Myth and Metaphor

Managing Nature in the Colombian Amazon

by | May 1, 2020

The full measure of a culture embraces both the actions of a people and the quality of their aspirations, the nature of the metaphors that propel their lives. A child raised to believe that a mountain is the abode of a protective deity will be a profoundly different human being from a youth brought up to believe that a mountain is an inert mass of rock ready to be mined. A tribal society whose every interaction with the forest is mediated by reciprocal obligations informed by myth and sanctioned by the spirits, will never understand the motivations of an industrial society that considers that same forest to be but cellulose and board feet, trees existing to be cut.

Spring/Summer 2020, Volume XIX, Number 3

A Barasana youth plays with his pet macaw in San Miguel on the Río Piraparaná. In 1986 Colombian president Virgilio Barco Vargas told Martin von Hildebrand, then Head of Indigenous Affairs, to do something for the Indians. In five extraordinary years Hildebrand secured for the native people of the Colombian Amazon legal title to an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom, land rights that were encoded in the 1991 Political Constitution. In the years that followed, as Colombia endured the ravages of war, a veil of isolation fell upon the Northwest Amazon. And behind this veil a cultural revival took place unlike anything seen in South America.

Neither sentimental nor weakened by nostalgia, the indigenous peoples of the Colombian Amazon had no idealized concept of conservation, no conscious notion of having to protect, in a strictly material sense, a seemingly endless forest that they lacked the technical capacity to harm. Their stewardship, forged through time and ritual, was based on a far more subtle intuition—the idea that the land itself was breathed into being by human consciousness. The indigenous people do not perceive mountains, rivers and forests as inanimate, as mere props on a stage upon which the human drama unfolds. For these societies, the land is seen to be alive, a dynamic force to be embraced and transformed by the human imagination. 

The European tradition, in all its brilliance, took a very different path. The defining mission of the Enlightenment was to liberate humanity from the tyranny of absolute faith. Expunged from the record were all notions of myth, magic, mysticism, and, most importantly, metaphor. The universe, declared French philosopher René Descartes in the 17th century, was composed only of “mind and mechanism.” With a single phrase, all sentient creatures aside from human beings were devitalized, as was the earth itself. Phenomena that could not be positively observed and measured could not exist. The triumph of secular materialism became the conceit of modernity. The notion that land could have anima, that the flight of a hawk might have meaning, that beliefs of the spirit could have true resonance, was ridiculed. 

The reduction of the world to a mechanism, with nature but an obstacle to overcome, a resource to be exploited, has in good measure determined the manner in which this singular tradition, informed by science and empowered by industry, has blindly interacted with a living planet. For three hundred years, this paradigm has been ascendant, fueled quite literally by the ancient sunlight of the world. But dominance and ubiquity do not imply normalcy. The ethnographic record suggests that this way of thinking is, in fact, highly anomalous in the human experience. Reciprocity, not extraction, is the norm. This dynamic may be expressed in any number of ways, but universally comes down to a simple but fundamental exchange; just as the earth yields its bounty, people have an obligation to maintain the well-being of the earth. In such a cosmic scheme, people are vital, for it is only through the generative power of ritual that realms of the spirit can be entered, mystical deeds accomplished, energies harmonized, and the universe itself realigned. In such wisdom traditions, every ceremonial gesture, each prayer and offering, is a declaration that humans are not the problem but the solution.

Our destiny is not indelibly written in a set of choices that demonstrably and scientifically have proven not to be wise. The very existence of other cultural possibilities, other dreams of the earth, other visions of life itself, illuminates the folly of those who say we cannot change, as we all know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit the planet. Even as we anticipate the promise of such a transformative shift in perspective and priorities, it behooves us to listen to the other voices of humanity, knowing full well that every culture has something to say and each deserves to be heard, just as none has a monopoly on the route to the divine. In the Northwest Amazon, the beliefs and intuitions of the people, distilled in the genius of their shamans, natural philosophers all, can only fire our hearts with wonder.


For the indigenous peoples of the Vaupés, in the remote reaches of the Colombian Amazon, rivers are not just routes of communication.  They are the veins of the earth, the link between the living and the dead, the paths along which the ancestors travelled at the beginning of time. Origin myths vary but always speak of a great journey from the east, of sacred canoes brought up the Milk River by enormous snakes known as anacondas. Within the canoes were the first people, together with the three most important plants—coca, manioc and yagé, all gifts of Father Sun.

When the serpents reached the center of the world, they lay over the land, according to the myths, outstretched as rivers, their powerful heads forming river mouths, their tails winding away to remote headwaters, the ripples in their skin giving rise to rapids and waterfalls. Thus came into the being the homelands of the Makuna, Barasana, Tanimuka, Tukano and all the other Peoples of the Anaconda.

The Makuna today acknowledge this primordial journey, even as they trace the genesis of the world to a far earlier time, when there was only chaos in the universe. Spirits and demons known as He preyed on their own kindred, bred without thought, committed incest without consequence, devoured their own young. The Ancestral Mother, Romi Kumu, Woman Shaman, responded by destroying the world with fire and floods. Then, just as a mother turns over a warm slab of manioc bread on the griddle, she turned the inundated and charred world upside down, creating a flat and empty template from which life could emerge once again. Romi Kumu opened her womb, allowing her blood and breast milk to give rise to rivers, allowing her ribs to become the mountain ranges of the world. As Woman Shaman she gave birth to a new world: land, water, forest, and animals. 


In a parallel story of creation, four great culture heroes — the Ayawa, mythic ancestors also know as the Thunders — came up the Milk River, passing through the Water Door, pushing before them as ploughs the sacred trumpets of the Yurupari, creating valleys and waterfalls. Rivers were born of their saliva. Slivers of wood broken off by the effort gave rise to the first ritual artifacts and musical instruments. As the Ayawa journeyed toward the center of the world, the notes of the trumpets brought into being the mountains and uplands, the posts and walls of the cosmic maloca or hut.

At every turn, the Ayawa confronted greedy demonic forces, avaricious spirits that thrived on destruction and coveted the world. Outwitting the monsters, casting them into stone, the Ayawa brought order to the universe, causing the essence and energy of the natural world to be released for the benefit of all sentient creatures and every form of life. Then, stealing the creative fire from the vagina of Romi Kumu, they made love to her, and, fully satiated, rose into the heavens to become thunder and lightning.

Realizing that she was pregnant, the myth recounts, Woman Shaman went downriver to the Water Door of the East, where she gave birth to the ancestral anaconda. In time the serpent retraced the harrowing journey of the Ayawa, returning in body and spirit to the riverbanks, waterfalls and rocks, where it birthed the clan ancestors of the Barasana, Makuna and all their neighbors. 

The world of the Makuna begins at the falls of Yuisi and ends at the cataract of Jirijirimo on the Río Apaporis. The hills along the Taraira, and the falls of Yurupari on the Río Vaupés and Araracuara on the Río Caquetá, the mountain escarpments beyond the Kanamari- all of these physical and geographical points of memory and origin remain vibrant and alive, a mythic geography written upon the land. Each is part of a sacred nexus that recalls an impossibly distant era where the Ayawa released to humans the raw energy of life, even as they bequeathed to all Peoples of the Anaconda the eternal obligation to manage the flow of creation. 

For the people living today in the forests of the Apaporis and Piraparaná, the entire natural world is saturated with meaning and cosmological significance. Every rock and waterfall embodies a story. Plants and animals are but distinct physical manifestations of the same essential spiritual essence. At the same time, everything is more than it appears, for the visible world is only one level of perception. Behind every tangible form, every plant and animal, is a shadow dimension, a place invisible to ordinary people but visible to the shaman.

This is the realm of the He spirits, a world of deified ancestors where rocks and rivers are alive, plants and animals are human beings, sap and blood the bodily fluids of the primordial river of the anaconda. Hidden in cataracts, behind the physical veil of waterfalls, in the very center of stones are the great malocas of the He spirits, where everything is beautiful — the shining feathers, the coca, the calabash of tobacco powder, which is itself the skull and brain of the sun.

It is to the realm of the He spirits that the shaman goes in ritual. The Barasana shaman has little interest in medicinal plants. His duty and sacred task is to move in the timeless realm of the He, embrace the primordial powers, and harness and restore the energy of all creation. He is like a modern engineer who enters the depths of a nuclear reactor to renew the entire cosmic order.

Such renewal is the fundamental obligation of the living. In practice, this implies that the Barasana see the earth as potent, the forest as being alive with spiritual beings and ancestral powers. To live off the land is to embrace both its creative and destructive potential. Human beings, plants and animals share the same cosmic origins, and in a profound sense are seen as essentially identical, responsive to the same principles, obligated by the same duties, responsible for the collective well-being of creation. 

There is no separation between nature and culture. Without the forest and the rivers, humans would perish. But without people, the natural world would have no order or meaning. All would be chaos. Thus, the norms that drive social behavior also define the manner in which human beings interact with the wild, the plants and animals, the multiple phenomena of the natural world, lightning and thunder, the sun and the moon, the scent of a blossom, the sour odor of death. 

Everything is related, everything connected, a single integrated whole. Mythology infuses land and life with meaning, encoding expectations and behaviors essential to survival in the forest, anchoring each community, every maloca, to a profound spirit of place.

There is no beginning and end in Barasana thought, no sense of a linear progression of time, destiny or fate. Every object must be understood at various levels of analysis. A rapid is an impediment to travel but also a house of the ancestors. A stool is not a symbol of a mountain; it is in every sense an actual mountain, upon the summit of which sits the shaman. This lad’s corona of oropendola feathers really is the sun, each yellow plume a ray.

These cosmological ideas have very real ecological consequences both in terms of the way people live and the impacts they have on their environment. The forest is the realm of the men, the garden the domain of women, where they give birth to both plants and children. The women cultivate thirty or more food crops and encourage the fertility and fecundity of some twenty varieties of wild fruits and nuts. The men grow only tobacco and coca, which they plant in narrow winding paths that run through the women’s fields, like serpents in the grass. 

For the women, the act of harvesting and preparing cassava, the daily bread, is a gesture of procreation and a form of initiation. The starchy fluid left over once the grated mash has been fully rinsed is seen as female blood that can be rendered safe by heat, and drunk warm like a mother’s milk. The crude manioc fiber resembles the bone of men. Fired on the griddle, shaped by female hands, the cassava is the medium through which the plant spirits of the wild are domesticated for the good of all. 

Like all food, it has ambivalent potential. It gives life but may also bring disease and misfortune. Thus, nothing can be eaten unless it has passed through the hands of an elder, and been blessed and spiritually cleansed by the shaman. Food in this sense is power, for it represents the transfer of energy from one life form to another. As a child grows he or she is only slowly introduced to new categories of food, and severe food restrictions mark all the major passages of life — moments of initiation for a male, the first menses for a woman, transitional moments when the human being, by definition, is in contact with the spirit realm of the He.

When men go to the forest to hunt or fish, it is never a trivial passage. First the shaman must travel in trance to negotiate with the masters of the animals, forging a mystical contract with the spirit guardians, an exchange based always on reciprocity. The Barasana compare it to marriage, for hunting too is a form of courtship, in which one seeks the blessing of a greater authority for the honor of taking into one’s family a precious being.

Meat is not the right of a hunter but a gift from the spirit world. To kill without permission is to risk death by a spirit guardian, be it in the form of a jaguar, anaconda, tapir, or harpy eagle. Man in the forest is always both predator and prey.

The same cautious and established social protocols that maintain peace and respect between neighboring clans of people, that facilitate the exchange of ritual goods, food, and women, are applied to nature. Animals are potential kin, just as the wild rivers and forests are part of the social world of people.

Together these ideas and restrictions create what is essentially a land management plan inspired by myth. Entire stretches of the Piraparaná, home to several hundred species of fish, are deemed off limits for spiritual reasons. Shamanic sanctions, though inspired by cosmology, have the very real effect of mitigating the impact of human beings on the environment. And, as the mythological events that inspired such beliefs are ongoing, the consequence is a living philosophy that really does view man, woman and nature as one.

All of this comes alive is the great seasonal ceremonies that bring together families from up and down the Piraparaná and beyond. For days on end, there is little rest. As the rituals begin, time collapses. There are two series of dances, separated by the liminal moments of the day, dawn, dusk and midnight. The regalia is not decorative. A corona of oropendola feathers actually is the sun, each yellow plume a ray. It is the literal connection to sacred space, the wings to the divine. 

In donning the feathers, the yellow corona of pure thought, the white egret plumes of the rain, the men really do become the ancestors, just as the river is the anaconda, the mountains the house posts of the world, the shaman the shape-shifter, in one moment a predator, in the next prey. He changes from fish to animal to human and back again, transcending every form, becoming pure energy flowing among every dimension of reality, past and present, here and there, mythic and mundane. His chants recall by name every point of geography met on the ancestral journey of the Anaconda, toponyms that can be traced back with complete accuracy more than 900 miles down the Amazon to the east. 

Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society from 2000 to 2013, Wade Davis is currently Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Author of 22 books, including One River, The Wayfinders and Into the Silence, he holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. In 2016, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada. In 2018 he became an Honorary Citizen of Colombia. His latest book, Magdalena: River of Dreams, was published by Knopf in September.

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