A Onça e a Diferença

The Forest of Mirrors

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A few notes on the ontology of Amazonian spirits

Ces citoyens infinitésimaux de cités mistérieuses…

(Gabriel Tarde)


The ideas sketched out in this paper date back to my work with the Yawalapíti and Araweté in the 1970s and 80s, where, like any ethnographer, I had to confront different indigenous notions about non-human agency and personhood (1). However, the event catalyzing them in the here and now – the pretext if you like – was my much more recent reading of two fragments of a remarkable narrative issuing from another Amazonian culture. This was the exposition given by Davi Kopenawa, Yanomami thinker and political leader, to the French anthropologist Bruce Albert apropos the xapiripë, the ‘animal ancestors’ or ‘shamanic spirits’ who interact with the shamans of his people (Kopenawa 2000, Kopenawa & Albert 2003). These texts are part of an ongoing dialogue between Kopenawa and Albert, in which the former presents Whites, in the person of his interlocutor-translator, with a detailed account of the world’s structure and history; a narrative which also doubles as an indignant and proud claim for the Yanomami people’s right to exist. Here I shall transcribe the shorter version of the narrative, published in Portuguese in 2000. (2)

Dreams of the origins
The xapiripë spirits have danced for shamans since the first primordial times and so they continue to dance today. They look like human beings but they are as tiny as specks of sparkling dust. To be able to see them you must inhale the powder of the yãkõanahi tree many, many times. It takes as much time as Whites take to learn the design of their words. The yãkõanahi powder is the food of the spirits. Those who don’t ‘drink’ it remain with the eyes of ghosts and see nothing.
The xapiripë dance together on huge mirrors which descend from the sky. They are never dull like humans. They are always magnificent: their bodies painted with red annatto dye and enveloped in black designs, their heads covered with white vulture plumes, their bead armbands adorned with the feathers of parrots, piping guans and red macaws, their waists wrapped in toucan tails...
Thousands of them arrive to dance together, waving fresh palm fronds, letting out whoops of joy and singing without pause. Their paths look like spider webs shining like moonlight and their plume ornaments sway gently to the rhythm of their steps. It thrills you to see how beautiful they are!
The spirits are so numerous because they are images of the animals of the forest. All those in the forest have an utupë image: those who walk on the ground, those who walk in the trees, those who have wings, those who live in the water... These are the images the shamans call and make descend to turn into xapiripë spirits. These images are the true centre, the true core of the forest beings. Common people cannot see them, only shamans. But they are not images of the animals we know today. They are images of the fathers of these animals, images of our ancestors.
In the first times, when the forest was still young, our ancestors were human with names of animals who ended up turning into game. These ones we shoot and eat today. But their images did not disappear and these are the ones who now dance for us as xapiripë spirits. These ancestors are truly ancient. They turned into game a long time ago but their ghosts dwell here still. They have animal names but they are invisible beings who never die. The epidemic of Whites may try to burn and eat them, but they never disappear. The mirrors keep sprouting time and again.
The Whites design their words because their thought is full of forgetting. We have kept the words of our ancestors inside us for a long time and we continue to pass them on to our children. Children, who know nothing of the spirits, hear the songs of the shamans and later want to see the spirits for themselves. This is how, despite being very ancient, the words of the xapiripë are always renewed. It is their words which augment our thoughts, which make us see and know things far away, the things of the ancients. This is our study, this is what teaches us to dream. And this is why someone who doesn’t drink the breath of the spirits has short and murky thought; someone who isn’t looked upon by the xapiripë doesn’t dream — it just lies there in dumb slumber like an axe left on the ground.

This narrative by Kopenawa — and here I refer to both the text quoted above and the more developed version titled ‘Les ancêtres animaux’ (Kopenawa & Albert 2003) — strikes me as a quite extraordinary document. Above all, it impresses with its richness and eloquence, qualities that derive from the decision of the two co-authors to implement a discursive strategy with a high informational content and great poetic-conceptual density. In this sense, we are presented with an ‘inventing of culture’ (sensu Wagner) which is also a masterpiece of ‘interethnic’ politics. If shamanism is essentially a cosmic diplomacy devoted to the translation between ontologically disparate points of view (3), then Kopenawa’s discourse is not just a narrative on particular shamanic contents — namely, the spirits which the shamans make speak and act —; it is a shamanic form in itself, an example of shamanism in action, in which a shaman speaks about spirits to Whites and equally about Whites on the basis of spirits, and both these things through a White intermediary. (4) But the narrative is just as exceptional for its cosmological exemplarity. It articulates and develops ideas that can be found in a more or less diffuse state in numerous other indigenous cultures of the region. The text presents us with a ‘strong version,’ in the Lévi-Straussian sense, of the mythology (explicit and implicit) of Amazonian spirits. It is this exemplarity which interests me in this paper, the aim of which is to call attention to some relatively typical features of the mode of existence and manifestation of spirits in indigenous Amazonia. In particular, I read Kopenawa’s discourse as expressing a pan-Amazonian conception in which the notions we translate as ‘spirit’ refer to an intensive virtual multiplicity.

The shamanic plane of immanenceEditar

Various prominent figures and central milieus from Yanomami cosmology can be found evoked in the above text: spirits, animals, shamans, the dead, whites; myths and dreams, drugs and festivals, hunt and forest. Let’s begin with the xapiripë properly speaking. The word designates the utupë, image, vital principle, true interiority or essence (Kopenawa & Albert 2003: 72 n. 28) of the animals and other beings of the forest, and at the same time the immortal images of a first archaic humanity, composed of Yanomami with animal names that transformed into the animals of the present. But xapiripë also designates human shamans, and the expression ‘to turn into a shaman’ is a synonym of ‘to turn into a spirit’ (xapiri-pru). Shamans conceive themselves to be of the same nature as the auxiliary spirits brought to earth in their hallucinogenic trance. Thus the concept of xapiripë signals a complex interference, a criss-cross distribution of identity and difference between the dimensions of ‘animality’ (yaro pë) and ‘humanity’ (yanomae thëpë). On one hand, animals possess an invisible essence distinct from their visible forms: the xapiripë are the ‘true animals’ — but are humanoid; that is, true animals do not appear very much like the animals which the xapiripë, literally, imagine. On the other hand, shamans are distinguished from other humans by being ‘spirits,’ and moreover, ‘fathers’ of the spirits (who, for their part, are images of the ‘fathers of animals’). Hence, the concept of xapiripë, less or rather than designating a class of distinct beings, announces a region or moment of indiscernibility between the human and non-human (primarily but not exclusively the ‘animals,’ a notion we shall discuss later): it announces a background molecular humanity, hidden by non-human molar forms, and speaks of the multiple non-human affects that must be captured by humans via the agency of shamans, since this is the stuff meaning is made of: ‘it is the words of the xapiripë which augment our thoughts.’

Note. The reverberation between the positions of shaman and spirit can be found in numerous Amazonian cultures. In the Upper Xingu, for example, the great shamans are called ‘spirits’ by lay-people, while they themselves refer to their associated spirits as ‘my shamans’ [Viveiros de Castro 2002a:80-1]. For the Ese Eja of Bolivian Amazonia, ‘all eshawa [spirits] are eyamikekwa [shamans], or rather, the eyamikekwa have the power of eshawa’ [Alexiades 1999: 226]. Among the Ikpeng of the middle Xingu [Rodgers 2002], the term pïanom designates shamans, their various auxiliary spirits, and the small, potentially self-intoxicating darts these spirits introduce into the abdomen of shamans and which function as the instrument of shamanism. This observation by Rodgers is important since it indicates that, if the concept of spirit essentially designates a population of molecular affects, an intensive multiplicity, then the same applies to the concept of shaman: ‘the shaman is a multiple being, a micro-population of shamanic agencies sheltered in one body’ (ibid. n.18). So far from being a super-individual, a shaman — at least the ‘horizontal’ kind [Hugh-Jones 1996] more typical to the region — is a super-divided being: a federation of supernatural agents among the Ikpeng, an anticipated corpse and potential cannibal victim among the Araweté [Viveiros de Castro 1992], a repeatedly perforated body among the Ese Eja [Alexiades 1998: 221]. Additionally, if the shaman is effectively ‘different,’ as the Ikpeng say (Rodgers ibid.), the fact remains this difference between them and lay-people is a question of degree, not nature. ‘Everyone who dreams has a bit of shaman’ say the Kagwahiv (Kracke, 1987), in whose language, as in many others in Amazonia, the words we translate as ‘shaman’ do not designate something which one ‘is,’ but something which one ‘has’ – an adjectival and relational quality or capacity rather than a substantive attribute, something which can be intensely present in many non-human entities; which abounds, needless to say, in ‘spirits’; and which may even constitute itself as a generic potential of being (Campbell 1989). (5) Hence the human ‘shaman’ is not a sacerdotal figure – a ‘species’ –, but someone more similar to the Socratic philosopher – a ‘function’ –, in the sense that every individual capable of reasoning is a philosopher, a potential friend of the concept, as Socrates would say: likewise every individual capable of dreaming is a shaman, ‘a friend of the image.’ (6) In the words of Kopenawa: ‘[This is] our study, this is what teaches us to dream. And this is why someone who doesn’t drink the breath of the spirits has short and murky thought; someone who isn’t looked upon by the xapiripë doesn’t dream — it just lies there in dumb slumber like an axe left on the ground.’ A shamanic critique of vigilant (wakeful and watchful) reason. In passing, note that if studious reason is the hallucination proper to Whites, then writing is their shamanism: ‘To be able to see them [the xapiripë] you must inhale the powder of the yãkõanahi tree many, many times. It takes as much time as Whites take to learn the design of their words.’ (7)

As is well known, a sizeable slice of Amazonian mythology deals with the causes and consequences of the species-specific embodiment of different agents, all of them conceived to have originally partaken of a generalized unstable condition in which human and non-human features are indiscernibly mixed. All the beings peopling mythology display this ontological entanglement or cross-specific ambiguity, and this is precisely what makes them akin to shamans (and to spirits):

‘The Earth’s present animals are not nearly as powerful as the originals, differing as much from them as ordinary humans are said to differ from shamans. […] The First people lived just as shamans do today, in a polymorphous state... After the withdrawal from the Earth, each of the First People became the ‘Master’ or arache of the species they engendered’ (Guss [1989: 52], on the Ye’kuana of Venezuela).

We can also cite S. Hugh-Jones [1979: 218] on the Barasana of the Vaupés: ‘The shamans are the He people par excellence;’ where the concept He designates the original state of the cosmos, returned to by humans by means of ritual. Discussing the Akuriyó of Suriname, F. Jara [1996: 92-4] observes that shamans — humans or animals, since non-human species also possess shamans — are the only beings that ‘retain the primitive characteristics from before the separation between humans and animals,’ especially the power of inter-specific mutation (and this is what ‘power’ is all about).

Thus the synchronic interference between humans and animals (more generally, non-humans) expressed in the concepts of shaman and spirit possesses a fundamental diachronic dimension, reaching back to an absolute past (that is, a past which was never present, and which therefore never passes, just as the present never ceases to pass [See Marc Richir, “Qu‘est-ce qu‘un dieu?” in Schelling, Philosophie de la mythologie,p.8: “un passé qui n‘a jamais été présent,..., un passé transcendantal”]) in which the differences between species were ‘still’ to be actualized. Myth is a discourse about this moment:

[— ‘What is a myth?’] — ‘If you were to ask an American Indian it is extremely likely that he would answer: it is a story from the time when humans and animals did not distinguish themselves from one another. This definition seems to me to be very profound’ (Lévi-Strauss & Eribon 1988: 193).

The definition is indeed profound; so let’s plunge a little deeper into it. I think mythic discourse can be defined as first and foremost a record of the process of actualization of the present state of things out of a virtual pre-cosmological condition endowed with perfect transparency — a ‘chaosmos’ where the bodily and spiritual dimensions of beings did not as yet reciprocally eclipse each other. This pre-cosmos, very far from displaying any ‘indifferentiation’ or originary identification between humans and non-humans, as is usually formulated, is pervaded by an infinite difference, albeit (or because) internal to each persona or agent, in contrast to the finite and external differences constituting the species and qualities of our contemporary world (Viveiros de Castro 2001). This explains the regime of ‘metamorphosis,’ or qualitative multiplicity, proper to myth: the question of knowing whether the mythic jaguar, to pick an example, is a block of human affects in the shape of a jaguar or a block of feline affects in the shape of a human is in any rigorous sense undecidable, since mythic metamorphosis is an ‘event’ or a heterogenic ‘becoming’ (an intensive superposition of states), not a ‘process’ of ‘change’ (an extensive transposition of homogenic states). The general line traced by mythic discourse describes the lamination of the pre-cosmological flows of indiscernibility as they enter the cosmological process: thereafter, the human and feline dimensions of jaguars (and humans) will function alternately as potential figure and ground to each other. The originary transparency or infinite complicatio where everything seeps into everything else bifurcates or explicates itself, from this point on, into a relative invisibility (human souls and animal spirits) and a relative opacity (the human body and the somatic animal ‘clothing’) (8) which determine the makeup of all present-day beings. Relative invisibility and opacity because reversible, and reversible since the ground of pre-cosmological virtuality is indestructible or inexhaustible. As Kopenawa said (2003: 73, 81) in speaking of the ‘citoyens infinitésimaux’ of the virtual arche-polis, the xapiripë ‘never disappear […] their mirrors keep sprouting time and again […] they are powerful and immortal.’

I just stated that pre-cosmological differences are infinite and internal, in contrast to the external finite differences between species. Here I am referring to the fact that the agents and patients found in origin myths are defined by their intrinsic capacity to be something else; in this sense, each mythic being differs infinitely from itself, given that it is ‘posited’ by mythic discourse only to be ‘substituted,’ that is, transformed. It is this self-difference which defines a ‘spirit,’ and which makes all mythic beings into ‘spirits’ too. The supposed ‘indifferentiation’ between mythic subjects is a function of their radical irreducibility to fixed essences or identities, whether these are generic, specific, or individual (recalling here the detotalized or ‘disorganized’ bodies that thrive in myths). In sum, myth posits an ontological regime commanded by a fluent intensive difference which incides on each point of a heterogenic continuum, where transformation is anterior to form, relation is superior to terms, and interval is interior to being.(9) Every mythic being, being pure virtuality, ‘already was before’ what ‘it was going to be after,’ and for this reason is not — since it does not remain being — anything actually determined.(10) In counterpart, the extensive differences introduced by post-mythic speciation (sensu lato) — the celebrated transition from the ‘continuous’ to the ‘discrete’ which forms the conceptual core of structuralist philosophy (11) — crystallize molar blocks of infinite internal identity (each species is internally homogenic, its members are identically and indifferently representative of the species as a whole) separated by quantifiable and measurable external intervals (the differences between species are finite systems of correlation, proportion and permutation of characters of the same type or order). The heterogenic continuum of the pre-cosmological world gives way, therefore, to a homogenic ‘discretum’, where each being is only what it is, and is only what it is by not being what it is not. But spirits are testimony to the fact that not all virtualities were actualized, and that the mythical riverrrun of fluent metamorphosis continues its turbulent course not too far below the surface discontinuities separating the types and species.

Humans, animals, spiritsEditar

As far as can be known, all Amazonian cultures possess concepts that describe beings analogous to the Yanomami xapiripë. In reality, the indigenous words we translate as ‘spirit’ generally correspond to a fundamentally heteroclitic and heterogenic ‘category,’ which admits a number of subdivisions and internal contrasts (sometimes more radical than those opposing ‘spirits’ to other types of beings). Staying with the Yanomami, the xapiripë or ‘shamanic spirits’ are only one species of the genus yai thëpë, which Albert translates as ‘invisible non-human beings,’ a notion that also includes the spectres of the dead, porepë, and malefic beings called në wãripë (Kopenawa & Albert 2003: 68 n.2). And although the xapiripë are epitomized by the images of the primordial humans-animals, Kopenawa makes it abundantly clear that shamans also mobilize, among others, the xapiripë images of thunder, lightning, rain, night, cannibal ancestors, pots, cotton, fire and Whites, as well as a motley crowd of në wãripë (ibid: 79-81). The xapiripë are not always beautiful and magnificent, since they can also be terrible and monstrous; and they share the ghostly condition of the dead, since they are ‘spectral forms,’ that is, images (ibid: 73). The generic notion of ‘invisible non-humans’ would seem to unify adequately enough the internal diversity of this ‘category;’ yet the problem remains that these non-humans possess fundamental human determinations, whether at the level of their basic corporeal form, or at the level of their intentional and agentive capacities. Furthermore, while these non-humans are normally invisible to lay-people, to those who are awake and to those with ‘short and murky thought,’ in the context of shamanic hallucination they are supremely visible, and visible in their true human form (they are ‘the true centre’ of the beings of the forest). Likewise, there are certain critical situations in which a person encounters a being that starts by letting itself be seen as human — in a dream, in a solitary encounter in the forest — but ends by revealing itself suddenly as non-human; in such cases, non-humans are those supremely capable of assuming a false human form before true humans. In other words, while (normally) invisible, these non-humans ‘are’ human; while (abnormally) visible, these humans ‘are’ non-human. (12)

And to complete the picture, we can note the somewhat paradoxical nature of an image that is at once non-iconic and non-visible. What defines spirits, in a certain sense, is the fact they index characteristic affects of the species of which they are the image without, for this very reason, appearing like the species of which they are the image: they are indexes, not icons. By the same token, what defines an ‘image’ is its eminent visibility: an image is something-to-be-seen, it is the necessary objective correlative of a gaze, an exteriority which posits itself as the target of an intentionally aimed look; but the xapiripë are interior images, ‘internal moulds,’ inaccessible to the empirical exercise of vision. Hence, they are the object of a superior or transcendental exercise of this faculty: images that are as the condition of the species of which they are the image; active images, indexes which interpret us before we interpret them, images which must see us in order for us to be able to see them — ‘someone who isn’t looked upon by the xapiripë doesn’t dream, it just lies in dull slumber like an axe left on the ground’ —, and images through which we see other images — ‘only shamans can see [spirits], after drinking yãkoana powder, since they turn into others and can now see spirits with equally spiritual eyes' (Kopenawa & Albert 2003: 77).(13)

All told, this empirical non-iconicity and non-visibility seems to me to point to an important dimension of the spirits: they are non-representational images, ‘representatives’ that are not representations. ‘All beings of the forest have their own utupë image … In your words, you would say they are the “representantes” [in Portuguese] of the animals’ (Kopenawa & Albert 2003: 72-73). Albert signals (ibid: n. 29) that the term ‘representante’ is part of the habitual political vocabulary of indigenous leaders in Brazil. Introducing the idea of aniconic symbols as ‘representatives’ in his work Art & Agency, Alfred Gell (1998: 98) uses the example of the diplomat: ‘[T]he Chinese ambassador in London … does not look like China, but in London, China looks like him.’ In the same way, the xapiripë do not look like animals, but in the mytho-shamanic context, animals do look like them.

Neither types, nor representations. What I am suggesting, in a nutshell, is that Amazonian concepts of ‘spirit’ do not designate a class or genus of non-humans but a certain obscure vicinity between the human and non-human, a secret communication which rather than passing through the redundancy between them (their ‘community’), passes through their disparity (their ‘incommunity’):

One can say rather that a zone of indistinction, of indiscernibility, of ambiguity, establishes itself between two terms, as if they had attained the point immediately preceding their respective differentiation: not a similitude, but a slippage, an extreme vicinity, an absolute contiguity; not a natural filiation, but a counter-natural alliance… (Deleuze 1993: 100).

We could say then that the xapiripë is the name of the disjunctive synthesis which connects-separates the actual and the virtual, the discrete and the continuous, the edible and the cannibal, the prey and the predator. In this sense, the xapiripë ‘are others’ in effect.(14) A spirit in Amazonia is less a thing than an image, less a term than a relation, less an object than an event, less a transcendent representative 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.(15) An Amazonian ‘spirit,’ in sum, is less a ‘spirit’ in opposition to an immaterial body than a dynamic and intensive corporality, which, like Alice, never ceases to grow and shrink at the same time: a spirit is less than a body — the xapiripë are specks of dust, miniatures of humans with micro-penises and finger-less hands (Kopenawa & Albert 2003: 68) (16) — and more than a body — displaying a magnificent and sometimes terrifying appearance, superb body ornamentation, brilliance, perfume, beauty, overall an excessive character in relation to the species of which they are the image… (ibid. 73 n. 32; plus see Viveiros de Castro 2002a). In sum, a constitutive transcorporality, rather than a negation of corporality: a spirit is something that only has too little body insofar as it possesses too many bodies, capable as it is of assuming different corporal forms. The interval between any two bodies rather than a non-body or no body.

But if Amazonian concepts of ‘spirit’ are not rigorously speaking taxonomic entities, but names of relations, movements and events, then it is probably just as improbable that notions such as ‘animal’ and ‘human’ are elements of a static typology of genuses of being or categorical macro-forms of an ‘ethnobiological’ classification. I’m led to imagine, on the contrary, a single cosmic domain of transductivity (Simondon 1995), a basal animic field within which the living, the dead, the whites, the animals and the other ‘forest beings,’ the anthropomorphic and terionymic mythic personae, and the xapiripë shamanic images are only so many different intensive vibrations or modulations. The ‘human mode’ can be imagined, then, as the fundamental frequency of this animic field we can call meta-human — given that human form (internal and external) is the aperceptive reference of this domain, since every entity situated in a subject position perceives itself sub specie humanitatis (17) — ; living species and other natural kinds (including our own species) can be imagined to inhabit this field’s domain of visibility; while ‘spirits,’ in contrast, can be imagined as vibrational modes or frequencies of the animic field found both below (granular tininess, diminutive size) and above (anomalism, excess) the perceptual limits of the naked, i.e. non-medicated, human eye.

A note on the notion of ‘animal’Editar

The available ethnographic evidence suggests that Amerindian cosmologies do not harbour a general, collective concept of ‘animal’ as opposed to ‘human’. Humans are a species among others, and sometimes the differences internal to humanity are on a par with species-specific ones: ‘The Jívaro view humanity as a collection of natural societies; the biological commonality of man interests them far less than the differences between forms of social existence’ (Taylor 1993: 658; cf. also Surralès 2003: 111).(18) If this is true, then at least one basic meaning of the standard opposition between Nature and Culture must be discarded when we move to Amazonian and similar contexts: nature is not a domain defined by animality in contrast with culture as the domain of humanity. The real problem with the use of the category of ‘Nature’ in these contexts, therefore, lies not so much with the fact that animals also have (or are in) ‘Culture’, but rather with the assumption of a unified non-human domain (Gray 1996: 114).

It is indeed rare to find Amerindian languages possessing a concept co-extensive with our concept of ‘(non-human) animal’, although not uncommon to find terms which more or less correspond in extension to one of the informal meanings of ‘animal’ in English: relatively big land animals, typically non-human mammals — as opposed to fish, birds, insects and other life-forms.(19) I suspect that the majority of indigenous words which have been rendered as ‘animal’ in regional ethnographies actually denote something analogous to this. To pick out three examples, among many: (1) The Northern Gê word mbru or mru, which is usually translated as ‘animal’ and sometimes employed as a synecdoche for ‘Nature’ (Seeger 1981), is literally neither fish nor fowl, for it does not subsume these life-forms: it refers prototypically to land animals, and has the pragmatic and relational sense of ‘victim’, ‘prey’ or ‘game,’ and in this latter sense may also be applied to fish, birds, etc. (Seeger pers. comm.). (2) The Wari’ (Txapakuran) word applied to ‘animals,’ karawa, has the basic meaning of ‘prey’, and as such may be applied to human enemies: the contrastive pair wari’/karawa, which in most contexts can be translated as ‘human/animal,’ has the logically encompassing sense of ‘predator/prey’ or ‘agent/patient.’ Humans (Wari’, i.e. wari' ) can be the karawa of predators, animal, human and spiritual, who in their predatory function or ‘moment’ are defined as wari’ (Vilaça 1992). (3) The third case is precisely that of the Yanomami language, where yaro, a term found in the concept yaroripë – simultaneously the ‘human beings with animal names’ who were transformed into animals and the xapiripë shamanic animal images – essentially means ‘game’ (gibier; cf. Albert in Kopenawa & Albert 2003: 73 n. 32); that is, body-flesh defined by its alimentary fate:

The peccary Yanomami [i.e. humans] became peccaries, deer Yanomami became deer, agouti Yanomami became agouti, macaw Yanomami became macaws. They took the form of the peccaries, deer, agouti and macaws dwelling in the forest today. They are our transformed ancestors who we now hunt and kill […] The animals we eat are different [from their shamanic images]. They were human and became game. We see them as animals, but they are Yanomami … They are simply inhabitants of the forest; they are not others. We are similar to them. We too are game. Our flesh is identical, we do no more than give ourselves the name of human beings. We were once all human… Later these ancestors turned into game. But to them we remain always the same, we are animals too; we are the animals who dwell in houses, they are inhabitants of the forest. We who stayed eat them, and they find us frightening, since we are hungry for their flesh… (ibid: 75-6).(20)

But although what has been called ‘animal’ means first and foremost ‘prey,’ ‘game’ or simply ‘meat,’ in some other cases it signifies exactly the opposite: inedible spirit. The Yawalapíti (Upper Xingu Arawak) use the appellation apapalutapa-mina for a variety of animals, the majority of them land creatures — and all of them, with one exception, deemed unfit to be eaten by Xinguanos (Viveiros de Castro 2002a). (21) The proper Xinguano diet is fish, and some avian species. The word apapalutapa-mina, which is on the same level of contrast as the terms for ‘bird’ and ‘fish,’ is very likely a composite of the word apapalutapa, ‘spirit’, followed by a modifier that denotes something like ‘non-prototypical member of a class,’ ‘inferior token of a type,’ but also ‘of the same bodily substance/nature as [the concept modified]’. Thus, ‘land’ animals and all mammals are ‘spirit-like,’ ‘quasi-spirits’, ‘sub-spirits.’ This is quite similar to a Barasana conception (Hugh-Jones 1996b) whereby game animals are referred to as ‘old fish’ — the term ‘old’ (or ‘mature’) connoting here superlative excessiveness. If the Tukanoans think of game as ‘super-fish’, thus implying land animals are a particularly potent and dangerous type of fish, the Yawalapiti think of game animals as ‘sub-spirits;’ and whilst the Tukanoans are able euphemistically (but also shamanistically) to reduce the game they eat to ‘fish,’ the Xinguanos, who do not eat game, cannot de-spiritualize these animals and hence are empirically ‘reduced’ to eating (mostly) fish. We can therefore extend the scope of the Amazonian continuum of edibility (within the meat domain) proposed by Hugh-Jones, allowing it to range from fish to spirits, not only to human beings. The Tukanoans start conceptually from the ‘fish’ pole, defining game as a sub-class of the former; the Yawalapíti start from the other pole, taking game as a sub-class of spirits. This suggests that spirits are the supremely inedible kinds of being — which makes them either the supreme cannibals of the universe, or, as in the case of the xapiripë in the Yanomami narrative, beings who live off anti-foods (the hallucinogenic drug yãkoana and tobacco) and radical ‘anti-excreta’ (sweet, perfumed and unpolluted foods that do not rot inside the body, unlike the flesh we ourselves eat — Kopenawa & Albert 2003: 81, 84-5). (22)


My earlier reference to spirits and animals as implying an universal animic field of which they are the invisible and visible ‘modes,’ respectively, of ‘vibration’ is not an entirely arbitrary visualist analogy. In fact, Kopenawa’s narrative speaks of the ‘ghostly eyes’ of non-shamans. Here the allusion is to the spectres of the dead (porepë), and the perspectival inversion between different ontological modulations of the meta-human — a key theme in Amerindian cosmologies (Viveiros de Castro 1998):

When the sun rises in the sky, the xapiripë sleep. As it starts to set towards dusk, for them the day is dawning. They therefore awaken all the innumerable beings in the forest. Our night is their day; while we sleep, they dance and enjoy themselves. And when they speak of us, they call us ‘the spectres.’ In their eyes we appear as ghosts, since we are similar to the latter. They tell us: ‘you are aliens and ghosts, since you die’ (Kopenawa & Albert 2003: 68).

The spirits see non-shamans in the form of spectres; likewise, the usual invisibility of spirits to the eyes of humans (non-shamans) is expressed by declaring that the latter possess ‘ghostly eyes.’ (Whites, therefore, are all spectres, and always spectres, since they are supremely incapable of seeing spirits). Likewise, it is by ‘dying’ under the effect of the hallucinogenic drug yãkoana that shamans are capable not only of seeing the spirits, but of seeing like the spirits (ibid: 68 n.2, 84 n.64): see, precisely, humans as spectres. In this sense, at least, shamans are dead, i.e. spectres, or at least humans who have ceased to be completely human: the Ikpeng, for example, conceive them as ‘ex-people,’ tenpano-pin (Rodgers 2002: 112). The xapiripë for their part share their spectral condition with the dead, from the ‘point of view’ of common humans: they are ‘ghosts.’ (23) As for animals, we have already seen how they see us — as their similars, but strange ones: animals who are at once ‘domestic’ (‘inhabitants of houses’) and cannibals. (24)

In sum, the spectres of the dead are, from the ontogenetic point of view, like animals in terms of phylogenesis: both are ex-human, and both therefore are images of humans. It is not surprising, then, that as images defined by their disjunction from a human body, the dead are logically attracted to the bodies of animals; this is why to die is to transform into an animal, as so often happens in Amazonia. As a matter of fact, if the spirit of animals is conceived to have a human bodily form, it seems quite logical that the soul of humans may be conceived as having an animal body, or entering into one — in order to be eventually hunted and eaten by the living.(25)

All the above can be taken to mean that, in Amazonia, ‘the primary dialectics is one between seeing and eating,’ in Mentore’s pithy formulation (1993: 29) apropos the Waiwai. The raw and the cooked cannot be separated from the visible and the invisible. Amerindian cultures evince a strong visual bias of their own – one not to be confused with our own visualism (see Smith 1998, Ingold 2000). Vision is often the model of perception and knowledge (Mentore 1993; Alexiades 1999: 239; Alexiades 2000; Surralès 2003); shamanism is laden with visual concepts (Chaumeil 1983; Gallois 1984–85; Roe 1990; Townsley 1993; Kelly 2003: 236); in most of Amazonia — the Yanomami are a case in point — hallucinogenic drugs are the basic instrument of shamanistic technology, being used as a kind of visual prosthesis. More generally, the distinction between the visible and the invisible seems to play a major role: ‘the fundamental distinction in Cashinahua ontology [is that] between visibility and invisibility’ (Lagrou 1998: 52; see also Kensinger 1995: 207; Gray 1996: 115, 177). We might also recall the strong emphasis on the decoration and exhibition of bodily and object surfaces as an epistemologically charged and ontologically efficacious process (see Gow 1999, 2001 for a comprehensive analysis of vision in an Amazonian culture).(26)

The mirror imageEditar

My characterization of the ontology of Amazonian spirits in a visual ‘key’ is not due only to the presence, in Kopenawa’s discourse, of the theme of perspectivism as a process of discrete switching of points of view between the different forms of agency populating the cosmos. On the contrary: the most important element in this discourse, it seems to me, is the functioning of a powerful intensive imagery of sparkling and luminous reflection, on one hand, and the indefinite divisibility-multiplication of spirits, on the other.

Firstly, light. Kopenawa’s narrative is literally constellated with references to light, brilliance, the stars and mirrors. In the version reproduced above, we see ‘sparkling dust,’ we see ‘spider webs shining like moonlight’ and ‘huge mirrors’ which ‘always bud once more.’ In the expanded version (Kopenawa & Albert 2003), the luminant féerie proliferates: over twelve pages, almost every other sentence features the xapiripë ‘shining like stars,’ emitting a ‘blinding luminosity,’ a ‘dazzling light.’ They wave fresh palm leaves which ‘shine with an intense yellow;’ their teeth are ‘immaculate and resplendent like glass,’ or are ‘mirror fragments.’ The ground above which they dance ‘shines with a glittering light’ and a ‘dazzling clarity.’

Hence the primordial quality associated with the perception of these spirits is their luminous intensity. This is an experience frequently described in Amazonia. The Maï, celestial cannibal spirits of the Araweté, are described with a profuse vocabulary of fiery sparkling and blinding lightning, while their body decoration is famed for its intense colour and luminosity (Viveiros de Castro 1992). The spirits of the Hoti, the ‘Masters of the Outside, or the Forest,’ ‘are detected in the waking world in thunder and lightning, which are their shouts and the flashes of their lance-points, or sometimes they are seen, or heard, as jaguars. They are perceived in dreams as shining anthropomorphic beings, painted with bright red onoto [annatto] dye’ (Storrie 2003: 417). Like the Yanomami xapiripë, therefore, the Araweté Maï and the Hoti Masters ‘are never dull like humans; they are always magnificent: their bodies painted with red annatto dye and enveloped in black designs, their heads covered with white vulture plumes…’ Undoubtedly much of this phenomenology of intense light can be associated with the biochemical effects of drugs (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1978). This, for example, is how the Piro describe the experience of ingesting toé (Datura): ‘[S]uddenly, everything lights up, as if the sun had risen…’ (Gow 2001: 136). Their ethnographer observes that ‘the metaphorization of toé hallucinatory experience as “daylight” is common… [o]ther informants emphasized the “redness” of [the] experience, “just like the world at dawn,” or, “at sunset”’ (ibid). But other drugs less violently hallucinogenic than the toé of the Piro and the yãkoana of the Yanomami, such as tobacco, and other techniques of sensorial manipulation (cf., for example, Rodgers 2002), such as deliberate semi-blindness through the use of masks, the application of caustic eye-drops, immersion, sleep deprivation, and so on, may be involved in these processes of deterritorializing sight. Moreover, the perceptive experience of luminous intensity is sought out by the shaman, not merely suffered (as a side-effect of drugs taken for other purposes), which strongly suggests that it possesses a conceptual value in itself. It is certainly not necessary to be an indigenous shaman to ‘perceive’ the relation between knowledge and illumination; however, my impression is that, in the Amazonian case, this does not involve a conception of light as a distributor of relations of visibility-knowability across an extensive space (I’m thinking here of certain passages from Les mots et les choses) but of light as pure intensity, the intense and intensive ‘heart’ of reality which establishes inextensive distance between beings (i.e. their greater or lesser mutual capacity to become). The connection between this and the idea of the invisibility of spirits seems to me crucial: the normally invisible is also the abnormally luminous. The intense luminosity of spirits indicates the super-visible character of these beings, which are ‘invisible’ to the eye for the same reason light is — that is, by being the condition of the visible.

Among the Araweté, as probably for other peoples of Amazonia, luminosity and brilliance are associated with another visual quality, transparency or diaphanousness. Ikuyaho, ‘translucency’ or ‘transparency’ — but also ‘outsidedness’, ‘exteriority’ (cf. the ‘Masters of the Outside’ of the Hoti, supra) —, is a state which shamans seek to attain via massive ingestion of tobacco (massive and ‘mortal’, since it induces a period of cataleptic shock). A state associated with the quality of ‘lightness’ (wewe), translucidity is produced by a separation between soul and body (i.e. by an exteriorization of a being’s being), which removes from the latter its ‘weight’ (ipohi) or its opacity (‘the ordinary opacity of the human body’ – Gow 2001: 135), thereby allowing the shaman to see through the body of his patients, and, more generally, to discern the invisible side of the world (Viveiros de Castro 1992: 131, 219-20; cf. also the ‘shamanistic luminescence’ of the Tukanoan payé in Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975: 77, 109). It was this concept of ikuyaho which led me to the image of originary pre-cosmological transparency developed above. The other source of this image is a proto-Leibnizian passage from Plotinus on the intelligible world, which seemed to me to share many a point of contact with Kopenawa’s narrative:

for all is transparent, nothing dark, nothing resistant; every being is lucid to every other, in breadth and depth; light runs through light. And each of them contains all within itself, and at the same time sees all in every other, so that everywhere there is all, and all is all and each all, and infinite the glory. Each of them is great; the small is great; the sun, There, is all the stars; and every star, again, is all the stars and sun. While some one manner of being is dominant in each, all are mirrored in every other (Enneads, V, 8, 4).

All that is needed (so to speak) is to swap the molar and solar neo-Platonic metaphysics of the One for the indigenous metaphysics of stellar and molecular multiplicities. [Note: There is a wealth of material in Lévi-Strauss’s The Origin of Table Manners supporting this argument. See origin of the Sun and Moon, etc.]

Mirrors are precisely the instrument of passage between the experiences of luminous intensity and the innumerability of spirits, that is, their quantitative infinitude. Images of the image, mirrors multiply in Kopenawa’s narrative, as the signs and means of transportation of the xapiripë — as both their sign-vehicles and vehicle-signs, one might say:

The xapiripë descend to us perching on mirrors, which they keep suspended a little bit above the soil, without ever touching the ground. These mirrors come from their dwelling place in the bosom of the sky. In a shaman’s house of spirits, these mirrors are placed, propped, hung, piled and lined up side by side. When the house is spacious, the mirrors are large, and as the number of spirits increases, the mirrors mount up one on top of the other. But the xapiripë don’t mix with each other. The mirrors of the same spirits [regularly] succeed each other on the props of the house: thus there are the mirrors of warrior spirits, bird of prey spirits, and cicada spirits; the mirrors of thunder spirits, lightning spirits, and storm spirits. There are as many mirrors as there are spirits, they are truly innumerable, piled up out of sight. […] Our life is no more than living among mirrors; …our forest belongs to the xapiripë and is made from their mirrors’ [ibid: 78-9]

Mirrors and crystals perform and important role throughout the Amazonian (particularly Northern Amazonian) vocabulary of shamanism: the shamanic crystals of the Tukano and various Guyanese Carib groups come to mind, so too the ‘crystal boxes of the gods’ of the Piaroa, the warua mirrors which cover the Wayãpi shaman, and, more generally, the internal dual specular symmetry characteristic of the region’s art and hallucinatory aesthetic (see Roe 1993; Overing 1985; Gallois 1996).(27)

But there’s more to mirrors than their capacity to reflect and intensify light; they also have the capacity to multiply images. ‘Copulation and mirrors are abominable, because they multiply the number of men,’ recorded the encyclopaedia of Uqbar (Borges 1956: 13-4). Well, mirrors, at least, are admirable to the Yanomami, because they multiply the number of spirits:

But when the name of a xapiripë is mentioned, it is not a single spirit we evoke, but a multitude of similar spirits. Each name is unique, but the xapiripë it designates are very numerous. They are like the images in the mirrors I saw in one of your hotels. I was alone, but at the same time I possessed many images. Thus, there is just one name for the image of the tapir turned into spirit, but the tapir-spirits are very numerous. [Albert: When a shaman evokes xamari, the image/spirit of the tapir (xama), he always means xamaripë, the innumerable plurality of tapir-spirits]. The same applies to all the xapiripë. People think they are unique, but their images are innumerable. Only their names are less numerous. They are like me, standing in front of those hotel mirrors. They seem alone, but their images overlap each other as far as infinity (Kopenawa & Albert 2003: 73).

Images of the image, mirrors are the bridge between scarce, finite names and an endlessly proliferating, always abundant, infinitely extensible world — or better, an infinitely ‘intensible’ world, a fractal, internally multiple, implicate world not unlike the fabled Leibnizian fish-pond. This relation between image and indefinite multiplicity, multitude and repetition strikes me as a fundamental point. ‘There are as many mirrors as there are spirits,’ says Kopenawa. For each spirit is a mirror in the unbounded forest.

Size and intensityEditar

C'est ce qui paraît encore dans l'indétermination fréquente quant au nombre et au nom des démons. Ils forment d'ordinaire des troupes, des multitudes d'êtres anonymes [...], souvent désignés par des sortes de noms communs.
(Mauss & Hubert, ”Esquisse d'une théorie générale de la magie”)

Aside from their dazzling luminosity, the xapiripë, as percepts, display two other determining features, tininess and innumerability. In the discourse transcribed above, we already saw that they ‘look like human beings but are as tiny as specks of sparkling dust […] thousands of them arrive to dance together… their paths look like spider webs… The spirits are so numerous because they are images of the animals of the forest…’ Naturally enough, in the expanded version, the number of times they are said to be ‘innumerable’ is proportionally greater. The narrator delights in enumerating this innumerable proliferation:

The images [of the xapiripë] are magnificent. Don’t think only a few of them exist. The xapiripë are truly very numerous. They never cease to arrive down here, countless and endless. They are the images of animals that inhabit the forest, with all their offspring, who descend one after the other. Are they not innumerable, all the cacique birds, the red and yellow macaws, the toucans, the herons, the trumpeter birds, the guans, the parakeets, the eagles, the bats, the vultures… And then the tortoises, the armadillos, the tapirs, the deer, the ocelots, the jaguars, the agoutis, the peccaries and the spider monkeys, the howler monkeys, the capuchin monkeys, the sloths… And then all the fish of the rivers, the electric eels, the piranhas, the kurito catfish, the stingrays and all the smaller fish? (Kopenawa & Albert 2003: 72).

Tiny, these spirits nonetheless possess an enormous vitality (cf. the animals descending with all their offspring) and a superabundance of being: ‘when I was younger, I used to ask myself whether the xapiripë could die like humans. But today I know that, though tiny, they are powerful and immortal’ (ibid: 81) (28). Spirits are, literally, intense: the suffix –ri which generally accompanies the name of the xapiripë ‘denotes an extreme intensity, or a non-human/invisible quality’ (Albert in ibid: 73 n.30; emphasis mine). This is why, for example, the mythological animal ancestors and their latter-day shamanic images are yaroripë, that is, yaro (game), -ri- (excessive, supernatural), - (pluralizer). Intensity, exemplarity, alterity in relation to the merely existent:

the iro howler monkey we shoot in the trees is other than its image, which the shaman makes descend as Irori, the howler monkey spirit. These utupë images of game are truly very beautifully. […] Compared to them, the animals of the forest are ugly. They only exist. They do nothing more than imitate their images; they are only the food of humans (ibid: 73).

The intensifier-spiritualizer –ri seems therefore to function exactly as the modifier –kumã in the Arawak languages of the Upper Xingu, which the Yawalapíti translated for me as ‘huge, other, ferocious, supernatural, alien,’ and which I interpreted (Viveiros de Castro 2002a) as one of the basic conceptual operators of their culture, the operator of alteration-spiritualization or ‘ontological exponentiation’. Interestingly, the dimensional imagery of the kumã-beings makes them larger, or sometimes gigantic and monstrous, versions of the everyday beings: a Yawalapíti kumã-monkey is not minuscule like a Yanomami Irori. Yet we are faced, I think, with the ‘same’ monkey, or rather, with the same Other of the monkey, among the Yawalapíti and the Yanomami alike. The tinyness of the xapiripë spirits in no sense impedes their ‘excessive’ or ‘extremely intense’ character, as Albert says; on the contrary, it seems to me a decisive sign of the multiplicity designated by the concept of any spirit ‘in particular;’ as we have seen, ‘when the name of a xapiripë is mentioned, it is not a single spirit we evoke, but a multitude of similar spirits… Each name is unique, but the xapiripë it designates are very numerous.’ Spirits are quantitatively multiple, infinitely numerous; they are the ultimate molecular structure of the molar animal forms we see in the forest. Their smallness is a function of their infinitude and not the opposite. Likewise, the generally gigantic character of the Yawalapíti kumã-beings does not make them less invisible to the naked eye – and it determines them as qualitatively multiple, since a kumã-being is at once an archetype and a monster, model and excess, pure form and hybrid reverberation (human and animal, for example), beauty and ferocity in a single figure. In other words, the minuteness of the xapiripë emphasizes their characterization as a pack, band, multitude and swarm, while the gigantic nature of the kumã-beings points to the dimension of the anomal, the exceptional ‘representative’ of the species, the mega-individual indicating an animal multiplicity (Deleuze & Guattari 1980). (29) In sum, the tininess of the xapiripë and the frequently magnified character of the spirits (of the Masters of animals, for example) are like the front and back of a single idea, that of the ‘excessive’ intensity of spirits. Here we are faced with the two complementary extensive (spatial) schematisms of the idea that a spirit is an intensive and ‘anomalous’ multiplicity.

The complex oscillation between the ideas of minuteness and monstrosity as alternative expressions of an intensive multiplicity has been excellently described by Rodgers (2002) apropos the Ikpeng:

The potential to expand the minimal or obscure points of the world is a distinctive trait of Ikpeng cosmological thought — small (tikap) beings, such as humming-bird, squirrel, bees or various tiny fish, being the most potent: all shamanic/piat-pe (ibid: 100).

Speaking of the magic objects contained in the body of shamans, which scatter into the forest after the death of their ‘container,’ Rodgers observes:

These small shamanic objects populating the cosmos are called imi – a name that recalls the ‘fish-father’ (wot-imi), encountered during [the shaman’s] initiation in the river. In fact, wot-imi also appears as a chalky stone, now in the possession of one of the most experienced shamans. He mixes a small quantity of powder from this stone in water and gives it to small children who have become queasy after ingesting fish. Innumerable other stones and animal skulls are used in a similar way: tariwe-imi (a piece of slate) for spurring manioc growth, tuya-imi (a tiny rodent skull) for toothache. However, the term imi also applies to the various ‘masters of animals’ with whom the shaman negotiates the liberation of animal game. This includes the enormous and brilliantly sparkling ‘fish-father' [covered in multi-coloured scales which include the scales/designs of all fish species - Rodgers pers.comm.] However, the prime example of these beings is abiana-imi , ‘white-lipped-peccary-father,’ a tiny version of a white-lipped peccary who contains all the new peccaries within him… […] All the ‘species-fathers’ named by the Ikpeng appear as aberrant or shamanic versions of their ‘natural’ progeny. This feature approximates them with other sets of species anomalies. Just like other Amazonian peoples, the Ikpeng have an extensive body of knowledge concerning the forest and its fauna. Even so, sometimes new species are encountered. When this happens the species is generally approximated to an already known species and named by the addition of the suffix yum (such as tereng-yum, the ‘europa’ bee, a relatively recent arrival in the Xingu region). This suffix functions, then, as a kind of preliminary agent for absorbing new variants into the Ikpeng lexicon. However, the suffixation also carries a deep association with danger: all yum beings, aside from these recent additions, refer to highly dangerous predators, such as tunan-yum, ‘capybara-monster’ or malula-yum, ‘giant-armadillo-monster.’ At this point a series of fairly intriguing ethnological traces emerges. Both the terms imi and yum are Carib cognates — terms for similar ideas among numerous other Carib peoples. The Wayana suffixes are, in actual fact, inversions of those of the Ikpeng: yum indicates a ‘species-father’ (Hurault, 1968:16), while imi denotes an ‘enormous’ or ‘monstrous’ form of a certain species (van Velthem, 1995: 41; see too Waiwai imo, ‘epic,’ ’huge’) (ibid: 113-4).

The Ikpeng suffixes imi and yum function, then, like the Yawalapíti kumã, the Yanomami –ri, and the many other modifiers used in Amazonian languages in order to characterize these affective-perceptive multiplicities we call spirits. As extra-beings that extravasate far beyond their names (‘every name is unique, but…’) and at the same time radically other than things, spirits are the intensive heart of beings. They are the ones who answer for the meaning of the world.

To conclude, let me just say that the problematic of the infinite in Amerindian cosmologies appears to me to retain a further problem for analysis. We have been used to contrasting the ‘closed world’ of the so-called primitives to the ‘infinite universe’ of us moderns, and to attributing to indigenous peoples a fundamentally finitary, combinatory and discretizing outlook, which abhors the continuum as though it saw in it the dangerous labyrinthine path (the labyrinth of the continuum) which inexorably lures thought into the sinister empire of the non-senses. I am referring, obviously, to the structuralist logos, which instructs us to think of difference exclusively in the ‘totemic’ mode of extensive difference, to conceive the movement of differentiation as a pure limitative synthesis of speciation, and to understand the real as a mere combinatory manifestation of the possible. But the mirrors, images and spirits ‘all the way down’ of Davi Kopenawa strongly suggest that the properly infinitesimal, intensive, disjunctive and virtual component of Amerindian thought cries out for closer attention from anthropology.


1. See Viveiros de Castro 2002 [1978]: chap. 1, on the Yawalapíti, and Viveiros de Castro 1992, on the Araweté.

2. The complete dialogue between Kopenawa and Albert is due to be published shortly. In addition to the two fragments cited above, see the various other texts by Kopenawa and Albert in Albert & Chandès 2003, as well as two fundamental articles by Albert (1988 and 1993).

3. Viveiros de Castro 1998; Carneiro da Cunha 1998.

4. See Albert 1993 for a very insightful analysis of Kopenawa’s discourse as shamanic performance, more particularly as a ‘shamanic critique of the political economy of nature.

5.The same can be said of many Amazonian notions of ‘soul,’ as Surrallés has shown in the case of the Candoshi (2003: 43-9).

6. For the contrast between the shaman and the priest in Amazonia, see Hugh-Jones 1996b and Viveiros de Castro 2002b

7. See Gow 2001: 191-218 for a thoughtful analysis of shamanism and writing among the Piro.

8. On animal bodies as ‘clothes,’ see Viveiros de Castro 1998.

9. ‘Every interval, small and great alike, all has been ensouled’ — Enneads, V, 1, 2.

10.Compare this with Lévi-Strauss’s observation: ‘Undoubtedly in mythic times humans were not distinguishable from animals; but among these undifferentiated beings who were set to give origin to the former and the latter, certain qualitative relations pre-existed the specificities still left in virtual state’ (1971: 526; my italics). Also see Rodgers 2002: 103-04.

11. For a development of this theme in the context of mythology, see Lévi-Strauss 1964: 58-63, 286-87, 325-27; 1971: 417-21, 605. See too, of course, the excellent study by Schrempp 1992.

12. Note that spirits are non-humans, and not ‘are-not humans.’ In other words, the extra-humanity of spirits is a case of ontological markedness (Valeri 2000: 28) in relation to the unmarked status of the human as the referential mode of being.

13. See ibid: n. 39, where Albert observes that a shaman can only see a spirit through the eyes of another spirit.

14. ‘You call them “spirits,” but they are others’ (Kopenawa & Albert 2003: 68).

15. ‘[T]he statement that some non-human entity is “human” is the mark of a specific discourse, shamanry’, writes Gow (2001: 67) apropos the Piro, while Urban (1996: 222) observes that the Shokleng art of dream interpretation ‘consists in identifying a dream figure as a disguised spirit.’

16. The imaginary of Amazonian spirits relishes constructing corporally deformed invisible species, with inverted members, inexistent articulations, minuscule or gigantic appendices, atrophied sensorial interfaces, etc. A good example are the abaisi of the Pirahã (Gonçalves 2001: 177ff).

17. See Viveiros de Castro 1998, and below, on Amerindian ‘perspectivism.’

18. See too Monod on the Piaroa: ‘The Piaroa do not think of themselves as humans in the same way we do: they think of themselves as one species among others. There are all sorts of human species as there are all sort of animal and vegetable species’ (1987: 138).

19. I am aware that there are such things as ‘covert categories’, i.e. non-lexicalized conceptual forms. But my contention is that in the majority of (possibly all) Amazonian cases there is no submerged notion meaning ‘non-human animal’ (in our technical sense of ‘animal’)

20. On the ‘peccary Yanomami who became peccaries’ etc., compare the animal origin myth of the Shokleng (Urban 1996: 181-2), more than three thousand kilometres to the south of the Yanomami: ‘Meanwhile, some of those who had turned into humans [lit., “became related to us”] went off [as animals]. The peccary became a peccary, and went. Then the peccary who had been human [lit., “we the living”] went etc.’ In verse #88 of this myth, the word translated as ‘animal’ is the only word in Portuguese employed by the narrator: the generic ‘bicho’ (‘beast’). Aside from the fascinating tautology of ‘the peccary became a peccary,’ identical to the Yanomami example, I call attention to the two expressions Urban translates as ‘human:’ ‘to become related’ and ‘we the living.’ The first seems to imply that if to be(come) human is to become related, then to become animal is to be(come) non-related (to be a potential affine, perhaps — cf. Viveiros de Castro 2002b). The second suggests that to be(come) animal is to be(come) ‘not-“we the living”’ — hence to become dead? If ‘we the living’ is the Shokleng expression for ‘human,’ as Urban translates the term various times, then: (1) all the living are human to some extent; (2) all the non-human living are dead (i.e. spectres, as the Yanomami would say) to some extent.

21.The exception are Cebus monkeys. The reasons for their edibility are discussed in Viveiros de Castro 2002a.

22. Actually, the xapiripë feed on their own sweet-smelling farts, which they have a habit of inhaling in their cupped hands (loc.cit.).

23.‘The expression në porepë, “in spectral form” … is often used as a synonym for utupë, shamanic image-essence’ (Albert in Kopenawa & Albert 2003: 73 n.33).

24. Albert (in Kopenawa & Albert 2003: 68 n.2) provides the following synthesis: ‘Spirits see humans in the form of spectres, animals see them as their similars turned into “house dwellers,” malefic beings consider them game animals…, and the spectres of the dead see them as abandoned kin.’

25. On relations between the dead and animals, a wide range of examples can be found in: Schwartzmann 1988: 268 (Panara); Vilaça 1992: 247–55 (Wari’); Turner 1995: 152 (Kayapó); Pollock 1985: 95 (Kulina); Gray 1996: 157–78, 178 (Arakmbut); Gow 2001: ch. 5 (Piro); Alexiades 1999: 134, 178 (Ese Eja); Weiss 1972: 169 (Campa); Clastres 1968 (Aché).

26. Among many other examples of the special implications between the exercise of vision and alimentary determinations, we can highlight: (1) Gow (2001: 139): ‘When I asked Piro people why they liked to take ayahuasca, they gave two characteristic replies. Firstly, they said it was good to vomit, and that ayahuasca cleansed the body of the residues of game that had been eaten... These accumulate over time, causing a generalized malaise and tiredness, and eventually a desire to die. [Here compare: ‘The flesh of game we eat decomposes inside us. On the other hand, the bodies of the xapiripë contain no rotten meat …’ — Kopenawa & Albert 2003: 85] Secondly, people told me that it was good to take ayahuasca because it makes you see: as one man put it, “You can see everything, everything”’. (2) The observation by Alexiades (1999: 194) according to which the edosikiana, spirits of the Ese Eja, are invisible to all humans except the shaman, since whosoever sees an edosikiana is devoured by it. 27. See the Shipibo myth analyzed by Roe (1988; 120; 1993: 139-40 n. 12): the chaiconi spirits (Incas / brothers-in-law) ‘“turned over the mirror” and so obscured the primordial human’s ability to see the game animals and fish they sought to catch in the crystal-clear waters of the lakes of beginning time. Now, since the mirror has been turned over to face its dull side to humans, they cannot see the animals they hunt … except if they are near the surface […] Since the shaman, via hallucinatory visions, can go back to beginning time, he wil also be able to “turn over the mirror” and see clearly. Hence shamans are associated with mirrors and use them as accoutrement…’

28.These Yanomami ideas on the innumerability and immortality of animal spirits seem to me to have a profound relation with the question of the indefinite regeneration of species, famously discussed by Brightman in relation to the Cree (1993: ch. 9).

29. The conceptual determination of spirits as multiplicities possesses fascinating sociological implications, which I lack the space to develop here. I shall simply cite what Gow says (2001: 148) about the essentially collective nature of the interactions with spirits: ‘When a shaman sings the song of a kayigawlu [the shamanic vision of a ‘powerful being’, i.e. a spirit], he becomes that kayigawlu, But… the state of powerful beings is intrinsically multiple. …[T]he imitation of the songs of powerful beings is less a form of possession … than the entry into another sociality. […] The other takes the shaman as part of its multiplicity…


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