Alexander Mansutti Rodríguez describes some dramatic episodes of shamanistic violence in an article published last year in a book about lowland South America. One episode he describes, for example, concerns a very powerful Piaroa shaman, called a tjujaturuwa (lord of the people), who was preoccupied with defending himself from the attacks of potentially jealous rivals. One day another shaman moved into his neighborhood. Both men were conscious of the need to be very careful and to prevent confrontations. The two shamans arranged for a granddaughter of the tjujaturuwa to marry a son of the other. She quickly became pregnant.
The situation became complex when the older sister of the married girl suddenly was found hung, an apparent suicide. The one shaman was presumed to have attacked his rival, the tjujaturuwa, by killing his older granddaughter. Then, the married girl was also found hung, and again the powers of sorcery were presumably the cause. The affected family carried out appropriate revenge rituals after each death. A few months later the tjujaturuwa himself suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed, and shortly after that he died. The people attributed all of these events to shamanistic attacks from the newcomer, who was perceived to be envious of the powers of his rival.
Mansutti Rodríguez describes other instances of fighting. One shaman attacked a neighbor by sending a tumor into an adversary’s daughter. The adversary gained his revenge by attacking the other’s wife, sterilizing and paralyzing her. Another fought the shamans of the Wirö, a neighboring people. In revenge for his activities, they caused a massive windstorm to knock down some giant trees near his home.
Shamanism is omnipresent in the Piaroa world. Mansutti Rodríguez defines shamanism as “a cluster of practices sustained by metaphysical powers that allows those who control the tools to intervene in and control the world (p.226).” Shamanistic activities are not, in themselves, necessarily negative or positive. Rather, the effects they produce determine their value. The results of shamanistic attacks in Piaroa society are not predictable. If a shaman is powerful, attacks by others will probably not harm him or his family.
The work of the shaman produces the resources—the water, soil, animals, plants, stones, and fish—that are available to the community. He owns those resources and he must know how to control them by using his powers in complex prayers, rituals and formulas. His creative powers, however, frequently generate envy, which can produce aggressive attacks from other shamans.
The author argues that the Piaroa have a highly peaceful society, marred only by shamanistic aggression. As he puts it, they are rarely physically aggressive, but they are “masters of the uses of symbolic violence (p.216).” He points out that the Piaroa idealize the absence of violence in families. To support that ideal, their myths establish a worldview that focuses on the debilitating effects of shamanistic attacks. That mythology helps them cope with envy and its potential for fostering physical violence.
In one myth, Keumoi, father-in-law of Wahari, the creator of the Piaroa, decided to eat his own grandson, Wahari’s son. He wanted to satisfy his consuming need to eat living flesh. One day when the grandson stopped by Kuemoi’s house, the old god captured, killed, cooked, and ate the boy to satisfy his hunger. When Wahari visited his father-in-law, Kuemoi offered him some soup made from the flesh of his own son. Wahari, of course, had the power to know what had happened.
He decided to kill his father-in-law. Assuming the body of a harpy eagle, he grabbed Kuemoi and flew off with him in his talons, dismembering the cannibal as he carried him away. The Piaroa recognize, of course, that revenge plants the seeds of more revenge, a major problem in any society. But Kuemoi was a heartless brute who used his shamanistic powers to satisfy his cannibalistic needs. The only reason he did not eat his son-in-law too was that he was unable to capture him. Kuemoi’s actions represent the epitome of evil to the Piaroa, so they feel that Wahari’s revenge was justified.
The author points out that the Piaroa generally try to prevent shamanistic attacks and cycles of revenge from occurring. For instance, when they hold a warime festival, which celebrates abundance, fertility, and wealth, they realize it might generate hostility and envy from neighboring shamans who may not have as many resources. The shaman holding such a festival tries to build alliances with numerous other shamans beforehand in an attempt to prevent attacks from occurring.
Some shamans perform a ritual of revenge when someone has died and the assassin, the shaman who caused the death, can be clearly identified. Called the tusuraoko, the ritual is based on the revenge that Kuemoi’s children used to avenge Wahari’s murder of their father. Family members collect pieces from the dead body, take them to a hidden area of the forest, mix them with certain leaves and plant parts, and bury them near a specified tree. A competent shaman performs the proper ritual, which directs attacks at the individual presumed to be responsible for the death. If the other shaman is too powerful, the attack may not succeed.
In sum, Piaroa society strictly prohibits physical violence and idealizes the control of passions. But all shamans, they believe, suffer from setbacks, the results of envy by other shamans, so they are constantly motivated to seek revenge. Their shamanistic attacks, as long as they are in defense from the aggression of others, can therefore be legitimate. Their society, the author argues, represents a delicate balance between these conflicting needs; the people base their abhorrence for physical violence on their acceptance of symbolic aggression.
Mansutti Rodríguez, Alexander. 2008. “Envy and Revenge: The Case of the Piaroa.” In Revenge in the Cultures of Lowland South America, Edited by Stephen Beckerman and Paul Valentine, p. 216-232. Gainesville: University Press of Florida