Jaguars and Shamans

Yukuna painted balsa wood mask representing a jaguar. The whiskers are made from thin feathers and the eyes are shards of mirror. Collected by R.E. Schultes, Mirití-Paraná River, Colombia. PM 53-47-30/7511
Detail, Yukuna jaguar mask. The chain-like design may represent the anaconda, an important character in creation myths, depicted in many other ritual and sacred Amazonian objects. Collector: R.E. Schultes, Mirití-Paraná River, Colombia, PM 53-47-30/7511
Siona necklace of seed beads and canine teeth. A common item used by shamans during rituals. Collected by V.W.von Hagen, Putumayo River, Colombia. PM 48-17-30/7073
Detail, Guahibo shaman’s necklace of jaguar and other large-animal teeth and seed beads of a palm. The teeth are decorated with small circular incisions and parallel lines. Collector: Gregorio Hernández de Alba, Vichada River, Colombia. PM 46-90-30/5628
Kubeo death dance mask. A full dress and mask from the Cuduyarí River area, made from tree bark, tassels, and decorated with a small painted face. Reichel-Dolmatoff calls it a shamanic mask. Collector: R.E. Schultes, Vaupés, Colombia. PM 53-1-30/7411
Ticuna bark blanket with jaguar. Collected in 1972, it was probably made for sale near Leticia rather than for ceremonial use. Collector: Raymond A. Paynter, Amazonas, Colombia. PM 997-30-30/11776

Friar Gaspar de Carvajal, an eyewitness of Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana’s first expedition down the Amazon River in 1542, wrote about celebrations that the Spanish witnessed in a village in the forest:

“Over this same square was a big house of the sun where the Indians practiced their ceremonies and rites. There we found many dresses with feathers of different colors, placed and weaved over cotton, and very nice, that the Indians wear to celebrate and dance, when they meet there for some festivity or to rejoice before their idols.” (From: Relación del Nuevo descubrimiento del famoso Río Grande que descubrió por muy gran ventura el capitán Francisco de Orellana. 1542. Quito: Ministerio de Educación del Ecuador, 1942 [1542]) p. 30)

The “big house” mentioned by the friar was very likely a communa house, known in the Amazon as maloca. The practice of dressing in special costumes and using colorful parrot feathers to decorate crowns and ritual objects is still observed today among many of the surviving tribes that struggle to protect their traditions. Sometimes, masks depicting spirits and otherworldly characters are made and used in ceremonies that they organize to celebrate a period of abundance or reenact the mythical past; but in every instance, these ceremonies relate to imagined worlds that become real through the power art, of acting, and of the use of sacred plants or plants of knowledge. In essence, Amazonian cultures are animistic because they believe that animals and plants possess a spirit, therefore dances and rituals are a way of entering in contact with the spirits that inhabit those plants and animals.

The handling of the world of spirits and of extraordinary beings is in the hands of shamans—individuals that have prepared from childhood to cure diseases, to cause diseases in their enemies, and to communicate with the supernatural world. The term “shaman” comes from the Tungus, in Asia, and has been generalized in anthropology all over the world; however, in Colombia these individuals have many other local names. For example, in the Amazon they are known as payé, in the Pacific coast they are called jaibaná, and in all the foothills of the Andes they are known as taita or curaca. In short, the shaman is the keeper of knowledge of all things sacred, magical, and mythical.

Among all Amazonian creatures, the dominating figure is the jaguar. It represents power and danger, which are two characteristics associated also with shamans: power, because shamans have special powers that other people don’t have; danger, because they are believed to cause disease, pain, and even death if they wish. Because it is also believed that shamans can change into jaguars at will and become jaguars after they die, the reference to this feline is central to native Amazonian beliefs. The shaman represents or recalls the jaguar in ceremonies by using the feline’s skin, by wearing necklaces made of its canines, by dancing with masks like the wonderful example illustrated here, or by using other objects that remind of this animal. In other words, he or she becomes the embodiment of the splendid jaguar.