Yanomamo – An Amazonian people whose traditional homeland spans the border of Venezuela and Brazil and who remained so remote that Napoléon Chagnon could claim that in 1990–91 he spent time in “villages that had never before been visited by outsiders.” Partly influenced by Chagnon’s writings, and partly due to media and Christian missionary presentations, the Yanomamo have been portrayed as an intensely violent society. More recent research challenges this perception.

Among the Yanomamo, the role of shaman carries significant status and is sought by more than a few men of each village. A major part of the shaman hopeful’s training involves extreme fasting and instruction by older men in what Chagnon calls the “attributes, habits, songs, mysteries and fancies of the hekura spirits.” These otherthanhuman persons are diminutive and “somewhat coy and fickle,” for example, disliking it if their elected trainee shamans have sex. Hekura have to be attracted and tempted to take up residence in the inner geography (including mountains, streams, and forests) within the shaman. Once a trainee has successfully persuaded the hekura to move in, via the chest, and gains mastery over his indwelling helpers, he too is called hekura. Illnesses can be caused or cured by hekura (either the shamans or the spirits they control), sometimes by taking hallucinogens. Reliance on the consumption of ebene snuff seems to decrease with experience, but shamanic performance always requires self-decoration to attract hekura helpers. As with other hallucinogens, ebene causes vomiting and the discharge of copious quantities of nasal mucus, “laden with green powder.” This is often described as an unpleasant distraction by ethnographers who are more interested in visionary effects than in messy embodiment. Indigenous interpretations rarely divide these results in such a prissy manner.

As elsewhere in Amazonia, Chagnon notes that Yanomamo shamans “cure the sick with magic, sucking, singing [cosmological creative chant epics involving hekura and “marvelous and fabulous events”], or massaging; diagnose illness and prescribe a magical remedy; and generally intercede [mediate] between humans and spirits in the context of health versus sickness.” Shamans may also be suspect, at least, of sending “malevolent hekura” to cause illness or death. As elsewhere, shamans and hekura are essential ambiguous, but they are typically honored “at home.”


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007


Related Articles

Chagnon, Napoléon

Napoléon Chagnon (1938–2019 ) Professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, best known for his writings about the Yanomamo of Amazonia.…


Spirits – A term that commonly appears in ethnographic and religious discourse but remains of uncertain and/or misleading reference. Not only does it translate a…


Ebene – A snuff prepared from the beans of an Amazonian tree of the nutmeg family (genus Virola), which is either snorted through tubes (sometimes…


Tobacco – Indigenous to the Americas, tobacco is a sacred and powerful plant in many indigenous cultures. Its intoxicating effects were well known and rarely…


Helpers – Shamans are often marginal figures, but they are rarely solitary. In some cultures, they are aided by apprentice shamans or by other types…