As we continue this month’s weekly series 5 Of The Most Magical Objects In The Museum (see first article HERE) we will venture to the dark corners of our special exhibit Out of the Amazon: Life on the River to take a look at what is basically a shaman’s toolkit. Last week we featured ancient Egyptian incantations designed to guide the spirit of a deceased person through the afterlife. This week we will discuss objects designed to protect the living from mysterious an malevolent forces that the Piaroa people of the Amazon believe present a clear and present danger us right now.
4. Collection of Accouterments for the use of yopo
Most of the cultures represented in our special exhibit Out of the Amazon have traditionally depended on shamans for their spiritual and physical well being. It is believed by members of these societies that illness is caused by malicious spirits, and it is the Shaman’s job to ward off these negative entities. He does this by communing with other, helpful spirits through the use of a hallucinogen called yopo. Pictured above is a shamans’s basketry bag containing the accouterments for the use of yopo during healing rituals.
Anadenanthera peregrina, also known as yopo, is a tree native to Amazonia. The beans and leaves from this tree have been used for their hallucenogenic properties for thousands of years. In the picture above, the wooden bowl and stone are used for crushing and mixing the yopo into a powder. The bifurcated wooden tube is used by the shaman to blow the yopo powder into the nostrils of the individual he is healing. In the forefront of the picture are tobacco cigars.
The culture that produced this fascinating collection are the Piaroa people of Venezuela and Colombia. The Piaroa call their shamans Ruw’a. The Ruw’a hold an important political and spiritual position in their society, and in order to be appointed to the position a person must show himself to be compassionate, gentle and level headed. The Ruw’a’s job is to protect his village from malevolent spirits or demons.
To be considered magical, an object must give an individual the power to control aspects of his world that are normally beyond human ability to control. Often the focus of these objects is the physical or mental state of other people. Objects that are believed to be imbued with this sort of power are relatively rare, even in small, egalitarian and very superstitious societies like that of the Piaroa. The idea that anybody could have the ability to deal with spirits for any reason is rather disturbing. Therefore only a few individuals possessing qualities considered desirable to their society are chosen to have this responsibility. For the rest, the spirit world is believed to be accessible and yopo is used by men during certain ceremonies, but they generally have a Shaman to guide them safely through.
Tune in next week as we continue to explore the more mystical side of our collections, in case you missed last week’s magic blog I am including a link here. And don’t forget that all of the objects described in these blogs are on display right here at HMNS, so if you’re curious to know more come see for yourself!