Death and the Loss of Civilized Prédation among the Piaroa of the Orinoco Basin - article ; n°126 ; vol.33, pg 191-211

Death and the Loss of Civilized Prédation among the Piaroa of the Orinoco Basin - article ; n°126 ; vol.33, pg 191-211


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L'Homme - Année 1993 - Volume 33 - Numéro 126 - Pages 191-211
21 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



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Joanna Overing
Death and the Loss of Civilized Prédation among the Piaroa of
the Orinoco Basin
In: L'Homme, 1993, tome 33 n°126-128. pp. 191-211.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Overing Joanna. Death and the Loss of Civilized Prédation among the Piaroa of the Orinoco Basin. In: L'Homme, 1993, tome 33
n°126-128. pp. 191-211.
doi : 10.3406/hom.1993.369636 Overing
Death and the Loss of Civilized Prédation
among the Piaroa of the Orinoco Basin1
opposition Joanna analogical of Orinoco the dead. Overing, Basin. ordering, permeates Though — The Death not the Piaroa to alterity and domain social of the is the living, that Loss the Orinoco is hallmark of most but Civilized to basin notably the of classification apply Prédation this deficient wordly their among in most of sociality, alterity, the elaborate the non-social for Piaroa the skills logic Piaroa homes of for the of
strip the dying of all capabilities for civilized prédation, and thus for civilized relations
of alterity: save for gender, the dead lose all aspects of personal singularity. The
impoverished afterlife of the dead is in sharp contrast to the communities of the living,
where a principle of homogeneity is conjoined with a stress on personal difference. The
egalitarian social philosophy of the Piaroa allows for the understanding of the apparent
perversity of their classificatory logic.
The Piaroa explanation of the process of death, along with their descrip
tions of the asocial spirit world of the dead, combine to form an ele
gant sketch of what they understand to be the possibilities and dif
ficulties of the human condition on earth. Since death, as they describe it,
brings with it the loss of most aspects of what is necessary for the person to
be alive and well in society, the land of the dead is not so much the converse
of life but a highly deficient one. Only earthly human beings can acquire the
particular predator forces upon which civilized productivity and therefore sociality
are dependent. This is a process of being that is at once both the condition
for human existence and its predicament. The process of death makes sense
only within the context of their reflection upon the process of life, and to a
certain extent vice versa. It is the relationship between life and death that
is the topic of this paper.
The Piaroa understanding of the processes of living and dying fits into their
much broader cosmological scheme of agency for beings within the universe
as a whole. It is an ontology of being that has historical foundation, and
in the Piaroa formulation of their creation time history it was through this
history that potentialities for agency changed. It is highly significant that the
historical focus becomes increasingly centred upon the agency of this-wordly
L'Homme 126-128, avr.-déc. 1993, XXXIII (2-4), pp. 191-211. 192 JOANNA OVERING
and present-day Piaroa — and their distinctly eness from gods past and present,
and from the plants, the animals, and the dead. This is not to say that Piaroa
cosmology is but a reflection through converse logic of their social life, for
it is far from being so. Nor is it about social order or social control, and
it would also be an extreme distortion of the facts to see Piaroa myth and
cosmology as solely charters for social action. Nevertheless, being centred upon
the possibilities and dangers for present-day humans living a social and productive
existence, Piaroa cosmology (and their discourse about it) provides for them
a theory of the social. As such it is a cosmology that incorporates a complex
conversation about the process of being that is uniquely lived and achievable
by human beings.2
It would be wrong to see Piaroa cosmology and their highly elaborated
discourse about it as one part of a system commenting on another, as for example
upon social action or political legitimacy. Cosmology, discourse, power and
social practice — they all participate in the same process, not separate ones, and
they are therefore constitutive of one another. All occupy daily public space,
and as such define it. Talk and action must not be treated as different orders
of reality.
The "problem" of minimalist, fluid societies
The Piaroa, a forest dwelling horticulturalist, fishing, hunting and gathering
people of the Venezuelan Guianas, belong to that category of lowland peoples
who Viveiros de Castro (1992) has recently described as "minimalist societies"
which as a class provide us ostensibly with a specific anthropological puzzle:
they appear to be top heavy in the area of cosmological discourse in relation
to the casualness, and indeed apparent paucity, of their social organization.
In the Guianas, we do have a prescriptive marriage rule and the Dravidian-
type of therminology through which it is expressed. The relationship termino
logy is the primary and almost sole means through which social relationships
are expressed, considered, changed. At the same time it is a classification
that in its use adheres insistently, not upon the principles of social solidarity
and continuity, but upon the freedom of personal free choice (Overing Kaplan
1975). There is also the local group, or village, the physical structure of which
was traditionally the large communal house. Socially it was envisioned as an
endogamous cognatic kinship group, comprised (despite the marriages which
gave it form) of "those of a kind" with one another (also see Rivière n.d.).
Thus, a strong stress in community living is upon a social principle of homog
eneity. Equally powerful, and linked, is the principle of personal autonomy.
The structure, if one can so label the results of such principles that insist upon
social homogeneity and the autonomy of the person, is at once enabling of
equality and résistent to the stabilization of hierarchy (see, for example, Thomas
1982). The Piaroa were particularly offended by, and adamantly so in talk, The Asocial World of the Dead 193
the legitimacy of any notion of social rule. The idea of "the right to com
mand" was equally offensive. In short, their high valuation of personal aut
onomy — especially a person's "right to choose" — was by far too strong to allow
for any appreciation of the benefit of the social control-like mechanisms that
are coterminous with the anthropological understanding of the order and social
structure of non-state societies.3
Perhaps it is best to say that the peoples of the Guianas have little or
no social structure. This is not such a preposterous statement, for in anthro
pology the notion of social structure — and indeed of the Social — is usually
defined by 1) structures of separation and opposition, and 2) structures of
inequality, or the institutional elaboration of relations of dominance and subor
dination.4 Both run contrary to Guianese daily social life where the playing
out of difference and opposition relate most saliently not to the interior of
community life but to its exterior. Otherness in Piaroa social philosophy
pertains most forcefully to all those people, animals, spirits, and gods who
dwell outside the village boundary, and even beyond the community's own
experiencing of time.
This is not to say that the peoples of the Guianas do not value highly an
idea of sociality, and even more the practice of it. In order to discover the
path to this indigenous sense of the social, it is better to speak of their aesthetics
of the social (see Overing 1989), rather than their institutionalization of it. Their
concern is focused upon the attainment of a particular quality of material
existence, and not its structure — at least not as anthropologists tend to
use the term. Sociality is a process of being that the Piaroa privilege over
any other way of being, and certainly over any structure that might give a
guarantee of control and be based upon relations of domination/subordination.
Viveiros de Castro (1992) takes another route in explaining the casual social
organization of the Araweté, a Tupi-Guarani group of Brazil. He understands
the Araweté "other-worldly style of thought" as embodying the high valuation
of these other worlds, which leads in the end to their focus being upon feritas
and divinitas instead of humanitas. Thus, the world of the social for the
Araweté — a people for whom truth and desire always lies with the Other and
in their future afterworld life with and as cannibal gods — is marginalized, and
society becomes but a precarious space, a "time of transition, encompassed
by that which is exterior to it" {ibid., chap. 1). In contrast, the desires of
the Piaroa are directed firmly toward this world which they view as the privileged
space within the cosmos, and when in it, unlike the Araweté, they want no
contact whatsoever with their dangerous and non-social dead.5 Their concern
is always for acquiring the capabilities for earthly living and sociality, for in
their view all other ways of being, whether of the dead, the gods, or the animals,
are by contrast barren and deficient. Thus we do not have the option (as appears
to be the case for the Araweté) of dismissing the informal Piaroa world of
the social as but a transitional period leading to a more glorious future in the
land of the dead. To unfold the Piaroa theory of the social it is necessary 194 JOANNA OVERING
to set their understanding of the possibilities for the human alive in this world
within the more general context of their descriptions of agency in the cosmos. As
an aspect of this more general cosmological scheme, Piaroa afterworlds are
a good starting point.
The mortuary moiety and clan system of the Piaroa
The structure of their afterworlds give evidence to the fact that informal
as the Piaroa may be in their this-worldly practice they are nevertheless as capable
as the Gê or the Bor oro of metaphoric elaborations.6 The difference is that
while the latter peoples act out their particular vision of cosmological ordering
ceremonially as daily social practice, the Piaroa project dual organization onto
afterworld and not social space.7 When a Piaroa dies his named spirit (about
which more will be said below) travels to one of the clans (iyaenawatu) of above,
"of the sky", or to one below, "of the earth". These moieties, each comprised
of eight or so clans, are named respectively "the groups of the sky" (hut'ohu
iyaenawatu) and "the groups of the earth" (mariweka iyaenawatu) . Each clan
is then also distinguished by a name that reflects the dichotomy (high and low)
upon which the moiety is based. The sub-groups of the moiety of mariweka
carry the names of land animals or objects of the earth, while those of the
moiety of hut'ohu have the names of birds, a star, or fruits of high trees.
The names of the mortuary clans refer further to specific "lakes of
creation". Thus the name is formed by the conjunction of hakwawa, meaning
"within"; yo'u, meaning "the lake of"; and the name of the object, animal,
bird or plant to which the lake belongs. For example, for the moiety of mari
weka there is the sub-group of hakwawa inaekwayo'u, literally translated as
"within the lake of the stone", and for the moiety of hut'ohu there is hakwawa
chirik'oyo'u, "within the lake of the star".8 These names recount the places
of creation for the Piaroa. One prevalent version of the creation of the Piaroa
says that Wahari, a powerful god of the mythic past, created the first pairs
of Piaroa men and women in separate acts of creation at each of the sacred
lakes of mariweka and hut'ohu. He created them from fish that dwelt within
these lakes, and it is to the sacred lake from which the first brother and sister
pair of one's group was created that a person returns at death. Thus a person's
mortuary home is also his/her "place of creation". The moiety system orders
both afterworld space (the mortuary clans) and the primordial localities of Piaroa
In contrast to the flamboyant moieties of the Gê of Central Brazil which
provide the role of clothing the person as a social self9, the Piaroa moiety
system plays little part in the ordering of this-worldly space. It does not pertain
in any direct way to the social aspects of the living. First of all, the members
of any particular clan, while for the most part separated and dispersed during
their lifetimes, are only united at death. Thus as fellow clansmen, the living The Asocial World of the Dead 195
have no obligation to one another; earthly Piaroa do not form political,
economic, or ritual ties on the basis of iyaenawatu membership. Moreover,
the Piaroa as individuals were frequently vague about which clan they belonged
to, or which would be their particular home in the afterlife. Such casual
and indeed free-wheeling treatment of group membership was due in part
both to its lack of significance for earthly existence and to the fact that mortuary
groupings were formed in accordance to principles contrary to social living.
Young people, applying the this-worldly, social rule of thumb that allows
for a high degree of personal free choice in residence matters, could be rather
whimsical about what they understood to be their future home after death.
Their option, contrary to the received wisdom of the experts on deathly residence
(i.e. the ruwatu leaders), was to dwell in mortuary eternity with their own
This brings us to the most important reason for a person's lack of concern
over precision with respect to clan membership, although one not disassociated
from its insignificance for this-worldly action. The details about iyaenawatu
existence and membership were the responsibility of the religious specialists,
the ruwatu. It was the ruwang who through his death chant and ritual drove
the named spirit of the dying to its appropriate mortuary home, just as it
was also he who cured this named spirit whose illness when still attached
to the living was life threatening to the person. The ruwang, to fulfill his
own daily obligations, needed to know (as the layman did not) the iyaenawatu
membership of everyone for whom he was responsible. Each night in his
nightly chantings he recited the list of this membership as part of his curing
and protective procedures for the residents of his community. Thus when
the Piaroa visited a strange community, in order to secure protection from
the dangers of a strange land, they had to tell its ruwang their clan members
hip — or give him sufficient information for him to deduce it. During the
entirety of the visit, the ruwang would then include the visitor's clan within
his nightly chantings. The visitor, on the other hand, had no reason to be
concerned about or to know the clan membership of those with whom he
was visiting (Overing Kaplan 1975). Indeed, most people were unaware of
the iyaenawatu membership of many residents within their own villages.
Unlike the ordinary person's reflection about iyaenawatu groupings, the
ruwatu were more definite about mortuary destination. In shamanic exegesis,
a person usually belonged and returned to the group of the father (but see
below). In this case, contrary to the dreams of the young, one could not
reside in afterlife with a spouse. Primordial creation was of brother and
sister pairs, and it was with the intermarriage between pairs from different
lakes of creation that Piaroa sociality began. As the theory goes, it was
through these initial marriages that all Piaroa are today related as kinsmen.
Husbands and wives, in accordance with the principle of patrifiliation that
decides primordial and thus mortuary affiliation, must separate for their
existence in the iyaenawatu after world. 196 JOANNA OVERING
Contrary to logic, moiety and clan membership never entered into the actual
marriage decision making process. Nor had it ever done so according to all
discussion about it, for the insistence was upon the freedom to marry into any
group one wished — even one's own. However, the ruwatu did create a logical,
sort of after the fact, congruence between the system of marriage and that of
moiety membership. They were able to do so because it was they who made
all final decisions about afterlife residence, since it was they who sent the named
souls to their iyaenawatu homes. They thus were able to handle the logical
chaos of marriage practice by juggling moiety membership. If a husband and
wife were both of the Moiety of the Sky through the principle of patrifiliation,
the ruwang would place the one or the other (in accordance to a principle of
matriñlmúoTÍ) into the Moiety of the Earth. It was nevertheless surprising from
a list of parental clan memberships (which in turn had probably been juggled)
the number of marriages that did fit a cross-moiety scheme of things.
The glaring exception were marriages between people of the same "foreign"
clan. A substantial number of Piaroa had been incorporated through marr
iage into Piaroaland, with the logical operator for such inclusion being the
moiety system. I cannot account for the high number of subsequent marriages
being between those of the same stranger clan.
In sum the dual organization of the moiety system refers not to social groupi
ngs but to primordial places of creation, and because the Piaroa return to
them after death, to the ordering of mortuary clans. The particular logic of
opposition and separation so crucial to the shamanic classification of afterlife
and creation is pointedly not replicated in Piaroa social life where through marital
intermingling the clans lose their spatial distinctiveness (Overing 1984: 132).
Thus in the hands of the ruwatu, afterworld organization — through the logic
of opposition — takes its place within a powerful discourse of alterity that is
so highly salient to the interaction of living Piaroa with other beings of both
this and non-earthly space.10
Ta'kwa ruwang: the master of personal forces for fertility
The most critical part of the death ritual is when the ruwang separates the
named spirit of the dying individual from the land of the living. Through
chanting he sends it to the appropriate mortuary home through the smoke of
the resin over which he chants. This smoke then forms a ceiling that closes
earthly space and "the domesticated sky of the living" to the land of the dead. It
is crucial for the ruwang to send the spirit to its correct iyaenawatu, and this
is because the mortuary clans will only accept the dead who belong to them —
their own close kinsmen. If the spirit travels to the wrong group, and is there
fore not received into the afterworld, it returns to wander the earth where its
dangerous aim becomes to devour its kinsmen still alive. However, if the named
spirit is successful in arriving at its own land of the dead it becomes transformed The Asocial World of the Dead 197
into the full grown, familiar but youthful and beautified image of the person
when alive on earth. In this process the named spirit has become an aweta,
a being of the land of the dead. In the village of the dead everyone is hand
some and of the same young age. The afterlife is a world with no work and
no affines. The awetu with their paternal kinsmen eat and have sex; they dance
and enjoy their own ceremonial ritual; they smell the fragrant perfumes of their
afterlife home.
The named spirit that travels to its mortuary home serves as the person's
ta'kwa ruwang, or "master of thoughts", when he or she is alive. It dwells
in the living person's heart and head, and is the dwarf reflected in the eye. It
is also the ta'kwa ruwang who provides the individual with the vital forces
that one needs for living on earth. Before proceeding to more details on the
life of the dead, a description of the role of the ta'kwa ruwang in this-wordly
action is in order.
The ta'kwa ruwang enters the foetus endowing it with the critical "force
for life" (or "life of the senses") and thenceforth grows with it. Shortly after
the birth of the child this spirit is provided a name that comes from the land
of the dead from the grandparental or great grandparental generation. It is
the name that fixes the ta'kwa ruwang within the body of the child. The Piaroa
emphatically deny the notion of recycling of souls. As one version, the ta'kwa
ruwang is given to the foetus by Neyawae (Tadpole), one of the tianawa
gods. The Piaroa say that what is important is for the names (and not the
spirits) to be continued or recycled throughout the generations, and thus it is
the name of a relative but not his or her spirit that comes from the mortuary
clan. Once named the ta'kwa ruwang becomes henceforth the person's "master
of thoughts", and as such the vital agent that slowly accumulates for the person
throughout his or her life all capabilities, knowledge, and powers that allow
for a material and social existence on earth. One way to put it, and this seems
accurate from the descriptions, is that ta'kwa ruwang once received is there
after the active agent of the person. A person's ta'kwa ruwang, along with
this spirit's forces of thought, serves to constitute and define his or her unique
ness of being.
It is the ta'kwa ruwang that gives the person the force or, as the Piaroa
phrase it, the "thoughts" for hunting, fishing, gardening, chanting, and also
for building houses, weaving cloth, and having children. A person's child is
said to be the product of his or her ta'kwa ruwang, as too is one's garden,
a blowgun one makes, a chant one sings, a ritual conducted, and the words
one speaks. Within the person alive on earth his or her particular powers for
work and reproduction, for doing things in the material sense, are said to be
beautiful and indeed the source of a man or woman's personal beauty (see
Overing 1989). These forces travel to the person's ta'kwa ruwang as gifts from
the ethereal tianawa gods who own the crystal boxes of power within which
are safely sheltered all the beautiful capabilities for using the earth
materially. Through what the Piaroa call "lessons in wizardry", which are JOANNA OVERING 198
shamanic rituals, the ta'kwa ruwang of each person slowly acquires more and
more of such powers from the gods throughout his or her life. For this reason
the old are considered to be stronger than the young, and indeed the "lessons
in wizardry" themselves are understood to endow health, making the body more
resistant to disease.
Very briefly the Piaroa view the forces over which the ta'kwa ruwang is
master as powers for creation, or their personal forces for fertility. Thus the
Piaroa class together what we would see as very disparate acts — working, making
artefacts, hunting, the bearing of children, giving life to, transforming, sorcery
and curing.11 Children and the products of work alike are understood to be
manifestations of a person's forces for fertility, and both — the child and the
blowgun — were said to be "a thought" (a'kwa) of that person. As such it
is a product of the forces mastered by his or her ta'kwa ruwang. One of the
most striking characteristics of the Piaroa understanding of the human condition
is that the idea of a "natural" or "biological" fertility would be alien to
them. The forces for human fertility are acquired from non-earthly domains
of the cosmos, and in the main from the land of the gods. For instance young
women at first menses receive their capacity for reproduction from the gods,
and also their capability for mastering these forces. Thus the capability for
fertility distinct to women, to bear or not to bear children, is no more "bio
logically" based than a shaman's capability to fly to other parts of the cosmos
or to transform into a butterfly — all such capabilities are considered to be "wizar
dry" (maeripa), for they are transcendental powers coming from the crystal
boxes of the gods.12
The forces for fertility acquired from the gods during life by the deceased's
ta'kwa ruwang are a primary focus of the mortuary rituals. These active, powerf
ul forces of the self that allowed a person alive to act upon the world,
transforming it for use in his or her own particular way are the powers that
the ruwatu in their mortuary rituals strip from the ta'kwa ruwang before sending
to its mortuary iyaenawa home. When the ta'kwa becomes aweta,
accepted as a member of the mortuary clan, it has made that irreversible step
into the land of the sterile dead.
It is through the descriptions of this stripping process that one realizes that
the beautiful forces for fertility, those attributes for life and creation that allow
for the human condition on earth, are as well the weapons and tools for
prédation, or for the cannibalistic process. It was for instance part of the
culinary arts to attack, to kill, and to transform into food and artefacts the
animals, plants, and fish — all of whom lived a human life on earth during the
time of creation (see Overing 1986b). The Piaroa understand work itself to
be a violent, predatory process, for the powers of ta'kwa ruwang that make
it possible are of creation time sorcery and as such were the original means
for prédation in the world. Thus mythic episodes clearly link the acquisition
of productive capabilities with cannibalism. The fertile powers of ta'kwa ruwang
that today make production possible were created by a mad creator god (the The Asocial World of the Dead 199
archetypical cannibal during the history of creation) as powerful predator forces
that he acquired by taking dangerous hallucinogens poisoned by the sun. As
a result the powers for the culinary arts (for instance curare and the fire for
slash-and-burn agriculture, and the fire for cooking meat and vegetables) are
understood to be also today weapons of prédation. Most tools and utensils
used in the productive process — pots and blowguns, curare and cassava graters —
are said to be physical manifestations of their creator's forces of ta'kwa ruwang,
and thus each contains the predator force of its specific Piaroa creator. It
is this predator force that gives it efficacy in the production process (see Overing
1992). Indeed, in the Piaroa view all activity allowing for human material
existence in this world is founded upon the fertile, but predatory, cannibalistic
capabilities of ta'kwa ruwang : not only hunting, but also collecting, fishing,
gardening, making artefacts, having children, chanting, curing, protecting,
trading, and even talking are considered as predatory performances. In sum
the processes of production, reproduction, exchange, and language — all are
understood alike as aspects of the predator capabilities of a person's ta'kwa
ruwang. It is thus understandable that the primary aim of the mortuary rite
is upon the ta'kwa ruwang of the deceased, and its forces. To rid the deceased
of all his/her forces of ta'kwa ruwang becomes an act essential to the safety
of the living.
The death chant and the loss of "civilized prédation"
The death chant was described to me by one young man as being about
the "jaguar spirit", which was his way of capturing the transformation of ta'kwa
ruwang after death. Explanations of the process of death, by no means dogma,
were characterized by a considerable degree of free variation, and the ruwatu
argued vehemently among themselves over the details. One area for argument
regarded the fate of the ta'kwa ruwang of a powerful ruwang. Such disagree
ment had more to do with variability in ideas about aspects of self for the
person alive than with more general principles having to do with the process
of death. For instance did a ruwang have two and not just one "master of
thoughts"? A spirit of song (menye ta'kwa ruwang) as well as the ta'kwa
ruwang of the heart? Or was the first but an aspect, a capability, of the
second? Those more abstract in their reflection opted for one life force, and
not two, as the ultimate solution.13 Nevertheless, all agreed that at death it
was not just the ta'kwa ruwang that departed from the body, but the self also
fractionalized into various other forces, most of which were highly dangerous
for the living.
The fragmentation of a great ruwang was especially threatening, and thus
the death chant for him was much more elaborate than for others. As the
protector for his community, the ruwang was a warrior fighting against all the
dangerous forces that might affect its health and security. Many of the powers