Folk Literature Across Native Cultures of the Amazon River Basin


The Amazon River Basin was home to an abundance of cultures prior to the arrival of European explorers. A great number of these cultures have remained intact up until contemporary times. To the Yanomami, Yakuro, Makiritare, and Xingu cultures, folklore encompasses an interpretation of the world, a particular way of explaining nature and it’s origins. Thus, these stories through feats, examples, and actions, reveal each culture’s conception of the world and lay the foundations for the predominant moral and material traits of the culture in question. These myths illustrate the ability to recognize the distinctions and commonalities of human, animal, and spiritual relationships. Despite discernible contributions of an array of cultures, overarching motifs and themes depict the interconnectedness of the native cultures of the Amazon River basin through oral literature.

The Yanomami live in an extensive area at the tip of northern Brazil and Southern Venezuela known as the Orionco River region. Four Yanomami subgroups exist; three of which have recorded oral literature. Etiological narratives, which stress origin and cause, were popular amongst the Yanomami groups. The acquisition of fire, the circadian rhythms of night and day and Makoaue, a character depicted as creator of the earth, hold great prevalence in their mythology. (Wilbert and Simoneau 9) The practice of horticulture, specifically maize and the pijiguao palm, play into the etiological aspects of Yanomami folklore. The mythology of the two Demiurge Brothers is prominent throughout much Yanomami oral literature as well. Despite their supernatural origin, they are often depicted as two mischievous young boys with magic abilities who grow in moral ambiguity until achieving an omnipotent status.

Similarly, extraordinary creatures and events are presented on numerous occasions throughout Yanomami mythology. The jaguar figure prominently appears as a man-eating ogre or simply an aggressor with supernatural abilities. (Wilbert and Simoneau 23) A number of narratives portray spirits and ogres attacking their victims in farfetched ways amongst other disparate themes present within the mythology depicting extraordinary events and creatures.

The Yaruro Indians, an aboriginal society of southwestern Venezuela in the foothills of the Andes, have certain dialectical and cultural differences amongst themselves. Yaruro narrators often adopt an idiosyncratic oratory style for their listeners; the Yaruro myth is intimately pragmatic and an important aspect of the religious revelatory experience of individual narrators. Hence, while a generalized number of mythic themes and images are clearly distinct, many contradictions arise as a result of the fact that personally received mythic content passes through a multitude of human filters prior to becoming common knowledge.

The Yaruro hold their folkloric creators responsible for protecting them from their assertive neighbors. The Yaruro distinguish between five divine personages in their folklore. (Wilbert and Simoneau 6) Known as Parepa, translated to mean “the ones with knowledge”, these personages are often referred to as culture heroes, chiefs, creators, Old Ones, or by their distinguished names. (Wilbert and Simoneau 6).   In the mythology of Yaruro, it was believed an individual named Hatchava to have discovered mankind. (Wilbert and Simoneau 10).   Hatchava was responsible for teaching men to hunt and make fire. Various other characters exist which are known as the masters of the water, the underworld, and the sky. Trees and nature in general are depicted as having supernatural abilities; the tree of life is widely utilized in Yaruro mythology. A multitude of their folklore seeks to explain the origin of inequality among men, perhaps emphatic of the Yaruro belief that others are inferior. Yaruro oral art has predominantly been expressed in ceremonial chant and other oratorical forms as opposed to narrative (Wilbert and Simoneau 5).

The Makiritare reside north of the Orinoco River in Northern Amazonia. Much of this region has remained unexplored even in contemporary times. Their oral tradition, known as the Watunna, is the compendium of religious and social models of the indigenous natives, also known as So’to.   (De Civrieux 2) Makiritare mythology typifies nonhuman beings that alter from their natural states to engage in various methods of deception.  The mythologies of the Makiritare serve as example for So’to behavior. Indicative of what the “Old People” or Heavenly Ancestors did, these myths depict perfect expression of tribal law and are known as the wisdom brought to Earth by primordial beings.  (De Civrieux 12) A character known as Wanadi is considered to be their cultural hero for his godlike supremacy. Makiritare folklore often involves other supernatural beings, such as a jaguar with transformative capabilities and two brothers who hold empirical powers.

So‘to is highly exclusive and those who fail to speak the language of the Makiritare are considered inhuman.  As a result of this rejection of outsiders, an attempt by the Spaniards to subjugate the Makiritare proved futile. (DeCivrieux 11)  This period of attempted conquest was very chaotic and appears frequently in the epic tales of the Watunna. The Watunna is a living tradition, in use even in modern-day times.

In regards to proximity, the Xingu region is further from the other three indigenous cultures discussed. Much of it rests along the Upper Xingu River Basin and the Xingu Indigenous Park in Southern Amazonia. The native inhabitants of the Xingu region have been found to be very similar in their various practices and habitats as those encountered in 1887. (Villas Boas 13) Land distribution in the village has remained the same, along with relations and communication, as well as the amicable disposition of their character. The ten tribes of the Upper Xingu display great cultural uniformity and have merged to a great extent in their practices and tradition. Thus, the cultural fusion of the Xingu tribes results in their mythical and folkloric settings to be located in specific geographic locations central to the Xinguanos. The places where their heroes lived and performed their deeds are specifically placed in the region, clearly attesting to their well-developed geographic orientation. (Villas Boas 46)

The majority of Xingu folklore is male dominated. This is indicated through the prevalence of male deities, male chiefs, and male ownership of property and objects. Trees act as a popular motif as well. They are often associated with the dead and are cited as having magical abilities. The staple crop of the Xingu tribes, manioc (also known as yucca), is mentioned throughout many folklore tales.

A striking amount of overlap exists within the oral literature of these Amazon River Basin societies. The concept of a divine creator exists in various forms amongst three of the four tribes; Makoaue(Yanomami), Hatchava (Yaruro), and Wanadi (Makiritare). The fact that such a concept exists amongst these three tribes is most probably associated with their proximity to each other and their great distance from the Xingu. Other types of etiological mythology regarding ancestral beings permeate both the Yaruro and the Makiritare in the forms of “Parepa” and “Old People”, respectively. The idea of respecting wise ancestral beings can be correlated with their cultural views towards a system of virtues and order their peoples should adhere to.

Spirituality and supernatural creatures seem to play a pivotal role cross culturally as well. The Makiritare and Yanomami cultures share the concept of a jaguar creature that acts on magical abilities as well as mythic tales of two brothers with extraordinary powers.  These distinct similarities could be due to their proximity; their folkloric creatures could have first existed in one culture and then permeated into the folklore of another. The Yaruro and the Xingu emphasize the magic and spirituality of trees. The Yaruro correlate the magic abilities of trees with the living while the Xingu associates the trees with death and the afterlife.

A sense of xenophobia exudes from the Makiritare and Yaruro tribes; the Makiritare because of their So’to beliefs and the Yaruro because of the existing prejudices they face from the outside world. With this rejection of foreigners comes the concept of self-sufficiency. The Xingu highlight the importance of the manioc root while the Yanomami describe the significance of the pijiguao palm and their maize crop in attempts to emphasize their gratitude for agricultural sustenance.

An indubitable amount of similarities exist amongst the various indigenous tribes of the Amazon River Basin. Whether due to geographic or spiritual reasoning, the permeability of folklore amidst these cultures is vast. Even though such commonalities do exist, distinctive qualities emerge from each culture that highlight what is empirically unique about their ideals. The Yanomami, Yaruro, Makiritare and Xingu tribes are innately connected through their folk literature, as exemplified by the striking amount of similarities within it. Considerations of these cultures of Brazil must take into account the distinct geographic features it encompasses and just how these features impact the cultures that inhabit them. The geographic disparities between these cultures caused for each culture to develop distinctive qualities, particularly in regards to folk literature.  Yet, with the increasing permeability of borders between these indigenous tribes it can be predicted that the commonalities amongst these cultures will be heightened in the future.

Works Cited

1.Civrieux, Jean-Marc De. Watunna, an Orinoco Creation Cycle. San Francisco: North Point,1980. Print.

2. Villas Boas, Orlando. Xingu: The Indians, Their Myths. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,1973. Print.

3. Wilbert, Johannes, and Karin Simoneau. Folk Literature of the Yanomami Indians. Los Angeles:UCLA Latin American Center Publications, University of California, 1990. Print.

4. Wilbert, Johannes, and Karin Simoneau. Folk Literature of the Yaruro Indians. Los Angeles:UCLA Latin American Center Publications, University of California, 1990. Print.



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