Amazonian Arts of Initiation

January 20, 2001 @ 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm
James Blackmon Gallery
San Francisco

A Lecture

by Dr. Peter G. Roe

Reviewed by Winfield Coleman

The first impression a visitor to the Amazonian jungle gets is of an overpowering stench:  the fœtid decay of leaf litter, flowers, plants, and animals. Paradoxically, it is this very decay which makes possible the exuberant abundance of life there.  The indigenous peoples of the region have taken this seeming paradox as one of their basic metaphors: the inextricable linkage between life and death, a gendered dyad extended to include male/female, day/night, bright/dark, fertility and decay.  Men are considered hot, dry, vertical, and hard, women cold, wet, round, and soft;  however, these conditions are subject to change, notably in coitus, but also temporally:  thus boy children are considered more female;  but after passing through a violent rite of passage, they become young men, at the apex of maleness;  as old men, they subside again into a feminized state.  Women follow an opposite trajectory.  The dyad is thus in every sense complementary, the one side unthinkable without the other.

The second dominant metaphor of Amazonian cultures, animism, likewise derives from the environment:  the vertical division of the cosmos into three tiers, surrounded by water, all of it imbued with sentient life. On a physical level, this is reflected in the three tiers of the rainforest itself:  into an essentially barren ground level, perennially twilit, where little grows and few animals live;  a world crossed, and often inundated, by dark waters containing dangerous animals, and pierced by the trunks of gigantic trees.  The middle tier of the forest, by contrast, has abundant fruits, and teems with life of every variety. The highest tier–the canopy–appears to touch the sky;  and is indeed, its slender branches and luxuriant foliage are continuously brushed by low, rain-sodden clouds, and often bent beneath the terrific force of high winds and thunderstorms.

The metaphorical cosmos is penetrated by the World Tree;  and each layer is represented by a particular animal.  The bottom layer, which we may call the Under World, is represented–and guarded–by the black caiman. The Middle World is represented by the jaguar, and this world is seen as surrounded by a giant anaconda, representing water.  The Upper World is represented by the harpy eagle.  Each of these animals is a dangerous predator, and each is represented, in various ways, by the art of the people.

A visitor to a village will be impressed by the sparseness of the interiors:  not only the floors of the houses, but even the grounds in the center of the village, are scrupulously denuded of all vegetation and litter.  Such possessions as the inhabitants possess are kept hidden out of sight, in the thatched roofs, when not in use.  Yet each object is carefully crafted, and each is covered with designs.  The arts of the Amazonian indigenes is not considered ancillary, or merely decorative, as it is in the Western world.  On the contrary, it is considered absolutely essential to the proper working of all things, from tools to ceremonies.  Every object must be decorated, in order to to be socialized, to become useful.

As nature is the source of all raw materials, the shape and format of artifacts emulate nature–indeed, are considered natural objects in themselves, imbued with a soul, yet mortal, destined to rot within a few years back into the matrix of forest whence they came.

The material assemblage is varied.  Archaeological evidence has shown that the ceramic tradition in the lowlands is over 10,000 years old, making it one of the world’s oldest.  Pots, being round and hollow, and containers for liquid, are considered female.  Weapons and tools that are sharp or pointed are considered masculine.  But again, reciprocity is exhibited in every instance:  the game that a man kills, for example, belongs to his wife, who cooks it in her pots, on fires built by men, and then fed to the men.  No man’s weapon is complete until his wife decorates it;  although she may not touch it thereafter.

The most spectacular art form of the Amazon, featherwork, likewise reflects the world-view of the people.  Most pieces worn by men are constructed on a circular or curving base of wickerwork, considered female.  Those feathers closest to the base usually come from the dark feathers of the curassow, a ground-dwelling bird.  Next come the brilliant feathers of the oropendula, the scarlet macaw or the blue macaw.  Overtopping all are the feathers of the harpy eagle, whose erect crest is considered the origin of all headdresses.  Men wear in their upper arm ligatures macaw tail feathers, mimetic of wings;  while down their backs hang bundles of feathers:  a bird’s tail.  Thus, they transform themselves into birds;  and in their dancing, the nodding and swaying of the feathers adds a kinetic movement, as of birds in flight. At the same time, they paint their bodies with black and red, mutable masks emulative of the jaguar’s spot’s or the anaconda’s patterned skin, while their waists are girded with belts of jaguar skin.  Thus, their adornment replicates the cosmic world order, although emphasizing the head and upper body–the masculine region of the Above World.  Women’s featherwork is more modest, taken only from the breast feathers of birds, and adorns primarily the lower body, emblematic of the female Lower World.

The art of this region, with its major metaphors of gender and animism, is shamanic.  The shamanic view is reinforced by shape-shifting, the spiritual transformation of man into bird or beast, and the converse. Seated on his spirit canoe–a specially decorated wooden stool–the shaman ascends The World Tree, through the assistance of powerful entheogens, such as Bannisteria caapsi (ayahuasca or yagé).  There he views the world upside down–people appear to be walking on the ceiling–and he discovers the disturbances in the web connecting all life, and tries to restore its pattern, thus containing, though not destroying, the illness or psychic disturbance in the patient or village.  As a result, much of Amazonian imagery is characterized by anatropic imagery:  beheld from one view, an object appears to be, for example, a human form;  inverted, it becomes a bird.

Lowland cultures are usually represented as having devolved from Highland Andean cultures.  Roe, following the great Donald Lathrop, convincingly upends this traditional view.  Lowland innovations such as pottery, loomed textiles, and complex zoömorphic religious imagery backed by hallucinatory shamanism spread from the lowlands into Northern Peru from southern Ecuador, influencing the culture and ethos of Chavin and subsequent Andean cultures; it likewise was carried into the islands of the Caribbean,  and across the isthmus into Costa Rica and Mexico, influencing the high cultures of Mesoamerica.