- Mysteries of the Jaguar Shamans of the Northwest Amazon by Robin M. Wright.
Robin Wright is a renowned scholar of religion and society in Native South America. This book, his newest, contributes to a long list of distinguished publications on the subjects of myth, ritual, cosmology, shamanism, eschatology, and their relation to social action and history. Advancing a research trajectory of nearly four decades, the newest work takes as its subject indigenous religious knowledge and practice among the Hohodene Baniwa, a northern Arawakan-speaking people living along the Aiarí River in the northwest Amazon of Brazil.
The new book features the life and work of Manuel (Mandu) da Silva, the last living jaguar shaman of the Baniwa, whose life story provides a central reference point for discussion, analysis, and comparison. It presents Mandu’s life story in his own words, recorded and translated from the Baniwa into Portuguese by his daughter, Ercilha de Lima da Silva, and to English by the author. This remarkable document, in which Mandu constructs his own living identity and historic legacy, is the only existing narrative by a shaman from the Northwest Amazon and one of the few in the entire corpus of literature on South American shamanism. In it, Mandu describes his arduous path to becoming a master of esoteric knowledge. The rich document, along with Wright’s analyses, provides us with important insights that are relevant to global studies of religion. For example, Mandu’s account of his own apprenticeship, a rare personal testimony into the indivisibility of the individual, the social, and the cultural, also provides valuable material for a comparative analysis of the apprenticeship project [End Page 164] worldwide. It resonates with similar processes recorded for shamans from central Asia, the Arctic, and elsewhere. Likewise, Mandu’s accounts of his life-long struggles with sorcerers, battles in which the stakes involve life and death, transcend the specific to shed light on fundamental questions involving the role of the shaman in maintaining the moral and physical well-being of the community against dangers of all kinds. This last area of exploration remains an important, yet analysis-poor area of research into conviviality and conflict over time. It addresses the love and anger that strain the ties of community and lie at the foundation of sociological thought.
The book is divided into four sections. In Part I Mandu’s narrative is presented, interpreted, and integrated into Wright’s more encyclopedic exegesis. With the narrative as his touchstone, Wright presents an elegant overview of shamanic preparation and practice. For his analysis he relies on discussions by Joanna Overing and David Carrasco on “world-making.” Wright explains how the shaman uses his acquired knowledge to access the “Other World,” the source of all power, and communicate with the spirits who inhabit it (p. 54). In the journey the shaman undergoes a process of rebirth in which he “dies” and is “reborn” or “returns” to the eternal “Other World” (p. 81). There he “throws away his personhood” and journeys to the “Other Side” (p. 81). Having divested himself of both bodily and social trappings, he may enter the realm of the most powerful deities, where the soul of the afflicted person is held captive. There he haggles the price of the soul of the afflicted community member.
Part II is concerned with the Baniwa universe. Here Wright presents a number of myths and other accounts to advance earlier investigations into the relationships among cosmology, ecology, and shamanic knowledge. He presents the image of the tree—as vertical form and as living, growing, entity—as a central organizing device in Northwest Amazonian cosmology. In its upward ascent the tree penetrates, and thereby links the many levels of the universe. The shaman can be best understood as moving vertically and horizontally along the tubular body and dendritic pathways of the tree to reach each realm and to visit the villages of the spirit beings that inhabit it...