Initiation ceremonies and the encounter with supernatural beings described by the Awajún, and in particular the encounter with the Ajútap during the drinking of psycho-active substances, imply a new lifestyle for men. The Ajútap, according to the Awajún worldview, and the vision of the novice who is being initiated, are the ones described in this paper. Not that many people know about the nature of the Ajútap, the human agency it inspires, or the importance that the vision revealed by the Ajútap has for the Awajún. However, Awajún science shows us the mysterious forces that reinvigorate the development of human beings (an active force inside a person), and at the same time create confidence in the individual – the vision per se – that helps him face an uncertain future.
Key words: Ajútap, agency, psychoactive substances, Awajún worldview
For a long time observers and adventures have wondered about the nature and the worldview of indigenous Amazonians. Missionaries coming to our land have also described “demon-influenced” ceremonies where indigenous Amazonians would drink broths from psychoactive plants like Toe or Ayahuasca, which is a common practice among Jivaroan groups (Awajún, Wampís, Achual) in the north of Perú. There is a relevant aspect for the Jívaro groups which is not well understood, and for which western science cannot yet clarify the mysterious forces that come into play from inside a man when encounters the Ajútap. The current paper describes this experience. It also delves into the personal accounts of Awajún experts and the author’s personal encounter with these hallucinogens during his trip to the Peruvian northeast with the purpose of explaining the nature of the Ajútap. It shows the agency that takes place in the human body and spirit, and that mysterious force that the Jívaro claim to possess thanks to their encounter with the Ajútap. Then, the questions would be, how is this experience? And how do the Awajún encounter the Ajútap through this vision?
Psychoactive substances take us to the spirit world and as we immerse ourselves in it, we find the force of the Arútam (Shuar) or Ajútap (Awajún). But how is this possible? During the sessions, the novice sits on a tree-trunk seat at around 6 or 7 in the evening. The place has to be located far from the village, and the novice has to be accompanied by an expert. The novice drinks a dark brown, jello-like, psychoactively concentrated substance three times. The substance has been prepared from the vine called Datem (Banisteriopsis caapi). This vine has been mixed with six leaves from a different species of Datem called Yaji. The mixture activates the visions the novice will see during his trance state. Before drinking the broth that night, the novice should fast all day and he can only drink boiled water. Within five to fifteen minutes of drinking the broth, the first effects of the hallucinogen can be felt. It becomes a true voyage to the universe of the unknown: buzzing noises can be heard, the body moves as it travels to the infinite space. There will be sounds similar to those produced by the bees flying around a beehive. These sounds are unbearable to our ears. We feel dizzy and have spasms all over our bodies. Life seems to hang by a thread. There is only a very small form of life sensed, as if a molecule were keeping life at a minimum beat, and the body could not be felt; there is no gravity, and the human ears cannot hear the surrounding sounds of the natural environment; they only hear the sounds created in the brain. The human body is extremely sensitive at this point. The eyes experience change and multiple phosphorescent colors illuminate the surroundings. Suddenly, the body experiences a convulsion from the stomach that announces nausea along with an urge to defecate. The body is pulled and falls on the ground while the novice vomits and the intestines get rid of the substance the body cannot keep inside anymore. Immediately, a force comes to the body, which forces the body to position itself on the tree-trunk seat. The body is waiting for the next wake of vomiting, dizziness, and constant defecation.
All of a sudden we hear a sound, it is an unknown agent that knocks on the door, it is the Ajútap and soon the very uncomfortable feeling stops, and the body experiences an infinite sense of peace and quiet. It is at that moment when my eyes seem to be stuck to some type of lenses made out of broken glass, and through them I am able to see the visions that appear to me as if they were projected on a television screen. Meanwhile, the Ajútap, using a powerful voice, accompanies the transit to the diverse universes. There are encounters with known and unknown beings. There are terrifying beings such as snakes and demons, men surrounded by snakes, and a powerful light on the shaman’s body, among other experiences. In the scene projected on the screen, the Ajútap shows us a third person, and talks to us in reference to that person. It is the Ajútap’s rule never to talk about the novice directly. The novice understands that everything the Ajútap says is in reference to the novice himself. Unknown places, horrifying snakes and beasts approach our eyes as visions. When the vision is too unbearable, we can use the expression “chuu,” which is an interjection in Awajún for the individual self-proclaim as a brave man. Then, that vision automatically disappears and a new one comes alive.
It is at that point, where the Ajútap spirit presents itself, announcing the visions of future experiences to the novice, or the novice’s acquisition of an inner force that will make a difference by giving him abilities and special personality traits. The Ajútap has a human shape, with a weapon on the shoulders or simply by wearing a splendorous attire, and he is also tall. It is the spirit of an ancestor. He always refers to the novice in the third person, never directly. The Ajútap will announce that the novice is a great warrior who has wealth, who is courageous and has a wise voice that is heard by lots of people, who lives long and experiences his winter years, who is greeted and congratulated because of his contributions to knowledge and art form expressions, and who travels long distances. The Ajútap guides the novice during the trip through the mysterious world of the unknown while the novice is traveling to many distant worlds of the universe. Some visions in particular, introduce the future wife that the novice will have; the Ajútap says, “Look, this is the woman of that wealthy man who is surrounded by children.” In this case, the woman’s identity is not revealed. The woman always presents herself in front of the novice but giving her back to him. The woman is wearing a particular attire, or engaged in a specific activity that reveals something about the way she will be or the work she will do in the future once she becomes the novice’s wife. Another vision announces that the man will live a long life in which he will always be a leader, and he will also be heard by his peers (chicham antuntai). It will reveal his power and leadership, his legitimacy, and his status in society.
Among the many revelations or visions of the Ajútap, we will also find the gift for war, the possibility of becoming a warrior, which actually means, the killer instinct in man. In general, when the novice is on a quest for vengeance and he will be killing of an enemy, the Ajútap gives the individual the proper power for that action, and it is believed that he who does not have that vision from the Ajútap, will not be able to kill. The hands of the waimakchau will be shaking as he is holding the weapon, and will end up being an easy target for his enemy. A waimaku is the one really needed to succeed in war and vengeance against an enemy: Only one waimaku can face another waimaku. However, the Awajún nowadays comment that currently they do not seek such visions; that is, the waimamu, which makes man into an instrument of revenge is not what they look for anymore. On the contrary, novices say they prefer visions related to their professional goals, their productive activities, and above all, the possibility of meeting their future wives.
The waimaku is that one who has seen a vision and has a force and energy within that has been provided by the Ajútap. The Awajún call waimaku those men who have had an encounter with the Ajútap. Waimaku is associated with the root waimat. Waimat is the verb that indicates the action by which an individual has been able to obtain the force from the Ajútap; this individual is not only a regular man, but a “man with a voice;” and again, not only a man, but a man who occupies a place in society and has a force and a gift different from one who has never had such an experience. The individual who hasn’t obtained the Ajútap is called the waimakchau. To be a waimakchau is very unfortunate among the Awajún. He will not be able to occupy a place among the waimaku. His voice will not be heard, he will not have a wife chosen from the women in the village, he will not occupy a place among the adults, he will lack courage to face the problems of life, he will be vulnerable in front of his enemies, and his weak spirit will make him vulnerable to the darts of death that come from the witch doctors, among other misfortunes. It is not difficult at all to associate this framework of the waimak with getting a professional degree in any subfield of science. Among the new generations of Awajún, the waimak means to have obtained knowledge and a degree that produces symbolic capital and gives them job skills.
It has been theorized that the Ajútap is God for the Awajún. This absurd thought that distorts Awajún reality suggests that the Awajún, not having information and knowledge of the Christian God because they were isolated from “Christian civilization,” barely conceptualized a weak and rudimentary vision of God that they call Ajútap. Far from being the truth, evidence that comes from anthropological research tells a totally different story. The literature about the Awajún, describes a horizontal organization, an exchange economy, nonhierarchical politics, and religion without God or worship. It looks like western thought and Andean society cannot accept any type of social organization without a central authority, or without rulers or Gods to legitimate vertical and hierarchical organizational structures. For the Jívaro (Shuar, Wampís, Awajún, Achual), real beings or spiritual beings in the universe are friends or enemies. The Ajútap is among the allies or friends, but the spirit of the iwash (evil spirit) can harm. The brother-in-law, the brother, the father of an individual in real life can be a friend and ally when facing a danger, while the stranger, the unfamiliar, those who killed a family member during a raid on a village, are always potential enemies, and the establishment of relationships with them will always generate dangerous interactions. As opposed to Christian tradition, the Jívaro Awajún religion does not worship the Ajútap. It only allows for respect and admiration for the Ajútap. Respect and admiration in this context is not the same as worship. It means, respect for a friend or admiration for the strength of an enemy. For the Awajún, the encounter with the Ajútap means an entire lifestyle. It activates a force, offers the path to become a real man and to occupy a place in Awajún society. What the Ajútap has manifested, its strength, becomes an impulse. It becomes the commanding principle, the engine that activates great forces. Consequently, the waimak is highly valued by the Awajún, while the Ajútap is the one that generates an agency that activates the person’s development. It means physical – the novice is filled up with physical strength, does away with sluggishness and laziness – as well as spiritual development – the novice loses fear, gains courage, and his emotional strength is known by all.
Currently, only few novices experience the practices of drinking psychoactive substances, the abandonment of these practices has been evident in recent years, which creates a void that cannot be filled. Few parents now use the values of the waimat to teach their children the need to gain strength as individuals. Those who do use the values of the waimat tell their children: “you have to be a waimaku, you have to be strong, you have to get your degree, you have to learn how to work, you have to develop your emotional strength, and you have to obtain the spirit of a warrior to face the problems of life.” The integral development of a person, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, was the most important goal of the waimamu, and the vivid experience of the Ajutap provided that impulse or commanding principle. Before western theorists formulated an index for human development or talked about the possibilities of expanding our human capacity, the Jivaros had already conceived this notion and applied it.
About the author:
Wilson Atamain is an anthropologist by training. He graduated from the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos (Lima). He is the first Awajún anthropologist who has been able to conclude his professional career successfully from that prestigious university. He currently lives in the northern region of Perú where we is a practitioner in matters related to political and legal anthropology.
This was originally written by Wilson Atamain and published on the blog Cultura Awajun by Liseth Atamain. Any mistakes in the English translation are entirely mine.
Esto fue originalmente escrito por Wilson Atamain y publicado por Liseth Atamain en el blog Cultura Awajún. Cualquier error en la traducción al Inglés es enteramente mia.