The Powers of the Sacred

Portals, Shamans and Amazonian Spirits

by | Jul 13, 2020

Girls enter the dance house at a dance festival in Wapui. Photo by ©Giorgio Palmera

Some 45 years ago, when I first went to live as an anthropology doctoral student, with the Baniwa indigenous people of the northwest Amazon in Brazil, it was a very remote place, though still under the control of Catholic Salesian and Protestant evangelical missionaries. The military presence was evident and merchants plied the rivers to exploit the native production in woven baskets.

My interest in traditional life, especially shamanism and ceremonies, was initially met by the Baniwa shamans and elders with much suspicion and caution. Only after months of work was I  able to establish a trusting relation with them, several of whom became my lifelong teachers. One in particular is a master shaman, known as a dzato dzauika, a “snuff jaguar,” one of the most respected spiritual leaders of his community. From him, with his daughter as translator, I have been able over many years to explore the cosmos, its major spirits and demiurges and its sacred places of origin.

The jaguar shaman Manuel da Silva, more than 90 years old today, has been my principal teacher on shamanism, and his life-story is recorded in my book Mysteries of the Jaguar Shamans (University of Nebraska Press, 2013). His ancestors built the Baniwa village of Wapui and he has been a lifelong protector of the sacred site at Hipana rapids discussed below, and of Baniwa shamanism in general. Ten years ago, he was presented with a “Living Treasure” award by the Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS,, in recognition of his work in preserving shamanic knowledge. With his collaboration, we created a school for shamans’ apprentices, called Malikai Dapana (House of Shamanic Knowledge and Power), and da Silva, with the participation of several elder shamans, trained a whole generation of apprentices.


Portals to Other Worlds

Google image of Wapui: the village and the rapids

Initially, I lived in the Baniwa village of Wapui in front of the spectacularly beautiful rapids called Hipana (HEE-PANA). The rapids and its surroundings, the Baniwa believe, are what remains of the very first world, the primordial world, when the great spirits and demiurges lived. Like all such sacred sites the world over, they are hedged by taboos, at times considered life-threateningly dangerous, which is explained by the stories and represented in petroglyphs. These places are not merely memories of a distant past—as the Baniwa say, “there is a long, long story there”—they are portals to other worlds. Portals are places that are understood to connect to other planes of reality— the worlds of the spirits, the demiurges or the cosmic forces that flow through the portals at certain moments of the annual cycles. These sacred places are said to be where cosmic events in the creation story unfolded and temporal cycles actually began.

I later discovered that Hipana is one of the innumerable places of cosmic alignment that can be located throughout the continent so well-documented in the PBS series “Native America.” The petroglyphs on the boulders at Hipana are full of meaningful symbols; for example, some sort of lunar alignment might be going on in the photo below between the dots on this boulder and the position of the moon rising.

Spring/Summer 2020, Volume XIX, Number 3

Photo credit by ©Giorgio Palmera

Baniwa elders explained to me that these petroglyphs were made in “ancient times” by their Creator, and serve as markers of seasonal transitions as well as calendars for ceremonial cycles. One of the petroglyphs represents the Pleiades (or “Seven Sisters”) constellation, important in many indigenous cosmologies as heralding transitions in the annual cycle. In the Amazon, it appears on the horizon at the beginning of the rainy season, coinciding with the ripening of the forest-fruits. It is also the time of the consellation Orion known as  the “Fishtrap,” because it coincides with the time when great fish-runs migrate upstream to spawn. This is when people today celebrate their most important festivals of initiation of children into adulthood during which they play the music of sacred flutes and trumpets.

The Baniwa people, who have lived in this region for millennia, consider Hipana as the source of all life in this world, a cosmic center in both a vertical sense, connecting upper and lower worlds, and a horizontal sense, connecting this “world center” as it is called, with the distant lands where the white people live.  In the middle of the rapids, there are several large and very deep holes in the granite, one of which is called the “bottomless hole” (midzaka) that opens into the underworld and also conjoins with the upper worlds through an enormous, invisible (except to the shamans) “world umbilical cord” (hekwapi hliepohle) connecting every human to their first ancestors who dwell in the sky worlds. Once, I went down to the river’s edge in front of the rapids with one of the oldest shamans, then my teacher. We commented on the powerful flow of the water, and he pointed in sequence to the center of the rapids, to the sky, then to his navel. These gestures were for me to understand that this rapids is the navel of the world, connecting humans to all levels of the cosmos.

Aerial photo of the rapids of creation: the powerful flow of water covers the holes from which the first humans emerged. The large boulder, lower left, is the first earth. Photo credit by M.C. Wright, 2010

It was at this cosmic center, the elder shaman explained, that the world grew from its miniature size in the beginning to its present-day size . The “bottomless hole” in the center of the rapids is the place from which all the first ancestors of humanity were born. There are also petroglyphs that represent one of the most remarkable events in Baniwa cosmic history: the first woman giving birth to the child of the creator demiurge. As an infant, this child was strange, an anomaly, because musical sounds were produced from the pores in its body. I have learned over many years that those sounds and the strange child symbolize growth—of the world, of the forest-fruits and vegetation, and of children into adults. The child and its sounds were later transformed into musical instruments, the sacred flutes and trumpets, which is what people play today in the initiation ceremonies, with beautiful melodies, to make the children grow strong like the forest-fruits, they say. Yet, this strange child, whose body produced the most beautiful and powerful sounds, is also known by the shamans as the great spirit of sorcery and sickness, a sort of two-faced spirit comparable to the Janus-like deities of the Andes.

There are several key religious themes being expressed here that can be generalized to many other Amazonian religious traditions—of growth and fertility; ancestrality and the transmission of knowledge to the new generations; sickness and healing, sorcery and shamanism; and the powerful spirit-person known popularly in the region as “Yurupary.”


“Peopes” and Spirits

I teach my university students that, in indigenous traditions throughout the Americas, humans are considered to be only one kind of “people.” Other kinds include the animals, fish, birds, plants,  insects and others. In the beginning of the world, the traditions state, all of the first peoples could easily communicate with each other, but it was after important changes in the cosmos that the animal and other peoples lost that ability. So now, communication takes place through the shamans, specialists in crossing the divide. Humans live in their own niche in an environment surrounded by multiple other “peoples” and spirits.

In the Amazonian cosmovision, different “peoples” nevertheless have similar ways of seeing and living in the world  Fish, animals, birds and insects have their own traditional dwellings or longhouses, as well as their own chiefs and shamans, like humans. They celebrate dance-festivals and they also practice sorcery. The Baniwa believe that the fish-people have been their traditional enemies since the ancient times and today unless fish are properly cooked with pepper and consumed with manioc bread at communal meals, the fish-people will give sickness to humans who eat them. There is a lot of spiritual protocol involved in fishing, gardening and other food gathering, preparing and consuming activities.

There are other spirits called Yoopinai that the Baniwa believe come from the dawn of time when there were constant wars and conflicts between them and the creator demiurges. Baniwa stories tell how these ancient predatory spirits once nearly annihilated humanity and the world was a chaotic and dangerous place to live. The principal creator demiurge did his best to banish or confine them to certain places in the forest, rivers and mountaintops. So, for example, Baniwa recognize that certain geographical accidents, such as rock outcroppings on the riverbanks are the houses of yoopinai spirits.

Normally invisible to humans, these spirits can put sickness on those who disturb or invade their spaces. I knew of a man who went to hunt in the forest and suddenly came across what appeared to be another human along the way; upon returning home, the hunter suddenly fell sick and a shaman determined that what he had seen in the forest was not another human but rather a yoopinai spirit which appeared as human. In order not to provoke them or disturb the resources associated with them, humans must avoid or take precautions when they come across such micro-environments.


Spiritual Specialists — The Shamans

Brazilian ethnologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro has aptly interpreted the notion of spirit in general in Amazonia as “less a transcendent representational figure than a sign of the immanent universal background — the background that comes to the surface in shamanism, in dreams and in hallucinations, when the human and the non-human, the visible and invisible trade places.”

Baniwa shaman of the Aiary River, 2018. In his cures, the shaman sings to the spirit-owners of sickness and healing in the “other world” of the sky. Photo by ©Giorgio Palmera

The shaman’s knowledge involves direct experience, and learning how to negotiate, with the great spirits of the environment and the sky-worlds. Manuel da Silva’s powers to “see” the primordial world means he has direct access to the sources of food for humans: he negotiates with the spirit-owners of animals and fish to open their doors, and he sees the Great Tree of Sustenance—a primordial source of all cultivated food. If the Great Tree is barren, it means a time of hunger is in store for humans. A powerful shaman like da Silva can propitiate the great spirits and demiurges to open (or close) the doors of food resources, and through his ceremonies, he can help regulate the seasons. In this way, he performs a vital service both for his community and to the environment.

Baniwa shamans acquire the power to “see” the spirit-worlds through their use of dzato, a sacred snuff produced from the inner bark of the Virola tree (from the nutmeg family, of which there are numerous subspecies) which is found widespread throughout a large area from the Andean highlands, throughout the northwest Amazon, all the way up to the Antilles where ancient Taino chiefs used a snuff called cohoba in their ceremonies. To Baniwa shamans, the dzato is “the blood” of the spirit of sickness with whom the shaman must negotiate a cure.

To become a shaman, da Silva explained, apprentices undergo rigorous training during a period of ten years that includes celibacy, periodic fasting, taking dzato, and learning the extensive knowledge of the cosmos, the spirits, and other arts of the shamans. With time, their “personhood” transforms and it is said that they “become other,” a jaguar-spirit inside the material body of the human shaman.

Shamanic and traditional knowledge came under serious attack by North American evangelical missionaries in the mid-20th century resulting in major losses of sacred ceremonies and shamanism in all but the most distant communities like Wapui. Then, in the late 1980s, a very strong indigenous movement developed in the Northwest Amazon, known as the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of the Rio Negro (FOIRN). It was spearheaded mostly by a group of young indigenous leaders, backed by their elders, who were deeply involved in presenting international complaints of human rights violations by the Catholic missionaries. Together with the Socio-environmental Institute (ISA), a Brazilian socio-environmental NGO formed mainly by anthropologists, the coalition led the movement to guarantee land demarcation, health and education services for the communities. Over the past three decades, they have succeeded in reversing the domination of indigenous communities by missionaries, in establishing a new sense of ethnic pride and determination, and in searching for sustainable futures for the younger generations.

The Baniwa have played an incredibly important role in this movement. Among other things, they have recently led discussions focused on the themes of well-being, living well, and intercultural relations in the contemporary context. Similarly, shamanism and traditional cosmologies have been able to maintain their resilience. Today, there is a vibrant diversity in Baniwa communities from the traditional communities to Christian ones, and a growing urban population in the small city of São Gabriel da Cachoeira.

Robin M. Wright (Ph.D., Anthropology, Stanford, 1981) is Associate Professor of Religion and Director of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program at the University of Florida. He has done nearly all of his anthropological research in the Northwest Amazon and has published widely on shamanism and healing, indigenous histories and Indian policies in the Amazon, Baniwa sacred narratives and their interpretation. His email is:

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