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Nature Background

 Yanomami Mythology 

Myths can be defined as traditional stories that usually describe a sacred or hallmark event in ancient history. Just about every society has a collection of stories that describe how the world began or how the first humans were created. These kinds of stories are called cosmogonic myths. Those that refer to the origin of God, or some other deity, are known as theogonic myths while narratives that explain the origin of things are called etiological myths. Finally, those that attempt to interpret and explain the existence of good and evil are called moral myths.

The Yanomami of the Upper Orinoco have myths that are abounding, diverse, and directly related to the natural world and their territories. They reveal their primordial world as chaotic with night and day as confused. During these times no women had existed. The banana, fire, water, cassava, fish, game animals, among others had not yet been discovered. These myths are verbal expressions of a remote past when the universe had just begun making up the central elements of their current spirituality and worldview.

According to Cocco (1975), the myths that describe the origin of the Yanomami and its evolution revolve around three types of “humanities” (or humanizations). One humanity can be found in the myth of Porehimi, which describes the transformation of the environment by one of their oldest ancestors. Porehimi revealed the banana to the Yanomami and taught them how to cultivate, cook, and eat them. He showed them how to properly cremate the dead, grind and mix any remaining bones into a plantain broth, and how to organize a celebration ritual known as the reahu. Found in the myth of Periporiwe, are the human descendants of the moon making up another humanity. They were destroyed by a great flood. Finally, the humanity born of the survivors of this great flood is depicted in the myth of Omawë.

Below is a transcription of a portion of the myth of Periporiwë describing the creating of the modern-day Yanomami:

All the Yanomami, all the Napë (non-Yanomami), all the people of this world come from the blood of Periporiwë. He had lived in this world with his daughter, Purimayoma, and his son-in-law Amoawe. His daughter did not want to be married to Amoawe. She had only loved him as a brother and not as a husband. This made her father very angry and ashamed. One day, Periporiwe invited his grandson and Purimayoma shapono into the mountain side far away from their shabono (village). Suddenly, he grabbed his daughter and strangled her. Then he commanded his grandson to use the atari (spear head) to cut out her ovaries. The obedient grandson took out Purimayoma’s ovaries and gave them to his grand father. Periporiwë, who carefully packaged the ovaries in some leaves and tied them up. This gesture was done to teach us how to package meat for transport back to the shapono after a hunt. Purimayoma did not die but after her father had left she transformed into a firefly.

Back at the shabono, Periporiwë sat down, untied the leaves and began eating the ovaries. Moments later he was overcome by a very strange, uncomfortable feeling. He became hot and started walking around the shabono crazily. He was restless and shouted from the burning sensation taking over his body. He walked to the center of the shabono and began to rise into the sky. The other no-patapi (the ancestors) laughed at him and said: This crazy Periporiwë! What is going to happen to him?

Periporiwë kept climbing higher and higher in to the sky doing circles. The children thought it was a game and threw sticks at him. All the others laughed. They thought he would eventually come back down and that he was only showing off by demonstrating his power. He continued to climb higher and higher. The men soon gathered in the middle of the shabono and started shooting their arrows at Periporiwë. He had climbed so high that they could not reach him. The Atamari (another group of ancestors) people also attempted to shoot him down but to no avail.

There was one Yanomami man named Suhirinariwe and he was lying down in his hammock looking up at all the commotion. He was not easily excited like the other men. He remained calm, collective and stoic, or waitheri. The no-patapi elders commented: Why did they not shoot him when he was low to the ground? Now he is very high. Periporiwe has escaped. Nobody can get him now. At that moment, Suhirinariwëe climbed out of his hammock, grabbed his bow and arrow, looked up and exclaimed: Asieeeen! Why did they not shoot him when he was low to the ground? Now he is really high up there.

He steadied his bow and pulled back on the bowstring.  He found it to be too loose and adjusted it. Again, he tested the tautness of the bowstring by quickly yanking it back and letting it go several times giving off a resounding: pau, pau, pau! This was all done to teach us how to prepare and ready our bows before we shoot the arrow. And if we do not hit our targets it is because our bowstring is loose and we must do what Suhirinariwë had done to adjust it.

Then, Suhirinariwë affixed an arrowhead to the end of the arrow and looked up towards the sky. He notched his arrow, pulled back, and took aim. At that moment, Periporiwë had stopped moving and glanced down. Suhirinariwë let the arrow loose and hit Periporiwë in the chest - tah! – right where the nipple was. Everyone shouted in awe: Aaaii!

Drops of blood was falling from the wound entry. Here – there – drops of blood had fallen everywhere. As each drop touched the earth it had transformed into a Yanomami. Soon, Periporiwë was running out of blood and losing strength. He gradually fell towards the edge of the earth where he died and transformed into a tall hill now called Peripori-maki. A place far, far, away where not even the Napë live. A place where the spirits (Yai) live. The peripo (the moon) we see today is not the body of Periporiwe, but his soul. This is bad because it takes the souls of children who easily die.

That day when Periporiwë was shot, many other Yanomami ancestors had transformed into plants and animals. Suhirirnariwë and his family became the small scorpions that have really painful stings. Pokoihipemariwë and his family transformed into the larger kind of scorpions. The Atamari people went into forest and turned into mushrooms. Others had turned into vultures and flew to nearby bushes. The great shaporis (shamans) turned into the larger vultures and flew high into the sky and got lost in the clouds.

This essay was translated and adapted from Los Yanomami (Caracas: Fundación Editorial El Perro y la Rana, 2011) written by Yanomami Foundation President, Hortensia Caballero-Arias, Ph.D. 

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