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Cultivating Spirits- On Matsigenka Notions of Shamanism and Medicine (and the Resilience of an Indigenous System of Knowledge)

Cultivating Spirits- On Matsigenka Notions of Shamanism and Medicine (and the Resilience of an Indigenous System of Knowledge)

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Published by Charity Masters

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Published by: Charity Masters on Jan 03, 2010
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The world according to most Amazonian Indians is aplace where no sharp distinction can be made betweenthe social, the natural and the supernatural, rather thanconstituting separate realities they are interconnectedand mutually interdependent. In the following I exploresome ontological dimensions of health, healing, andshamanism among the Matsigenka of southeasternPeru's montaña area
and to do so it is necessary to takeinto account notions of body, spirit and conviviality.The inquiry focuses on conceptual systems behindnotions of healing and of the power of the medicine,that is, on cultural rather than on instrumentalexplanations. I am interested not only in what peoplesay but also in how they express themselves; verbalexpressions provide a convenient entrance intoconceptualisations of the world as perceived and
: This paper has profited from generous andinsightful comments from Dr. Kaj Århem, Dr. Gerhard Baer andDr. Glenn Shepard. I also thank the editors for their commentsand advice which have served to improve this article. For theflaws that may remain I am the only accountable.
The fieldwork upon which this paper is based has principally  been carried out among the Matsigenka of the Upper Urubambaarea. I visited the Matsigenka the first time in 1972 and sincethen I have returned a number of times for longer and shorterperiods.
etymological analysis therefore plays an important partof the inquiry.
 One of the most conspicuous aspects of Matsigenkashamanism and one that needs to be addressed in thiscontext is that, for at least the last six to seven decades,the number of shamans is said to be dwindling. In many localities it is maintained that there are no-longer any shamans left. According to Bennett (1996) thisdevelopment is to a high degree due to the introductionof Western diseases
that still have fatal consequencesamong the indigenous peoples of Amazonia. Thoseshamans who functioned while inquiries have beenmade have, moreover, by their local neighbours beenattributed with less knowledge and power than those who existed earlier (cf. García 1936b, Shepard 1999b).The position of shamans among the Matsigenka is inthis respect at odds when seen in relation to theprominent position shamans hold among some of theneighbouring peoples. The playing down of thesignificance of Matsigenka shamans is, however, not aunique phenomenon and occurs also among other
My present focus on conceptual and etymological aspects alsofollows from the condition that I have myself still not had any opportunity to attend a shamanic session. As regards my information on what happens during such séances it is basedprincipally on conversations with Matsigenka interlocutors. TheSwiss ethnographer Gerhard Baer is probably the one who hasstudied Matsigenka shamanism most thoroughly (cf. 1976, 1979,1984, 1992, 1994). My information is largely but not entirely inconcordance with his accounts.
The distinction between ’illness’ and ’disease,’ which is commonin medical anthropology, suggests that bio-medically definedpathological states (’disease’) differ in a qualitative sense from aperson's culturally based perceptions and experiences (’illness’)(cf. Young 1982: 264f). This distinction is basically ethnocentricas bio-medical systems must be considered to be as culturally  biased as are, for instance, the Matsigenka medical systems. I dohere not use the term 'sickness' and no distinction is made between terms employed as to their degree of scientificity.
peoples of the western Amazon where it is common thatshamans from foreign groups are attributed withgreater powers than the shamans from the own group(cf. Gow 1994).
Shamans and sorcerers among the Matsigenka
The Matsigenka shaman is known as
a wordthat is constructed from
meaning ‘tobacco,’
, which is a concept with a complex meaning dimension,and the suffix
, being the third person malepronominal object, that is, 'him.' One common mode of translating
(i.e., the infinitive of 
) is "tointoxicate" which would render
"he who isintoxicated by tobacco" (cf. Baer 1992). Anotherpossible meaning dimension is suggested by Shepard(1998: 331) who notes that
also can betranslated as "to return" which would render
 "the one who returns tobacco." Shepard sees this returnas a reference to the regurgitation of tobacco that theshaman has swallowed and then passes on to hisapprentices who in this process acquire the samemagical powers as their teacher. I assume, though, thatthe receivers of the tobacco also could be the
 spirits who in mythical time gave the Matsigenka thetobacco and whom shamans now daily feed withtobacco smoke and syrup. Of the various possibletranslations of the word
I do not believe thatone necessarily is more correct than any other; thedifferent translations rather reflect different aspects of the complex whole. As a ritual specialist, the shaman possesses deeperinsights in metaphysics than people do in general. Theimportance of the shaman does, however, not follow from his specialised knowledge of ritual and cosmology  but from his personal acquaintance with the

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