalo (this volume).


José Antonio Kelly and Pedro Pitarch

with us (Wagner 2012, 2014). One of these unpublished works is a synthesis of the undergraduate course on Castaneda and Don Juan that Wagner gives at the University of Virginia, based on the writings of Carlos Castaneda. The second is a reflection about shamanism as a ‘hyper-objective’ phenomenon, that is, a form of non-subjective presence that goes beyond the standards of objectivity. In these works, the basic concepts are, in essence, the same that appear in earlier texts, with the exception of the impersonation/expersonation pair and the idea of ‘hyper-objectivity’.3 The subjects about which Wagner writes have, on the other hand, become more diverse: anti-twins, classical and jazz music – as in Wagner’s discussion about syncopation in his chapter in this volume – physics and cosmology, shamanism, pre-Columbian Meso-American civilizations, poetry, the work of Carlos Castaneda, tonal/nagual, sciencefiction. No doubt some or all of these themes were present in his previous books, but there they functioned as a background, whilst now they seem to have come to the fore; they have become figure (to use one of Wagner’s preferred images). However, as we said earlier, the more noticeable change is in Wagner’s expositional style. Academic argument gives way to a form of expression based on allegorical tales, sonnets of Wagner’s own authorship (there are twenty-one in his latest manuscript), autobiographical details, incidents of his fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, hallucinogenic experiences and, above all, humour. What is Coyote Anthropology if not a long dialogue between one Roy Wagner and his ‘anti-twin’, a coyote that is a trickster? Taken altogether, these texts present arguments without an apparent subject or perceivable order, and for reasons we shall see below, without a cause– effect relation binding them (post hoc ergo propter hoc). The commentaries Wagner offers to the chapters of this volume are a good example of this style of discussion. To think of this form of writing merely as a textual strategy would unnecessarily limit its implications. One has the impression of being faced with an effort to produce another form of anthropology, one built on radically different foundations from those that have sustained it as a scientific discipline since the nineteenth century. A short reference to the unpublished work on the hyper-objectivity of shamanism (Wagner 2014) is helpful to understand how Wagner sees anthropology. Here he opposes shamanism to science (and religion). The scientist manipulates the chains of cause and effect reasoning, ‘like tracing the whole matter and energy event patterning of our universe back in time to an apocryphal Bing Bang’ (ibid.:8). By contrast, the shaman 3 For ethnographic interpretations of impersonation and expersonation, see the chapters by Holbraad and Pitarch (this volume).



manipulates coincidences, ‘things that just happen to happen that way, with the shamans themselves as their catalyst’ (ibid.:8). Our science, Wagner observes, uses analogies based on human attributes and actions such as ‘force’ or ‘attraction’ … and calls them ‘heuristics’, in other words things that are only pretended to be that way to make them more understandable to us. (ibid.:10)

‘Shamanic peoples’, by contrast: drop the pretense, and identify the analogies directly with their natural sources. Thus, instead of objectifying mountain ranges or moving air as geological or meteorological phenomena, Navajo speak of ‘mountain people’ or ‘wind people’ (self-inclusive heuristics of thought and action alike). If they had to deal with Albert Einstein’s physics, they would probably talk about ‘Mass Man, ‘Gravity Woman, ‘ and the ‘Matter/Energy Twins’. (ibid.:10)

It is in this sense that shamanism (Wagner speaks of shamanic people, shamanic civilizations and so forth) is hyper-objective. In Wagner’s words, a hyper-object is: one that cannot be experienced altogether and at once because it is your participation in it – your internalization of its rhythms and images – that makes up the part that remains invisible throughout. You don’t merely ‘understand’ it, you live it as it lives you. (ibid.:14)

Hence the usefulness of the sonnet as a means of explanation, for it is both what is being studied and the means to do so, that is, the sonnet participates in its own explanation. Shamanism and anthropology – that is, anthropology in Wagner’s understanding – coincide. In both cases their adepts are not satisfied with formulaic recipes or abstract idealizations; instead, they try to apprehend their subject as something concrete. However, both the shaman that identifies himself/herself completely with his/her ‘helpers’ and the anthropologist that does the same with the people s/he studies end up sterile, for both lack the critical distance between two perspectives so as to perceive the hyperobjective dimension of the encounter. This is, for instance, the essence of transference, ‘the agency of the active subject that turned Freud into a shaman


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of the subconscious, and his analogical model of the repressed libido into a shamanic ally’ (ibid.:63). At this point we must refer to the presence of Castaneda in Wagner’s work. His particular interpretation and use of Carlos Castaneda’s books merit, at least, a long and complex essay, but a brief comment on this subject is inescapable in a volume dedicated to Wagner’s influence in Americanist anthropology, particularly one inclusive of the indigenous cultures of Mexico. As far as we know, Castaneda is cited by Wagner for the first time – marginally in the introduction – in The Invention of Culture (1981:xvii–xviii), and later, in similar terms, in An Anthropology of the Subject (Wagner 2001). Contrastingly, Castaneda is a central figure in Coyote Anthropology (Wagner 2010), and even more relevant in the above mentioned unpublished manuscripts. If we also consider that Wagner has taught his course on Castaneda in the University of Virginia since 1982, it is clear that Castaneda’s influence has been long-lasting, if only becoming explicit recently. Castaneda’s books have received some attention among non-MesoAmericanist anthropologists. Wagner is undoubtedly the most notable case, but we may also recall Mary Douglas’s praise-filled review of his first books (Douglas 1975). On the other hand, any attempt to take these books seriously – that is, as an ethnography of an indigenous people, as the author always intended – is, to say the least, disconcerting for the ethnographer working in Mexico. For example, the meanings of ‘tonal’ and ‘nagual’, terms taken from the ethnographic literature, have no conceptual relation to indigenous ideas as they have been described in the anthropology of the region. As can be seen in this volume, none of the chapters dedicated to the ethnography of indigenous peoples of Mexico cite the work of Castaneda. All in all, within the anthropology of Meso-America there is no doubt that, however one chooses to interpret them, Castaneda’s books have nothing to do with the indigenous people of Mexico. How can we explain this difference in perception? The answer partly lies in that in the teachings of Don Juan and his friends it is not only that one cannot identify specifically Meso-American ideas or preoccupations, but above all one cannot hear in the supposedly indigenous words the echo of anything minimally familiar or recognizable. Christopher Crocker (1992:245– 6) mentions how ethnographers of a specific cultural area – Amazonia, the Andes or Meso-America, for example – spontaneously recognize certain characteristic ‘expressive incidents’, a detail or a fragment, that speaks louder than the words themselves, as it were. Crocker cites Lévi-Strauss on how he could tell if a myth was Amerindian even if only listening to a few phrases, but how he, nonetheless, remained perplexed as to how he could do it. A good ethnographer, Crocker concludes, channels the comprehension of their



own texts through this type of expressive incident. This is why the characters in Castaneda’s books appear so unlikely: in their words, in their expressivity, there is nothing that a minimally knowledgeable reader could immediately recognize as resonating with those of the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Guatemala. The words of Don Juan in this respect are totally foreign. It is hard to say to what degree Wagner takes Castaneda’s work as ethnography – however unconventional, at least the result of a real field experience – or as allegory. It often seems closer to the latter, even if Wagner sometimes appears to take Don Juan as a character in flesh and blood, however difficult it may be to believe we are dealing with a Yaqui Indian, as Castaneda presents him. This is not the place to discuss (once again) the improbability of Castaneda’s fieldwork among an indigenous group, although we know that at some point he attempted to work among the Huichol, without success.4 Several authors have pointed to other written sources of inspiration for Castaneda’s books. Rodney Needham (1985:195–204), for example, has suggested Zen Buddhism as a probable inspiration for the first two books of the Don Juan saga. However it may be, what Wagner seems to find in Castaneda’s writings is a certain heuristic. As Wagner puts it: The whole success of Castaneda’s work, either in the books or in teaching, depends exclusively on one thing, however else it may be illuminated or obscured by examples: the technique of drawing the sharpest possible contrasts among people, events or phenomena so that the world as we normally perceive it is thrown into sharp relief, caught on a play of light and shadow between one extreme and another. 

(Wagner 2010:ix)

It is precisely this kind of contrast – reminiscent of conceptual pairs such as convention and invention, figure–ground reversal – that allows the object of anthropology to come to the fore. We [anthropologists] imitate the language, thoughts and lifestyles of other people, copying them as a version of ‘culture’, and this is how the anthropologist is inclined to explain his or her work to the uninitiated. Still this is a highly problematic approach, even when fully understood (which is rare). Using one culture, if that is the term, to copy or imitate another, or even copying a culture within itself, almost always leads to a sterile and useless tautology – a comparison of comparison of itself. But you see, there 4

Johannes Neurath (personal communication, 2013).

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is another way, best evidenced in what Castaneda’s Don Juan (whoever he may be) calls seeing, and William Shakespeare’s play of Hamlet addressed in a more traditional way. I call that other way expersonation (Don Juan calls it ‘not-doing’), and in many ways it is the true opposite of anthropology. It works like this: humor (or anthropology) takes the person out of its perspective, but seeing (expersonation) takes the perspective out of the person. (ibid.:2)

The contrast between ‘taking the person out of its perspective’ of conventional anthropology and ‘taking the perspective out of the person’ characteristic, among others, of Castaneda’s books is what, according to Wagner, allows us to envision the meaning of anthropology. In the first case, heuristics help us to understand facts; in the second, the ‘shaman’ (or anthropologist) impersonates heuristics himself/herself. Holbraad (this volume) offers another way to understand the impersonation/expersonation contrast. To impersonate is to obviate in favour of convention, subtracting much particularity whilst augmenting a few elements of an original, whereas to expersonate is to add more particularity than is present in the original. This is why Holbraad suggests Wagner has, with the impersonation/expersonation pair, offered a quantified version of the unequal effects of conventionalizing and differentiating symbolization. Fortunately for Americanists, his reading of Castaneda’s oeuvre has lead Wagner to take an interest in pre-Columbian Meso-American civilizations. This interest is manifest in his latest works. ‘What if the key to our own civilization’, Wagner asks, ‘were the inside-out understanding of another?’ (Wagner 2014:6). In these texts, the cultures of Meso-American cities prior to the conquest represent a maximum contrast with Western modern culture. In fact, ancient Meso-Americans (‘a totally shamanic civilization’) are in opposition to modern civilization as shamanism is to science. ‘For modern science coincidence belongs to the “private-sector” and metaphor and insight serve as hypotheses to understand the hard data’ (ibid.:35). For the MesoAmericans, on the other hand: the Cosmos was not made up of spatial relations and intervals, but coincidences, moments in time or what we like to call ‘specific events’. For them the calendar was dictionary, encyclopaedia, almanac and Bible, all rolled into one. (ibid.:33)



If we ‘use facts, observations, and experiments to prove the way things always were, and always will be’, they ‘used omens to divine (not define) future events and happenings’ (ibid.:38). This kind of understanding occasionally allows for radical insights into Meso-American cosmology. Take for instance, the notion of time. The Maya, Wagner says, subordinate spatial extension to temporal omnipresence; ‘there’ is ‘before’ and ‘here’ is ‘now’. That is, they temporalize space (as we spatialize time). The key to the Maya Long Count calendar is to acknowledge that time exists only in the intersections of cycles, and not otherwise in the cycles themselves. This means we are dealing with a non-spatial (non-cyclical, nonlinear and so on) notion of time and, as Lydia Rodríguez and Sergio López (this volume) observe, this offers a sophisticated alternative to the ‘innocent geometrical metaphors’ which have been commonly used to describe the Maya notion of time.

Wagner’s work in the wider anthropological context

Let us now situate, however partially, in both senses of the term, Wagner’s work in relation to other trends of anthropological thought. This will not only dispel ideas about the excessive idiosyncrasy of Wagner’s work but also illustrate the kind of theoretical connections that have kept Wagnerian anthropology provocative throughout time. In the preface to The Invention of Culture, Wagner acknowledges the influence of Lévi-Strauss’s The Savage Mind (1966) on his semiotics, even when in the closing chapter of the book he critiques Lévi-Strauss for having ‘fought shy of completely relativistic conclusions’ (Wagner 1981:150). Whilst it is true that the universality and innate quality of nature, on the one hand, and the particular and artificial character of culture, on the other, remains an unchallenged premise in The Savage Mind – which could be the basis of Wagner’s critique – it is also the case that the distance Wagner charts between himself and Lévi-Strauss is reduced if we concentrate on the Lévi-Strauss of the Mythologiques (Lévi-Strauss 1969–1981). The ternary character of apparently binary oppositions (that is, their quality of ‘perpetual disequilibrium’); the cascading, fractal-like bifurcations of mythical thought; the renowned double twist transformations elicited by the canonical formula for myth – all these ‘post-structural’ aspects of Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism (Viveiros de Castro 2008) have more than just an air of familiarity and affinity with Wagner’s semiotics, in particular with symbolic obviation (see Kelly 2010). As has been pointed out before (Robbins 2002), Wagner’s work, in particular The Invention of Culture, can easily lead people to situate Wagner within the postmodern current. But it is fair to say that Wagner is both ‘pre’


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postmodern, and if not completely ‘anti’, at least ‘alter’, postmodern.5 ‘Pre’ postmodern because The Invention of Culture and Wagner’s previous works (see Wagner 1974) anticipate many of the themes of Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986) and of the wave of reflexive and critical anthropology that followed. And in a sense Wagner is ‘alter’ postmodern too, for his focus on ‘reflexivity’ is far more Batesonian than postmodern.6 The reflexivity The Invention of Culture tackles is the inescapability of self-referentiality and recursivity in the production of anthropological knowledge – a consequence of the reflexive and recursive nature of the semiotic process itself – and the need to acknowledge this as a condition to be dealt with as opposed to a problem to be solved or avoided. What are the implications of ‘culture’ being a cultural outcome? How – technically – can we express another form of creativity through the medium of our own (see Strathern 1987)? How does reverse anthropology, in uncovering our implicit assumptions, affect the anthropology we do? What are the consequences of a radical relativism that includes shaking our own hold on nature, science and reality? These are altogether different preoccupations from those that sanctioned the ‘crisis of representation’; some are perhaps closer to the issues science and technology studies would subsequently raise. Wagner’s particular and thorough theory of symbolism also stands out from other important trends of American cultural-symbolic anthropology, like Clifford Geertz’s interpretivism and Marshall Sahlins’s structurally inflected historical analysis (see Goldman 2011). One distinguishing mark is that Wagner subjects symbolic processes to a critical re-examination when viewed from beyond the Euro-American tradition – the distinction between conventionalizing and differentiating traditions – whereas Geertz’s ‘interpretation’ and Sahlins’s ‘cultural categories’ and their relations to the world of referents remain constant whether in Bali or Hawaii. When considering temporal change, on the other hand, there is a partial overlap between the contrast Wagner draws between dialectical/historical societies and Sahlins’s distinction between performative/prescriptive structures (Sahlins 1985). Indeed, in this connection, a triangle of conceptual resonance would be complete were we to add Lévi-Strauss’s opposition between hot and cold societies (Lévi-Strauss 1966). The affinity between Wagner’s and Strathern’s theoretical stances, analytical language and, to a degree, literary styles, reflects a true intellectual kindred. Strathern’s focus on the relating and separating character of 5 6

Wagner’s own perspective on postmodernism can be glimpsed in his review of the Clifford and Marcus volume Writing Culture (Wagner 1986b). See, for example, the epilogues in Bateson’s Naven (Bateson 1958:280–307).



relationships recalls Wagner’s insights in The Curse of Souw; Wagner’s analysis of Daribi kinship in terms of gendered exchanges of perspectives (Wagner 1977) anticipates themes that Strathern would later exploit and make more complex in The Gender of the Gift (Strathern 1988); the notion of fractality seems analytically important, even if implicit, in the same book (see Gell 1999), as it was, in a more perceivable manner, in Partial Connections (Strathern 2004); Strathern’s ‘eclipsing’ resounds with Wagner’s ‘obviation’ and the analytical substitution of the concept of ‘society’ for ‘sociality’ is reminiscent of Wagner’s early questions about ‘social groups’ in the New Guinea highlands (Wagner 1974). Other Melanesianists of different generations have also been inspired by Wagner’s concepts. For example, James Weiner (1988) relies extensively on the method of symbolic obviation is his Foi ethnography, whilst Stuart Kirsch (2006) makes ‘reverse anthropology’ the title of his book on Yonggom modes of social and environmental analysis. Viveiros de Castro (2007) has written on the ‘partial connections’ between Wagner, Strathern and Latour, on the one (anthropological) hand, and Deleuze, on the other (philosophical) one. It is clear from that account that the distance – perhaps more topological than metric – between Wagner and Deleuze is less than one might think given the former’s dedication to metaphor and dialectics, and the latter’s stern rejection of these same categories. Viveiros de Castro calls attention to how a ‘reciprocal asymmetrical implication’ is germane both to the interaction between Deleuzian dualities and that between Wagner’s two modes of symbolization (ibid.:105). Neither is it hard to see parallels between Wagner’s symbolic obviation and the Deleuzian notion of becoming. Goldman (2011:201) also points to how Wagner’s misleadingly simple term ‘invention’ is closer to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘creation’, than to the common-sense understandings of the term associated as it is with discovery, the imposition of form over matter, or the transformation of raw material in the process of production. Additional theoretical resemblances can be found between Wagner’s anthropological propositions and those of Bruno Latour, whose well-known calls for a symmetrical anthropology (Latour 1993) are very reminiscent of Wagner’s own call for a more radical relativity of natures and cultures in The Invention of Culture. From opposite ends – the anthropology of science and that of Melanesia – both authors contribute to shake and shatter the unitary quality of nature and the epistemological privilege of Western science to access it. Looking closer at each other’s theories, there is a high degree of familiarity between Latour’s description of moderns’ dissemination of nature–culture hybrids via mutually masked processes of mediation and purification (Latour 1993), and Wagner’s theory of symbolism, in which actors’ ‘conventional masking’ and unintended ‘counter-inventions’ play such crucial roles. Latour’s,


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anti-Durkheimian anthropological approach of tracing associations instead of appealing to an assumed – and always already constructed – ‘society’ (Latour 2005) is partly the essence of Wagner’s equally anti-Durkheimian call to avoid the assumption of the existence of ‘social groups’ in the study of Melanesian social organizations (Wagner 1974). Considering the methodological and conceptual resonances among the above authors, Viveiros de Castro and Goldman have written on the possible directions anthropology could take with the ‘collision’ of concepts such as ‘actor–network’, ‘reversibility’, ‘convention/invention’, ‘partial connection’ and ‘multiplicity’ in what they have called ‘post-social anthropology’ (Viveiros de Castro and Goldman 2012:422). On a similar theoretical tack, Wagner’s world-making semiotics and the anthropology he designs consistent with it has influenced, alongside other ‘post-social’ authors, the more recently discussed ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology. The substitution of ‘reality’ with the differentiating symbol and the equalization of anthropologists’ and natives’ creative capacities, for example, are attuned with a number of things: Viveiros de Castro’s calls to supplant epistemological questions in anthropology with ontological ones (Viveiros de Castro 2012); the methodological principles of an anthropology informed by multi-natural perspectivism (Viveiros de Castro 2004); and the elimination of the asymmetry involved in using (our) nature as the pivot to compare (our and other’s) world views (see Henare et al. 2007). These are just some of the instances where we can detect the impress of Wagner’s anthropology on some – though definitely not all – of the ontological turn’s key figures.

Chapter outlines

We close this introduction with a short summary of the volume’s contributions and a commentary on a number of links that the editors have found amongst them; connections that serve to illuminate interesting possibilities for future comparative exercises. Marcio Goldman (Chapter 1) engages one of Wagner’s most structuring dichotomies: the distinction between what people consider given or innate and what is considered artificial, available to human action. The theoretical discussion is woven into an exploration of Afro-Brazilian ethnographic issues but is centred on a ‘quadrangular symmetry’: facts and theories about these religions, and the distinction between the given and the made, are the object of both indigenous and anthropological reflection and debate. How does one deal with native discourse and debate about some people having a spiritual gift that dispenses with initiation, people that claim they were paradoxically ‘born (innate) made (artificial)’? Goldman’s piece offers an ethnographic theory that connects blood, ritual and conviviality with the mana-like notion of aché



(common to Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban religions; see Holbraad, this volume) that approximates Wagner’s binary to the more rhizomatic Deleuzian dynamic between virtual multiplicities and their actualizations. Goldman’s chapter is also a good example of Wagnerian pre-postmodern reflexivity, where the analysis of ethnographic ‘data’ forces a discussion on the status of ‘fact’ and ‘theory’, and how a self-referential discipline like anthropology (a human phenomenon studying another human phenomenon) can deal with it. Martin Holbraad (Chapter 2) links with Goldman’s contribution both in its ethnographic context (Afro-Cuban religion) and in offering a commentary on Wagner’s concepts beyond their simple ‘application’ in the treatment of ethnographic data. Holbraad tackles the asymmetry between the absolute or definitive character of Ifá mythology and the inventive (metaphorical) processes involved in Ifá divination: how can definite myths always inform the imponderables of people’s lives without the myths themselves changing? On the one hand myths are the basis of the interpretations of babalawos (Ifá ritual specialists) of their client’s predicaments, and on the other, they provide the ‘sign’ that should guide babalawos’ own life-long character transformation. Holbraad’s analysis is interesting not only for elucidating an ethnographic problem but also for connecting, let us say, ‘old’ and ‘new’ Wagnerian concepts. The two inventive processes of Ifá are first compared to Daribi mythological narrative genres – an informative reference to Wagner (1978); next, Holbraad offers a pedagogic reading of Wagner’s (2010) recent conceptual pair of impersonation/expersonation. Pedro Pitarch (Chapter 3) opens the series of Meso-American ethnographic accounts. Pitarch dwells at length on the Tzeltal (Maya) notion of personhood in search of some insights into wider contemporary and pre-Columbian Meso-American notions of personhood. Pitarch takes his previous work on the subject (Pitarch 2010) further with the aid of Wagner’s impersonation/ expersonation pairing. Where Holbraad connects this recent Wagnerian binary with convention and invention, Pitarch in a way connects it with Wagner’s sequences of obviation, for what he details at length is how the life-long process of person constitution among the Tzeltal is a ‘sequence of progressive expersonation’. Pitarch offers first a description of the person’s double body components (‘flesh’ and ‘presence’ bodies) and double soul components (‘human’ and ‘spirit’ souls). Relations among these four components establish a typically Meso-American hierarchy of predatory capabilities and affectability. Pitarch’s point is that from prior to birth to death the person unfolds from the most abstract and unstable elements of the cosmos to the more objective and concrete. In that process, the relation between the different components of body and soul is cast in terms of reciprocal impersonation and expersonation: ‘the presence-body is the expersonation of the human-soul, while the human-


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soul is the impersonation of the presence-body’. A double conceptual chiasmus (a criss-crossing structure) is what seems to better describe the dynamic that holds between a person’s components and perhaps this is why Wagner’s chiasmus-laden theoretical repertoire comes in so handy. Pitarch ends his chapter with a suggestion of how contemporary Tzeltal understanding of flesh-body and spirit-soul may inform the analysis of pre-Columbian human sacrifice. Johannes Neurath (Chapter 4) focuses on fragments of Huichol cosmology as seen in shamanic ritual and artistic expression (yarn paintings and ritual music). His chapter introduces the Wagnerian notion ‘reverse anthropology’, as it dwells on Huichol anthropology of mestizos and non-indigenous folk in general. Neurath suggests that Huichol ‘opennes to the other’ (cf. LéviStrauss 1995:xvii) and multi-natural ontology (Viveiros de Castro 1998) are fully equipped to deal with the challenges of articulating Huichol life and culture with encroaching modernity, at least a lot more than our usual anthropological predispositions would suggest. In different ways mythical events and the make-up of the different levels of the cosmos reveal how Huichol thought articulates the relation between Indians and whites. This discussion includes a long commentary on peyote ritual, where Neurath is at pains to illustrate how Huichol live ‘simultaneously according to more than one ontological principle and permanently transiting between them’. This quasi paradoxical situation, where people live out in so many ways an articulation of contradictory and yet necessary and complementary principles in ritual (see Keisalo, Questa, this volume) or kinship processes (see Coelho de Souza, Nahum-Claudel, this volume), brings out Wagner’s focus on taking paradox head on instead of (scientifically) avoiding it. Neurath associates the irreconcilable yet mutually implicated ontological principles present in peyote rituals and yarn painting with a more longstanding anthropological opposition between ritual reciprocity (linked to controlling or managing the worlds powers: convention) and the free gift and self-sacrifice (linked with transformation: invention), a move that opens his analysis to dialogue with the wider anthropological tradition. Roger Magazine (Chapter 5) retains Neurath’s focus on ‘reverse anthropology’, providing an analysis of a rural population’s anthropology of urban, non-peasants, outsiders. His ethnography centres on the village of Tepetlaoxtoc but draws on material from other similarly rural towns in highland Mexico. Magazine initially dwells on whites’ difficulties in dealing with community fiestas: missionaries and government personnel frequently question the usefulness of expenditure among peasants they are supposed to be helping emerge from poverty and propelling into modern prosperity. Anthropologists tend to fair little better. They may side with the indigenous



folk, but their commitment to the individual/society dichotomy seems to miss the peasants’ motivation, less to have the fiesta itself but rather to engage in the arduous work of organizing it. Paying close attention to peasant discourse and practice, Magazine draws on Strathern’s theory of Melanesian agency (Strathern 1988) to account for the motivation behind peasants’ organizing practices. What the mayordomo (the person in charge of collecting the funds for holding a fiesta) has to do in his endless visits to village people is compel them, ever so slightly, into reverting their initial reluctance and instilling in them an ‘active subjective state’ of willingness to participate and collaborate with the fiesta. The point Magazine stresses is that this is not a matter of one man’s sacrifice for the communal good, nor a gesture that earns the mayordomo prestige, but an exercise that manifests people’s interdependence. The fiesta is ‘made by all’, and yet this requires people to instigate each other actions. Agents depend on others for the causes of their actions. This delicate play of mutual elicitation, of cause–action interdependence among fellow villagers, is what native anthropology finds lacking in urban whites’ individualistic nature and, Magazine argues, is at the heart of the reverse anthropology that fills the peasant landscape with grotesque figures of child-snatchers and headchoppers, white engineers and bridge-builders who bury children alive or use the bodies of decapitated adults to sustain the structures they build. Marianna Keisalo (Chapter 6) presents an analysis of the place of Chapayeka masked clowns within the Yaqui Easter ritual in Sonora, Mexico. Previous analyses of these and other trickster figures, Keisalo argues, have explained the humour away, by either revealing a serious message under the humour, or suggesting that the ambiguity and improvisation humour depends on is a pointer to the multiple possibilities of meaning construction and transformation. Steering clear of these approaches, Keisalo focuses more on what the humour of the Chapayeka does and less on what they mean. This might sound closer to Gell’s thoroughly anti-semiotic stance on the anthropology of art (Gell 1998) than to a Wagnerian semiotic analysis, and yet, Keisalo finds precisely in Wagner’s theory of symbolic obviation the key that points to the masked clowns’ role in the ritual. Keisalo must be commended for being the only contributor that has taken on Wagner’s challenging – when not mind-boggling – obviation sequences (see Wagner 1986a). The chapter is also the only one to exhibit some of the complex and mainly graphic or visual concepts Wagner is fond of: the obviational sequence is a cycle of ‘dialectics with no synthesis’ in the form of a Serpinksi gasket! So what do the clowns do? Part of Keisalo’s answer takes us back to the conceptual scheme of The Invention of Culture, for the clowns, she says, ‘guard against the relativization’ of separate realms of Yaqui life: ‘the combination of extremes of convention and invention [the clowning] is what makes it possible to recreate the


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conventions of Yaqui culture as powerful and compelling in various, changing contexts’. Alessandro Questa (Chapter 7) explores the – very Wagnerian – contradiction and complementarity that holds between Nawa shamanism and ritual dancing. Through a detailed ethnographic description of both these practices in the town of Tepetzintla, Questa shows how ‘gifted’ shamans and the ‘non-gifted’ dancers effect a ‘change of vision’ (kixpatla is the Nawa verb). In effect, dancers incarnate and play out for all to see, as it were, that which the gifted shamanic eye is exclusively privileged with seeing. Dancers, through the mediation of their ritual masks, and informed by shamanic discourse, become what shamans see, in what Questa calls an ‘anti-shamanic manifesto’. Anti-shamanic as it is – such public revelations are definitely at odds with the secrecy and obscurity, or at least the complexity, that shamanism is often imbued in – Nawa shamanism and ritual dancing ‘co-invent’ themselves innovating each other. Questa’s analysis touches on a similar contrast drawn out by Neurath, one that finds shamanism’s ‘veiled spiritual hunt’ opposed to the collective dances that are ‘observable interactions, predominantly of exchange and reciprocity, between different people’. The chapter ends with a most Wagnerian analogy when Questa puts Nawa dancing and anthropology alongside each other as equivalent yet disparate practices for dealing with alterity: ‘One affirms itself by an epistemology of concept generation, where the stabilization of meanings is the ultimate goal (Corsín Jiménez and Willerslev 2007). The other, fills the conceptual gaps between cosmic power [which only shamans have access to] and routine undertakings through embodiment, visualization and performance’. The contribution of Lydia Rodríguez and Sergio López (Chapter 8) stands out as being the only one that focuses on Wagner’s very recent investigations into contemporary and pre-Columbian Meso-American cultures. Rodríguez and López provide a master class on the anthropology of time in general, taking us through the main authors on the subject (including Evans-Pritchard, Leach and Bourdieu), and a synthesis of the main anthropological analyses of Maya time conceptualization and reckoning. Given the complexity of the several interlocking Maya calendric systems, it is no surprise the issue of time has drawn so much attention within and beyond anthropology. Critical of the linear/cyclical opposition that has framed the contrast between Western and Maya notions of time, the authors pick up on Wagner’s (2013) observation that what matters in the combination of Maya calendars is less the cycles each constitute but how they intersect with each other. Wagner argues for a concept of ‘intersectional time’, an event-based system, where happenings occur at the intersection of calendar cycles like ‘lines which meet at a corner’. The chapter closes by asking whether the contemporary Chol Maya, descendants of the



Maya but no longer users of the Maya calendric system, can provide any evidence with which to asses the validity of Wagner’s notion of ‘intersectional time’. The authors find in Chol planting patterns an image attuned to the notion of ‘intersectional time’, and they further argue that current agricultural and ceremonial calendars do seem to mark the passage of time as a ‘succession of intersections’. Marcela Coelho de Souza (Chapter 9) begins by reflecting on a novel resolution established by the Kĩsêdjê (a Gê-speaking people of the Xingu, Brazil), when a chief decreed that any Kĩsêdjê that married a white man or woman would effectively face eviction from the community. Coelho de Souza tries to make sense of this ‘eviction rule’ in a context where Kĩsêdjê people are at the same time engaging thoroughly with the culture of whites and investing in the revitalization of their own culture. The author finds her path not in the – perhaps more predictable – terrain of identity or cultural politics, but rather in the realm of kinship, approaching one of the more common predicaments of Amazonian kinship-making: the fact that indigenous notions of humanity and kin are co-extensive. If the category ‘real humans’ frequently applies only to ego’s kin, then all marriage involves a flirting with incest and with marriage with non-humans. The Wagnerian ring of interdependent contradictory principles appears again in another guise: ‘What seems to me to be important is to emphasize how much what we (with Lévi-Strauss) call the incest taboo, on the one hand, and true endogamy (or the outcest taboo), on the other, refer to things that mutually presuppose and negate each other, by constituting the limits – incest (non-relation with humans) and true exogamy (pure relation with non-humans) – of human kinship’. And furthermore: ‘I do not mean that human kinship or marriage happens in a “space” between these “extremes”, at an “optimum distance” from both. The two taboos function jointly but also against each other, each as the condition for the realization/obviation of that which is interdicted by the other’. In a further analytical twist, Coelho de Souza next draws on Wagner’s notion of ‘anti-twins’ (Wagner 2001) and details the ways in which Kĩsêdjê may come to know their humanity through the two forms of shamanism known to them. One type of shaman is described as a half-person because his soul is kin to animal sprits – this is one form of anti-twin; the other is a double person for he is occupied or accompanied by another non-human subjectivity – the other anti-twin of proper humans. Within this discussion the chapter opens its Wagnerian conceptual framework to fertile relations with Lévi-Strauss’s notion of incest and ‘true endogamy’, as well as relevant aspects of Viveiros de Castro’s synthesis of Amazonian kinship systems and processes. The chapter closes returning to the ‘eviction rule’ which set up the initial analytic intrigue, with the author reaching a conclusion reminiscent of that which Keisalo suggests for the role of humour in the Yaqui


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ritual: the eviction ruling is at least partly due to the need to reinstall the difference between Kĩsêdjê and whites; it is an effort to avoid the dissolution of this crucial distinction ‘by making marriage with whites equal to kinship with [non-human] “others”’. Chloe Nahum-Claudel (Chapter 10) follows Coelho de Souza’s focus on kinship, but among another Amazonian people, the Enawene-nawe, an Arawak-speaking people of Mato Grosso, Brazil. The two chapters complement each other instructively, for both approach the dialectical necessity of unmaking kinship in order to make it anew; but whereas Coelho de Souza’s resources come from Wagner’s more recent work, Nahum-Claudel draws inspiration from The Curse of Souw (Wagner 1967). In fact the chapter is a systematic comparison of the author’s ethnography with the Daribi facts presented by Wagner, and the similarities are striking. As Nahum-Claudel traces the evolution of the relations struck at the betrothal of a pair of children between their respective parents (betrothal partners), the importance of gendered exchanges of food, drinks, cooked food and fire wood (external substances) for transforming diffuse cognatic relatedness into two lineal flows of internal substance is made evident. The need to cut or unmake previous kinship in order to remake it is met by these gendered exchanges of vital wealth very much in the way such exchanges define groups among the Daribi. The chapter closes with a description of the Yankwa ritual, which occupies much of Enawene-nawe life. Here it is argued that the exchanges that produce kinship are also at the heart of communal – inter-clan – life. This scaling in the analysis that sees inter-clan relations as gendered kin relations writ large reminds the reader of Wagner’s attention to the fractal dimension of Melanesian sociality (Wagner 1991). Even if at different scales, kinship and communal life are also sequentially interlocked: ‘Exchanges of gendered vital wealth move kinship just as they move communal life … [E]very year at Yankwa, manioc is harvested to call forth the fish harvest, which in turn propitiates new manioc gardens. Yankwa ensures an ever-renewed abundance of manioc and fish, which generates the possibility for more kinship. Among Enawene the compulsion to exchange not only children, manioc and fish but positions and perspectives, capacities and energies, work and rest, becomes a consistent social philosophy … By means of a thoroughgoing principle of surrogacy, clans let their identities be continually taken hostage by one another, and compel one another to constant reciprocity’. There are echoes here of the indigenous peasants of Tepetlaoxtoc prompting each other into action (Magazine, this volume). The contribution of José Antonio Kelly (Chapter 11) is the last of the Amazonian chapters. It threads together Wagner’s discussions of figure–ground reversal (Wagner 1986a) and metaphor (Wagner 1972) in an exploration of



mythical narratives and shamanic practices among three Amerindian peoples of Brazil and Venezuela: the Yanomami, the Yekuana and the Piaroa. Kelly calls attention to how some myths tell of a passage from a period when people were unwillingly subject to infinite transformations – that is, a period of constant differentiation – to a more stable, post-mythical period, when the visible (body) and the invisible (soul) aspects of beings, on the one hand, and the animal and human aspects of beings, on the other, became more fixed and stand in a figure–ground relationship to each other. This passage is cast as one from pure invention (myth) to the dialectics of convention and invention (post-mythical time). In tandem with the instalation of an invention/convention dialectic, some myths concomitantly narrate the separation of earth, sky, underworlds, spirits’ abodes and so on, establishing the major spatial coordinates of the cosmos. Next, an examination of fragments of shamanic discourse in curing and other contexts evokes a temporal metaphoric relation between mythical and ‘today time’. As the argument unfolds, different aspects of Wagnerian semiotics are used to link the convention/invention dialectic and the figure– ground relations between the visible and invisible with the creation of spatial and temporal coordinates, the latter two understood as having an additional semiotic dimension.


Having provided an overview of the book’s chapters, let us now comment on a series of connections between chapters, highlighting some unexpected ethnographic connections and the different ways the authors engage with Wagner’s oeuvre. What follows are a number of suggestions of what to look out for – or, in a manner similar to that of Julio Cortázar’s ‘counter-novel’ Hopscotch (1966) – an invitation to read the book following different paths. Given the three anthropological territories the book covers (MesoAmerica, Lowland South America and Afro-Cuban/Brazilian), one alternative is to read these as independent blocks. Those interested in expanding their ethnographic knowledge in these sub-disciplines will benefit from this strategy, but that would limit the insight-provoking potential the volume aspires to. Confining the ethnographic fields of our enquiries to the Americas has yielded a much-needed rapprochement between anthropological traditions that have developed with little if any communication, despite the logical and historical relations between the peoples themselves. There has been, for example, more talk about similarities and contrasts between Amazonian and Melanesian peoples than between the latter and Meso-American ones, and despite centuries of inter-ethnic contact, the anthropology of relations between Latin America’s black population and its indigenous one is scant (see Goldman


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2015). Our chapters do not deal with this issue directly, but reading across the book certainly throws up some interesting and sometimes unexpected ethnographic connections that become clearer thanks to the maintenance of a constant analytical language (Wagner’s concepts). We can highlight the clear presence of perspectival relations and multi-natural ontologies in the MesoAmerican ethnography: Tzeltal bodies function as ‘bundles of affects’ in a perspectivist manner, and their ‘presence-bodies’ exchange affects only within a given species, equating, in a very Amazonian fashion, ethnic and species boundaries. A certain multi-natural character is also evident in indigenous cosmological notions among the Nawa and in the community of Tepetlaoxtoc. In the latter’s reverse anthropology, and that of the Kĩsêdjê, we find whites similarly problematic on the grounds of their incapacity for proper sociality. Huichol anthropology of whites could not be in more agreement with that of many Amazonians, for they state that mestizos are technologically advanced but socially ‘underdeveloped’ – in Viveiros de Castro’s terms, super-cultural but infra-social (Viveiros de Castro 2000:51). Different chapters also indicate the important role played by sacrificial practices in both Afro-American and Meso-American religions. The concept and practice of sacrifice seems to approximate these culture areas; at the same time they contrast them with Amazonian peoples, where sacrifice is very rare, if not completely absent. This connection suggests a fertile avenue of comparative analysis. Furthermore, the inventive metaphorical connections established by babalawos in Ifá divination, between mythical events ‘somewhere in Africa’ and clients’ lives in Cuba, strongly resonates with the also twisted connections Amazonian shamans thread between myth and present-day events. The definitive and absolute character of myth in comparison to the contingency of present-day events also seems to be a shared understanding. The different contributions to this volume approach Wagner’s work in a variety of ways. Some chapters (Nahum-Claudel, Kelly, Keisalo) explore what we could call the ‘early Wagner’, whilst others concentrate on his more recent and even unpublished work (Pitarch, Coelho de Souza, Rodríguez and López). Holbraad successfully draws on both the old and the new. Some authors stick to Wagner’s work exclusively whilst others open up theoretical comparison by drawing on a constellation of related yet differentiated concepts and authors. Neurath and Goldman put Wagner’s work into dialogue of that of Latour and Deleuze and Guattari, whilst Kelly and Coelho de Souza establish links with Viveiros de Castro’s Amazonian perspectivism and kinship studies respectively. The presence of Strathern’s analysis of Melanesian agency is explicit in Magazine’s chapter, whilst Nahum-Claudel writes of an almost identical ethnographic phenomenon drawing on Wagner’s analysis.



The degree of dialogue with Wagner’s work is also unevenly explicit. Nahum-Claudel develops a systematic comparison of Enawene-nawe and Daribi kinship processes mediated by Wagner’s work; Keisalo focuses on the specific method of obviational sequences; Magazine utilizes the idea of ‘reverse anthropology’; and both Holbraad and Pitarch explore the notion of expersonation. All the chapters, nonetheless, share a particular analytical stance that is one of the more relevant anthropological lessons of The Invention of Culture, and one that places Wagner’s work firmly within what Viveiros de Castro and Goldman (2012) call ‘post-social’ anthropology. This stance is thoroughly anti-representational and disposes of the method of remitting people’s discourse and practice to a more ‘real’ and explanatory ‘society’, in a manner that Latour (1993, 2005) has made almost a trademark of his ‘symmetrical anthropology’. The ‘post-social’ is evident when Goldman takes on the paradox of the possibility of people being ‘born made’ in Candomblé, steering clear of the sociological approach of ‘explaining the paradox away’ of those who see such claims as status-seeking manoeuvres; its is also evident when Keisalo avoids the analysis of humour in terms of a supposedly hidden ‘serious message’ or an equally implicit pointer to the openness and multiplicity of meaning-making, and when Magazine avoids traditional anthropological assumptions about indigenous peasants holding fiestas as individual sacrifices for the greater communal good; finally, it is manifest when Questa speaks of Nawa dancers becoming the spirits and not just representing them. All these are instances of this analytical stance. In the language of The Invention of Culture, the chapters share a commitment to endowing anthropological subjects with the same creative capacity as that of the anthropologist, and thus avoiding an anthropology that is a mere extension of our symbols.


Bateson, G. 1958. Naven, rev. edn. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Clifford, J. and Marcus, G.E. (eds). 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press. Corsín Jiménez, A., and Willerslev, R. 2007. ‘An anthropological concept of the concept: reversibility among the Siberian Yukaghirs’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13(3):527–44. Cortázar, J. 1966 [1963]. Hopscotch. New York: Pantheon. Crocker, J.C. 1992. ‘El hombre mono con ojos de metal: maneras bororo de apodar a los otros’. In De palabra y obra en el Nuevo Mundo, Vol. 1, (ed.) Miguel León Portilla, pp. 237–64. Madrid: Siglo XXI. Douglas, M. 1975. ‘The healing rite’. In Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology, pp. 180–7. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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Gell, A. 1998. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ——— 1999. ‘Strathernograms, or the semiotics of mixed metaphors’. In The Art of Anthropology: Essays and Diagrams, pp. 29–75. London: Athlone Press. Goldman, M. 2011. ‘O fim da antropologia’. Novos Estudos 89:195–211. ——— 2015. ‘Quinhentos anos de contato’: por uma teoria etnográfica da (contra) mestiçagem’. Inaugural lecture given at the National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, 16 March 2015. Gregor, T. and Tuzin, D. (eds). 2001. Gender in Amazonia and Melanesia: An Exploration of the Comparative Method. Berkeley: University of California Press. Henare, A., Holbraad. M. and Wastell, S. (eds) 2007. Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically. London: Routledge. Josephides, L. 1991. ‘Metaphors, metathemes, and the construction of sociality: a critique of the new Melanesian ethnography’. Man 26(1):145–61. Kelly, J.A. 2001. ‘Fractalidade e troca de perspectivas’. Mana 7(2):95–132. ——— 2010. ‘Perspectivismo multinatural como transformação estrutural’. ILHA Revista de Antropologia 12(1):136–60. ——— 2011. State Healthcare and Yanomami Transformations: A Symmetrical Ethnography. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. Kirsch, S. 2006. Reverse Anthropology: Indigenous Analysis of Social and Environmental Relations in New Guinea. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Latour, B. 1993 [1991]. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ——— 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor–Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Lévi-Strauss, Ce. 1966. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 1969–1981 [1964–1971]. Mythologiques, 4 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 1995.[1991] The Story of Lynx. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Murray, D. and Robbins, J. (eds) 2002. ‘Reinventing the invention of culture’, Social Analysis 46(1), special issue. Needham, R. 1985. Exemplars. Berkeley: University of California Press. Pitarch, P. 2010. The Jaguar and the Priest: An Ethnography of Tzeltal Souls. Austin: University of Texas Press. Robbins, J. 2002. ‘On the critical uses of difference: the universal guest and the invention of culture’. Social Analysis 46(1):4–11. Sahlins, M. 1985. Islands of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Strathern, M. 1987. ‘Out of context: the persuasive fictions of anthropology’. Current Anthropology 28(3):251–81. ——— 1988. The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.



——— 1999. Property, Substance and Effect: Anthropological Essays on Persons and Things. London: Athlone Press. ——— 2004. Partial Connections, rev. edn. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press. Viveiros de Castro, E. 1998. ‘Cosmological deixis and Amerindian perspectivism’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4:469–88. ——— 2000. ‘Os termos da outra história’. In Povos indígenas no Brasil (1996–2000), (ed.) C. A. Ricardo, pp. 49–54. São Paulo: Instituto Socioambiental. ——— 2001. ‘GUT feelings about Amazonia: potential affinity and the construction of kinship. In Beyond the Visible and the Material: The Amerindianization of Society in the Work of Peter Rivière, (ed.) Laura Rival and Neil Whitehead, pp. 19–44. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ——— 2004. ‘Perspectival anthropology and the method of controlled equivocation’. Tipiti 2(1):3–22. ——— 2007. ‘Filiação intensiva e aliança demoníaca’. Novos Estudos 77, pp. 91–126. ——— 2008. ‘Claude Lévi-Strauss: fundador do pós-estruturalismo’. Paper given at the Universidade de São Paulo, 9 October. ———2012. ‘Cosmological perspectivism in Amazonia and elsewhere’. Hau: Masterclass series 1:45-–168. ———2013. ‘The relative native’. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(3):473–502. Viveiros de Castro, E. and Goldman, M.. 2012. ‘Introduction to post-social anthropology: networks, multiplicities, and symmetrisations’. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (1):421–33. Weiner, J.F. 1988. The Heart of the Pearl Shell: The Mythological Dimension of Foi Sociality. Berkeley: University of California Press. Wagner, R. 1967. The Curse of Souw: Principles of Daribi Clan Definition and Alliance in New Guinea. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 1972. Habu: The Innovation of Meaning in Daribi Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 1974. ‘Are there social groups in the New Guinea Highlands?’ In Frontiers of Anthropology: An Introduction to Anthropological Thinking, (ed.) Murray Leaf, pp. 95–122. New York: Van Nostrand. ——— 1977. ‘Analogic kinship: a Daribi example’. American Ethnologist 4:623–42. ——— 1978. Lethal Speech: Daribi Myth as Symbolic Obviation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ——— 1981 [1975]. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 1986a. Symbols That Stand for Themselves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 1986b. ‘The theater of facts’. Anthropological Quarterly 59(2):97–9. ——— 1991. ‘The fractal person’. In Big Men and Great Men: Personifications of Power in Melanesia, (ed.) Maurice Godelier and Marilyn Strathern, pp. 159–73. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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——— 2001. An Anthropology of the Subject: Holographic Worldview in New Guinea and its Meaning and Significance for the World of Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press. ——— 2010. Coyote Anthropology. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ——— 2012. ‘Intend death and take its breath away: the cultural significance of Castanedas’s work’. Unpublished manuscript. ——— 2013. ‘Keeping the secret of culture from itself: the science of perspectivism’. Unpublished manuscript. ——— 2014. ‘How many stripes until you count the tiger: the hyperobjectivity of shamanism’. Unpublished manuscript.

C hapter 1

Blood, initiation, and participation What is given and what is made in Afro-Brazilian religions

 Marcio Goldman



masquerades, way 





the this


masked Western












— Chinua Achebe

In the strange short story ‘The cruel redeemer Lazarus Morell’, Jorge Luis Borges ironically stresses one of the many paradoxes of the invasion of the American continent by Europeans in the sixteenth century: In 1517, the Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas, taking great pity on the Indians who were languishing in the hellish workpits of Antillean gold mines, suggested to Charles V, king of Spain, a scheme for importing blacks, so that they might languish in the hellish workpits of Antillean gold mines. To this odd philanthropic twist we owe, all up and down the Americas, endless things - W. C. Handy’s blues; the Parisian success of the Uruguayan lawyer and painter of Negro genre, don Pedro Figari; the solid native prose of another Uruguayan, don Vicente Rossi, who traced the origin of the tango to Negroes; the mythological dimensions of Abraham Lincoln; the five hundred thousand dead of the Civil War and its three thousand three hundred millions spent in military pensions; the entrance of the verb ‘to lynch’ into the thirteenth edition of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy; King Vidor’s impetuous film Hallelujah; the lusty bayonet charge led by the Argentine captain Miguel Soler, the head of his famous regiment of ‘Mulattoes and Blacks’, in the Uruguayan battle of Cerrito; the Negro killed by Martín Fierro; the deplorable Cuban rumba ‘The Peanut Vender’; the

Marcio Goldman


arrested, dungeon-ridden Napoleonism of Toussaint L’Ouverture; the cross and the snake of Haitian voodoo rites and the blood of goats whose throats were slit by the papaloi’s machete; the habanera, mother of the tango; another old Negro dance, of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the candombe. And, further, the great and blameworthy life of the nefarious redeemer Lazarus Morell. 

(Borges 1974:295)

Felix Guattari also raised this point, somewhat less ironically than Borges. Speaking about jazz, Guattari pointed out how it was born from a caosmic, catastrophic descent, the enslavement of the black populations on the North and South American continents. And subsequently there arose a conjunction of rhythms, of melodic lines, with the religious imaginary of Christianity, with the residual dimensions of the African ethnicities, with a new type of instrumentation, with a new type of socialization at the heart of slavery itself, and afterwards, with intersubjective encounters with the white folk music which was around at the time; there was, therefore, a sort of recomposition of existential and subjective territories within which not only was a subjectivity of resistance affirmed by black people, but that, more than anything, opened lines of potentiality for the entire history of music. 

(Guattari 1993:120)

The exact number is controversial, but it is likely that over a period of 300 years almost 10 million people were shipped from Africa to the Americas, in the largest transoceanic migration in history. Of these, about 4 million arrived in what today is called Brazil – where, as we know, 10 million indigenous people were already living, future victims of a genocide that, along with the African diaspora, has underpinned the constitution of the modern world. This is a history that we all share, a history in which deadly powers and life forces exist side by side. Like jazz, Afro-American religions are also the results of multiple and creative processes of reterritorialization, which sprang up in the wake of the brutal deterritorialization of millions of people from Africa to work as slaves in the Americas. In the context of this harrowing experience, the combination of different dimensions from African, Amerindian and Christian systems of thought, religious practices and social organization gave rise to new cognitive, perceptive, affective and organizational forms. Hence this new situation meant a recomposition of apparently lost existential territories on new ground, along with the development of subjectivities linked to resistance against

Blood, initiation, and participation: what is given and what is made


dominant forces. From this point of view, the only difference between jazz and Afro-American religions is that, until now, the latter has not influenced high Western culture in the way jazz has. I like to believe that my own work involves a wager on that possibility. The term ‘Afro-American religions’ roughly speaking designates a heterogeneous, but articulated, set of religious practices and concepts, whose principal lines of force were brought to the Americas by African slaves. Throughout history, they have incorporated to a greater or lesser degree elements of indigenous cosmologies and practices, as well as popular Catholicism and European spiritism. These elements were transformed as they were combined and combined as they transformed, generating an infinite number of religious variants that appear very similar when looked at from a certain distance, and very different when looked at from another. My ethnographic work deals with one of these variants, called Candomblé, but I think that what I have to say here is also valid for most of the others. Dating from the nineteenth century, Candomblé also embodies elements of different systems. Followers classify their cult houses into ‘nations’, derived from their founders’ different African origins. There are differences between houses belonging to distinct nations, but there are also variations between those that classify themselves as belonging to the same nation. Likewise, there are many and diverse possible combinations between nations. These religions are an urban phenomenon. A cult house can function more or less like a church, where followers meet only on the occasion of religious ceremonies. But it can also be a sort of ‘community’, where a core of related people live, and whose ranks are swelled by any number of other people whenever there are religious ceremonies. Each cult house is headed by a priest or priestess called a ‘saint-father’ or ‘saint-mother’, along with several other ritual experts. Beyond the empirical diversity of houses there are common elements. The clearest is the existence of divinities that, during specific ceremonies, possess followers who have been previously prepared. This preparation consists in a complex set of rituals and a relatively long initiation process that comprises offerings and animal sacrifices. Although it is not always the case, Candomblé groups are often recognized as such precisely because they adopt such sacrifices; they also practice a more elaborate initiation process, and draw marked distinctions between divinities, ancestral spirits and the dead more generally. Another remarkable aspect of Candomblé lies in the distinction between the ‘general’ divinities, which exist as a finite number, and the intensive multiplicity of individual or personal divinities. The latter are described as having been made, the former as having existed forever, or at least since


Marcio Goldman

mythical times. From birth, everyone ‘belongs to’ a divinity, but only some will be called to initiation, and only at that moment will they find their personal divinity. In other words, general divinities seem to be ‘given’, individual ones to be ‘made’ – at the same time as the persons that they will possess are also made. This complex process of initiation is known precisely as ‘making the saint’ or ‘making the head’, and through it one becomes the son or daughter of a certain divinity and of a certain priest or priestess. At the same time the personal divinity is ‘seated’ on a special altar. Moreover, the fact that not everyone needs to be initiated means that in order to be so you have to demonstrate a certain ‘gift’, which predisposes you to initiation. Initiation should be thought of, then, as a sort of relational operator between what the subject receives despite his or her wishes and actions – the ‘gift’ as ‘given’ – and what depends on a set of more or less traditional rituals, which can only be performed with the consent of the subject and under the guidance of older initiates – in other words, what is ‘made’. Adepts of Candomblé often emphasize that no one should be initiated ‘just because they want to’ but because their initiation is demanded by their divinity. At the same time, they tend to mistrust anyone who says that they do not need to be initiated because they were already, as they say, ‘born made’ – with a gift so powerful that they do not need initiation. It is this complex relation between given and made that I intend to elaborate here from an ethnographic perspective.

Gift and initiation

As in any field, in Afro-Brazilian studies, particularly that of Afro-Brazilian religions, there are some themes that appear to attract the attention of researchers and, sometimes, followers. Undoubtedly, one of these themes is the relation between what would be considered, in these religions, as the order of ‘the gift’, and that which is thought of as deriving from the process of ‘initiation’. In other words, there are relations between what the subject receives independently of his or her will or actions – the ‘given’ – and what depends on a conjunction of more or less traditional rituals, which can only be performed with the consent of the subject and under the guidance of more experienced initiates – or that which is ‘made’. Of the many themes that have commanded the attention of scholars of Afro-Brazilian religions, this one is relatively specific. On the one hand, the issue presents a certain ‘technical’ difficulty for anthropologists, who are unsure whether to class it with ‘facts’ (that is, what for us is the ‘given’) or with ‘theory’ (or that which we ‘make’), as we shall shortly see. On the other hand, ‘the gift and initiation’ also seems to be an object of interest, reflection and debate by followers themselves – and in two senses: firstly, because it is a

Blood, initiation, and participation: what is given and what is made


question whose authenticity, in theory, can only be proven through concrete cases; and secondly, because it is an object of constant debate and abstract reflection. Now, this more or less symmetrical figure (facts and theories, givens and mades, from both sides of the process of knowledge) seems to me to be fundamental, and it is where I will start my exploration of the issue. My methodological launch pad will be a procedure I call ‘confrontation’. This consists in an attempt to create or activate new ideas and concepts through an intentional and more or less forced opposition with well-established theories and ideas. This may mean that the opposition might even be a little exaggerated, as Deleuze and Guattari point out – though not, they emphasize, ‘as provocation’ but rather so that they might be used ‘as a trampoline from which to jump’ (Deleuze and Guattari 2004:295–6) My ‘trampoline’ will be – once again – a much-cited article by Véronique Boyer (1996). While I recently tried to reframe the issues raised in the subtitle of Boyer’s article (see Goldman 2012a), what I mean to do here is to re-examine those raised by the first part of the title of her article: ‘The gift and the initiation’. In general terms, Boyer maintains that all Afro-Brazilian religions observe a split between the gift and initiation, or rather, between what derives from ‘personal capacities that the medium manifests in their learning’, and what depends ‘on the competence of a religious specialist … on their talent to explore a collection of knowledges, forming a ritual and doctrinal corpus to which their peers also refer’ (Boyer 1996:8). Boyer certainly admits to the existence of a ‘complementarity between initiation and the gift’, but suggests that, for practitioners, this complementarity can (and maybe should) be broken: ‘some are sure of their connection with what is of the order of personal and innate aptitude, whilst others pronounce themselves in favour of good and correct initiation’ (ibid.:9). The motives for this are located by the author, in the divergence between the interests of the heads of the cult, preoccupied with consolidating their influence over the mediums that they are responsible for, and the aspirations of these latter who are keen to establish a centre that belongs to them, (ibid.:8–9)

Now, even if all of this were true, it fails to account for a series of points that I would like to draw attention to. In a nutshell, it raises the question of how ‘the gift and initiation’ might appear if, in place of reducing them to some of our own well-established intellectual habits, we were to make an effort to

Marcio Goldman


accept that what is being said is very different to what we are accustomed to. That is, if we made an effort to behave like anthropologists. Roger Sansi takes an important step in this direction. In a discussion of ‘gift, initiation and historicity in Afro-Brazilian religions’, Sansi starts from the modalities of relating to spirits identified by Boyer: Following the distinction proposed by Boyer … Candomblé people relate with spirits in two ways: one is by means of the ‘gift’, the innate capacity of the person to embody and ‘find’ spirits. The other is through ‘initiation’, the ritual process through which the priest (‘mãe do santo’), as an initiator, ‘puts her hand on the head’ of the person, teaches the secrets and gives the elements necessary for the person to ‘seat’ (assentar) the ‘saints’. The ‘gift’ of mediums, on the one hand, is the means through which Candomblé practitioners introduce ritual innovations, new spirits and new elements to altars and houses. Initiation, on the other hand, is the means through which rituals are reproduced, according to a ‘tradition’. 

(Sansi 2007:22)

However, Sansi takes the distinction established by Boyer even further. If I understand correctly, he does this by, firstly, recognizing that there is no opposition, or even polarity, between the two modalities of relation; and secondly, by demonstrating the inadequacy of the widespread vocabulary of ‘symbolic capital’ to describe the uneven conflicts that coalesce around the gift and initiation. After all, the person, the gift they receive from the divinities and everything they acquire during their initiation compose a totality that is difficult to decompose, ‘constitutive of their own personhood’ (ibid.:41). In a slightly outdated vocabulary, we could say that each thing ‘participates’ in every other. My objective here is simply to attempt to take what Sansi has done a step further. For while he stops at the hypothesis that, ultimately, both the gift and initiation can be understood as products of a history that is simultaneously personal and collective (Sansi 2009; see also Sansi 2011), I prefer, rather, to investigate further the idea of a participation between the diverse elements that compose this symbolic complex. Therefore, I would like to explore some ethnographic data before coming to any sort of conclusion. I will draw on information gathered from diverse sources, including information I collected myself.

To be born made

Let us begin with a beautiful passage from the work of Ruth Landes (1994). Used to conducting research in what could be considered one of the most

Blood, initiation, and participation: what is given and what is made


traditional Candomblé cult houses in Salvador, Landes tells the story of how she ended up visiting one Sabina, the saint-mother of a cult house that Landes describes as the result of a mixture of African and Amerindian traditions. This visit deserves a detailed analysis, if not a film. Here I can only draw attention to the moment when Sabina asks the person who brought Landes if her guest ‘knows our sect? Does she know that we are caboclos, and it’s the others who are Africans?’ (ibid.:175); that this is ‘a house of caboclo spirits, the old Brazilian Indians, and that the house does not come from Yoruba Africans or the Congo’ (ibid.:176). Sabina was not using the term caboclo simply in order to refer to the spirits that she worked with, but as a category that distinguishes as much her Candomblé as herself – because in Brazilian Portuguese caboclo is a common term to describe people of mixed blood with supposedly indigenous descent and/or appearance. Thus, when Edison Carneiro, the Brazilian anthropologist who had brought Landes to Sabina, asked her (not without ulterior motives) who had initiated her into Candomblé, she replied without hesitation: no one: You know that we, the caboclo mothers, are not touched by human hands. The spirit of an Indian who came to me in a dream was the one who made me. He has been dead for hundreds of years and he is my guardian. (ibid.:159)

Here, we have a claim, made by a great number of adepts from different Afro-Brazilian religions, that it is possible to be ‘born made’; that is, to be born with a gift so powerful that it dispenses with the necessity of initiation. But this claim normally puzzles anthropologists, who tend to reduce it to a strategy of legitimation employed by those who have not gone through any of the accepted traditional initiation procedures. The problem here is that even those who say that they are ‘born made’ do not deny that such traditional procedures are essential. It is exactly what Mãe Menininha do Gantois said to Landes when she mentioned Sabina’s name: ‘What is that woman?’ she queried rhetorically. ‘You don’t call her a mother. She’s out only to make a living, not really to help the people, and she has never been trained in any priesthood. She was out after your pocketbook, my lady, and after the prestige of your name. And she lives to fight Constancia, who is a great mother, because Constancia baptized her with caboclo. Constancia and Sylvana, those are priestesses! Sylvana never even needed to throw cowries in order to see. Looking out of her doorway, she could tell you anything about anyone passing by. Even the governor

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consulted her during a general strike. She helped him against the advice of her own gods when he paid her six full contos and then the gods struck her dead. But the governor was all right because he did what she told him … How can you talk of Sabina as a mother? She cares for neither gods nor people’. (ibid.:192)

There are several interesting points to be drawn out of Mãe Menininha do Gantois’s condemnation of Sabina. Firstly, the fact that they belong to different Candomblé nations cannot explain the harshness of her words. After all, this would not stop her from recognizing the seriousness and the powers of Constancia and Sylvana. And these powers, at least in the case of Sylvana, are related directly to the order of the gift, since she does not even need to throw the cowries to know all about people. Symmetrically, the fact that Sabina was initiated by Constancia, who Mãe Menininha respects, does not stop her from being considered a dishonest opportunist, even if separately Mãe Menininha tells Landes that Sabina ‘grew up wild! No mother’s or saint’s hand made her!’ (ibid.:158). I cannot believe that this is simply a strategy of legitimation, nor that it can be explained by the supposed fluidity or ambiguity of Afro-Brazilian religions. The point is that we will never understand what these religions are if we insist on reducing their logic to the same as that which presides over our grand moral or teleological systems, whose principles function, or should function, as premises from which particular judgments can be deduced. In fact, Sabina’s reflections do not derive from, nor are they automatically valid for, other situations – however similar they apparently may be. This polyvocal and plural logic is a demonstration of what might be considered the only sociological law ever to be identified for Afro-Brazilian religions: Finally, the supreme compensating device in Candomble structure itself is found in its flexibility. There is no rule that does not have its exception; in all instances, situations alter cases. This tradition is basic in Candomble psychology; from the point of view of Candomble structure, it is one of the bequests of African tradition that has been a primary cause of the survival of this complex institution despite the historical pressures to which it has been subject. 

(Herskovits 1956:165)

The importance of what I would like to call Herskovits’s law has not yet been fully appreciated. First, it locates within the very structure of AfroBrazilian religions something that every researcher finds in the field, but

Blood, initiation, and participation: what is given and what is made


normally attributes to inconsistencies, manipulations, fluidity or ambiguity: the fact that each case is a case in itself. Perhaps we might call this AfroBrazilian pragmatism.1 Second, but no less important, Herskovits’s law conceives ‘tradition’ – this enduring polemical theme – as being part of the ‘psychology of Candomble’, not part of an ‘outside’ history that can be verified or not: tradition is an intention that also makes up the ‘structure of Candomble’ and is fundamental to its capacity for resistance. This is the same pragmatic and polyvocal logic that allows Esmeraldo Emeterio de Santana (1984), the great tata of the Angola terreiro Tumbajunçara in Salvador, to remember Joãozinho da Goméia – whom Bastide (2000:316) qualifies (or says others qualify) as ‘one of the clandestine babalorixás’, ‘made from head to hand’ – as someone who had never been adequately initiated and, at the same time, as one of the great priests of his nation, since he had contributed more than most to the growth of Candomblé Angola in Brazil. So, if there is no doubt that the claim ‘to be born made’ can be affirmed in its own right when recourse to tradition seems impossible or ineffectual – as a strategy of legitimation, if you want to call it that – then this must also mean that ‘to be born made’ is a possibility that is profoundly anchored in the ontological and cosmological principles of Afro-Brazilian religions. The anthropologist Vivaldo da Costa Lima (2003:149) recounts, for example, that Mãe Senhora, priestess of a very traditional cult house in Salvador da Bahia, was puzzled at the necessity for a specific ritual that would give an initiate of certain seniority the right to initiate others. After all, Lima notes, Mãe Senhora had received her grandmother’s initiatory blade from her mother’s own hand, without needing any special ritual. This would mean, Lima concludes, that ‘her own rare case, receiving the position through the lineage of her grandmother, would for her constitute the norm that should be obeyed by everyone’ (ibid.:149). As we shall see, cases like these are not in fact so rare. Before this, however, it is worth dwelling on the fact that in several African and AfroAmerican cosmologies there is a whole category of individuals who, from the native point of view, are to a certain extent ‘born made’. These are the so-called abikus, a Yoruba term which literally means ‘that which is born to die’. They are children that are born, die and are reborn continuously until some ritual procedure keeps them definitively in either this world or another. In my own field, this excessive proximity to death is also interpreted as a sort of pre1 Understood, of course in its more serious philosophical sense: ‘pragmatism is an art of consequences, an art of being careful’ (Pignarre and Stengers 2011:17), not a question of principles or morals.

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established bond with a divinity that therefore insists on reclaiming the child for her world. It is possible, as always in Afro-Brazilian religions, to ritually negotiate a child’s survival with the divinities, but one of the conditions of thus survival is precisely that the child is not initiated. In one sense, I think, this is because he or she already ‘belongs’ to a divinity; in another, because it does not seem appropriate, or even possible, to ‘make’ (to initiate) somebody that is already paradoxically ‘given’ as already ‘made’ (see Verger 1983; see also Johnson 2002:121, 126, 201; Lima 2004:206–7; Rabelo 2008a:107–8, 114; 2008b:181, 203; Wafer 1991:139). There are also the cases of ‘inherited saints’. These are divinities already ‘made’ or ‘ready’ that are transmitted to a descendent, or even to a close companion, following the death of the transmitter. This was the case, for example, for a famous saint-father who, besides his own divinity, inherited one from his godmother, whose ‘seat’ he would proudly present, saying ‘this orixá is 94 years old’ – the age of the godmother’s initiation (Cossard 1970:140, see also 247, 280). As Serra demonstrated, if the term orixá can substitute perfectly for the term santo, the inverse is not always true. This is because the term orixá is normally reserved for the divinity in its most transcendent form, as ‘invisible’, or not ‘fixed’ – through the appropriate ritual – in the head of a devotee … This being resides beside every man, like a ‘guardian angel’, before any sort of initiation occurs, [but] only those who have been initiated have a saint, and several people can belong to the same Orixá, even if their saints end up being different when they do come to light – as different as the consecrated heads of the ‘sons’. 

(Serra 1978:59–60).

On the other hand, as we have seen, saints that have already been ‘made’ can survive the death of their devotees, and it is this possibility that allows Esmeraldo Emeterio de Santana to venture the unusual hypothesis that there is a finite number of saints, discretely doubting the possibility of making any really new ones: There aren’t any more ‘saints’ to make, they have all already been ‘made’ … We, who have toiled so many years with candomblé ‘saints’ see that, sometimes, the ‘saint’ is the same thing as a dead person. Speech, gesture – it gives us pause for thought. Is it the spirit of the person? And, if I return, and some of you are still alive, I’ll have to say: ‘it’s me’. 

(Santana 1984:47)

Blood, initiation, and participation: what is given and what is made


Blood, initiation, participation

In sum, it is not difficult to find at the very heart of the ontological and epistemological principles of Afro-Brazilian religions that which from an external point of view can appear only as invention of tradition, micropolitical manipulations, ambiguity or fluidity. However, before proceeding further down this path, it is necessary to insist a little on a very relevant point. In his beautiful monograph about Candomblé in Recife in north-east Brazil, Arnaud Halloy touches on something essential to this discussion. It appears in a sort of polemic between priests of the same family, of saint and blood, about the necessity that they undergo initiation. As the ‘legitimate’ descendants of the famous Pai Adão, some of them maintain that, being ‘people of roots’ due to their ‘African lineage’ (Halloy 2005:638), they were already born ‘made’ … We only need to do the ‘complement’ … Because we were born already ready … We have very strong ancestry … We only have to complete this, as this is part of the religious precept. We have devoted ourselves to this cult since the cradle. (ibid.:640)

Others add that, despite all this, initiation is still essential – even if the justification for this is not what we might expect: everyone must be initiated because their ancestors were themselves initiated (ibid.:641–2). I found a very similar configuration to this in the Candomblé cult house where I have been working for a long time, the Terreiro de Matamba Tombenci Neto, situated in Ilhéus, south Bahia, in north-east Brazil (Goldman 2007, 2009). Although it belongs to a different ‘nation’ than the one investigated by Halloy, Tombenci is also structured on a family basis – even if it has a matrilateral inflection rather than patrilateral. This matrilineage goes back to the grandmother of the present saint-mother, going through her maternal uncle and her biological mother before reaching her. Almost eighty years old, she has fourteen children, dozens of grandchildren and some great-grandchildren. The saint-mother of Tombenci explained to me that, strictly speaking, her children did not need to be initiated, although she preferred that they were in order to avoid intrigue and gossip. The reason that she gave for this seems at first glance different to the one that Halloy encountered. Having been born and raised in the cult house, and therefore compelled to participate in a series of more or less daily ritual activities that demand prior preparation, her children would have over time already gone through all the stages of the initiation process. Thus, their actual initiation would consist mostly of a

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synthetic recap of everything that they had already done over the years, and serve as a demonstration of rigor to those more interested in gossip. Based on the ethnographic data he gathered in Recife, Halloy distinguishes two fundamental modes of ‘transmission of knowledge’ in Candomblé, which he calls ‘blood inheritance’ and ‘transmission by participation’ (Halloy 2005:644). He then characterizes the first, in inverted commas, as being ‘essentialist’ or ‘biological’, and the second as being ‘culturalist’ (ibid.:645). He recognizes, however, that at the same time, in the discourse of his friends these ‘are frequently confused or juxtaposed, without this ambiguity being clarified’ (ibid.:644): Two models of religious transmission are normally distinguished in my saint-family. The first, which is specific to the biological descendants of Pai Adão, is conceived of as ‘inheritance’: almost atavistically, religious knowledge is passed on ‘by blood’ from one generation of cult leaders to the next. The second mode emphasizes the importance of initiation and asserts the necessity of transmitting that knowledge. These should be treated as two explanatory tendencies, not distinctly separate. (ibid.:681)

However, alongside these two modes of transmission – not only of knowledge, but of almost everything – I believe that Halloy’s ethnography reveals a third mode, which the author seems to dedicate much less attention to. This concerns what the members of the cult houses he studied call, in Portuguese, convivência, which the author rightly notes means ‘literally the fact of “living together”’ (ibid.:642). However, here Halloy ends up reducing the notion of convivência to that of ‘participation’, which he has previously identified. In so doing, I believe that he loses sight of the triadic nature of the native model – at least in its most obvious formulation. The problem worsens because Halloy also reduces ‘participation’ to its strict sociological sense, when actually ‘participation’ can also be understood in a mystical or ritual one. As we know, to ‘participate’ is not only to physically take part in something with somebody, but also to enter into metaphysical relations with beings and forces. This implies that ‘transmission through participation’ could refer as much to what one learns as a member of a cult house as what one receives during ritual initiation itself. Blood, ritual and ‘living together’ thus comprise the vertices of a triangular model that threatens any dualistic conception of the phenomenon. This is because, if the first two of Halloy’s terms (blood and ritual) can, apparently, be associated with gift and initiation, given and made, the status of the third – participation in a broader sense – remains more undefined. Of course, this is only as long as we avoid

Blood, initiation, and participation: what is given and what is made


the professional temptation that would induce us to simply add a ‘sociological’ dimension to the initial biology/culture pair. On the contrary, I believe that the third element is precisely what permits the next step: to unveil a monistic structure underlying the triadic surface of the model – even if this monism is only the result of an intensive multiplicity of lines of force and vectors. In his engaging ethnography about Candomblé in the periphery of Salvador da Bahia, Jim Wafer tells us that in one of the cult houses he researched, a female dog was ‘almost considered an initiate – even though it has never been “shaved” – because it has spent time in seclusion with two different groups of initiates’; (Wafer 1991:138). In a more serious vein, but very similar to Wafer’s anecdote, I came across one daughter of a divinity who felt obliged to offer a ritual meal once a year to a particular divinity, even though she was not consecrated to this divinity. The reason for this ‘obligation’ lies in the fact that during her initiatory seclusion as a child she had fallen into a bowl of offerings for that divinity. For many years, animals waiting to be sacrificed were tied up to two jackfruit trees growing in what was then part of the Tombenci. Cut down when a new road was built across the cult house, the trunks of the trees were kept for years awaiting the decision of the saint-mother about what to do with them. In 1999, she asked one of the friends of the house, an artist who makes stunning rustic ecological furniture, to transform the trunks into a ‘throne’, on which she sat to preside over public ceremonies in the cult house. The impressive item was shaped using a chainsaw, and the leftover wood was distributed by the saint-mother to the members of the cult house as it contained a lot of power and consequently could help those who kept it in their homes. In 2002, amid much food and drink in the shade of a rose apple tree that had been planted in 1996 in front of the cult house, what seemed to be just a joke quickly turned into a ‘baptism’, during which the tree received a godfather and godmother alongside its mother and father (the people who had planted it six years before). Intrigued by the apparent solemnity that the joke assumed, I asked later if the rose apple tree was special, consecrated to a divinity. I was told no, but that all the trees that are planted in the area of a Candomblé cult house become special as they absorb the force not only of the offerings but also of the people who pass by. Although some of these stories could be considered simply ‘fun’, they still reveal something about the logic that lies beneath the triadic model I have identified. I myself was told many times in Ilhéus that, even though I had not been initiated, I ‘had been around for so long’ that I could be considered as ‘belonging to the house’. A nice courtesy certainly, but with consequences:


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on many occasions, I found myself participating in situations in which theoretically I should not by virtue of the fact that I was not initiated. The hypothesis here, therefore, is that the apparently triadic nature of the native model does not simply challenge anthropologists’ dualism, but also hides a sort of monism. This is because ‘blood inheritance’, ‘sociological participation’ and ‘ritual participation’ have a lowest common denominator. They are actualizations of a single underlying principle. The cult houses of Afro-Brazilian religions can be perfectly understood as huge machines intended to capture, distribute and circulate a force that, in their cosmologies, constitutes everything that exists and can exist in the universe. This force – named ashé or ngunzo, or simply ‘force’ or ‘energy’ – constitutes everything that is and could be, according to a process of differentiation and individuation. Its unity guarantees that everything participates in everything, and its modulations establish degrees of participation (Goldman 2009:116; see also Holbraad 2007). This force is the lowest common denominator between the three forms of transmission. But this force, as the anthropologist (and initiate) Juana Elbein dos Santos (1977:37–43) demonstrated, has a fundamental form of circulation: ‘blood’. The term, however, does not mean only what we might imagine. This ‘blood’ is not, in fact, exactly what we call ‘blood’: it can be red, white or black and is distributed throughout the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms, permitting many new possibilities of which we only retain one: ‘the red “blood” … of the animal kingdom’, as Elbein dos Santos (ibid.:41) explains. Now, this can only mean that the blood I received in my veins from my ancestors, the blood I received on my head during initiation from sacrificed animals and the blood flowing through daily ‘living together’ – from the plants and animals consecrated over the years in the cult house, from the food that is shared at collective meals, from the elders, divinities and spirits I meet – are all, from a certain point of view, one and the same thing. But it is not only ‘blood’ – that which we could imagine as ‘given’ – that is more complicated than we suppose. I think that my hypothesis becomes more plausible if we recall the fact that there seems to exist at least two models of initiation in Afro-Brazilian religions – two models of the ‘made’, we might say. These models do not appear in the same form, detail, intensity or degree of institutionalization in all the different variants of these religions, but in one way or another they permeate them through and through. I will use here one of the models that seems to be the most explicit, that of ‘Candomblé Bahia’,2 particularly prominent in the ‘large’ saint houses of Salvador, but which I also 2

I use the expression in the sense given it by Serra: that of a ‘“model” [which] does not mean “figure” or orthodox “prototype”, nor does it correspond to a particular

Blood, initiation, and participation: what is given and what is made


encountered in Tombenci. The fact that it does not appear so clearly in other places does not mean, however, that its basic structure is not present. The first model of initiation, which we could call initiation in the strict sense, consists of what is called ‘making the saint’, a process that corresponds, simultaneously, to ‘making the head’, the constitution of a new person (Goldman 1985). I think that this model has been privileged in the majority of Afro-American studies simply because it seems less foreign to our own notions about creation, production and ownership. But there is another model of initiation that occurs in much of Candomblé. It generally applies to people who, like myself, do not have the ‘gift’ to receive spirits in their bodies, who are not capable of going into trance and experiencing divine possession. In Bahia these people are called ogans or tatas when they are male, and equedes or muzenzas when they are female. Contrary to an oft-repeated narcissistic hypothesis, these positions, functions or gifts were not invented only to allow white people and intellectuals into Candomblé; rather, they were simply extended to them, since they had already existed for a long time in the cult houses. They cover activities such as playing the drums, singing ritual songs, sacrificing, caring for people in trance and so on.3 In any case, the central point here is that although it is sometimes said that an ogan or an equede is ‘made’, it is more usual or precise to say that they are first ‘elevated’ (suspensos) in order, later, to be ‘confirmed” (confirmados). The ‘elevation’ usually takes place during a public ceremony when one of the embodied divinities chooses one of the people present, walks with her to the ceremonial hall, and makes her sit in a chair to be literally elevated by the older ogans. In time, it is thought that the elevated ogan or equede should ritually confirm their initiation, going through a ritual sequence similar to that employed in the making of the head itself. I once heard a saint-father instructing everyone present – some of whom had been initiated for more than half a century! – to kneel and ask for the blessing of two ogans who had just been ‘elevated’, saying ‘an ogan is not like an initiate, who is born small and then grows; an ogan is already born big!’ Now, if we accept the fact that in Afro-American religions the creative process is thought of as neither following a Judeo-Christian logic of creation ex nihilo (where being is created from nothing), nor following a hylomorphic classical Greek model (where a creating form is applied to an inert substance),


ritual, or to the liturgy of this or that terreiro. The model is an abstraction constructed from the comparative study of different rituals’ (Serra 1995:40–4). My function, for example, was explained to me as ‘sort of public relations of the terreiro’.


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then we can perhaps pose the hypothesis that ‘confirmation’, rather than ‘making’ is a more appropriate model for thinking about the process of initiation in general. This is because in these religions all beings already exist, in some form, even before being made, which means that the process of creation is understood as a revelation of the virtualities that the dominant actualizations contain, in both senses of the word (Goldman 2009:114, 121). Thus, the difference between ogans and equedes, on the one hand, and those susceptible to trance on the other, would be more one of degree than of nature: some being already ‘born big’, others having to ‘grow’ to become so. In more abstract terms, some are already born with their virtualities more actualized, and others have to actualize them over the course of their lives. This, additionally, perhaps explains – better than accusations of simple error or manipulation – the numerous documented cases of ogans and equedes who enter into trance at some point in their lives. It might also explain the ethnographic variants (recorded by Halloy in Recife and other authors in other regions) in which the distinction between those susceptible to trance and those not susceptible is not institutionally demarcated, and instead greater or lesser susceptibilities or gifts for trance and possession are recognized. This is why in day-to-day life the question of the truth of someone’s gift is exactly that, a question: something open to reflection, debate and disagreement. The fact that an adept of Candomblé does not believe in the gifts of another does not signify, obviously, that she does not believe in the gifts of a third or, a fortiori, in the possibility of gifts in general. And when she criticizes a priest for not having been initiated correctly, it is always necessary to pay attention to the fact that almost always this is being stated as a specific judgment about very concrete people in very concrete moments. I would bet that any one of my friends in Ilhéus would find the idea of initiating someone who does not have a gift for religious things very strange. As I mentioned, if there is something which everyone seems to agree about, it is that no one is initiated into Candomblé ‘because they want to be’, but because their initiation is demanded by a divinity. On the other hand, I also believe that my friends would consider strange, or at least doubtful, the possibility that there might exist someone whose gifts were so strong that they dispensed with the need for any sort of initiation. To sum up, the relation between gift and initiation is not of the order of opposition or redundancy, nor is it one of direct causality. If we wanted to employ an outdated concept, we could, perhaps, say that it was one of dialectical complementarity. But this would not help us much, because the problem of the dialectic, as Deleuze observed, is its failure to realize that it is not the terms and their contradiction that is important, nor even their possible or impossible synthesis:

Blood, initiation, and participation: what is given and what is made


What counts … aren’t two or three or however many, it’s and, the conjunction and … And is of course diversity, multiplicity, the destruction of identities … And is neither one thing nor the other, it’s always in between, between two things; it’s the borderline, there’s always a border, a line of flight or flow, only we don’t see it, because it’s the least perceptible of things. And yet it’s along this line of flight that things come to pass, becomings evolve, revolutions take shape. 

Concluding observations

(Deleuze 1995:44–5)

To conclude, let me address an ‘epistemological’ question: what could explain the success of the pair ‘gift and initiation’, where the conjunction ‘and’ actually plays more the role of the adversative ‘or’? Or, rather, where does the ease with which it is normally accepted come from? I am not going to appeal here to notions such as the intellectual field or similar, simply because it does not seem to me that difficult to guess the reasons for its success on a cosmological plane, or, more precisely, at the interface between our and their cosmologies. As we have seen, almost everyone who refers to this opposition tends to assimilate, to a greater or lesser degree, the ‘gift’ to the ‘innate’ and ‘initiation’ to the ‘acquired’. Which means, obviously, that the dichotomy maps almost perfectly onto our dominant modes of thinking – and ‘our’ refers here as much to so-called common sense as to anthropological thought itself. After all, as we know, anthropology has, at least since Tylor, defined itself as the study of the ‘acquired’ in contrast to the ‘innate’. Or, alternatively, as the discovery of what could be ‘innate’ beyond or under the ‘acquired’. It is also well known that for some time now this model has been questioned, both inside and outside the discipline. One of the most interesting anthropological attempts to rethink ‘culture’ is that which Roy Wagner has undertaken since the 1970s. Broadly speaking, and apologizing for my audacity, I think Wagner has developed a notion of culture that is itself cultural, in the sense that one of its intrinsic and constitutive aspects is the explanation that culture is itself a cultural artefact, or rather is the product of a culturally specific point of view, namely ours. This, it seems to me, is the meaning of ‘the invention of culture’ (Wagner 1981). However, even Wagner’s apparently absolute constructivism seems to end up in a sort of universal: the distinction, differently made by different cultures, between what depends on human action, and what is imposed on it (ibid.:19). As Eduardo Viveiros de Castro puts it, one of the central tasks of anthropology should be

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to elucidate, for the people we study, what assumes the place of the given – the properly innate that circumscribes and conditions human agency – and what is perceived of as buildable or made, that is, as belonging to the sphere of action and agents’ responsibilities. 

(Viveiros de Castro 2002:404)

The use of the term ‘innate’ here indicates that given and made are analogies, in the Wagnerian sense of the expression: a distinction of ours that is extended to others, in order to render processes that are difficult to understand intelligible – but that should be subverted through that very process (Wagner 1981:16–17). I would hazard, however, that in this way of thinking remains a certain tension between conceiving the ‘given’ and the ‘made’ as types and forms, or as forces. And even though I believe that Wagner’s position is the latter, I do not think we should attribute the misunderstandings about this point to the sole stupidity of some readers (see Goldman 2011). If we try to ‘apply’ these ideas to Afro-Brazilian religions we are faced with two possibilities. From one point of view, it might appear as if this theory simply ‘does not apply’ to such religions. Why? Because it seems very difficult to detect with any precision what in these religions should take the place of the ‘given’, or rather, what is really outside the sphere of human action. Certainly no one imagines that it is possible to do anything, but the interesting thing is that what is impossible only presents itself a posteriori, after an eventual failure. Alongside this, neither does anything seem to be integrally ‘made’, since everything that is made must be continually remade and depends on the initial, ‘given’ constraints. This false problem in fact reveals the general point with which I would like to conclude: the need to try to stop thinking our theories as things we ‘make’ in order to apply to ‘given’ data that will confirm them or not. In anthropology the problem is the alignment between concepts coming from both sides of the process of understanding. From this point of view, everything can be formulated another way, and to conclude I would like to propose a tentative outline of what could be called a conceptual realignment between anthropology and Afro-Brazilian religious thought. On the one hand, we could treat the radical constructivism of AfroBrazilian religions as a dialectic between the given and the made, but a dialectic without any synthesis – in the Wagnerian sense of the expression (e.g. Wagner 1981:96). On the other hand, however, we should recognize that no anthropological way of thinking should pass intact through a confrontation with Afro-Brazilian thought, and that an interpretation of the latter by the former also implies interpreting our own ways of thinking from an AfroBrazilian point of view. In this sense I think that this dialectic without synthesis

Blood, initiation, and participation: what is given and what is made


can be rethought. It is not so much an infinite and irresolvable affirmation of two or more terms, but rather, as Deleuze suggested, an affirmation of and as connective – in our case, as a sort of hyper-acceleration of the relations between the given and the made; or, to be more precise, as an uninterrupted set of operations of continuous variation.4 The gift and initiation, the gift and the made, initiation and the gift, the made and the gift … In the end, anyone who is familiar with the religions of the African matrix in Brazil would ask themselves how this could be any different. Finally, to give one last twist, I think that this model can rebound on anthropology itself because, as we know, theories are not simply what we ‘make’ and facts are not only what are ‘given’ to us. Theories and facts are in a certain way immanent in each other, and what it is up to us to do, as saint-mothers and sculptors know very well, is to ‘cut’ them, in the sense lapidaries cut a precious stone. This means to pass in continuous variation from the given to the made and vice versa in an effort to bring up a reasonably intelligible form from the block in which it was contained – contained in the double sense of the word, already present and limited by this very presence.


An earlier version of this chapter was published as Goldman (2012b). Preliminary versions were presented at seminars in Rio de Janeiro, Lisbon and Porto Alegre. I would like to thank Olívia Gomes da Cunha, Susana Viegas and Sergio Baptista da Silva for invitations to speak at these seminars, and Emerson Giumbelli, Roger Sansi, Ruy Blanes and Diana Espírito Santo for their comments. I especially want to thank Paula Siqueira, Gabriel Banaggia and José Antonio Kelly for observations that helped me a great deal in improving the text. Finally, I am immensely grateful to Pedro Pitarch for the invitation to participate in the workshop ‘The Culture of Invention in the Americas’ in Trujillo, Spain, which I could attend thanks to a grant from the Coordenadoria de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal do Ensino Superior (Capes). I would like to thank Antonia Walford for the careful translation of the article.


Bastide, R. 2000 [1958]. Le Candomblé de Bahia (rite nagô). Paris: Plon.

4 The concept of continuous variation was created by Deleuze and Guattari (2004:94–110) as a means of getting around the hypothesis that language is a closed, homogeneous, constant and universal system. On the contrary, language is always in continuous variation, alternating between variable and facultative rules and moving uninterruptedly between different semiotic regimes.

Marcio Goldman


Borges, J.L. 1974 [1935]. ‘El atroz redentor Lazarus Morell’. In Obra Completa 1923–1972, pp. 295–305. Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores. Boyer, V. 1996. ‘Le don et l’initiation: de l’impact de la littérature sur les cultes de possession au Brésil’. L’Homme 138:7–24. Cossard, G.B. 1970. ‘Contribution à l’étude des Candomblés du Brésil: le rite angola’, PhD thesis. Paris: University of Paris. Deleuze, G. 1995 [1976]. ‘Three questions on six times two’. In Negotiations 1972–1990, pp. 37–45. Paris: Minuit. Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. 2004 [1980]. A Thousand Plateaus. London: Continuum Elbein Dos Santos, J. 1977. Os nagô e a morte: padê, axexê e o culto egum na Bahia. Rio de Janeiro: Vozes. Goldman, M. 1985. ‘A construção ritual da pessoa: a possessão no Candomblé’. Religião e Sociedade 12 (1):22–54. ——— 2007. ‘How to learn in an Afro-Brazilian spirit possession religion: ontology and multiplicity in Candomblé’. In Learning Religion: Anthropological Approaches, (ed.) R. Sarró and D. Berliner, pp. 103–119. Oxford: Berghahn Books. ——— 2009. ‘An Afro-Brazilian theory of the creative process: an essay in anthropological symmetrization’. Social Analysis 53(2):108–29. ——— 2011. ‘O fim da antropologia’. Novos Estudos CEBRAP 89:195–211. ——— 2012a. ‘Cavalo dos deuses: Roger Bastide e as transformações das religiões de matriz africana no Brasil’. Revista de Antropologia 54(1):407–32. ——— 2012b. ‘O dom e a iniciação revisitados: o dado e o feito em religiões de matriz africana no Brasil’. Mana: Estudos de Antropologia Social 18(2):269–88. Guattari, F. 1993. ‘La pulsion, la psychose et les quatre petits foncteurs’. Revue Chimères 20:113–22. Halloy, A. 2005. ‘Dans l’intimité des orixás: corps, rituel et apprentissage religieux dans une famille-de-saint de Recife, Brésil’, PhD thesis. Brussels: Université Libre de Bruxelles. Herskovits, M.J. 1956. ‘The social organization of the Afrobrazilian Candomblé’. Phylon 17(2):147–66. Holbraad, M. 2007. ‘The power of powder: multiplicity and motion in the divinatory cosmology of Cuban Ifá (or Mana, Again)’. In Thinking through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically, (ed.) A. Henare, M. Holbraad and S. Wastell, pp. 189–225. London: Routledge. Johnson, P.C. 2002. Secrets, Gossip, and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomblé. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Landes, R. 1994 [1947]. The City of Women. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. Lima, V. da C. 2003 [1977]. A família de santo nos Candomblés Jejes-Nagôs da Bahia: um estudo de relações intragrupais. Salvador: Corrupio.

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——— 2004. ‘O candomblé da Bahia na década de 1930’. Estudos Avançados 18(52):201–21. Pignarre, P. and Stengers, I. 2011 [2005]. Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Rabelo, M. 2008a. ‘A possessão como prática: esboço de uma reflexão fenomenológica’. Mana: Estudos de Antropologia Social 14(1):87–117. ——— 2008b. ‘Entre a casa e a roça: trajetórias de socialização no candomblé de habitantes de bairros populares de Salvador’. Religião e Sociedade 28(1):176–205. Sansi, R. 2007. Fetishes and Monuments: Afro-Brazilian Art and Culture in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Berghahn Books. ——— 2009. ‘“Fazer o Santo”: Dom, Iniciação e Historicidade nas Religiões AfroBrasileiras’. Análise Social XLIV(1):139–60. ——— 2011. ‘Images and persons in Candomblé’. Material Religion 7(3):374–93. Santana, E.E. de. 1984. ‘Nação-Angola’. In Encontro de Nações de Candomblé, pp. 35–47. Salvador: Centro de Estudos Afro-Orientais-UFBA/Ianamá/Centro Editorial e Didático-UFBA. Serra, O. 1978. ‘Na trilha das crianças: os erês num terreiro Angola’, MA thesis. Brasilia: Universidade de Brasília. ——— 1995. Águas do rei. Petropolis: Vozes. Verger, P. 1983. ‘A sociedade Egbe Òrun dos Abikü, as crianças nascem para morrer várias vezes’. Afro-Asia 14:138–60. Viveiros de Castro, E. 2002. ‘Atualização e contra-efetuação do virtual: o processo do parentesco’. In A Inconstância da Alma Selvagem, pp. 401–456. São Paulo: Cosac and Naify. Wafer, J. 1991. The Taste of Blood: Spirit Possession in Brazilian Candomblé. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Wagner, R. 1981 [1975]. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

C hapter 2

How myths make men in Afro-Cuban divination  Martin Holbraad

In a classic article, ‘How man makes god in West Africa’, Karin Barber (1982) showed how the potency of divinities is assumed by their Yoruba-speaking worshippers to be partly a function of the number of devotees they can attract. Metaphysics, so to speak, as a function of sociology. As Barber herself notes in passing, this puts her analysis of the constitution of West African orisa, as the gods are called, in the vicinity of classic debates about the constitution of ‘big men’ and ‘great men’ in Melanesia. Given the anachronism, it is unlikely that this comparison could be stretched to include Roy Wagner’s holographic analysis of ‘big’ and ‘great-manship’, published a decade later in ‘The Fractal Person’ (Wagner 1991). This may be just as well, since one of the main consequences of Wagner’s argument is that the distinction between power (metaphysics) and the people on which it may be imagined to operate (sociology) breaks down. Qua fractals, ‘big men’ and ‘great men’ do not exert power over clan members. Rather, power resides in the former’s capacity to instantiate the latter – to express the clan’s own potency rather than control it – by singularizing the clan in the scale of their person: power as ‘expersonation’, to invoke one of Wagner’s more recent terms (Wagner 2012:162), to which I shall return. In fact, this way of rendering the relationship between sociology and metaphysics internal (in the philosophical sense, that is, mutually constitutive) might also allow us to reverse the flow of Barber’s argument and ask whether the socialization of divine power that she describes might not also amount to a divinization of the worshippers who effect it. The gods men make, according to this understanding, may also make the men in return. In this chapter I explore this possibility with reference to the practice of Ifá divination in Cuba, which I have studied ethnographically since 1998. One way


Martin Holbraad

to frame the question would be with reference to the very word ‘divination’. What if we were to reverse the metaphorical extension through which the term ‘divination’ has come to be understood as a synonym of guessing (designating oracles, augury, seership and so on) and dwelled instead on the surface of the word, thinking of ‘divination’ as indicating the act of rendering things divine? ‘Divine’ would thus be to ‘divination’ as ‘deity’ is to ‘deification’. In the case of Ifá, I suggest, such a literalization would be more than just word play. Building on the by now well-established point that the epistemic projects of divinatory knowledge (prognosis, diagnosis and so on) may be distinguished by their irreducibly ontic dimensions – diviners are worldmakers, as René Devisch says (de Boek and Devisch 1994) – I want to unpack the crucial sense in which Ifá divination is, perhaps above all, a procedure for making divinities, just as the word would suggest, or, more precisely, for making men as divinities (and note that in this case the reference exclusively to ‘men’ is not merely figurative, as it is in the title of Barber’s article, since one of the distinguishing features of Ifá is that it only admits heterosexual men as initiates in its ranks– a matter of some controversy in recent years – see, for example, Gobin 2007). In doing so, I want to explore in particular an asymmetry that lies at the heart of the cyborg-like status of these confectioned persons (Haraway 1991; Holbraad and Pedersen 2009; Strathern 2004), namely the fact that it is men who get divinized and not, as one might imagine, divinities that get humanized. Correcting a tendency in my earlier work on Ifá divination to underplay this asymmetry and emphasize instead the reciprocity of the transformations that gods and humans alike undergo in divination,1 here I show how Wagner’s idea of obviation, particularly when supplemented by his more recent notion of expersonation, can allow us to get a better handle on how people are made 1

This error was pointed out to me most clearly by Michael Scott, to whom I am grateful for the critical engagement. An early version of the argument of the present chapter was prepared for the Moving Scales and Scales of Movement workshop organised by the Cosmology, Religion, Ontology and Culture Research Group (CROC) at UCL. I am grateful to the organizers, particularly Alice Elliott, for the inspiration this event provided. Something closer to the current form of this chapter was presented in the event in Trujillo, Spain, honouring Roy Wagner’s work, organized by Pedro Pitarch – I thank him for the invitation and, alongside Jose Antonio Kelly, for the editorial work on this volume. Versions were also presented at research seminars in St Andrews, Cambridge, Santa Cruz and LSE. As well as honouring Wagner, the chapter honours the memory of its protagonist, Javier Alfonso – an asymmetrical twinning of anthropological and personal mentorship that to my mind adds significance to them both. Ona iré padrino.

How myths make men in Afro-Cuban divination


in this process. As we shall see, showing this involves looking quite carefully at how myths in particular are to be conceived in this context, since it is above all mythical discourse that furnishes the transformations through which men are ‘divined’ in Ifá – hence the reference to myths (rather than just gods) in my title.

Divinatory cyborgs

Afro-American religious traditions are famously about ‘making’ people. Marcio Goldman (1985; see also Goldman, this volume), for example, has described the long and arduous process through which initiates get ontologically confectioned as they ascend the initiatory ranks of Candomblé in Brazil by increasingly internalizing a collection of divinities with whom each stage of initiation associates them. As in Brazil, in Cuba initiation itself is referred to most commonly as a process of ‘making oneself saint’ (hacerse santo), and in Santería, with which Ifá divination is associated, this most crucially involves literally ‘seating’ a tutelary divinity (oricha) in the heads of neophytes, who from then on carry their gods inside themselves. However, Orula (referred to more formally as Orunmila), the god of divination, is considered too powerful to fit in any one human head. So, as with other so-called ‘major’ orichas, Orula is instead ‘received’ by neophyte babalawos (as initiates of Ifá are called) during the week-long ceremony of initiation in the form of a set of consecrated items, including a collection of palm nuts, with the help of which the newly ‘made’ babalawo will from then on be able to officiate as a diviner. In this sense, ‘making oneself Ifá’ (as babalawos refer to their initiation) involves becoming the kind of man who ‘has’ Orula, and Orula himself in part consists of the palm nuts that allow him to ‘speak’, as babalawos say, during divination. So babalawos ‘have’ Orula as something like an essential property, and Orula ‘is’, in part, the nuts. The babalawo, then, as man-as-Orula-as-nuts (see also Holbraad 2008; 2012b:148–56): a ‘circuit of connections that joins parts that cannot be compared insofar as they are not isomorphic with one another’, which is how Marilyn Strathern expresses Haraway’s idea of the cyborg (Strathern 2004:54). In Ifá, divination itself – the prime activity of babalawos – plays a crucial role in regulating each stage of these initiatory transformations: diviners are made through divination, in that sense. This is partly because every ceremony of initiation has first to be sanctioned though divination, so divinatory authorization is rigorously constitutive of the transformations initiation entails.2 In fact, the connection between divination and initiation in Ifá is so 2

The prestige of Ifá at the pinnacle of Afro-Cuban ritual complexes, as babalawos at least would see it, is owing partly to the fact that, as divinatory experts par


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close that the two are probably best conceived as versions of each other. This is because in Ifá the ceremony of divination itself becomes the most active ingredient, so to speak, in the seven-day ceremonial sequence of Ifá initiation. In many ways the ritual leitmotiv of the whole week, divination has ceremonial pride of place on the first, third and final day of the initiation, in which so-called itá ceremonies are conducted. These consist of a series of lengthy divinations carried out by the officiating babalawos in order to ascertain certain key characteristics of a neophyte. Most importantly, in the itá of the first day the babalawos must find out which of the 256 possible configurations, on which Ifá divination is based, corresponds to the neophyte in the most global sense (the subsequent two divinations yield more specific information, including, in the case of the final day’s ceremony, matters pertaining to the end of the neophyte’s life, as we shall see). Referred to as signos (Spanish for ‘sign’) or, in the original Yoruba, as oddu, these configurations are considered divinities in their own right, and are often conceived as manifestations or, as practitioners say, ‘paths’ of Orula himself, the god of divination. In fact, there is a very literal sense in which they are just that, since the different oddu are generated during divination by the technical process of casting the consecrated palm nuts that, as we have seen, are understood as being a part of Orula himself. So, quite concretely, Orula becomes one of the 256 oddu by literally morphing into one of them through the motions of the nuts as they are cast. This ontological extension-cum-transformation of Orula into his oddu paths is fundamental to the process of ‘making oneself Ifá’ through initiation. For, just as divination turns Orula into an oddu, so, during the itá ceremony of the first day of initiation in particular, it turns the neophyte into an oddu also, since the oddu one receives during this divination effectively becomes one’s prime identity as a babalawo ever after. This is most obvious from the fact that the initiatory oddu of the babalawo, referred to as ‘his sign’ (su signo), becomes the babalawo’s name in ritual contexts and often in everyday use as well. Before initiation one might be called Francisco, but after initiation one will be referred to by one’s ‘sign name’ – say, Obbeché or Ogunda Teturá or Eyobbe. To the extent that one ‘becomes’ one’s name, and one’s name in this case is an ontological extension of Orula, initiation effectively ‘makes’ one into a part of Orula. Again, a cyborg-like ontic amalgam: man-as-sign-of-Orula. But the notion of becoming here goes much deeper than that. More than just providing neophytes with a name, the binding association with their excellence (they alone ‘have’ Orula, the patron-god of divination), babalawos are able to exert a degree of control over matters of initiation into not only Ifá (where their control is absolute), but also other cults, such as Santería, with which they share major elements of ritual and cosmology (see Holbraad 2008; 2012a:84–98).

How myths make men in Afro-Cuban divination


sign effectively gives neophytes a whole new personality. For them, by far the most interesting part of the divination is the lengthy process by which what babalawos call ‘the significance’ of the sign is recounted and interpreted. Here focus turns particularly on the plethora of mythical stories with which each of the 256 oddu is associated, the so-called ‘paths’ of the oddu, which babalawos spend a lifetime memorizing, studying and interpreting. This process of study is indefinitely long, babalawos explain, since the volume of myths is inordinately large, describing in its totality Orula’s original witness of the creation of all things, which is typically presented in the myths as having taken place in the distant past, in Africa. ‘Everything’, babalawos emphasize, ‘is in Ifá’ (todo está en Ifá). ‘Even the invention of the internet is in Ifá’, as one babalawo once explained to me with detailed reference to a mythical account of the use of the talking drum in Africa. That everything should be in Ifá, however, is more a point of principle, since, as babalawos also explain, the ‘everything’ that Ifá contains in its mythical corpus is ‘too large to fit in a single head’. Babalawos even put a figure on it: each of the 256 oddu, some say, has 101 paths, so, notionally, there are 25,856 myths to learn! Others claim there are even more of them. Either way, it is to this awesome abundance of content that babalawos point when explaining the marvel of Ifá, and particularly its power, as a device for divination, to shed light on any question one might wish to throw at it, from the invention of the internet, to the causes of one’s personal strife or, in principle, any contingent life circumstance whatsoever. During the itá ceremony of initiation, then, the collective task for the presiding babalawos is to recount as many of the mythical stories as they can recall (or deem relevant) for the benefit of the neophyte, and then proceed to interpret them for him in order to arrive at what is effectively a global characterization of him as a person: what dangers lurk for him, and what opportunities, how he should behave, what situations he should avoid, how he should treat people, what he should and should not eat and drink – think of the astrology pages of a magazine, only much more detailed. The main difference with astrology, however, is that in the case of Ifá this mythically derived idiography carries with it a heavy normative freight since, once one is told effectively who one is in one’s itá, it is from then on one’s obligation to live one’s life accordingly (Basso Ortiz 2014; 2017; Holbraad 2010). As babalawos emphasize, one has to ‘live one’s sign’ (vivir el signo). Elsewhere, following Marshall Sahlins (1985), I have called the universe into which babalawos are propelled by this injunction to live out their mythical signos ‘mythopractical’ (Holbraad 2012b:100). To illustrate the poignancy of lives lived in the power of myth in this way, and to begin to unpack the logic that this mythopraxis instantiates, let me indicate the subtleties with reference


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to the last few years of the life of Javier Alfonso, an elderly babalawo I got to know closely during my fieldwork in Havana in the late 1990s and early 2000s, who eventually also presided over my own initial steps of initiation, thus becoming my ‘godfather’ (padrino), as practitioners refer to this form of ritual kinship.3 I choose this example partly because I find it moving, but also because I think that this personal dimension is itself a function of the point I wish to make, namely that babalawos’ relationship with the signos that define them – and which they, in turn, live out – runs very deep indeed, encompassing not only general matters of comportment and character, but also aspects that might best be described as existential – indeed, in this case, matters of life and death.

Javier Alfonso, Ogunda Teturá

I met Javier during my fieldwork in 1998. In Ifá circles he was known also as Javier Ogunda Teturá, after the principal signo he was assigned during his initiation more than thirty years earlier. As I describe elsewhere (Holbraad 2012b:75–80), I had felt somewhat hustled in my interactions with babalawos during my first few months of fieldwork. My agenda of ethnographic extraction, I found, was constantly being trumped by babalawos’ own attempts to extract dollars from me (see also Holbraad 2004). Being taken to meet Javier by his son Javielito (also a babalawo, and my closest friend in Havana ever since), was a huge relief. As people who knew him would often say, ‘The old man is not up to anything (no está en nada), still attending to the same people as before [i.e. before the post-Soviet era of tourism, dollars and the hustle], charging the same prices, working Ifá in the old style’. If this was a stereotype, it fully coincided with my own idealized images of babalawos as benign sages, which I had derived mainly of my readings on the practice of Ifá in West Africa in the colonial era. Indeed, in retrospect I am sometimes worried that this sense of relief may have also derived a little from the fact that already at that time Javier was bed-ridden (due to the onset of Parkinson’s disease, as I later found out), confined to his tiny and entirely frugal tenement flat in inner city Havana, which he shared with his son Javielito, following the death of Javielito’s mother some years earlier. Still, what I could not have suspected at the time was that these very qualities of modesty and frailty were not merely conditioning factors allowing me finally to get on with my research on how divination is 3 I undertook two initiatory ceremonies in 1999 and 2000, while conducting fieldwork in Cuba for my PhD. Referred to as ‘receiving the warrior deities’ and ‘receiving mano de Orula’, these are considered preliminary steps to the full initiation rites referred to above, in which neophytes are ‘made’ into Ifá and thus become babalawos.

How myths make men in Afro-Cuban divination


lived, but pertained rather to the very heart of my research. For it turns out that what initially attracted me to Javier was itself an expression of his way of living his life, including its encroaching end, in the power of his signo’s myths. My first inkling of the relevance of mythopraxis in Javier’s life was immediate. As a visitor to Javier’s home, one had myth literally thrust upon one, fluttering in one’s face in the form of a half dozen or so pigeons that were allowed to roam freely in the flat’s single (and very tight) living space – perching on chairs, on kitchen utensils, on the consecrated divinities that the two men kept in various parts of the room – and, it must be said, leaving their droppings everywhere. Even during my very first visit to their home, it was impossible not to ask the two men what the pigeons were doing there. The answer I received, cryptic to me at the time, was that Javier kept the pigeons in his home permanently ‘por su signo’, i.e. on account of his signo, according to which they would bring him ‘peace and tranquillity, and give him life’. In response to my queries about this, months later, Javier himself used the pigeons as an example of what ‘living one’s signo’ involves. His signo Ogunda Teturá, he explained, is that of a poor man (signo de pobre). Many of the paths associated with it speak of modest resources and making do with little, and the pigeons, he said, are connected with that. Here is a full transcription of the myth he referred to, translated from a version presented in a compendium of oddu paths used by babalawos, in which the story appears under the title ‘The path of Orunmila’s depression’: Orunmila had a big house which was full of his relatives. One day he found himself in a very bad financial state, having woken up with just 15 cents in his pocket. Depressed about it, he said to himself: ‘I’ll take my own life’. He bought two ekó [a corn-based ritual dish used as offering to divinities] and five bread buns and went up a hill. There he ate what he had, allowing the peel and leftovers to drop on the ground, took a loose vine, and just as he was wrapping it round his neck to kill himself, two pigeons appeared and repeated to him three times (sic): ‘Awó Nagui Aramako, Awó Nagui Aramako’. Hearing this, Orunmila asked: ‘What is it that they are saying?’ Then he looked and saw the pigeons eating what he had thrown away and said: ‘I’m taking my own life, while others are worse off than I’. So he picked up and left. Just three days later a great treasure came his way. Before deciding to commit suicide he had done ebbó [performed a sacrifice] involving two pigeons but had let them loose, and it was none other than those two pigeons that had saved him.

By the time he recounted this to me, Javier had already disclosed to me some of the general features of his own initiatory signo with reference to his


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own character and the course that his life had taken – indeed, references to the signos of Ifá and their varied and ever intricate features were abundant in his narratives when, over several sessions, I recorded his life history. Poverty was an abiding theme of these narratives: he had come from a working-class family of dock workers in Matanzas and had held jobs all his life there and in Havana throughout the Revolutionary period, having two separate conjugal households to sustain, one in each city (a dual arrangement about which he spoke little, and which may have sometimes concerned him as much as the pressures of having too many relatives did Orunmila in his tale of depression). Crucially, he had contracted out of the competitively macho economy of Ifá in the age of the dollar, charging next to nothing for his services. ‘All this’, he would say, indicating the frugal surroundings of his room, ‘is Ogunda Teturá’. The pigeons, however, had come in more recent years, as his health had begun to deteriorate. In fact, while the path’s overt story of the destitution of poverty was very much in line with Javier’s abiding understanding of his signo, the role of the pigeons for him seemed more connected to the myth’s more submerged concern with the relationship between life and death – pigeons as death-defying quellers of desperation (paz y tranquilidad), and thus also prolongers of life (vida), in return for the rather Abrahamic way in which their own life was spared in an aborted sacrifice. In short, pigeons as Isaac-like. The divinatory rationale for this shift in interpretative emphasis probably runs deeper than anything Javier ever told me explicitly. But a key element had to do with the convergence between his self-definition as Ogunda Teturá and the abiding role played by a further signo, now that he was approaching the end of his life and suffering from increasingly severe symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. This was the most magisterial signo – the highest ranking of all oddu – namely Baba Eyogbe, which Javier was given in the final divination conducted at his Ifá initiation – the one that complements the principal signo of the neophyte by providing an image of how he will ‘leave life’, as babalawos put it euphemistically. Baba Eyogbe is commonly held by initiates to be the richest and most complex signo of all. But while he was very much aware of this complexity, it was striking that in connection with his own relationship to Eyogbe, Javier would most often emphasize a single characteristic, namely, the notion of a prolonged period of deterioration before death. This he derived from two principal associations of this signo, which may appear somewhat contradictory, but which Javier himself synthesized to a single and to him, I think, altogether terrifying diagnosis/prognosis: that of a slow death, eyes wide shut. On the one hand, he would often account for the increasing periods he spent lying in his bed with reference to the saying that Eyogbe himself ended his days lying down (postrado). More poignantly, however, he would compare

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his predicament with another image associated with Eyogbe, namely that of an ancient tree slowly being reduced to dust from the inside, due to heart rot (el arbol carcomido). On account of this signo, as Javier told me once, life was escaping him gradually, from the inside, while his mind remained crystal clear (se me está yendo la vida de por dentro pero la mente en sí la tengo clara). Having spent extended periods of time with Javier and his son in my periodic return visits to Cuba up until his death in 2004, I got a strong sense that these oddu-derived cosmological images of dying played an abiding role for Javier in his final years, as the prospect of death loomed larger and larger for him. In particular, it seems to me that these images provided the conceptual and emotional coordinates for Javier’s own experience of his decay, framing his final years as above all an attempt to balance – self-consciously, ‘with a clear mind’ – the life that was left in him with the encroaching debilitation of his disease, experienced as a metonymy of death gnawing away at one from the inside: the heart-rotting tree. A prime example of the profound sense of adjustment that this involved for him was his gradual retirement from the ritual life of Ifá, as well as the cognate male fraternity of Abakuá in which he had been deeply involved as a high-ranking member since his youth in Matanzas. When I asked him about his increasing reluctance to officiate at ceremonies (as he had done in my own initiatory ceremony in 1999, which I think is the last one he did), he explained it in technical terms: ‘making Ifáses takes a lot of aché, and I don’t have much of that left’ – aché being the primary metaphysical concept of Ifá, meaning life force or energy, much like Oceanian mana (Holbraad 2007). I got a sense of the order of loss this forced retirement meant for him on a different occasion, when, along with a friend and one of his nephews, I tried to persuade Javier to let us take him to Matanzas to participate in a major festival of his Abakuá lodge, to which his emotional attachment was perhaps the greatest. Beseeching him clumsily, coming far too close to stating the obvious, namely that this would also be his chance to say goodbye, I soon came profoundly to regret having put Javier in the position of having to voice his inner anxiety. Deeply agitated, he scolded his nephew (although he knew the idea had been mine): ‘Why can’t you just leave me alone … You know I have a tiny bit of life left in me, and I want to preserve all I can. Don’t you understand? I don’t want death’. The pigeons, then, were peace, tranquillity and life. They had saved Orunmila when he was most destitute and closest to the spectre of his own death. For while Javier was certainly not suicidal (quite the opposite), the concern with control over death, so prominent in the story of the pigeons, was also very much his own. Living with the pigeons during his final years, then, was more than just an emblem of Javier's inner drama, although perhaps for

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him it was that too. They were themselves a weapon in his ongoing battle with death – a prime ingredient of his attempts to calibrate between it and the life his signo told him he had left. If one may be allowed to speak in these terms, they were his way of dying out his signo.

Lethal speech

Drawing on earlier work in which I tried to conceptualize the notion of truth that underpins the relationship between signos and the lives on which they operate (Holbraad 2012a, 2012b), I want to start unpacking the logic of this mythopraxis by pointing first to the role that motion plays in it. For there is an important sense in which the highly motile way in which the oddu are generated in the very technique of divination (that is, the motions of Orula’s nuts) is merely the tip of a motile iceberg, in which managing movement is what is most at stake in maintaining and developing one’s relationship to one’s sign. Most crucially, motion, and particularly transformation, is what babalawos highlight when they explain the importance of the myths of the oddu to their lives, and their ongoing projects of interpreting those myths in order to uncover their purchase on their daily comportment. As we have seen, while the ‘paths’ of each oddu – and the motile connotations of the word are significant – typically recount events that happened in the distant past in some part of Africa, whether consulting for clients or ‘living’ the oddu himself, the babalawo’s job is effectively to transform the path into some form of message that is of immediate relevance and can be operationalized in one’s life: the image of a tree with heart rot transfigures into the experience of Parkinson’s disease, the story of Orunmila and the pigeons becomes an ingredient in an old man’s attempts to stave off death, and rendered entirely concrete in the form of living pigeons perching in a tenement flat. The literal role that transformative motion plays in such forms of mythopraxis was conveyed to me by Javier himself by way of a vivid account that merits full quotation: [To consult] you need to know how to speak – to be an orator of Ifá – to manage the ‘metamorphosis’, as we call it … You might come to me and from one story I can tell you three things. But you go to someone else and they might tell you ten, knowing how to get the most out of the oddu (sacarle provecho). There was one guy … who was famous when I was young. Once I was in a [divination] with him; he was arrogant but with good reason since he knew more than anyone else … The other babalawos were speaking the oddu – I did too – but at some point he just stood up and said: ‘Now listen to me!’ and, turning to the neophyte [curtly], ‘the fridge in your house is broken!’ [The neophyte], bewildered, goes ‘Yes, it is’. The babalawo

How myths make men in Afro-Cuban divination


turns to the rest: ‘Did you hear that?’ – that was his way of teaching. We wondered how Ifá can speak of the guy’s fridge … So he explained himself – I think the oddu was Obara Meyi: ‘Ifá says that there was an island where fishermen lived, but all their fish kept rotting. Close by there was another island that always had snow, so the fishermen brought snow from there to put their fish in’. And so with metamorphosis he says that in the house there must be a fridge, and since the neophyte had turned out osobbo [i.e. as having a path of misfortune], that it must be broken. Do you see how it works?

However, as we have seen, a reciprocal form of transformation is also expected of the babalawo in the demand to live the sign. Just as the sign is transformed interpretatively in order to be rendered personally relevant to the diviner, so the life to which the sign speaks must also be transformed in the light of these divinations. Indeed, as Anastasis Panagiotopoulos has shown, here too the notion of a ‘path’ becomes operative. In the context of one’s normative relationship with one’s sign, one’s own life as a babalawo is also conceived of as a ‘path’ (camino) that must be brought continually into line with the mythical paths that are made to have a purchase on it (Panagiotopoulos 2011, 2017). Difficult as they were for him (and that is of course also the point), Javier’s progressive compromises and adjustments in the final years of his life were for him only the last in a series of often sacrificial-looking acts of alignment with the demands of Ogunda Teturá and other oddu reining the course of his life path. Ffor example, living Ogunda Teturá as a poor man’s signo effectively barred Javier from enjoying the aspect of Ifá that makes it most attractive to most babalawos, namely the great amount of money and luxury with which it is associated (see also Holbraad 2004). In short, the man-as-divinity cyborg that divination produces can be parsed as a process of reciprocal motions of transformation: qua mythical paths, the oddu are transformed in the direction of the men whose signs they are, while those men transform their own lives in order to embody the divine oddu and their myths. In earlier work, I schematized such a reciprocal movement of paths by way of the rather literal-minded model (Figure  2.1), adjusted here to fit the terms of the present argument. However, while this figure was helpful in the context of a somewhat different argument, regarding the ‘motile’ character that divinatory truth claims come to acquire in Ifá (see Holbraad 2012a; 2012b), it is not in itself nuanced enough to reflect the logic of mythopraxis that is our concern here, nor, indeed, the constitution of the cyborg divinations of men that, as we have seen, emerge out of it. Crucially, in emphasizing the mutual character of the transformations that both myths and men undergo in the process of

Martin Holbraad


divinity man-as-divinity



Figure 2.1 An (overly) symmetrical model of motile mythopraxis.

divination, this analysis downplays an irreducible asymmetry in the reciprocity of this relationship – one that is crucial to conceptualizing the cyborg men-asdivinities that Ifá divination produces. To see the asymmetry in question, one might ask: why could we not think of the neophytes of Ifá the other way round, as, say, divinities-as-men? Why, indeed, can we not think of Javier’s efforts to live and die as Ogunda Teturá as much as a ‘humanization’ of the signo as a ‘divination’ of the man? Now, as we have seen, in a sense we can. The myths must indeed be transformed in order to have a purchase on the lives over which they reign: a mythical island of ice becomes a broken fridge, Ogunda Teturá’s suicidal path of depression becomes Javier’s flat with pigeons, and so on. Nevertheless, to a babalawo it would be nonsense to suggest that such transformations are analogous to the ones he strives to undergo himself in living his signo. To imagine that divination might act to transform the ontological constitution of the divinities (in the same way that it quite properly transforms babalawos’ own constitution) would be a logical aberration. The whole point about the gods and their myths – the whole reason for which it is worth bringing them to bear on life in the first place – is that, pertaining to the times of origins as they unfolded in a distant ‘Africa’, as we have seen, they are in themselves timeless and transcendent with respect to the here-and-now realties over which they – precisely – reign, and therefore constitutively immune to being modified by them. A kind of mythical langue to the parole of the living. It is in this connection, I suggest, that Roy Wagner’s models of obviational sequencing, particularly as developed in his dazzlingly sophisticated conceptualization of myth (Wagner 1978), may allow us to make a major stride forward. For one way to gloss the complexity of Wagner’s account of mythical transformations is in terms of the role it accords to the asymmetry of their motile sequences (see also Dulley 2018; Holbraad and Pedersen

How myths make men in Afro-Cuban divination


2017:87–104). This plays out as a dialectical interplay between what Wagner calls ‘collectivizing’ modalities, which depict the world through conventional schemes of meaning (think here of cosmology, grammar, kinship patterns, social and political organization and so on), and ‘individual’ or ‘differentiating’ ones, in which these conventional depictions are collapsed in moments of semiotic invention, or ‘obviated’ in Wagner’s terminology, in order to be transformed or distorted so as to reveal new possibilities for meaning (for cosmology, think of the impact of a statement such as ‘God is dead’; for grammar think of poetry; for kinship think of a scandalous extramarital affair; for social and political organization, think of revolution, or at least of how revolutions often like to think of themselves).4 Wagner writes: The plot of a myth is not simply a succession of substitutions or transformations, but a transformational dialectic that embodies the interplay between contextual separation and its obviation … Effectively transformations take the form of alternating constructions of a social (collectivizing) nature and an individual (differentiating) nature. Keeping in mind that the conventional mode, that of social construction, also embodies the property of contextual separation, and that the inventive mode, that of innovation, embodies the tropic properties of contextual assimilation, we can see that this is a special kind of dialectic. Whereas its ‘open’, bipolar form as a dialogue between opposed principles, or semiotic modes, is maintained by one of these modes, a cumulative movement toward closure and resolution, toward figurative self-continence, is maintained by the other mode. The result is an obviation sequence, a self-containing and self-closing dialectic – or better, perhaps, a dialectic that becomes something. 

(Wagner 1978:35)

In his study of Daribi myth, the dialectical contrast between collectivizing and differentiating modes of substitution (the mutual embrace of convention and invention) is divided by itself, to use one of Wagner’s more recent tropes, to characterize two contrasting modalities of myth among the Daribi. Namu Po, which Wagner glosses as tales or legends, are stories that are understood to be made up contingently by people, spinning in variously fanciful ways a yarn made of their unique experiences and peculiar characteristics in order to reach an overtly moralizing conclusion about how things should be done. The 4

Wagner’s conception of invention is laid out most systematically in The Invention of Culture (1981) – perhaps the closest anthropology has come to providing a theory of everything. For my own (partial) exegesis, see Holbraad 2012a:37–46. See also Dulley 2015 and Holbraad and Pedersen 2016.


Martin Holbraad

particular is obviated through the successive substitutions of the story’s plot in order to yield a conventionally understood, collectively applicable ‘moral’. Inversely, Po Page, glossed as ‘revealed origins’ or ‘origin myths’, comprise the received wisdom on how the conventions the Daribi take to be innate to the world (cosmology, kin relations, ritual forms, and other such seemingly infrastructural elements of their lives) emerged out of specific circumstances unique to them (Wagner 1978:56–7). So here it is collectivizing conventions that get obviated differentially, in order to be revealed as unique, thoroughly contingent inventions with a specific origin. While the inverse (indeed symmetrical) asymmetry of these two modalities is put to work by Wagner to illuminate the internal symbolic economy of Daribi myths, thus showing how myths operate upon themselves, the sheer elegance of Wagner’s distinction can also be transposed more or less wholesale onto the ways in which myths interact with the people to whom they are ascribed in Ifá divination. With reference to Figure 2.1, it is clear that the symmetry along the horizontal axis of the two motile paths that meet to produce the cyborg man-as-divinity belies a reversal of direction that is identical to the one Wagner draws when contrasting Po Page and Namu Po. The ‘metamorphosis’ the myths of Orula undergo in order to collide with the trajectories of the men they characterize is one that obviates the elements of a conventional cosmology, fixed eternally in the complex schemes of oddu the babalawos must study, in order to differentiate themselves as particularized forms of life, tailored to the unique and contingent circumstances of the person that takes them on and lives them. (Note the difference from Po Page, however: whereas the particularization of these pertained to the backstory of cosmology, in Ifá it pertains to its influence over the lives on which it is made to operate). Conversely, the transformations the babalawos effect on themselves as they strive to ‘live the signo’ in light of these mythically derived edicts move in the opposite direction, like Namu Po tales: the always-already particular circumstances of the person who enters the orbit of the oddu through divination are deliberately obviated, and substituted with explicitly moral intent by the collectivizing images given by the signos. So, if the vector that runs from divinity to humanity marks a movement from cosmologically given conventions to the vital artifice of invention, the vector that runs from humanity to divinity moves from the imponderable particulars of everyday life to the innate, always-already given moulds of Ifá cosmology. Now, in a way we could leave the argument here. Wagner’s analytical vocabulary of the innate and the artificial, convention and invention, and collectivization and differentiation is enough in itself not only to describe the asymmetrical structure of Ifá divination, but also to account for it. As we saw, the question of asymmetry comes down to babalawos’ conviction that it is

How myths make men in Afro-Cuban divination


people rather than divinities and their myths that ought to change through divination. This would appear, then, as a straight confirmation of one of Wagner’s arch contentions, namely that what distinguishes our own societies from those in which such practices as divination hold sway is precisely the fact that while ‘we’ take conventions to be the result of human artifice (and hence recognize such things as Ifá myths only very begrudgingly, branding them, precisely, as ‘myths’ or, worse, ‘beliefs’), ‘they’ take them to be innate – the furniture of the world, to coin a phrase. So the logical aberration of imagining that the inner constitution of divinities and myths could per impossibile be modified by their contact with humans in divination could in this way be more or less deduced from Wagnerian first principles. Still, leaving things at that would involve a strong element of circularity. We can only really know that Ifá divination exemplifies the innatism Wagner somewhat sweepingly ascribes to nigh on all peoples other than EuroAmericans (e.g. Wagner 1981:74–5) by pointing to the ontological asymmetries of divinities and humans, so explaining the latter in terms of the former would seem to beg the question. To avoid such a circular argument, it pays to obviate (in his terms) Wagner’s own conventional (and too collectivizing) distinction between the innate and the artificial by adding to it the kinds of conceptual dimension Ifá practitioners themselves enunciate when they distinguish the divinatory operations of myth from those of life – a conceptual language that, as we shall see, is able more strictly to quantify the distinction between myth and life. In fact, subsequent to his study of Daribi myth, Wagner himself has provided an ingenious concept, namely that of ‘expersonation’, which can provide a bridge from the broadly qualitative distinction between innate conventions and artificial inventions to the more precisely quantitative way in which babalawos conceive of what makes their myths so special.

Conclusion: quantifying obviations

Expersonation, as Wagner articulates it, is impersonation inside out. While impersonation, which he glosses as a form of abstraction, involves ‘an exaggeration of some features and consequent omission or downgrading of others’, expersonations ‘register more concrete particularity than is found in the original’ (Wagner 2012: S162; see also Wagner 2010). Now, while Wagner does not state this himself, we may note that this is effectively a manner of quantifying his original distinction between the two modes of obviation, from invention to convention and vice versa, which we encountered in his account of Daribi myths (Wagner 1978). To conventionalize always involves an obviation that cuts things away, subtracting their unique particularities (impersonation), while invention adds to the things upon which it operates, rendering them more particular than it found them (expersonation).


Martin Holbraad

What is so useful in this inventive obviation of the convention/invention dyad is that it refigures it as a kind of analytical quantification of ‘more’ and ‘less’, upon which the ethnography of Ifá has a direct purchase. Reminiscent of (although quite different from) medieval theologies that opposed the infinity of God’s perfection to the finitude of his imperfect creations, Ifá, as we saw, articulates the contrast between the mythical paths of the oddu and the life paths of the humans who come under their influence in terms of a similarly quantifying qualification, which can be glossed analytically as a distinction between the definite and the indefinite. Far from infinite, Orula and his oddu may indeed be vast, but they are nevertheless strictly (if notionally) circumscribed. ‘Everything is in Ifá’, babalawos say, but this is an ‘everything’ on which you can put a number: a closed set of 256 oddu with a notionally determinate number of paths. By contrast, the sets of circumstances on which Ifá is brought to bear in divination is left deliberately open: anything, babalawos marvel, can be explained by Ifá – hence the awe of Orula’s power (see also Holbraad 2010). This melding of differently quantified scales – the definite ‘everything’ of myth and the indefinite ‘anything’ of life – lies at the heart of Ifá cyborgs’ constitutive asymmetry, providing the terms with which such an asymmetry can be analytically articulated. To see this, we may start by glossing the asymmetry using Wagner’s language of impersonation and expersonation. Living one’s signo, following this account, can be articulated as a process in which the babalawo is required to ‘impersonate’ himself (reducing his own contingency in particular ways) in order the better to ‘expersonate’ his oddu (augmenting it into more than the conventional characteristics given in the myths by adding to it his own flesh-and-blood manner of enacting them). Conversely, viewed from the point of view of the myths rather than that of the men who enact them, the asymmetry is inverted. As the object of babalawos’ interpretative metamorphoses, the mythical oddu are made to ‘expersonate’ themselves, as they are rendered more and more concrete according to the interpretive exigencies of the divination: mythical ice and rotting fish get turned into reallife broken fridges, biblical-sounding accounts of self-immolating pigeons become flesh-and-blood birds leaving their droppings in an old man’s flat and so on. And this they do in order the better to ‘impersonate’ the babalawo to whom they are attached in divination, whose oddu-like characteristics they emphasize at the expense of others, which are effectively discarded, supressed or even sacrificed, as we saw with Javier’s poverty and self-restraint. Thus the asymmetry between myth and life that animates this process of mythopraxis can be schematized quantitatively. Babalawos become less of themselves in order to make more of the oddu they, thus, become. The oddu become more of themselves in order to chisel the babalawo (who, literally, becomes them)

How myths make men in Afro-Cuban divination


into a more delimited version of himself. Less babalawo for more oddu, so to speak, and more oddu for less babalawo. Yet babalawos’ own manner of quantifying this asymmetrical relationship between myth and life nuances its conceptualization further. In particular, articulated in terms of the contrast between the definite ‘everything’ of myth and the indefinite ‘anything’ of life, the asymmetry at the heart of the mythopraxis of divination becomes not so much a difference of quantity (that is, ‘less’ or ‘more’ myth or life), but more precisely a difference of intensity: a question of the relative concentration of mythical characteristics on the one hand (as in fruit juice made from ‘concentrate’), and the process of dilution that their human enactment in ‘real life’ involves. Consider first the transformation that the oddu undergo by way of the ‘metamorphoses’ diviners perform when they interpret them during divination. As we have seen, the babalawos’ task in these interpretations is to render increasingly contingent a myth that is conceived as forming part of a total (definite) corpus that contains ‘everything’. Following through on the logic, we may note that these interpretive transformations cannot, therefore, claim to add anything new to the myths upon which they operate, since those myths are understood as already containing everything there is: everything is (always, already) in Ifá. Diviners’ interpretations of the oddu that comprise the mythical corpus of Ifá needs must operate within its closed universe. The transformations involved, therefore, cannot be conceived as a matter of changing the oddu into something different, or adding something new to it (for example, turning ‘myth’ into ‘life’, where the two are imagined as qualitatively distinct, mutually exclusive states of being). Rather, the interpretive transformations that the babalawos provide must be conceived as a manner of making more of the mythical oddu, disclosing interpretatively elements the oddu is deemed as containing within itself already. As Javier put it himself, it is a matter of ‘knowing how to get the most out of the oddu’. Such a process of ‘disclosure’ is indeed an example of expersonation since ‘making more’ or ‘getting the most out’ of the oddu involves disclosing ‘more of its concrete particularity’, in line with Wagner’s definition. But thinking in this way of the transformation the oddu undergoes helps to specify this act of expersonation also as a form of ‘intensification’, insofar as the oddu is revealed as having had more content than initially appeared – the babalawos’ interpretative disclosure consists in making this extra content, so to speak, apparent. Since nothing can be added to an oddu that is conceived as partaking in a closed-off totality that already contains everything within itself, the only way to ‘metamorphose’ the oddu in order to bring it (closer) to life is to concentrate its content in a particular direction. Thus premising babalawos’ interpretive disclosure on the oddu’s own ‘closure’ as a definite totality, this


Martin Holbraad

concentration of content effectively adds to the myth its own reality, and in that sense brings it to life (not least in the literal, if overly symmetrical, manner depicted in Figure 2.1). By such an account, we may note in passing, life is rendered as a denser version of myth, and thus the distinction between the two becomes one of degree rather than kind. The inverse transformation that takes place when a babalawo follows the initiatory injunction to ‘live his signo’ can also be conceptualized as a question of relative intensities. Here the babalawo’s task is to turn himself from a constituent of that open and indefinite set of elements that is the ‘anything’ of life into ‘something’ or, better, ‘someone’ who has a place inside the closed off set of ‘everything’ that is the universe of the oddu of Ifá, one of which will become the babalawo’s own signo at initiation. Now, as we saw, in Wagner’s terms this can be imagined as a feat of impersonation, in which the babalawo seeks deliberately to conventionalize his behaviour, pressing it to the service of the characteristics his initiatory oddu prescribes for him – lessening his own quotient of contingency as a flesh-and-blood person in order the better to enact his ‘divined’ identity as a babalawo. But again, this less-life-more-myth move can be conceptually specified further when understood as a passage from an indefinite ‘anything’ to a definite ‘something’, which is in turn understood as a constituent of an equally definite ‘everything’. If ‘anything’ is invoked by babalawos to convey the awesome abundance of life-circumstances on which their skill as diviners can shed light, the problem this abundance poses in their attempt to live life in accordance with a particular oddu is that of excess. Life in itself is too intractably contingent – ‘one damn thing after another’; indeed, anything – so living it according to one’s signo involves a process of thinning it out, formatting it to the oddu’s more definite prescriptions. Of all the lives you could live, live that of a poor man. Of all the worries you could have, yours should be about the prospect of a slow death. Life, in that sense, is turned into myth by having its content attenuated into the particular form prescribed by the oddu. So one might say that mythopraxis is living life as if it had a rhyme and a reason – and that is exactly what initiation in Ifá provides, and what Ifá diviners can reveal. What Javier perhaps also knew, however, is that life lived in the power of Ifá in this way is by the same token always also a form of death – an impersonating obviation of the self, as Wagner might put it, for the sake of the oddu. But perhaps Javier’s drama was the paradox in which this logic caught him: having been given an oddu of decay, the body turning from flesh to dust from the inside, barring him from precisely those intensities of the process of divination that are perhaps the payoff of death as a diviner divined. Living the signo, for Javier, was not fully to live. Perhaps the peace and tranquillity that the pigeons brought him were the deal he cut with this paradox.

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Barber, K. 1982. ‘How man makes god in West Africa: Yoruba attitudes towards the “orisa”’. Africa 51(3):724–45. Basso Ortíz, A. 2014. ‘The performance of value in Afro-Cuban religions’. Posthumous paper presented by Martin Holbraad and Rodney Reynolds, social anthropology seminar, UCL, 15 October 2014. ______ 2017. Performing Ethics: Will, Perspective and Action in Afro-Cuban Religions. Working Paper No. 19/2017, UCL Anthropology Working Papers Series: (accessed 16 October 2017). de Boeck, F., and Devisch, F. 1994. ‘Ndembu, Luunda and Yaka divination compared: from representation and social engineering to embodiment and worldmaking’. Journal of Religion in Africa 24(2):98–133. Dulley, I. 2018. Difference and Ethnography in Roy Wagner. London: Routledge. Gobin, E. 2007. ‘«Innovation», circulation, fragmentation: Ethnographie d’un conflit religieux à La Havane’. Ateliers d’anthropologie 31: (accessed 16 October 2017). Goldman, M. 1985. ‘A construção ritual da pessoa: a possessão no candomblé’. Religião e Sociedade 12(1):22–54. Haraway, D. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge. Holbraad, M. 2004. ‘Religious “speculation”: the rise of Ifá cults and consumption in post-Soviet Havana’. Journal of Latin American Studies 36(4):1–21. ——— 2007. ‘The power of powder: multiplicity and motion in the divinatory cosmology of Cuban Ifá (or mana, again)’. In Thinking through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically, (ed.) A. Henare, M. Holbraad and S. Wastell, pp. 189–225. London: Routledge. ——— 2008. ‘Relationships in motion: oracular recruitment and ontological definition in Cuban Ifá cults’. Cahiers Systèmes de Pensée en Afrique Noire 18:219–64. ——— 2010. ‘The whole beyond holism: gambling, divination and ethnography in Cuba’. In Experiments in Holism: Theory and Practice in Contemporary Anthropology, (ed.) T. Otto and N. Bubandt, pp. 67–85. Oxford: Blackwell. ——— 2102a. ‘Truth beyond doubt: Ifá oracles in Havana’. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2(1):81–110. ——— 2012b. Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Holbraad, M. and Pedersen. M.A. 2009. ‘Planet M: the intense abstraction of Marilyn Strathern’. Anthropological Theory 9(4):371–94. ——— 2017. The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Panagiotopoulos, A. 2011. ‘The island of crossed destinies: human and other-thanhuman perspectives in Afro-Cuban divination’, PhD thesis. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. ——— 2017. ‘When biographies cross necrographies: the exchange of “affinity” in Cuba. Ethnos 82(5):946–70. Sahlins, M. 1985. Islands of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Strathern, M. 2004. Partial Connections, rev. edn. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press. Wagner, R. 1978. Lethal Speech: Daribi Myth as Symbolic Obviation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press ——— 1981. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 1991. ‘The fractal person’. In Big Men and Great Men: Personifications of Power in Melanesia, (ed.) M. Godelier and M. Strathern, pp. 159–74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ——— 2010. Coyote Anthropology. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ——— 2012. ‘“Luck in the double focus”: ritualized hospitality in Melanesia’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18(S1):S161–74.

C hapter 3

The domestication of the abstract soul  Pedro Pitarch

Expersonation is only dangerous when you think you know what it is. —Roy Wagner

In this chapter I use Roy Wagner’s concept of ‘expersonation’ (Wagner 2010a) to interpret the Maya-Tzeltal sequence of person-making. My aim is not to project this concept on the ethnographic data but to see how its use may reveal an image of the person significantly more specific than we conventionally tend to imagine in Meso-American ethnology. This is at least the feeling I had while writing this chapter: the feeling that not only Wagner’s terms do fit the ethnographic data – which was foreseeable – but above all that they highlighted details that would have otherwise gone unnoticed or simply remained an intuition. The contrast between impersonation and expersonation, writes Wagner, introduces a way of seeing according to which ‘the world as we normally perceive it is thrown into sharp relief, caught in a play of light and shadow between one extreme and the other’ (Wagner 2010a:ix). ‘An impersonation is a mere copying of its subject, an act of mimesis in Aristotle’s terms and thus necessarily an exaggeration of some features and consequent omission or downgrading of others’ (Wagner 2012a:162); that is, a kind of abstraction, a caricature if you will, that facilitates the creation of social conventions. ‘An expersonation reverses this process, and registers more concrete particularity than is found in the original’ (ibid.:162); that is, a process that increases specificity, which aims to develop the uniqueness of what there is, and therefore tends to destabilize social forms. ‘Knowing “what to say” in a language is expersonative of that language, whereas the linguistic description is a mere


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impersonation of its expressive possibilities’ (Wagner 2012b:12). This contrast fits any social form, and indeed, as noted by Martin Holbraad (this volume), it may be interpreted as a quantification of Wagner’s original articulation between convention and invention. But perhaps the most concrete example of the contrast between impersonation and expersonation is the relationship between soul and body. My argument is that the whole process of Tzeltal person formation is a sequence of expersonation, a process that goes from the most universal to the most particular, from the most subjective to the most objective, from the most affective to the less. Human sacrifice in Meso-America may indeed be interpreted as a mode of obviation, whereby the expersonation sequence is consummated and the person-formation cycle is returned to its starting point. The ethnographic data presented here comes from my work over twenty-five years with the Tzeltal, a population of about 400,000 Mayan Indians living in the state of Chiapas, southern Mexico (see e.g. Pitarch 2010, 2013a). In particular, I build on previous work in which I proposed a reorganization of the Maya concept of the person in terms of a quaternary model (see Pitarch 2011). What prompted me to develop this model was the discovery of the distinction the Tzeltal make between two types of human bodies. On the one hand, there is a ‘flesh-body’, the union of flesh and bodily fluids that make up a whole that is divisible into parts, an object that is sentient, though lacking the capacity to relate socially to other beings, and that represents the substantial homogeneity between humans and animals. On the other hand, there is a ‘presence-body’, an active subject capable of perception, feeling and cognition, committed to an intersubjective relationship with bodies of the same species. Such a ‘dissociation’ of the body, I argued, is equivalent to what I find to be an elementary distinction of Meso-American souls: one type of soul with the figure of a body and another with a non-human form, generally that of an animal. Such a model, while still essentially binary (body/soul), nonetheless permits integration of the parallel schema of two bodies and two souls making up human beings, at the same time as it describes their ontological relations of continuity and discontinuity with animals, on the one hand, and spirits, on the other. The first two sections of this chapter summarize this argument. The following sections, however, represent a reinterpretation of my data in terms of the concept of expersonation. I thus start with the distinction between bodies and souls.

The domestication of the abstract soul

The ‘flesh-body’ and the ‘presence-body’


I translate the Tzeltal word bak’etal as ‘flesh-body’. In a literal sense, it alludes to ‘flesh as a whole’, and its root bak’et means ‘flesh’, both human and animal, whether alive or a piece of meat to be eaten. The flesh-body comprises the human body as a whole, with the exception of bones, hair and nails. This is because no blood circulates in these parts and blood is the essential element that defines the flesh-body. ‘Blood gives life to the flesh; if you cut flesh, it bleeds’. The flesh-body is ‘where blood flows, where it [the flesh] receives air, where it breathes’. Tzeltal ideas about the body’s internal organization are highly imprecise, but the idea that the cardiovascular system and respiratory system are one and the same prevails. The air we breathe, which is indispensable for life, and the food that nourishes us go straight to the heart and stomach, and from there to the blood to be carried to the rest of the body. Naturally, no blood flows to the bones, hair and nails. ‘Cutting them does not hurt’. The pain associated with spilled blood is another characteristic of the flesh-body. Flesh hurts if it is cut or opened up in a wound; limbs hurt, as do the head, joints and entrails. Muscles, fat, veins, skin, the head, ears and limbs are generally considered part of the flesh-body. In fact, one feature of the fleshbody is that it is made up of ‘parts’, easily distinguishable discreet fragments susceptible to being harmed by enemies. For the Tzeltal, it is evident that plants do not have a flesh-body because plants and trees ‘have no blood, do not breathe’. All other animals, however – land and aquatic animals and birds – have a flesh-body. As with humans, fur, bones, claws, feathers and beaks are not part of the flesh-body. While it is true that, unlike in humans, such ‘adornments’ may represent a considerable portion of the entire body, they nonetheless do not modify an animal’s appearance because, in fact, the flesh-body is not what gives an individual a specific shape. This body is not defined by its shape but by the substance of which it is made. A synonym of the body, kojtol, refers to this. Kojtol comes from the term kojt, which means ‘on four legs’, in a quadrupedal position, and it is also the classifier used to enumerate animals but not humans. In other words, it designates a posture and not a body shape. Does this mean that the flesh-body is animal flesh, or the animal nature of the body? Not exactly, in my opinion. Rather, it seems to be an element shared by both humans and animals, a primeval domain we could call ‘substance’ (‘anything with no definite shape of which another physical thing is made’). And that substance is, essentially, flesh and blood. A revealing fact in the understanding of this kind of body is that the foetus, while still in the womb, lacks a flesh-body, although it does have the second type of body, a ‘presence-body’. This is because a baby is part of its mother’s flesh-body until it is born. It can live in the womb thanks to its mother’s


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Figure 3.1 Tzeltal from Cancuc, Chiapas highlands.

blood; the foetus breathes and is nourished through her. The menstrual flow is interpreted as blood for the foetus which is simply expelled and wasted if there is no pregnancy. The foetus, therefore, lacks an independent cardiovascular system, which is, as we have seen, the main criterion defining the flesh-body. In fact, from a Tzeltal perspective, a baby’s heart does not beat until it is born; only just after birth does a newborn become a flesh-body itself. Even then, the new flesh-body is not fully independent, however, for the baby still has to ‘breathe’ through its mother. For this reason, cutting the umbilical cord is delayed for as long as possible and the baby will need to be nursed, Tzeltal say, for its mother’s milk transmits air as well as milk. Even during the long period in which the baby is carried on its mother’s back, in a sort of transferred breathing, the state of her blood (warm, cool) will continue to gestate the baby. Thus, certain ordinary spatial and temporal conditions, guaranteed by the sun’s light and warmth, are required for a flesh-body to take shape; it needs to be ‘in this world’ and ‘at this time’. A foetus, however, is nearer to the ‘sacred’ state while it is in the cold darkness of the womb. Devoid of a flesh-body and nourished by blood alone, by nature it resembles the spirits more than it does human beings. The foetus undoubtedly needs to be nourished by its mother’s blood. This is so because the foetus has no blood of its own and, therefore, no carnal body. The second body (winkilel) comprises the entire human body, including hair, nails and bones. The Tzeltal stress that this body is formed by ‘all’, including the inside of the body. From their descriptions, however, it can be inferred that this body is characterized by its visibility, not so much the part of

The domestication of the abstract soul


the body that is visible, but insofar as a body exists to be seen and perceived and, in turn, to perceive; in other words, a body involved in intersubjective relationships with other similar bodies. It is in this sense that I translate winkilel as ‘presence-body’. The presence-body is the figure, the body shape, the face, the way of speaking, of walking, of dressing. If I see someone from a distance, I can say that the figure looks like the winkilel of Peter, although it may turn out to be someone else. It is what reminds us of a deceased person, or the premonition of what a baby will be like before it is born. We can try to clarify further this idea of ‘presence’ by paying attention to the term’s root, win, whose meaning is ‘to appear’, ‘to become visible’. The morpheme has a wide semantic field in Mayan languages. It is found in the word winik, which is commonly translated as ‘human being’, ‘body’ or ‘person’. It also means ‘corpulence’, something that is a key datum, for, unlike the fleshbody, which is defined by the substance of which it is made, the presencebody is characterized by the volume it occupies, in the sense of res extensa. I suspect the term win was borrowed from Mixe-Zoquean languages, where it appears to be associated with power (the capacity to do things), the face, the eye, the body, surface, oneself (the reflexive form of the personal pronoun), façade, wrapping and also mask. In other words, it is something seen, but it is also something used to see. Moreover, the indigenous identification of the self with a mask, that is, with something that is outside the carnal body, reminds us that in the Western tradition too – as Marcel Mauss (1979) noted – the mask is found in the primitive notion of the person, which is an intriguing coincidence. Finally, we also find the root of the term for presence-body in winal, each of the twenty-day ‘months’ of the Mayan solar calendar, and in the number twenty, to the extent that Dennis Tedlock defines the Quiché term winak (‘human being’) as ‘vigesimal being’ (Tedlock 1993:73), a contrived translation, perhaps, but one that expresses well the constitutional nature of the twenty digits. All of this has extensive implications that we cannot develop here, but which, in any event, demonstrate that Roy Wagner’s observation that the Maya never invented the wheel, ‘but only because it had invented them’ (Wagner 2010b:xv, original emphasis) should be taken literally. What sorts of beings have a presence-body (winkilel)? Certainly not plants, as in the case of the flesh-body. However, animals do possess it, because they ‘walk, play, work, live in houses and have children’. Now, animals have a presence-body only insofar as they relate to members of their own species. A rabbit only has a presence-body if it is seen (perceived) by another rabbit, or, more precisely, having the presence-body of a rabbit is what enables it to establish a relationship with other rabbits. To human beings, on the other hand, and to all other animal species, rabbits essentially have a flesh-body, and


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vice versa. The presence-body, therefore, can only be perceived or become fully ‘present’ when it is among beings of the same species. Consequently, whereas the flesh-body functions as common matter between the species, the presence-body only becomes actual within each species.1 As Anne-Christine Taylor and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2006) have so lucidly pointed out with regard to the Amazon region, from an indigenous point of view each species makes up a society, and each society represents a species. The same is true in Tzeltal: a species is defined and its extension limited by its ability to establish relationships through its presence-body. The Tzeltal term that most closely resembles the European concept of ‘Indian’ or ‘indigenous’ would probably be swinkilel lum, literally ‘presence-body of the place’. This means that each type of presence-body is associated with a specific place: the Indians live in their villages, Europeans live in cities or on ranches, and jaguars live in the jungle. Each type of presence-body ‘owns’ or dominates (in the sense of occupying) a domain or a specific territory. This domain, however, is not so much physical but ontological: each type of presencebody has a cultural ecosystem that does not interfere geographically with the cultural ecosystems of other species and is the one that best suits it. Nonetheless, the separation between species and communities is not absolute but rather a matter of degree. A certain amount of overlapping between species and divisions within species takes place, as demonstrated by the case of humans. In principle, from an indigenous point of view, Europeans are sufficiently human, but this recognition is not automatic, simple or complete. The fact that Europeans do not speak the same language and do not share the same customs reveals a partially different presence-body, which prevents fluid social intercourse. Sociological differences imply corporeal ones, and vice versa. Between Europeans and indigenous people, certain bodily aspects literally become invisible for each other, and to the extent that the presence partially fades, what emerges – likewise only in part – is the common carnal body. The crucial question here is whether a being with a partially different presence-body can be made pregnant in order to have children (Crocker 1992), since the impossibility of producing offspring is in 1 Oddly, we find a similar distinction in Melanesian ethnography. The Paiela of the Papua New Guinea highlands, explains Aletta Biersack, recognize a ‘working body’, a ‘subject-driven body’, whose ‘movement and functioning are voluntary and purposeful’, and a second body, ‘the stationary body’, which functions involuntarily, ‘subjectless’, ‘neither intelligent nor intelligible’. The working body draws its vitality from the day, when the sun allows work to be done; the stationary body, which does not think, speak or act, but merely grows and consumes, belongs to the night and is associated with the moon (Biersack 1996:6–9).

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effect what delimits a species-society. Hence, the widespread indigenous suspicion that mixed relationships between Europeans and indigenous peoples – and also between indigenous groups with different languages and customs – will produce children with deformities, or idiots or albinos. However, if the body is the aspect of the person that must be ‘fabricated’ in Amerindian cultures, since the soul is the given principle (Viveiros de Castro 2002), is it possible to recognize a different degree of artificiality between the two kinds of Tzeltal bodies? There is no doubt that both bodies constantly need to be made up. On the one hand, the flesh-body is the direct result of nourishment (food is literally incorporated as flesh and blood) and environmental conditions (temperature in particular); on the other, the presence-body is the fruit of social habits of the species-culture (social etiquette, language, gestures, clothing and so on). Both processes – food and social code – are required to achieve single bio-moral development (Pitarch 2008). Nevertheless, paradoxical as it may seem from a European point of view, but in accordance with Wagner’s inverse distribution of what is given and what is made in ‘differentiating’ cultures (Wagner 1981:81–94), the flesh-body is the more artificial, less innate body. As mentioned above, the latter only begins to be made after birth, whereas the presence-body already begins its development in the maternal womb. Indeed, of the two bodies, it is the flesh-body that is the more malleable, therefore the more susceptible to modification through human activity. Consequently, any desired modification of the presence-body must be preceded by a change in the flesh-body. For instance, as any Indian parent knows, before a child can become a schoolteacher – and thus receive a salary from the government – the primary and most important requirement is to substitute the corn and bean diet with bread made with flour, beef and store-bought products. It is precisely this kind of food that will literally make the child speak Spanish and learn to read and write.

The ‘human-soul’ and the ‘spirit-soul’

The ethnography of the Meso-American area provides an extremely extensive and particularistic repertoire of souls, a repertoire that in turn is expanded by the fact that souls can easily divide or multiply, so any one person may contain any number of these beings. Nonetheless, if we focus exclusively on the type of ‘body’ that souls have, we may drastically simplify this complexity to the point of distinguishing two basic types: a soul in the shape of a human body; and a soul associated with an animal, atmospheric phenomena or any other being in a non-human shape.2 2

In Hultkrantz’s study of North American Indians, in general, two types of souls can be recognized: one soul with the same outline as the human body in which it


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In Tzeltal these are named ch’ulel and lab, but to simplify the matter I will call them the ‘human-soul’ and the ‘spirit-soul’ respectively. The former, which resides in the heart, is described as a shadow with exactly the same shape as the human body in which it is lodged, even down to the hair and clothes – it is an exact image, yet an image that, paradoxically, is invisible to humans when it wanders outside the body during sleep or drunkenness. It can be seen in certain states and moments, however, normally at dusk, when it is perceived as a shadow moving lightly and silently, suspended about a metre above the ground. This soul is the seat of personal character, emotions, memory and speech. The human-soul exists, however, in a double form. It lives in the human heart and, at the same time, inside a mountain, and when a baby is born, its soul appears simultaneously there. The souls of each lineage live in common inside the mountain. The inside of the mountain has thirteen storeys, one on top of the other in a pyramidal shape, and these in turn are divided into numerous compartments with doors and windows, and include lounges, chambers, anterooms, studies, corridors, vaults, stairs and storerooms. All the rooms are magnificently appointed, with huge tables, armchairs and benches and beds or bunks in the bedrooms. The description of the type of social life that have souls in the mountains is apparently contradictory. On the one hand, indigenous descriptions highlight incessantly that the mountain is a well-ordered, hierarchical, site with a respect for authority; a place where souls must follow the most rigorous standards of appropriate conduct and where offences are punished with the utmost severity. But the mountain is also described as a place of surreal and exotic rejoicing, where social conventions are invariably transgressed: a life of parties, music, dancing and drunkenness. The music is mariachi, norteña or ‘tropical’. Drunken male and female souls dance together noisily, touching and embracing each other as in a dance hall. Indeed, the mountain often appears in dreams as a huge saloon or an elegant bar or discotheque where alcohol is served and marijuana is sometimes smoked, a dance floor, and on the far side a juke box into which the clients put coins to select music, which is invariably Mexican folk music or mariachi.

is lodged – a ‘double’, commonly called a ‘shadow’ or ‘image’ – and another that appears in a number of non-human shapes, mostly of animals, but occasionally of trees, flowers and even rivers, bones and stones (Hultkrantz 1953:256–8). Likewise, for the Amazonian area, Viveiros de Castro notes, ‘I think a basic distinction should be made between the concept of the soul as a representation of the body and the concept that does not refer merely to an image of the body, but to the body’s otherness’ (Viveiros de Castro 2002:443).

The domestication of the abstract soul


The second type of soul – the spirit-soul – is not human in shape. It has the form of an animal of any species, of atmospheric phenomena such as wind, lightning and rainbows, or of ghosts with the appearance of Catholic priests, government employees, schoolteachers and ranchers. A person’s heart may lodge up to thirteen versions of this soul, which means that a human being shares the destiny of the animal or other beings from which it has taken its shape. The key issue, however, is that this soul has no given corporeal shape, although (or, to be more exact, because) it can assume any bodily shape from beings in the ordinary world (with the exception of the human shape). It is probable that it has no shape inside the human heart, and only adopts a specific shape when it leaves the heart to enter the ordinary, extensional world of the sun, as when these souls are expelled through the mouth at death and become visible to humans for an instant in the form of an animal or meteoric phenomenon. From this point of view, spirit-souls behave like any other sacred being or spirit, which is, after all, what they are. Spirits have no particular form or stable identity while in the sacred state. It is a state of ‘absence’, a virtual existence that is only manifested when they venture into ‘this side’ of the world, the extensional domain. Unlike human beings, however, whose presence-body is attached to the flesh-body – which gives us a relatively constant identity – spirit-souls may adopt different presencebodies or simply recombine the parts of which they are made. In my opinion, it is not a metamorphosis in the literal sense, since no change of shape takes place, but rather the adoption and abandonment of pre-existing figure models.

Impersonation and expersonation

We can therefore distinguish four elementary aspects of the Tzeltal person (Figure 3.2), which can be transcribed in terms of Wagner’s categories (Figure  3.3).

presence-body (winkilel)

flesh-body (bak'etal)

human-soul (ch'ulel)

spirit-soul (lab)

Figure 3.2 Elements of the Tzeltal person.

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the particular


the universal

Figure 3.3 Elements of the Tzeltal person in terms of expersonation.

The presence-body is the expersonation of the human-soul, while the human-soul is the impersonation of the presence-body. Impersonation implies a ‘mere copying of its subject, an act of mimesis … and thus an exaggeration of some features and consequent omission or downgrading of others’ (Wagner 2012a:162). ‘We copy, mimic and imitate one another every day, in fun or in abject seriousness, including our ideas, body movements, and specially our feelings’ (Wagner 2010a:x). Indeed, in the human-soul are deposited affection and personal character. We have seen how this soul lies not only within the heart but also, as a double, inside a mountain, together with the souls of other members of a person’s lineage. What characterizes the life of souls in that place is precisely the expression of indigenous social norms and values. Impersonation, however, is not expressed in an average social status but through an exploration of extremes. On the one hand, the mountain is presented as a categorical and hierarchical place, an abstract place steeped in an atmosphere of authority and severity. Social structure and locus here match perfectly. If a cross-section of the mountain was taken it would show an internal architecture consisting of levels, sections, sockets – a baroque organism whose internal divisions separate souls, sharp and synchronously, in groups of age, gender and status to form an ordered and functionally diverse society. But the mountain also appears as an extravagant and dissipated community, a place that mimics the modern urban world and its forms of entertainment and consumption – a ‘non place’ where social code and etiquette are systematically subverted, and with them scale and order disappear too, along with the determination of kinship. Simultaneously formula and excess, containment and incontinence, the mountain combines – as in Thomas Moore’s Utopia – serious traits (‘abject seriousness’) with carnivalesque aspects. If, as Wagner observes, conventional anthropology is a mode of impersonation (Wagner

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2010a:x–xi), the life of Tzeltal souls inside their mountain is a kind of autoanthropology, and its activity that of ‘participant observation’ by alternatively experiencing the extremes. Indigenous coyote anthropology. The human-soul works, then, like a caricature that highlights some aspects at the expense of others. By contrast, the presence-body, that is, an expersonation, ‘reverses this process and registers more concrete particularity than is found in the original, so that the original becomes a de facto impersonation of it’ (Wagner 2012a:162). The presence-body represents a more concrete version of the person, their inventive version, since it is moulded and developed as a result of the experience of the world. It is characterized by its practical knowledge, its skills, its tastes, and its gestures, idioms of speech or style of dress; in short, everything that makes it unique. As we have seen, this is a body defined by its ‘presence’: something concrete and particular, a body that exists to be seen and perceived and, in turn, to perceive. Human-soul and presence-body each have their own point of view. Both being necessary for the person; however, each is invisible to the other. Hence the soul cannot be seen by the body except in extraordinary conditions (significantly, during sunset, for example) and vice versa. The human-soul is a shadow with the exact silhouette of the presence-body, a projection of the presence-body, just as the body is, as it were, the human-soul distributed in every one of its parts during the gestation process. The relationship between soul and body is, of course, the classic Wagnerian figure–ground reversal: world-in-the-person and person-in-the-world. ‘That the body of the soul is the soul of the body is the chiasmatic bow-drill that kindles the fires of the world’s shamanism’ (Wagner 2012b:17). As for the remaining two elements of the chiasmus, the spirit-soul occupies the position of the generic or universal and the flesh-body that of the specific or particular. The spirit-soul represents an undifferentiated continuum: the principle of homogeneity and continuity between beings. As we have seen, insofar as it can adopt virtually any shape (its particular instantiations), whether animal or otherwise, it is defined by its potential ‘multi-corporeity’, that is to say, by its lack of a given specific form.3 In other words, the spirit-soul is the most extreme mode of impersonation, its more abstract form. For its part, the flesh-body is the most concrete element of the person. Unlike the presence-body, this flesh-body starts to be made at birth, when it 3

Hultkrantz observed in North America how the second soul changes between forms: ‘We have already stressed the fact that the many extraphysical forms in which the free-soul is manifested do not occur simultaneously but alternately, so that they exclude one another’ (Hultkrantz 1953:248).

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operates in the extensional world of the sun, under stable coordinates of time and space. As we have seen, the flesh-body is the most artificial body and therefore more ductile. Differences in diet and other environmental factors such as altitude, temperature and luminosity produce very different fleshbodies, whose heterogeneity introduces discontinuity among types of beings. The very particular nature of this body is better revealed in the fact that it is thought as a union of fleshly parts. If the presence-body presents a singular form and functions as an integrated, active whole (not the whole body, but the body as a whole), the flesh-body, in contrast, is characterized by is divisibility and passive nature. In fact, Tzeltal shamanic songs present the flesh-body, or its parts, as a defenceless prey without a voice, the mute victim of disease and the passive object of a shaman’s ritual manipulation. The presence-body, on the contrary, makes its presence felt by taking an active part in the song’s dialogue: lamenting, providing information, accusing, describing.

Ontogenesis as expersonation

The process of the formation and development of the person can be understood, in fact, as a sequence of expersonation, a movement that runs from more abstract to more specific states of the universe, from the most subjective to the most objective. As the expersonation sequence unfolds, the original from which it is being expersonated becomes an impersonation. From the standpoint of the Tzeltal person, expersonation is thus a matter of degree. The formation process is as follows:

presence-body (winkilel)

flesh-body (bak'etal)

human-soul (ch'ulel)

spirit-soul (lab)

Figure 3.4 Expersonation sequence.

The first element to appear – or, more accurately, to be transmitted, since spirits have always existed – is, indeed, the spirit-soul. This soul is passed between alternate generations, from grandparents to grandchildren of the same lineage. The spirit-soul leaves the donor at death’s door, through their mouth, into some future child as if it were ‘smoke’ or ‘steam’ or a bright sparkle of light, taking the shape that corresponds to it. The last gasp of life confirms

The domestication of the abstract soul


this soul has been expelled. The recipient child is the elol of the donor, which means their ‘homonym’ and also their ‘replacement’. It is followed by the human-soul, whose appearance is explained by two different theories. According to the first, the soul descends from the highest plane of the sky, its thirteenth level, to the mother’s womb in a clockwise rotation. From this moment the ‘foetus’ will start moving. According to the second, the soul is transmitted with the father’s sperm. In either case, a version of this soul will remain in the heart of the body and another in the mountain of souls, although the latter will not make its appearance in that place until the moment of birth. Finally, as we have seen, the presence-body begins to form in the womb, while the flesh-body appears only later, at the time of birth, when illuminated by sunlight. This reminds us that in this case too, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: the passage from that other time in which beings delved in a state of neither separation nor mixture, in a non-extensional and unstable world, until the sun and the moon appeared and with them time-space. The Tzeltal, however, do not only express this sequence in terms of the order of appearance of its elements, but also in terms of the condition to affect or be affected that is proper to each, that is, in the language of power. Which elements of the person have the capacity to harm, cause illness or eat any other element? In what order? The spirit-soul (as any spirit) can attack either a human-soul or a presence-body or a flesh-body, but this chain is irreversible because none of these can attack a spirit-soul directly. The human-soul can make a presence-body or a flesh body ill. And the presence body can only affect a flesh-body. The person is organized by a Meso-American principle that Eva Hunt called ‘phagiohierarchy’, whereby the position occupied by beings in the hierarchy of the cosmos is organized in terms of who eats and who is eaten (Hunt 1977:89–93). Here it should be noted that sending someone an illness is equivalent to turning it into prey: when an Indian body gets ill, it is actually being ‘devoured’ by some spirit or divinity. Paraphrasing Wagner, we may say that the Maya person is an entity with ‘phagiocracy integrally implied’: an ontological scale of the world that joins together all possible gradations from predator to prey. A third way in which the Tzeltal express this predatory sequence is the language of ‘feelings’. As expected, feelings are on the pole of the given, and are or should be reduced throughout the process expersonation. If the imperative of the Indian body consists in suppressing feelings as far as possible, for the soul, intense emotional states represent its natural condition of existence. One might even say that spirits come into existence to the extent that they modulate these feelings (Pitarch 2013b). It is this intensity of affect that which make the spirits powerful and dangerous. This means that, in Meso-America,


Pedro Pitarch

‘feelings’ and ‘predation’ are one and the same. Affects literally consume the body. Is not that feelings cause death as they themselves are death: they belong and proliferate in the non-extensional spirit world. We may recall Deleuze and Guattari’s characterization of affect as man’s non-human becoming: ‘a zone of indetermination, of indiscernibility, as if things, beasts and persons … endlessly reach that point that immediately precedes their natural differentiation’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1994:173). Consequently, the spirit-soul – as with spirits in general – is the element of the person who has the largest degree of affect. Its states of anger, resentment, joy or shame, for example, cause disease and death in the human-soul and the presence-body. As for human-souls inhabiting the lineage mountain, these are characterized by their festive ‘joy’. However, the fun, music and ‘noise’ of souls unleash illnesses among Indian bodies. (In pre-Columbian Meso-America, the world of the dead was commonly depicted with characters playing music and dancing.) Many shamanic Tzeltal songs are intended to silence the inside of the lineage mountain. The silence of souls is the guarantee of life in bodies; the hubbub of souls is the death of those bodies. The world of spirits and souls is a dark landscape and an incessant noise, while the solar world inhabited by humans is ideally a bright and quiet domain. For its part, the presence-body has a low degree of sentimentality, and if it does experience some feelings it is because of the contagion of souls, while, finally, the flesh-body is devoid of any affect.

Coda: human sacrifice as obviation

The process of expersonation is completed through its obviation. Wagner has recently suggested that obviation is equivalent to death, the vanishing point that allows a coming full circle (Wagner 2010a). What I would like to venture here is Meso-American human sacrifice acts as a movement that closes the expersonation sequence and returns it to the point where it began. Human flesh and blood hold an extraordinary attraction for MesoAmerican spirits, openly in pre-Columbian times, through human sacrifices, and covertly today, through the ritual killing of animals and other analogues. It is known that the practice of human sacrifice was widespread in MesoAmerica by at least 1000 bc, and that among the Aztecs, for example, the number of people sacrificed ranged between 20,000 and 200,000 per year. These were war captives and slaves mostly, but also animals and objects. The procedures were varied, and included heart extraction, decapitation, dismemberment, drowning, and being but to death by the use of spears and bow and arrows (Tiesler and Cucina 2007; Lopez Lujan et al. 2010). According to the classic interpretation, human sacrifice sustained the universe: the gods sacrificed themselves so that mankind could live, and humans should repay

The domestication of the abstract soul


Figure 3.5 Human sacrifice as depicted in the Codex Tudela.

that debt with their life. Of course, it was banned and persecuted by horrified Europeans, but the value of blood as an offering remains easily identifiable among contemporary Meso-American Indians. Meso-American human sacrifice is notoriously difficult to summarize. The archaeological and historical sources provide a corpus of data and arguments so extensive and diverse that it does not seem feasible to reach a comprehensive interpretation, even less a conclusive one. What I simply want to observe here is that what was offered to the gods (spirits) was neither an spiritual essence nor what I have called the presence-body, but the fleshbody: that version of the body devoid of a phenomenological dimension, de-subjectified. In other words, what was offered to the gods was a piece of bloody meat. The ritual treatment of the body in human sacrifice seems to be precisely directed at subtracting the victim’s presence-body. Captives, for example, were stripped and deprived of their attire, and before slaughter were scalped or had thir hair cut from the crown of the head, while children sacrificed to the rain god had their nails pulled out. Hair and nails are, it will be remembered, the only elements that do not belong to the flesh-body. Moreover, one can identify a tendency to dismember the sacrificial bodies, both human and animal; and when objects were delivered, such as clay pots, they were also given broken into pieces. This fragmentation coincides with the indigenous perception of the flesh-body as an aggregate of parts, a bodyobject particularized and fractioned.


Pedro Pitarch

Meso-American human sacrifice is therefore the opposite of Tupinambá ritual cannibalism. If, as Viveiros de Castro (2009:147) has argued, among the Tupinambá the meaning of devouring a captive was not consuming their substance but incorporating them as an enemy – that is, internalizing their alterity, alterity as a point of view on oneself – in the Meso-American case what matters is not the subjectivity of the victim but its very substance. Moreover, to the extent that Amerindian hunting practices require the subjectivation of prey, Meso-American sacrifice appears to be closer to the latter. If we consider that certain parts of the body offered to the spirits were also eaten by the sacrificers, the sacrificed had conceivably become an ‘animal’ (not in the sense of an individual animal or a representative of his kind, but a carcase) that was to be shared between humans and gods. Historians such as Graulich (1997) and Olivier (2010) have noted the close relationship that existed in ancient Mexico between human sacrifice and hunting: war was symbolically associated with a hunting expedition aimed at obtaining captives identified as prey for sacrifice.4 As it could be expected, warriors could not eat the flesh of those they had captured. There is a strikingly carnal slant to Meso-American human sacrifice. Although only nobles could eat the meat of the sacrificed body - perhaps, according to the principle of phagiohierarchy already mentioned; that is, as a way to assert its primacy in the socio-cosmic order – we know that in the Aztec capital trafficking in the flesh of the sacrificed was illegal, and that commoners bought it at the risk of being severely punished. It does not appear, however, that the taste of human flesh was especially coveted: its value seems to lie rather in being the object of sacrifice. From our perspective, this whole predilection of the gods and humans to consume human blood and flesh (the gods were ‘fed’ by the fragrance of these substances, especially blood) may look strangely ‘raw’, something associated with its natural ingestion. However, as we know, those pieces of flesh and blood constitute the most socially elaborated version of the person. Nothing more particularized could be offered: continuously fed and manipulated from birth to its end, the flesh-body is the culmination of human artifice. Cannibalism as cultural consumption.


For a recent discussion of the ritual blood sacrifice of animals as an equivalent of hunting in Siberia, see Willerslev et al. (2014). Here I can only limit myself to notice some striking similarities between the ritual treatment of the sacrificed animal in Siberia and the human victim in Mesoamerica: the idea that the victim is not killed as an act of violence, but rather freely offers itself; the sharing of meat with kin and neighbours; the offering of a human or animal body perfect and unblemished, for example.

The domestication of the abstract soul


The most objective and concrete element on earth was that which ‘fed’ the spirits, the most subjective and abstract. The destruction of the fleshbody sets the spirits in motion. Meso-American sacrifice effects, then, the great transformation: it connects, or rather underdetermines, both ends of the sequence of expersonation (flesh-body and soul-spirit) through what Wagner calls its ‘dialectical synthesis’ or obviation (Wagner 2010a:68). At this point, the person moves as a whole. Obviation consummates the cycle by a change of scale, and thus allows restarting the process, retrieving, so to speak, the necessary subjectivity to begin making the person. Conception is impersonation and gestation is the starting point of expersonation, or, to paraphrase the poet, ‘in the beginning is the end’.


Biersack, A. 1996. ‘Word made flesh: religion, the economy, and the body in the Papua New Guinea highlands’. History of Religions 36(2):85–111. Crocker, J.C. 1992. ‘El hombre-mono con ojos de metal: maneras bororo de apodar a los otros’. In De palabra y obra en el Nuevo Mundo, Vol. 1, Imágenes interétnicas, (ed.) M. León-Portilla, pp. 234–67. Madrid: Siglo XXI. Deleuze, G., and Guattari, F. 1994. What is Philosophy? London: Verso. Graulich, M. 1997. ‘Chasse et sacrifice humain chez les azteques”, Bulletin des Seances de I’Academie Royale des Sciencies d’Outre-mer 43(4):433–46. Hultkrantz, A. 1953. Conceptions of the Soul Among North American Indians: A Study in Religious Ethnology. Stockholm: Ethnographic Museum. Hunt, E. 1977. The Transformation of the Hummingbird: Cultural Roots of a Zinacantecan Mythical Poem. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. López Luján, L., Olivier, G., de María Campos, A. and Mayer, A. (eds). 2010. El sacrificio humano en la tradición religiosa mesoamericana. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Mauss, M. 1979. A category of the human mind: the notion of person, the notion of self. In Sociology and Psychology: Essays, pp. 145–87. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Olivier, G. 2010. ‘El simbolismo sacrificial de los Mimixcoa: cacería, guerra, sacrificio e identidad entre los Mexicas’. In El sacrificio humano en la tradición religiosa mesoamericana, (ed.) L. López Luján et al., pp. 453–82. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Pitarch, P. 2008. ‘The labyrinth of translation: a Tzeltal version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’. In Human Rights in the Maya Region: Global Politics, Moral Engagements, and Cultural Contentions, (ed.) P. Pitarch and S. Speed, pp. 91–122. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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——— 2010. The Jaguar and the Priest: An Ethnography of Tzeltal Souls. Austin: University of Texas Press. ——— 2011. ‘The two Maya bodies: an elementary model of Tzeltal personhood’. Ethnos 77(1):93–114. ——— 2013a. La cara oculta del pliegue: antropología indígena. Mexico City: Artes de México. ——— 2013b. La palabra fragante: cantos chamánicos tzeltales. Mexico City: Artes de México. Taylor, A.-C. and Viveiros de Castro, E. 2006. ‘Un corps fair de regards’. In Qu’est-ce qu’un corps? (eds.) S. Breton, J.-M. Schaeffer, M. Houseman, A.-C. Taylor and E. Viveiros de Castro, pp. 148–200. Paris: Musée du Quai Branly/ Flammarion. Tedlock, D. 1993. Breath on the Mirror: Mythic Voices and Visions of the Living Maya. San Francisco: Harper Collins Tiesler, V. and Cucina, A. (eds.) 2007. New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society: Interdisciplinary Contributions to Archaeology. New York: Springer. Viveiros de Castro, E. 2002. A inconstância da alma selvagem. São Paulo: Cosac and Naify. ——— 2009. Métaphysiques cannibales: lignes de anthropologie post-structurale. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Wagner, R. 1981. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 2010a. Coyote Anthropology. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ——— 2010b. ‘Foreword’. In Pedro Pitarch, The Jaguar and the Priest: An Ethnography of Tzeltal Souls, pp. vi–xix. Austin: University of Texas Press. ——— 2012a. ‘“Luck in the double focus”: ritualized hospitality in Melanesia’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18(S1):S161–74. ——— 2012b. ‘Facts force you to believe in them; perspectives encourage you to believe out of them. An introduction to Viveiros de Castro’s magisterial essay’. In E. Viveiros de Castro, Cosmological Perspectivism in Amazonia and Elsewhere, pp. 11–44: (accessed 13 September 2017). Willerslev, R., Vitebsky, P. and Alexseyev, A. 2014. ‘Sacrifice as the ideal hunt: a cosmological explanation for the origin of reindeer domestication’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21:1–23.

C hapter 4

Invented gifts, given exchange The recursive anthropology of Huichol modernity

 Johannes Neurath

Never pre-modern The Huichol or Wixaritari (singular Wixarika) are a well-known indigenous people numbering about 45,000 speakers, living in the states of Jalisco, Nayarit and Durango, Mexico. They practise ‘shamanism’ involving use of the hallucinogenic peyote cactus (hikuri, Lophophora williamsii). They produce psychedelic art, colourful crafts and popular music. They are famous for – allegedly – not having been conquered and having eluded evangelization. They are protagonists of political movements in Mexico in favour of indigenous autonomy and the defence of territories and sacred geographies. They have been subject to an enormous amount of attention in mainstream and alternative media. When I first worked with the Huichol I thought my obligation as an anthropologist was combating stereotypes and to criticize misrepresentations of the Huichol (Neurath 2002). I contextualized the ritual use of peyote (Neurath 2006), and I refuted the idea the Huichol were something like a cultural fossil on the brink of extinction, inevitably ruined by technological progress. I documented their complex social organization, and I showed that they are successful global players in a phase of demographic, cultural and territorial expansion. But to what degree have they now become a phenomenon of mass media? Certainly they have, but they are somehow able to handle the culture industry, too. In this context it seems inevitable that one rethinks the common question about the compatibility of global modernity and local traditions. Maybe the Huichol have been ahead of us, in something that is not just about the ‘indigenization’ of modernity. If they have not adapted to our modern

Johannes Neurath


civilization, the whole question of indigenousness and tradition has to be reconsidered. Studying the Huichol concept of personhood (Neurath 2013) I draw on theoretical tools developed by Roy Wagner (1991) and many other scholars directly or indirectly inspired by him.1 In its paradoxical complexity, the Huichol person is totally unlike most Western models. Following Latour (1993) and other critics of the discourse of modernity, one can affirm that simple but rational concepts of personhood like the Cartesian subject or the bourgeois citizen of classical liberalism do not to fit too well with the hybrid, often contradictory complexities of the actually existing contemporary world. Without doubt, Westerners have had problems coping with modernity and still struggle with it. But it seems to be quite erroneous attributing those problems to people like the Huichol. Rather, one has to recognize that the Huichol concept of the person has an affinity with avant-garde concepts of decentred personhood, and this is why they are much better prepared to deal with complexity. In that sense they never have been pre-modern. The advantage Amerindian people like the Huichol have in the contemporary world can be traced to their anthropology: an openness to the ‘other’ implies an extraordinary capacity to understand others, may they be enemies or not, and to be able to deal with them in a successful way. Their decentred personhood allows them to transform themselves and to take the point of view of the other, even their enemy, with relative ease. Furthermore, as we shall see, in addition to the study of ontology and the concept of the person, it is the study of ritual complexity that offers clues as to how Amerindians like the Huichol are able to interact with potentially adverse, dominant cultures and societies. Relational ambiguity in ritual and in daily life is a necessity when trying to make a living in the contemporary economy.

Reverse anthropology

Here I wish to undertake a study of indigenous and non-indigenous modernity as part of reverse Huichol anthropology. The ‘anthropologists’ I am studying are called Wixaritari, and they are very interested in ‘us’, that is the people they call the teiwarixi, the ‘different ones’; teiwarixi can also be translated as ‘mestizos’ or ‘neighbours’, but refers to all humans and deities who are not ‘people’ or ‘upright walking people’ (tewi). 1

Here I am thinking of Wagner’s idea of the ‘fractal person’ (Wagner 1991), along with the concepts of ‘dividuality’ (Strathern 1988; Viveiros de Castro 2008), the ‘distributed person’ (Gell 1998), the ‘instability of the soul’ (Pitarch 2003; Viveiros de Castro 1993), ‘constituent alterity’ (Erikson 1986; Galinier 2004) and the ‘ritual accumulation of contradictory identities’ (Severi 1996, 2002, 2004).

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My aim is to go beyond a study of modernity according to indigenous ideas and concepts. Their theory of tradition and modernity offers an explanation why we are still a rather pre-modern bunch of people, but they are not, and presumably never have been. According to Wagner (1981), Viveiros de Castro (2009) and Holbraad (2012), today, the only possible anthropology is a recursive one. This seems to be a radical idea, but since the beginning of our discipline, many important concepts were originally of indigenous origin. What would anthropology look like without terms like tabu, mana and hau? Some anthropologists did not like the idea of using indigenous concepts as scientific theories (Lévi-Strauss 1987), but there is no ‘epistemological Switzerland’, and using our theories (concepts of Western science) to explain others is not less arbitrary then using anybody else’s theory to explain whatever. And why should we be the only ones interested in others? Anthropology actually shows it is not so, and, as James Boon said, it is fascinating ‘how cultures flirt with their own “alternities”, gain critical selfdistance, formulate complex (rather than simply reactionary) perspectives on others’ (quoted in Strathern 1987:266). Reverse anthropology is a logical consequence of what anthropology has always been. It is the anthropology of others: not just a science about others, but the study of the theories of man produced by others. We will never answer the universalist question ‘what is mankind?’ However, we may find out what is the implicit theory of our informants, their concepts of humanity, history, time, space and the like. In this case I am particularly interested in understanding modernity, as understood and practised by the Huichol, who, as already explained, should be understood as a truly modern people. Huichol anthropology is of course a complex matter. Apparently, theory (discourse) and praxis do not always coincide, and attitudes of ‘people’ towards ‘different ones’ can change quite unexpectedly. As we shall see, these inconsistencies in Huichol anthropology are actually the key to understand Huichol modernity. Like animals, we, the ‘different ones’, were once ‘people’, but we lost the tracks of the ancestors (yeiyari): some of us got drunk, some fell asleep, some suffered from dizziness, some just could not orient themselves. However, potentially, animals and mestizos, we are still Wixarika. On the other hand, most Huichol deities associated with darkness, the night, the underworld and the rainy-season are actually considered to be mestizos. Also the deities who created money, banks, cattle, cars, aeroplanes and the like, as well as Catholic ‘saints’, belong to the category of nonindigenous Wixarika deities. Wixarika ancestors (one might say Wixarika Wixarika deities – those Wixarika ancestors who are not or never became mestizos) belong to a realm


Johannes Neurath

pretty much opposed to everything associated with mestizos: light, sunrise and sky. They still walk on the trail of the ancestors that leads to a place in the eastern desert where they collect peyote. This place is called Wirikuta by the Huichols, and it is close to the mining town Real de Catorce, San Luis Potosí. Walking on this trail of initiation, the peyote-seekers leave behind everything associated with darkness, night, the underworld and the rainy season. As far as possible, they abstain from eating salt, from extramarital sex and, most importantly, from sleep. ‘Following the tracks of the ancestors’ (see Kantor 2012), they eventually have a vision (nierika) of sunrise, and so the sun rises. Nierika refers to a transformative vision. During that experience, vision questers become the things they envision: the sun, peyote, rain. In Roy Wagner’s terms, one may say that the ordered world of the indigenous ancestors is ‘invented’ (Wagner 1981). And, in a process one might call time reversal (Gell 1992), people become their own ancestors. What is normally understood as the ‘mythic past’ is here envisioned and created by people of the present. However, it would be erroneous to believe Huichol ritual is only about rejecting the (hegemonic) world of mestizos and/or creating a world apart which is the mythic realm of indigenous ancestors. Knowing mestizos is important, and that means, according to Huichol knowledge practices, that when necessary, one has to be able to become one. As with all transformations, the crucial thing is maintaining control over the process. One can become a mestizo so long as this transformation does not turn out to be permanent, and one loses the possibility of returning to what one was previously. To a great extent, Huichol ritual is about temporary, controlled transformations, into all kinds of others, ancestors as well as mestizos. The alternative is not to be an Indian or a mestizo, but to be an Indian and mestizo, or a just a mestizo. While urban folk and rural mestizos used to have fairly distorted images of the Huichol, as shaman-artists, witchdoctors, were-wolves and the like, Wixaritari know pretty well what being a mestizo is about. Even anthropology has its place in Huichol mythology. A blood-red American anthropologist (teiwari xure) took photos of the Huichol sky deity, Our Young Eagle-Woman (Wierika Wimari), sitting on the nopal cactus devouring a serpent, and founded Mexico City. His photograph, obviously taken without a permit, was used to produce peso coins, the Mexican coat-of-arms and the Mexican flag (Liffman 2011, 2012).

Dividual cosmology

In line with Houseman and Severi in their theory of ‘ritual condensation’ (Houseman and Severi 1998), in my study of the main public rituals of the Huichol ceremonial centre (tukipa) I found all kinds of contradictory

Invented gifts, given exchange


relations and intentions, often existing simultaneously. The solar world of the ancestors is created through peyote visions, but shortly after it is destroyed again. Hierarchies are reaffirmed and questioned. Relations with mestizos are rejected as well as celebrated. In order to understand Huichol anthropology, one has to dig into these relational complexities. In terms of ritual relations, the tension between reciprocity (exchange, alliance) and free gifts (sacrifice, filiation) seems to be the clue to Huichol ‘shifting ontologies’ (Neurath 2013). In previous work I might have overstated the difference between the luminous realm of the Huichol ancestors and the dark mestizo underworld. What I actually tried to explain was this: both worlds are very much imbricated but, in ontological terms, there is a gap that separates them. There is no single Huichol world view. Maybe it would be too much to talk about a ‘multiverse’, ‘polyontology’ or something of that kind. The important thing is not to underestimate the lack of homogeneity and equilibrium. Models of cosmosociological wholes are not useful, but maybe we can appeal to holistic models that take into account the lack of holism in Huichol culture (Holbraad 2010). There is an important geographical contrast between the pre-existing world of mestizos below and the envisioned world of ancestors above. But one world is not just the inversion of the other. It is not a symmetrical dualist system. The landscape of the world above is the semi-desert of the Mexican central highlands. It only exists due to vision quests. The fertile coastal plain and the Pacific Ocean are pre-existent or prior to creation. The territories of Huichol communities in the Sierra Madre Occidental are not really a middle ground. The pine-covered mesetas belong to the world above, the deep canyons with their tropical climate are entrances to the underworld. One way to understand the whole situation is by expanding the Huichol notion of dividuality to the cosmological level. As in other Meso-American cultures there is body/cosmos isomorphism (Galinier 2004; López Austin 1980; Monaghan 1995:98). Wirikuta corresponds to being awake and to the head, the coastal plains belong to sleep, unconsciousness and the sexual organs, while the navel of the world can be located in a canyon near the Huichol village of Santa Catarina. Wirikuta corresponds to the dry season, and the coastal plain to the rainy season. Autumn is the sunrise, the dry season is midday, and rainy season is night. Waterways are veins, water is blood, and clouds and rain, or cloud snakes, are the breath of the world, its vital soul (iyari). The human body is not so much a microcosm; it is rather the world that is a ‘macrobody’. This sophisticated system of analogies has important asymmetries. Only night always existed. Daylight has to be found in the vision quest. Initiation is the search for this elusive place in space-time. Participants are xukuri’ikate or jicareros, ‘gourd persons’, people in the process of being born from their


Johannes Neurath

mothers. In a second phase they turn into hikuritamete or peyoteros, ‘peyote persons’; and, finally, they may become irikate, ‘arrow persons’, their own ancestors. Peyote is like a deer and gives itself to the hunters, but only when they are worthy of it. Finding peyote and encountering deer is like obtaining a transformative vision (nierika). Identifying with the deer, hunters turn into peyote, and daylight is an effect of this experience. It should be quite clear that deer, peyote and daylight could not exist without ritual actions and experiences. The same type of asymmetry can be seen in the architecture of the ceremonial centre. All buildings, including the big, circular, semi-subterranean temple tuki and the smaller, rectangular, elevated shrines called xirikite, have to be renovated every five years, but only the steep grass roofs are rebuilt. The walls remain the same. Again, the roofs correspond to Wirikuta, the mountain Reu’unari, ‘where it was burnt’, or Paritekia, ‘mountain below sunrise’, and to the diurnal sky; the dark interior of the buildings corresponds to the ocean. Ritual campfires are the navels of the world identified with the ceremonial centre of Te’akata, ‘the place of the earth oven’. In sum, only one part of the Huichol cosmos, kiekari, is what we would call ‘naturally given’. The more prestigious half is artificial, dreamt and created by humans. As Roy Wagner has shown, in non-Western societies it is not uncommon for artificial things to be of higher status than naturally given ones (Wagner 1977, 1981). Not unlike that which can be seen in sci-fi and cyber-punk, paleoontology is merged with futuristic urban modernity. Similar to the situation found among other Meso-American peoples (e.g. Pitarch 2010, 2012; Questa Rebolledo 2010; Romero López 2010), the underworld is a mega-city inhabited by cannibal giants, sea monsters, prehistoric megafauna, vampires, goatsuckers and skeletonized dead people. They are the original inhabitants of the world. The Huichol are the ‘younger brothers’ and came much later. They had to conquer their territory, taking it away from the mestizos’ ancestors. They also stole ritual paraphernalia like gourds and arrows from them. Usually the Huichol do not define themselves as an indigenous people; rather, they consider themselves more advanced, at least in terms of social evolution. Technology is a thing of the mestizo underworld. The brute beings of the underworld are rude and not very bright, but they are rich and they own advanced technology. Mestizos inherited their lack of social skills from their primitive monster ancestors. Once even mestizos had ‘custom’ (yeiyari), but they (or their ancestors) were too lazy or too stupid to follow the tracks of the Huichol ancestors. The only ones who are able to accomplish initiation and to become ancestors are Huichol mara’akate, ‘the ones who know how to dream’ – that is, initiated persons who are usually ritual specialists and are frequently

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called ‘shamans’. But the world of Huichol ancestors is actually out of reach. In order to get there one has to suffer a sacrificial death. In theory, only dead people can finish initiation. So the initiation of a living person is something like an infinitesimal approximation to sacrificial death.

The peyote dance and Namawita Neixa

According to Huichol implicit anthropology, human life is syncopated because it takes place on the fault lines between two different but imbricated worlds. During some of the most relevant phases of Huichol ritual, the worlds actually collide. A good example is the peyote dance, Hikuli Neixa, the main event of the Huichol ritual year, held at communal ceremonial centres (tukite) towards the end of the dry season.2 This dance goes on for several days and nights and culminates in the appearance of a feathered ‘cloud serpent’ (haiku) descending from Paritek+a, the ‘mountain of sunrise’, located in the east. At this moment, peyote seekers’ rituals of gift and sacrifice come to an end, and the general emphasis switches to ritualized exchange. The Huichol are famous for their ritual use of peyote. However, the peyote cult is not just about ingesting the hallucinogenic plant, as many studies uncritically assume; rather, it is about processes of ritual identification with peyote and the transformation of peyote-seekers into it. A peyote pilgrim consuming the hallucinogenic plant becomes peyote or a ‘peyote person’.3 Circles of white turkey feathers attached to the hats of the peyoteros are ‘peyote flowers’, so the homecoming pilgrims are flowering peyotes. Travelling to Wirikuta and becoming deities is comparatively a relatively easy procedure. The most complicated and time-consuming part of initiation is coming back in order to be an ancestor among ordinary people. The peyote dance is the culmination of this process. Peyote persons collectively transform into Haiku, the ‘cloud snake’, now using the white feathers as part of their cloud attire. Composed of twenty-five to thirty-five homecoming peyote pilgrims, Haiku shows up at the dance ground: it is the arrival of the first rains. Each member of the group personifies a specific ancestral deity, making the cloud snake a composite being containing ‘all’ of the assembled ancestors. Due to the fact that all deified ancestors may be conceived of as deer, during certain parts of the choreography the peyote persons jump around in imitation of deer and mimic other forms of the animal’s behaviour. Throughout the 2

For a detailed ethnography of the rituals held at Huichol ceremonial centres, see Neurath (2002). 3 See Déléage (2009) on the Sharanahua’s identification of the anaconda with ayahuasca, and Sharanahua shamans transforming into anacondas when using ayahuasca.


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dance, they also frequently assemble in order to form a giant snake that attacks unsuspecting bystanders. At the same time, the peyote persons give out great amounts of peyote, as well as corn and calabash seeds to members of the community. They attack and give away. The peyote dance is the last of a series of rituals that normally start several months earlier. After weeks of hardship, featuring pilgrimages to faraway places (like the semi-desert of Wirikuta in the state of San Luis Potosí), deer hunting, vision quests, many nightlong ceremonies, fasting, seclusion, sexual abstinence, the daily ingestion of peyote and also hard work in cornfields, dancers experience their return to the ceremonial centre as a triumph. Because they are deities, and not yet reintegrated into the community of ordinary people, they are dangerous like rattlesnakes. Having gone through very intense ritual experiences and having obtained the visionary ability of mara’akate (shamans) they are now the ancestral deities, initiated persons. Just as ancestral deities create the upper half of the world through self-sacrifice, the initiates have managed to obtain visions and transform themselves into the objects of their visions: peyote and deer, rain snakes and sunlight. Giving out peyote and seeds during the final peyote dance is part of this generous giving away of themselves. However, things are not as neat as, for instance, Maurice Bloch’s theory of initiation rituals (Bloch 1992) would suggest. The peyoteros, now turned into ancestors, do not simply reconquer the community they had left as ordinary human beings. The people of the village, those who remained at home and did not transform into peyote persons, deny the free gifts of homecoming pilgrims. Instead of treating them with respect, they mock them. One part of the dance consists of non-peyote persons hunting peyote pilgrims like deer. The deer paradigmatically gives itself to the shamanic hunter, but in this instance not much respect is shown for the captured deer gods. Even as the peyoteros actually become the ancestors, they are treated as impostors, as ordinary people pretending to be something special. Non-peyoteros receive the returning pilgrims’ gifts, but force them in turn to accept tiny tamales (a kind of snack) or cigarettes as ‘payment’. They do so in part to neutralize the peyoteros’ dangerousness, and partly because initiated people tend to get all too powerful in their communities. Religious and political power has to be brought under communal control. Free gifting is here creating the solar cosmos: many important beings and things, knowledge and time only exist because of the initiates’ visionary experience. However, shamanic power has to be limited to avoid the formation of centralized forms of traditional government, such as cazicazgos or chiefdoms of the sort that prevailed into the colonial period.

Invented gifts, given exchange


I used to be puzzled by the way in which the peyoteros’ ethos of free gifts clashes with the layperson’s insistence on reciprocal exchange. Knut Rio’s study of Ambrym (Rio 2007) offered me a key to make sense of this unusual situation by exploring rituals emphasizing non-reciprocity, clashing with more conventional Maussian forms of ritual exchange. I had already understood why shamans tend to look down on lay people: the latter perform their exchanges and ask the deities for all kinds of favours, because as non-initiated people they are not able to transform into deities and to create things and beings. On the other hand, it is also important to understand why non-initiated people tend to express themselves negatively about shamans: the things or beings that initiates create in their visions are dangerous. Whenever those beings are neglected or not treated correctly in rituals, they can turn into agents provoking sickness. As Laidlaw says, ‘a free gift makes no friends’ (Laidlaw 2000). The gifts of the shamans have to be tamed, incorporated into a framework of analogical ordering and ritualized exchange. The non-initiated people’s criticism of initiated people and shamans has, of course, political implications. As the creators of everything important, they have the potential to accumulate great amounts of power. Rituals that deny and neutralize the dangerous powers of the gifts distributed by the gods and the shamans are an important aspect of community politics. In Pierre Clastres’s terms, Huichol communities are against the state, and they are opposed to any type of privilege (Clastres 1987). They do not tolerate their own deities. On the other hand, this perpetual shifting between an emphasis on the free gift and one on exchange is related to the ambiguity of the Huichol attitude towards mestizos. During most of the year, Huichol discourse and ritual practice is rather anti-mestizo: non-Indians are somehow less developed human beings. This discourse can be quite chauvinist. However, during one particular time of the year, an alliance with mestizos is celebrated. In this context, the devaluation of the non-envisioned, pre-existing mestizo underworld/modernity is relativized. This particular event is known as Namawita Neixa, the ‘dance of the covering of rain’.4 Celebrated only a couple of weeks after Hikuli Neixa, it is the festival of sowing understood as a sexual relation between planter and soil. As it has to be celebrated when the rainy season starts, it is related to the summer solstice. Sun Father arrives at the northern extreme of his annual trip and decides to rest. A pretty girl seduces him and then devours him with her vagina dentata. Sun Father dies and transforms into the female monster that 4 Etymologically, Namawita Neixa derives from neixa (‘dance’), wita(ri) (‘rain’), nama (‘coverings’), similar to itarite (‘beds’) (Lumholtz 1986:193).


Johannes Neurath

devoured him. He becomes his own nemesis and enemy alter ego: the goddess Takutsi Nakawe, the primordial female monster. Takutsi Nakawe appears as a masked dancer during Namawita Neixa. This event is actually a return. She was once the original shaman of the Huichol, but because she was abusive, always drunk and cannibalistic, her government was overthrown in a revolt guided by Xurawe Temai, the Morning Star. However, during the rainy season, Takutsi regains her power. It is a dark season, without sun, and without solar, paternal authority. Nobody can be arrested, rules of ritual austerity can be neglected and no sacrifice is celebrated. Instead, planters marry the five corn maidens and an alliance between humans and the beings of darkness and the underworld is celebrated. This is not just a ritual inversion, because during Namawita Neixa women and corn are actually treated as they should always be treated. Corn, identified with women, is prepared without the addition of lime, without salt, and it is not cooked on a comal (hearth), but in an earth-oven. So it is not “burned”. At the same time, women are prohibited to work, and encouraged to rest. On this day even cooking and sweeping are men’s tasks. As we have seen, in Huichol anthropology it is quite clear what is an ancestor and what is a mestizo. However humanity, the category tewi, has a ‘doubtful existence’, as Foucault or Deleuze (2002) would say. It refers to a status quo somewhere between non-Indians and deified ancestors. Humanity is plan ‘B’, resulting from a second creation, from after the flood. It is about simple things: agriculture, family, exchange and commerce with non-Indians, as well as with Indians. Humanity is based on a peaceful alliance between people and the mestizo lords of the underworld.

Ambivalent figuration in art

The peculiar style of Huichol art expresses the tension between gift and exchange, between the worlds of initiated people and ordinary ones. Contemplating a yarn painting like The Vision of Tatutsi Xuweri Timaiweme by José Benítez Sánchez (see Neurath 2013:80–1), the viewer can go back and forth between one form of knowledge and another, and between one form of viewing and another. As in many traditions of the South American lowlands (Cesarino 2011; Lagrou 2012), ambivalent figuration in art, like figure–ground reversals, or contrasts between the figurative and the non-figurative, ornamental or abstract, is related to the imbrication between different aspects of reality. Those traditions are not so much interested in establishing what might be the difference between one world and the other. Rather, they focus on the transition from the realm of humans and the realm of spirits. In this sense, Huichol aesthetics actively seeks to express what happens during the process of initiation. Yarn paintings, as well as Huichol

Invented gifts, given exchange


ritual music, have a jazz-like quality, expressing aesthetically the complexity of living simultaneously according to more than one ontological principle and permanently transiting between them (Neurath 2013). In a typical yarn painting, a synthesis of cosmogonic mythology is offered: the emergence of the ancestors from the primordial underworld, the vision quest of ancestors, the first deer hunt, the origin of rain, the origin of maize agriculture. These stories are depicted in a figurative, narrative style. Some myths are just indicated with one or two figures. Other stories are represented through sequences of images criss-crossing the whole painting, from one extreme to the other. Apparently, all this is difficult to ‘decipher’, but actually this is the exoteric level of the yarn painting. The exoteric just looks complicated. On the esoteric level, the whole composition is a yellow face painting of an initiate, like the ones panted with uxa during the pilgrimage to Wirikuta and during peyote ceremonies. Now Tatutsi is looking at the spectator and the whole painting is a reflection of Tatutsi’s initiatory vision. On this level, style is rather ‘psychedelic’ and images are generative: contemplating the composition, each spectator may discover or invent images for themselves. The idea is that Tatutsi Xuweri, in the moment of his initiatory experience, actually dreams and creates a plethora of beings and things. The yarn painting’s ambiguity in figuration is highly relevant, as it can be understood as a reflection on the inherent complexities of traditional knowledge practice. The artwork refers to before and after initiation, contrasting two types of religious experience, which may be related to Whitehouse’s semantic and episodic types (Whitehouse 2004). But here it is not a question of either/or. The main problem is the articulation, and simultaneity, of contrasting forms of experience. It is this ambivalent figuration that makes this particular yarn painting such an excellent expression of nierika. First, it refers to the ordering of the world according to a geometric pattern. However, at the truly shamanic level, visions are actually not as structured. Shamanic visionary experience means going (back) to the origin, and bringing things into existence. The imaginary force mobilized by nierika may be partially explained in terms of what in epistemology is called ‘symbolic pregnancy’ (see Cassirer 1954:222–37). Obviously, the use of a hallucinogen (in this case peyote) is helpful for this. But the geometric patterns arising from the spontaneous ordering of sensual perceptions are just the first phase. The process of creating analogies and fractalization tends to be excessive, and inevitably leads to a revelation of the futility of ordering. Nierika is about classification and the crisis of classification.


Johannes Neurath

Another expression of this peculiar aesthetic is found in Huichol ritual music. The songs (or rather sones) for voice, xaweri (a small violin) and kanari (a small guitar), played by peyoteros, feature improvised texts, rhythmic syncopations and micro-tonalities.

Ontological syncopations

As I have argued elsewhere, the Huichol seem to be an interesting case combining animist and analogist tendencies (see Descola 2005, 2010). According to my approach, it would not be useful to declare analogism the dominant ontology of the Huichol, and animism just a secondary tendency. Rather, my project is to elucidate the ontological implications of complex ritual processes. In terms of ‘schemes of practice’, there is a central contradiction between the free gift and reciprocity, so any analysis should begin by asking how those schemes of practice actually coexist. Following Descola (2005), animism can be related to rituals of self-sacrifice and the free gift, as rituals enabling the personification of ancestral deities. Analogism is based on reciprocal exchange connecting all kinds of beings related through an elaborate system of analogies and oppositions. Whatever one may think about Descola’s grand schemes, for me it is important to insist that these are not mutually compatible principles of existence; rather, they coexist within the play of the exoteric and the esoteric, ritualized and everyday, forms of sociality. Reciprocity celebrates alliances with all kind of deities, even the ones associated with enemies and non-indigenous populations, Christianity and urban modernity. Kieri, for example, identified with the plant Solandra brevicalyx, is the Black Cowboy (el Charro Negro) of mestizo folklore, and he is also Tamatsi Teiwari Yuawi, Our Elder Brother, the Blue Mestizo, a Huichol deity considered to be a non-Indian xaturi (santo, or ‘saint’). By contrast, cosmogonic self-sacrifice is considered a practice known only to the true, initiated Huichol. Initiation means to consciously withdraw from everything associated with non-indigenous people, as well as with female, spontaneous fertility (‘nocturnal life’, t+kari). Only accessible to Huichol shamans, true, solar life (tukari) is born of the ancestors’ visionary experience, which is achieved when initiates become or transform into the ancestors themselves. There is a seasonal limitation to this clash of ontological principles, given that the vision quest and initiation are only (or mainly) practised during the dry season. At the beginning of the rainy season (the festival of Namawita Neixa), the solar cosmos created by the initiated collapses, as the pillars that sustain the sky are brought down and people go back to the less differentiated state and time of primordial origins. Traditional government is then suspended, the god of fire is ritually killed and the primordial female earth monster Takutsi

Invented gifts, given exchange


Nakawe is re-established. At the end of the rainy season, the creation of a cosmos based on sacrifice and transformation is taken up again. However, the reign of Takutsi during the rainy season is not just an ‘original chaos’, it is a world with its own non-transcendental (and rather unreflexive) logic based on peaceful alliance with the ‘others’. In rituals, gift and exchange almost always coexist. Common ritual deposits of gourd bowls, arrows and other ceremonial objects are examples of ritual condensation in which ritual actions of reciprocal exchange and free gifts actually coincide. When votive gourds are given to deities, this is done in order to oblige them to reciprocate with abundant water and life. In contrast, so called votive arrows are actually projectiles. They are not given, but shot at deities. However, because the deities are identified with prey animals who voluntarily offer themselves to hunters they receive the arrows as gifts (see Neurath 2013). During all major rituals, emphasis shifts from reciprocity to the free gift and back again. Ceremonies start with the preparation of items for reciprocal exchange with the deities, but singing shamans inevitably enter into the dynamics of cosmogonic self-sacrifice. Any ritual killing of animals (deer, cattle, goats, sheep, cockerels) requires the consent of the animal, which normally only the singing shaman is able to obtain through a ritual transformation into the victim. Sacrificial blood is a free gift. But once the animal is dead, and its blood sprinkled over the offerings, ritual dynamics switch back to the existential principles dominated by values of reciprocity. Sacrificial blood is traded for rain, life and the like. When considering the annual ritual cycle, a similar shift can be observed. Ceremonies of the rainy season emphasize reciprocity (alliance), whereas rituals of the dry season focus on the free gift, sacrifice and predation. It is important to note, however, that conflicting ontological principles, as well as the difference between reciprocal exchange and the free gift are not simply a matter of seasonal transition, or of a ritual inversion of the cosmos resulting from a single ontological frame. The fault lines between reciprocity and the free gift can be observed in many Huichol rituals, even in rather simple ones; the point is the coexistence of contrasting, even incompatible existential conditions and principles. The transition from reciprocity to the free gift and back to exchange is always a problematic process. There is no easy complementarity between the two. Huichol ontology and cosmology appear to be unstable, based always on shifting foundations. Huichol ritual practice may therefore be said to produce ‘ontological syncopations’. Whoever practices a ritual following one of the two possible ritual dynamics tends to criticize those who, at that particular moment, follow the

Johannes Neurath


other dynamic. This does not mean that anybody practising anything can be confident about what he or she is doing; the only thing that is clear is that the others are always wrong. Huichol ritual reflexivity arises from not agreeing with either gift or exchange. Consequently, Huichol ritual and aesthetics is full of mockery and irony. Ontological clashes are not actually conceived of as such, but there is a reflexive (or critical) praxis where no consensus about the meaning of a determined set of ritual actions can be attained. Participants in one ritual celebrate together, but are immersed in ontologically differentiated ritual dynamics. While some are practising free gifts, others practise reciprocal exchange. But why is it so relevant to talk about ontological complexity, and not just about the interaction between different types of ritual practice? I believe the answer lies in the radical nature of the contrast between ritual reciprocity, aimed at managing the given world, and transformation based on the free gift and invention. Talking about polyontology or multiple regimes of being may be an exaggeration. However, if there is any general structure in Huichol ritual, it is one based on this tension of reciprocal exchange and the free gift as mutually incompatible schemes of practice. One regime of being is not just the ‘inversion’ of a normal one. Extending the notion of dividuality, one needs to consider the existence of a non-unitary world, and the occurrence of ‘ontological shifts’. Aesthetically, Huichol contemporary art expresses just this, and can be seen as a reflection of traditional knowledge practice and initiation.


Bloch, M. 1992. Prey Into Hunter: The Politics of Religious Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cassirer, E. 1954 [1923]. Philosophie de symbolischen Formen, Vol. 3: Phänomenologie der Erkenntnis. Oxford: Bruno Cassirer. Cesarino, P. de N. 2011. Oniska: poética do xamanismo na Amazônia. São Paulo: Perspectiva and Fapesp. Clastres, P. 1987. Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology. New York: Zone Books. Déléage, P. 2009. Le chant de l’anaconda: l’apprentissage du chamanisme chez les Sharanahua (Amazonie occidentale). Paris: Société d’Ethnologie. Deleuze, G. 2002 [1966]. ‘L’homme, une existence douteuse’. Le Nouvel Observateur (1 July):32–4. Descola, Philippe. 2005. Par-delà nature et culture. Paris: Gallimard. ——— 2010. La fabrique des images. Paris: Musée du Quai Branly. Erikson, P. 1986. ‘Alterité, tatouage et anthropophagie chez les Pano: la belliqueuse quête du soi’. Journal de la Société des Américanistes 72:185–209.

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Galinier, J. 2004. The World Below: Body and Cosmos in Otomi Indian Ritual. Boulder: University Press of Colorado. Gell, A. 1992. The Anthropology of Time. Oxford: Berg. ——— 1998. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Holbraad, M. 2010. ‘The whole beyond holism: gambling, divination, and ethnography in Cuba’. In Experiments in Holism: Theory and Practice in Contemporary Anthropology, (eds.) T. Otto and N. Bubandt, pp. 67–85. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. ——— 2012 Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Houseman, M. and Severi, C. 1998. Naven or the Other Self: A Relational Approach to Ritual Action. Leiden: Brill. Kantor, L. 2012. El paisaje wixárika y su relación con la arqueología. Mexico City: Museo Nacional de Antropología. Lagrou, E. 2012. ‘El grafismo indígena como técnica de alteración de la mirada: la quimera abstracta’. Paper prepared for the conference ‘Mostrar y ocultar’, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City, 28–29 May 2012. Laidlaw, J. 2000. ‘A free gift makes no friends’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 6:617–34. Latour, B. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Lévi-Strauss, C. 1987 [1950]. Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss. London: Routledge. Liffman, P.M. 2011. Huichol Territory and the Mexican Nation: Indigenous Ritual, Land Conflict, and Sovereignty Claims. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. ——— 2012. ‘Huichols and the cosmopolitics of mining in Mexico’. Paper prepared for the 12th EASA biennial conference, Nanterre, 12–13 July 2012. López Austin, A. 1980. Cuerpo humano e ideología: las concepciones de los antiguos nahuas. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Lumholtz, C.S. 1986. El arte simbólico y decorativo de los Huicholes. Mexico: Instituto Nacional Indigenista. Monaghan, J. 1995. The Covenants with Earth and Rain: Exchange, Sacrifice, and Revelation in Mixtec Sociality. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. Neurath, J. 2002. Las fiestas de la Casa Grande: procesos rituales, cosmovisión y estructura social en una comunidad huichola. Mexico-City: Universidad de Guadalajara/Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. ——— 2006. ‘Soñar el mundo, vivir la comunidad: hikuli y los Huicholes’. In La realidad alterada, (ed.) J. Glockner and E. Soto, pp. 65–86. Mexico City: Debate. ——— 2013. La vida de las imágenes: arte huichol. Mexico City: Artes de México. Pitarch, P. 2003. ‘Infidelidades indígenas’. Revista de Occidente 270:60–75. ——— 2010 The Jaguar and the Priest: An Ethnography of Tzeltal Souls. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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——— 2012. ‘La ciudad de los espíritus europeos: notas sobre la modernidad de los mundos virtuales indígenas’. In Modernidades indígenas, (eds.) P. Pitarch and G. Orobitg, pp. 61–87. Madrid: Iberoamericana Vervuert. Questa Rebolledo, A. 2010. ‘Cambio de vista, cambio de rostro: parentesco ritual con no humanos entre los Nahuas de Tepetzintla, Puebla’, MA thesis. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Rio, K. 2007. ‘Denying the gift: aspects of ceremonial exchange and sacrifice on Ambrym island, Vanuatu’. Anthropological Theory 7(4):449–70. Romero López, L. 2010. ‘Ser humano y hacer el mundo: la terapéutica nahua en la Sierra Negra de Puebla’, PhD thesis. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Severi, C. 1996. La memoria ritual: locura e imagen del blanco en una tradición chamánica amerindia. Quito: Abya-Yala. ——— 2002. ‘Memory, reflexivity and belief: reflexions on the ritual use of language’. Social Anthropology 10(1):23–40. ——— 2004. ‘Capturing imagination: a cognitive approach to cultural complexity’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10(4):815–38. Strathern, M. 1987. ‘Out of context: the pervasive fictions of anthropology’. Current Anthropology 28(3):251–82. ——— 1988. The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. Berkeley: University of California Press. Viveiros de Castro, E. 1993. ‘Le marbre et le myrthe: de l’inconstance de l’âme sauvage’. In Mémoire de la tradition, (eds.) A. Becquelin and A. Molinié, pp. 365–431. Nanterre: Société d’Ethnologie. ——— 2008. ‘The gift and the given: three nano-essays on kinship and magic’. In Kinship and Beyond: The Genealogical Model Reconsidered, (eds.) S. Bamford and J. Leach, pp. 237–68. Oxford: Berghahn. ——— 2009. Métaphysiques cannibals: lignes de anthropologie post-structurale. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Wagner, R. 1977. ‘Scientific and indigenous Papuan conceptualizations of the innate: a semiotic critique of the ecological perspective’. In Subsistence and Survival, (eds.) T. Bayliss-Smith and R. Feachem, pp. 385–410. New York: Academic Press. ——— 1981 [1975]. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 1991. ‘The fractal person’. In Big Men and Great Men: Personifications of Power in Melanesia, (eds.) M. Godelier and M. Strathern, pp. 159–73. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Whitehouse, H. 2004. Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

C hapter 5

Child-snatchers and head-choppers A highland Meso-American reverse anthropology

 Roger Magazine

The community organization of collective projects and, in particular, of fiestas to celebrate patron saints in highland Meso-American villages has both disturbed and fascinated urban, Western observers. Certain kinds of urban actors, including some government officials and Catholic priests, have been disturbed by the amount of local resources, money and energy that goes into the celebration of these fiestas. According to these observers, villagers, instead of investing their money in education for their children or in small-scale business enterprises, waste much of it paying for food, drink, music and fireworks during these celebrations. Sending this money ‘up in smoke’ frustrates actors who want to save these backward, impoverished peasants, showing them how to progress as productive members of society. Villagers themselves may respond to such critiques by running meddlesome government officials and priests out of town. Anthropologists are perhaps the best representatives of those who are fascinated by the fiestas and in particular by the system villagers use to organize them. These appear to represent an ideal of community solidarity that we pine for in our individualistic, competitive world. We have represented such actions as a sort of individual sacrifice for the greater good (although often recognizing that there is coercion involved), and as a kind of resistance to the class-generating forces of capitalism. In this sense, these practices have been seen not just as constituting community social structure but also as providing a barrier to outside influences (Wolf 1955). The channelling of resources into these practices supposedly prevents capitalist accumulation and the emergence of a capitalist class of owner-employers who live off the exploitation of their employees. Of course, always on the lookout for our own


Roger Magazine

romanticism, we were also able to uncover a parallel to capitalist accumulation: community members cash in on their channelling of resources to communal projects by accumulating prestige, which in turn allows them to move up in the village hierarchy (Cancian 1965). Here, I will suggest that this pair of interests – productivity and community solidarity – has little to do with villagers’ own concerns and everything to do with our own existential dilemmas, most clearly illustrated in the opposition between individual and society, played out in confrontations between capitalism and socialism or between the heroism of individual success and the morality of social concern. With the aid of a Wagnerian figure–ground reversal, I would like to suggest that in contrast to these two possibilities, villagers are in fact doing something quite different through their collective projects: they are attempting to produce action and particular subjective states in other persons. In other words, their final objective is not the production of material wealth and other things, including more abstract things such as ‘culture’, although such products may serve their ends. Nor are they concerned with creating solidarity, community or social structure, as we anthropologists have commonly thought, since for them solidarity, community or social structure are innate, as Wagner (1981) would say. More specifically, community membership and boundaries are of little interest because they are seen as a question of descent: it is very clear who is and who is not a community member. I believe that if we get beyond our own existential preoccupations over the production of things, be they material or social, we can begin to understand highland Meso-American objectives and concerns. After a brief ethnographic introduction to this kind of approach, which I have described more completely elsewhere (Magazine 2012), I will use it to illustrate the reverse anthropology I refer to in the title, one that imagines the modern, urban world through the figures of the robachicos (child-snatchers), the cortacabezas (head-choppers) and the architects and engineers who supposedly put villagers’ stolen souls to work supporting bridges and other structures.

The production of active subjectivity in others

Ironically, fiestas provide a good example of this production of action and subjective states in other persons, or ‘active subjectivity’ as I call it for short. Unless stated otherwise, the examples I provide come from my own fieldwork in the village of Tepetlaoxtoc in the Texcoco region of the State of Mexico, on the outskirts of Mexico City’s urban sprawl. As in many descriptions of fiestas in highland villages, fiestas are put on by a village member who holds a year-long office or cargo known as the mayordomía. In most anthropological descriptions, the mayordomo’s task is to pay for and sponsor the fiesta,

Child-snatchers and head-choppers


thereby directing his family’s resources to the common good. In contrast, in Tepetlaoxtoc, the mayordomo funds the fiesta by collecting monetary cooperaciones (contributions) from other villagers. His true task or challenge is to motivate his fellow villagers to act, or in local terms participar, by giving monetary donations. The mayordomo or members of his ‘team’ of compañeros (companions; helpers) go door to door to ask for cooperaciones for the fiesta or take advantage of other moments when they meet fellow villagers, beginning as soon as they take over the mayordomía a few weeks after the previous fiesta. The potential donor will usually begin by stating the barriers to their participation: the difficult economic times and cash shortage, and their doubts about the mayordomía’s willingness to work and put on a good fiesta (often citing disappointment with the previous year’s efforts). The mayordomo or compañeros then begin to try and convince the potential donor, talking about all the work they are doing to get people to participate, what the funds will be used for and the joy of participating in a fiesta. The potential donor might invite them in for a drink, giving the mayordomo and his compañeros more time to do the work of convincing them. The mayordomo and compañeros consider even this drinking as part of the challenge they face: after a number of houses the drinks begin to take their toll on their sobriety and their ability to continue with their task. The potential donor will sometimes also suggest that the mayordomo come back again another day when the former might have more cash, although putting off the donation in this manner also serves to test the team to make sure they are willing to work. Eventually the potential donor’s refusal changes to reluctance and then to acceptance, although the mayordomo may have to return on numerous occasions throughout the year to collect all of the money and to prove himself. At the moment when the donor agrees to cooperate with a certain amount of money, his attitude or subjective state changes completely to one of willingness and even enthusiasm. This is why I say that what the mayordomo produces in others is not just the action of participation but also the subjective state of willingness, or in local terms gusto, to do so. To participate unwillingly or doubtfully, or in local terms de mala gana, is in fact dangerous, as it will provoke the wrath of the saint, who in turn will punish the participant with economic difficulty, severe injury or even death. Stories told about such dangers are not simply lessons in morality and proper behaviour, I believe, but also comments on the delicate interdependence among beings, including humans and saints, in a manner that one being’s subjective state affects another’s. So while the mayordomo positively motivates others through his enthusiasm, as if it were contagious, someone’s participation de mala gana will have a direct, negative effect upon the saint’s subjective state.


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An important implication of the fact that once the action is performed it is done so willingly is that while people’s actions are caused by others, the actions are still theirs. Or, in Marilyn Strathern’s terms, agent and actor are separate, but it cannot be said that the agent controls or dominates the actor (Strathern 1988:272–9). In other words, people’s actions are inalienable in this context. Even though the mayordomo provokes or produces the donor’s action, he in no way possess it. This is what villagers are referring to when they say that la fiesta se hace entre todos (‘We all put on the fiesta together’). The donors ‘accompany’ the mayordomo and participate through their cash contributions even if they are physically outside the village, living and working, for example, in Mexico City or even in the United States. This ‘doing things together’ does not really refer to solidarity as much as to actors’ interconnectedness through their inalienable participation. The mayordomo’s work is challenging and even arduous, but it is not considered a sacrifice for the common good, and he does not accumulate prestige or anything else in exchange. Villagers say that someone who participates a lot and motivates others to do so is reconocido (‘recognized’, ‘renowned’) or conocido (‘known’). This does not refer simply to others knowing who they are (the villagers all know each other in this sense), but rather to the emergence of the villager as a socially interdependent and thus complete person. Minerva López Millán (2008) refers to such figures as ‘key persons’, since they are central to village life and will frequently be sought out for their ability to motivate others. It is important to note that the key person does not have power over others in the sense of controlling them nor does he have the luxury of sitting back and having others do his work. Instead, he ends up working more since he is frequently sought out for such roles. What I am attempting to describe here is, for villagers, a general principal of human action and sociality. The fiestas are only one of many instances where people direct their efforts towards motivating action and subjective states in others rather than toward the production of things. The same interaction involving convincing, reluctance, motivation and enthusiastic acceptance occurs, for example, when the mayordomo finds his replacement for the following year. Cargo holders in charge of civil duties such as the maintenance of the water works, cemetery, roads or schools also succeed by motivating their fellow villagers to action. When a family puts on a life-cycle fiesta for one of its members, it is considered inappropriate to hire help and purchase what is needed for the fiesta. Instead, the celebrating family motivates others to help put on the fiesta by participating in the cooking and serving of food or through donations of objects needed for the fiesta (López Millán 2008). Parents provide their children with nourishment and care, which motivates their children to work to provide ayuda (‘aid’, ‘help’) to their parents (Magazine and Ramírez

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Sánchez 2007). In turn, it is the provision of ayuda by sons and daughters that motivates their parents to act as such. And while parents motivate their children to work, they do not obligate or control them. Further, they do not appropriate the products of their children’s labour. Sons’ and daughters’ ayuda goes to their parents but is still recognized as theirs, and just like the fiesta is put on ‘together’, sons’ and daughters’ contributions to the family economy are fully recognized. Even dying requires and motivates others. Having lived life as a good, interdependent neighbour causes fellow villagers to bear the deceased’s casket. In contrast, a casket borne by the deceased’s own family members is the sign of a life lived individualistically and selfishly. What most surprises and disturbs villagers about city people is the fact that they do not interact in this interdependent manner and that they are insensitive to the effects that their actions and attitudes have upon others. At best, villagers consider city people to be incomprehensible or foolish: for some reason they are ignorant of their need for others and so they live life incorrectly. Villagers also consider them to be arrogant since city people think that their material possessions, which are often substantial, make them superior. However, this arrogance does not fool villagers who consider true wealth to take the form of the ayuda and accompaniment they receive from other people. It is important to point out that villagers do not usually see or accept city people as culturally distinct; rather, they view them as incompetent or deficient. For example, on occasion, urbanites who have moved to the village in search of affordable housing want to demonstrate their integration into village life and thus volunteer to take on a mayordomía. However, instead of working to cause others’ participation, they will generally put on and sponsor the fiesta by themselves. And while the urban mayordomo imagines that he is making a sacrifice for the common good, according to villagers, he has completely missed the point of the mayordomía and the fiesta. In fact, such a mayordomo will continue to be disregarded by community members since in the context of village life persons are recognized as such through their interactions with others and not as abstract, discrete individuals. At worst, villagers view city people, or city non-persons, as dangerous due to their extreme individualism and their obsession with things. In the following section I will elaborate upon these more grievous perceptions of city people and the fears they invoke.

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These more grievous perceptions are related to another highland village practice that has both fascinated and horrified urban observers: the so-called ‘lynchings’ of outsiders. These practices horrify due to their appearance as acts of spontaneous, mob justice. They seem to obviate due process and to be


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violent, arbitrary and cruel, sometimes involving the burning of victims alive. They also fascinate (mostly anthropologists and similar thinkers) because of the fact that they represent a kind of resistance to the dominant society and proof that the state has not managed to acculturate people completely even after so many years of attempting to turn them into modern liberal citizens. Sidestepping these interests (for my own convenience) I would like to draw out something else about these incidents: that they reflect what Wagner (1981) calls a ‘reverse anthropology’. That is, they are about us modern urbanites, as seen from the socio-cultural logic of highland villagers. As we will see, to us, this understanding of ourselves seems distorted. As I mentioned above, ‘foreigners’ (not necessarily from other countries), ‘city people’ or ‘outsiders’ are considered a problem or even feared in rural Mexican communities. The threat emanates from what is described as their individualism. Anthropologists have generally interpreted this as a threat to the workings of the community – a penetration from the outside world that will wreak havoc like a spanner in the works. This is certainly true to an extent and it is common for cargo holders to pressure outsiders living in the village to participate in community projects. Yet, as we have seen, cargo holders pressure everyone into participating in community projects. Such pressure on outsiders seems to reflect an optimism that they are in fact persons, that is, interdependent as persons must be. I think that the true fear is that outsiders are truly individualistic and are what amounts to being non-persons. And since personhood is inextricable from interdependence on others, they fear what these non-persons might be capable of in their individualistic state. Hence, in Tepetlaoxtoc, I observed that villagers often labelled outsiders rateros (‘thieves’) or drogadictos (‘drug addicts’), but without any specific motive or proof for doing so. It was assumed and feared that such individualistic beings would do the worst considering their disregard and lack of need for others. In general, those people seen as thieves and drug addicts were working-class and relatively powerless representatives of ‘city people’ and thus presented only a minor threat: the theft of material objects and the setting of a bad example for villagers’ children. One summer when I tried to approach villagers whom I did not know at all or knew only superficially, their reactions were much colder than usual and I even had doors shut in my face. One woman, before turning me away, kindly explained that she could not talk to me because there were rumours circulating of robachicos (‘child-snatchers’) having been sighted in a neighbouring village. She also suggested that I request a letter of introduction from the village authorities to facilitate my work and for my own safety. I followed her advice and obtained the letter, even though many people remained reticent that summer. My friends in the village confirmed the

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rumour, stating that it had begun when, in the neighboring village of Santo Tomás Apipilhuasco, people had sighted a large black car that stopped in the village and offered toys to children. Apparently, while the robachicos had been unsuccessful in their mission, they had also managed to escape before the villagers realized what was happening and detained them. In these villages such detainments are generally followed by the application of a local process of justice and punishment (derogatorily referred to as ‘lynchings’ by members of the dominant society), since villagers feel that municipal or other government authorities will only let such powerful outsiders go free. After the outsiders have been detained, a villager in charge of the church will ring the church bells, calling all the villagers into the central plaza for an assembly to decide the fate of the detainees and to carry out the sentence. Hence the warnings by villagers in Tepetlaoxtoc for my own personal safety, suggesting that they themselves see the limitations of the local justice system in such situations related to the deep-seated fears of the robachicos. Although my informants did not explain to me what motivated those said to be stealing children, and I did not think, at the time, to ask, at least one explanation of motivation is commonly heard in rural Mexico (see Shadow and Rodríguez-Shadow 1991). According to these explanations, engineers and architects must bury children alive in their structures to give the structures strength and longevity. This is particularly important in the case of bridges and dams because of the structural challenge they represent. Robachicos work as the agents of these powerful outsiders, capturing children for them to use in their projects. It occurs to me only now that rumours from the neighboring village of Apipilhuasco coincided with the building of a new highway through the region, in fact passing right through Apipilhuasco. This project caused some conflict in Apipilhuasco regarding whether they preferred the new highway to pass right through the town as the old highway did or to circumvent it (Kuromiya 2010). Some people feared the dangers of the high-speed traffic and the influx of outsiders, while others, especially those who owned land and businesses along the current highway, feared losing their customers if the highway circumvented the town (ibid.). The construction work involved the building of some large bridges to cross the area’s deep ravines. One might say that the fear of robachicos was symbolic of villagers’ resistance to the highway and to increased influence and control from outside the village. For example, Shadow and Rodríguez-Shadow state, ‘The idea that the powerful demand the subordinated population’s children’s flesh and blood to give strength and permanence to their social projects speaks, in a powerful idiom, of the popular perception of the cost of progress for peasants’ (Shadow and Rodríguez-Shadow 1991:45). I think, however, that this fear is not simply a ‘powerful idiom’ for talking about the cost of progress


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– it is actually quite literal. That is, one of the main reasons why contact with outsiders and especially powerful outsiders is feared is that it is believed that they steal children for their building projects. While we worry that they will be overwhelmed by modernization and lose their traditional culture or that their labour will be tapped and exploited, they worry about people: about those strange, individualistic city dwellers who will stop at nothing to ‘do business’, and about their own children who might become the city dwellers’ victims. The specificities of this victimization are quite atrocious, but they are of particular relevance to my objective here. The children must be buried alive, and even if their bodies die in the process they continue to be active subjects within the structure. Thus, people say that when you are near a bridge, you can hear the children’s wails. Another version of the story claims that when the river rises, threatening to tear down the bridge, that you can hear the buried children shouting to hang on tight to each other so they will not get washed away. This last version suggests that not only do the children remain alive in a sense but that they also actively work to maintain the structure. The structure is also inseparable from them: the river washing the bridge away and washing them away are one and the same thing. Thus it is not the case that some sort of force or strength from within the children is taken or alienated from them to build the structure. Rather, the children themselves must exercise their own strength to keep the bridge up. As in other contexts in highland villages, the child is an active subject and their work is inalienable. This understanding contrasts with how us city people would usually explain child-snatching. We would imagine that the children are snatched to be sold as sons and daughters to people who cannot conceive; that is, the children’s value lies in their helplessness and dependence. Or we would imagine that they are snatched to be exploited as labourers in such a way that only their alienable labour, and not them as persons, has value. The concern over the robachicos among villagers emerges from the city person’s odd obsession with doing business, producing and building for their own sake rather than as action directed toward producing action in others. It explains the functioning of this exploitation directed towards building for building’s sake in Meso-American terms: rather than sapping the child’s vitality by abusively extracting their labour, it is the child’s life itself, or at least a certain aspect of that life, that is valued as a productive force. Further south, in the highlands of the Mexican state of Chiapas, builders are said to use mature men rather than children to strengthen their structures (Jacorzynski 2002). The builders’ agents, in this case, are known as tapacaminos (‘path-blockers’) or cortacabezas (head-choppers) because they ambush victims walking alone on isolated paths at night and cut off their heads with a machete. The cortacabezas are usually mestizos (mixed, non-indigenous or

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no-longer-indigenous Mexicans) although they can be indigenous people who are more invested in urban relations and practices than in village ones. The builders are categorized as ‘Germans’, since the landowning dominant class in Chiapas is largely of German origin (ibid.). It is the victims’ head that the builders are said to bury in their structures. However, decapitation does not mean that the victim is not buried alive. Jacorzynski explains: The bodies are buried at night, the stories state: ta ak’ubaltik, at night, ta xlaj smukik, they finish them off and bury, ti animaetike, the souls. The concept of ‘anima’ in this context is ambiguous: it can be translated as ‘soul’ or as the body that va’al ta xkom, stays standing (in the [bridge’s] posts). In fact, in the Tzotzil versions the word used as a synonym is sbek’tal, his flesh or his body … The meaning of the term anima, or even bek’tal, does not correspond to our idea of ‘body’ or cadaver. Anima is the body that is still animated and in possession of sch’ulel. (ibid.:207) The jmakbe [tapacaminos] never kill a mestizo because the mestizos ‘are basically the Germans’ associates’. Moreover, the kaxlanetik [mestizos] do not have force because they eat fat and not vegetables like the Chamulas and other indigenous people. For the same reason, the ‘cortacabezas’ look for mature and strong men. They do not kill children or women because they have no force. (ibid.:208)

Here again, as in rural central Mexico, villagers explain the dominant society’s obsessive and threatening practice of production for production’s sake in their own terms. The dominant society’s members obtain their wealth and power illegitimately, by stealing from indigenous people. However, the vital force that they need is not something that can be alienated from the person to whom it belongs. Also, unlike labour power, which is an object itself and is then completely consumed as it is transformed into the object produced, the anima that the builders need remains alive and actively supports the structure. It is important to note that what makes these building practices ‘foreign’ and threatening is not the fact that people are buried alive in the structures. Rather, the problem is the violence or coercion used by the robachicos or cortacabezas to force persons to support these structures against their will. A story told to Jacorzynski by a Chamula resident is telling in this sense, suggesting that the burying alive of persons in structures can be unproblematic


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if it is voluntary. The story concerns the arrival of Chamula’s patron saint, San Juan, in the village. He began to build his house – the village church – and had no trouble gathering the stones and wood. In fact, he only had to touch these objects with his cane and they moved by themselves to where he wanted them to go. When he had gathered all the material, he asked himself who would support the structure. He gathered the villagers together and asked them who would hold his house up, thereby demonstrating his need for them. ‘Me, me, me, me’, they answered. He told them that they would have to go into the structure alive. They responded, ‘It doesn’t matter. I want to be with you. I want to be with you. I want to accompany you’. When San Juan built the walls he left spaces for thirteen people. They went into the spaces on their own without anybody forcing them to or killing them. So the persons remained trapped in the walls of the church. Their soul remained there, it did not die. In that manner they remained alive (ibid.:209). This story clearly demonstrates the similarities and differences between capitalist and village building practices. In the latter, the persons buried alive are not ‘victims’ of any crime. They voluntarily, even happily, enter the structure, at least when San Juan requests their help. They explain their willingness not in terms of the importance of the structure in itself, but rather in terms of their desire to ‘be with’ or ‘accompany’ the saint. The goal of building is not production for its own sake. Rather, it is a means to the end of doing things together, entre todos. This is not exploitation or even sacrifice, at least as it is usually conceived, since nothing is given up. It is how life is and should be lived, working with and for others. Returning to central Mexico, David Lorente y Fernández (2011) provides other evidence of people being ‘snatched’ and put to work that does not involve exploitation or coercion in the same sense or degree as the robachicos and cortacabezas. In the villages of the sierra of the Texcoco region, only a few kilometres from Tepetlaoxtoc, beings called ahuaques live in the underground rivers and springs that emerge from inside Mount Tláloc and provide the villages with water for human consumption and irrigation. The term ahuaque means dueño del agua, ‘owner of the water’ (ibid.:105). Tláloc (a non-human being/mountain/god) provides water as rain and through the springs, and the ahuaques are also known as Tláloc’s helpers or children. The ahuaques work to create clouds and rain, and thus are essential to growing crops and to human life in the serrano villages on the earth’s surface (ibid.:123). In exchange, the ahuaques receive or take certain essences and human spirits from the villages. When they run out of corn and need more, they throw what kernels they have left down from the clouds to the villagers’ corn fields. Villagers experience this as a hail storm which destroys their crop. The ahuaques meanwhile use their kernels (the hail) to harvest the essence of the villager’s corn, destroying it

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in the process (ibid.:110). Further, they use lightning bolts or certain kinds of illness associated with water to obtain human spirits, killing the earthly body and taking the spirit of a person, who then becomes an ahuaque (ibid.:112–3). In fact, villagers state that ahuaques are humans since they are human spirits without a human body, and also because they live a social life parallel to that on the earth’s surface in many ways (ibid.:97). In general, the ahuaques take human spirits to replenish their work force, and unmarried ahuaques may also take them as husbands or wives. Thus while the ahuaques are essential to life on the earth’s surface, they are also a threat, snatching crops and people. While the ahuaques violently snatch human spirits through lightning bolts and by causing illness, they can also do so when villagers approach the springs. Sometimes, however, the ahuaques do not use violence but rather entice a spirit into the water. Although the ahuaques are only about 20 centimetres tall, the villagers describe them as good-looking and well-dressed since they wear the clothes of wealthy hacendados (ibid.:105). In a moment of weakness, this attractiveness may entice villagers to enter the water with the ahuaques, at which point their spirit is captured and it is difficult to leave. Either in the case of people struck by lightning or of those whose spirit was captured at the spring, it is possible that the ahuaques capture the person’s spirit without their body dying. In these cases, the person’s falls ill or they lose their sanity in a particular manner (ibid.:155). They just lie there without talking or interacting because the body is without its spirit, which is the social facet of the person. The spirit has entered the alternative social world of the ahuaques, where he or she enters into exchange relations based on mutual aid, alliance and kinship, as on the earth’s surface. Thus victims (or their bodies) may refuse to eat since they are receiving food from a spouse among the ahuaques. A kind of healer called a tesiftero, who can enter and leave the world of the ahuaques (ibid.:127), is brought in to try to negotiate for the spirit’s return or to trick the ahuaque spouse into abandoning the spirit by giving the latter an unpleasant odor. If the tesiftero does not succeed, the spirit stays with the ahuaques and the body eventually dies. This example of spirit-snatching interests me here because it suggests that the captured spirits are not necessarily unhappy with their new situation, and while the person’s body and their family suffers, it is not clear that the spirit does. The spirit must work in this underwater world, but the work is not perceived as exploitative because, in a manner parallel to work in the villages, it is part of exchange relations among the ahuaques, between the ahuaques and Tláloc and between ahuaques and surface-dwelling humans. Thus, while the ahuaques are perceived as dangerous, the threat they represent is of a different order to that presented by robachicos, who also snatch human spirits but reduce them to a miserable and exploitative non-social existence. As in the

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case of San Juan’s helpers, we see that the problem with the urban capitalist context is not that it puts people to work or even that it results in the death of their earthly body, but rather that it extracts not just their labour but their entire spirit and condemns them to the kind of individualistic, non-human life that urbanites are perceived to live. Lorente y Fernández’s ethnography provides another possible point of comparison between the ahuaques and the robachicos. He notes that the ahuaques are sometimes referred to as niños (‘children’), which has something to do with their diminutive size. However, he also suggests that this designation refers to a filial relationship with Tláloc, whom they ‘help’ through their work just as a son or daughter works to provide ayuda (‘help’) to their parents (Lorente y Fernández 2011:118–9). In fact, being a son or daughter in rural central Mexico is constituted by providing ayuda to parents by contributing to the family economy through work or by contributing their wages (see also Magazine and Ramírez Sánchez 2007). It is considered that sons and daughters do this willingly and that this work, even when performed by young children, is not exploitative. This role is in fact independent of age and continues until sons and daughters have their own children and take on the role of parents. Lorente y Fernández implies that this association between children and ayuda may explain why children, in particular, were sacrificed to Tláloc in pre-Hispanic times to function as his auxiliaries (Lorente y Fernández 2011:37–8). I would like to add here that this association between children and ayuda may help to explain why rural villagers in central Mexico believe that builders are specifically interested in children to help support their structures.

Robachicos and cortacabezas as a reverse anthropology

These Meso-American understandings of Western urbanites and their relation to capitalist production is similar to Roy Wagner’s interpretation of Melanesian cargo cults (no relation to the cargos discussed above) as ‘reverse anthropology’. Just as anthropology understands or, more accurately, misunderstands other societies through the use of its own terms (such as ‘culture’ and ‘material production’), cargo cults and robachicos interpret or misinterpret Western capitalist society in Melanesian or Meso-American terms. In Wagner’s words: ‘Cargo’ is practically a parody, a reduction of Western notions like profit, wage-labor, and production for its own sake to the terms of tribal society. It is, paradoxically, no more materialistic than the Melanesian marriage practices, and this is the key to its apocalyptic and millenarian associations. 

(Wagner 1981:31)

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He continues: In this usage [cargo] resembles those other ‘cargoes’, the more traditionally symbolic constituents of the bride price, or the activity and products of gardening, that embody the central meaning of human relations for Melanesians, and that we tend to interpret in materialist, economic terms. Cargo is really an antisymbol to ‘culture’; it metaphorizes the sterile orders of technique and self-fulfilling production as life and human relation, just as ‘culture’ does the reverse. 

(ibid.:32, original emphasis)

Similarly robachicos and cortacabezas transform unbridled capitalist production into the non-materialistic terms of inalienable labour and active subjectivity. These interpretations of children buried in structures that they work to actively maintain resemble Meso-American notions of the value of work as inextricably tied to persons and their subjective states. When we, as anthropologists, have observed this work in villages, we have generally interpreted it in ‘materialist, economic terms’. In other words, we observe their work and see them producing material wealth or culture, when it is really about the persons doing the work and their relations to other people. They observe our work, which to us is about producing things, and see persons, such as children or souls buried alive in bridges. It frustrates us to see them both exploited and materially impoverished, while it saddens them to see buried children or other persons in the modern urban world who are condemned to work for engineers and architects. The problem, it is important to emphasize, is not that they are working, but that they are working against their will and with no one to whom they can provide ayuda through their work. Although this should already be clear, these ‘anthropologies’ (academic anthropology versus robachicos and cortacabezas) are comparable in so far as they both involve misunderstanding the ‘other’ through the imposition of one’s own terms, what Viveiros de Castro would call uncontrolled equivocation (2004). However, the similarity ends there, as the terms and thus the misunderstandings are quite different. The culture that we invent for them has little to do with the robachicos and cortacabezas that they invent for us. There is also another difference. While our experts—anthropologists, among others-continue to reproduce our misunderstandings of them, theirs--villagers who have spent a lot of time in cities--are likely to dismiss stories of robachicos and to have a clear understanding of how we conceptualize work and personhood under capitalism, which does not mean that they favour our conceptualizations of work and personhood. In other words, their anthropology of us – if it is not too much of an insult to them to call it that – would seem to be much more

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advanced than our anthropology of them. This superior advancement should not be surprising considering the amount of time that they do ‘fieldwork’, voluntarily or involuntarily, and the imperativeness for them of understanding what makes us tick. Compared to them, we are just beginning to take others’ ideas, creativity and power seriously.


Cancian, F. 1965. Economics and Prestige in a Maya Community. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Jacorzynski, W.R. 2002. ‘Sacrificio, capital y violencia: temas simbólicos de la narrativa sobre “cortacabezas” en los Altos de Chiapas’. In Estudios sobre la Violencia: Teoría y práctica, (ed.) W. Jacorzynski, pp. 205–32. Mexico City: CIESAS and Miguel Ángel Porrúa. Kuromiya, A. 2010. ‘Las diferentes perspectivas y formas de progreso en Santo Tomás Apipilhuasco’. In Texcoco en el nuevo milenio: Cambio y continuidad en una región periurbana del Valle de México, (eds.) R. Magazine and T. Martínez Saldaña, pp. 273–93. Mexico City: Universidad Iberoamericana. López Millán, M. 2008. ‘“Sin ayuda no hay fiesta”: relaciones de reciprocidad en Santa Catarina del Monte’, PhD thesis. Mexico City: Universidad Iberoamericana. Lorente y Fernández, D. 2011. La razzia cósmica: una concepción nahua sobre el clima, deidades del agua y graniceros en la Sierra de Texcoco. Mexico City: CIESAS and Universidad Iberoamericana. Magazine, R. 2012. The Village Is Like a Wheel: Rethinking Cargos, Family, and Ethnicity in Highland Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. Magazine, R. and Ramírez Sánchez, M.A. 2007. ‘Continuity and change in San Pedro Tlalcuapan, Mexico: childhood, social reproduction, and transnational migration’. In Generations and Globalization: Youth, Age, and Family in the New World Economy, (eds.) J. Cole and D. Durham, pp. 52–73. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Shadow, R.D. and Rodríguez-Shadow, M.J. 1991. ‘Los “robachicos”’. México Indígena 22:41–5. Strathern, M. 1988. The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. Berkeley: University of California Press. Viveiros de Castro, E. 2004. ‘Perspectival anthropology and the method of controlled equivocation’. Tipití 2(1):3–22. Wagner, R. 1981 [1975]. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Wolf, E.R. 1955. ‘The types of Latin American peasantry’. American Anthropologist 57(3):452–71.

C hapter 6

Invention, convention and clowning Symbolic obviation and dialectical mediation in the Yaqui Easter ritual

 Marianna Keisalo

Masked clown figures called Chapayekas represent Judas and the Roman soldiers in the Easter ritual of the Yaquis, an indigenous group in Sonora, Mexico. The Chapayeka masks portray foreigners, animals, mythological figures and even figures from television and movies. While the rest of the ritual consists of conventionally repeated traditional forms, the Chapayekas combine two kinds of performance: they perform set, conventional actions, and also improvise and invent new ones. Previous literature on the Chapayekas and other clowns and tricksters has recognized that comic figures combine opposites in various ways; the problem for the scholar is how to make sense of these contradictions and ambiguities. Many analyses emphasize one aspect or another and end up reducing the comedic figure or performance to a single principle. Clowns, tricksters and other instances of humour have mostly been analysed in one of two different ways: either as having a serious message or function to be discovered beneath the humour; or as being so thoroughly ambiguous and open to interpretation that they have no specific meaning, but rather present an open possibility of meaning and transformation. In this chapter I will show how applying Roy Wagner’s (1981, 1986) theoretical model, in which culture is based on and precipitated through a dialectic of invention and convention, provides an alternative perspective on comedic performance. This view brings out both how the Chapayekas are connected to their particular cultural contexts through the conventional aspects of their performances, and how they are capable of efficacy in and agency over these contexts through invention. Convention is what has been established – what makes an expression intelligible – and invention is the meaningful use of these elements in new


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contexts through metaphorical extension, ‘the interpretive elicitation of meanings’ (Wagner 1986: x). This may lead to new conventions, which in turn can serve as bases for new inventions. There are two modes of symbolic action: collectivizing and differentiating, defined by whether convention (deliberately following a pre-existing model) or invention (the creation of intentionally ‘new’, different or ‘unique’ symbolizations) is emphasized (Wagner 1981:47–8). I will demonstrate how the Chapayekas’ performance puts the two semiotic modes of convention and invention, as frames of both expression and interpretation, into a dialectic relation with one another. In this process, contextually relevant conventions and inventions are mutually defined and mediated, allowing various contradictions to be engaged without the contradictory objects losing their defining characteristics. Put differently, comedic performers can create, call attention to and cross various boundaries while still keeping the boundaries intact. In Wagner’s terms (Wagner 1981:55, 58; 1986:46), they are a guard against ‘relativization’, the dissolution of difference and distinction, even as their crossing of boundaries threatens to relativize things conventionally kept apart. A more balanced attention to the opposed aspects of comedic performance can foster the development of more rigorous, anthropologically informed analysis of the semiotics of humour, broadly construed. An analysis of the patterns of invention and convention in comedic performances can reveal more fully the meanings and efficacy the various figures or actions may have in their respective cultural contexts.

Clowns and clowning

My data on the Chapayekas comes from three periods of fieldwork for my doctoral study in 2004, 2006 and 2007 (see Keisalo-Galvan 2011). Before presenting my own analysis, I will briefly discuss previous anthropological views of the Chapayekas and how these relate to other analyses of clowns and clowning. The previous literature on the Yaqui Easter ritual seems to agree that the Chapayekas are an important part of the ritual, but the writers give different answers as to how and why. Both the part the Chapayekas perform as Judas in the Passion play, carried out through serious, even sinister, conventional actions and the more unpredictable clowning and the creativity embodied in their masks have been described, but the more inventive – and comedic – aspects have received scant analysis (see Carré 1997; Olavarría 2003; Painter 1986; Spicer 1980). The Chapayekas have been interpreted as representations of evil beings in the Easter ritual, described as ‘a drama of the triumph of good over evil’ and ‘tragedy of the Chapayekas’ by Edward Spicer (1980:81, 96). For Spicer, dance as an integral part of all Yaqui ritual is the vehicle of ‘non-everyday

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transformations’ and clowning is a counterpoint to that: ‘Through clowning the religious sentiments are contrasted with ordinary human emotions and some degree of relief is provided from the intensity of religious feelings’ (ibid.:105). However, here Spicer distinguishes the Chapayekas from the Pascolas, another clown figure in Yaqui ritual. Spicer describes the Pascolas as ‘comfortable and benevolent’ and the Chapayekas as dangerous, as he sees their clowning as aimed at getting people to break taboos by showing their own enjoyment of their antics (ibid.:106). In an unpublished article, Rosamond Spicer (1956) took a rather different view, arguing that the Chapayekas are present as providers of comic relief from the hard and repetitious work of the ritual (see also Painter 1986:235). Richard Schechner (1997), meanwhile, has proposed that the Chapayekas are a representation of contradictory aspects of Yaqui identity, grappling with the problem of how to be both Catholic and Yaqui at the same time. I do not think any of these interpretations fully captures the ways the Chapayekas figure in the Easter ritual. Even though there is an opposition of cosmological principles that might be labelled as a battle between good and evil, within the ritual frame these are contextual and the opposition is dialectical; both are cosmologically necessary, but there is no need for one to do away with the other. The masks depict a variety of figures, and while some might be more straightforwardly evil, like Chucky, the murderous doll of the horror movies, or the devil, other masks depict more benign or ambiguous beings, such as Popeye, Homer Simpson, or the Chapayeka version of another Yaqui ritual figure, the Deer dancer. Spicer’s poetic turn of phrase, the ‘tragedy of the Chapayekas’, captures this ambivalence better than his more explicitly articulated analysis of the figures as representations of ‘the worst kind of evil’ (Spicer 1980:96, 81). The idea of clowns fulfilling a function by providing comic relief is common, but does not explain the forms of clowning – or even really the clowns’ presence in the first place in the case of the Chapayekas. Indeed, the Chapayekas are often a source of tension, even if they might occasionally alleviate it. Although their clowning often results in visible amusement, in comparison to other figures of the ritual, the unspeaking Chapayekas also inspire fear and respect. They seem distant and ‘other’, their faces and eyes covered by the masks, their knees bent and upper bodies inclined slightly forward in their characteristic stance, every movement accompanied by the sounds made by the rattles on their belts and ankles. People know not to trust them; the Chapayekas are capable of first tempting a person into breaking the rules and then punishing the person for doing so. However, not all their clowning is based on breaking taboos or other misbehaviour, and although Edward Spicer, whose field research began in the 1930s, says that laughter


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and enjoyment of the Chapayekas had to be hidden (ibid.:106), during my fieldwork in Sonora the appropriate reactions were relative to time and place: while open enjoyment and laughter inside the church would be frowned upon, laughter in a more appropriate setting was considered to help and support the ritual. As for Schechner, while I do think the relation between self and other is a very important aspect of the Chapayekas, it is not because they offer a solution to a problem of identity for the Yaquis; this view seems to be based more on a very specific idea of personhood with a focus on understanding the self. Rather, the otherness of the Chapayekas is in itself an important source of power within the dynamics of the ritual, as I will show. Because of this, the challenge is keeping the other unknown and distinct from the self, not knowing and integrating it. Schechner’s view also seems to assume a clear distinction between ‘Catholic’ and ‘indigenous Yaqui’. Although at some points during the ritual these are positioned as distinct categories, this distinction is not absolute but relative and contextual, and it never seemed to me that the participants experienced the different elements as contradictory in any problematic sense. The above analyses of the Chapayekas are examples of attempts at finding a serious meaning or function for the clowns. In other examples, anthropological studies of comic figures and performances argue that the point is to teach a moral lesson by portraying, or otherwise criticizing, immoral behaviour (Basso 1979; Crumrine 1969; Mitchell 1992). Laura Makarius (1970) sees the function of the clown as taking on the polluting task of breaking the blood taboo. While these kinds of serious message may at times certainly be discerned from the practice of clowning, in their focus on the conventional aspect of the performances these analyses leave the humour and the clowning itself unexplained and unanalysed. Other analyses take the ambiguity inherent in humour as their starting point and argue that clowns and tricksters are about the possibility of meaning rather than any specific message, that they show the constructed nature of the world and deconstruct rigid structures (e.g. Babcock 1975, 1984; Hynes 1993). Don Handelman (1990:243, 246) claims that clowns index and enable transformation by dissolving boundaries, while Lewis Hyde (1998) focuses on the creativity and transformative agency of boundary-crossing trickster figures. Bakhtin (1984) assigns a regenerative power to the ‘ambivalent laughter’ of carnival and finds a link between images of the grotesque and transformation and metamorphosis. These views are focused on the invention and differentiation of clowning, and emphasize transformation and new interpretations. However, the focus on the invention seems to divorce the

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figures from their specific contexts. If clowning can mean anything, are we supposed to conclude it means nothing? As I was working on the data for my dissertation I felt frustrated. The partial interpretations produced by these analytical perspectives meant that something always had to be left outside the analysis; following these models meant that effectively much of the Chapayeka performance could only be described, rather than related meaningfully to the ritual and other contexts. Turning to performance theories such as Eugenio Barba’s ‘theater anthropology’ (Barba 1995) offered a way to examine the details of performance, and aligned with the idea that not all performance, even in ritual, was a matter of attempting to replicate schematic, set models. However, performance theory was of little help in connecting the clowning to its cultural and social context. This is where Wagner’s model provided a methodological and analytical key. I found that a closer look at the detailed patterns of invention and convention, the differences between these modes and how the Chapayekas shifted back and forth between them was very helpful for the particular problem of how to analyse clowning. I will next trace out some of the relations between different levels and aspects of symbolic action within the ritual, the Chapayeka performance and their wider contexts. The most important theoretical concepts for my argument here are invention and convention as opposed modes of symbolization with different contextual relations, symbolic obviation as the motivated dynamic process of moving from one metaphor to another in the ritual, and dialectical mediation as a way to bring things into relation while keeping them distinct. The idea of the trope as an organizing principle that acts on different levels shows how the ritual is created as action and used as a frame of action, and how action originating within that frame is connected to wider frames of culture and cosmology (Wagner 1981: x).

The Yaqui Easter ritual

Catholicism and performing the Way of the Cross as a way to celebrate Easter was first introduced to the Yaqui by Jesuit missionaries in the 1600s. Over the succeeding centuries the Yaqui faced a struggle for their territory, their cultural traditions and their very existence. They managed to survive, to regain a part of their territory and to keep their ritual traditions intact (Hu de Hart 1981; Spicer 1980). Today, Easter is arguably the most important public collective event for the Yaqui. It brings together all aspects of their cosmology and involves the entire community. For many Yaqui, their everyday lives do not necessarily appear in any way distinctive from any other ethnic or cultural group. The Yaqui language is not necessarily learned by children as their first language. The people I spoke with worked and studied in various fields, from


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construction work to computer science. Many have migrated to other parts of Mexico or the United States for work (see also Erickson 2008; Moctezuma Zamarrón 2007). However, many return to their hometowns every year to celebrate Easter. A Yaqui may also join any other Yaqui community to participate in the Easter ritual. Central to the Easter ritual are the ceremonial groups which embody and represent various figures and cosmological principles. The Easter ritual begins on Ash Wednesday and continues until Holy Week. It takes place in and around the community church, at times expanding into the community and focusing again around the church during Holy Week. Most people join a ceremonial group through a manda, a sacred vow to perform ritual labour. These are typically made in response to illness or other misfortune. A person may make a manda on his or her own behalf, or on the part of someone else, such as parents for a child. There are restrictions of age and gender to joining these societies. There is no hierarchy of roles, and all mandas and all ritual labour is valuable. People may also belong to several different societies simultaneously or in succession. The church group is the group focused on the Christian deities, including Jesus, sometimes represented by a young man, sometimes by a figure, and the Virgin Mary, always represented by figures. The church group also includes ritual specialists who pray and sing, the Rezantes and Cantoras, children representing angelitos (‘little angels’) and people of the town, who may also participate in carrying the figures. The Fariseos (Pharisees) are placed in opposition to the church group. They are the ones who want to catch and kill Jesus. The Fariseos consist of one or more Pontius Pilates and the Roman soldiers. The Chapayekas are a part of the Fariseos. The Caballeros (‘cavalry’) are a group that starts off siding with the Fariseos but switches sides, joining the church group towards the end. A very important group in Yaqui ritual is the Matachines. They are ‘the army of Mary’ and do not appear in the Easter ritual until the end, when they are a part of restoring ‘normal’ order, as the ceremonial group who ‘own’ the rest of the year. A group that is both opposed to all the others, but also aligned with the church group in the final battle that takes place in the church on the Saturday of Glory, is the Deer group. This group consists of the Deer dancer, the Pascolas, musicians and the Deer singer. They perform the Deer dance, a ritual where the deer is hunted and killed by the Pascola hunters/clowns and is then reborn as a fawn. The Deer group appears in the church at the end of Holy Week and in fiestas at private households before that.

Invention, convention and clowning


The Chapayekas

All the Chapayeka performers must be married men. They are referred to as Fariseos, judíos (Jews), Roman soldiers or Judas. During the Easter ritual, their job is to hunt for Jesus. The Fariseos are conceived of as an army and the Chapayekas are considered to serve the Fariseo officers as footmen. However, the Chapayekas are also different from the other Fariseos and unique among the Yaqui figures and performers. This distinction is embodied in the mask and in their performance. All but two of the Chapayeka masks are burned at the end of the ritual and new ones are made each year.1 The mask is made of hide and covers the entire head. There are different types of Chapayeka figure, distinguished by their mask: orejona, ‘big eared’ which is considered the traditional mask type, Viejito (‘old man’), rey (‘king’), cholo (‘delinquents’, bad guys), circus clown, Apache, animals and others (such as the Pink Panther, Chucky, a vampire, the devil, ‘a cannibal’ and Shrek). All the figures portrayed are powerful, ‘other’ (in the sense of being anything but human Yaquis) and male. These are the only limits; all sorts of figures can be and are added. When a person chooses a mask, he needs to get permission from the appropriate authorities, including the ‘owner’ of that mask type, if someone is already known to wear the same kind of mask. Once a mask is chosen and approved, the same mask will be worn (remade) three years in a row. The mask must be handled with care, as it can be very dangerous. Putting it on and taking it off requires special actions. It should not be looked at too long, or touched by anyone but the Chapayekas and their helpers among the Fariseos. The Chapayekas should also not be photographed, a rule that is enforced by taking cameras away if necessary. The mask is a conduit of concentrated power, and is considered to have its own agency – if the performer makes a mistake or breaks a rule, such as speaking while wearing the mask, it may punish him. The worst-case scenario would be the mask sticking to the wearer’s face and turning the performer into a ghost, doomed to walk the Way of the Cross for eternity. One Chapayeka performer told me that he once looked at a pretty girl while wearing the mask – something the performers should abstain from – and felt a sharp pain on his face. He thought the mask had cut him, but when he took it off, there was no cut. Yaqui ritual organizes – brings together, relates and separates – different principles and flows of cosmological power.2 The Chapayeka mask taps and 1


Two masks are kept in case there is a funeral of a Chapayeka performer within the next year. After the following Easter these will be burned and another two are preserved. See Lutes (1983) on Yaqui fiestas and the Deer dance as tools to create and channel power.


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channels power from various beings, and while the performer must carry the mask and bring that power into relation with other powers and principles, a boundary must be kept between the performer and the mask. The performer and the mask are kept separate in several ways: there are crosses on the inside of the mask, the performer keeps a Yaqui cross in his mouth while wearing the mask, and he is also supposed to keep praying silently in his mind while performing. Yet there is no struggle between the man and the mask. If the performer does everything right, the mask will help and support him. Although the mask is dangerous, as an integral part of the ritual it is also the source of great blessing. Like the performance of many other ritual clowns in the Americas, that of the Chapayekas is characterized by inversion and reversal (see Steward 1991). They do everything left-handed and backwards. For example, if in a normal situation a Yaqui person would greet another facing them and with the right hand – and similarly pass an object from the right hand to the right – the Chapayekas will turn their backs on each other and hop and shake their belt rattles to greet each other and pass objects with their backs turned, from left hand to left. They do not speak but communicate extensively in gestures. The rattles they wear and the knocking together of the wooden knife and sword they carry give the Chapayekas a distinctive sound. Despite being powerful and dangerous figures, respected by adults and feared by children (who are also fascinated by them), the Chapayekas are at times timid and nervous, new to the world (Painter 1985:236). They are curious of their environment and examine everything they find, from police cars parked at the edge of the church plaza to scraps of litter on the ground. Sudden noises make them jump. As mentioned, Chapayeka performance combines two kinds of actions, which constitute two different modes of symbolization: set, traditional forms repeated yearly; and new, improvised, possibly unique actions that might only be performed once. Convention and invention are also part of the things the Chapayekas wear, especially the masks: some of their regalia is worn year to year, while the weapons and masks are destroyed and remade. Each year, some of the masks will reflect ‘traditional’ forms, while others are made in accordance with some new model. I will begin with the conventional side of the performance before discussing invention and the relation between the two modes. What Wagner terms ‘obviation diagrams’ (Wagner 1986) can be used as a method to bring out and explore relations between the various events and actions of the Yaqui Easter ritual. It is clear that the depiction of death and resurrection the ritual entails creates a cycle – and the ritual has been called ‘performing the renewal of community’ (Spicer and Crumrine 1997). When the entire ritual is presented as one obviation sequence from A to G (Figure

Invention, convention and clowning


Running of the Viejito Jesus running, fighting Jesus taken prisoner, D between Fariseos and held and guarded in church group the church The Last Supper

Crucifixion E Clockwise konti processions Funeral kontis, the wake F Resurrection The encuentro, Chapayeka fiesta Judas konti, The final battle

C Miercoles de Tinieblas Darkness in the church, everday social life is suspended

B G A Matachines return Ash Wednesday Normal order is restored First Chapayeka comes out from under the alter

Palm Sunday Jesus arrives at church, more Chapayekas

Figure 6.1 The conventional sequence of symbolic obviation in the Yaqui Easter ritual.

6.1), the church group and the Fariseos take turns initiating actions, and the relations of opposition and anticipation within the ritual become clear. For example, Palm Sunday is opposed to the crucifixion (B to E), while Miercoles de Tinieblas – a moment when the Fariseos are closing in and the church is plunged into darkness before a new fire is lit – is opposed to the resurrection (C to F). The beginning and end of Easter are opposed to ‘the running of the Viejito’, a chaotic liminal moment within the ritual, where Jesus has already been captured by the Fariseos but breaks away and the different groups fight each other before he is captured again. The movement from one metaphor to another could be diagrammed in several different ways to represent the ritual at different levels of detail – each separate event has its own obviation sequence that forms a part of the whole – but the part of the Chapayekas is highlighted when the ritual is represented as two consecutive sequences, two cycles of rebirth and death.3 Easter begins with the rebirth of the Chapayeka – the first one crawls out from under the altar of the church, weak at first, struggling to get up off the floor. Slowly he gains strength and stands up and begins to search for Jesus with the other Fariseos. After Ash Wednesday, for the next six Fridays there are processions around the circular road called Konti going around the church, where the Stations of the Cross are set up – this represents the time when 3 For a more thorough description of the ritual events and a discussion of the obviational sequences, see Keisalo-Galvan (2011).

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130 Last Supper D1

Running of the Viejito E1

Crucifixion F1

C1 Miercoles de Tinieblas

B1 Palm Sunday G1 A1 Jesus is dead, First Chapayeka appears the wake is held rebirth of the Chapayeka

Figure 6.2 First cycle: from the rebirth of the Chapayeka to the death of Jesus.

Jesus is walking around Yaqui lands, healing people, while both his mother and the Fariseos search for him. Each Friday, more Chapayekas join the group, until there can be as many as fifty or sixty by Holy Week. They capture Jesus, but not without him putting up a fight. The first cycle ends when Jesus is crucified (see Figure 6.2). Jesus, of course, is resurrected, which begins the second cycle (Figure 6.3). At first, the Chapayekas are unaware of this and proceed to have a (pretend) Judas konti, D2

Gloria, the final battle

Judas pyre F2


C2 Godparents take the Chapayekas to breakfast

G2 A2 Jesus reinstated in the The encuentro; church, two masks left re-birth of Jesus of the Chapayekas

B2 Chapayeka fiesta

Figure 6.3 Second cycle: from the rebirth of Jesus to the death of the Chapayeka.

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drunken fiesta in the church, until they realize that the body of Jesus they thought they were guarding has been replaced with a stuffed animal. The Chapayekas begin to prepare for their demise even as they prepare for the final battle that will take place on the Saturday of Glory, when the church group, now joined by the Caballeros and the Deer group, face off with the Fariseos for one last time. The Chapayeka masks and weapons are thrown on a pyre and burned with a Chapayeka doll, Judas in effigy. The Chapayeka performers are taken by their godparents into the church to be blessed and returned to societyand the Matachines return and dance in the church and the plaza. Cosmological relations have been restored. Over the year, Jesus, having been reborn as a baby, will grow old, to be an old man, the viejito, who will die again. The two sequences show how the Chapayekas provide a symmetrical counterpart to Jesus – an opposite principle. The second cycle is in many ways an inversion of the first. The cycle of each figure goes through similar moments: each figure is reborn, prepares for sacrifice and battle and then dies, but the sequences of events happen as symbolic reversals of each other. A stationary event in one place will take place as movement in the other: Jesus prepares for sacrifice with the Last Supper, while the Chapayekas prepare by way of a procession going round the Way of the Cross clockwise, the ‘wrong way’. What happens inside the church in one sequence will happen outside in the other, on the church plaza or on the Konti road. The crucifixion takes place inside the church, while the Judas pyre burns outside, and so on. The resurrection of Jesus is represented by ‘the encounter’(encuentro) that takes place between St John the Baptist and Veronica. This is a moment of movement, somewhat chaotic, as two groups (both including members of the church group and Fariseos) set off around the Konti from the church in opposite directions. When they meet, halfway round, rockets are let off and each group goes off running as fast as they can in a race to reach the church first. No representation of Jesus is present. In comparison, the rebirth of the Chapayeka on Ash Wednesday is controlled and focused, taking place at the church altar, although no less intense. When the ritual is presented as one cycle, the relations of opposition within the trope are seen. Miercoles de Tinieblas, the darkening of the church, is related to the resurrection. When the ritual is presented as two consecutive sequences, the relations between events are ones of anticipation, matching rather than contrasting – in this analytical formation Miercoles de Tinieblas is related to the crucifixion (C1 to F1). In the second cycle, the counterparts are C2 and F2: the Chapayekas being taken to breakfast by their madrinas, ritual godmothers (or godparents), on the only occasion they leave the church area during Holy Week, in preparation for the Judas pyre, which marks the


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destruction of the Chapayeka masksand the performers’ return to society, mediated by the godparents (padrinos). Yaqui cosmology as it is presented and embodied in the Easter ritual can be looked at as a continual alternation of cycles: all the figures grow old and die, to be reborn newand the ‘evil’ Chapayekas are just as much a necessary part of this alternation as the ‘good’ powers.

Invention in the Chapayeka performance

The inventiveness of the Chapayekas, defined as actions not fully prescribed by the conventional form, occurs in several different ways. It may happen at any moment in the ritual, although it is more likely to occur at certain times, such as when the Chapayekas stand waiting in lines while others perform. Some Chapayekas clown a lot and initiate action, while others only perform the conventional forms. Chapayeka invention may be improvisation according to the figure portrayed in the mask. For example, those with animal masks will act like the animal itself would – I once saw an ape placidly hanging from a tree branch by one hand, knees bent and feet pulled up, and a rooster approaching the corn vendor’s cart with great interest. The Chapayekas also interact extensively with spectators, other performers and each other. They may steal things from people who are not careful, or mimic and mock bystanders. Several times I saw a Chapayeka jump onto the back of a passing bicycle, to the surprise of the cyclist. They may try to catch children and parents may discipline the children by telling them, ‘I will give you to the Chapayekas’ or even, ‘the Chapayekas will get you and eat you!’ Older children play games of chicken, trying to get as close as possible to the Chapayekas without actually getting caught. The Chapayekas may also interrupt conventional ritual actions to do something else, such as the Chapayeka with a circus clown mask who took out a red yo-yo and stopped to play with it in church during Miercoles de Tinieblas, while his companion, another circus clown, tapped his foot with impatience and indicated they should get on with the present task of searching for Jesus around the altar. Another form of invention involves performing the conventional actions in an individual way, such as one Chapayeka who wore an elf mask – he would repeatedly fit an extra wiggle or dance step into the marching rhythm. This capacity for invention is in contrast to all the other performers in the ritual, who follow convention – reproducing the established model of the ritual tradition. All their action is always interpreted in this frame. Any exception from conventional forms goes unnoticed or ignored, or, if it goes too far, is considered an error or mistake. The Chapayekas, however, are always being watched with the anticipation that they might shift into invention and do something different – whether this anticipation results in happy excitement

Invention, convention and clowning


(the clown is here!) or fear and anxiety (he might try to grab someone or make a mockery of them). Even those spectators who are mostly indifferent to the Chapayekas know that they can be unpredictable and must not be disrespected. It seems to me that circus clowns and stand-up comedians are feared for similar reasons as the Chapayekas; they are not guaranteed to stay within the performance frame. Indeed, they are expected to not stay within it. A shift from one mode of symbolization to the other is a figure–ground reversal, a shift in the contextual relations of the action (see Wagner 1986:25 et passim).4 The Chapayekas always begin their performance in a conventional manner, most importantly by putting on the mask and following the restrictions that come with it. This connects them to a cultural tradition and marks their action as ritual. When they shift to invention, it also marks a shift in the orientation of the spectators and their frame of reference and interpretation. By the very fact of being unpredictable the Chapayeka becomes powerful, in itself and in relation to the ritual as invention gives the figure a measure of autonomy. The ability to invent means that the Chapayekas are able to cross the boundary that the conventionalizing action has drawn round the ritual. By examining a municipal police car or pretending to take photos of the spectators with a toy mobile phone, the Chapayekas reference the world outside the ritual and make it part of their ground, the perceived context of their actions (see Figure 6.4).

Invention, convention and contextual relations

Rituals and other figure–ground reversals are a way to gain agency within and over certain culturally determined contexts and conditions of existence. This is done through evoking microcosmic figures – symbolic entities that perception is focused on – that can also be macrocosmic grounds: the contextual background that is the interpretative frame of the figures. Reversals are constituted through shifting perspectives and perceptions; the ritual is a microcosmic coding of powers and beings in the universe, but from another point of view the ritual is also a concrete macrocosm of abstract, microcosmically coded cosmological ideas and principles. As a macrocosm, the ritual is a way to model these abstractions, both in the sense of bringing them within the realm of experience and in an active sense, as an intervention that has effects on the modelled beings and principles and the cosmology itself.5

4 5

For further discussion of figure-ground reversals in the Chapayeka performance, see Keisalo 2016. For a discussion of modelling events, see Handelman (1990:24–31).

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Ritual as figure, macrocosm as ground; the Chapayeka is part of the conventional symbolization of the ritual.

Through the differentiation of invention, the Chapayeka emerges as a figure, the ritual part of the macrocosmic ground.

Figure 6.4 Figure–ground reversal in Chapayeka performance.

Invention and convention have different contextual relations within the larger system of meaning; each mode of symbolization presupposes and counter-invents a different context in that they entail different frames that focus perception and interpretation in different ways (Wagner 1981). Grounds work to frame figures but different figures create different grounds. This means that there is no single definition of context: the trope itself participates in creating or counter-inventing its own context by the way perception is ordered and directed – which points and relations of reference are highlighted or foregrounded and which ones are masked, hidden or downplayed. If invention and convention are opposed as modes of symbolic action, the contexts they presume and project are also different. Convention presupposes a world where things are fundamentally different and unconnected and therefore relating, cooperation, continuity and mutual understanding require human effort and are considered to be in the realm of agency. Conversely, invention presupposes a world where things are fundamentally the same and connected, which means that power, individuality, change and standing out require effort and are considered the outcome of agency (ibid.). For the Chapayeka to come into existence as a recognizable Yaqui ritual figure, the performer has to follow certain conventional forms. Once this is established and the ritual is underway, invention is a way for the Chapayeka to stand out and become powerful in relation to convention. The Easter ritual

Invention, convention and clowning


begins and ends in convention and is performed as mostly convention. This symbolic action and effort creates the ritual as a defined and bound figure against the macrocosmic ground of ‘the world’, including the flow and flux of everyday life in the community, but also everything beyond it: Mexico as the state, the monte, the wilderness where the surem (mythical ancestors) and the Deer live – a world with horror movies about animated dolls, Pink Panthers and US presidents. In an established conventional frame, only a little bit of invention, some object or action in the ‘wrong’ place, like a yo-yo in the church, is needed to bring about the threat of relativization that would erase the boundary and dissolve the conventional trope (see Keisalo 2014, 2015). This is the power of humour. Its efficacy – whether destroying, questioning or ultimately strengthening convention – depends on the specifics of the situation.


The Yaqui Easter ritual is a metaphor of Yaqui cosmology on different levels: created as the macrocosmic ground through conventionalizing, it establishes itself as the context of action; as a microcosmic figure it recreates a specifically Yaqui cosmology within certain historical and social contexts. Invention allows the Chapayekas to reference the contingencies of these contexts. Both invention and convention, as well as shifting between them, are important to the Chapayeka performance; neither aspect is reducible to the other. The conventional side is the cycle of death and rebirth that is an inversion of and an important cosmological counterpart to the cycle of Jesus. This balance keeps the cosmological cycles going, while invention makes the Chapayekas unpredictable and powerful, expanding their agency and allowing them to tap power from various beings in the universe – whether ‘the president of the United States’ or a trickster figure from popular culture like the Pink Panther. Alternation between the two modes sustains and enhances that power and channels it into the conventions of the ritual; by pitting their power against that of Jesus and the church group, ultimately the Chapayekas revitalize the entire ritual. The combination of extremes of convention and invention is what makes it possible to recreate the conventions of Yaqui culture as powerful and compelling in various changing contexts. By combining opposites of convention and invention in their being and performance, the Chapayekas create dialectical mediation between various opposed, even contradictory, ideas and things, such as the ritual and its macrocosmic context, Jesus and Judas, self and other, mask and performer, sacred and profane, good and evil and so on. The dialectical opposition mediates these in a way that brings them into relation but keeps them distinct


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– the boundary is simultaneously drawn and crossed, each concept is defined more clearly against the other. While dialectical mediation is a key to defining these concepts as important principles of Yaqui cosmology, the Chapayeka performance keeps convention meaningful in that it guards against relativization. This disappearance of distinctions is a possible threat when opposed contexts are repeatedly expressed together. Where an unintentional or uncontrolled figure–ground reversal could lead to a boundary being erased or transgressed, leading to contamination or chaos, the controlled reversals achieved by the Chapayekas present a threat of relativization but ultimately they stop it from happening. If there were no clowns, if the Chapayekas did not differentiate in addition to performing their conventional parts, perhaps the opposition and difference between the church group and the Fariseos would fade. This could lead to their common definition as Yaqui ritual figures, performing a pre-programmed process rather than pitting their powers against each other, providing a dynamic inner motivation for the ritual. The Chapayekas’ ability to shift into invention and back to convention keeps the symbols and the Easter ritual meaningful and contributes to the continuity of convention. One clear way in which the ritual as a whole is efficacious is the way that the ritual tradition itself continues to be strong – the conventional form of it appears to be very stable across time and space among different Yaqui communities. Finally, this alternation between convention and invention is not unique to the Chapayekas. The Pascolas do it in the Deer dance; it is at the heart of trickster myths and can be found in even such a seemingly different genre as stand-up comedy.6 Based on a review of the available data, I would argue that other comic figures, performances and tropes are also characterized by conspicuously alternating or otherwise creating a tension between invention and convention; this is what connects them to the collective and moral aspect of culture in some way, and at the same time makes them unpredictable, powerful and potentially efficacious. Previous analyses of comic figures have shown a tendency to pick either convention – a serious message – or invention – the open possibility of meaning – as primary. I hope to have demonstrated the importance of considering the combination of convention and invention. By taking into account the different foundations and contextual effects of the different modes of symbolization, Wagner’s theory of meaning provides a perspective from which the opposed aspects of these ambiguous and paradoxical figures and tropes can be treated as equally important.


For a brief comparison of invention and convention in Chapayeka performance and stand-up comedy, see Keisalo (2014, 2015).

Invention, convention and clowning



Babcock, B. 1975. ‘“A tolerated margin of mess”: the trickster and his tales reconsidered’. Journal of the Folklore Institute 11(3):147–86. ——— 1984. ‘Arrange me into disorder: fragments and reflections on ritual clowning’. In Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle: Rehearsals Toward a Theory of Cultural Performance, (ed.) J. J. MacAloon, pp. 102–28. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues. Bakhtin, M. 1984. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Barba, E. 1995. The Paper Canoe. London: Routledge. Basso, K. 1979. Portraits of ‘the Whiteman’: Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols among the Western Apache. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Carré, S.D. 1997. ‘The Chapayeka complex: change and persistence of forms’. In Performing the Renewal of Community: Indigenous Easter Rituals in North Mexico and Southwest United States, (eds.) R.B. Spicer and N.R. Crumrine, pp. 127–49. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. Crumrine, R. 1969. ‘Capakoba, the Mayo Easter ceremonial impersonator: explanations of ritual clowning’. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 8:1–22. Erickson, K.C. 2008. Yaqui Homeland and Homeplace: The Everyday Production of Ethnic Identity. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. Handelman, D. 1990. Models and Mirrors: Towards an Anthropology of Public Events. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Hu de Hart, E. 1981. Missionaries, Minersand Indians. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. Hyde, L. 1998. Trickster Makes This World. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hynes, W.J. 1993. ‘Mapping the characteristics of mythic tricksters: a heuristic guide’. In Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts and Criticisms, (eds.) W.J. Hynes and W.G. Doty, pp. 33–45. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. Keisalo, M. 2014. ‘Cosmologies of comedic power: a little invention goes a long way’. Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 39(4):60–4. ——— 2015. ‘Koomisen mahdin kosmologiat: antropologinen näkökulma komiikan semiotiikkaan’. In: Huumorin skaalat. Esitys, tyyli, tarkoitus (Yearbook of the Kalevala Society 94), (eds.) S. Knuuttila, P. Hakamies and E. Lampela, pp. 56–74. Helsinki: SKS. ——— 2016. ‘A semiotics of comedy: moving figures and shifting grounds of Chapayeka ritual clown performance’. HAU 6(2):101–21. Keisalo-Galvan, M. 2011. ‘Cosmic clowns: convention, inventionand inversion in the Yaqui Easter ritual’, PhD thesis. Helsinki: University of Helsinki. Lutes, S. 1983. ‘The mask and magic of the Yaqui Paskola clowns’. In The Power of Symbols: Masks and Masquerade of the Americas, (eds.) N.R. Crumrine and M. Halpin, pp. 81–92. Vancouver: The University of British Columbia Press. Makarius, L. 1970. ‘Ritual clowns and symbolical behavior’. Diogenes 69:44–73.

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Mitchell, W.E. (ed.). 1992. Clowning as Critical Practice: Performance Humor in the South Pacific. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. Moctezuma Zamarrón, J.L. 2007. Yaquis: Pueblos Indígenas del México Contemporáneo. Mexico City: Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas. Olavarría, M.E. 2003. Cruces, flores y serpientes: simbolismo y vida ritual yaquis. Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana. Painter, M.T. 1986. With Good Heart. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. Schechner, R. 1997. ‘Waehma: space, time, identity and theater at New Pascua, Arizona’. In Performing the Renewal of Community: Indigenous Easter Rituals in North Mexico and Southwest United States, (ed.) R.B. Spicer and N.R. Crumrine, pp. 151–84. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. Spicer, E.H. 1980. The Yaquis. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. Spicer, R. 1956. ‘The clown in Yaqui ceremony’. Unpublished article, Arizona State Museum Archives, Tucson. Spicer, R.B. and N.R. Crumrine (eds.) 1997. Performing the Renewal of Community: Indigenous Easter Rituals in North Mexico and Southwest United States. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. Steward, J. 1991 [1929]. The Clown in Native North America. New York: Garland Publishing. Wagner, R.1981. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 1986. Symbols that Stand for Themselves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

C hapter 7

Visible dancers and invisible hunters Divination and masking among Masewal people, in the northern highlands of Puebla, Mexico

 Alessandro Questa

Spirits, diviners and dancers

For Masewal people, dances entail the embodiment of spirits, beings that would otherwise remain invisible to all except the very few ‘gifted’ people who can potentially become tlamatkimej, ‘those who know’ (also known as adivinos or ‘diviners’). Local shamanism and ceremonial dances constitute practices that partially inspire and reveal each other, emerging as mutual, if inconstant, reflections. While the former relies on an esoteric discourse of invisibility and secrecy to speak of a collective interdependence with the spirits and the surrounding landscape, the latter aims to visualize those same spirits in order to strike a different type of relation with them, though also advocating the same interdependency. Verbal and non-verbal, nocturnal and diurnal, individual and collective, and (mainly) gifted and ungifted are only some of the opposing ways in which these two contesting techniques attempt to see the world. Indeed, according to numerous ethnographies, what anthropology labels as shamanism among different Nahua (or Masewal) people’s villages in the highlands of Puebla is an affair based on esoteric knowledge and individual acts of extraordinary divination (Knab 1995; Lupo 1995, 2001; Pérez 2011b; Pury-Toumi 1997; Romero 2007; Sandstrom 1992; Signorini and Lupo 1989a). A smaller number of ethnographic accounts have stressed how dancing, by contrast, relies on collective plasticity, emphasising order, reciprocity and visibility (Questa 2010; Ríos 2010; Stresser-Péan 2009). Anthropologists and historians have portrayed Masewal people as ‘spiritual’ people, possessing an inner assortment of ‘souls’ and thus complex notions of personhood (Aramoni 1990; Chamoux 1989; Knab 1995; Pury-


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Toumi 1997; Signorini and Lupo 1989a, 1989b), and as holders of an overencompassing world view (Báez 1999; Lok 1987; Lupo 1995; Taggart 1997) since pre-Columbian times (López Austin 1997). More recent ethnographies have importantly shed light on shamanic initiation, ritual speech, healing practices (Báez 2008; Pérez 2012; Romero 2007, 2010) and native ideas about spiritual strength (Acosta 2010; Pérez 2011). The Masewal people of Puebla are also portrayed in all these existing ethnographies as acutely troubled by sorcery, defined as the foremost source of disease, ill fortune and death. In short, Masewal people are paradoxically described as producers of a large degree of order, expressed in a super-engineered and over-determining cosmology that regulates time, life and energy, just as they live in constant fear of pulsing distress from local, imponderable cells of vindictive spiritual forces. With few exceptions (e.g. Neurath 2005, 2013; Pitarch 2010), the anthropology of Mexican indigenous societies has overlooked such radically distinct cosmologies coexisting in the same place. These volatile anthropological conceptualizations, historical products of analytic endeavours, past forms of ‘controlled equivocation’ (Viveiros de Castro 2004), have woven stories around anthropology and Western imagination, as much as around native interventions in the world (Znamenski 2007). However, the entangled relations between both by recurring to the same ‘pool’ of spiritual characters have remained vastly unexplored. When Masewal people dance, masked and clad in ceremonial costumes, they are not only performing aesthetically or enacting one story, they are also inventing others. Through such invention they allow themselves to become someone else and to establish a relation. Visualizing others by dancing is a way in which Masewal dancers invent their own culture. The creative conceptual opposition between the forces of convention and invention in culture proposed by Wagner (1972, 1975) serves as the main conceptual stimulation for this text. Complementarily, the capacity for inventing others, evidenced by Masewal dances, finds corollaries in recent scholarship looking at different creative indigenous theorizations about others in Mexico, namely Pitarch’s work on the Tseltal notion of ‘fold’ to explain different states of existence (Pitarch 2010), and Neurath’s work on the ancestralization of foreigners among the Wixarika (Neurath 2005, 2013). Additionally, notions of Amerindian perspectivism (Viveiros de Castro 1992, 1998), as well as the revitalization of animism as a pervasive concept for an expansion of human sociality, and human–nonhuman relations (Arhem 1996, Pálsson 1996, Descola 2013) mobilize this inquiry about meta-human relations. For Masewal farmers in the highlands of Puebla, in eastern Mexico, ceremonial and heavily stylized dances are not just joyful performances or abstract expressions of tradition, they are lively social devices for

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communication and bonding between different groups of interrelated people, across generations and between villages.1 Dances are an important part of sociality and there are at least fourteen different thematic dances today in the highlands, practised mostly by Masewal, and Totonaku indigenous people, but also by Mestizo populations. In every town and village there are from two to over twenty different troupes of dancers. Every thematic dance is different, and can involve from a dozen to over sixty dancers accompanied by specific music and under a strict choreography, portraying them as characters engaged in particular interactions with one another. The amount of resources and effort people put into those dances is not gratuitous. Dances are, nowadays, popular events in every village across the highlands, as they gather people from different age groups and provide a venue for aesthetic expression and conviviality during religious and calendric celebrations called mayordomías. However, Masewal people recall that these dances were disappearing towards the end of the last century, as growing numbers of local people stopped using their native Náhuatl language in public, and took the new highways to the cities to find jobs. Deemed as colourful traditions, but otherwise as backward and unnecessary by local mestizos and even some Masewal people, dances, together with many other local practices stigmatized as ‘too indigenous’, were thought of as obstacles to the ‘arrival of modernity’. Today, some dances have resurfaced from seeming oblivion, as more and more young people are getting involved in one or more local dance groups. Markets and regional ‘fiestas’ are attended by dance organizations from remote villages. There seems to be a growing regional effervescence associated with dances. So, what changed?

Relations as holographies

The reason for this locally inspired revitalization may lie in the rich relational information and creative capacities embedded in dancing. Masewal thematic dances are collective performances that, in fact, contain relevant knowledge about the world. Specifically, they contain strategic knowledge about the interdependency between the land and the people. Such interdependency 1

Masewal are part of the contemporary Náhuatl-speaking groups that inhabit different regions in central Mexico. They form one of 62 politically recognized indigenous peoples (Pueblos Indígenas) (INEG 2010), speaking a group of languages recognized as composing 11 linguistic families, sub-divided into 68 groupings with 364 variants (INLI 2009). Sharing the mountains with Totonakuspeaking people, the Masewal population has lived in the highlands of Puebla for at least the last millennium (García 1987).


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becomes stressed in face of the current processes of intense urban migration, local political corruption, the gradual abandonment of traditional farming, and the disastrous effects of hurricanes and tropical storms connected to climate change. In other words, Masewal people produce visual models of the otherwise invisible social relations between humans and non-human beings, or spirits, with which they share the land. In their own words, dances are about ‘remembering of the old ones’ (wewetsin kilnamitl). Dances rely heavily on the portrayal of dangerous spirits, the same entities that are predicated by local shamanic discourse, but in doing so, these performances reinvent the outcome of such perilous encounters towards a sphere of enduring human–spirit reciprocity, stressing the interdependence between humans and non-human inhabitants in a shared landscape. The frequently secretive and mysterious predatory narratives told by tlamatkimej about mountain spirits become, in dances, jesting and aesthetically beautiful collective performances about human-spirit-landscape interconnections and alliances. While local tlamatkimej, traditionally justify ill-fortune as the aftermath of interactions with dangerous spirits, farmers turn to these same entities for protection, forgiveness and support, as they see them as necessary partners in a shared landscape currently in distress. Indeed, by rekindling their connections with landscape through offerings, pilgrimages to local mountain tops and, crucially, through the revitalization of ceremonial dances, Masewal people expect to intervene both in local weather and against economically, politically and ecologically unfavourable conditions. These local forms of negotiation and embodiment of spirits constitute the basis for all ceremonial dances. Spirits have many names and come from different places. They all, however, share the quality of being invisible and can be seen only in dreams or guessed at by the effects they leave in the world. All spirits are linked somehow to the mountain, where their houses and plots also exist. Some local people think that spirits are all, in fact, their direct ancestors, in other words, the dead, and that they eventually take new forms and names in order to come back among the living. Most Masewal people, however, think that if is true that the dead live inside the mountain and have a village, there are other beings that are not human, and never have been, while also being ‘alive’. Spirits manifest routinely in the world that surrounds Masewal people’s lives as part of their productive activities, but also become present in their dreams and in important moments and challenges in their lives, becoming, ultimately, emotionally linked to a person’s life story. Hence, Masewal knowledge and concerns about spirits and the landscape comprise not only a distinct epistemology, but also must be understood as coming from a historical experience of living in an animated world while being part of a meta-human society. The fabrication of specific

Visible dancers and invisible hunters


artefacts, such as masks, costumes and other regalia, enables Masewal dancers to enact the same spirits they know, and also, crucially, to launch queries about relations, their causes and effects. All of the different thematic dances occurring in the highlands are collective and public performances in which costumed dancers dance around the town in highly organized groups, fully dressed in elaborate attire. Dance troupes celebrate, together with townspeople, several calendric festivities of saints and virgin’s images, who are the spiritual caretakers of the town. Such celebrations, sponsored each year by a different household, are called mayordomías. On every occasion, dancers become ‘flipped characters’ (mopatianej), as they embody animal, ancestral and landscape spirits. Masks and other artefacts provide dancers with the temporary capacity not only to ‘look like’ but also to ‘see like’ the spirits they embody. When dancers become spirits they also, to some degree, domesticate them. Dancers as spirits accept food offerings from local authorities, kneel, pray in front of the saints, and merrily perform their elaborate choreographies in their full attire for everyone to see. Trapped by tempting Masewal bodies, spirits are then forced to accept food offerings and to enter into exchange relations with humans. By their performance, dancers use their own embodiment as a pedagogical tool, as they show how spirits should behave. To dance, in Masewal terms, means to publicly proclaim and commit to the pre-existing relations with the spirits in the landscape. Such public demonstration entails also a political posture, as it tacitly reinstates a hierarchy in which mountain beings acknowledge their alliance with local people against invading corporations or Mestizo interests. By becoming spirits (mountains, rains, trees, rivers, winds and different animals), dancers also become the land itself, producing visual scale models of a spiritual ecosystem at work. This moving and breathing ecology, in which mountains, winds, rains and river ancestral beings interact with one another and with local people is however devoid of a conventional narrative. Dancers are not supposed to speak while dancing, but they are also vastly unconcerned with the ‘linear meaning’ of the dance. Multiple, simultaneous and polemic events and relations between characters are enacted strictly and choreographically, without much consensus on their ultimate significance. ‘Who knows why the dance is such, where it came from? To dance,’ a fellow dancer reflected once, ‘is to fulfil one’s duty with the town, to always follow our captain and our fellow dancers; to do it all with joy.’ Dances are thus not exactly theatrical mythology, but are instead holograms (three dimensional images of a subject) that ‘re-perceive’ the social world in some other way (Wagner 2001). Through their elaborate performances, dancers produce pre-emptive visualizations of the future, as


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artificial models of what counts as a desirable image (Wagner 2013). Intended as image-based relations, dances avoid the linguistic constraints upon meanings by eluding linear verbal narratives. Linear explanatory narratives are traditionally controlled by local diviners as master storytellers, but are also produced by Catholic priests, Mestizo schoolteachers, government officials, foreign merchants, environmentalists and Christian preachers. They all offer discourses about God’s will, wealth, justice, environmental risks and order. By producing holograms, dances are attempts to bypass such discourses, making evident what needs no explanation: the reality and prevalence of spirits in the land. Holographic dances are in no way naive productions, however, they stand as thoughtful devices through which dancers can observe, recreate and even transform the spiritual ecology and launch a political posture. When a dancer, for example, decides to present himself as an ancestral devil with a masked schoolteacher costume, or with one of a mining-company representative, he is exhibiting where the local concerns lie. ‘They all have spirits, they all can dance,’ Lucho, an old dancer mentioned once, ‘the government, the mountain, even the mine.’ During a dance, diverse devils end up being expelled or even ‘converted’ by other, more powerful characters, the itekomej or ‘owners’ of the land. Holographic dances are dynamic models of the spiritual world. In that sense, they are also intended to provide a material body to invisible beings by copying them. Paradoxically, copying ends up becoming a creative process in which bodies, characters and ideas are reclaimed, repurposed and reinvented to face current problems. This collective mimesis aims to evoke the world, and to constantly bring to the fore the crucial interdependence between land and people. Dances are thus not just dynamic holograms but also moralizing actions. They involve a profound recognition of shared values between people and their landscape reminding Masewal people of relations that matter, even if, most of the time, they are not visible. Dances, nowadays, also warn local people about how their behaviour can invoke disastrous weather events. Such connections are triggered by a notion of ‘lack of remembrance’ amo kilnamitl, a sign of total cosmic distress. Hence, the main objective of dances is to remember, to bring to the fore and, ultimately, to acknowledge the network of alliances between humans and spirits looking to re-establish order and secure continuity. Local divination, depicted by anthropology as shamanism, goes in the opposite direction. It stands as a narrative to account for inescapable conflict, constant danger and sudden death. Local tlamatkimej alleviate people, but only by rescuing their tormented extra-corporeal souls (indeed their spiritanimal companions, or tonalmej) from terrible devouring spirits from the mountain. Diviners offer a predatory framework in which all people and

Visible dancers and invisible hunters


spirits are either prey or potential predators. Shamans are necessary as interpreters and intermediaries between the predators and their victims. They can do this, because they zealously maintain knowledge of the land, its places and gateways in which spirits dwell, and they also know the many names and preferences for sacrificial exchange. Tlamatkimej know this because they are special, gifted. Typically, tlamatkimej describe themselves as tipetetokanej or ‘mountain hunters’.

Gifted hunters

The life of the adivino or tlamatk, which the Masewal translate as a ‘person who knows/sees things’, is marked by a gift called ojko ilwalalis, ‘that which has been given’ (Questa 2010). This talent is always given to the diviner and cannot be learned, inherited or acquired by any other means. It is often obtained in early age or at puberty, and it often presents itself as a perilous disease, one that involves a near-death experience, after which he or she is able to ‘see’. The gift or ilwalalis is given by numerous non-human entities, and is therefore always given according to someone-else’s decision, occurring against the receiver’s will. The gift implies a heavy load on a person’s life, one that many deny or attempt to postpone, as it calls for a different way of existence, one marked by constant spiritual and physical peril, as tlamatkimej act both as healers and doers of harm in their own towns. Therefore, each tlamatk ends up being the focus of their neighbours’ hatred, fear and envy: the life of the shaman tends as a result to be a lonely one. They explain this non-human choice with movements of the hands upon the forehead saying, ‘I was chosen. They sit upon my head (or crown), like on a chair.’ (Questa 2010). But who are ‘they’? Who sits on the shaman’s head? A multitude of named saints and virgins, animal and landscape beings, as well as Jesus Christ are revealed as the main spiritual patrons of each shaman. These beings will appear in a succession of initiatory dreams, introducing the diviner to other spiritual entities located in specific places within the local landscape (Pérez 2011a; Questa 2010; Romero 2007). Boulders and caves, ravines and old tree stumps, mountain tops and crossroads are all potentially home to a non-human someone under the eye of the diviner. In all these places, people’s souls are misplaced, captured or lost. The tlamatk’s first task is to be able to see where exactly – in which specific rock, twig, construction or artefact – these are. In some cases, the tlamatk can even become compali (from Spanish compadre) of several different beings/places, or have sexual partners amongst them (Pérez 2011a). There are also other, often mentioned, less individualized invisible forces that form part of the spiritual network established by every diviner; they are generally called in Spanish ángeles, ‘angels’, and also referred


Alessandro Questa

to as ejekamej or ‘winds’. These ‘winds’ dwell in the mountaintops and move around the highlands, bringing different types of desirable things like clouds and rain, but can also cause catastrophes, like hurricanes and virulent disease (Báez 1999; Signorini and Lupo 1989a). The tlamatk and his or her patients actively speculate about the cause of disease or ill fortune, basing their conjectures on the indications of conduct, names and places of spirits in the local landscape. Masewal people distinguish two main forms of invisible harm. The first is caused by human envy or tlawelitalistl, ‘to regard someone with anger’. Envy can lead to all sorts of harm and even death, and it is caused by almost any person and in some cases even by animals. Sorcery is referred as tlachiwa, ‘a thing that is done’, which implies the malicious action of another tlamatk, always described as a brujo, a tlakatekolo, ‘man-owl’, or evil sorcerer. Their engagement in obscure interactions with different spirits and itonalmej (‘animal souls’) unavoidably ends with some form of soul hunting. Good and evil shamans compare themselves to hunters and narrate how they transform, through dreams, into felines like jaguars, or more precisely, tekwani, ‘people eaters’. Every tekwani is thus a shaman ‘from some other town’. Shamans engage in cruel combat as they chase each other while guarding or hunting souls. The predatory actions of shamans and spirits are not entirely secret, as all Masewal people know how to reckon and handle daily hazardous encounters with invisible spirits. For example, most people know it is unwise to cross a river at noon, as the awewe (‘water’s old man’) is at that time feeding or his daughters are bathing, and they would all drown the soul of anyone passing by. Women know too how to bring their children back after they have accidentally fallen to the ground, while walking up the local mountain. They will find a stick and hit the dirt, thereby stopping ‘mother earth’ (tlaltikpak nana) from grabbing the child’s ianima, or ‘their soul’. Importantly, these are all highly speculative formulations, as people never see these various invisible beings; rather, they associate their presence from their effects – for example, a fallen child or a splash in the water with a later case of illness. Seeing spirits is the privilege of shamans. The ultimate outcome of the ‘gift’, the ilwalalis, resides in the diviner’s skill to ‘see’ the invisible world at will. This is defined as kixpatla, a term locally translated as ‘change of vision’ and simultaneously as ‘change of face’. Kixpatla is defined as the temporary capacity to observe the things in the world in a different way, detecting simultaneous forms and identities. Through this perceptive capacity, a person is able, for example, to see caves as doorways to houses and churches, deer and boars as dogs, birds as hens and serpents as people. Although kixpatla may occur to any person during dreams as an

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uncontrollable experience, only tlamatkimej have conscious control over it in the waking world. For anyone else, kixpatla is usually a deadly experience, as it puts a person into contact with numerous and unstable spirits, who, in almost every case, will either capture or devour them. According to local divination discourse, the invisible world of spirits is predicated, almost exclusively, on predatory relations. Kixpatla interactions are characteristic of the way Masewal people conceive of their relations with invisible beings, as determined by a series of interwoven or layered ‘natures’, perceptible only according to personal abilities (gifted diviners) or the circumstantial location of the person (e.g. the different implications of a person falling in the street, in front of the church or up on the mountain). Masewal diviners have explained this dimensional overlapping – or, indeed, folded – world to me as either the layers of an onion being peeled away or as the multiple folding of a tablecloth over an object (such as a pencil). After covering a pencil under several layers of a folded tablecloth, the diviner asked: ‘Can you see the pencil?’ ‘No’, I answered. ‘However,’ he continued, ‘even if you cannot see it, you know it is there.’ In this Masewal conception of a multi-layered world of relations, the opposition between ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood is rendered irrelevant. The constant potential for overlapping relations stands as a recurrent Masewal illustration of invoking two ontological principles, whereby most things and beings are related somehow, and that these relations are mostly invisible to the ungifted eye. Moreover, these multiple and invisible relations are also unstable, in constant change, as relations are never fixed. Therefore, clouds, wind, people or animals, potentially, have multiple and unknown layers of relations with one another, with unforeseeable implications. For example, tropical storms damaging a maize field can happen as a reaction to unchecked logging, or to the otherwise immoral actions of a drunken man. Even conventionally ‘good deeds’, such as carrying out a successful dance, can bring unwanted or ‘harmful’ effects to some dancers. A dancer that is exceedingly good becomes too tempting, and is visited in dreams by an invisible mountain spirit in the form of an animal, and ultimately becomes ill or leaves town. These thickly meshed relations are not conceptualized in relation to a centrality (or a periphery), nor can they be determined as completely true or entirely false, and there is no definitive characterization of good (benefit) or evil (harm) to a person. All beings, things and meanings, being overlapping, remain always dangerous. This has been, so far, an account of the world from the point of view of ‘gifted’ persons. There is another version of how invisible non-humans and the landscape itself interact with people. This version is made evident by the staging of collective dances. Through dancing, ‘ungifted’ Masewal


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farmers expropriate kixpatla from the exclusive use of tlamatkimej in order to evidence – or unfold – the invisible, right in the middle of the town.

Ungifted dancers

Local dances can involve anything from about fifteen to fifty dancers. They are musical performances with specific choreography, costumes, masks and names. All dancing occurs at public events organized around calendric celebrations or mayordomías, dedicated to a number of Catholic saints throughout the liturgical year. Each mayordomía entails the yearly hosting of an effigy of a saint or virgin by a mayordomo, a sponsor who, together with his wife and relatives, organizes and pays for the feast and the offerings to dancers. Each mayordomo also invites one or two elder men known for being respectful to be his aides; they are called tlanosatl, ‘people who know how to speak’. These men will, in his name, pay several visits to each dance leader (capitán) at his house in order to negotiate and pay with beer and food for dances on the set date. Each dancing group employs specific sets of costumes, masks, musical instruments and choreographies. Every dance presents a constellation of different characters (animals, mountain spirits, ancestors) that, through their combined movements, tell a story. These stories, however, are in part a mystery, as most of the audience and even the dancers have little idea or interest in following any linear or master narrative. Dances are, however, episodic, and people make sure that each episode shows a defined type of relation between specific characters. Everybody knows, for example, the name of every character and strictly observes and evaluates their garments and proper regalia, position in the group and so on. For their part, unconcerned by this discursive absence, dancers perform eagerly, as they hope to accomplish their promise to a saint, to their fellow dancers and to ‘the town’. ‘To dance’, they say, ‘is to fulfil one’s obligation to the entire world.’ Masewal dancers agree that when dancing they are not only themselves, but become someone else at the same time. In this condensed state, clad in masked costume, dancers perceive and are perceived differently. Dancing formulates a controlled form of transformation by mimesis, framed by behaviour and regalia, collective movements and individual masking. The dancers refer to this unstable state as nimopatla, ‘to change myself ’. Dancers change, in every case, into a landscape or ancestral spirit, the same invisible beings seen by shamans via kixpatla. Contrary to the Masewal shamanic lore, dancers, instead of being devouring and nightmarish, become friendly and playful spirits. They appropriate spirits by their dancing embodiment, trying to humorously bring them into human sociality. Crucially, dancers cannot speak during this time,

Visible dancers and invisible hunters


and embedded within this is their distrust of diviner’s narrative control. By not speaking they are, subversively, able to do what spirits are not supposed to do according to tlamatkimej discourse (as a convention). Dancers tacitly admit the spirit’s existence and prevalence while, at the same time, they act to discipline their behaviour in order to protect humans and favour fertility and good fortune. In other words, Masewal dances occur as an anti-shamanic manifesto of sorts, as a collective effort devised to recapture relations with spirits and as a way for the ‘ungifted’ dancers, collectively, to exercise the exclusive perceptive powers of shamans, by enacting the invisible. In short, dances do not merely enact shamanic stories, they visualize them and, in so doing, reinvent them. Dancers as spirits become too dangerous and unstable. During the days of a ritual, dancers must not let themselves be touched by anyone, nor should they have sexual relations or sleep in their own homes. Their masks become active and are considered especially dangerous to women and children. Dancers are not allowed to speak except to one another, and then only briefly. When they interact with non-dancers, they cannot do so in Náhuatl or Spanish; instead they must speak in their ‘forest voice’, a series of playful yells and unintelligible whistles. Dancers cannot enter into any house or be under any roof. They must stay at all times under the summer sun. They must eat whatever they are offered by their patrons, the mayordomos, who pay for the dance and host the feast. Finally, dancers are expected to become inebriated with beer and rum. Each dance receives a name associated with a collective classification. Therefore, all dance groups – such as negritos (‘black men’) and tejoneros (‘badger hunters’) – imply alignments of similar people. However, these same dances receive a different name in Náhuatl: negritos is the equivalent of tipekayomej (‘mountain dwelling people’), while tejoneros is called wewentiyo (‘our old men’ or ‘our grandfathers’). It is worth noting that negritos are not ‘racialized’, nor associated with historical African immigrants, but rather with the primordial, invisible non-Christian people living inside the mountain. Their Spanish blackness is associated with the earth and the obscurity reigning inside the mountain. For their part, the tejoneros are not primarily identified with hunters, but with the ancestral Masewal, the people who first cultivated maize. In short, this Masewal practice of naming dances, emphasizing their different aspects in Spanish and Náhuatl languages, eschews all attempts of linear translation in favour of simultaneous definitions. Such Masewal semantic openness regarding dances contains the first clue to a tacit acceptance of coexisting spiritual possibilities. The dance of negritos or tipekayomej revolves around a group of primordial mountain beings. On their heads, dancers carry protuberant black hats that


Alessandro Questa

exhibit characteristics of mountains: small mirrors for caves, flowers for trees, fringes for rain and moss. During the several days in which the mayordomía takes place, these dancers escort the sacred images between the household of the current mayordomo to the church and then to the newly appointed mayordomo. In the first day of the dance, the dancers bear a wooden serpent – although on some occasions it might just be a carved tree branch – which they carry around the village. The snake is called kwojtlacowatl, ‘wooden’ or ‘forest serpent’, receiving also the name of iwitlapil, ‘Devil’s tail’. The tipekayomej dancers take pride in skilfully playing a pair of castanets, which represent the sound of raindrops, but which they also call awakaMasewall, ‘Devil’s testicles’. In this instance, Masewall is, perhaps provokingly, a playful term that refers to the Devil; indeed, the wooden serpent and the dancers that carry it are regarded as dangerous, ancient and malicious entities. Tipekayomej are non-Christian beings and are also the Devil’s sons. The Devil is a powerful landscape spirit, commonly referred to as el dueño del monte, ‘mountain owner’ in Spanish, and called in Náhuatl, kwoshiwa, ‘wilderness lord’. When it is manifested in this form, this green-coloured male being, elder of humankind, makes the tipekayomej dance for him for he taught them the music and steps, which constitute an imitation of the way he walks (the movement of his tail, the clashing sound of his testicles). The Devil is, at the same time, the wooden snake, which is killed by the dancers in the end. The overlapping narratives and materials (where the wooden snake is the Devil and also his tail, castanets are the sound of raindrop and also his testicles, and dancers are his sons’ but also his hunters) and the dance do not exactly match each other, but that is not the point. Masewal dancers clearly express that the Tipekayomej dancers are there to imitate the Devil by dancing, and to kill the snake at the sound of a specific son, whatever the stories around those actions might be. The Tipekayomej dancers evoke the presence of ‘mountain people’, owners of the wild and dwellers of tlaltikpakijtik (‘the mountain’s innards’) with which Masewal farmers have to deal in order to plant and harvest maize together. Planting maize on the mountain thus involves a tacit association with these beings, who simultaneously grow the same plants towards the interior of the mountain. Every maize plant is therefore a double entity, mirrored inside the mountain. What Masewal people see as maize roots constitutes the plant itself for the mountain spirits (the roots for them being the maize plant for Masewal farmers). There is consequently an inter-species partnership in maize production between the Masewal and the tipekayomej. The negritos, in their visitation of the village via the dancers’ bodies, remind the Masewal of their interdependence, and are therefore treated as guests; more specifically, as compalimej or compadres, that is, as ritual kin.

Visible dancers and invisible hunters


For its part, the wewentiyo dance presents an assortment of disguised characters, narrative elements and artefacts that provide evidence of the connections in the highlands’ world. The wewentiyo group – hunters, wives, dogs and a clown – dances around a bamboo pole, which is in turn circled by a painted canvas. The dancing requires the erection of a bamboo pole 8–10 metres tall, called taro. The taro is erected at the village plaza and covered with leaves and then bound with a number of ropes over which a second layer of palm leaves is placed. Importantly, the taro is an empty tube, which can be filled with the necessary rigging to move several other artefacts up and down. A gourd and a Mexican flag crown the taro. The gourd has been previously cut in two, connected to the inner rigging, and filled with confetti; it is thereby a container that will become relevant at the end of the dancing. The Mexican flag gives a national presence to the event, as it identifies the ceremony as something that happened ‘somewhere in Mexico’, as dancers say. Once these devices are all in place, the now multilayered taro, wrapped in green leaves, takes the form of ‘a mountain’, a complex instrument able to mobilize a number of things (ropes ‘deflowering’ the mast, a stuffed badger, a wooden woodpecker, an opening contraption for the gourd) up and down, all connected somehow from its rigging and controlled by just one person, the stagehand, at its foot. This stagehand is regarded as a special person who knows how to erect and manipulate the mast. However, most of his techniques remain hidden from the audience, as a high canvas surrounds the taro and stagehand. The dance contains several simultaneous stories and relations between the different characters, suggesting, like the dance of tipekayomej, a nonsequential narrative. The main story focuses on a group of ancestral hunters, their wives and their dogs as they search for a badger to hunt. The badger has stolen – or will attempt to steal – maize grains from the inside the mountain. The badger proves to be too clever for the hunters, who are eventually assisted in their search by a trickster character called Payaso, ‘clown’, that is revealed only in its Masewal name as tipewewe, or ‘Mountain Elder’, an ancestral spirit associated with the mountain and its animals. Together, the members of the group will effectively (depending on the actual success of the artefacts in place) hunt down the verminous badger (a stuffed badger is used) and attain maize grains for the Masewal to plant and harvest in the coming season (as the gourd on top of the mast is opened by the stagehand liberating a rain of multicoloured confetti). However, several other, seemingly unrelated, characters and relations appear during the dance. At some point a wooden woodpecker ascends up the taro, only to be taken down by the rigging. Usually a wewe or ‘old man’, who is an unrelated person to the dance group, also appears and drunkenly plays and


Alessandro Questa

jokes with the dancers and audience alike. Also, by the end of the dance, the stagehand will operate a couple of joyful marionettes, who celebrate with the hunters the killing of the badger. These are tlatikpaktata, or ‘Father Earth’, and tlaltikpaknana, ‘Mother Earth’, respectively. The painted canvas around the taro is called mantiado (from the Spanish manta, or tapestry). It measures approximately 20 metres in length and is about 2 metres high, and acts as a circular backdrop surrounding the taro in a 3-metre radius. The mantiado, fully decorated with an oil painting, depicts a continuous landscape (mountains, rivers, trees and rocks) and the town itself (the church, the plaza). Over this scenery emerge a series of beings: a mestizo couple, an eagle, a raccoon, a helicopter, a rainbow. Some characters appear performing different activities: people talking with spirits, a shaman smoking in sight of a mountain spirit, a hunter shooting at a jaguar and so on. Significantly, every mantiado must also depict another mantiado with its correspondent group of wewentiyo dancers dancing around the taro. By showing how spirits ‘should be seen’, the mantiado constitutes both a document that displays the procedures to be followed by dancers and a map of the relations between the town and the mountain spirits. The mantiado stands as another device that attempts to capture and visualize the shamanic kixpatla, as it evidences the local multilayered landscape in all its connections. By stating how ‘different people’ are portrayed in it and how ‘they all dance here’, it politically invokes the centrality of the village and the countryside while tacitly establishing the necessary reciprocity between the Masewal and their environment. Finally, some of the contraptions in the wewentiyo dance are associated to maize growth and agriculture, as they entail weather-forecasting apparatus. Some elements of the dance are interpreted by the audience. The proper ascendance of badger and woodpecker up the mast, the ropes correctly cutting the leaves, the adequate opening of the gourd, the precision of the hunter shooting down the badger are all taken as indications of possible storms, droughts and rain, ultimately defining the harvest season.

Faces of the forest: artefacts for knowledge capture

Between shamanism and dances is a mediating object: masks. These artefacts intervene in the actions of dancers inspired by the speech of shamans. A mask’s main purpose is to provide the dancer with someone else’s face. Masewal people call masks kwoxayak, a term derived from kwojtl- (which means ‘tree’, ‘forest’ and ‘wood’) and xayak (‘face’, locally translated as ‘wooden faces’ but also ‘forest faces’). That is, faces that look like those of the ‘forest people’, invisible beings that dwell in the surrounding countryside. This vegetable skin is the visual flesh of ‘forest people’, a broad category that includes ancestors

Visible dancers and invisible hunters


and animals (the tipekayomej, the tipewewe, the xinolamej, the wewentiyo, and all the possible different collectives that might exist between them). The protocol around masking has the overt intention of producing a different perception of the world. According to a wewentiyo dancer, ‘masks are kixpatla’ as they ‘allow us [dancers] to see’. ‘What exactly is there to be seen?’ I asked. ‘More people, other people’, was the answer. For Masewal dancers masks are tools, elements of a technology devised to see – through the production of an artificial kixpatla – other people (or spirits) and to engage in new relations with them. If kixpatla stands for the unattainable skill, or the possessed by diviners, then dancing and masking operate as a reverse technology, allowing things, like masks, to capture speech and dancers to change by embodiment. Powerful masked dancers can control spirits briefly and safely, forcing them into social bonds, making them dance in front of the church, eat the offered food and dance for the patron saints. Dances do not merely endorse shamanic knowledge by visualizing received stories, they rather dispute it with collective actions that contest the shaman’s power over the invisible weavings of the world. Masewal shamans say they would never use a mask during their practice, as it would be redundant; they also never become masked dancers. A shaman ‘cannot pretend’ to become a spirit, as it would be ‘disrespectful’. In fact, shamans cannot even touch a dancer’s mask, as these hybrid artefacts are at times animate and can cause nightmares, disease and death to those that touch them ‘without respect’ or ‘without necessity’. Several shamans have nevertheless participated as devoted musicians for some dances, while others merrily gather round as part of the audience. However, they tend to adopt the position of a critical observer; they are experts who are never quite satisfied with the masked dancers’ appearance and performance. Some shamans have even deplored the dancers’ poor performance or their inadequate embodiment of spirits, commenting that such efforts and artefacts are always mistaken, improper or failed. ‘Only one who has seen them,’ said Cristóbal, a shaman, ‘can say what they really look like’. Dancing is thus a way to describe shamanic practice by and for non-shamans. However, it not only ratifies or copies it, it ultimately invents its own form of shamanism.

A non-conclusion: dances and anthropology

The recurring idea of this chapter is a very simple proposition: if shamanism entails a veiled spiritual hunt, dances involve a collective and observable set of interactions, predominantly of exchange and reciprocity, between different people. This is possible as both practices derive from kixpatla, a native device for changing perception. Moreover, this Masewal tension brings to the forefront comparable contraptions in anthropology. If anthropology


Alessandro Questa

has enthusiastically assisted in the elaboration of parallel worlds (imaginary, fantastic, dreamlike, psychic, unreal and so forth) inhabited by spirits (such as souls, ghosts, invisible beings) and operated by shamans (magicians, diviners, witch-doctors, sorcerers and wise men, for example), Masewal dancers offer a counter-practice in their discrete and fragmented perception of a corrugated world, inhabited by at times visible and invisible beings, interlinked by ambiguous relations. In this sense, Amazonian perspectivism (Viveiros de Castro 1992) becomes a relevant and helpful anthropological concept with which to understand Masewal propositions about spiritual interconnections. However, what Masewal people see entails a hierarchy not just between spirits, but also among people, as local diviners control an exclusive form of ‘perspectival perception’. For Masewal people, ritual dances and shamanism are both instruments for controlling culture (Wagner 1981). They are however divergent in their techniques and at times, even opposed in their depiction of what kind of relations people can expect from their dealings with a spiritual landscape. Together, diviners and dancers maintain a tacit debate on how the world works and what spirits’ roles are in it. Despite their differences, dances and divination share a pool of existents, as well as a conviction on the potential piling of relations. Perhaps, in order to engage with the idea of a ‘Masewal culture’, it is necessary to acknowledge Masewal dances as a model for ‘something like it [culture]’ (Viveiros de Castro 2004:54), that is, as a method to produce and control alterity. Dances lucidly express a Masewal necessity of invention (Wagner 1981:53) and, in that sense, could be thought of as a Masewal anthropology. Full of fallible rules, conflicting codes, debatable hierarchies and layers of possible meanings, both dances and anthropology constitute methodologies, explorations on others and on their concepts (Corsín Jiménez and Willerslev 2007). Certainly, through dances, Masewal highlanders invent a total society, speculating about their relevance, intentions and moral standing. Such invention suggests of course, like anthropology, another invention, that of a controlled and natural reality (ibid.:145). Dancers relentlessly launch miniaturizations of the world on every dance. They can change elements each year, adding new characters and costumes, varying in interpretations, and adapting always to pressing concerns. Asking questions about far away, different or invisible beings, dances end up reinventing spirits. Unlike anthropology, however, Masewal dances seem to fill the conceptual gaps between cosmic power and routine undertakings through practices of embodiment, visualization and performance. In that way, dances materialize a Masewal technology, merging humans and spirits in the body of the dancers, unfolding the universe for everyone to see.

Visible dancers and invisible hunters


Dances provide for Masewal people the possibility of envisioning social change, remembrance and renewed relations with spirits and the landscape in order to plant maize, build a house or stand together against incoming mining companies. Dances are not naïve endeavours. Not expecting a synthesis to be had by merely dancing, Masewal dancers obstinately perform to maintain themselves in an open posture towards life occurrences, from weather patterns and plant, animal and human fertility, to the ever-convoluted relations with the state and the advent of extractive corporations. Masewal dancers probe into the world via spirits, as the invisible relations become then revealed and reframed in the boundless folding of the world, which allows them to anticipate, perhaps, enduring reciprocity.


Acosta, E. 2010. ‘La relación entre itonal con el chikawalistli en la constitución de cuerpo entre los Nahuas de Pahuatlán’. Paper presented in the seminar ‘Mesoamerican Ethnography’, Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City, 17 February 2010. Aramoni, M. 1990. Elena, Talokan tata, talokan nana: nuestras raíces. Mexico City: Conaculta Arhem, K. 1996. ‘The cosmic food web: human–nature relatedness in the northwest Amazon’. In Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives, (eds.) P. Descola and G. Pálsson, pp. 185–204. London: Routledge. Báez, L. 1999. El juego de alternancias: la vida y la muerte. Rituales del ciclo vital entre los Nahuas de la Sierra de Puebla. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. ——— 2008. ‘Saberes y prácticas terapéuticas entre los Nahuas de Naupan, Puebla’. In Curanderos y medicina tradicional en la Huasteca, (ed.) P. Gallardo, pp. 179–200. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes. Bateson, G. 1979. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: Dutton. Boege, E. 2008. El patrimonio biocultural de los pueblos indígenas de México. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes. Borges, J.L. 1969. ‘Cambridge’. In Elogio de la sombra, p. 28. Buenos Aires: Emecé. Chamoux, M.-N. 1989. ‘La notion nahua d’individu: un aspect du tonalli dans la region de Huauchinango, Puebla’. In Enquêtes sur la Amérique Moyenne: mêlanges offert a Guy Streeser-Péan, (ed.) D. Michelet, pp. 303–11. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. Corsín Jiménez, A. 2013. ‘The prototype: more than many and less than one’. Journal of Cultural Economy 16:1–18. Corsín Jiménez, A. and Willerslev, R. 2007. ‘An anthropological concept of the concept: reversibility among the Siberian Yukaghirs’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13(3):527–44.

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Descola, P. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Holbraad, M. 2012. Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. INEG (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geograf ía). 2010. ‘Censo de población y vivienda’. Mexico City: Gobierno Federal. INLI (Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas). 2009. ‘Catálogo de las lenguas indígenas nacionales: variantes lingüísticas de México con sus autodenominaciones y referencias geoestadísticas’. Mexico City: Gobierno Federal. Knab, T. 1995. A War of Witches: A Journey into the Underworld of the Contemporary Aztecs. San Francisco: Harper. Lévi-Strauss, C. 1966. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Lok, R. 1987. ‘The house as a microcosm’. In The Leiden Tradition in Structural Anthropology, (ed.) R. De Ridder, pp. 211–33. Leiden: Brill. López Austin, A. 1988. The Human Body and Ideology: Concepts of the Ancient Nahuas. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press. ——— 1997. Tamoanchan, Tlalocan: Places of Mist. Boulder: University Press of Colorado. Lupo, A. 1995. La tierra nos escucha: la cosmología de los Nahuas a través de las súplicas rituales. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes. ——— 2001. ‘La cosmovisión de los Nahuas de la sierra de Puebla’. In Cosmovisión, ritual e identidad de los pueblos indígenas de México, (eds.) J. Broda and J. Báez, pp. 335–89. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes and FCE. Neurath, J. 2005. ‘Máscaras enmascaradas: indígenas, mestizos y dioses indígenas mestizos’, Relaciones 26(101):24–56. ——— 2013. La vida de las imagines: arte huichol. Mexico City: Artes de México. Pálsson, G. and Descola, P. 1996. ‘Introduction’. In Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives, (eds.) P. Descola and G. Pálsson, pp. 1–22. London: Routledge. Pérez, I. 2011a. ‘Chamanismo y existentes, la relación entre humanos y no-humanos entre los Nahuas de Cuacuila, Huahuchinango’. In Chamanismo y curanderismo: nuevas perspectivas, (ed.) L. Romero, pp. 233–54. Mexico City: Universidad de las Américas. ______ 2011b ‘Incorporación, artefactos e interfase: el dispositivo chamánico nahua’. In Huauchinango: El rumor del tiempo, (ed.) L. Mora, pp. 223–37. Mexico: PIRED. Pitarch, P. 2010. The Jaguar and the Priest: An Ethnography of Tzeltal Souls. Austin: University of Texas Press. Pury-Toumi, S. 1997. De palabras y maravillas. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes.

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Questa, A. 2010. ‘Cambio de vista, cambio de rostro: relaciones entre humanos y no-humanos a través del ritual entre los Nahuas de Tepetzintla, Puebla’, MA thesis. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Ríos, B. 2010. ‘Danza y vida: una etnograf ía de las danzas devocionales en San Miguel Tzinacapan’, MA thesis. Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia. Romero, L. 2007. Cosmovisión, cuerpo y enfermedad: el espanto entre los nahuas de Tlacotepec de Díaz, Puebla. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. ——— 2010. ‘Saber ver, saber sonar: el proceso de iniciación de los ixtlamatkeh de Tlacotepec de Díaz’. In Iniciaciones, trances, sueños… investigaciones sobre el chamanismo en México, (ed.) A. Fagetti, pp. 123–48. Mexico City: Plaza y Valdéz Editores. Sandstrom, A. 1992. Corn Is Our Blood: Culture and Ethnic Identity in a Contemporary Aztec Indian Village. Norman: Oklahoma University Press. Signorini, I. and Lupo, A. 1989a. Los tres ejes de la vida. Xalapa: Universidad Veracruzana. ——— 1989b. ‘Las fuerzas anímicas en el pensamiento nahua’, México Indígena 25:13–21. Stresser-Péan, G. 2009. The Sun God and the Savior: The Christianization of the Nahua and Totonac in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, Mexico. Boulder: University Press of Colorado. Taggart, J. 1997. Nahuat Myth and Social Structure. Austin: University of Texas Press. Taussig, M.T. 1993. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. Hove: Psychology Press. Viveiros de Castro, E. 1992. From the Enemy’s Point of View: Humanity and Divinity in an Amazonian Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 1998. ‘Cosmological deixis and Amerindian perspectivism’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4(3):469–88. ——— 2004. ‘Perspectival anthropology and the method of controlled equivocation’. Tipití. 1:53–73. ——— 2007. ‘The crystal forest: notes on the ontology of Amazonian spirits’. Inner Asia 9(2):153–72. Wagner, R. 1972. Habu: The Innovation of Meaning in Daribi Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 1981. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 2001. An Anthropology of the Subject: Holographic Worldview in New Guinea and Its Meaning and Significance for the World of Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press. ——— 2013. ‘How many stripes until you count the tiger?’ Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Chicago.

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Willerslev, R. 2007. Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs. Berkeley: University of California Press. Znamenski, A.A. 2007. The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and Western Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

C hapter 8

The crossroads of time  Lydia Rodríguez and Sergio López

In The Invention of Culture, Roy Wagner writes, ‘Time … is … our most important product. We make time … Like space, time could never be perceived without the distinctions we impose upon it. But we have fortified ourselves with a welter of temporal systems and distinctions that would make a conscientious Mayan priest dizzy.’ (Wagner 1981:75). Just like language would not be possible without the arbitrary distinctions we impose on the sound continuum (Sapir 1985), time, as Wagner cunningly remarks, is difficult to imagine without the arbitrary distinctions that we impose upon it. We feel more at ease when we think of time in terms of space. What, since at least the days of Newton, is understood by ‘time’ in urban Western cultures − the measurable duration of an event or of a succession of events − is often represented as a continuum or line that extends ad infinitum. Standard time, which was introduced at a conference held in Washington in 1884 to establish the prime meridian, was ‘absolute’ in Newtonian terms, and universal. It was perceived as a homogeneous whole (Kern 1983), it ‘flowed’ along a continuum or line, and its passage could be conveniently measured. It became, as Wagner points out, ‘the most precious product of culture’ (Wagner 1981:57). Wagner has argued that, in the process of describing culture, anthropologists usually ‘invent’ it (ibid.). In this chapter we argue that the concept of ‘Maya time’ was ‘invented’, in the Wagnerian sense of the term, by a host of Western scholars, cultural outsiders − archaeologists, ethnolinguists and anthropologists – who in principle were reacting against the universality of the so-called linear notion of time. Departing from a discussion of how the concepts of ‘linear time’ and ‘cyclical time’ have been pervasively used to describe Western and non-Western notions of time in the anthropological

Lydia Rodríguez and Sergio López


literature, we revisit some of the arguments that have been offered as evidence of a cyclical notion of time in Maya thought. We argue that we as anthropologists have ‘invented’ this crucial aspect of Maya culture, an invention that has served to preserve and legitimize the distance between ‘us’ (the West) and our concept of time, and ‘them’ (the ethnographic ‘other’) and their concept of time. We propose that Wagner’s concept of ‘intersectional time’ (Wagner 2013) can be used as a less essentializing alternative that seeks to problematize traditional ‘cyclical’ interpretations of ancient and modern Mayan understandings of temporality.

‘Linear’ versus ‘cyclical’ notions of time in the anthropological literature

Benjamin Lee Whorf (1941) argued that the concepts of time, space and matter are partly conditioned by certain grammatical patterns that are language specific. Thus, to the extent that languages differ substantially in their grammatical categories, speakers of different languages will have substantially different notions of time, space and matter. In order to illustrate this point, Whorf examined how notions of time were expressed in languages that were typologically very different from each other, contrasting Standard Average European (SAE) languages − in particular, he used examples from English − and Hopi, a Uto-Aztecan language. He argued that in European languages like English some temporal notions are expressed by the lexical category of nouns; this, according to Whorf, is related to a general tendency in Western thought towards objectification: Such terms as summer, winter, September, etc. are with us nouns, and have little formal linguistic difference from other nouns … [O]ur thought about the referents of such words hence becomes objectified. (ibid.:142)

By contrast, in Hopi some temporal notions are expressed with phase terms. These are: not nouns but a kind of adverb, to use the nearest SAE analogy … There is no objectification, as a region, an extent, a quantity, of the subjective duration-feeling. Nothing is suggested about time except the perpetual ‘getting later’ of it. And so there is no basis here for a formless item answering to our time. 

(ibid.:143, emphasis added)

The crossroads of time


For Whorf, in English time is conceived of as a ‘thing’ and therefore temporal notions are expressed with nouns, but such objectification of the concept of time is absent from Hopi phase terms. In addition, the tri-partite system of verb tenses characteristic of English and other European languages lends itself to a notion of time that is linear: The three tense system of SAE verbs colors all our thinking about time. This system is amalgamated with that larger scheme of objectification of the subjective experience of duration … [T]his objectification enables us in imagination to ‘stand time units in a row’ … We can of course construct and contemplate in thought a system of past, present, future, in the objectified configuration of points on a line. This is what our general objectification tendency leads us to do and our tense system confirms. 

(ibid.:144, original emphasis)

A crucial point emphatically made by Whorf is that there is nothing natural or universal about the Western notion of time, especially as defined in Newtonian mechanics and Kantian metaphysics. Newton was amongst the first to talk about the ‘flowing’ quality of time. He wrote that time ‘flows equably’ (Newton 1729:8). For Kant, the flow of time could be intuitively felt, and it was uni-directional, progressive and linear: We represent the time sequence by a line progressing to infinity, in which the manifold constitutes a series of one dimension-only, and we reason from the properties of this line to all the properties of time. 

(Kant 1967:77)

Inspired by Einstein’s theory of relativity, Whorf argued against the universality of the Newtonian and Kantian notions of time: I find it gratuitous to assume that Hopi thinking contains any such notion as the supposed intuitively felt flowing of ‘time’, or that the intuition of a Hopi gives him this as one of its data. Just as it is possible to have any number of geometries other than the Euclidean which give an equally perfect account of space configurations, so it is possible to have descriptions of the universe, all equally valid, that do not contain our familiar contrasts of time and space. The relativity viewpoint of modern physics is one such view, conceived in mathematical terms, and the Hopi is another and quite different one, nonmathematical and linguistic. 

(Whorf 1941:58)

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Newtonian space, time, and matter are no intuitions. They are receipts from culture and language. That is where Newton got them. (ibid.:153)

This sophisticated and provocative theory of cross-cultural variation in notions of time has been sometimes harshly criticized (e.g. Gell 1975; Malotki 1983; Pinker 1994) and largely misunderstood. Whorf is sometimes claimed to have said that the Hopi did not have a concept of time.1 For instance, Gell claims that according to Whorf, ‘Hopi, by contrast [to SAE languages], does without the category of time at all’ (Gell 1992:126). However, in the essays written by Whorf such a statement is never to be found. What Whorf did say about the Hopi notion of time, which he described as a subjective sense of ‘becoming later and later’ (Whorf 1941:143), is that it differed from what speakers of Indo-European languages call ‘time’, a formless mass noun which, like other mass nouns in English, denotes a certain kind of homogeneous continuum. That formless, homogenous and continuum-like quality of the English mass noun ‘time’ was not, Whorf argued, present in the Hopi concept of ‘duration’. A similar point to Whorf ’s, in fact, was also made by Evans-Pritchard with respect to the Nuer concept of time. In a much quoted passage, he argued: Though I have spoken of time and units of time the Nuer have no expression equivalent to ‘time’ in our language, and they cannot, therefore, as we can, speak of time as though it were something actual, which passes, can be wasted, can be saved, and so forth. I do not think that they ever experience the same feeling of fighting against time or of having to co-ordinate activities with an abstract passage of time, because their points of reference are mainly the activities themselves, which are generally of a leisurely character. Events follow a logical order, but they are not controlled by an abstract system, there being no autonomous points of reference to which activities have to conform with precision. Nuer are fortunate. 

(Evans-Pritchard 1940:103)

Evans-Pritchard was making the same kind of argument that Whorf had made for Hopi time. The Nuer had, according to Evans-Pritchard, two different sets of concepts related to temporal notions: he called these respectively ‘oecological time’ and ‘structural time’. Oecological time was 1

Whorf is also claimed to have sometimes said that Hopi did not have verb tenses, a claim belied by his description of the tense and aspect systems of Hopi (Whorf 1936).

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related to those notions of time that were ‘reflections of their relations to the environment’ (Evans-Pritchard 1939:189), for instance, the alternation of rainy and drought seasons, or between periods of village residence and camp residence, and what he called the cattle ‘clock’, maybe for lack of a better term. Evans-Pritchard argued that oecological time was cyclical: it was based on the repetitive alternation of different periods of time contained in an annual cycle. In order to measure and talk about periods of time longer than a year, the Nuer used ‘structural time’, which Evans-Pritchard defined as a system for reckoning time based on the distance between different age sets. Oecological time and structural time neatly complement each other − almost too neatly, perhaps − the former reflecting the relationship between the Nuer and their environment, and the latter their social and kinship relationships. In structural time, the argument goes, ‘Time is thus not a continuum, but is a constant structural relationship between two points, the first and last persons in a line of agnatic descent’ (ibid.:107). While articulating this ingenious structural-functionalist argument, Evans-Pritchard was also arguing against the universality of the Western notion of time as a ‘continuum’, or a line. Whorf and Evans-Pritchard were of course not the only scholars to talk about time in terms of the classical distinction between continuum-like or linear notions of time, and circular or cyclical notions of time. These spatial metaphors have been widely used by anthropologists (e.g. Barnes 1974; Bloch 1977; Dahl 1995; Geertz 1966; Gupta 1992; Hall 1976; Munn 1992) as well as philosophers (Nietzsche 1971, 2001) and scholars of religion (Eliade 1954). As Dahl points out, the basis of the linear model of time is a causal mode of thinking … in which the choice among alternatives causes certain effects to occur in the future. Western cultures, which share a linear orientation, are directed towards an end product, a result. This linear time conception is future oriented. 

(Dahl 1995:201)

By contrast, circular or cyclical models of time have been described by some theorists as conceptions of time that seek to annul the irreversibility of time (Eliade 1954; Leach 1961). The linear notion of time is based on the idea of irreversible progress; thus events in this conceptualization are conceived as unique: once occurred, they do not repeat themselves, and a ‘re-setting’ of events is not possible in linear, progressive time. In a cyclical view of time, however, the emphasis is on the repetition of certain events. In the anthropological literature, three recurrent themes are associated with ethnographic descriptions of cyclical time. First, the association of cyclical views of time with natural rhythms and agricultural cycles, and therefore with

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peasant or farming communities (Dahl 1995; Evans-Pritchard 1940; Gurvitch 1964). Second, the recreation of cyclical views of time in ritual (Bloch 1977; Geertz 1966): the ritual itself exists in a time that is sacred and different from everyday, profane time (Durkheim 1915; Rappaport 1967; Turner 1974); or rituals may perform a reversion or ‘undoing’ of linear, forwards-running time (Gell 1975). Third, whereas linear time is sometimes associated with a view of uni-directional spiritual progress, cyclical time is associated with concepts of rebirth (Gupta 1992); the equation of death and birth is another common mechanism by means of which different cultures and religions seek to erase the irreversibility of time (Leach 1961).

Non-spatial models of time

Although the linear and circular spatial metaphors have been pervasively used to represent two substantially different ways of thinking about time, occasionally in the anthropological literature we find critiques of the linear/ cyclical dichotomy, or attempts to describe alternative models of temporality that are not articulated in purely spatial (and geometrical) terms. Recently, some anthropologists have criticized descriptions of linear and cyclical time as essentializing categories (Gupta 1992).2 An earlier, clever critique of the linear/ cyclical dichotomy was articulated by Leach: We ourselves, in our formulation of time, are too closely tied to the formulations of the astronomers; if we do not refer to time as if it were a coordinate straight line stretching from an infinite past to an infinite future, we describe it as a circle or cycle. These are purely geometrical metaphors, yet there is nothing intrinsically geometrical about time as we actually experience it. In a primitive, unsophisticated community the metaphors of repetition are likely to be of a much more homely nature: vomiting, or the oscillations of a weaver’s shuttle, or the sequence of agricultural activities, or even the ritual exchanges of a series of interlinked marriages. When we describe such sequences as ‘cyclic’ we innocently introduce a geometrical notation which may well be entirely absent in the thinking of the people concerned. Indeed in some primitive societies it would seem that the time process is not experienced as a ‘succession of epochal duration’ at all; there is no sense of going on and on in the same direction, or round and round the same wheel. On the contrary, time is experienced as something 2 Along these lines, see also Fabian’s famous critique of the whole field of the anthropology of time (not just of linear versus cyclical notions of time) as an instrument of neo-colonialism that has contributed to the reproduction of social distance between anthropologists and the communities they study (Fabian 1983).

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discontinuous, a repetition of repeated reversal, a sequence of oscillations between polar opposites. 

(Leach 1961:126)

Notwithstanding the evolutionist and ethnocentric language present in Leach’s characterizations of what he calls ‘primitive’ and ‘unsophisticated’ communities (that is, small-scale and technologically less complex societies), Leach’s point was to alert his readers to what seemed to him as readymade, a priori categories for representing time. For the ‘primitive’ Greeks, he argued, time was not conceived ‘as we ordinarily think of it − an endless continuum from past to future’ (ibid.:129). Greek time is neither, according to Leach, cyclical or circular in nature, but rather it is conceived as a zigzag, an alternation or an oscillation between two polar opposites: ‘a time that flows back and forth, that is born and swallowed and vomited up’ (ibid.:129). Leach takes this idea one step further by using the metaphor of a pendulum to describe a notion of time that is neither linear nor cyclical, but based on the principles of alternation and discontinuity: With a pendulum view of time, the sequence of things is discontinuous, time is a succession of alternations and full stops. The notion that time is a ‘discontinuity of repeated contrasts’ is probably the most elementary and primitive of all ways of regarding time. (ibid.:134)

This is an intriguing idea, but one wonders to what extent this ‘zigzag’ and pendulum-like view of time is no more than another a priori category, one that in fact evokes powerfully his own analytical model for describing the alternation of gumsa and gumlao systems in highland Burma. Other scholars have sought to overcome the linear/cyclical dichotomy by describing models of temporality that are ‘present-oriented’. This claim has been made about hunter-gatherer societies like the Hadza (Bloch 1977; Meillassoux 1967) and sometimes about agricultural societies like the Malagasy of Madagascar (Dahl 1995). The latter have also been described as having an ‘event-oriented’ notion of time, according to which time is not constructed as a homogeneous, linear matrix where we locate events, but rather, as the events themselves: ‘time is when something happens. It is an event’ (ibid.:202). And the reverse is true: if nothing is happening, time is not ‘passing’. Time only exists when the appropiate events naturally occur.3 3

In a sense, this phenomenon is similar to the one Basso (1996) described as the Western Apache concept of ‘history’, which is a way of describing past events

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Bourdieu (1963, 1977) is another proponent of the idea that presentoriented, or more precisely, non–future-oriented peasant societies have nonlinear and non-cyclical notions of time. He argues that Algerian peasants’ notions of time are event-based and discontinuous. Algerian time is nonspatial, non-linear and non-measurable. Rather, it is made of separate ‘islands of time’ whose reference points are the events themselves, not their relative location on an abstract timeline: Time stretches out, given a rhythm by the round of work and holidays and by the succession of nights and days. Time so marked is not … as has often been shown, measured time. The intervals of subjective experience are not equal and uniform. The effective points of reference in the continual flux of time’s passage are qualitative nuances read upon the surface of things … Temporal points of reference are just so many experiences. One must avoid seeing here points of division, which would presuppose the notion of regular measured intervals, that is to say, a spatial conception of time. The islands of time which are defined by these landmarks are not apprehended as segments of a continuous line, but rather as so many self-enclosed units. 

(Bourdieu 1963:69)4

The world view of Algerian peasants is not characterized, according to Bourdieu, by a teleological orientation, which is one of the crucial elements in the linearization of time. Algerians are deeply suspicious of any attempt to master the future, which ‘belongs only to God’ (ibid.:63). This does not mean, however, that they completely lack any sense of the future. The future is known to exist, but Algerian peasants are completely uninterested in it, and even if they were interested in it, they would not be able to predict it or do anything about it. It is in this sense that Bourdieu claims that Algerian peasants’ lives are not future-oriented; their attitudes towards the future are better characterized as ‘foresight’. Inspired by Husserl, Bourdieu described ‘foresight’ as a cultural value that sees the immediate future as part of the temporal horizon of the present, that is, as a ‘potentiality’ inherent in the present state of any given object or situation, rather than as a collection of abstract possibilities.5 that focuses on the events themselves, instead of focusing on the chronological, sequential connections between them. 4 Bourdieu’s notion of the subjective discontinuity of time is also similar to Tahitians’ experience of time, which goes through periods when it runs faster and slower (Levine 1997). 5 Husserl developed a model of subjective time consciousness based on the idea that the present is not like a ‘knife’ that ‘cuts’ or divides time into past and future;

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All these non-spatial metaphors for notions of time are attempts to overcome the linear/cyclical dichotomy that had become pervasive in the literature on the anthropology of time. Nevertheless, these critiques have not yet been fully articulated in Mesoamerica, and especially in the Maya area, which instead has become a preferred locus for the ethnographic description of ‘cyclical’ notions of time.

Words for time

The overwhelming majority of sources that talk about ‘the Maya concept of time’, be these scholarly or in more popular publications, have sought to present a model of temporality that is inherently cyclical.6 One of the key pieces of evidence for the alleged cyclicality of Maya temporal thought is the linguistic reconstruction of the Proto-Maya root for the word ‘time’, *kinh. This argument was first advanced by León Portilla (1973). Comparing words for time in a number of Mayan languages, he reconstructed the Proto-Maya root *kinh, a semantic complex that, according to him, means ‘sun-day-time’.7 He argued that the movement of the sun, and, by extension, days as units of time and time itself were understood by the Maya as cyclical processes: If in their thought the day was a solar presence, time was the limitless succession of all solar cycles. Thus kinh spontaneously acquired its most ample meaning: duration that cannot be expressed because it has no limits, time, the sum of all possible solar cycles. (ibid.:20)

For León Portilla, the Maya notion of time was cyclical, events repeated themselves throughout eternity and could be predicted by an elite of priests:



rather, it has a certain thickness to it. It is made of ‘percepts’, which are perceptions in real, present time; ‘retentions’, which are parts of immediate experience that get carried out in the next percept; and ‘protentions’, anticipations of near experiences that also form part of the temporal horizon of the now (Husserl 1964). Against the vast majority of Mayanists who have argued that the Maya concept of time is predominantly cyclical, Bricker (1966) and Thompson (1985) argued that it is predominantly linear. Other scholars have sought to escape the dichotomy of cyclical versus linear time, mainly by arguing that both conceptions were and continue to be present in Maya thought (Farriss 1987; Tedlock 1992). See also Thompson’s definition of the word kin that appears in glyphs and codices: ‘This word means day or sun, and also time in a general sense’ (Thompson 1985:143).

Lydia Rodríguez and Sergio López


‘since kinh is essentially cyclic, it is most important to know the past in order to understand the present and predict the future’ (ibid.:54). This argument is echoed in some ethnographies of modern Maya communities. For instance, describing the Tzeltal concept of time, Nash argues: the abstract noun for time, k’alal, is derived from the word for day, k’al … Time past, is a general state of being in which the ancestors lived. The future is at best a recapitulation of the past. 

(Nash 1970:311)

This argument is based on the assumption that in cyclical notions of time, the past and the future are equivalent (Dahl 1995). Thus knowledge of the past – history – becomes knowledge of the future – prophecy (Farriss 1987). Gossen (1974, 1979) has also argued for an explicit connection between the ancient concept of *kinh, as described by León Portilla, and a predominantly cyclical notion of time among the Tzotzil of San Juan Chamula, whose entire world view revolves around the concept of a solar deity. At this point we would like to introduce another example from Chol, a Western Mayan language, which is one of the thirty modern descendants of Proto-Mayan. The modern Chol are a population of approximately 200,000 slash-and-burn agriculturalists, who live in the state of Chiapas in south-east Mexico. The word for ‘sun-day’ in Chol is k’iñ. However, it is not clear that k’iñ necessarily translates or is equivalent to the abstract mass noun ‘time’ that most Indo-European languages have. A word for ‘time’ has, however, entered the Chol lexicon via borrowing: in conversational Chol, monolingual and bilingual speakers (the latter also speaking Spanish) commonly use the Spanish loanword tyeñpo. Another word that is commonly used to refer to time is (y)orajlel, a borrowing from the Spanish hora, ‘hour’. Yorajlel means literally ‘its hour’, ‘its moment’ or ‘its period’, and it is used in a variety of contexts, for example, to refer to the seasons: yorajlel k’iñtyuñil, ‘the period/time of heat’, ‘dry season’; yorajlel ja’al, ‘the period/time of rain’, ‘rainy season’. It can also be used to refer to punctual moments, for instance, the moment of one’s death: ta’ix kotyi yorajlel means ‘its/his/her time has come’. The loanword oraj, without the third person absolutive suffix i–/(y–) and the nominalizer –el, is sometimes used to refer to a specific time, or to ask what time it is. The preferred expression for asking ‘what time is it?’ is bajche’ oraj, which actually means ‘how is the time’ or ‘what is the time like’, not ‘what time is it’. Although the loanwords tyeñpo and oraj are nowadays incorporated into the Chol lexicon, the fact that these are not native terms, but instead were borrowed from Spanish, already tells us

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something about the foreign origins of the concept of ‘time’, as it is conceived by Western societies, in Chol language and culture. Just as Evans-Pritchard had pointed out that there was no single word in the Nuer language that translates as ‘time’, but there were different words to refer to different ‘time units’, in Chol there is no single ‘original’ word that neatly translates the abstract concept of time as a substance-like continuum, but there are many different terms for talking about different temporal units, including terms for the different parts of the day, as shown in Table 8.1. k’iñ(il)









in the early morning, at dawn


in the twilight, when it’s getting dark

semañaj, waxk’iñ





season, moment (abstract)

yorajlel k’iñtyuñil

dry season

yorajlel ja’al

rainy season



Table 8.1 Temporal units in Chol Mayan (Rodríguez 2014).

The basic temporal units in Chol are the alternation of day and night (k’iñ and abälel), the month (uj), which also means ‘moon’, and the year (ja’), which literally means ‘water’ or ‘rainy season’, and thus equals the completion of a cycle of dry and rainy seasons, or a solar year. The word for week, semañaj, is, like oraj, a late borrowing from Spanish. A week is also sometimes referred to as waxk’iñ, a recently coined neologism that means ‘seven days’. In light of these data, it is possible to revisit the translation of the ProtoMaya root *kinh as ‘sun-day-time’. It is indubitable that many Maya languages nowadays have a word for ‘sun-day’ that descends from the Proto-Maya root *kinh. What is a little bit more questionable, at least according to the thin evidence provided by León Portilla, is the extent to which the semantic field of *kinh can indeed be extended to encompass a concept such as the one conveyed by the formless mass noun ‘time’. The root *kinh may have meant ‘sun-day’, and maybe ‘set of days’ or even ‘succession of days’, but probably not ‘the sum of all possible cycles’ (León Portilla 1973:35). Furthermore, there is simply no evidence that *kinh was ‘essentially cyclic’, as León Portilla claimed (ibid.:54). Maybe *kinh was considered as a repetitive action or process, or


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maybe as a complete unit of time. In fact, if a certain Whorfian argument were allowed, ‘completed’ versus ‘non-completed’ is a grammatical category for which predicates are inflected in most Mayan languages; ‘cyclic versus non-cyclic’ is not.

Ancient and modern calendric systems in the Maya world

Another piece of evidence commonly used by advocates of cyclical time in Maya culture(s) comes from epigraphic representations of the time-reckoning systems used by the classic Maya, some of which continue to be used in modern times. The ancient Maya shared with many other pre-Columbian civilizations of Mesoamerica a system for reckoning time that consisted of a combination of several intermeshing calendars − which have often been described with the non-neutral term ‘cycles’.8 The oldest and more widespread calendar in Mesoamerica is an interval of 260 days that consists of a combination of twenty different day names with a numerical coefficient of one to thirteen. In the Maya area, this cycle is known as tzolkin, which literally means ‘the count of days’ in Yucatec. The tzolkin is also called by Western scholars ‘sacred round’. The origins of this cycle have been widely debated, but nowadays there seems to be some consensus that it was related to the period of human gestation. It was used − and continues to be used − for divination purposes. A second system for time reckoning also widespread among Mesoamerican cultures is a period of 365 days divided into eighteen months of twenty days each, plus one extra month of five days.9 This cycle, based on the solar year, is known as haab in the Maya area.10 In this calendar, each of the twenty days of a month is denominated by its numerical position within the month and the name of the month itself. For instance, days in the Mayan haab are named ‘1 Pop’, ‘2 Pop’ and so on. The third calendric system found all over Mesoamerica, known as the ‘calendar round’, is a permutation calendar based on a combination of the 260 day divinatory calendar and the 365 day solar calendar. So, for example, a date in the Mayan calendar round would be expressed with the name of a day in the 8 For instance, the Mexica, the people of Teotihuacan (possibly speakers of a Totonacan language), the Mixtecs, Zapotecs and Otomi, among others (Caso 1967; Miles 1952). 9 This month is known in some Maya areas as uayeb and it was and is considered a delicate, or unlucky time, when people should stay at home and not roam around streets. 10 Haab is also the colloquial Yucatecan term for a solar year, including a modern calendar year. The haab is also known as macewal k’i in the highlands, which means ‘common days’.

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tzolkin, followed by the name of a day in the haab – for example, ‘1Ahau 18 Uo’. It would take a total of fifty-two years for the same combination of days ‘1 Ahau 18 Uo’ to recur. In addition to these three calendar systems (the tzolkin, the haab and the ‘calendar round’), the Ancient Maya also developed the ‘long count–’,11 an era-based calendar that counted the days that had accumulated since the beginning of the then current era, which fell on the ‘calendar round’ date 4 Ahau 8 Cumku – 11 August 3114 bc in the Gregorian calendar. The end of the ‘long count’ era in which the Ancient Maya lived came on 21 Dec December 2013. Their ‘long count’ calendar ‘cycle’, in other words, was about 5,000 solar years long. This means that, unlike the dates of the ‘calendar round–’ or its components, dates in the Maya ‘long count’ would not recur in the lifetime of any individual, or even in the history of any known place or people. Dates might recur in discourses that referenced cosmological time-scales (Rice 2007; Schele and Freidel 1990; Thompson 1985). Knowledge of this intricate calendar system was lost in some areas of the Maya world during the conquest and the subsequent colonial period, but it was secretly kept in others. The Guatemalan highlands is the most conservative area in terms of survivals of ancient calendric knowledge and practices. There, modern Maya communities continue to use several of the cycles described above, or parts of them. The Ixil, Mam and Pokomchí used the tzolkin, the 260 day ‘sacred round’, and the haab, the 365 day solar year (see Colby and Colby 1981; Lincoln 1942; Miles 1952; Tedlock 1992). Among the Jacaltecos, prayer-makers, shamans and soothsayers still used the twenty day names of the tzolkin along with the haabil or solar year in the 1920s, but knowledge of the names of the months had been lost. Possibly one of the best studied communities of the Guatemala highlands are the Quiché, who still used the tzolkin for divinatory purposes in the late twentieth century (Bunzel 1967; Tedlock 1992). In the central and northern areas of the Maya area, knowledge of ancient calendrics was retained to a much lesser degree, probably because in these regions the calendars were controlled by an elite of priests, whereas in the southern area this knowledge was much more widespread and therefore much more difficult to eradicate by the Spanish missionaries (La Farge and Byers 1931). In the highlands of Chiapas, the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Chol and Tojolabal do not use any version of the tzolkin for divinatory purposes (Miles 1952; Vogt 1969). The Tzotzil and Tzeltal, however, have been reported to use a system 11 Coe argues that the ‘long count’ was also widespread in other areas of lowland Mesoamerica, but ‘it was carried to its highest degree of refinement by the Maya of the Central Area’ (Coe 2005:63).


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of eighteen twenty-day months, plus an extra month of five days, a survival of the haab (Gossen 1974, 1979; Villa Rojas 1988). No survival of any of the aforementioned calendars has been reported so far in the Chol area. In the lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula, nowadays people mostly use the Gregorian calendar to reckon time, and all knowledge of ancient calendrics has been lost. It has been widely claimed that the concept of time underlying the preColumbian tzolkin, haab and ‘calendar round’ systems, which have been retained by all these modern Mayan groups, is inherently cyclic (Farriss 1987; Gossen 1974; León Portilla 1973; Rice 2007; Schele and Freidel 1990).12 However, it is important to keep in mind that ‘sacred round’ and ‘calendar round’ are not native terms but names given by Western scholars to these calendric systems. Furthermore, in spite of the fact that in most textbooks these three systems are visually depicted as intermeshing cogwheels, from the Preclassic to the Postclassic period there does not exist a single pictorial or written example of any of these temporal cycles that shows calendar dates arranged in a circular fashion.13 In fact, dates, which are of course abundant in the hieroglyphic texts inscribed in stelae, monuments and codices, are written and read in paired columns from top to bottom and left to right. As for posterior representations of these cycles, for instance the famous ‘katun wheels’ of colonial manuscripts,14 it is also important to bear in mind that these appear either in books written by Western missionaries (e.g. Landa 1941) or in some of the Chilam Balam books, a collection of miscellaneous documents written by an elite of Maya scribes, who had been trained in alphabetic writing by Catholic missionaries. By the time that these books were written, the Maya populations of the Yucatan had been colonized for almost three centuries; it is therefore problematic considering these ‘katun wheels’ as pristine representations of the ancient Maya notion of time (Tedlock 2010).

A new metaphor for the Maya concept of time: Wagner’s model of intersectional time

Wagner has recently proposed a model for rethinking the ancient Maya notion of time based on a more precise reading of ‘long count’ dates (Wagner 12 The ‘long count’ is interpreted as a linear system by some scholars (Farriss 1987) and as a cyclical system by others (Coe 2005; Schele and Freidel 1990). 13 In this matter there is one possible exception, a small sculpture of a turtle excavated in Mayapan, which belongs to the Late Postclassic. The turtle has something similar to a ‘pre-Hispanic katun wheel’ carved in its carapace (Taube 1988). 14 These are pictorial representations of a period of time that comprises thirteen katuns (each katun equals 7,200 days).

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2013). The units of the ‘long count’ were kin, uinal, tun, baktun and katun. As discussed above, kin is the word for ‘sun-day’ in many Maya languages. A uinal is a month of twenty days (kins). Eighteen months (uinals) make a tun (360 days), twenty tuns make a katun (7,200 days) and twenty katuns make a baktun (144,000 days). Any ‘long count’ date is composed of a set of at least five signs − one for each ‘long count’ unit (kin, uinal, tun, katun and baktun), preceded by a numerical coefficient plus a ‘calendar round’ date. Thus a traditional reading of a ‘long count’ date tells us how many units of time have passed or accumulated since day ‘zero’ of the current creation. The following is an example of a ‘long count’ date from the Dresden Codex: ‘ 1 Ahau 18 Uo’ (Schele and Freidel 1990:83). A traditional reading of this date is given in Table 8.2. 9 baktuns = 1,296,000 days 9 katuns = 64,800 days 9 tuns = 3,240 days 16 uinals = 320 days 0 kins = 0 days or 1,364,360 days have passed or accumulated since day zero of the current cycle of the Long Count, reaching the position “1 Ahau 18 Uo” in the Calendar Round. Table 8.2 A traditional reading of the ‘long count’ date 1 Ahau 18 Uo.

However, according to Wagner, such a reading misses one fundamental point: that a reading of ‘nine’ in the first of the five-place day sign (that is, indicates that we are presently in the ‘ninth’ baktun of the thirteen baktuns that comprise this ‘long count’ cycle. Similarly, a reading of ‘nine’ in the second of the five-place day sign would indicate that we are presently in the ninth katun of the eighth baktun ‘of the current Long Count, and so on down the line’ (Wagner 2013:132). Figure 8.1 illustrates how any given day sign can be interpreted and read as a set of intersectional positions in which each unit intersects twice, once with the unit above it, and once with the unit below it. Therefore, ‘the Long Count, comprised of six cycles, requires 5 intersections to provide an accurate tabulation of its progression for any given day, a proper “day sign” to the Mayan way of thinking’ (ibid.:132). If this model is applied to the ‘long count’ date 1 Ahau 18 Uo, shown in Table 8.2, the reading should register the intersectional nature of each position, as shown in Table 8.3. As Wagner points out: instead of representing the respective cycles of the Mayan Long Count as wheels or circles, we … represented them as straight lines meeting at a

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Sign 1

Baktun 20 Katun 20


Tun 18


Uinal 20 Kin 1

20 Uinal

5 18 tun

20 Katun

20 Baktun

13 Long Count


Figure 8.1 Wagner’s model of intersectional time (Wagner 2013:131). corner, or fold … Thus time, for the ancient Mayans, did not exist in the cycles themselves, but only in the intersections of the cycles. 

(ibid.:132, original emphasis)

‘The date is: the 8th baktun of the Long Count, the 14th katun of the 8th baktun, the 3rd tun of the 8th baktun the 1st uinal of the 3rd tun the 12th kin of the 1st uinal reaching the position ‘1 Ahau 18 Uo’ in the Calendar Round.’ Table 8.3 Wagnerian reading of the ‘long count’ date 1 Ahau 18 Uo.

As Figure 8.1 shows, Wagner’s concept of ‘intersectional time’ can be visually represented by lines ‘which meet at a corner’. Intersectional time is neither in the so-called cycles, nor in the lines themselves, but in the ‘corners’ or ‘intersections’. Just as lines and circles are metaphors created by the Western imagination, both of which conform to Western notions of time, we ought to be able to find some metaphors or images closer to the Maya

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Figure 8.2 The planting of a milpa.

ethnographic reality that conform to this idea of time as something that happens in the intersections, corners or folds. Tedlock has proposed a couple of these metaphors: ‘The movements made by a person writing or reading a table’ or ‘those of a weaver stringing a loom or crossing warp threads with weft threads’ (Tedlock 2010:229). Tedlock’s beautiful metaphors to a certain extent remind us of Leach’s ‘zigzag’ and ‘pendulum’ representations of time (Leach 1961). Inspired by these suggestions, in Figure 8.2 we propose another metaphor for the concept of intersectional time, based on the pattern followed in the planting of a cornfield. The planting of a milpa (cornfield) is usually done by following multiple pathways that meet at an intersection. These multiple pathways move back and forth between two points, following two different directions. If the owner of the milpa has managed to get enough men to help him with the planting, he usually divides the men into two groups. One group moves up then down and down then up, while the second moves right to left and left to right. Thus each group, covering a triangular area, meets in the intersections, producing a pattern that resembles that of ‘straight lines meeting at a corner, or fold’ (Wagner 2013:132). This back and forth between two points also resembles the back and forth of a weaver stringing a loom, as Tedlock (2010:229) suggests, or even Leach’s (1961) pendulum-like model of time. But, unlike the movement of a pendulum, which is uni-dimensional, the pattern created by a group of men


Lydia Rodríguez and Sergio López

seeding a milpa is bi-dimensional. We certainly do not wish to reinvent Maya time, but at least we think that this metaphor inspired by Chol Maya everyday life may be closer to their temporal representations than the clichéd images of wheels, cogs and circles.

An intersectional, event-based notion of time

Wagner’s interpretation of ancient Mayan calendrics offers a sophisticated alternative to the ‘innocent geometrical metaphors’ which have been commonly used to describe the ‘Maya’ notion of time. But can this model of intersectional time be applied to modern understandings of temporality? In this section we describe the systems for time reckoning currently used by the Chol Mayans. The modern Chol are speakers of a Western Mayan language descended from the language in which the great hieroglyphic inscriptions of the Classic period (ad 250 to ad 900) were written: Cholan (Campbell 1984; Justeson and Campbell 1997). Speakers of ancient Cholan used the tzolkin, haab, ‘calendar round’ and ‘long count’ systems for reckoning time and left scores of dates in hieroglyphic inscriptions on monuments and stelae. Nevertheless, no survival of any of these systems for time reckoning has so far been reported among the modern Chol (Rodríguez 2014). But first, a caveat with respect to the phrase ‘Mayan notion of time’ is in order. The term ‘Mayan’ is applied to thirty different Mayan languages currently spoken. Needless to say, even though there are certain cultural elements and linguistic traits that are shared by most Mayan groups, there is just as much variation between these languages and cultures as there is between, for instance, Indo-European languages. We do not wish to claim that the model discussed here is applicable to any other Mayan group, and thus the following description is not intended as another empty generalization of ‘the Mayan notion of time’. What we pursue here is an interpretation of the current time-reckoning systems used by one Mayan group − the Chol − which intentionally tries to avoid falling in the trap of spatial, or ‘geometrical’ models, to use Leach’s term. We believe that Wagner’s model of intersectional time offers such a possibility, and at the same time explains the apparent ‘gap’ between ancient Cholan and modern Chol time-reckoning systems. In what follows we argue that whereas the particular calendars (tzolkin, haab, ‘calendar round’ and ‘long count’) have not been kept by the modern Chol, the notion of time as an intersectional, event-based system is present in the systems for time reckoning currently used by the Chol Mayans. There are also regional differences, linguistic and cultural, between different areas of the Chol world, especially between the Chol municipios of Tumbalá, Tila and Sabanilla.15 The 15 A municipio is a territorial unit, more or less equivalent to a county.

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ethnographic data discussed in this section were collected in the municipio of Tila, which is one of the most conservative areas in terms of language use and religious traditions among all the territories currently occupied by the Chol (Hopkins and Josserand 2001, Josserand and Hopkins 2005). There are three systems of time reckoning that are simultaneously and complementarily used by the Chol Mayans of Tila: the Gregorian calendar, the ceremonial calendar and the agricultural calendar. The Gregorian calendar was an early instrument of proselytization in the Maya area (La Farge and Byers 1931). It is mostly used for civil purposes, and it is associated with activities and institutions that have something to do with the state − like schools and governmental offices − and with the Catholic faith: part of the rationale for imposing the Gregorian calendar in the evangelized regions was to establish Sunday as the day to attend mass. As explained above, in modern Chol the names of days of the week and months have been incorporated from Spanish and the Gregorian calendar. Whereas the Gregorian calendar is associated with the civil and strictly Christian religious spheres, the Chol ceremonial calendar stipulates dates for the celebration of an important set of religious rituals that are inherently syncretic (Hopkins and Josserand 2001). In Tila, the most important celebration of the year is that of the Lord of Tila (6 to 15 January). This festivity honours the patron saint of the community, a black Christ that has been at the centre of a pilgrimage cult since at least 1695 (Josserand and Hopkins 2007; López 2013).16 The celebrations of Holy Week (the last week of March or first week of April) and Corpus Christi (around 18 June, or the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday) in Tila also abound with parades and rituals in honour of the Lord of Tila. During the festival of the Holy Cross (1 to 4 May), offerings are performed at a shrine on top of one of the mountains surrounding Tila, which has a cross in it. People also visit a nearby cave that has the miraculous image of the Lord of Tila crystallized in a stalagmite. During All Saints (30 October to 3 November), food and music are offered to the dead, and rituals are performed in their honour. The set of annual festivities concludes with the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe (12 December) and Christmas (24 and 25 December). The third temporal system comprises a set of agricultural activities that shape the rhythm of Chol life throughout the year. It is known as ñoj cholel, which literally means ‘important or abundant milpa’, although in 16 The Black Christ of Tila is a syncretic deity that incorporates features of the Christian Jesus and the Maya earth lord, Witso’ in Chol, who lives and is venerated in caves. It is also associated with the cult of other black deities like the Lord of Esquipulas in Guatemala (Josserand and Hopkins 2007).


Lydia Rodríguez and Sergio López

Spanish it is usually translated as milpa de año, or yearly milpa.17 It begins with the preparation of the fields, which is usually done around February, and depending on the condition of the field it may involve the felling of big trees (such as when the field has been fallow for some time), the controlled burning of the fields and the removal of the old stalks. Sowing is usually done around May, at the end of the dry season, just before the first rains begin. Approximately one week after sowing, some people choose to re-seed the fields, with maize or beans and squash. The next few weeks are characterized by intense weeding of the field, as the plants need to be cleared of weeds in order to grow properly. Agricultural activities are interrupted in June and July, the months of heavy rains, when the plants are growing and not much can be done in the fields. Activity is resumed in August, when the plants produce the first young ears of maize, or elotes. These sweet elotes are very valued, and some of them are collected for immediate consumption, though most are left to mature on the plant so they can be collected later during the main harvest. The next activity consists of bending the maize plant upon itself in order to protect the still maturing cobs from the rains. The harvest is usually done at the end of September or in October, and in November people store and thresh the cobs. As Figure 8.3 shows, the ceremonial and agricultural calendars form an integrated system, and the rhythm of festivities and activities is also partly determined by the alternation of the rainy and dry seasons. During the festivity of the Holy Cross, which is usually around the time of sowing, some of the rituals performed are to petition rain (Hopkins and Josserand 2001). No major celebrations of the ceremonial calendar are performed during the months of heavy rains, and activity in the milpa fields is minimized during that period as well. During these months (June and July) the Chol work on their homes, for instance, making necessary repairs to roofs and walls. During the festivity of All Saints, which usually coincides with the harvest season, abundant food is prepared, which is ritually offered to the deceased at family altars and consumed by family members. The consumption of abundant food continues during the festivities dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe and Christmas, and the dry season ceremonies culminate with the celebration of

17 Note that the translation in Spanish mentions a temporal unit, año (year), which is absent in Chol. Ñoj is an intensifier, meaning ‘very’, or in this particular context it can be translated as ‘important’ or ‘abundant’, and Chol speakers use the term ñoj cholel to distinguish it from another secondary, less important agricultural cycle: sijoñ or tornamilpa. Sijoñ is the optional planting of some extra maize during the month of November.

The crossroads of time










Dry Season Figure 8.3 Agricultural activities and festivities in Tila.

the Lord of Tila, which acts like a pivot between the festivities of the dry and rainy seasons. It is important to note that although the Gregorian calendar is used in conjunction with the ceremonial calendar, it does not determine the rhythm of the ñoj cholel (yearly agricultural calendar). The months in which each agricultural activity takes place, are not, by any means, set in stone. There are local variations depending on the specific situation of each community and its climate,18 while there is also individual variation based on personal preferences and risk calculations at the moment of sowing. Choosing the appropriate moment to sow one’s milpa entails a complex calculation, because it must be done at the end of the dry season, but the exact date of the first rains is difficult to calculate with precision. Some people prefer to sow earlier during the dry

18 The lower regions of the Chol area are warmer, and the higher regions are colder, which has an impact on the time that it takes maize to mature: it takes longer in the coldest regions.

Lydia Rodríguez and Sergio López


season to ensure that the plants will grow stronger, while others prefer to sow later to ensure that the plants will have enough water.19 The ñoj cholel or milpa de año is an event-based temporal system: it is the completion of one activity or time period that determines when the next activity will begin, rather than the abstract passage of time linked to the months of the Gregorian calendar. References to these borrowed months are always secondary. Although no Chol in their right mind would think of planting their milpa in August, when one asks what the appropriate month to sow is, the answer sometimes comprises two months ‘April and May’, or one Chol person may say, ‘I sow in April’, and another may say, ‘I sow in May’. But when asked what is the appropriate time to sow (and when no reference to a month of the Gregorian calendar is solicited), most people will answer ‘just before the first rains come’ or ‘at the end/completion of the dry season’. 20 In other words, the activities that comprise the ñoj ch-olel are perfectly attuned to the rhythm of the dry and rainy seasons, and once the date of sowing has been chosen, that will act as the benchmark for the rest of agricultural activities: a person sowing in April will collect the first elotes during the last days of July or the first weeks of August, whereas a person sowing later in May will collect his elotes at the end of August or even during the first weeks of September. Thus the Chol agricultural calendar is, in a sense, like Nuer oecological time, a system in which people’s points of reference are mainly the activities themselves … Events follow a logical order, but they are not controlled by an abstract system, there being no autonomous points of reference to which activities have to conform with precision. 

(Evans-Pritchard 1940:103)

19 There are both advantages and disadvantages to sowing earlier and later. Sowing during the rainy season has the advantage of securing water for the plant, but it is also thought that plants sown in the rainy season are not properly rooted. They tend to grow up fast, the Chol say, but the plant is weak. Planting during the dry season ensures that the plant will grow up properly rooted and will not be thrown down by the winds, but if the sowing is done too early before the first rains come, the plant may die of drought. Therefore, the ideal moment for sowing is just at the end of the dry season, to ensure that the plant will grow up properly rooted, and just before the beginning of the rainy season, to ensure that the plant will have enough water to survive. 20 For the Ch’orti’ Mayans of Guatemala, this period is often called tiempo de las tortillas con sal (time of salty tortillas). It is a critical moment, a time without food, and by extension without culture (Mariano Juárez 2013).

The crossroads of time


Just as any day sign for the classic Maya consisted of a set of intersectional positions, for the modern Chol the passage of time is marked by a succession of ‘intersections’ between the agricultural and ceremonial calendars. Time so conceived, rather than being measurable duration by means of motion, as it is in Newtonian mechanics, is event-based and intersectional, and it is does not conform to the abstract logic of any geometrical system, be it linear or cyclical.

Lines, circles and the ethnographic ‘other’

One of the central goals of the first ethnographies that documented ‘exotic’ cultural notions of time was to reject the universality of the NewtonianKantian notion of linear time. In these first ethnographies, which deliberately sought to describe very different ways of thinking about time, a cyclical notion of time became the preferred model for representing alternative understandings of temporality, thus establishing a basic dichotomy between ‘Western-linear’ versus ‘non-Western-cyclical’ notions of time. A second generation of students of time became increasingly displeased with the linear/ cyclical dichotomy, and attempted to use other non-spatial metaphors for describing non-Western notions of time, which, they argued, represented more accurately indigenous notions of time than the geometrical terms ‘line’ and ‘circle’. Some anthropologists have taken this critique one step further, claiming that ‘cyclicality’ has been yet another instrument for the essentialization and the ethnographic invention of the ‘other’ (Fabian 1983; Gupta 1992). This critique has not yet been articulated in Mesoamerica, especially in the Maya area, which instead became a preferred locus for the ethnographic description of cyclical notions of time. With few exceptions, most Mayanists have argued that a cyclical notion of time was predominant in Maya thought. One commonly cited piece of evidence for the alleged cyclicality of Maya temporal thought comes from the reconstruction of the Proto-Mayan root *kinh which has been claimed to mean ‘sun-day-time’ (León Portilla 1973). Nonetheless, as we have argued, although there is solid indication that *kinh must have meant ‘sun-day’, translating this reconstructed word for the abstract mass noun ‘time’ − commonly found in Indo-European languages − entails a certain leap of interpretation. Along the same lines, some of the ancient Mayan systems of time reckoning (mostly the tzolkin, the haab and the ‘calendar round’) have been almost unanimously assumed by scholars to reflect ‘cyclical’ conceptions of time. These scholars, like the first generation of anthropologists who studied time, were eager to recreate a notion of time that was essentially different from the Western one. However, there is no real evidence in the documents that have survived from the pre-Columbian

Lydia Rodríguez and Sergio López


period that suggests that the ancient Maya visualized or thought about time in cyclical terms. A new interpretation of how these time-reckoning systems may have been conceived by the Classic Maya has been proposed by Wagner (2013). His model of intersectional time offers a provocative and sophisticated alternative to the widespread representations of the calendar ‘cycles’ as circles or systems of intermeshing wheels. This model has also inspired new metaphors for representing Maya understandings of temporality which intentionally seek to avoid the reproduction of essentializing categories like lines and circles. The pathways created by groups of men planting a cornfield may be one of these new metaphors. Whereas lines and circles are innocent ‘geometrical metaphors’ (Leach 1961:126) that reflect an etic conception of time, the planting of a milpa may be a more appropriate emic metaphor for both ancient and modern Maya understandings of temporality. Wagner’s model of intersectional time also offers a fresh alternative that explains the internal logic of the modern system for reckoning time used by the Chol Mayans of Tila. Future studies will address whether this new model is also shared by speakers of other Mayan languages. At the very least, it should stimulate researchers to find new metaphors closer to the ethnographic reality of other Mayan cultures than the oversimplified and generalizing models commonly found in linguistic, epigraphic, historical and ethnographic descriptions of the notion of time that these cultures possess.


Barnes, R.H. 1974. Kédang: A Study of the Collective Thought of an Eastern Indonesian People. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Basso, K.H. 1996. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. Bloch, M. 1977. ‘The past and the present in the present’. Man 12 (2):278–92. Bourdieu, P. 1963. ‘The attitude of the Algerian peasant towards time’. In Mediterranean Countrymen, (ed.) J. Pitt-Rivers, pp. 55–72. Paris: Mouton. ——— 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. Bricker, V.R. 1966. ‘El hombre, la carga y el tiempo’. In Los Zinacantecos: un pueblo tzotzil de los altos de Chiapas, (ed.) E. Vogt, pp. 355–70. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional Indigenista. Bunzel, R. 1967. Chichicastenango: A Guatemalan Village. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Campbell, L. 1984. ‘The implications of Mayan historical linguistics for glyphic research’. In Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, (ed.) J. Justeson and L. Campbell, pp. 1–16. Albany, NY: Institute for Mesoamerican Studies.

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Caso, A. 1967. Los calendarios prehispánicos. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional Indigenista. Coe, M.D. 2005. The Maya. London: Thames and Hudson. Colby, B.N. and L. Colby. 1981. The Daykeeper: The Life and Discourse of an Ixil Diviner. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Dahl, Ø. 1995. ‘When the future comes from behind: Malagasy and other time concepts and some consequences for communication’. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 19(2):197–209. Durkheim, É. 1915. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: Macmillan. Eliade, M. 1954. The Myth of the Eternal Return. New York: Pantheon Books. Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1939. ‘Nuer Time-Reckoning’. Africa XII:189–216. ———1940. The Nuer. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Fabian, J. 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press. Farriss, N.M. 1987. ‘Remembering the future, anticipating the past: history, time, and cosmology among the Maya of Yucatan’. Comparative Studies in Society and History 29(3):566–93. Geertz, C. 1966. Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali: An Essay in Cultural Analysis. New Haven: Yale University Press. Gell, A. 1975. Metamorphosis of the Cassowaries: Umeda Society, Language and Ritual. London: Athlone Press. ——— 1992. The Anthropology of Time: The Cultural Constructions of Temporal Maps and Images. Oxford: Berg. Gossen, G.H. 1974. Chamulas in the World of the Sun: Time and Space in a Maya Oral Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ——— 1979. ‘Temporal and spatial equivalents in Chamula ritual symbolism’. In A Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, (eds.)W.A. Lessa and E.Z. Vogt, pp. 116–29. New York: Harper and Row. Gupta, A. 1992. ‘The reincarnation of souls and the rebirth of commodities: representations of time in “East” and “West”’. Cultural Critique 22:187–211. Gurvitch, G. 1964. The Spectrum of Social Time. Dordrecht: Reidel Publishing. Hall, E.T. 1976. Beyond Culture. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press. Hopkins, N. and Josserand, K. 2001. ‘Chol ritual language’, Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies: pdf (accessed 28 September 2017). Husserl, E. 1964. The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Josserand, K. and Hopkins, N. 2005. ‘Lexical retention and cultural significance in Chol (Mayan) ritual vocabulary’. Anthropological Linguistics 47 (4):401–23. ——— 2007. ‘Tila y su cristo negro: historia, peregrinación y devoción en Chiapas, México’. Mesoamérica 28(49):82–113.

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Justeson, J. and Campbell, L. 1997. ‘The linguistic background of Maya hieroglyphic writing: arguments against a “highland Mayan” role’. In The Language of Maya Hieroglyphs, (eds.) M.J. Macri and A. Ford, pp. 41–67. San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute. Kant, I. 1965 [1787]. Critique of Pure Reason (trans. and ed. N.K. Smith). New York: St. Martin’s Press. Kern, S. 1983. The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. La Farge, O. and Byers, D.S. 1931. The Year Bearer’s People. New Orleans: Tulane University. Landa, D. de. 1941. Relación de Las Cosas de Yucatan: A Translation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press Leach, E. 1961. ‘Two essays concerning the symbolic representation of time’. In Rethinking Anthropology, pp. 124–36. London: Athlone Press. León Portilla, M. 1973. Time and Reality in the Thought of the Maya. Boston: Beacon Press. Levine, R. 1997. A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist, or How Every Culture Keeps Time Just a Little Bit Differently. New York: Basic Books. Lincoln, J.S. 1942. The Maya Calendar of the Ixil of Guatemala. Washington: Carnegie Institution. López, S. 2013. ‘Santos familiares y brujos: análisis de creencias y disputas sociales en dos relatos choles’. Entre Diversidades 1(1):34–75. Malotki, E. 1983. Hopi Time: A Linguistics Analysis of the Temporal Concepts in the Hopi Language. Berlin: Mouton. Mariano Juárez, L. 2013. ‘El hambre en los espacios de la cultura: visiones indígenas maya ch’orti’. Revista de Antropologia Iberoamericana 8(2):209–32. Meillassoux, C. 1967. ‘Recherche d’un niveau de détermination dans la société cynégétique’. L’Homme et la Société 6(1):95–106. Miles, S.W. 1952. ‘An analysis of modern Middle American calendars: a study in conservation’. In Acculturation in the Americas, (ed.) S. Tax, pp. 273–84. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Munn, N.D. 1992. ‘The cultural anthropology of time: a critical essay’. Annual Review of Anthropology 21(1):93–123. Nash, J.C. 1970. In the Eyes of the Ancestors: Belief and Behavior in a Maya Community. New Haven: Yale University Press. Newton, I. 1952 [1937]. Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (trans. A. Motte). Berkeley: University of California Press. Nietzsche, F.W. 1971 [1891]. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. New York: Viking Press. ——— 2001 [1882]. The Gay Science. New York: Cambridge University Press. Pinker, S. 1994. The Language Instinct. New York: Morrow.

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Rappaport, R.A. 1967. Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People. New Haven: Yale University Press. Rice, P.M. 2007. Maya Calendar Origins: Monuments, Mythistory, and the Materialization of Time. Austin: University of Texas Press. Rodríguez, L. 2014. ‘Time in language, gesture and thought: a case study in Chol Mayan’, PhD thesis. Charlottesville: University of Virginia. Sapir, E. 1985. Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture and Personality. Berkeley: University of California Press. Schele, L. and Freidel, D. 1990. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. New York: Harper Collins. Taube, K.A. 1988. ‘A prehispanic Maya katun wheel’. Journal of Anthropological Research 44(2):183–203. Tedlock, B. 1992. Time and the Highland Maya. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. Tedlock, D. 2010. 2000 Years of Mayan Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press. Thompson, J.E.S. 1985. Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. Turner, V.W. 1974. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Villa Rojas, A. 1988. ‘The concepts of space and time among the contemporary Maya’. In Time and Reality in the Thought of the Maya, (ed.) Miguel León-Portilla, pp. 113–59. Boston: Beacon Press. Vogt, E.Z. 1969. Zinacantan: A Maya Community in the Chiapas Highlands. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Wagner, R. 1981. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 2013. ‘Keeping the secret of culture from itself: the science of perspectivism’, unpublished manuscript. Whorf, B.L. 1936. ‘The punctual and segmentative aspects of verbs in Hopi’. Language 12(2):127–31. ——— 1941. The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language’. In Language, Culture, and Personality: Essays in Memory of Edward Sapir, (ed.) L. Spier, pp. 75–93. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

C hapter 9

Cross-twins and outcestous marriages How kinship (under)determines humanity for the Kĩsêdjê of central Brazil

 Marcela Coelho de Souza

‘Kinship is obviated not in the way we understand it, but in the way it understands us. Though underdetermine might be a better word than ‘understand’. —Roy Wagner

In the course of my effort to understand what kinship might be about for Amerindians, specifically for Gê-speaking peoples of central Brazil, I had come to the (not very original) idea that incest – treating kin as non-kin – was an inversion of kinship as a deliberate effort of (bodily) identification of humans among themselves in contradistinction to other types of subjects (animals, spirits, enemies). To deliberately negate kinship – in a context where kinship and humanity are seen as coextensive (Gow 1997; Vilaça 2002; Viveiros de Castro 2001, 2009) – would introduce the threat of dehumanization (Coelho de Souza 2004). No wonder trans-specific metamorphosis appears frequently as a direct consequence of this. I tried then to show also that, however risky, such an operation – treating kin as non-kin, the same as an other, a human as a non-human – was not for this reason any less necessary, and so (a kind of ) incest would not only be the obverse of kinship, but also its condition – or perhaps its ‘appositive’, as Roy Wagner says, ‘the formless content of all kin relations as against the contentless form of the way they have been described and studied’ (Wagner 2011:174). If this is so, the same must be true of that other ‘side’ of incest (which is also, frequently, a consequence of it, as in trans-specific metamorphosis): ‘bestiality’, interspecific ‘carnal knowledge’, the thing Lévi-Strauss’s ‘true endogamy’ (Lévi-Strauss 1967) or the ‘outcest taboo’ (Wagner 2001) is supposed to prevent. I will try here to elaborate on that possibility, from the

Marcela Coelho de Souza


point of view of Kĩsêdjê ethnography.1 The pretext for the discussion will be the recent proclamation of a new marriage prohibition that raises, once again, the question of our common humanity.

The demise of kinship?

In January 2011, the Kĩsêdjê chief, a 65-year-old man who has been the uncontested leader of his people since contact with agents of the Brazilian state in 1959, was very ill – feeling weak and tormented by persistent pain and bad dreams. He has been like that, on and off, for the last five years, since a sequence of deaths struck women of his family in 2005/6. All sorts of treatments were tried: the most effective were shamanic interventions by specialists of neighbouring peoples (Xinguanoans, Kayabi), all operating in shamanic traditions quite alien to that of the Kĩsêdjê. He would feel good for a few months, and then the illness would manifest itself again. In January, a Kayabi shaman came up with a new diagnosis. The chief ’s soul had been captured by a very vicious and powerful spirit. He had married and had children in the spirit’s house. His spirit-wife was making him a new hammock; once it was finished, there would be no return: the soul would stay forever with his new affine, and the chief, in his own village, would die. The only hope was a long and difficult fight the shaman would engage in through chants and the ingestion of loads and loads of tobacco and caxiri (manioc beer), by means of which he would contact the chief ’s soul and convince it to come back. However, unless the terrestrial family of the chief were also present and participated enthusiastically in the caxiri feast, the chances of success were slim. The soul had to be persuaded life here was merrier. Marriage or betrothal with spirits and/or animals is not an unusual way for shamans to access other perspectives and get powerful allies and auxiliaries in Amazonia. But apart from the fact this was not, as far as I know, a common way for a Kĩsêdjê shaman to acquire such powers, the chief was no shaman – and he does not desire to become one. The Kĩsêdjê say they do not have shamans anymore (but see below). They seem to have adopted a very cautious stance towards such powers as their shamans used to command, and other people’s shamans still do. I do not have the space to get into this here, but I 1

The Kĩsêdjê are speakers of a northern Gê language, and arrived in the Xingu basin at the beginning of the nineteenth century. They maintained ambivalent but crucial relations with their upper Xingu neighbours and adopted many elements of their culture, to the point that, at the time of contact (in 1959), they were perceived by the arriving whites as almost entirely ‘acculturated’ by the Xinguanoans. This was a very partial and eminently reversible acculturation, as later developments showed (Coelho de Souza 2010; Seeger 1980).

Cross-twins and outcestous marriages


suspect it has something to do with their current interest in other powers. These are the powers of ‘spirits’ they could easily (perhaps too easily) marry, but which I feel they have expressly decided, as a matter of public policy, not to. The Kĩsêdjê tell me (and everybody else, especially if you are a white person working among them) that they may marry white people if they want to, but then they would have to leave their village and lands and move to the cities. This is presented as a specific ruling, in fact a recent one: it appears to have been the object of a pronouncement made by their chief in an assembly of the indigenous association a couple of years ago, agreed upon by everybody and assumed as a collectively supported law since then. (I suspect this rule is a transformed form of the shamanic diagnosis above, an issue I will return to.) I have asked them why. They say a white person – man or woman – living with them would bring disruption and disorder. White people do not know how to behave. They are anhin mbaj kêrê (‘wild’, ‘wanton’): they hit their children, do not respect their in-laws (talk to the mother-in-law, joke with the father-in-law, refuse to lend their things to their wife’s brothers), do not share food – they do not even eat proper food! To this I suggested that a person could learn, if she wanted, how to behave properly. ‘Well, yes’, I was told, ‘but you know, you will always be a white person in some measure, and so will your children. Even a child raised here, in our lands, with our food, among us, being the child of a white person, will grow up to be ‘white’, more white than Kĩsêdjê anyway.’ ‘How come?’, I asked. Because the blood of white people is stronger. That was one answer. The other was: because your culture is stronger. So, it is a question of strength. It was not difficult to see how this fits in the ongoing Kĩsêdjê effort at controlling their ever-multiplying interactions with non-indigenous society, agents and objects. Seen from this point of view, the new ruling was an obvious component of an ‘identity politics’ that involves language reform (such as the deliberate substitution of Kĩsêdjê expressions for Portuguese and other indigenous language loanwords, and the restoration of erudite or old forms), the banning on non-indigenous music and dances, and investment in cultural projects to document and ‘revitalize’ traditional ritual practices (as against the energy they used to spend in appropriating other peoples’ rituals). Elsewhere I have tried to argue that this effort involves more than ‘resistance’ and ‘conservation’, and is less about Kisêdjê differentiating themselves from white people or neighbouring groups than about self-differentiation (Coelho de Souza 2010). For Kisêdjê also say they are ‘becoming whites’ (virando brancos) through their involvement with white food, medicine, technology and knowledge, an involvement that is nevertheless actively pursued, as a means of self-transformation in no way antithetical to the Renaissance of


Marcela Coelho de Souza

old, pre-xiguano and pre-contact, Kĩsêdjê culture.2 On the contrary, both movements serve the same effort: to ‘knock the conventional off balance’ (Wagner 1981:88) and enable people to keep reinventing themselves. But I had not given enough thought to how much kinship was implicated in all this, thinking it more or less insulated from the ‘changes’ my Kĩsêdjê friends are so interested in, until I started to pay attention to what they describe as disquieting recent trends in their own kinship practices. People, they say, do not treat their affines properly anymore: they do not show them the respect they should, particularly regarding avoidance protocols and the employment of proper language and forms of address. Nor do they acknowledge their relatives as they used to, offering them food and other presents, addressing them by kin terms instead of personal names. People are equally uncaring regarding their name relations (name-givers and name-receivers, and their respective relatives), which should be treated as true kin, and their formal friends (ritual relations transmitted patrilineally), who deserve the same respect (avoidance) expected between affines. What is noticeable about this diagnosis of kinship is that it is being threatened by the very catastrophes marriage with white people, which has not happened yet to any significant extent, is supposed to bring.3 In an important sense, the catastrophe has already happened. This is no mere old people’s talk, nostalgia for a golden age of moral rectitude and warriors’ grandeur (we will see soon what warriors have to do with this). The threat is felt not only in the perceived lowering of relationship standards; a concern about the future, about whether new generations will be able to reproduce, is also a part of it. Relationships among Kĩsêdjê young men and women are becoming increasingly difficult, and seldom end up in marriage. Families seem to get in the way – mothers, in most cases, are not happy with the choices made by their sons or daughters. One factor is the ability of a future son-in-law to provide his affines with resources that have become more valuable today and do not depend on his work alone: money, and everything it can buy. A friend told me: ‘If you have money, you may marry. If you don’t, you may not’. But this is not the whole story, for some mothers seem to be interested in precisely the opposite: a potential son-in-law’s ability as a hunter, fisher and gardener – activities many young men are now disinclined 2 The Kĩsêdjê state that before they entered the Xingu basin at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and adopted many practices of their Xinguano new neighbours, their culture was very different (Seeger 1981). 3 There are very few Kĩsêdjê married to whites (just two or three), all from families mixed with other indigenous peoples and who left the area decades ago. No white person lives in Kĩsêdjê lands.

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to invest in, in favour of more glamorous occupations, such as video-making, teaching and health work.4 Concern about how women will be treated is also an important consideration: young men are now excessively jealous; they seem to have nothing to do but worry about their wives’ inevitable infidelities, have no self-control and are easily roused to violence. This would not happen if these boys were real warriors, people say, for those were men who did not get angry or express anger casually – their anger was lethal, and reserved for more serious business. Concern about daughters living with non-warrior husbands – not fullygrown men by traditional standards; indeed uncertainty regarding what a full-grown man is – seems to be part of the same problem. ‘Parents do not know what they want for their children anymore’, a woman friend told me. One thing they do seem to want is to retain them at home forever. Arranged marriages (of pre-pubescent girls, a traditional practice) are still planned sometimes, but are almost impossible to enforce. For some reason, however, this does not mean young people are marrying whoever they want: it seems the only way to obtain their family’s assent is to choose people they do not know very well (and so cannot find good reasons to reject). Thus what we see now is a trend towards exogamy: most marriages in the last six years involved people – men or women – from other indigenous groups, mostly in the Xingu Indigenous Park but also beyond it, as participation in the indigenous movement, meetings and workshops, and especially the internet, has opened up new possibilities. Marriage with people from other groups is not new for the Kĩsêdjê, and their demographic recovery after contact depended largely on this. What is new is that now this is clearly happening in spite of the demographic situation, not because of it. There are, for every Kĩsêdjê youngster, more eligible mates 4

‘Prestige’ – of the family – is also mentioned: this is something linked with political pre-eminence, access to new (white) resources, the ability to keep connections active (through food sharing and other exchanges) and to avoid and prevent conflict. It is also linked with knowledge, as demonstrated in the performance of songs and the telling of stories, which bear witness to connections in the past (people know what they know because their parents or grandparents taught them). Prestige of the family relates to the renown of their men (sons and fathers) as not too jealous, not too violent, solicitous and thoughtful, and of their women as not too prone to engage in gossip. As such, it is partially relative and ‘subjective’, but this does not mean there is not some consensus as to who the important families are. Beyond any doubt, the chief ’s family is the most prestigious family among the Kĩsêdjê. It is also, paradoxically (or maybe not), one that people are reluctant to marry into.


Marcela Coelho de Souza

than ever in their villages – of the appropriate age, in the appropriate non- or distant-kin relationship. But no one seems interested, and when they are, there are too many people against it! Marrying whites is an all too obvious alternative or tendency. Of a young woman with a long and sad love story that almost turned into tragedy, a friend made the following prediction: ‘She is now living in Querência [the nearest city]. She will marry a white man, you will see’. What are the connections between the perceived demise of kinship, the apparent stalemate regarding marriage and the new ruling on true endogamy in the context of Kĩsêdjê current efforts to redefine themselves? This deserves a much more serious investigation, and my purpose here is only to set out a framework for future inquiry.

Life as kinship and kinship as life

The dead remember (for a while at least) kinship, but Kĩsêdjê kinship is not about remembering them. As with other Gê societies, to have (human) kin is to be alive (Coelho de Souza 2001), and to be kin to the dead – not humans by definition (Carneiro da Cunha 1978) – is very risky indeed – the same risk the chief suffered when his soul was busy building its new family in the spirit’s village. Perhaps kinship with whites carries a similar threat. Let us recapitulate some insights afforded by recent ethnography and theoretical reflection on Amerindian sociality and kinship. We could start with the idea that nobody is born kin to anybody – certainly not to parents, who make the body of the foetus but do not know what they have made until the child comes out, and shows itself for what it is, or may become. You may be born with a twin, though – like a Piro newborn – that has to be cut out of himself, through the separation of his body from the placenta and afterbirth. Before cutting the umbilical cord, the baby has no exterior or interior, being wrapped inside its own innards; separated from the placenta, it gets an interior body that can be filled by food through the caring of its relatives-to-be. This twin is not a relation of the newborn; they are one and the same thing, and as such capable of no relation at all. As Gow puts it, ‘The prerequisite for the baby to have parents, people towards whom its consciousness is oriented, is the loss of a part of its original Self, namely, its primordial Other’ (Gow 1997:54). The Kĩsêdjê, incidentally, call the placenta khratxi – khra being the world for ‘child’ (son/daughter), and –txi a suffix meaning ‘big’. They say it is gente, ‘people’, like a child; it has to be treated with respect, and it is buried in the back of the house, where pets are buried too, or inside it, as everybody else is.5

5 The Kĩsêdjê do not bury twins when they are born, as their upper Xingu neighbours used to do; they raise them. But they do not seem to welcome this: an

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Every Kĩsêdjê person has another kind of twin. This is the alma (‘soul’), a Portuguese word commonly used to translate the word mëkarõ, which is also what the dead are called. Më is pessoa, gente (‘person’, ‘people’); karõ means ‘image’, ‘shadow’, ‘picture’ – a double, something that refers to the object without necessarily reflecting it. The karõ, word and concept, is found in other northern Gê societies as a vital principle that ‘inhabits the body … without however merging with it’, since it can leave it (in dreams or illness), take a different form from it, and is destined to survive it (Carneiro da Cunha 1978:10–12). It is present, potentially at least, in everything that exists, lives and has agency: animals, plants, minerals, ‘natural phenomena’ or celestial bodies (the rain, thunder, the sun and moon) and artefacts or people’s possessions.6 Once I asked a friend where the souls of children came from. The conversation was in Portuguese. ‘Soul? What soul?’ (Alma? Que alma?), they asked. ‘The mekarõ’, I replied. ‘But that is after you’re dead!’ My question seemed to make no sense (as usual). That did not prevent him from adding that children’s souls – their karõ – may be stolen. For other peoples, like the Kayabi (this man was half Kayabi, by the way), a couple that is having difficulty in procreating may even ask a shaman to get a new soul in a special place they alone know. In any case, there seems to be no grammatical way of saying, in the Kĩsêdjê language, that a person has a karõ without referring to its shadow or image instead of its ‘soul’. There is no way of putting (word-wise –Kayabi shamans do it practically, but that is different) the karõ inside the body.7 Another way to see this is to realize you cannot do it negatively, either. That is, there is no way to say someone ‘has not’ or is ‘without’ his or her karõ (you could say he/she has no shadow). The Kĩsêdjê do say that certain people (men usually, but not always) live separated from their souls. Më katwân kêrê, a ‘person without spirit’, is how these people are referred to. Their souls live elsewhere, with other beings – birds, bees, arrows, ants, fish, the dead. Capable of listening and understanding the songs and speech of these beings, of seeing them for the persons they are, më katwân kêrê (shamans) are the source of new songs (and personal names) for the Kĩsêdjê. Like other shamans in Amazonia, më katwân kêrê are ex-sick people; better, they are chronically ill people, as their condition is seen to be a bad one (Seeger 1981:198) of incantation to make a woman pregnant with twins is used as a vengeance for her refusing a man. 6 Their karõ, after the death of the owner, accompany the latter, and the objects become brittle and fragile and are abandoned or destroyed. 7 Seeger reports that the Kĩsêdjê, ‘say that the fetus has a spirit, or mëgaron, even when it is inside the womb. Should it die there, its spirit goes directly to the village of the dead’ (Seeger 1981:150). I wonder in which words the Kĩsêdjê put this to him.

Marcela Coelho de Souza


incompleteness. A person knows he or she has become a më katwân kêrê (an irreversible condition) when, in a dream, he or she sees his or her own soul, as in a mirror. This is how a man who has been separated from his ‘inside’ remembered the event: Later, at night, I fell asleep again, and somebody said, ‘Let’s go, let’s go’. I don’t know whether it was a soul/ghost (mekarõ) talking to me. ‘Let’s go, let’s see the lake’. I said, ‘Is it near?’ ‘Yes, it is. Let’s go there so you may see it’. So in my dream I went with them. The lake was just behind a wall like this [he points to the wooden wall of the house we were in]. They said, ‘Come this way, come this way’. And I said, ‘No! How could I get through? there is no door!’ ‘No. Come this way, just push your head through the wall, it won’t hurt you, you will get through’. And so I came, that way, it did not hurt me. I came to the other side. Then they said, ‘Turn around’. I turned back and I saw my soul (i-katwâni). I stayed here, my soul stayed on the other side, and I saw it. ‘There it is, now you have seen it’. [Pointing to the soul]: ‘this one there is you too’. The bird told me about my soul (i-katwâni) this way, so I would know.

The word katwâni refers to the inside or the bottom of something: ngô katwâni is the bottom of the river, hwyka katwâni the bottom of the earth, ndêkrêttá katwâni that of a bag. In contexts like the above, it is also translated as soul or spirit (alma, espírito). The man who had this experience explained to me the katwâni is what makes the body alive and strong. Animals (and other beings) have katwâni as well, but when a me katwân kêrê sees them, as people, what he sees is their karõ. As another friend told me, when you die, the katwâni leaves for the village of the dead (mekarõ patá txira), but what you see (or hear) when you see (or hear) the dead is people’s karõ, mëkarõ. The katwâni is lost forever. The karõ, on the other hand, is what remains.8 If it is linked to the self (Fisher 1991), then, this self has the particularity of being ‘external’: as a double, it can only manifest itself in place of the person, never ‘with’ (or ‘within’) it. It is an ‘other body’ (Viveiros de Castro 2002:443 n.36) that is only visible when the 8 For a while, at least. For some Gê peoples, it eventually extinguishes itself (Carneiro da Cunha 1978), but the Kĩsêdjê never told me anything of the sort.

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person’s own body leaves the scene, but which is defined by its own visibility (or audibility). The duality katwâni/karõ has been registered by other ethnographers of the Gê, but they have tended to see in it something like a duplication of souls – when perhaps what is involved is the soul as a duplication/double. Bill Crocker, for instance, speaks of two types of soul for the Rankokamekra, although the distinction, he concedes, is not clear. One is the karõ; the other, named katswèn, a word that means ‘core, central material’, is of a different nature; the only visible example his indigenous assistants could offer, he says, is Christ’s apparition to his disciples after crucifixion (Crocker 1990:312). Incidentally, it was a Catholic priest/ethnographer writing on the Kayapó who gave us one of the clearest accounts of the relation between these concepts: the subject deserves to be approached in greater detail: me = ‘man’; karon = has the basic meaning of ‘soul’, but soul in the sense of subtracted from the body. Regarding this, the ideas of the native cannot always be clearly defined or distinguished. United with the body, it has the name of kadyoi, or rather, the ‘core’; the civilized man would say, the ‘internal man’. 

(Lukesh 1976: 246)9

The Kĩsêdjê do not translate me katwân kêrê as pajé, a word (of Tupi origin) used when speaking in Portuguese to designate Xinguanoan, Kayabi and other peoples’ shamans. They reserve this translation for a different category of shamans they say is extinct among them, the wajanga. Whereas më katwân kêrê are defined as doubled by exteriorization, one that takes their inside outside and make them people with no ‘inside’, and for this reason incomplete, wajanga are equally doubled, but by interiorization: instead of separated from themselves, they are contaminated by others. They become this way through the ‘incorrect incorporation of a powerful animal or sexual power’ (Seeger 1981:198). It is a substantial condition that ‘passes through the blood’ or other body fluids. This other is itself a wajanga, an agency that accompanies, travels with, stays close to the person, and reacts to other people’s actions in ways the person has no control over. As a friend explained to me:


The word karon is used by the Kayapó to refer, in Lukesh’s account, to ‘spiritual essence’ and to what is external and perceptible, such as in the expression kabenkaron, ‘the sense of [someone’s] words/speech’ (Lukesh 1976:247). The Kĩsêdjê, who use the word mekarõ to denote an image that substitutes for something, would say ‘mekarõtxira!’ to denounce a lie.

Marcela Coelho de Souza


If you [a wajanga] get angry, your blood goes to your head, and your wajanga can’t control it. He thinks, ‘I will do it’ [kill whoever is disturbing you/him], and then it happens. You have to talk to your wajanga, because if you are unable to restrain him, this will happen every time, and you will end up being clubbed to death by people in revenge.

Both conditions contrast with that of a full, alive, healthy, ‘good’ human being, me tiri (cf. ibid.:199). The living person could then be said, perhaps, to be ‘inwardly twinned’ as body10 and soul (katwâni), the two sides of every person united in a kind of ‘lateral integrity’ without which no ‘external’ relating would be possible, as the katwâni is the site of memory and intention that makes possible the sharing or exchanging of food, the ‘thinking about’ that is definitive of the mutual care among kin (and it is this mutual care that shows in the strength of the body as evidence that the katwâni is strong). So, two-inone; and perhaps the person could also be said to be ‘twinned outwards’, not so much as two genders/sexes (Wagner 2001), but as two bodily ‘genera’, human and ‘animal’, two forms of ‘physical distinctiveness’ whose match or mating – one-in-two – would be also implicated in the way Kĩsêdjê know kinship as a way of determining humanity. For they know it through the figures of the mekatwân kêrê and the wajanga, the anti-twins that ground the figuration of humanity. The first is a figure with no inside: mekatwân kêrê are chronically ill, halfabsent, and so ‘less socially complete’, as Seeger says (1981:198). They have kin and live with their families, so there lack of sociality should be not taken as an absolute condition, but they are undoubtedly less related to other humans than they are joined to their other ‘side’, their inside (katwâni) turned outside: not exactly a relation, for ‘this is you too’, as the bird said. Two-of-one? The second, the wajanga, on the other hand, is someone who does not ‘recognize’ kin, because the wajanga that accompanies him (or her) is no kin to his (her) people. It is as if the interior space of the person was doubled by this other agency. One friend told me it is like the demons evangelical priests talk about: ‘If you were a crente (believer) you would understand this better’ (he is not). This agency, however, it not that of a soul (the other of the body), but of an animal body – the form the wajanga takes when he goes about doing the bad things he is prone to do. One-of-two? This reference to Wagner’s (2001) discussion of twins and anti-twins should not be taken overly seriously, as my aim is simply to point to a curious 10 The Kĩsêdjê have no word for ‘body’, but use wanhï (‘our flesh’), ká (‘our skin’) or anhïkratá (‘our parts’) in contexts where we would use the word ‘body’. In contrast to the soul, wanhï is the usual option.

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symmetry. One that seems to me to shed new light on the contents of that famously enigmatic feature of many kinship systems, the ‘crossness’ that separates marriageable from non-marriageable kin in classificatory systems – so the ‘cross-twins’ in my title is a way of suggesting that connection. There is more than social groups and interpersonal relations in question here. The coupling of soul and body, as much as the separation between animal and human bodies, is a condition for human relating or kinship, as the anti-twinning interference makes clear. For there could be no coupling nor separation without souls being separable from bodies, or human and non-human bodies being known as combinable. It takes a me katwân kêrê to bring the songs that are evidence of the first condition: of the commonness of souls between humans and non-humans that makes humans themselves internally divided. And it takes a wajanga to realize the ultimate ‘twincest’ that shows the separation of humans and animal bodies to be the very unstable and precarious (relative, perspectival) condition it is. They are the ones who kill or bring enemies to kill and be killed, and who put an end to the kinship process, so it can start again. This is a most important job, for if the origin of a child’s soul is a non-issue for the Kĩsêdjê – being ‘given’, ‘innate’, an ‘Other of the body’ (Viveiros de Castro 2002:443 n.36) that seems to be there from the start and whose ‘staying’ there (not emerging as a mekarõ) is a condition for the child’s capacity to relate – it differs in this from its body, which not only has to be made through this very relating, but must be unmade too. Let me try to make this clearer. If kin and body are not given (at birth), they have to be made. This is partly a question of the child being made human (being given a human body) through the care of other humans: the feeding and warming that creates memory and affect as the content of kinship. But it is also a question of the child making itself human to its parents by accepting their care, and so making them human (to itself, and to each other) as well. The process has been frequently described as the ‘fabrication of consubstantiality’ (Vilaça 2002:354), an identification of ‘bodies’ that work through contraposing those bodies to animal, non-human bodies, preventing (through dietary and other taboos that constitute the so-called couvade) its contagion by those other bodies – a contagion, we may suppose, that is the very power of the soul (as ‘other body’). Kinship is, then, bodily similarity, actively pursued, deliberately fabricated, in a process of ‘making kin out of others’ (Vilaça 2002; cf. Gow 1997) that is the same thing as differentiating humans from non-humans, ‘fixing’ souls as interior ‘others’ to bodies that are made to be the ‘same’ to each other. Now, a way to conceptualize all this is to think in terms of what Viveiros de Castro describes as the ‘depotentialization of affinity, its reduction to and through marriage’ (Viveiros de Castro 2001:26). That is, of potential affinity

Marcela Coelho de Souza


as generic value (not a type of kinship tie), a relationship based on difference rather than on similarity, taken as the ‘innate’ dimension of Amazonian kinship, ‘lived and conceived as an ontological condition underlying all “social” [i.e. not exclusively human] relations’ (Viveiros de Castro 2009:259), a ‘virtual background out of which a particularized figure of consanguineally dominated kinship sociality must be made to appear’ (2001:26). This figure is a body. As Viveiros de Castro says, in Amazonia, the primal analogical flow of relatedness is a flow of spirit. That means that the body must be produced out of the soul but also against it, and this is what Amazonian kinship is ‘all about’. 

(Viveiros de Castro 2009:243)

He adds: Kinship, in Amazonia, is a process of constructing a proper human body out of the primal analogic flow of soul-matter in which humans and animals interchange their bodily forms unceasingly. (ibid.:262)

So the fabrication of kinship identity against this background of universal affinity, corresponds to the ‘speciation’ of humans as kin to each other, people of the same body, and of communities as ‘bodies of people’. It is in this sense that the fields of kinship and humanity are ideally coextensive: if humanity is a relation, this relation is called kinship (‘consanguinity’). But the conceptualization of the kinship process (the construction of kinship) as the deconstruction of potential affinity means it is a process that approaches but cannot reach its limit (Viveiros de Castro 2001:25): consanguinity as perfect and absolute identity equals death, as ‘the reconstruction of kinship at the end of each life cycle through procreation must rely on the affinal givenness of human sociality’ (ibid.:35). For, as we saw, no person here is identical to himself or herself. I refer of course to the body/soul duality that relativizes humanity in every person, but also to something more specific: to the various specific forms in which personhood is constituted in Amazonia as ‘invariably “dividual” in the sense that it is based on an internalized relation to a figure of alterity’ (Taylor 2001:49). Examples of this are infinite. Such dividuality is crucial do the process of kinship. Taylor’s account is particularly illuminating as she shows how, for the Jivaro, consanguineal ties are non-relations that require articulation to affinal ones – involving enemies and prey – to become properly ‘social’, in opposition not

Cross-twins and outcestous marriages


to ‘natural’ or unconstrained relations as such, but to no relation at all, that is, identity. As Taylor states: What, in short, is the non-affinal residue of consanguinity? I would claim that it is simply identity, that is to say, a non-difference (and therefore a nonrelation) seen as the outcome of a kind of cloning. (ibid.:51)

And cloning, as twinness, is not kinship. So, if identity is what we get at the end of the kinship process (the end of the life cycle), it is also what we have to un-make so the process can start again. And this means death – the unmaking of the human body through un-relating it to other humans – becomes critical work indeed. As I suspect this has something to do with the new endogamy rule of the Kĩsêdjê, let us see if there is a way back from here to the pretext for this discussion.

Incest and true exogamy: boundaries or content?

Viveiros de Castro has asked, ‘What does the [Lévi-Straussian] concept of “incest prohibition” ultimately mean, if not the idea that all consanguinity must be a consequence of affinity?’ (Viveiros de Castro 2009:262). Correspondingly, to violate or ignore the prohibition would mean to make consanguinity the ‘cause’ of affinity, its motivation or condition (as an incest drive or endogamous ideal). Which, in a sense, for the Kĩsêdjê, it is, if we concede that what Lévi-Strauss called ‘true endogamy’, the injunction to marry within (the human) community, in central Brazil means to marry people that must be already related, since it is this relation that guarantees their mutual humanity: villages tend to be endogamous and co-residents are all seen as ‘kin’. But they cannot be true kin. Given the co-extensivity between kinship and humanity, great effort is expended by Gê peoples in escaping the dilemma and living through the paradox, finding humans that are not kin to mate with, which can only mean unmaking the kinship previously made – only to be haunted by the possibility that the kinship thus (re)made will unmake them (will undermine their humanity).11 11 The effort of unmaking kinship previously made hinges on the crucial notion of kinship distance, codified through modifiers added to terms that qualify relationships as true/false, close/distant, intense/weak. This is not a matter of genealogical distance, nor of residential or spatial proximity per se: as we will see below (briefly), it is the performance, and its result, that counts. I have elaborated on the dynamics of making and unmaking Gê kinship elsewhere (Coelho de Souza 2012).


Marcela Coelho de Souza

True endogamy is a real challenge in Amazonia because of the very duality of body/soul, human/other, consanguine/affine that constitute persons as living beings. The delicate unmaking of humanity – the activation of those dualities – just enough to make bodies capable of relating and procreating together (instead of substituting for each other) can go wrong in more ways than one: a marriage that was supposed to join different enough humans may prove incestuous after the fact. Or, on the contrary, it may reveal itself as a bestial mating: true exogamy, the apparently human affine revealing itself as a fearsome animal, an unexpected bodily difference that appears then not as a precondition, but an impediment, to relationship. The whole operation hinges on a bold effort to sustain – through the non-ending serious play of exchange, sharing, respect, shame and joking – the fragile balance of difference and identity that underlies relating: ‘there is no kin relationship on earth that is not a matter of pretending … There is no such thing as non-fictive kinship’ (Wagner 2011:171). Let us take the first wrong first, as the problem appears to the Gê. I have elsewhere discussed this in terms of the phenomenon of reclassification: to convert a kinswoman into a possible wife, it suffices to behave with her as if she was a wife. Some Gê peoples explicitly conceive this conversion to be produced by an act of ‘incest’ or ‘metamorphosis’ – the Canela and the Xavante, at least, seem to use one word for both.12 It is certainly a risky operation: between uterine siblings, the Canela say, it would cause madness and eventually death within a few years; among more distant kin, it would shorten the life of the couple (Crocker 1990:162, 258). Payment (by the man to the woman and/or her kin) is required in any case: it tends to be higher the closer the relationship, for ‘a good payment ends the shame’, according to the Krahó (Melatti 1979:63). The operation severs previous connections: ‘[they] ceased being kin’, say the Krahô (Ladeira 1982:58). The Kĩsêdjê also used to reclassify people through sexual relations, turning distant relatives into (classificatory) ‘spouses’ (Seeger 1981:128); they would also stop receiving food on ceremonial occasions from ‘sisters’ so transformed, and other people would know. As among other Gê, those who abuse this expedient may then be subject to ridicule. When the transformation of the relationship fails, people are themselves transformed. The Canela told William Crocker (1990:162–3) about an episode from the end of the 1930s when a man that began to behave like an animal after 12 Crocker translates the expression to ayprè, ‘make transformed’, as ‘incest’, which qualifies the first sexual relation – but not the subsequent ones – between close kin (Crocker 1990:258). The Xavante designate incest by the same word (tsiwamnãr) used for ‘metamorphosis’ (Maybury-Lewis 1967:75–6).

Cross-twins and outcestous marriages


having sexual relations with his sister. Both went mad; the girl died soon after, and he had to be locked up in a small cage, a ‘pigsty’, where he died quickly. Similarly, the Apinayé recounted to DaMatta (1979:119) two cases of men who were transformed into monstrous animals, similar to dogs, after committing ‘incest’; they also claimed, as a general rule, that sex with one’s mother, sister or a close ‘niece/granddaughter’ will provoke the person’s metamorphosis into a thing or creature (me-bóyá). The metamorphic potency of ‘incest’ is also attested in mythology and other expressions of indigenous thought. The Kĩsêdjê tell a story in which brothers became macaws, those celebrated colourful Psittacidiae that Bororo men famously claimed to be (a statement that impressed Lévy-Bruhl). What is really interesting in the Kĩsêdjê story, though, is that the transformation is no ‘sanction’. The story starts telling of this group of brothers who wanted to metamorphose. They desired their sister, and so covered themselves in black paint and down, followed her into the gardens and, unrecognized, had sexual relations with her. When their identities were revealed, they flew way, transformed into macaws. Their parents commented: ‘So, that was it, you wanted to become something else, that’s why you did this to your sister!’. She remained human. The Kĩsêdjê tend to be somewhat apologetic regarding the perhaps too close marriages of the near past, but the important point (for them) is that they worked – nobody ‘changed’ into anything. So, what about those exogamous unions with the Kuphë Amtô (Mouse Indians, the Xinguanos), among other peoples, that were and are so important to them? Let us turn then to the second wrong, the violation of Lévi-Strauss’s ‘true endogamy’ rule, a negative injunction that instead of proscribing incest sort of promotes it, in prohibiting sexual/marital relations between those who are not already ‘related’ – who are not, in Amazonian parlance, human to each other. Incest desires or ‘passions’ (Mimica 1991) were not of course absent from Lévi-Strauss’s reflections on kinship, even if the ‘social cohesion etic framework’ employed in his Elementary Structures were to limit, as Schneider and Boon (1974) claimed, his own perception (his ‘more original structuralist position’) of the ‘mutual occurrence’ and logical inter-implication of the different elementary structures (generalized matrilateral exchange, restricted bilateral exchange, patrilateral exchange) in human social thought. We should, of course, include incest among those structures, as something that is ‘always a conceived and implicit option insofar as it is tabooed’ (ibid.:810),13 but that is also the ‘limit’ of reciprocity, so that each form of elementary 13 And an impossible one if it were not (Wagner 1972). See also Deleuze and Guattari (1977:161; cf. Viveiros de Castro 2010).


Marcela Coelho de Souza

marriage rule appears as the ‘relatively incest-like negation of the next higher form’ (ibid.:811). We could then see that alliance structures are all ‘deflected’ realizations of incest (Wagner 2001), ‘incest through its interdiction’ (Mimica 1991:52), an ‘affirmation by detour’ or ‘substitution of the real thing by its closest equivalent’ (ibid:85). If elementary forms participate in the incest they ‘negate’ in this way, is there any form of marriage that would not? Schneider and Boon, taking as clues Lévi-Strauss’s conceptualization of ‘complex structure’ in terms of ‘choice’, suggest this would be ‘free-choice’, ‘individual marriage’ – outside groups defined by class, race or community (Schneider and Boon 1974:811).14 Banning marriage outside these groups – full or proper humanity as culturally defined – was what Lévi-Strauss’s ‘true endogamy’ (endogamie vraie) was about. If positive alliance (A marrying B) rests on the denying of A marrying A, it also lies, as Schneider and Boon say, in the denying of marriage beyond the A–B universe (ibid.:823). The ‘social cohesion etic framework’ may indeed have something to do with Lévi-Strauss’s neglect of the ‘tabooed, but logical possibility of marrying out of the system of organic solidarity altogether’ (ibid.:813) – his reduction of this outcest taboo to ‘merely expresses a limit, socially conditioned, to the capacity for generalization’ (Lévi-Strauss 1969:47). The Dobuan community of cultivators and tubers – yams being treated as persons and kin, to the exclusion of foreign humans like white people – is thus seen by Lévi-Strauss as a ‘restrictive definition’ of the group’ (ibid.:47), when the ‘limitation’ is hardly more striking than the inclusion or extension beyond limits it implies. The Dobuans did not marry yams, as, in Amazonia, Jivaro women only mother their manioc plants – in a cloning, self-reproductive, non-relational, purely consanguineal mode in which there is no place for human marriage, as there is no place for it neither in the purely affinal, hyperrelational, other-destructive, cannibalistic predation mode that connects men and game (Taylor 2001:54). So human kinship – marriage – comes to depend on the half-enemy identity of men and half-animal (prey) identity of women, a specifically Jivaroan form of the articulation that is necessary in Amazonia to turn non-relation (identity) into proper relationships (ibid.:49, 53). This is the articulation to what is ‘out of the system of organic solidarity altogether’; matrimonially, it would imply not individual marriage but non-human marriage – ‘true exogamy’, we may call it, perhaps the only form of marriage 14 ‘[I]ncest is ultimately the relative in-marriage in conflict with any positive outmarriage rule, and individual choice is ultimately an out-marriage in conflict with any preferred relative in-marriage; the sensational individual marriage is inevitably one that is too “out” – out of class, or race, or community’ (Schneider and Boon 1974:811).

Cross-twins and outcestous marriages


that would not qualify as, in some measure, ‘incestuous’, or incest-like. Or would it? For incest and true exogamy, as a pair, seem to be precisely what is ‘deflected’ onto or through kinship as kinship is made human and makes humans as it goes on. What seems to me to be important is to emphasize how much what we (with Lévi-Strauss) call the incest taboo, on the one hand, and true endogamy (or the outcest taboo), on the other, refer to things that mutually presuppose and negate each other, by constituting the limits – incest (non-relation with humans) and true exogamy (pure relation with non-humans) – of human kinship. I do not mean that human kinship or marriage happens in a ‘space’ between these ‘extremes’, at an ‘optimum distance’ from both. The two taboos function jointly but also against each other, each as the condition for the realization/obviation of that which is interdicted by the other. Incest (autorelation, that is, no relation) converts to alliance (human kinship) as long as differentiation is successfully effected, and the partners (spouses as well as other affines) are revealed as not completely the same, as less than fully human to each other. The revelation works through bodily differentiation – male from female through human from non-human, the partners appearing then as half-enemy and half-prey from each other’s perspective – as a condition for the generation or engenderment of new bodies. In this sense, alliance, replacing auto-relation by relation, as effected through the (perhaps post facto) ‘observance’ of the incest taboo, realizes true exogamy. True exogamy (pure relation, that is, no identity), on the other hand, converts into alliance (human kinship) as long as identification is successfully achieved, and the partners are revealed as human to each other, as ‘already’ kin. This too is showed in the body: in the new body that is made kin of its parents and makes its parents (grandparents and so on) kin to each other, a consanguineal identity evidenced by the mutual affection of those unrelated as the same body. In this sense, alliance, as effected through the observation (perhaps post facto) of the true endogamy rule, realizes incest. What I call ‘true exogamy’ is the same thing Viveiros de Castro has in mind when he refers to that ‘alliance with the non-human that defines the intensive conditions of the system in Amazonia’ (Viveiros de Castro 2010:243). As he says: This is why incest has an intrinsic ‘affinity’ to trans-specific unions: hyperexogamy and hyper-endogamy flow into each other in the intensive world

Marcela Coelho de Souza


of myth, the conditioning world of fluent difference that accompanies the actual world as its virtual counterpart. (ibid.)15

Kinship and humanity may be ideally coextensive in Amazonia, but what this means is that they will be forever under-determining each other. From this vantage point we can look at the Kĩsêdjê true endogamy ruling again.

The invention of rules

Things have been changing for the Kĩsêdjê for some time – for ever, of course. It could be said that ‘social change’ is all they know. Their mythic traditions are all about ‘moving’ (Coelho de Souza 2011). They have, all along, married people of doubtful humanity, confident that kinship would make them human enough – and that has worked fairly well, most of the time. When it did not, and those others remained wild and intractable enemies, they could be killed – the same destiny reserved for those who, although born of a Kĩsêdjê mother and father, suddenly revealed themselves to be more than human, like those wajanga whose animal powers and affinities would make them unable to recognize their human kin and act like one. So, why stop now – or here, before this people they call khupë ká txi (‘others-skin-big’, ‘people with big skins’), whose powers provoke so much interest (and intrigue) among them? My question is close to the one posed by Vilaça (2000) regarding the Wari’ who, facing a comparable situation, take a similar stand: although they say they have become whites, acquiring a (second) white body that enables them to be Wari’ and white simultaneously (or in alternation), they refuse to marry whites and ‘complete’ the process’ (ibid.:69). The Kĩsêdjê, without normally saying that they have become whites, do make similar assertions when comparing their life today with that of their grandparents. They deny it strongly, on the other hand, when contrasting their way of life with that of peoples or persons who do not live off their own land and forest, and wander instead in the cities. If they say marrying whites is of course possible, but then you would have to leave, it is perhaps because, like the Wari’, they want to ‘preserve the difference’ (ibid.:69) between their bodies and a white body, to prevent a complete transformation that would change them into whites. But why do this through an eviction edict? Regarding kinship, the evils of becoming white have, it seems, already happened (as I said at the beginning). How come? Other Amazonians seem 15 ‘[A] kind of alliance that is so foreign and hostile to filiation that it necessarily takes the position of incest (the man-animal always has a relation to incest)’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:540 ff.21).

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able to marry whites and still ‘preserve difference’, so why do the Kĩsêdjê – who have not married whites in any significant extent so far – think they could not? I want to suggest the Kĩsêdjê fear not kinship with whites, but the end of kinship. Marrying whites would not so much transform Kĩsêdjê into white people by (mutual or one-way) assimilation, as it would destroy the kinship differentiation by means of which the Kĩsêdjê produce themselves. This is because whites are incapable of kinship, that is, of proper differentiation. If allowed to invade their lands, they would wipe kinship out. And are they not already doing so, if not through the strength of their blood, certainly through the strength of their culture? Perhaps it is happening already, with too much or too little kinship making it difficult for people to know their differences and relate through them appropriately. One result is that, in the village, there seems to be too much and no kinship at the same time. As protocols for differentiating relations, for ‘cutting the flow’, fall into disuse, people get to be called by name (instead of kinship terms) and are then like brother and sister or not related at all. Marriage becomes difficult either way. What has to be found is a way to energize kinship ‘again’. Kĩsêdjê kinship, as I have tried to show elsewhere for Gê societies in general (Coelho de Souza 2012), hinged on the delicate articulation of marriage, naming relations and formal friendship as coordinate ways of making and unmaking identities (bodily differences) and relations. Ritual was of course an important part of this since (male) naming relations and formal friendship are above all ‘ritual relations’, in the sense of being performed specially in ritual contexts. Shamanism was, however, no less important. Me katwân kêrê and wajanga (the latter as killers of kin, but also in their more ‘positive’ function as attractors of enemies) were after all respectively the sources of animal music and enemy bodies. It was, and regarding music still is to a degree, through them that men (and women) were made as such. I have already (all too briefly) suggested how these two figures face the Kĩsêdjê in a double encompassment of the dualities, ‘internal’ and ‘external’, that define them as humans – that is, as persons whose non-animal bodies (whose bodies were de-animalized through the work of kinship) ‘fix’ or ground their souls as that internal difference without which there is no life. So we may infer that, as these figures are refigured, so is kinship, and vice versa. Specifically, what I want to suggest is a possible connection between the new endogamy ruling, the ‘disappearance’ of wajanga (and war, and warriors), and the emergence of a new class of ‘specialists’ (those Kĩsêdjê who speak Portuguese, have money and are respected by whites). It seems to me that this last grouping is related to the wajanga. The acquisition of a ‘white body’ (through food, clothing, ‘education’, language and so on) as a mode of access to the whites’ perspective has been already


Marcela Coelho de Souza

compared to shamanism for other Amazonian peoples. This ‘second body’ has a very specific form, and augments the person’s capabilities to a great extent. It is strong: the strength of white blood; the strength of white culture.16 It also, as we saw, interferes with kinship – it blocks the person’s ability to recognize kin. But it is related to the me katwân kêrê too: as someone who ‘has lost his soul’ and in this half absence is able to bring back from his wanderings powerful resources (being not so powerful himself ). If these figures lose their contours and seem to combine in one in the case of the ‘white shaman’, this is part of a more general trend that perhaps began when the wajanga started to disappear. As the warrior’s and wajanga’s days are over, enemies and animals who used to take the life of the Kĩsêdjê and to have their own lives taken by them seem to be partially replaced by other players. But for the white body to become the prototypical ‘other’ body (other genera) for the Kĩsêdjê (in place of the animal body), to marry whites had to be equated to ‘death’ – to death at the hands of the enemy. So perhaps what is in question here is not a decision to ‘control’ transformation, to draw a line or to put a limit on it whatsoever. What they want to do is something different. The difference in question – between a Kĩsêdjê and a white body – is, after all, one that has to be ‘made’: for the one that is ‘given’ is not ‘between’ bodies but is ‘in’ anybody as that which the body is not (soul). The latter is difference that may be occluded by the body, made invisible by its opacity (Viveiros de Castro 2002:419–20), but being a perspective on it (as it is a perspective on the soul; Stolze Lima 2002), it can never be entirely consumed – in life. So, consummation of a transformation is a very dangerous thing indeed, of course, but if marriage and kinship were really capable of this, Kĩsêdjê kinship and marriage would have been finished off a long time ago. If this – the end of kinship – looks like a real risk today, it is because of the power of contagion of a blood and a culture that work against kinship, that compromise the differentiation and undermine the particularization of difference that kinship is all about. Too much and no kinship at the same time. Against this, whites must be ‘made’ different again, so their body may still appear as the ‘other’ body your soul could become, that ‘other’ body you need to take your soul from you – such as when a person goes away to make kinship somewhere else (as the chief ’s soul was tempted to). And this is why they say you must do this (go away, become other), according to the ruling, if you want to marry a white person. Despite appearances – the solemn ruling and all – the point is not to make marriage and kinship with whites an impossibility (even if they do believe 16 On the equation of culture or tradition to ‘physiology’ for Amazonians, see Vilaça (2000).

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kinship is an impossibility for whites), that is, to prohibit it (‘if the person wants to do it, he/she will do it; nobody can say anything’). The point of the eviction edict – a death sentence in a way – is to make known the implications of such a thing, and to anticipate its effects. Supposing (true) exogamy and incest, as the bounding conditions of Kĩsêdjê kinship, were previously deflected into some sort of ‘semi-complex alliance structure’ (Coelho de Souza 2012), that mode seems to be loosing its impetus and this may be forcing the Kĩsêdjê into a reversal that would allow them to properly differentiate themselves again, focusing on that previously taken-for-granted endogamy and making a rule out of it so it may be turned into a ‘true’ one. The perception that whites are incapable of kinship – of behaving like humans – is not, per se, sufficient cause for refusing them, for what counts as proper human behaviour (kinship behaviour) is becoming a little uncertain for the Kĩsêdjê. So, the incapacity of whites for kinship has to be underlined and put to work, by making marriage with whites equal to kinship with ‘others’; had you any doubt, the eviction edict is there to prove it, after the fact as it were. Perhaps the ‘white shaman’ needs the companion figure of the renegade to reinstate kinship as a way for the Kĩsêdjê of knowing themselves as human, as there is no way of knowing how human a person is but for the kinship he or she is capable of.


Research among the Kĩsêdjê from 2004 to 2005 was funded by CNPQ/ Fapesp (through the collective research project ‘Transformações indígenas: os regimes de subjetivação ameríndia a prova da história’ at the Museu Nacional, UFRJ). Research in 2006 was funded by the Wenner-Gren foundation through a post-doctoral research grant (Gr. 7355). From 2007, it has been supported by FINATEC/UnB, the Ford Foundation (through the collective research project ‘Effects of Intellectual and Cultural Rights Protection on Traditional People and Traditional Knowledge: Case Studies in Brazil’) and CNPq.


Carneiro da Cunha, M. 1978. Os mortos e os outros: uma análise do sistema funerário e da noção de pessoa entre os índios Krahó. São Paulo: Hucitec. Coelho de Souza, M.S. 2004. ‘Parentes de sangue: incesto, substância e relação no pensamento Timbira’. Mana 10(1):25–60. ——— 2006. ‘Blood kin: incest, substance and relation in Timbira thought’. Mana 1. ——— 2010. ‘A vida material das coisas intangíveis’. In Conhecimento e cultura: práticas de transformação no mundo indígena, (eds.) E.C. Lima and M.S. Coelho de Souza, pp. 97–118. Brasilia: Athalaia Editora

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——— 2011. ‘Intangible land: how the Kĩsêdjê (e)value(te) relationships’. Paper presented at the symposium ‘The Value of the Land’, Instituto de Ciências Sociais, Lisbon, 28–30 September. ——— 2012. ‘The making and unmaking of “Crow/Omaha” kinship in central Brazil(ian ethnology)’. In Crow-Omaha: New Light on a Classic Problem of Kinship Analysis, (eds.) T.R. Trautmann and P.M. Whiteley, pp. 205–22. Tucson: University of Arizona Press Crocker, W.H. 1990. The Canela (Eastern Timbira): An Ethnographic Introduction. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. DaMatta, R. 1979. ‘The Apinayé relationship system: terminology and ideology’. In Dialectical Societies: The Gê and Bororo of Central Brazil, (ed.) David Maybury-Lewis, pp. 46–82. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. 1977 [1972]. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia  (trans. R. Hurley, M. Seem and H.R. Lane). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ——— 1987 [1980]. A Thousand Plateaux: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (trans. B. Massumi). Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press. Fisher, W. 1991. Dualism and its Discontents: Social Process and Village Fissioning among the Xicrin-Kayapó of Central Brazil. Ph.D. Thesis, Cornell University Gow, P. 1997. ‘O parentesco como consciência humana’. Mana 3(2):39–66. Ladeira, M.E. 1982. A troca de nomes e a troca de cônjuges: uma contribuição ao estudo do parentesco timbira. Master's dissertation, University of São Paulo. Lévi-Strauss, C. 1969. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Boston: Beacon Press. Lukesh, A. 1976 [1969]. Mito e Vida dos Índios Cayapós. São Paulo: Livraria Pioneira Editora. Maybury-Lewis, D. 1967. Akwe-Shavante Society. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Melatti, J.C. 1979. ‘The relationship system of the Krahó’. In Dialectical Societies: The Gê and Bororo of Central Brazil, (ed.) D. Maybury-Lewis, pp. 46–82. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Mimica, J. 1991. ‘The incest passions: an outline of the logic of Iqwaye social organization (parts 1 and 2)’. Oceania 62:34–58, 81–113. Schneider, D.M. and Boon, J.A. 1974. ‘Kinship vis-à-vis myth: contrasts in LéviStrauss’ approaches to cross-cultural comparison’. American Anthropologist 76(4):799–817. Seeger, A. 1980. ‘A identidade étnica como processo: os índios suyá e as sociedades do Alto Xingu’. Anuário Antropológico 78:156–75. Stolze Lima, T. 2002. ‘O que é um corpo?’ Religião e Sociedade 22(1):9–20. Taylor, A.-C. 2001. ‘Wives, pets and affines: marriage among the Jivaro’. In Beyond the Visible and the Material: The Ameriandianization of Society in the Work of Peter Rivière, (eds.) L.M. Rival and N.L. Whitehead, pp. 45–56. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Vilaça, A. 2000. ‘O que significa tornar-se outro? Xamanismo e contato interétnico na Amazônia’. Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais 15(44):56–72. ——— 2002. ‘Making kin out of others in Amazonia’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 8(2):347–65. Viveiros de Castro, E.B. 2001. ‘GUT feelings about Amazonia: potential affinity and the construction of sociality’. In Beyond the Visible and the Material: The Ameriandianization of Society in the Work of Peter Rivière, (eds.) L.M. Rival and N.L. Whitehead, pp. 19–44. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ––––– 2002. A Inconstância da Alma Selvagem e outros ensaios de antropologia. São Paulo: CosacNaify ——— 2009. ‘The gift and the given: three nano-essays on kinship and magic’. In Kinship and Beyond: The Genealogical Model Reconsidered, (eds.) S. Bamford and J. Leach, pp. 237–68. Oxford: Berghahn Books. ——— 2010. ‘Intensive filiation and demonic alliance’. In Deleuzian Intersections: Science, Technology, Anthropology, (eds.) C.B. Jensen and K. Rödje, pp. 219–53. Oxford: Berghahn Books. Wagner, R. 1972. ‘Incest and identity: a critique and theory on the subject of exogamy and incest prohibition’. Man 7(4):601–13. ——— 1981 [1975]. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 2001. An Anthropology of the Subject: Holographic Worldview in New Guinea and its Meaning and Significance for the World of Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press. ——— 2011. ‘The chess of kinship and the kinship of chess’. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1(1):166–77.

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The curse of Souw among the Amazonian Enawenê-nawê  Chloe Nahum-Claudel

Reading The Curse of Souw in Amazonia

As a student of anthropology, reading Roy Wagner’s books was as I imagined fieldwork and data interpretation to be: an experience of serial estrangements and intellectual puzzlement both frustrating and enticing. I was inspired to become an ethnographer by Wagner’s proposition, which is anthropology’s fundamental one in my view, that ‘our invention of other cultures must aim to reproduce the way those cultures invent themselves’ (Wagner 1981:30). Rather than dissect, order and systematize, sharing lives with others allows us to experience our subject matter as alternative meaning. It is particularly apt to reflect on this lofty ambition when our subject matter is central Brazilian kinship, renowned for its fiendish dialectical complexity and apt to bring out the ethnographer’s inner logician (e.g. Lévi-Strauss 1963; Maybury-Lewis 1979, 2009). The Curse of Souw (Wagner 1967) was written when Wagner was still worrying through his field data, engaging with his supervisor David Schneider’s critiques of kinship theory and grappling with Lévi-Strauss’s alliance theory on his own terms. Who knows but that the processual, dialectical cast of Wagner’s thinking, which would make a decisive mark on general anthropology through the Invention of Culture, was not forged through an immersion in Daribi kinship dynamics on Mount Karimui? I re-read The Curse of Souw in 2008, upon return from my first stint of fieldwork with the Enawenê-nawê (henceforth Enawenê), a now nearly 1,000-strong Arawakan-speaking people who live in a single village in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state, where the forest meets the savanna. During the first months of this research I had been fascinated by the lifelong special relationship inaugurated between pairs of parents when they betrothed


Chloe Nahum-Claudel

their children to one another, sometimes just days after birth. This betrothal relationship seemed to be the major expression of affinity in Enawenê life. I could find little about infant betrothal in the Amazonian literature, which abounded with discussions of sister exchange, symbolically weighty brotherin-law relationships and politicized relations between fathers-in-law and sons-in-law, along with a major emphasis on metaphysical affines – enemies, animals and spirits.1 Furthermore, among the Enawenê, it was women who initiated betrothal relationships, which subsequently developed as cross-sex relations between two couples, whereas in the literature affinity was presented as symbolically male (like hunting and politics). Women supposedly cookedup familiarity and consanguinity.2 I privilege a counter-intuitive axis of comparison between a faraway Melanesian society and the Amazonian Enawenê for one reason above all: there has been very little discussion of the role of exchange in kinship and broader social dynamics in Amazonia. In a recent article, Hugh-Jones (2013) has charted the history of the ‘absent gift’ in Amazonia, critiquing a certain wilful blindness to the potential gift-like quality of exchanges of food and goods among peoples in the region. Hugh-Jones argues that transactions involving food have been subsumed under the rubric of the subsistence economy in Amazonia or under the banner of nurturance, sharing and the creation of consanguineal kinship. Discussion of exchange has been limited, on the one hand to the domain of trade relations with strangers, which are taken to belong to an extra-social sphere, and on the other hand to the symmetrical exchange of women in marriage. At the extreme it has been asserted that things cannot stand in for persons in Amazonia (e.g. Descola 2001; McCallum 1989) as they famously do in Melanesian gift economies. Hugh-Jones argues that this popular denial of the existence of exchanges of wealth in Amazonia has been detrimental to our understanding of central Brazilian and northwest Amazonian societies in particular.3 Enawenê social organization bears resemblance to a subset of Gê-speaking groups (the northern Gê), who live in populous circular villages, practise uxorilocal residence and have an elaborate system of ceremonial relationships. Among these peoples exchanges 1

2 3

The picture I sweepingly portray here is less a reflection of the literature in its actual existing variability, and more a caricature of a version of Amazonian kinship that served as the springboard for theorizations of the central place of alterity in Amerindian life (Viveiros de Castro 1995, 2001; Viveiros de Castro and Fausto 1993). Descola (1994, 2001) states this position most clearly. Hugh-Jones partially addressed this lacunae in a Strathernian reanalysis of northwest Amazonian exchange feasts (Hugh-Jones 2001).

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of services, food and goods between affines have been documented but are scarcely commented on.4 Wagner’s work provided me with the missing analytical inspiration. I remembered the Daribi saying, ‘To look at one’s mother-in-law is like looking at the sun’ (Wagner 1967:173), and Wagner’s explanation that the purpose of what he called the ‘affinal interdict’, and the exchanges it set in motion, were to cancel any ordinary familiarity between parties to a betrothal in order to constitute them as non-kin. Wagner made the bold claim that the ban on contact between a man and his mother-in-law, which inaugurated the flow of vital wealth between the two kindreds, was the generative starting point of all kinship (Wagner 1977). The Daribi, like the Enawenê, held an ideal of marrying non-kin and a simultaneous ideal of endogamy. As Gell (1975:40– 110) brilliantly exemplified for the Umeda, if previous marriages could not be repeated, then logically the social field would quickly become saturated, leaving no one left to marry (hence the ubiquitous worry about a scarcity of potential spouses, which the Enawenê share). Transforming kin into nonrelatives is a practical necessity in this kind of kinship system. But Wagner’s claim was more profound than pragmatic. In subsequent articles, the Daribi data would inspire a paradigm shift in kinship studies, a shift that amounted to a realization of the radical implication of Lévi-Strauss’s alliance theory, as the following quotations make clear. The essence of ‘kinship’ is restriction, and the opposite of ‘kinship’ is therefore total, unrestricted analogy, or (in its behavioural aspect) complete familiarity and lack of constraint. The core of any regime of kin relationship is, therefore, the set of affinal relations (as implied, for instance, in LeviStrauss 1969) which is also its (generative) beginning point. 


(Wagner 1977:639)

DaMatta describes the transformational dynamism of Apinayé kinship in familiar terms, ‘as a process that is constantly transforming strangers into relatives, nonrelatives into affines, and false relatives into true ones’ (DaMatta 1982:113). However, while DaMatta focused on the conversion of affines into consanguines, he was less attentive to the active process of differentiation involving the combination of avoidance and specific exchange practices (see Coelho de Souza 2004). For example, DaMatta notes that gigantic meat pies pass frequently between affinal parties (DaMatta 1982:123–4). Crocker and Melatti reported similar, apparently gift-like exchanges, between affines among the Canela and Krahó respectively (Crocker 1990:260; Melatti 1979:62–4). None of these authors goes beyond the documentation to explore the role of exchange in social process.

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[I]t is for precisely this reason that man’s obligation and moral duty is to differentiate, and to differentiate properly. For if the appropriate distinctions are drawn, and the proper modes of avoidance, respect, deference, and even burlesque are observed, then the resulting ‘flow’ of similarity will be realized, perceived as an expression of inner morality. (ibid.:623–4)

In a conservative reading of Lévi-Strauss’s alliance theory, membership of a segment was given by birth, by the unilineal descent rule, and the bonds between units were those of exchange. As Viveiros de Castro (2001) and Coelho de Souza (2009) both argue, the theory put forward by LéviStrauss (1969) also has a more radical reading, in which affinity is the logical cause of consanguinity, the social fact prior to the natural bond. As Wagner implies in the above citation, Lévi-Strauss provided the seed of a challenge to the conception of society as an artificial creation designed to join together naturally existing individuals and groups; but whereas Lévi-Strauss’s work invites contradictory readings, in Wagner’s work (Wagner 1972, 1974, 1977) the seed germinates, and only the radical ‘constructivist’ reading remains possible: exchange founds life and subjectivity. In the Daribi model, consanguinity relates people across patriclan boundaries, and exchange becomes the means by which porous, shifting clan boundaries are constantly regenerated. For example, recruitment payments of male goods like pigs, pearl shells, axes and headdresses, are made by the child’s father to his wife’s kin to attach a Daribi child to its paternal clan and neutralize the hold that the maternal kin have over the child. This hold, manifest in the power to curse which gives Wagner’s book its title, inheres in all bonds of substance. Thus bridewealth, recruitment payments and efforts to hold off sorcery and possession are all expressions of a common regime in which ‘reciprocity consists in the substitution of items of wealth for living persons, under circumstances where an external influence or claim bears on these persons’ (Wagner 1967:143). Wagner makes it beautifully clear that exchange cannot only be understood functionally, in terms of the working of social structure (for example, attaching a child to a clan) but is more profoundly the means by which clans continually augment and sustain their vitality (ibid.:68). The Daribi kinship dynamic is dialectical because while the affinal interdict separates two lines, cancelling the kinship bonds of the past, it does so in order to create a fresh alliance which engenders children in whom the substance of the two lines are mixed (ibid.:185). With every child born to a union, the alliance bond between two clans is made incarnate, re-relating them. Concretely, the more children a man has, the stronger his relationship with his wife’s brother grows by virtue of their continuing exchanges. Through

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this simultaneous intensification of exchange and the mixture of their clans’ respective substance in common children, the two lines comingle even as they perform their distinctiveness. These countervailing processes of interdiction and comingling make sense only over time (at the scale of human life cycles) as they are worked out through a kind of micro-politics of behavioural codes, gifting and terminological shift. Let us turn now to direct points of comparison between the Daribi and the Enawenê. For the Enawenê, as for Daribi, marriage should be made with non-kin, people with whom existing ties have become distant enough that they may become affines. In his precise, computational analysis of Enawenê genealogical data, Silva (2012:204) has shown that the Enawenê de facto do not marry into the clans of their father, mother or either grandparent. Alliances made in the generations in living memory are not repeated. As among Daribi, there is nothing like a positive marriage rule, so that the relationship terminology is no guide to the choice of a child’s future spouse: classificatory sisters, aunts and mothers may all become a woman’s betrothal partners. What is important is the transformation of relations that betrothal initiates and the evolution of betrothal partnerships over time.

The life-cycle of infant betrothal

It is the mothers of baby girls who inaugurate betrothals by making overtures to a baby boy’s parents. I saw a mother of a recently born girl take corn seed to a woman who had given birth to a boy the previous day. Corn is the basis of the postpartum diet so the gift was an act of nurturance. A regular flow of corn and manioc-based foods followed this initial gesture. Eventually, the boy’s father would open a manioc garden for the girl’s mother. As one man explained to me, gardens are ‘like white people’s contracts and documents’. Once a garden is opened, the betrothal is firmly established and it is considered foul play for other women to make overtures for the boy (a situation which occurs nonetheless). A woman’s betrothal partner periodically brings her part of his catch when he goes fishing, chops firewood for her and arrives at her front door with foods he has received during inter-clan distributions. The stream of cooked food and drink he receives from his female betrothal partner both entices him to these labours on her and her daughters’ behalf, and reciprocates for them. As among Daribi, these gendered reciprocal exchanges replace ordinary modalities of communication. The two sets of parents cease to utter one another’s names in reference and address. When I asked why (only an


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anthropologist would need to ask), they said they were ‘ashamed’ before one another.5 Self-conscious attitudes of respect and avoidance are often mentioned by ethnographers of central Brazilian societies; their definitions will help us steer away from the connotations of dishonour, guilt and disgrace that ‘shame’ carries in English. Carneiro da Cunha glossed the Krahó term as combining qualities of shyness, reserve, self-control, observance of etiquette and social distance (cited in Coelho de Souza 2004:30). Crocker (1990:181) noted that Canela children were not expected to have shame, which they developed in adolescence, allowing it to wane in old age. Coelho de Souza (2004:32) shows that this ensemble of native concepts have in common a fundamental analogy between verbal and sexual continence: where voices, contact and bodily substances cease to be shared, formalized interactions and exchanges of foods and services come to the fore. It follows that shame is a matter for people in their fertile years. Several Enawenê men told me that a female betrothal partner had once been a lover but that their intimacy had had to stop abruptly once their wives initiated betrothal exchanges. For Enawenê people, shame seems to be fundamentally related to the denial of sexual relationships precisely when these are a potential. In the context of betrothal relations, we could say that shame marks the deliberate deferral of a generative potential in preparation for a fertile relationship in the next generation. By exchanging acts of nurturance, betrothal partners create this potential. Ideally each couple will lose a son and gain a son-in-law, so that what is described as ‘direct sister exchange’ in the kinship literature (and is a very common practice in Amazonia), is conceived by Enawenê people as an exchange of sons between uxorilocal households. As a couple loses a son, they gain a son-in-law under their roof. Enawenê people say that it is good to have two hand fulls of children (that is, ten) of alternating gender (see Silva 2012). If everyone achieved this it would be easy to match one’s consecutively born daughter and son, with another couple’s son and daughter. In an imperfect world this is quite a challenge, especially because betrothed children should be very close in age.6 The exchange of a daughter and a son with another couple’s son and daughter is not only an ideal, but is by far the most common practice.7 5 6 7

The term I translate as ‘shame’ because it was translated as vergonha in Portuguese is noyeyale (masc.) or noyeyalo (fem.). About 80 per cent of Enawene couples have an age gap of under four years (Silva 2012:86–7). Based on the computational analysis of 170 marriages, Silva has shown that 59 per cent of marriages involve the repetition by a male ego of an alliance made through his sister. Taking the female ego’s viewpoint, 51 per cent repeat an alliance made

The curse of Souw among the Amazonian Enawenê-nawê


What all of this implies is that the pattern of betrothal reciprocities (garden food and drink for gardens, fish and firewood) is unique for each child and may be inverted if, as is most common, each couple exchanges a daughter in one direction and a son in the other. As we have seen, gifts between girls’ and boys’ parents reflect their gendered origin: female nurturing gifts and services passing from the mother of the girl to the father of her future son-in-law, and male gifts coming back from the father of the boy to the boy’s future motherin-law. Thus in the ideal scenario, each side in the partnership will exchange perspectives, offering female and male goods in turn. Another implication of this alternation is that a second or third child betrothed within a single partnership implies the same intensity of reciprocities as the first. There is no ‘economy of scale’ aimed for in betrothing several children through a single partnership. Each new alliance is an occasion to enjoy further reciprocities. Let me give you a living example. My sister, Menakalose-neto, took a calabash full of the pure boiled milk of strained manioc juice (makerenyali) and a pure manioc starch bread (makehero) to the families of both her betrothed daughters at dawn one day (she had three children at the time; the middle child, a boy, was as yet unbetrothed). These foods are especially favoured by children – the Enawenê equivalent of sugary breakfast cereals. My sister has two sets of betrothal partners, one for her eldest daughter, Menakalose, who was about seven at the time, and the other, more recent, for Otowanero, who was still crawling. She took the food before dawn to avoid embarrassment and exposure, walking quickly by torchlight to each of their houses and placing the drink and bread at the base of their hammock posts before leaving quickly. Such acts are regular and I was always surprised by their exceptional intimacy. Surely it was an extreme breach of avoidance to enter the walled-off family compartment within their long house to place the calabash at the foot of their hammock as they dozed? By taking him breakfast, my sister was nurturing the small boy who would one day come to live with her. She was also reciprocating his father’s past garden work on her behalf, and enticing him to future work. Later that day I bumped into one of the men who had enjoyed my sister’s special breakfast, and I mischievously asked him if he had enjoyed it. His response delighted me. He had just returned from the manioc garden he was clearing for my sister, which was the second garden he had planted for her. While he described this as my sister’s garden, she would refer to it as ‘the garden planted by the through a brother (ibid.:208). Nonetheless, when betrothal partners establish a relationship, if one has two daughters of the appropriate age and the other two sons, this replication is also a decent, and fairly common, compromise (see ibid.:203–4).


Chloe Nahum-Claudel

grandfather of my daughter’s child’ (Menakalose eniyatokwe hetalaiti). This is a literal translation of the teknonym used to address her betrothal partner, which traces their relationship through the anticipated, but as yet unborn, grandchild to whom they will both stand as grandparents. So, even before their relationship is ‘consummated’, if you like, by the birth of a common grandchild, it is founded on the anticipation of future consanguinity.8 The gardens a man plants for his female betrothal partner to harvest are the most important icons of this bond. Whenever my sister Menakalose-neto went to harvest the manioc gardens that Dalokwalse-ene had planted for her, she would take a portion of the porridge-like drink (ketera) made with its harvest to him, usually in the night. When it was his clan’s turn to host during the season of Yankwa, she would go purposely to the garden he had planted for her, taking her sisters along to help harvest four or five baskets of manioc in order to make enough ketera for him to distribute on his clan’s behalf. On her way to the garden she would stop by the back of his house to inform his wife of her purpose, so that the latter knew she could rest that day. Later in the day, in acknowledgement of my sister’s work, Dalokwalse-ene would very likely fell a tree and split the entire trunk into firewood. His wife and her sisters would carry the week’s supply of firewood over in successive armfuls to the back of our house, calling out to my sister that they had done so. Verbal communication is always limited to a few words but a kind of intimacy grows out of this traffic between houses, which is always joyful since people take delight in gestures of largesse. This firewood was food for the raging fire needed to detoxify manioc juice (ketera hainyali), used to make the ketera for Dalokwalse-ene’s clan distribution, but it also far exceeded the quantity needed. Just as my sister had freed Dalokwalse-ene’s wife from her harvesting and cooking routine earlier in the day, so Dalokwalse-ene’s wood chopping freed my sister’s husband from this duty for a few days. The final stage of this sequence of reciprocities would come at 4 a.m. that night when Dalokwalse-ene entered our house to take the full calabashes from my sister’s hands out to the dancers in the central arena, exiting and re-entering our house until all the drink had been distributed, 8 Overing Kaplan (1975:174), working among the Piaroa, was the first to notice the use of teknonyms to emphasize consanguinity and to mask affinal relations in Amazonia. The Enawene’s extreme preference for teknonyms, which exist for most relationship positions, supports Wagner’s insistence on the importance of ‘cross-substance’ ties, which can be thought of as ties of consanguinity by ‘ascent’ rather than ‘descent’ (see Wagner 1967:76). That is, people make claims on one another based on their tie through a common child rather than through a common ancestor.

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and then coming in and out again and again to return the empty calabashes. During the distribution the pair entered the same intimate relationship that they more commonly have with their respective spouses. The betrothal partnership effectively takes the form of a spouse-swap, each party taking over the provisioning work of the other’s spouse, but often doing it in a bigger and better way: when food is deposited at the base of a betrothal partner’s hammock, it is contained in perfect, five-litre calabashes (akin to the fine china of the British) which are filled to brimming and accompanied by whole and perfectly round loaves of manioc bread. Husbands typically get some ketera in a smaller, chipped calabash, along with a piece of torn bread. A woman gets a whole tree as firewood rather than whatever her husband could be bothered to chop that evening. This quasi-conjugal relation is thus also a meta-conjugal one, in so far as it is a reflexive and magnified version of the conjugal bond. It is also proto-conjugal in the sense that the betrothal partnership anticipates the relation that will eventually develop between the betrothed children themselves. I avoid the term ‘marriage’ here because, as elsewhere in Amazonia (e.g. McCallum 2001:61), there is little or no ceremony to the transition; a boy’s hammock is simply taken from his parents’ house and rehung in his wife’s house, where a new sleeping compartment will have been opened for the couple by the wife’s parents. For the following year or two, it will still be his wife’s mother who prepares the drinks, both for his own consumption and for his clan’s distributions. Symmetrically, the boy’s father will help his son open manioc gardens for his wife on a plot adjacent to his own. When the couple have their first child they increasingly assume conjugal duties themselves, the young wife gradually taking on a greater part in cooking for her husband from her mother and elder sisters and beginning to keep her own stores of manioc flour and calabashes. It is at this point that the couple will probably enter into a first betrothal partnership of their own. Thus, it is perhaps the affinal duties they share, as much as the birth of children and their growing intimacy, which solidifies their union. Unions are very rarely broken after the birth of a first child. At this point the couple’s birth names are superseded by teknonyms. For example, my sister was known as Menakalose-neto after her first born daughter Menakalose, and her husband was Menakalose-ene. When they become grandparents, these names will be superseded again. Then they will be known by the name of their first grandchild with the addition of the suffixes –asero (grandmother) and –atokwe (grandfather). This is a name they will share with their former betrothal partners (Dalokwalse-ene and his wife), the shared name standing as an icon of their bond of common consanguinity. So it is when a betrothal has been consummated by the birth of grandchildren


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that formal reciprocities between the betrothal partners cease and their relationship becomes one of familiarity and fondness. That exchange connects even as shame separates is even more explicit if we look at the bond between a man and his co-resident in laws. As well as opening new manioc gardens for his wife, a man should bring fish to his wife’s mother (where before his father did so). As with Daribi gifts of ‘male goods’ like pigs and axes (see Wagner 1967:71), the fish acts as a clan recruitment payment, to establish patriliny against the claims of cognatic relatedness. Enawenê speak of payments made to forget the names of the child. A newborn is named by both its maternal and paternal grandfathers (and often by grandmothers too, in the case of a couple’s first child). Names are clan patrimony, so when children are named after the ancestors of multiple clans their composite identity is asserted.9 By giving fish to his wife’s father and brothers, a man compels them to ‘forget’ the ancestral names they bestowed. In practice, the names bestowed by the mother’s side are used deliberately in the first year or so of a child’s life, and as the fish comes they fall gradually from use. They cease to be uttered decisively when a major catch is formally gifted by the child’s father to his or her maternal grandfather, usually in the child’s toddlerhood.10 Among Daribi we saw that as lines were distinguished by means of horizontal flows of wealth, so bonds of interdependence between two lines grew stronger before they began to wane as the initial interdict weakened. Between a man and his mother’s brother (pagebidi), the tension between separation and attachment was at its height. Among Enawenê, gifts of fish also have this dual dimension since they not only formally separate a child from his maternal clan, but also create a bond of attachment and love between a man and his wife’s parents. Young men cite the drinks that their wives bring to them along with their new wives’ willingness to converse convivially as important factors in increasing their comfort in the new place.11 However, growing conjugal intimacy is not sufficient to allow a young man to overcome his 9 Babies are usually named by their grandfathers, after specific ancestors whose death is distant enough in time for the name’s utterance to have ceased to be painful. On comparable ‘ancestral’ naming practices among Tukano speakers, see Hugh-Jones (2006). 10 Children of single mothers, because they have no one to make these payments, automatically belong to their mother’s clan, and are apprenticed to their clan duties for Yankwa by their maternal grandfather or uncle. According to Silva (2012:90), this accounts for 18 per cent of children. 11 Similar processes of gradual familiarization have been described in many other Amazonian contexts (e.g. Gow 1991; McCallum 2001; Rival 1998; Vilaça 2002).

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reserve. It is the quantities of fish given to his wife’s parents that are decisive. A man’s incorporation into the household of his father and mother-in-law is marked by a change in the term of address. At first a man continues to call his wife’s parents ‘grandfather and grandmother of my child’ (niatokwe, niasero) as he has been doing ever since his betrothal in early childhood. Once name forgetting payments of fish have been made for his first two or three children, these are replaced by the terms for mother’s brother and father’s sister (kokole, kekero) which are well-described by the English word ‘avuncular’; they are laden with affectionate familiarity and have connotations of quasi-parenthood. Men stated outright that gifts of fish enabled this terminological transition. Gifts of fish, as they discharge a claim, create a bond of attachment and love. In the life cycle of Enawenê betrothal, consanguinity (flows of internal substance) is opposed by exchange (flows of externalized substance or vital wealth), generating simultaneously ‘kinning’ and ‘affinizing’ dynamics and incongruous mixtures of avoidance and intimacy.12 The spread of reciprocal betrothals makes the village a mesh of alliances, with ‘knots’ within it, since each couple has particularly strong bonds of alliance to some others. For example in 2008/9, my adoptive mother and father, having betrothed all nine of their children, had waxing or waning betrothal partnerships with five different couples, with whom they had betrothed one, two or three of their brood. The Enawenê’s self-made historical destiny has been to sustain distinct lines of substance (patrilineal clans) as the pretext for expansive interrelationship. This again resembles Wagner’s description of the Daribi: as a whole, the groups which seem as if they had been imposed on this great human gridwork are interknit again and again, for they are made up of nothing but unions. Yet to remain distinct, to define themselves, these groups are obliged perpetually to nullify the compacts, to tear up the treaties, and it is the tension between connection and definition, between freedom and boundedness seen here, which … is repeated again and again in the religious, domestic, and political aspects of Daribi life. 

(Wagner 1967:92)

Taking the interconnectedness of the religious, domestic and political as my cue, I shall now turn to Yankwa, a form of ceremonialism which stages the exchange of substance and identity between clans, and in which the

12 See Stasch (2003) for the best account of ambivalence and ambiguity in affinal relations.

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interpenetration of flows of internal and external substance is dramatically performed and realized.

Affinal diplomacy

Today the Enawenê live in a single village on the Iquê River, in fifteen uxorilocal, extended family houses, which are arranged radially around a central arena. Off-centre, at the western end of the arena, is the flute house, which shelters the flutes belonging to the nine patrilineal clans. Today’s clans were once territorially and culturally distinct peoples who married endogamously. One by one, they are said to have fled attack to come together in a single village. The flute house is subdivided so that the flutes of a clan are positioned to index these distinct origins (for example, the clans said to be of the forest and the smaller headwaters have their flutes at the west side, with the setting sun). Clansmen, unlike their flutes, live dispersed throughout the circle of dwellings, in the houses of their wives, fathers-in-law, friends and allies. So at the origin of the Enawenê’s village polity, it was established that clansmen’s flutes would reside together but that clansmen would not. Each incomer is said to have been invited to enter a different house, where each gave a feather headdress as a gift to the owner of that house, to compensate for the heavy work of house-building. The decision that in order to live together, clansmen would have to live among their affines amounts to an inaugural act of affinal diplomacy. During a season called Yankwa, when a clan’s flutes are played to accompany the planting and harvest of their manioc gardens and communal dam-fishing expeditions undertaken on their behalf, the village arena plays court to an elaboration of this founding principle (see also Nahum-Claudel 2018:chapter 4). Yankwa hinges on a relational dyad: while one clan hosts and is said to be ‘the owner of Yankwa’, the remaining eight clans are mixed together and work, drink, sing, dance, play flutes and fish for the hosts. Hosts provision them with food and drinks, and watch and listen. We have to invert common-sense notions of clan corporateness here, as Crocker noted for the Bororo many years ago: the crucial point is that never do the members of a clan act out the representation of their own aroe [soul or name]. Instead, they invite members of clans in the other moiety to be such actors, and they paint and ornament them. 

(Crocker 1977:136)

Drinkers are differentiated from servers, performers from audience, and worker from owner, so that there is a consistent principle of surrogacy at work.

The curse of Souw among the Amazonian Enawenê-nawê


The eight clans who at any one time oppose the hosts and work for them are referred to as ‘Yankwa’, and their clan affiliation is irrelevant. This dynamic is best exemplified if we look at the planting of collective gardens through which hosts are made. Once a huge tract of land has been cleared, Yankwa’s leaders take charge of dividing the clan’s plot into sections; one for each of its male and female members.13 Manioc is clonally propagated by replanting the stem of mature plants. In order to make a ‘new’ garden, Yankwa must therefore cut stems from existing plantations. Playing the flutes of the host clan, a band of men goes on a raid to get manioc stems from the gardens of each of the host clansmen. Whereas the men of a clan have their own plots, which they have planted together with their wives, when they become hosts, all the stems from these separate gardens are brought together to reconstruct clan unity in one plot. Prior to planting, Yankwa’s leaders have subdivided the huge plot into transects to account for each clan member in order of seniority. Because the manioc is the host men’s own, and because of the ordered nature of the garden, the garden can justifiably be conceived of as the vegetal realization of the clan as an ordered and self-perpetuating entity. Crucially, this ‘corporateness’ has nothing at all to do with the bodies or efforts of the hosts themselves; rather, it is brought into being by the sweat of Yankwa, whose exertions constitute and magnify the hosting clan. We could say that the hosts are literally ‘planted’ in the garden by Yankwa, not only because the layout and expanse of the garden reflects clan structure and size, and because the manioc is men’s own, but also in the sense that the garden is the ground and condition of their public recognition as a clan. From this garden come the drinks served to Yankwa’s dancers as they play the host clan’s flutes and utter their ancestral names. In 2013 I went along with one of the senior men of Kayroli clan to see the vast new garden that had very recently been planted for his clan so that they could host Yankwa’s 2014/15 season. He emphasized to me that the garden was Yankwa, because it belonged to all, the whole ‘community’ together, and not just to his own clan. He said the garden was the ‘community’, using the Portuguese word to ensure I understood. The scalar shift between the single clan and the whole community is intuitive to Enawenê people. This is evident in the polysemy of ‘Yankwa’ which can be used to mean ‘a clan’ in the singular; 13 During Yankwa, women generally work for the clans of their affines (husbands, sons-in-law, betrothal partners) but in each clan there are a few women who received specific names upon birth that give them a special ceremonial role. These women host alongside their brothers and fathers in addition to their affinal obligations.


Chloe Nahum-Claudel

all the clans who oppose the hosts together; ‘the ritual’ in the reified sense; and ‘the whole community’. In order to make sense of this we must turn to the drinking of the harvest of Yankwa’s garden from April through to June, when Yankwa (the eight clans who oppose the hosts) dance until the garden’s crop has been exhausted. The predawn drinking of the porridge-like drink ketera is a nightly routine. At about 3 or 4 a.m., the hosts light fires in the arena and then a single flute, sounded by one of Yankwa’s leaders, invites men to awaken. Men come from all around the dwelling circle to the flute house. Once dressed in their ceremonial garb they take up their flutes and their place at one of the three or four fires just lit by the hosts. The hearths are set aflame as an invitation for Yankwa to emerge and they are continuously stoked by the hosts; once the dancing, flute playing and singing are established, women associated with the host clan (wives or betrothal partners) awake and stir their pans of ketera. Women fill large calabashes with the warm, thick, sweet drink and hosts take them out to Yankwa in the central arena. When a host hands a calabash to a dancer he says, ‘here is the drink from your own hand’ (noaka hewesekwointale) and the dancer takes the drink held out to him. I take this highly metaphorical formal address to reference the fact that the host himself had literally ‘no hand’ in planting or tending the manioc which he now offers, as well as a reference to the spirits who are the manioc’s true owners and which are incarnated in the plant’s five-fingered leaves. The fundament of this address is the displacement of agency from the host-owner who gives to the affine-spirit who receives. The drinks that hosts serve are made by consanguineal ‘knots’ of women (sisters, mother and daughters together) whose work ‘for Yankwa’ dominates the common area in the fifteen houses around the dwelling circle throughout the day. Here too there is a principle of surrogacy at work, since women usually work not for their own clan but for clans to whom they are affinally related. On any one day, a woman works with her sisters, mother and daughters, and for any one of their husbands or future husbands. In the house in which I lived, the five sisters who formed a work party most days were affinally related to all nine clans, reflecting the tendency to spread betrothal alliances, so that all clans are constantly interwoven. Because women work ‘for Yankwa’ as they constantly emphasize, rarely harvesting manioc purely for household consumption, the house becomes a knot of productive effort because it is a node of widespread affinity. Each knot of four or five women makes a 125 litre pan of ketera when they have a hosting obligation; this was the conventional amount said to ‘go around’ the village in 2008/9. Throughout the village as a whole, about ten such pans of ketera are served during each night’s distribution, amounting to

The curse of Souw among the Amazonian Enawenê-nawê


a daily circulation of over 1,000 litres of ketera, and representing the labour of about forty women (more than half the adult female population in 2008/9). This sheer quantity allows me to emphasize the point that producing plenty on behalf of a clan, just like bringing together a multitude of people to dance in the arena, is achieved by the distribution of efforts among many separate knots of women or clansmen, who are distributed all around the dwelling circle.

The mundane motion of calabashes

The fundamental dynamic I have been describing between containment and extension, between ownership and circulation, and between the dwelling circle and the arena, is made visible by the motion of calabashes each night. Hosts carry two to four calabashes at a time out to Yankwa; they leave with full hands and return with empty ones, to-ing and fro-ing many times until there are nothing but sticky remains in the bottom of the pan. When the ketera comes, the dancers break their song to sit on the logs that jut out from the hearths to drink and banter. As more and more full calabashes are brought out by the hosts, a collection of them gathers at each dancer’s feet as they drink from only one. When they have drunk their fill, the dancers ferry these back to their wives or their female betrothal partners, who pour the ketera into a clean pan and hand the calabashes back. The dancers carry them back into the arena and hand the dirty calabashes back to whichever host is nearby. The host will turn on his heels to re-enter his house (or that of his betrothal partner) and hand the empty containers back to the woman who made his drink. Figure 10.1 is a diagrammatic representation of the movement of calabashes during a night on which Aweresese clan hosted Yankwa in 2009. The points in the dwelling circle represent host clan members accurately and thus the provenance of the ketera. A solid line represents a full calabash and a dotted line an empty one. Without attaching a tracking device to every calabash it would have been impossible to trace where the thirty or so calabashes taken out by each host went, so the points in the centre represent Yankwa’s dancers in an idealized way. In reality there would usually be many more dancers than are represented and ten times the number of calabashes figured here. At the time, men of Aweresese clan lived in ten of the fifteen houses of the dwelling circle so that on any one night, ketera was brought out from all around the dwelling circle into to the arena. Since all the dancers, the men of eight clans, receive, ketera re-enters all fifteen of the houses to be drunk by all the inhabitants of each one. Imagine the flurry of calabashes and men, crisscrossing back and forth in the movement from dance arena to dwelling place and back again. Yankwa’s dancers cannot keep track of which calabash came from which host, so that each host returns a mixture of calabashes to their

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226 5


6 3 7

2 8


15 9 14 10 13 11


Figure 10.1  The to and fro of calabashes during Yankwa.

wife or betrothal partner. These have to be redistributed so that each woman is once again in possession of her own bundle of calabashes. Before dawn, after the men have drunk their fill and when Yankwa’s flute playing and singing is at its greatest intensity, each woman who made ketera that night goes around the edge of the arena carrying bundles of miscellaneous calabashes. She enters each house from which ketera has emerged that night, puts her bundles down for the women there to examine, and identifies her own from those on the ground in each host’s place. She then moves to the next house with her newly configured bundle. Since all the women do this at once, a knot of women forms, ‘doing the rounds’ together (see Figure 10.2). This nightly calabash round provides a concrete image: the dwelling circle turns around the dancers, like a wheel turning on its axis, its spokes made up of men and calabashes, and the energetic momentum provided by the women whose harvesting, cooking, calabashes and drinks are the medium of

The curse of Souw among the Amazonian Enawenê-nawê


Figure 10.2  A knot of women stop to inspect calabashes outside a house. In the

background a line of women with calabashes walk between houses

around the edge of the arena. (I took this photograph during an exceptional daylight calabash round.)

their interrelationship. The village wheel is put into motion by the circulation of substances between people. The circuits set into motion by this nightly ketera drinking realize fundamental principles of relationality. The destiny of the calabashes, like people, is both to be bundled up inside dwelling houses and to be in motion, criss-crossing the arena, getting mixed up and entering the houses of others. The same is true of the nourishing drink they contain. By morning, when Aweresese clan hosted, the 125 litre pan of ketera that my sisters had made that day for one of my sister’s husbands would be empty in the front of the house, but next to it a couple of smaller pans would stand, full of the ketera brought in by each of the men of the house who had danced and sung for Aweresese clan. The household would drink from this mixed pan of ketera throughout the day, rarely exhausting its supply. Like each betrothal, each night is an event in the making of common consanguinity, and in the separation of lines of kin. Lineality and community, mixture and fellowship are mutually entailed. If female and male principles of lineality were not disassociated (supposing the anthropologist turned deity), then there would be no criss-crossing of the central arena, no nightly calabash round and no mixed pans of ketera for everyone to drink throughout the day – in short, there would be no Yankwa. One of the many times that I sought out a song master to learn about the mythic content of Yankwa’s chants I was

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told, ‘We guard our songs because with them we plant and drink manioc’. In the same vein, a young man once asked himself a rhetorical question for my benefit: ‘Why are we so attached to Yankwa?’ He answered his own question: It is only with Yankwa that we emerge onto the arena and it is there that we talk and laugh together. Perhaps, if there were no Yankwa, we would all remain hidden from one another in our separate houses. Yankwa is pleasurable.


It is commonplace in Amazonia that the sharing of a drink strongly associated with vital fluids, such as semen and mother’s milk, and feted for its unparalleled power to make bodies grow strong, should make people kin. What is not so common is that a stylized dance should be the precondition for mixture and that mixture should be premised on maintaining separation between lines. This dynamic, which is latent in the patterning of village space, comes to life during Yankwa’s nightly rounds of ketera drinking. In my Daribi-mediated description of the life cycle of Enawenê betrothal, I described a dynamic in which consanguinity, the vertical flow of bodily substance, was opposed by exchange, the horizontal flow of vital substances, which keeps lines separate. At the same time, these horizontal and vertical flows were analogous, since both were creative of bodily substance and relationship. The exchange of manioc foods and drinks for fish between hosts and Yankwa is equivalent to the transfers of substance which establish conjugal relations over the course of betrothal, and then sustain them throughout married life (see Hugh-Jones 2001:267). One of the effects of this dynamic is the dramatization or magnification of everyday subsistence activities. This is why I described betrothal partnerships as ‘meta-conjugal’. Through them the conjugal division of labour between husbands and wives became something bigger, better and extra-domestic. Clans plant gardens for one another and drink the fruits of one another’s gardens in much the same way that betrothal partners do. And as through cooking, dancing and planting, a single clan’s identity is realized, the whole community is put into motion. In this sense the clan ‘grows’ to become the whole community. Another effect becomes visible over time. Shifting in temporal scales from a single night or year to a cycle of a decade or so, clans become hosts (and owners of manioc gardens) and Yankwa (fishermen, dancers, drinkers) in turn; exchanging manioc and fish perspectives on social life and differentially constituting one another through the production and exchange of gendered vital wealth. This resembles the life cycle of betrothal, in which partners

The curse of Souw among the Amazonian Enawenê-nawê


exchange children of alternate genders; provisioning gardens, fish and firewood in one relation, and then exchanging gendered perspectives on the relationship and provisioning garden food and drink. Exchanges of gendered vital wealth move kinship just as they move communal life. Indeed, they are part of the fabric of a fertile universe in which every year at Yankwa, manioc is harvested to call forth the fish harvest, which in turn propitiates new manioc gardens. Yankwa ensures an ever-renewed abundance of manioc and fish, which generates the possibility for more kinship. Among Enawenê the compulsion to exchange not only children, manioc and fish but positions and perspectives, capacities and energies, work and rest, becomes a consistent social philosophy. As Wagner (1967:68) notes, exchange is not a matter of ‘functioning’ social organization, it is about the hold that people have over one another. By means of a thoroughgoing principle of surrogacy, clans let their identities be continually taken hostage by one another, and compel one another to constant reciprocity. In a sense they ‘own’ one another just as a Daribi man’s pagebidi (mother’s brother) ‘owns’ him (ibid.:68). Both the power to curse, and the potential to augment one’s own and one’s clan’s vitality, lies with others. The Enawenê, perhaps even more explicitly than Daribi, harness the propitiatory powers of exchange towards a virtuous cycle of augmentation: people grow, drink, sing and dance one another into existence. The community is constantly recreated through the ubiquitous circulation of substances, energies and people. This occurs in the micro-politics of betrothal relations, which knit and knot the community through the many dyadic relations which criss-cross it, and at the scale of clanship when the whole community – Yankwa – works to augment the vitality of a clan, and in the process reinvents itself.


Coelho de Souza, M. 2004. ‘Parentes de sangue: incesto, substancia e relação no pensamento timbira’. Mana 10(1):25–60. ——— 2009. ‘The future of the structural theory of kinship’. In The Cambridge Companion to Lévi-Strauss, (ed.) B. Wiseman, pp. 80–100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Crocker, J.C. 1977. ‘The mirrored self: identity and ritual inversion among the eastern Bororo’. Ethnology 16(2):129–45. Crocker, W.H. 1990. The Canela (Eastern Timbira): An Ethnographic Introduction. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. Da Matta, R. 1982. A Divided World: Apinaye Social Structure. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Descola, P. 1994. In the Society of Nature: A Native Ecology in Amazonia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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——— 2001. ‘The genres of gender: local models and global paradigms in the comparison of Amazonia and Melanesia’. In Gender in Amazonia and Melanesia: An Exploration of the Comparative Method, (ed.) T. Gregor and D. Tuzin, pp. 91–15. Berkeley: University of California Press. Gell, A. 1975. Metamorphosis of the Cassowaries: Umeda Society, Language and Ritual. London: Athlone Press. Gow, P. 1991. Of Mixed Blood: Kinship and History in Peruvian Amazonia. Oxford: University Press. Hugh-Jones, S. 2001. ‘The gender of some Amazonian gifts: an experiment with an experiment’. In Gender in Amazonia and Melanesia: An Exploration of the Comparative Method, (ed.) T. Gregor and D. Tuzin, pp. 245–79. Berkeley: University of California Press. ——— 2006. ‘The substance of northwest Amazonian names’. In The Anthropology of Names and Naming, (ed.) G. vom Bruck and B. Bodenhorn, pp. 73–97. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ——— 2013. ‘Bride-service and the absent gift’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19(2):356–77. Lévi-Strauss, C. 1963 ‘Social structures of central and eastern Brazil’. In Structural Anthropology, pp. 120–32. New York: Basic Books. ——— 1969. The Elementary Structures of Kinship (rev. edn.). London: Eyre and Spottiswoode. McCallum, C. 1989. ‘Gender, personhood and social organization amongst the Cashinahua of western Amazonia’, PhD thesis. London: London School of Economics. ——— 2001. Gender and Sociality in Amazonia: How Real People Are Made. Oxford: Berg. Maybury-Lewis, D. 2009. ‘Indigenous theories, anthropological ideas: a view from lowland South America’. Anthropological Quarterly 82(4):897–927. Maybury-Lewis, D. (ed.). 1979. Dialectical Societies: The Gê and Bororo of Central Brazil. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Melatti, J.C. 1979. ‘The relationship system of the Kraho’. In Dialectical Societies: The Gê and Bororo of Central Brazil, (ed.) D. Maybury-Lewis, pp. 45–82. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Nahum-Claudel, C. 2018. Vital Diplomacy: The Ritual Everyday on a Dammed River in Amazonia. New York: Berghahn Books. Overing Kaplan, J. 1975. The Piaroa: A Study in Kinship and Marriage. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Rival, L. 1998. ‘Androgynous parents and guest children: the Huaorani couvade’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 5(4):619–42. Silva, M.F. 2012. ‘Liga dos Enawene-Nawe: um estudo da aliança de asamento na Amazônia Meridional’. São Paulo: Universidade de São Paulo.

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Stasch, R. 2003. ‘The iconicity, univocality, and creativity of Korowai mother-in-law avoidance’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 9(2):311–29. Vilaça, A. 2002. ‘Making kin out of others in Amazonia’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 8(2):347–65. Viveiros de Castro, E. 1995. ‘Pensando o parentesco ameríndio’. In Antropologia do parentesco: estudos ameríndios, (ed.) E. Viveiros de Castro, pp. 7–24. Rio de Janeiro: Editora UFRJ. ——— 2001. ‘GUT feelings about Amazonia: potential affinity and the construction of kinship’. In Beyond the Visible and the Material: The Amerindianization of Society in the Work of Peter Rivière, (ed.) L. Rival and N.L. Whitehead, pp. 19–43. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Viveiros de Castro, E. and Fausto, C. 1993. ‘La puissance et l’acte: la parenté dans les basses terres de l’Amérique du Sud’. L’Homme 33(2–4):141–70. Wagner, R. 1967. The Curse of Souw: Principles of Daribi Clan Definition and Alliance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 1972. ‘Incest and identity: a critique and theory on the subject of exogamy and incest prohibition’. Man 7(4):601–13. ——— 1974. ‘Are there social groups in the New Guinea highlands?’ In Frontiers of Anthropology, (ed.) M.J. Leaf, pp. 95–122. New York: Van Nostrand. ——— 1977. ‘Analogic kinship: a Daribi example’. American Ethnologist 4:623–42. ——— 1981. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

C hapter 1 1

Figure–ground dialectics in Yanomami,

Yekuana and Piaroa myth and shamanism  José Antonio Kelly

A supernatural world thus exists again for humans … everything in it happens differently than it would in the ordinary world, and more often upside down. 

(Lévi-Strauss 1995:xiv)

The present chapter is the result of a series of discussions that followed a master’s thesis viva recently held at the Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro. The student being examined, Tania Leite, writing about Yanomami conceptualizations of personhood and humanity, had the insight of developing a brief comment by Bruce Albert in relation to what he called a ‘partial redundancy’ in the Yanomami mythological corpus (Albert and Kopenawa 2003:76ff.). On the one hand, a series of myths tell of how ancestral humans were transformed into today’s animals; on the other, a number of myths describe how humanity and other elements of present day reality are the direct creation of the Yanomami culture hero Omame. Building on the apparent paradox of Amerindians being simultaneously ethnocentric and animistic noted by Viveiros de Castro (1996), Leite (2010) ties these sets of myths to two meanings of humanity that can be inferred from Yanomami cosmology: there is a ‘generalized humanity’, for which is stressed the agency shared by all beings of the cosmos, where the distinction between humans, animals and spirits is placed in the background; and there is another ‘exclusive humanity’, for which is stressed a specifically Yanomami sociality and morality, where the difference between beings is foregrounded. A Wagnerian reading of this distinction lead Leite to tie the first set of myths to metamorphosis and differentiation and the second set – which Yanomami consider to concern a period when Omame ‘put and end


José Antonio Kelly

to uncontrolled transformations’ – to stabilization and conventionalization. Leite then sets off to describe how Yanomami personhood ‘is construed in the dialectics that results from efforts to differentiate from an immanent humanity … and efforts to stabilize an innate morality’ (ibid.:50). As a member of the examination board, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro noted that Leite’s distinction could be seen as a more generalized feature of Amerindian mythology, and that it lay at the base of multi-natural perspectivism and a native theory of relationship. Thesis vivas in Brazil are public events, often well attended and good opportunities for debate among the board members and the student involved. In this case, the debate extended into a vivid exchange of e-mails between all the members of the examination board – including myself, Viveiros de Castro, Leite and Aparecida Vilaça – exploring the potential Viveiros de Castro had noted. What follows can be seen as a development of that discussion with my own long-standing inclination to experiment with the crossing of Amerindian socio-cosmology and Wagnerian semiotics, and a fresh reading of some mythological narratives. I draw inspiration from Viveiros de Castro’s discussion of the figure–ground dialectics that the end of mythical time sets up, and this dialectic’s spatial and temporal aspects (Viveiros de Castro 2007). The ethnographic context for my discussion is Yanomami, Yekuana and Piaroa mythology and shamanism. From the outset it must be clear that my own work with the Yanomami people in the Venezuelan upper Orinoco region is only tangentially related to myth and shamanism, and that the argument here deployed is mostly based on other ethnographers’ work among the Yanomam subgroup that live mainly in Brazil. So in this case, my ethnographic experience with the Yanomami and knowledge of the language serves more as a substrate for determining the plausibility of my argument than as a source of direct evidence for it. Where linguistic or cultural differences between these two groups are relevant to my argument, it shall be noted in footnotes. Finally, I note that I will use the generic term ‘Yanomami’ as an ethnonym, only pointing to linguistic or cultural differences between Yanomami linguistic subgroups when necessary, speaking then of the ‘Yanomam’ or ‘Yanomami of the Orinoco’.

Figure–ground dialectics: the installation of convention and the control of cannibalism

Leite (2010) draws inspiration from Yanomami narrators’ own commentaries on the meaning of whole fragments of their mythology, as collected by Bruce Albert and published in a comprehensive volume on Yanomami mythology (Wilbert and Simoneau 1990). These comments articulate a number of episodes, which are otherwise hard to perceive as a sequence. In this way, the

Figure–ground dialectics in myth and shamanism


narrators make clear that for current humanity to exist, the uncontrolled and generalized transformations of ancestral humans had to end, and that a degree of stabilization of humanity was achieved with Omame’s introduction of the conventions Yanomami now consider features of their distinct sociality. Consider the following: Omame caused the people to become Yanomam; he made the world stop transforming; he put an end to the transformations. He made the Yanomam speak the way they speak today; he made the people stop becoming others. Before leaving he taught them the ceremonial wayamou dialogue, the heri singing, and the yaimou dialogues. He made them think straight, and they perform yaimou dialogues and hunt game to have reahu festivals. It was Omame who taught people to bury one another’s funerary bone ashes. When he was not yet there, the people were very ignorant. The forest was unstable, and the people were constantly changing form. They used to turn into tapirs, armadillos and red brockets; Tereme cut them into pieces; a man ate his wife during her first menstruation; another killed the night spirits; others were devoured by a jaguar. 

(Albert, in Wilbert and Simoneau 1990:42–3)

As a commentary on mythical discourse we can relate this statement to another, this time by Viveiros de Castro (2007), who himself draws on another Yanomami from the same region as the narrators just cited, Davi Kopenawa. Viveiros de Castro connects the end of myth with the beginning of a specific figure-ground dialectic. The general line traced by mythic discourse describes the lamination of the pre-cosmological flows of indiscernibility as they enter the cosmological process; thereafter, the human and feline dimensions of jaguars (and humans) will function alternately as potential figures and grounds to each other. The original transparency or infinite complication where everything seeps into everything else bifurcates or explicates itself from this point on into a relative invisibility (human souls and animal spirits) and a relative opacity (the human body and the somatic animal ‘clothing’) which determine the make-up of all present-day beings. This invisibility and opacity are relative because reversible, and reversible since the ground of pre-cosmological virtuality is indestructible or inexhaustible. (ibid.:157–8)

In bringing together these two commentaries on mythical discourse, I want to draw attention to the correspondence between the bifurcation of the


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visible and invisible, brought about by the end of myth (in general) with the end of transformations, the introduction of conventions and the ‘arrangement of the forest’ (in the particular Yanomami case). This coordination of contextual contrast and organization immediately reminds us of the double effect of conventional symbolization in Wagner’s rendering: the contextual separation of a plane of symbols and one of referents, and the articulation of the latter by virtue of the order bestowed on them by the former (Wagner 1981:–38). If the distinction between ‘transformational’ and ‘stabilizing’ mythical corpuses is indeed as general as Viveiros de Castro suggests, we can see that an important story they tell is that of the extraction of conventionalizing symbols out of differentiating ones, that is, the passage from infinite transformation or pure invention to a dialectics of convention and invention. It is interesting that it is the speaking of language, the practices of ceremonial dialogue and funerary rites that are the conventions singled out in the Yanomami narrator’s appreciation of his culture’s myths. For the Yanomami, speech is a very common means to indicate difference from other collectivities or persons. The ‘otherness’ of neighbouring Amerindians and whites may be indicated by their having ‘crooked speech’. But even among themselves, Yanomami are closely attentive to dialectal differences and manners of speech, and often even exaggerate mutual incomprehensibility. In short, language and its use is a salient metaphor of relational distance. Next, there is a manifest cultural relation between speaking well, mastery of ceremonial dialogue and appropriate conduct (Carrera Rubio 2004; Lizot 1994). A good host, one who knows how to treat people and administers his exchange relations appropriately can be referred to as aka tao or aka hayuo, ‘one who speaks well’, and contextually one who excels in the art of ceremonial wayamou dialogues. By contrast, a non-Yanomami who does not speak the language or a small child who is still learning, both of which will also be ignorant of social convention in general, are referred to as aka porepi, ‘one who has the tongue/speech of the ghost of the dead’. The term evokes the antisocial figure of Poreawë, ‘ghost of the dead’, who is characterized in myth as stingy, lonely and of bad or ugly speech. Aka porepi will also indicate one who is a novice or does not participate in wayamou dialogues. As a demonstration of artistry and skill above functional competence in the language, mastery of ceremonial dialogue itself is a metaphor of a Yanomami morality all aspire to. So if speech metaphorizes relational difference and identity, its mastery metaphorizes morality, which is why both may be particularly useful to represent the installation of conventions. Finally, reference to funerary rites points to another crucial aspect of Yanomami distinctiveness, for it indicates the contrast they make between savage cannibalism and the culturally appropriate forms of processing and consuming the ashes of the bones of

Figure–ground dialectics in myth and shamanism


the dead. There are many mythical and legendary references that speak of cannibalism and other practices that Yanomami consider savage and that explicitly or implicitly contrast with the ‘table manners’ of the Yanomami funerary rite (Clastres and Lizot 1978). We can now infer that these myths establish that the installation of conventions and organization of the forest requires the control of cannibalism. The following extract from the myth of the fall of the sky makes this precise point and, what is more, it reveals that the previous fragment, when speaking about ceremonial dialogue and funerary rites, was in fact being redundant on one point: the end of cannibalism. First there were no animals. The meat we eat today is from these people who were transformed into animals from our animal ancestors. These ancestors who were created first, a very long time ago, were ignorant. They did not bury their bone ashes. They used to eat one another; every time one of them was transformed they would kill them in order to eat them, the way we eat game. They did not hold a ceremonial dialogue over the ashes of their bones; they did not observe mourning; they just ate one another. 

(Albert, in Wilbert and Simoneau 1990:36)

Pure invention – cannibalism – must be controlled by convention – funerary ritual and table manners. Cannibalism itself does not disappear; on the contrary, it will henceforth serve to differentiate, at one level, humanity against other cosmic beings, and at another, different forms of participation in exo- and endo-cannibalism will demarcate consanguines and affines, allies and enemies from the perspective of any given Yanomami community (Albert 1985). The control of cannibalism does not suppose its domination by a higher force in the manner of our culture that domesticates, colonizes and otherwise dominates nature and socializes the individual (Strathern 1980). The control of cannibalism sets up a dialectic between cannibalism and its obviation (Wagner 1978) that makes of cannibalism something socially productive. I say ‘cannibalism and its obviation’ for cannibalism has no positive opposite: the end of myth does not put an end to it, neither does it substitute it with any, ostensibly opposed, relational form. Overing’s remarks on the Piaroa are telling in this regard: Piaroa stress that present day civic order was made possible by Wahari’s gift to them of morality and social rules. His own death ensured the ‘purging’ of violence from the community and served as the community’s protection from the truth of its own dark and dangerous origin, the intolerable truth

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here being that cannibalism – the eating of human/animal meat – is the cultural condition of mankind. 

(Overing 1985:268)

It seems we arrive via Yanomami myth at a correlate of what Viveiros de Castro says about Amerindian relationality in general. On the one hand, ‘affinity and cannibalism are the two concrete schematisms of generalized predation, that is the prototypical mode of relation in Amerindian cosmologies’ (Viveiros de Castro 2002:164); on the other, the construction of kinship is basically a process of successive obviation of immanent and given potential affinity (Viveiros de Castro 2001). Going beyond the Yanomami realm, our Wagnerian reading of myth suggests a correspondence between mythological and shamanic modalities. This should be expected for shamanism and myth are mutually constitutive, the former often being the actualization of the latter. On the one hand, Viveiros de Castro affirms, building on Hugh-Jones’s distinction between vertical and horizontal shamanism (Hugh-Jones 1996), that horizontal shamanism – associated with animal-becoming, transformation and openness to the ‘other’ – is ‘logically, chronologically and cosmologically’ (Viveiros de Castro 2008:108) anterior to vertical shamanism – associated with esoteric knowledge, rites of passage and moments of re-potentializing the innate differences of the cosmos. On the other hand, we may note that no mythological corpus of a given Amerindian people is composed exclusively of conventionalizing myths where a deity creates people, animals and so forth. Transformation and differentiating myths are always present. This seems to keep the same logical precedence as that between horizontal and vertical shamanism, which basically states that meaning proceeds from metaphor to denotation; from symbols that stand for themselves (Wagner 1981) to a distinction between symbol and referent; from analogy to its deterioration into homology; from sacrifice to totemism. So much is remarkably consistent with Rousseau’s comments cited by Lévi-Strauss: As emotions were the first motives which induced men to speak, his first utterances were tropes. Figurative language was the first to be born, proper meanings were the last to be found. Things were called by their true name only when they were seen in their true form. The first speech was all in poetry, reasoning was thought of only long afterwards. 

(Lévi-Strauss 1991:102)

None of the first terms of these pairs disappears with the appearance of their contradictory complements; they are their origin and in a way immortal.

Figure–ground dialectics in myth and shamanism


It is because of the immortality of invention that the irruption of convention in myth does not substitute for differentiation; in fact, in many cases its appearance is a step by step process, there are no passages from pure invention to pure convention. What is inaugurated is not history – the domination of the dialectic by convention (Wagner 1981:116–25) – but always a dialectic between invention and convention that will show itself in as many ways as meaning can manifest itself. Let us recall that in Wagner’s semiotics the distinction between metaphor, metonymy, simile, icon, sign, symbol and the like are all negligible when contrasted with the more overarching distinction between all the preceding forms and lexical denotation (Wagner 1972:6). What is relevant here is the obviational mechanism whereby all tropes – any form in which one things stands for another – contrast with denotation and convention. This is what myth states: we have convention on the one hand and all the diversity of ways of inventing against it – mediation, inversion, analogy, torsion, double torsion and so on – on the other.

Dialectic in motion: spatiality

We have just suggested the correspondence between the contextual figure– ground separation and the inauguration of social convention. Maintaining our focus on mythical discourse, I want to bring to attention the correspondence of figure–ground separation with the constitution of fundamental cosmological spatial coordinates. The magnificent Watunna mythical cycle of the Yekuana speaks of a beginning where visible and invisible have not yet been distinguished. It is a world without barriers, basically without space, associated with good and paradise. De Civrieux comments of the Watunna: The so’to [Yekuana people] were created in an Earth that was not different from the sky. There was only one world: Kahuña in which there was no death, disease, hunger, evil, war, nor work. There was no darkness, no barriers or separations of any kind – as they are now – between the visible part of the universe, our Earth, and the other invisible part, the Sky. 

(de Civrieux 1991:26)

In the opening stages of the Watunna, Wanadi, the supreme creator, sends a double of himself to earth for him to create ‘good people’. From then on, Watunna describes a saga between three successive doubles of Wanadi and Odosha – the incarnation of evil and a special twin born from Wanadi’s placenta – that is intent on impeding Wanadi’s wishes. In the initial stages of the saga, the primeval non-distinction between earth and sky, day and night is undone by Odosha’s doings. The account involves a progressive ‘cooling’ of the

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cosmos that creates spatial distinctions, particularly of the vertical kind (earth and sky). This makes sense, for henceforth the earth will be the place of forms (bodies) and the sky will be that of backgrounds (souls). In one episode after the other, the Watunna recounts a human/animal character ‘leaving his form on earth for the animals of today’ whilst going to the sky of the grandfathers of animals. Figure–ground reversal is essentially a play with spatiality, and indigenous thought points to this mainly through the separation of earth from sky and often from a number of other cosmic levels. In similar way to that of the Yekuana, Piaroa mythology also recounts the creation of domains and corresponding speciation. With the rupture of time and space from the ‘before time’ of creation history the universe became a discontinuous one, and as a result power became dispersed throughout the universe and individualized. The process that dispatched the destructive forces for creation from the earth also split up into distinct abodes, separated by layers of space and skies, each type of being who in earlier days dwelt on one spatial plane and who could freely interact and exchange powers. Speciation also took place: beings who once could mate no longer could (usually) do so; animals, fish, and plants, autochthonously human in form, received their form of today. 

(Overing 1990:608)

This extract makes clear not only the close relation between domain and species separation, but also the eminently spatial character of the figure– ground dialectic that is set in motion. The Yanomami case is different but no less clarifying. In this mythology, a crucial episode, ‘the fall of the sky’, does not create a separation but rather shifts the place of pre-existing cosmic levels. A level above the sky became the sky, the sky became the earth, and the earth became a sub-terrestrial level. There was a primeval humanity on earth, the one that was endlessly transforming into animals, that was ignorant of funerary rites and that was savagely cannibalistic, for to eat animals was tantamount to eating humans. When the sky fell upon the earth, these ancestors together with a chunk of the earth constituted an underworld. They became Aopataripe that continue being cannibals to this day. They devour the spirits of disease that shamans send to the underworld. We who are here now, we were like ghosts up there on the back of the sky, and we fell in turn and were created into the form of other Yanomam. It was Omame, also in the form of a ghost, who created us in turn. This terrestrial layer, when it used to be the back of the sky, was inhabited by the revenants

Figure–ground dialectics in myth and shamanism


of the first ancestors, those who died. This is why we are the spectral form of those ancestors who fell. Omame was also in the form of a ghost and when he was transformed he reorganized the forest. After falling he became inspired and turned the chaos of the forest into order; he rearranged it. Thus the Yanomam stopped turning into animals and stopped being carried off by the waters … Since then the sky no longer breaks, the waters no longer carry us off, and we no longer turn into game animals. 

(Albert, in Wilbert and Simoneau 1990:41–2)

So in the Yanomami case, whereas the separation between cosmic levels already existed, the nexus between visibility and cosmic level is corroborated, for to each cosmic level corresponds a state of visibility: opacity or spectral form. With the fall of the sky, the ex-forms (spectral forms) of the backside of the sky, once on the terrestrial level, must become the opposite of spectral forms; they become opaque (human). Today’s humans, when they occupied the backside of the sky were the ghosts (of the dead and vital images) of the transformational humans. After the fall, this relation holds, for the humans created by Omame become the spectral forms of the inhabitants of the underworld. Nowadays, Albert reports, the terrestrial and living Yanomami consider the dead, inhabitants of the sky, as revenants, but that these, in turn, consider themselves Yanomami and see the living Yanomami as the real revenants (Albert 1985:634). Note how the narrator rigorously maintains the relation between cosmic level and figure–ground status when he comments that Omame, when he fell with the sky to earth, ‘was also in the form of a ghost and when he was transformed he reorganized the forest’. In the Yekuana and Piaroa cases presented, the myths narrate the fragmentation of a primeval unity – the creation of space – while in the Yanomami case no such operation occurs. What is narrated is not a fragmentation but the end of the possibility of the sky falling. Moreover, this closes a circuit of analogies. The end of transformation is the end of savage cannibalism, that is, the end of pure invention. Whereas the installation of the funerary rite – the irruption of convention – does not properly create space (cosmic levels), it regulates its interaction with today’s humans, ancestral animals and the dead (see ibid.622–73). The myth puts two aspects of figure– ground reversibility ‘into phase’ with each other; the dialectic between human and animal opacities is thus ‘tuned in’ with the more overarching dialectic between opacity and invisibility. This is what the spatial regulation achieves: it avoids the mutual cancelation of reversibilities that produces cannibalism, successive falls of the sky and uncontrolled metamorphosis. This is a matter of alignment, perhaps in the way that a receiving radio’s oscillator must oscillate at the same frequency as a transmitting radio for us to hear music instead of

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noise. Furthermore, the figure–ground dialectic between ancestral beings, humans and animals that is set in motion with the end of myth holds between cosmic levels: vital images are a scaled dimension of the sky and vice versa; opacities are a scaled dimension of earth and vice versa. This dialectic is fractal for the relations between beings are replicated at the scale of cosmic levels, the latter being the condition of possibility of the former. The issue of attunement of the two reversibilities is no trivial matter and it is noteworthy how the Yekuana Watunna describes the consequences of the short-circuiting or de-tuning of them in the episode that describes the fate of the Yanomami. The Yanomami are neighbours of the Yekuana and traditionally considered by the latter as less than human savages. This view undoubtedly reflects recent history, in which Yanomami made considerable inroads into Yekuana territory in a series of movements from the Parima highlands involving a long period of raids that ended around the 1930s with a determined Yekuana response that put an end to conflict and settled it into a stable yet unequal relation, with the Yekuana retaining the upper hand. After being created by Wanadi, the Watunna recounts, the Shidishana (Yanomami) are tricked by Odosha into eating an evil shaman named Mamaku. And so Shidishana, the first grandfather of the Shidishana, did. Odosha tricked him. He went with his people in search of Mamaku; he killed and ate him … Shidishana turned mad. He retained his human form, but only his form. His spirit became animal. And like an animal he moved, like an animal he thought. He lost his intelligence. He hid in the bush naked; he didn’t know how to do anything anymore, he only killed and stole from true humans. This remained for his descendants. They go around without loincloths, they make no houses, they make nothing, no hammocks, baskets, blowguns, or boats … [T]hey don’t cultivate, they only eat meat and forest fruits. 

(de Civrieux 1991:201)

The cannibalistic act of eating a shaman causes the short-circuiting of appropriate reversals, and instead of the Yanomami being entertaining a figure–ground dialectic between human and animal in tune with that of visibility and invisibility, it is described as a cannibalistic pre-cultural ‘mad’ being; a piece of myth necessarily ‘out of phase’ with post-mythical life. Finally, it is also convenient to recall how, in Amerindian lived worlds, when figure reverts to ground, when the inadvertent hunter is taken by a spirit, when a shaman negotiates with spirits, when death separates body from soul, when the dead become other (spectres or animals), the vital image/ spectral form or spirit never remains in the same domain or on the cosmic

Figure–ground dialectics in myth and shamanism


level of humans. The reversion always involves a passage to another cosmic level: the sky, a sub-aquatic world, an underworld and such like. When this passage does not occur dire consequences ensue: the spirits of the dead begin to haunt humans, for example. Delicate as they are, these passages must then be ensured by ritual means, which is why funerary rituals are often envisioned as devices to dispatch souls to where they belong and why, in the face of the limited efficacy of these procedures, people often flee their community after an important person’s death. The cohabitation of spectral forms and humans re-installs a mythical scenario where visibility and spatiality are not attuned with each other. We thus return to cannibalism, which is what humans fear in the lingering presence of the dead.

Dialectic in motion: temporality

As in the case of spatial dialectics, the end of myth sets a temporal dialectic in motion too. Yanomami myth is the scenario of the animal ancestors. Shamans personify these ancestors (today’s spirits) in their original human form when they ‘make them descend’ (ithomai) and become them to cure an ill person, protect their community from harm or attack a distant enemy group. But what is relevant to our discussion is that these characters are the vital images (no uhutipi) of today’s animals; they are their origin and their support, making of the relation between myth and cosmos something different from a straightforward historical one. So it is that the alterity of vital images not only refers to different cosmic levels or niches – like the reverse of the sky or interior of mountains, the abode of Yanomami shamans’ helper spirits – but also to another time. Consider Albert’s comments on this matter: ‘The mythical time is conceived of as the origin of society but also as a parallel dimension of its present reality to which only shamans have access through the use of hallucinogens’ (Albert, in Wilbert and Simoneau 1990:320). ‘Parallelism’ might not be the best image to capture what is here at stake, for parallel lines never cross, whilst the mythical dimension is implicated with the worldly dimension. According to Smiljanic (1999:52), every mythical event, together with the state of the cosmos when it occurred, is at a shaman’s disposal to actualize when needed. There are, then, as many virtual worlds as mythical events. Amongst all the possibilities, shamans connect a given mythical event with a current one, implicating two hitherto ‘parallel’ events. A shaman thus invents (in Wagner’s sense) their dependency quite in the manner that a scientist invents a law of nature. We now return to Piaroa ethnography, where Overing (1990) describes shamans’ curing as the explicit invention of metaphors between ‘before time’ (myth) and ‘today time’. When mythical time was coming to an end, animals, up to that moment in human form, lost their status and transformational

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capacities when Wahari, the culture hero, stole culture from them. This theft de-humanized animals, giving them the motive to take revenge on humans. Today’s diseases are precisely this revenge. So it is that every disease of today corresponds to a piece of lost culture or transformational capacity. Each aspect of cultural knowledge, such as the capacity to cultivate and to hunt, and each cultural artefact had its disease counterpart. Every illness was in part caused by the violence of the ‘before time’ culture of the animals attacking the victim in ‘today time’. (ibid.:613)

For example, a certain type of paralysis is named the ‘loincloths of the wild peccary wrapping itself around you’ because in mythical time animals in human form used loincloths. A human peccary of ‘before time’ would send a paralysis to humans through a today time animal that had lost the ability to create and use loincloths … The peccary would send his piece of ‘lost culture’, its disease, like a loincloth in the form it would appear if it were used in today time, distorted, and because of that crippling its Piaroa victim, forcing him/her to a present peccary form. (ibid.:614)

To effect the cure, the Piaroa shaman must have a profound knowledge of the unfolding of every myth and establish unsuspected connections between events of ‘before time’ and ‘today time’. His highly metaphorical words, his ‘before talk’ is evidence of the connections: a great ruwang [shaman] could often integrate much of the history of a being through one multilayered bit of before-talk, the unravelling of which would take one to several worlds and times of significant history. The ‘unpeeling’ of the complex words of the ruwang that encapsulated the history of beings was a process in which Piaroa audiences constantly engaged. (ibid.:613)

We are here faced with a doubly differentiating creativity. In the first place because, in making analogies between ‘before time’ and ‘today time’, the shaman collapses contexts conventionally thought to be separate. His interpretation is a new metaphor, a symbol that stands for itself (Wagner 1981), for the focus of the connection is primarily on the unforeseen relation

Figure–ground dialectics in myth and shamanism


between an event of today and an ‘ante-event’, and not on the terms (events) themselves, each of which belongs to a conventional and known context (Wagner 1972:5; Weiner 1988:124). If the semiotic relations internal to myth are equivalent to those invented by the shaman between today’s events and ante-events, then we must think of temporality, as we did with spatiality, as a semiotic dimension. This is consistent with the eternal quality of the parallel worlds shamans recover. It is also a fractal dimension, for the relation between mythical episodes – their dialectic of invention and convention – is replicated on the temporal scale where myth and present day, like halves that support and oppose each other, metaphorize one another, offering a contrasting context of each other. It is noteworthy that the contextual collapse a Piaroa shaman effects between myth and present day involves another collapse: the ancestral animal’s effort to undo, with its disease, the separation of animals from humans, that is, the figure–ground distinction set up by the end of mythical time. If the disease progresses it will end up transforming the human being into a peccary. The shaman’s finding, his creative (or rather curative) metaphor, his obviation of mythical and present contexts, is opposed in motivation to the contextual obviation that moves the animal. What is at stake is the maintenance versus the undoing of the distinction between humans and animals. If completely realized, animal vengeance would render an inverted mythical world, for all would be animal instead of human. Disease is thus the continuation of myth by the same, and not other, semiotic means. Let us recall that in many myths the undoing of the human–animal distinction is precisely what motivates the trickster. In the Watunna cycle, for example, Odosha is repeatedly successful in either reverting or impeding all of Wanadi’s attempts to create ‘good people’, leaving humans always ‘like animals’: hungry, suffering, without gardens, without organization (de Civrieux 1991). According to Wagner, origin myths tend to begin with a non-conventional situation and unfold towards the resolution of an innate conventional order of things by the accumulation of tropic effects in a dialectical sequence of symbolic obviation. In this way, the effects of the tropic assimilations become cumulative; eventually the distinction between the modalities, recast into ever more liminal form, is eroded away, and the initial construction, pushed to the point of paradox, collapses into its modal opposite. 

(Wagner 1978:32–3)

The continuation of animal vengeance would carry forth this obviational sequence leading us again to a non-conventional modality that, on the one

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hand, with the lack of distinction between animals and humans would be the same as the original, but on the other, would be very different, for the lack of distinction would resolve itself in favour of animals. The situation resembles what Wagner calls an ‘inverse myth’, one that ‘involutes’ when its plot ‘continues after the point of obviation’ (ibid.:49–50).1 The continuation of the obviational sequence is a constant threat to be kept at bay. Consider Smiljanic’s account of how Yanomami shamans of the Alto Tototobi region are in a constant battle against the spirits of the night: They [shamans] say when the day comes in which all shamans die, there will be no means to keep these spirits at the fringes of the earth and they will advance on the earth once and for all. The spirit of night, Titiri, will be preceded by the spirits of cloudy weather, by the spirit of thunder and great wasps with stings. The spirits of peccaries will come next and the Yanomae will lose their human form and become peccaries. Humanity will cease to exist and the ghosts that inhabit the fringes of the earth will come to inhabit it. 


(Smiljanic 1999:72–3)

There must be a reason for myth tellers to end their accounts with the expressions such as ‘and that is it’, ‘it is over’. Perhaps this is an indication of relief: ‘just as well, what would be of us if this story continued!’; or of precaution: ‘let us not invoke the continuation of myth’. This brings me to one of Lima’s reflections on her telling of myths among the Juruna she studies: The first time I told a myth to the Juruna (it was an Apinayé account), people did not notice, when I ended the narration, that the myth had actually come to an end. This happened several times and it feels like when, in a concert hall, some people begin to clap before the appropriate moment. With the Juruna, I have the impression that they do not perceive when the myth ends, and this may be due to either a formal infinitude of the account or that my option to tell myths cutting the initial topic that briefly spells out the outcome of the story, leaves them in a state of permanent expectation: if I cut the [initial] theme, how could they guess the point at which its unfolding has concluded?  (Lima 1999) The emphatic marking of the end of myth, or the recourse to an initial summary of what it is about, could be seen as a deliberate overlooking of an opposed and fundamental truth: that myths do not end.

Figure–ground dialectics in myth and shamanism


As for the Piaroa, the Yanomami shaman’s motivation is opposed to the closing of a sequence that would lead to generalized animality. It is noteworthy that the potential de-humanization effected by peccary spirits coincides with the return of the ghosts of the dead. We are again faced with a reverse myth, for in this end of the world, the opaque and invisible components of the cosmos that had been disaggregated and placed in dialectic figure–ground tension will coincide without the dialectic. This would be a doubly inverted anti-humanity represented by ghosts of the dead and animals. In this connection, shamans can be conceived as anti-myths rather in the sense of anti-malarials. I said above that the shaman’s creativity was doubly differentiating. The second way in which we can conceive of his actions as differentiating comes when we note that his metaphors do not seem to impose any order on the world, as conventional symbolization does. Each interpretation, every connection between ante-event and events today, introduces an unforeseen and original cause that, as Wagner says, is an act of ‘unprediction’ (Wagner 1981:88). No collection of metaphors seeks to constitute a coherent set. Of the Piaroa, Overing says they ‘overtly recognized the constitutive elements of the ruwang’s [shaman] cure. Each successful cure was considered to be an original act’ (Overing 1990:612, my emphasis). As instantiations of unprediction, these metaphors are not there to be reconciled with one another, even less so amongst shamans, for, to paraphrase Wagner (1991:172–3), ‘one can have kinds of shaman as one can have variants of a myth’, and any shaman that prides himself is ready to refute the discourse of others.

Dialectic cause, ante-event and metaphor

We have seen that myths are at the base or cause of things, but that this causal relation is not simply historical but integral to the figure–ground dialectic. Myth is a cause in as much as it is an origin; it points to the ‘the ground of pre-cosmological virtuality’ that is ‘indestructible or inexhaustible’ (Viveiros de Castro 2007:158). The vital images of the Yanomami, what they call no uhutipi, are precisely ‘vital images’ – they are the conditions of affection and affectability. Again Piaroa ethnography seems to be in accordance with this reading: a ruwang gifted in the work of curing was called k’adak’a menye or ‘one who can cure everything (through chanting)’. K’adak’a was the word for the taproot of a tree, it was used metaphorically in chant language to signify the ‘first idea of ’ or ‘the first time created’. 

(Overing 1990.:612)


José Antonio Kelly

During a Yanomami meeting held in village of Thoothoothobi (Brazil) in 2010, I heard a young Yanomami translate several shamanic references to the spirit world to a White audience through the image of a root. In this way, Sunspirit and Thunder-spirit – the conversation was about climate change – were translated as ‘the root of the sun’ and ‘the root of thunder’. The relations between an ante-event and events today are not only and not merely historical, they are metaphorical, meaningful and reversible, for myth is permeable to events today, it adjusts with time. The ante-event has the privilege of being ‘cause’, ‘origin’ and ‘vitality’ but it is not absolute. The ‘ante’ prefix elicits the two senses of principio in Spanish or Portuguese: ‘origin’, as in ‘in the beginning all was light’; and ‘principle’, as in a principle of social organization. ‘Principle’ also evokes a ‘precedent’, which is what myths provide (Wagner 1972:17). A precedent becomes a charter for action but can always be substituted for another. Finally, we speak of ‘ante’ in the sense of ‘anti’, for the mythical event does not end, it is that against which the ephemeralness of conventional events stands out. My use of ‘metaphor’ also merits a comment. To call the relation between ante-events and events today ‘metaphorical’ is justified beyond the analogic resonance the shaman may establish between them. In the Yanomami language, the adverb noremi qualifies ‘all actions and activities attributed to human and non-human vital images’ (Albert 1985:148). Its semantic field includes ‘invisible actions of supernatural entities’ and ‘everything that can be said to be a representation’, like a simulacrum or metaphorical talk, particularly exploited in ceremonial dialogue (ibid.:149). In this native sense, metaphor points to ‘another reality’ or ‘someone else’s reality’ rather than ‘something less than reality’ or ‘falsity’, in the way that our common-sense use of the word ‘metaphor’ implies. Noremi thus points to the otherness, as opposed to degrees, of reality. Put otherwise, the virtuality of mythical events is in no way in contrast to the ostensible reality of today’s events. Metaphors and myths cannot be other than true. The highly metaphorical ‘before talk’ of the Piaroa shaman is considered ‘true’ in contrast to common language that may not be so (Overing 1990:612). Davi Kopenawa’s auto-ethnographic accounts of the Yanomami insist on the invisible world being the ‘truth’ of things (Kopenawa and Albert 2010). It is precisely against this shamanic knowledge that Kopenawa affirms that white people’s knowledge is ‘full of forgetfulness’, and one can see how, compared to the eternal mythical events at a shaman’s disposal, the writing that keeps our historical record is a poor substitute. But the truth of the invisible world does not imply the falsity of the visible; the latter simply comes as evidence of it – albeit sometimes twisted. Truth refers to a dialectical cause, and its opposite will be an effect only in this semiotic sense: the cause–effect relation will always imply some torsion, a metaphor.

Figure–ground dialectics in myth and shamanism


As the physicist Rohlich has written, the world of quantum mechanics does not only differ quantitatively, but also qualitatively, from the everyday world: ‘Common language has no words for it… The quantum world [is] no less real than the classical world. And it teaches us that the reality of the common experience in the classical world is only a small part of what there is.’ (Rohlich, quoted in Lévi-Strauss 1995:xiv). Qualitative difference, special language, fragment of experience: these could well be the words of a shaman.


I end this chapter with a somewhat loose-ended commentary on how all this has made me think retrospectively about multi-natural perspectivism and Wagnerian semiotics, and hence of what avenues of insight this theoretical articulation can provide for a more comprehensive understanding of Amerindian socio-cosmologies. Multi-naturalism: the replication of a semiotic formula The description of Amerindian perspectivism invites us to imagine the world of Amerindians as an inversion of the multi-culturalism and mono-naturalism of our ‘culture of science’ (Wagner 1978). When speaking of multi-naturalism, we are forced to go beyond epistemological discussions because they limit our understandings of human creativity to the possibilities of a diversity of cultures being built out of a unique and given nature. Perspectivism poses the sharing of a unique and given culture – like our nature – and a multiplicity of natures – like our culture. What comes to the fore when contrasting perspectivism with naturalism is the inverse distribution of what is universal and particular, what is given and what is artificial when considering the nature/culture pair. This chapter has focused on the several ways in which figure–ground relations are articulated in myth and shamanism, and their relation with ordinary life. A focus on relations internal to the Amerindian world has illuminated another facet of what multi-naturalism can mean: the variable, semiotic and fractal qualities of spatial and temporal dimensions implied in Amerindian socio-cosmologies and the meaningful dialectical relation they entertain with various indigenous lived worlds. This focus also suggests that at least some Amerindian myths dramatize the need to put the two aspects of figure–ground reversal – one involving human and animal, and the other involving opaqueness and invisibility – in phase with each other. They thus thematize the appropriate means of invention and the perils of inappropriate invention: cannibalism and uncontrolled metamorphosis. In retrospect, I have replicated an existing principle or formula at a different level, for if ‘[a] myth is “another culture”, even for those of its own culture, just as “another culture” is something of a myth for the anthropologist’

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(Wagner 1978:38), then the semiotic relation between anthropologist and native – inherent in the definition of multi-naturalism as against multiculturalism – is no different to the one that holds between myth and lived world, for ‘[t]he facility of the myth or tale is not that of replicating the world, but of setting its own world in contradistinction’ (ibid.:33). Subjects, symbols ‘[S]ymbols and people exist in a mediating relationship to one another’, Wagner writes; ‘they are our besetting devils and we are theirs – and the question of whether “collectivizing” and “differentiating” are ultimately symbolic or human dispositions becomes hopelessly entangled in the toils of the mediation’ (Wagner 1981:xix). The theory of perspectivism deals with this complication of human and symbolic properties personifying the semiotic process. Attuned with symbolic dialectics, Amerindians, and differentiating societies in general, also invent themselves dialectically (ibid.:103–32). Amerindians personify their own metaphors (vital images) in radical fashion, for once personified, such metaphors acquire a life of their own. More than symbols that stand for themselves (tropes), in perspectivism symbols think for themselves. The perspectivist struggle for the subject position that defines the concretion of a given reality can be read as the result of a symbol thinking itself as such, claiming its referentiality over some other, which will in turn imagine itself as a symbol too. But, as always, this dialectic must resolve itself in favour of one or the other for us to have meaning. The contrary would be (semiotic and human) cannibalism. ‘Ontology’ is a concept absent from Wagner’s rendering of his semiotic approach; neither does ‘metaphor’ appear much in Viveiros de Castro’s discussions of perspectivism. Perhaps it is the vital truth of metaphor that transforms the subjects of Amerindian ontologies into the symbols of the ontology of meaning.


I thank Tania Leite, Aparecida Vilaça and especially Eduardo Viveiros de Castro for their contributions to the development of the arguments presented here. I dedicate the section entitled ‘Dialectic in motion’ to Tânia Lima.


Albert, B. 1985. ‘Temps du sang, temps de cendres: représentation de la maladie, système rituel et espace politique chez les Yanomami du sud-est (Amazonie Brésilienne)’, PhD thesis. Paris: Université de Paris X. Albert, B. and Kopenawa, D. 2003. Yanomami: l’esprit de la forêt. Paris: Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain.

Figure–ground dialectics in myth and shamanism


Carrera Rubio, J. 2004. ‘The fertility of words: aspects of language and sociality among the Yanomami people of Venezuela’, PhD thesis. St Andrews: University of Saint Andrews. Clastres, H. and Lizot, J. 1978. ‘La part du feu: rites et discours de la mort chez les Yanomami’. Libre 3:103–33. De Civreux, M. 1991 [1970]. Wattuna: un ciclo de creación en el Orinoco. Caracas: Monte Avila Editores. Hugh-Jones, S. 1996. ‘Shamans, prophets, priests and pastors’. In Shamanism, History and the State, (ed.) N. Thomas and C. Humphrey, pp. 32–71. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Kopenawa, D. and Albert, B. 2010. La chute du ciel: paroles d’un chaman yanomami. Paris: Plon. Leite, T. 2010. ‘Pessoa e humanidade nas etnografias yanomami’, MA thesis. Rio de Janeiro: Universidade Federal de Rio de Janeiro. Lima, T. 1999. ‘O pássaro de fogo’. Revista de Antropologia 42 (1/2): scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0034-77011999000100008&lng=en&nr m=iso&tlng=pt (accessed 21 October 2017). Lévi-Strauss, C. 1991 [1962]. Totemism. Guildford: Merlin Press. ——— 1995 [1991]. The Story of Lynx. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Lizot, J. 1994. ‘Words in the night: the ceremonial dialogue – one expression of peaceful relationships among the Yanomami’. In The Anthropology of Peace and NonViolence, (ed.) L. Sponsel and T. Gregor, pp. 213–40. London: Rienner. Overing, J. 1985. ‘There is no end of evil: the guilty innocents and their fallible god’. In The Anthropology of Evil, (ed.) D. Parkin, pp. 244–78. London: Blackwell. ——— 1990. ‘The shaman as a maker of worlds: Nelson Goodman in the Amazon’. Man 25(4):602–19. Smiljanic, M.I. 1999. ‘O corpo cósmico: o xamanismo entre os Yanomae do Alto Tototobi’, PhD thesis. Brasilia: Universidade de Brasilia. Strathern, M. 1980. ‘No nature, no culture: the Hagen case’. In Nature, Culture and Gender, (eds.) C. MacCormack and M. Strathern, pp. 174–222. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Viveiros de Castro, E. 1996. ‘Os pronomes cosmológicos e o perspectivismo ameríndio’. Mana 2(2):115–44. ——— 2001. ‘GUT feelings about Amazonia: potential affinity and the construction of kinship’. In Beyond the Visible and the Material: The Amerinidianization of Society in the Work of Peter Rivière, (eds.) L. Rival and N. Whitehead, pp. 19–44. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ———2002. ‘O problema da afinidade na Amazônia’. In A inconstância da alma salvagem e outros ensaios de antropologia, (eds.) E. Viveiros de Castro, pp. 87–180. São Paulo: Cosac and Naify.

José Antonio Kelly


——— 2007. ‘The crystal forest: notes on the ontology of Amazonian spirits’. Inner Asia 9(2):153–72. ——— 2008. ‘Xamanismo transversal: Lévi-Strauss e a cosmopolítica amazônica’. In Lévi-Strauss: leituras brasileiras, (eds.) R. Caixeta de Queiroz and R. Freire Nobre, pp. 79–124. Belo Horionte: Editora UFMG. Wagner, R. 1972. Habu: The Innovation of Meaning in Daribi Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 1978. Lethal Speech: Daribi Myth as Symbolic Obviation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ——— 1981 [1975]. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ———1991. ‘The fractal person’. In Big Men and Great Men: Personifications of Power in Melanesia, (eds.) M. Godelier and M. Strathern, pp. 159–73. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Weiner, J. 1988. The Heart of the Pearl Shell: The Mythological Dimensions of Foi Sociality. Berkeley: University of California Press. Wilbert, J. and Simoneau, K. (eds). 1990. Folk Literature of the Yanomami Indians. Los Angeles: Latin American Center Publications, University of California–Los Angeles.

C hapter 1 2

Commentary  Roy Wagner

There is a bit of ‘otherness’ in each and every one of us, and Pedro Pitarch and the Mayans for whom he speaks would have us know that that bit of otherness is our very selves. Fine, we were born that way; turned outside-in. Reverse anthropology is retroflexive DNA, taking risks from the very beginning. As the poet Rilke puts it in his eulogy to Hölderlin (see Wagner 2010:109): How the, yes, all of them, Dwell snugly and warmly in their Well-heated little poems, Lingering long in the narrow comparison, Taking part, you, however, Ghost like the moon And beneath your brightens and darkens Your holy terrified landscape That you only know in farewells.

‘Farewell’, as one science-fiction writer put it, ‘to yesterday’s tomorrow’ (Panshin 1976). The anthropologist lives in tomorrow’s yesterday, already anticipated, predicted and predicted in what is to come. Were you, my good friends, already anticipated in The Invention of Culture (Wagner 1981), and were the wondrous things you have made of it in this volume already anticipated in some future enlightenment that we have yet to contemplate?

Roy Wagner

254 Lingering, even among the trustworthy, Is not given to us; from fulfilled images The spirit darts suddenly to those just not being billed: There are no lakes until eternity. We are falling.

Thus Rilke begins his poem, and thus anthropology begins its long journey from the future into the past.

Marcio Goldman

The device of syncopation was introduced into the world of musical history twice, once in the eighteenth century by the prodigy Johann Christian Bach (in London), and the masters of the Manheim School (Stamitz, Canabich) in Germany, and a second time by the African-American composer and prodigy Scott Joplin in late nineteenth-century America. The Europeans called its version of it ‘the New Music’, and it became the foundation of all the classical music that followed. Joplin called his ‘ragtime’ (ragged timing), and it launched the epoch of jazz and ‘the birth of the blues’. Two inventions, one in the Old World and one in the New. Beethoven and Louis Armstrong. When I asked one of my students to characterize the differences between the two, he said simply: ‘Mozart syncopates in the first beat, jazz on the second’. What this means in objective terms is that the New Music works primarily upon inceptive or anticipatory intellect, our sense of prediction (Beethoven ‘predicted’ our reactions to his ninth symphony), whereas jazz and the blues work with memory – the complex, ambiguous, always here and always gone order and disorder of the past. The past is never easy, the past is never fun. Subject and object do a double take on one another –does Louis Armstrong ‘remember’ Africa, or is he ‘remembered’ by Africa? No one can tell, and that is the magic and the melancholy of the African diaspora. Did we invent culture or did culture invent us? Did we come from Africa or did Africa come from us? Double bind, double time … ragged time. The ‘given’ of Mozart’s music is the future, a future the great composer never lived to see, but the given of jazz is always a taken as well, a past that never really passes because it holds onto us as we hold onto it, like the shapeshifting spirits of the Candomblé. As Heraclitus put it, ‘We live the gods’ death and they live ours’. Memory is not simply information retrieval, and it is almost never accurate; it is its own eternal double-bind. As Goldman remarks: ‘In other words, there are relations between what the subject receives independently of his or her will or actions – the ‘given’ – and what depends on a conjunction of more or less traditional rituals, which can only be performed with the consent of the subject and under the guidance of more experienced initiates – or that which is “made”.’ As in jazz,



in other words, it is only one’s reaction to the music that makes it music in the first place, even though that music was ‘made’ by other people. One is reminded of the contrast between the pwan, or vitalizing spirit, and fran ginen (‘True Africa’), the voice of ancestral authority, in Karen Richman’s study of Haitian ritual (Richman 2005). For the pwan does for the initiate’s power what syncopation does for music: it brings it to life.

Martin Holbraad

One of the big advantages of using obviation as a strategy for the unpacking of myth is that, as Lévi-Strauss pointed out to me in 1998, it automatically reverses upon itself in the course of its processual involution: inside the myth it is an exact opposite, or retroversion, of itself. Myth and anti-myth stand in a relation of figure and ground to one another. As Coyote points out, ‘Back in the Beginning, stories sat around the campfire telling people to one another’ (Wagner 2010: 159–60). Holbraad’s landmark research on Afro-Cuban ‘people-making’ (expersonation) puts it another way: as one lives one signo (the nominal event-patterning of one’s life), so one’s signo lives one’s life (and one is tempted to add, ‘in reverse’). The myth is the backstory of the person; the person is the backstory of the myth – ‘belly to belly and back to back’, as Harry Belafonte used to say. Using this logic, we are able to identify the pigeons in Javier’s backstory as homing pigeons – they got the drop on him. The Daribi and their neighbours identify the actual, flesh and blood, corporality of a human being, the ‘picture-soul’ of the person, meaning of course that this is the way the individual impersonates themselves – a mere projection of what is really there. Thus the agency that projects it – the ex-personation, so to speak – can only be distinguished in fractal images, like one’s reflection in a mirror, one’s shadow or one’s name – in effect a figure– ground inversion of what the hegemonic world order would want to identify as a ‘real’ person. This brings me to what Holbraad and I would regard as the most salient feature of expersonation: that it registers more concrete particularity than is found in the original. Die as he may, Javier’s expersonation gives new meaning to the expression ‘larger than life’ (as well as to the con artist’s scam known as ‘the pigeon-drop’). How is obviation an expression of fractal imagery? A fractal equation, in the classic expression given originally by Benoit Mandelbrot, corresponds to the dividing out of a unit fraction, consisting of one or unit in the numerator and some complex mathematical function in the denominator. Essentially, the fraction that results is a direct expression of wholeness divided by one of its many potential iteratives. By this logic, Orula, the god of divination, is


Roy Wagner

manifest as complete wholeness, a holographic entity, as each of the oddu refracts itself as a fractal iterative thereof. Obviation, with its dialectical succession of substitutions, represents the fractal iteration of a mythic narrative when divided by itself in the inverted anti-myth (the signo living its life backwards in time), represented for analytic purposes by two triangles, a smaller, inverted triangle inscribed within a larger one, with its apices tangent to the larger one at the midpoints of its three sides, in a configuration known mathematically as a Sierpinski gasket. The myth as a whole is represented as a composite of the sequentially ordered iteration of the ‘person’ triangle and the signo triangle, so to speak. Hence: todo está en Ifá – holography itself is the initiation. Curiously enough, this is an almost perfect copy of the subscript Totes ces vu imagine (‘Totality viewed in the imagination’), a franco-latinate phrase applied as a heuristic guide by the medieval architect Villard de Honnecourt to what amounts to the thirteenthcentury recovery of the obviation device. Did we discover obviation or did obviation discover us? Goethe, whose pioneering work on colour theory (refraction) and plant speciation was arguably the first Western scientific application of the holographic principle, spoke of ‘the exact, concrete imagination’ (die exacte Sinnliche Fantasie), reminding us that it is no abstraction at all, but far too concrete for the ordinary mind to comprehend.

Pedro Pitarch

In the fifteenth century a book appeared, by one Thomas à Kempis, entitled De Imitatione Christi, arguing that the whole sense and significance of Christ’s passion and purpose could be grasped in an instant by impersonating the life of the Saviour as outlined in the Gospels. In a certain sense, this allegory, very influential at the time, can be seen to illustrate both Pitarch’s dynamics of the Tzeltal body-soul ontology, and the transformational mystery of the Holy Sacrament as codified and practised in medieval Europe. The basic format, or, as we may call it, the core symbolic transformation, is virtually the same in both cases: a double chiasmus involving the respective impersonate and expersonate attributes of the body and soul in each of the four ontological states. The Tzeltal Maya case can be seen in Figure 13.1. Here, just as the fleshbody impersonates the more particular attributes of the ‘presence-body’, so the human soul impersonates a miniature simulacrum of the more complex and variegated ‘spirit-soul’. In the medieval European case, however, there is an important transformation involved in this double entendre of the ‘body-soul’ ontology. Medieval philosophy – for example, the Platonic ‘realism’ in vogue at the University of Paris in the thirteenth century – drew an all-important


257 presence-body




Figure 12.1  Tzeltal person’s double chiasmus.

distinction between accidentia (the merely empirical, hence ‘accidental’ and purely arbitrary properties of things) and substantia (the formal essence, or universal energy-configuration of things). Thus, in the medieval view, the expersonation of the body itself is rather like a quantum state of the organism, with its energy levels, whereas impersonation is inherently carnal and fleshly, like the material attributes of the flesh and blood, as displayed at a meat counter. Expersonation equals substantia; impersonation equals accidentia. Hence the significance of expersonation takes on a double role in the medieval transformation: both effecting the hyper-realization of the commonplace and the mundane, as in the Mayan case, and ‘dividing’, so to speak, the chiasmus itself via the induced distinction between the accidental and the substantial. In the words of the official doctrine of transubstantiation adopted by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215: ‘In the partaking of the Host, the substantial qualities of the blood and body of the Saviour pass immediately and subliminally into those of the worshipper, whereas the accidental (empirical) qualities remain as they were before’. Is there a New World counterpart to this spectral transformation of a world of thought and speculation into one highly charged and ultra-specific original value? The idea of a core symbol, a necessary transformational matrix upon which all possible cultural meanings and actions must be tested and substantiated, was first proposed by David M. Schneider in connection with his studies of American kinship (see Schneider 1968). Because it deals with the very changes through which change itself comes about – ‘a change of change’ like the Kennedy assassination – such a symbolic transformation bears no easy reference to the normative values of the culture in which it occurs, and is usually hidden in plain sight. We have no reason to expect that the type of core symbolization employed in one high civilization has anything to do with that of another; there are no generic archetypes, though as we have seen there can be similarities. The most striking of these involves the ancient civilization of India and that of the MesoAmericans. In both cases the ability to ‘see through ordinary reality’ and make


Roy Wagner

it transparent to itself: in fact to achieve a kind of ‘total perception’ – identified as ‘seeing’ in the Castaneda books (e.g. 1971), an ability to ‘see energy as it flows in the universe’ – a highly privileged psychic state that becomes both the enabling factor and the rationale behind the perspective itself. In the East Indian case, the enabling device was known as the IndraJal, or Net of the Lord Indra, and was configured as a perfect mathematical holography (see Wagner 2001:12–17), such that the manifestation of order (an order within order, so to speak) reflected in the design of the whole was instantly and immediately replicated homogeneously throughout, so that the Net becomes, as Borges put it in his short story ‘The Aleph’, ‘One of the points in space that contains all others.’ (Borges1971:11). The Meso-American alternative, although likewise holographic in its projective/reflective capabilities, belongs to an entirely different form of projective holography, one that formalists would call a double, self-recursive chiasmus, and is identical to Pitarch’s diagram (Figure 3.4) of the Tzeltal ‘soul-body’ expersonation/impersonation transformation (‘The Invention of Holography in the New World’). Identified by Meso-Americans as the ‘smoking mirror’, it refers to an obsidian reflective surface – a ‘dark side mirror’ – that reveals hidden transparencies and the dark, concealed motives behind actions, much as an ordinary mirror reflects light and the superficial aspects of things. Though no artefact corresponding to this description has ever been found, it is well known that Meso-Americans were superb craftsmen in exploiting the crystalline properties of obsidian, producing peerless life-sized face masks, so that a prodigy mirror of the kind implied might not have been beyond their capabilities. At all events, either the device or its perceptual substitute was used as a secret weapon in negotiating the dynastic succession between the Toltecs and their Nawa successors in highland Mexico. This brings us to the crucial variable that allows comparison between these two mutually incomprehensible core symbolic fixations, and permits each one of them to bring a comprehensive world perspective into focus out of its internal contradictions. Because of their inherently fractal conceptualizations – essentially both plural and singular at the same time – each of the two core symbolizations is able to function simultaneously as a total world cosmology and as a single intentional force behind that cosmology. Thus, as Lord of the Smoking Mirror, deceiver of commonplace motives, Tezcatlipoca can be understood as a single agency – he is the effect of the dark mirror – but at the same time he manifests ontologically as the Four Tezcatlipoca Brothers, each identified with a separate colour, direction and purpose, and each a separate and distinctive iteration of the same multi-phasic world perspective. Thus Black Tezcatlipoca is the agentive catalyst, somewhat like Siva in the Hindu world; Red Tezcatlipoca (Xipe, the ‘flayed’ or skinless god) is the fleshy,



Figure 12.2  Mesoamerican core symbolic fixation.

malleable organic substance of time itself, like Kali; White Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, is the principle of order, like Vishnu; and Blue Tezcatlipoca, the solar-energy aura of Hummingbird, is the sun god, and, like the Hindu Brahman, the source of everything.

Johannes Neurath

Shock and awe: ‘Open your mouth like a jaguar and speak for us’, was an ancient Aztec invocation for public performance. While by no means unusual in Old World mythologies, extreme exaggeration and overdramatic presentation become the diagnostic features of reality objectification in the New World, recalling, as Johannes Neurath reminds us, nothing so much as contemporary science-fiction. Nonetheless, there is an important difference here: in science-fiction the transformation – a future society run entirely by computers, a planet were people have no permanent gender, but change according to hormonal imbalance from month to month – is mainly a ploy to dramatize a moral message about the way a society is changing. But for a


Roy Wagner

New World people like the Wixaritari the transformation – shock and awe! – is the message itself. You only know it when it happens directly to you, and the stories you tell others about it are just that – ‘tales of power’, as Castaneda (1974) puts it. Let me illustrate: the Franciscan friars never really got the point of the Aztec open-heart sacrifice, so outraged were they by the very sight of it, though in many ways it reflected the bloody sacrilege of their own Crucifixion account. Yet Christ did not acquire his active subjectivity on the Cross, but only later, when he burned with the fire from within in the tomb, and the Franciscans were paying attention to the story, not the transformation, and for all we know it might as well have been science-fiction. So let us look at the facts: a severed human heart held up to the sky and still pumping blood in defiance of death dramatizes active subjectivity like nothing else in the literature, and evidences a concept that Europeans dared not think about since the days of Aristotle. It took Carlos Castaneda nine books to tell us that all power is personal, and that it is itself a transcultural phenomenon, but he did not succeeded half so well as Johannes Neurath in one short article. Unlike don Juan, Huichol invert our very notion of anthropology – they study us. We, on the other hand, must necessarily subject whatever we study, turn it into our own subject even in order to think of it (we think of ourselves, no matter what we think), but a people of the active subject disappear into their own creations even as they create them. ‘They have a vision of the active sun, and the sun rises’. What better evidence of active subjectivity? As the Brazilian poet Manoel de Barros once put it: ‘At dusk an old man plays his flute to invert the sunset’ (de Barros 2010:32). Old World rationalizations would have to invoke something wholly roundabout and enormous – the world turning on its axis – to achieve the same effect, but in the New World it is all very simple: it will be early morning all day long. Who needs Copernicus!

Roger Magazine

Since the days of Robert Redfield’s The Primitive World and Its Transformations (1953), non-plussed Anglo observers had remained convinced that highland Mexican villagers are, if not primitives, at least peasants (peons), in need of some sort of socio-economic ‘uplift’. If only Redfield had read his Spengler more carefully: this people are the heirs of one of the most sophisticated civilizations ever to grace the planet! So it falls to the task of another Anglo, no mere observer but this time a participant, don Ruggiero Revista, author of the brilliant The Village Is Like a Wheel (Magazine 2012), to restore the Toltecs to their place of honour. So place close attention to Magazine’s prose: a fiesta is not exactly the same thing as a stock market crash, nor does a



squared-off wheel role very well. Nor, for that matter, does the active subject, the prime advantage the New World civilizations had over their Old World counterparts, give up its secrets lightly. So if we ask the question, ‘Why and how does the village have an active subject?’, we are bound to get a wide range of different replies, most of them wrong. For one thing, an Anglo village does not have an active subject at all; it has something called a ‘mayor’ instead, and by definition a mayor is either active or it is a subject, but not both at the same time. In matters as difficult as this, it is best to proceed indirectly, and I shall rephrase: Why is the village like a wheel? Every part of a moving wheel is in motion except its absolute centre, which is perfectly still. And yet if the centre was not perfectly still, the wheel would have no direction, no momentum, no point of advantage for human tasks. For, as it turns out, the wheel has too much direction: every point in the wheel except the centre is moving in all directions at once. Just as a village, you say, but its gets worse. For even if you divide the wheel into halves, say a top half and a bottom half, or a front half and a back half, it turns out that each half is going in exactly the opposite direction to the other half, and with exactly the same speed and momentum. Why is this? It is because all points of the wheel except the exact centre are subject to the laws of rotation, but the exact centre is not. Therefore, the centre is an active subject in spite of its apparent passivity, for only at that point does the wheel move as a whole or single unit, and only at that point can it carry its cargos. Did you get my point? No, I don’t think so, and neither would Robert Redfield. (My apologies to the reader: I am still under the spell of John Huston’s film Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), starring Humphrey Bogart, which my mother took me to see when I was nine years old.) You see, all points on the wheel are invested in the centre point; they give it part of its momentum. Every head of household in the village has their own problems, their own tasks or chores, their own mouths to feed, their own direction in life. They all go in different directions: they are not their own subjects. It is only when they make their own investment, or contribution to the mayordomo, that they overcome the passive subjectivity of individual self-interest, that they can take on the roll (pun intended) of the community as a whole, carry the saintly cargos of its obligation, and celebrate its active subjectivity in the fiesta.

Marianna Keisalo, ‘Ilmarinen’s daughter’

In the early, expository treatments of Roy Wagner (1981) and James F. Weiner (1988), obviation appears as something very simple: ‘metaphor spread out’, the natural, involutional life cycle of the symbol, or signifying element, as it evidences the transformation from objective agency (‘signification’) to passive subjectivity (‘the signified’), so that what we would otherwise take to be the

Roy Wagner


narrative sequency of myth or ritual turns into something non-linear or selfrecursive. From this perspective, then, a myth or ritual is never an artefact or institution of the culture in which it appears, but a semiotic transformation or folding of perspectives that take us to the very root of meaning itself. As Keisalo points out, in her remarkable exegesis of a ritual that is never simply a ritual alone, but something much more, obviation is both the invention of convention and the convention of invention – a phase shift in world-making – cultural invent-ory. This means that Yaqui culture is never simply recollective and passive in the conventional sense, and never simply anticipatory in the agentive, or innovative sense, and that humour is made of the contradictions between the two. Humour – the nonlinear coefficient of cause-and-effect programming (‘rationality’) – has always been treated as ancillary and supplemental to knowledge in Old World conventions, but emerges as the most important teaching device of all in the New World. (‘Culture’ was an unthinkable concept before the discovery of the New World!) I first became aware of this while viewing the original copy of the Dresden Codex: the figures that accompany the text are drawn as grotesque, Disney-like caricatures, often with speech bubbles, exactly as in the comic strips of the mid twentieth century – or the larger-than-life characterizations of the shamanic heroes in the Finnish Kalevala, a text in which humour also plays a decisive role. On this pretext I should like to propose a new way of understanding obviation: we do not live in a world of single, separate, isolated events, but in a world of spatio-temporal coincidences – non-random ‘happenings’ that, taken altogether, shape the destiny of a person, a culture, an era. Thus, what appear as substitutions in the standardized obviation model emerge as coincidences presented as metaphors and presented alphabetically (A–B–C–) until the point of synthesis is reached, after which the whole sequence presents itself as a set of recursive, cross-cutting syntheses, disappearing into one final coincidence, which is the obviation itself. Beautifully represented in Keisalo’s synopsis of the Chapayekas’ performance – the humorous coincidental of the Yaqui Easter rite – obviation emerges as the ultimate transformation matrix, the ‘mother of myth and ritual’, and reminds the naïve observer of nothing so much as the miraculous Sampo, the legendary ‘treasure of Pohjola’ described in the Kalevala, which has the power of turning anything into anything else. Rest assured, O Ilmarinen, Now the Sampo is recovered, Treasure of the misty northland,



Safe at last in fat Sonora, Land of clowns and clever tricksters, Land of Castaneda’s folly.

Alessandro Questa

Let us begin with a classic Lévi-Straussian double comparative: a mask is an experimental, hypothetical face in the way that a shaman is an experimental hypothetical person. A mask renders the social face invisible; a shaman renders not only the social person, but actually sociality itself, invisible, travels in an institution of localities that is the landscape itself. This brings us to another Lévi-Straussian comparative: that between the abstract and the concrete. The main message of The Savage Mind (Lévi-Strauss 1966) is that contemporary (Old World) science couches its hypotheses, or heuristics, in abstract terms – winds are ‘moving air masses’, the faces are ‘significatory organs of perception’ – whereas primordial (New World) science forms its objectifications directly upon the concrete attributes and properties of the thing itself, and manifests ‘the science of the concrete’. Thus my Daribi confreres in Papua New Guinea told me that ‘the death of a person can be seen hovering over the place of dying for a long time afterward’. Notice they did not say ‘soul’ or ‘ghost’, terms that are irrelevant to them in this context; they said ‘death’, and death is a significantly different form of objectification than ‘soul’ or ‘ghost’. The Daribi term that is usually mistranslated as ‘ghost’ is izibidi, which means literally ‘die-person’ and not ‘dead person’ (bidi iziare). A dead person is something that is already gone; a die-person is still here. Abstraction manifests the absence of the thing you are talking about; concreteness manifests its presence. The Daribi word for ‘shaman’ is sogoyezibidi; this means literally the ‘izibidi of the tobacco’. The Daribi also identify the breath, or ‘wind’, as they call it, with the activities of the soul (noma’). Are the Nawa ejekamez izibidi (death visions)? To answer ‘well … yes and no’ would be to miss the whole point of this comparison, for the objectification is different in each case. But what kind of objectification is kixpatla, and what does ‘change of vision’ really mean? Discussing the matter of alternative forms of envisioning, don Juan tells Castaneda, ‘It is possible to feel with the eyes’ (Castaneda 1971:220), meaning basically that it is not only the pupil with its focusing apparatus that is responsible for our total perception of the world around us, but also the whole surface of the eye – the white part as well as the pupil. The pupil and its focusing apparatus is connected directly, via the optic nerve, to the brain, and is responsible for the conjoined act of looking and thinking – the eye directs the brain as the brain directs the eye, an aspect of our total awareness.


Roy Wagner

But in fact the whole surface of the eye as well as the sensitive area around it (kixpatla) is responsible for knowing the background – not simply intuiting it, but concretely objectifying it, which is why masks are so important. How does this really work? It is not just mysticism: it is hyper-objective reality! Basically, the pupil picks out figures, figures that we are taught to identify with reality, and foregrounds them as the basis of what don Juan calls ‘first attention reality’ (Castaneda 1974:23–35). At the same time, the whole surface of the eye, kixpatla, objectifies the background, the necessary visual contexts in which the figures are situated, and without which they would mean nothing. ‘Felling the background’ is what don Juan identifies with second attention reality, a hyper-objective dimension that is also called the nagual (ibid.:28). Here we reach the apex of Questa’s remarkable insight, for the ‘change of vision’ implied in the term kixpatla objectifies something quite remarkable, even in don Juan’s terms: it means performing an act of figure–ground reversal between first and second attentions – not only seeing the background as you have never seen it before, but actually allowing the background to see through you, hence the ‘forest face’ analogy, so that the figure–ground reversal takes on a new meaning and enables something quite extraordinary: Does the dancer wear the forest face or does the forest face wear the dancer? If the former, he is not really a human being anymore; if the latter, he is not a member of society anymore. It is only when the dancer is held in total suspension between these two extremes that the mediation is accomplished, and the ritual will work.

Lydia Rodríguez and Sergio López

No one who has properly understood Lydia Rodríguez and Sergio López’s contribution will ever look at Mayan glyphs in the same way again. A coordination of disparate elements sharing the same intent, the Maya glyph is often taken as the inscription of a metaphor. But insofar as the inscriptive format bears no reference to formal signification, it could not possibly be or mean a metaphor, not even a cryptic alphabet consisting of standardized metaphoric tropes. So what is it, and what, or how, does it mean? This brings us back to our main topic: the invention of culture in the New World. For the really astonishing implication of Rodríguez’s research is that objectification itself takes on an altogether different guise in the New World; it goes in a different direction than its counterparts in the Old World, leads to different conclusions, synthetizes an altogether different approach to reality. Old World civilizations objectify time in terms of space; New World civilizations do the opposite; they objectify space in terms of time. Old World histories evolve – they multiply themselves by themselves and expand into vast colonial empires; New World histories involve, they divide themselves



by themselves and eventually disappear into their quotient. Glyphs do not mark significances the way our alphabetized texts do, they mark coincidences, temporal logics of appearance and disappearance. And so the mighty citystates simply vanish when their time is up: ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ This is simply not the Old World Gibbon-cum-Spengler ‘rise and fall’ phenomenon, civilizational cycles, any more than glyphs are alphabetical texts. How else are we to make sense of the literally thousands of archaeological sites that give the impression that the ancient inhabitants simply left all at once, abandoning their homes and temples to the encroaching jungle? Lydia Rodríguez was a graduate assistant at the University of Virginia in the large undergraduate course in which the concept of binary involution was first introduced, and she and her husband Sergio López took the example with them in their fieldwork among the Chol Mayans of Chiapas. What happened afterwards was virtually unprecedented in the discipline – a student transcending their teacher by investigating what he took to be a simple solution in ethno-mathematics and finding it confirmed and replicated in all aspects of contemporary village life! One thinks of Franz Boas and Edward Sapir, or Ruth Benedict and Gregory Bateson, but Lydia’s brilliance gives new meaning to our idea of a prodigy, and a very old one to the search for an identifiable algorithm for the formal mathematics and design elements in ancient Maya world creation. Thus we are on the track of something very real: a key to the non-linear logic used by the most original grand civilization in world history; a key to the invention of culture in the New World. Rodríguez and López drove all the way from Charlottesville to Chiapas; before they left I asked López to be on the lookout for the architectural manifestation of the design element known as the ‘greco’, which I had deduced as the geometrical ‘printout’, so to speak, of the binary involution algorithm. What he found at Totonac proved stunning even to him: the entire city was designed and assembled through a very comprehensive application of the ‘greco’ element – a New World Lego construction. Even in its aerial perspective, as though it were the capital city of perspectivism! López photographed the whole thing in its entirety – looking up, looking down – and I doubt there is anything like it anywhere else in the world! This is a wonder beyond the marvels of Chichen Itzá and Palenque. The Totonac are a coastal people speaking a language closely related to Mayan; they are most famous for being the domesticators and processors of the vanilla bean – a necessity to making good chocolate anywhere in the world. They also brought us the first holographic metropolis. That was López’s discovery. What of Rodríguez’s? It was simply this: that the Mayan world perspective was too completely integrated into a totality that is neither natural nor cultural to even permit the isolation of individual


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algorithms, institutions, craft specializations, theories or bodies of thought and practice in and of themselves. Their calendar was no calendar, their alphabet was no alphabet, their politics were not politics. The ambitious modern interpreter is obliged to carve out a self-defined range of evidential material, perhaps as a topic of interest, and then watch in dismay as their particular slice of the pie is reflected again and again in every single facet of the totality. The only real parallel in the ethnographic literature is Louis Dumont’s determination, in Homo Hierarchicus, of the single purity/pollution ‘cut’ that accounts for all instances of differentiation or assimilation in the traditional Hindu caste system (Dumont 1980). The departure from traditional models of culture or cognitive awareness is so radical that in Rodríguez’s case as well as Dumont’s, the real question is that of who discovered what: did the ethnologist discover the holography, or did the holography discover the ethnologist?

Marcela Coelho de Souza

In Structural Anthropology II, Lévi-Strauss introduces the analytic concept of the ‘atom of kinship’, an epigrammatic, small-scale miniaturization of all possible relational combinations to be found in any and all systems of kin reckoning (Lévi-Strauss 1977). We have no quarrel with this: on the face of it it seems to be true – it contains in a nutshell the four interpersonal dyads that comprise what we may call the ‘internal leverage’ of any structural design: the two parents, the offspring, and the maternal uncle who stands proxy for the rights and obligations of his married sister. Two same-generational and two cross-generational dyads, as Lévi-Strauss puts it. But for Coelho de Souza and myself, something very important has been left out: the reduplicative self-mirroring harmonic of ‘anti-twinning’ (Wagner 2001:50–6), the generative matrix of cross-cousin relationships. To understand what this means, what is really needed is two siblings sets, conjoined, in the first generation, and two in the second – in effect, all the relations indicated in the atom of kinship, but in integrated and reduplicative form. A necessary step, but a crucial one, for, as Coelho de Souza points out, it can be used to demonstrate other transformations as well, in particular the incest/‘outcest’ radical – the central tenet of what Lévi-Strauss calls an ‘elementary structure of kinship’ (Levi-Strauss 1969). This is most conveniently illustrated by diagramming a back-to-back self-replicating connubium of sister exchange, a traditional practice in some parts of Amazonia. But even this falls far short of anti-twinning: the perfect mutual inversion of biological difference and similarity. In the case of two sibling sets whose male and female members have married each other, the consequences evidence a perfect example of recombinant DNA: each sibling set in the second generation manifests an obverse recombination of the same two genomes, resulting in a translineal



profile not unlike the double helix of Watson and Crick’s original model. (Professor Watson was one of my undergraduate biology instructors.) But even that understanding fails to do justice to the type of transformational matrix Coelho de Souza is talking about here: trans-specific metamorphosis – ‘bestiality’, inter-species ‘carnal knowledge’, ‘the thing LeviStrauss’s “true endogamy” or the outcest taboo is supposed to prevent’. She is talking about the ‘omnimal’, the one creatural form that all organic life forms share in common, inverted morphologically into an involutional matrix. As organic life evolves, so its biogrammatic inverse involves (see Rodríguez, this volume), divides itself from within, becomes the anti-twinning of its own external twinning process. This gives a new perspectival twist to what we have conventionally known as ‘kinship’, and lends it a self-conscious ‘degree of freedom’ making it deliberate and artefactual in Homo sapiens, the ‘species that invented species’ (Wagner 2001:xiv). We are coming from the future, just as DNA comes from the past. (If DNA were not, in its very nature, doublehelical it would never have invented Watson and Crick.) Just exactly what kind of difference does artefactual kinship make? In the original argument, human beings as well as all complex chordate life forms are contained by laterality (sidedness as the ‘right’ and ‘left’), which is therefore twinned inward, and de-contained by gender, which is twinned outward into two specific body types, called male and female. In the act of procreation, however, this normative twinning is reversed on itself in a retroflex version called anti-twinning, for in this case, one of the disparate body types, the female, contains the other, which in turn de-contains it, thus double-crossing the twinning complex in one of its two directions. The other direction is that of agency, manipulating the external environment, and in this respect each of the two sides of the body de-contains the other in accomplishing its tasks, hence completing the double-cross. To sum up: twinning equals gender turned outward/laterality turned inward, whereas anti-twinning equals gender turned inward/laterality turned outward. By raising this epigrammatic matrix to the level of self-conscious manipulation, determining it on the level of a ‘made’ artefact, Homo sapiens is doing the work of the anti-twins. That is, by making a deliberate, artefactual reality of kin concepts and kin relations, human beings have created an appositive, antithetical life form, a non-abstraction that takes on a concrete life of its own. Would it surprise you to learn that we have good, empirical evidence for the real existence of anti-twins from a number of peoples around the globe, that anti-twinnig is a global phenomenon? Among the Walbiri aborigines of the Central Desert of Australia they are called Wedge-Tailed Eagle and Pink Cockatoo, the two totem birds that gave the people their mathematically complex kinship system in the first place (Munn 1973:221). Among the Na


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Dene (Apache and Navajo) people of the American south-west, they are called Sa’a Naghai and Bik’e Hozhoo, the perfect boy and girl, who were seen only once by mankind when they emerged from First Man’s medicine bundle. ‘They are in front of us all the time, helping us’, say the people, ‘but we cannot see them for their glow of perfection.’ (Farella 1990:67–83). They are ubiquitous in West Africa, but when I told an Ecuadorian shaman, don Alberto Taczo, that ‘I take this to be West African knowledge’, he replied, ‘It is known in the Andes too, and it is sublime.’

Chloe Nahum-Claudel

For the Daribi, shame (hare) is ‘what one feels in the presence of one’s fatherin-law (wai’)’, but largely because one is never in the presence of one’s motherin-law (au, a reciprocal relation). In other words, the wife’s father stands in proxy for his wife, who is the subject of the interdict that in its turn stands proxy for the whole range of affinal relationships and the relatives connected through them. Each time the interdict is imposed, Daribi kinship begins anew, and the precedent for this is an ancient one, going back in time to the first instance of social shame: the original event that made us human, created kinship, as well as the landscape itself. It is the story of Souw’s curse, of the interdict he placed on immortality, and the subsequent adventures of the To Nigare Bidi (‘Maker of the Land’) as he created the limestone ridges to place a barrier between himself and the woman in whose presence he had shamed himself. There are many different versions of the story, and it is told in a number of different ways, but basically the logic behind it goes like this: immortal beings have no need to reproduce, so in the beginning sexual intercourse served as a means for men to ‘feed’ woman with the juices and fat of the animals they have hunted and consumed, for women’s tasks were confined to the processing of sago flour. As long as Souw was able to ‘feed’ his experienced female partner in this way, there was no shame in the world, nor death, nor kinship. But one day he forced his attentions upon an inexperienced virgin, who cried out in alarm, and in response Souw lost his erection, his self-confidence and his animality, and went into a state of total hysterical rage that characterizes Daribi people to this very day. He threw a curse on the whole human race: ‘Henceforth you shall die, you shall kill each other, you shall take revenge, you shall work sorcery’. Then he threw down the implements of warfare and sorcery, and to cover his tracks and to keep the women from following him he created the intricate network of karst limestone ridges that stretches far to the south-east of Mount Karimui. What does this all mean? Souw made the separations; women make the convergences: these are the primitives of the argument – social shame



identifies the interdict, and also the landscape. The genders were united initially by a kind of immortal nurturing relationship – a flow of analogy between men and women that coincided with immortality and thereby unity with the given world order. When this flow was abrogated, by Souw’s Sivalike act of creative destruction (Souw equals Siva, Jehovah, Adam and so on; the virgin equals Kali, Eve-Lilith, forbidden knowledge) the universe of kinship was born. Among other things, what the story tells us is that kinship is not ‘given’; it is made by human artifice, and it is integrally connected to nurturance. ‘Back in the Beginning, stories sat around the campfire telling people to one another’. Does this mean that the Daribi and the Enawene, in their total life strategies, are but fractal iterations of the same story? Among all the astonishing parallels between the Daribi and the Enawene, none is more significant than the emphasis placed by both peoples on betrothal, the fact that affinity pre-iterates consanguinity. Betrothal is the original act that predisposes marriage, the prenuptial contrast that, as it were, marries marriage to kinship, and in both cases the actual substance of the betrothal arrangement consists of feeding a prospective spouse. Feeding, in other words, has a sacramental quality, not unlike that of the Christian Eucharist, which is also, as theologians have often pointed out, something of betrothal. It is the flow of analogy between the human and the divine, or in the mundane case, between one kin unit and another. Here, however, we encounter the first (and only) major discrepancy between the two peoples, for among the Daribi, following the precedent of Souw, it is the male who initiates the betrothal, establishing the flow of analogy through gifts of protein products to the prospective mother-in-law, delivered blindly, of course, to avoid the curse, and with no chance of contact between the two. Enawene, indeed, follow the same basic protocol, but here it is the prospective mother-in-law herself who takes the initiative, feeding the prospective male partner (groom) with oral gifts of a milk-like substance. As though the virgin (‘with firm, upstanding breasts’, as the Daribi put it) were feeding Souw instead. So the question arises of what difference, if any, this gender reversal makes. And the answer is a testament to the high originality of NahumClaudel’s insight: it makes no difference at all! The Daribi could as well be called ‘matrilineal’ and the Enawene ‘patrilineal’ but for the places where traditional kin classification intercepts what is really a flow of analogy between the genders – ‘anti-twinning’ as I have called it (Wagner 2001:50), and as Coelho de Souza (this volume) has described it in her equally remarkable study of cross-twinning in the Xingu.

Roy Wagner


José Antonio Kelly

Always quick on the draw, José Antonio Kelly, ‘the fast gun of the Orinoco’, asks the most profound question ever put to the faculty of human cognitive self-awareness – that of shamanic image conversion between the remote and the familiar. Rather than trying to reinterpret his question – for my role here is that of a passive interlocutor – I shall simply restate it in some of the contexts featured in his discussion. Kelly’s astute analytical comparison of shamanic visionary practices with those of quantum physics raises the intriguing possibility that both kinds of exploration into the unknown actually reverses the role of cause and effect in reporting their findings to us. Thus in his remarkable account of the falling sky, the Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa describes in great detail the various orders and attributes of the spirit beings he encountered in the rainforest habitat. He claims that they have been long-standing features of the interiorized cosmology of his people, part of a tradition inherited from his predecessors. In the light of his own experiences, however, this claim sounds suspiciously like that of an ambitious young quantum researcher in one of our laboratories, eager to add his own signature particle to the list. Hence the comparison recalls Michael Talbot’s observation: Jahn and Dunne are not so timid. They believe that instead of discovering particles, physicists may be actually creating them. As evidence, they cite a recently discovered subatomic particle call an anomalon, whose properties vary from laboratory to laboratory. Imagine owning a car that had different color and different features depending on who drove it! This seems very curious and seems to suggest that the anomalon’s reality depends on who finds it/creates it. 

(Talbot 1991:140)

In this respect, the ‘Kopenawa particle’ seems to resemble the Higgs boson in bestowing attributes on all the other particles (either that, or it is very good at identity theft). If finding particles is the same as creating them, then finding myth in people or people in myths must partake of much the same quality. As Kelly points out, ‘the shaman collapses contexts conventionally thought to be separate’. His interpretation is a new metaphor, a symbol that stands for itself (Wagner 1981), for the focus of the connection is primarily on the unforeseen relation between an event of today and an ante-event, and not on the terms (events) themselves, each of which belongs to a conventional and known context. In fact, then, the study of mythic avatars is, like the Mayan glyphic system, and the calendar that is made of them, a study in coincidences. This



makes it easier to understand the transformational role of obviation in the study of myths: myths make people as people make myths. Myths and people are mutually coincident phenomena, as Maya personal day-signs will testify. At the end of the narrative, you are not really the same person as you were before; something quite extraordinary has happened to you. Thus, in Lima’s reflection (cited by Kelly), ‘the first time I told a myth to the Juruna (it was an Apinayé account), people did not notice, when I ended the narration, that the myth had actually come to an end’. Of course they did not notice; in fact they could not notice, for they were no longer Juruna anymore! They had just obviated as Apinayé, and were now caught between worlds – like anthropologists, one might say, caught and held within the reciprocity of perspectives, pire-wuo, the subliminal change of viewpoints, a Barok term from New Ireland, used to describe figure–ground reversal. Speaking of which, I once asked a famous Irish barrister, Owen O’Mahany, why, if Saint Patrick has rid Ireland of snakes, there are so many snakes in New Ireland. ‘And where do you think Saint Patrick put them?’ was his reply. Go figure.


Barros, M. de. 2010. Birds for Demolition (trans. I. Novey). Pittsburg: Carnegie Mellon University Press. Borges, J.L. 1971. The Aleph and Other Stories 1933-1969. New York: Bantam Books. Castaneda, C. 1971. A Separate Reality. New York: Simon and Schuster. ——— 1974. Tales of Power. New York: Simon and Schuster. Dumont, L. 1980 [1966]. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and its Implications. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Lévi-Strauss, C. 1966 [1962]. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 1969. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Boston: Beacon Press. ——— 1977. ‘Reflections on the atom of kinship’. In Structural Anthropology II, pp. 82–113. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Magazine, R. 2012. The Village Is Like a Wheel: Rethinking Cargos, Family, and Ethnicity in Highland Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. Munn, N.D. 1973. Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Panshin, A. 1976. Farewell to Yesterday’s Tomorrow. New York: Berkeley Medallion Books Redfield, R. 1953. The Primitive World and Its Transformations. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Richman, K. 2005. Migration and Vodou. Gainsville: University of Florida Press. Schneider, D.M. 1968. American Kinship: A Cultural Account. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Talbot, M. 1991. The Holographic Universe. New York: Harper and Collins.

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Wagner, R. 1981. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ——— 2001. An Anthropology of the Subject: Holographic Worldview in New Guinea and Its Meaning and Significance for the World of Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press. ——— 2010. Coyote Anthropology. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Weiner, J. 1988. The Heart of the Pearl Shell: The Mythological Dimension of Foi Sociality. Berkeley: University of California Press.