[ Latin American Studies ]


An Orinoco Creation Cycle

By Marc de Civrieux

Edited and translated by David Guss

The epic history and creation stories of the Makiritare, or Yekuana, peoples living along the northern bank of the Upper Orinoco River of Venezuela.



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6 x 9 | 235 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-71589-9

Originally published in Spanish in 1970, Watunna is the epic history and creation stories of the Makiritare, or Yekuana, people living along the northern bank of the Upper Orinoco River of Venezuela, a region of mountains and virgin forest virtually unexplored even to the present. The first English edition of this book was published in 1980 to rave reviews. This edition contains a new foreword by David Guss, as well as Mediata, a detailed myth that recounts the origins of shamanism.

  • Preface for a New Millennium
  • Teller's Preface
  • Introduction
  • Wanadi
    • Seruhe Ianadi
    • Nadeiumadi
    • Attawanadi
    • Kaweshawa
  • Iureke
    • Nuna
    • Huiio
    • Kawao
    • Manuwa
    • Ahisha
    • Iureke's Woman
    • Dama
  • Kasenadu
    • Dinoshi
    • Wachamadi
  • Momiñaru
    • Momiñaru
  • Kuamachi
    • Mado
    • Wlaha
  • Makusani
    • Makusani
  • Marahuaka
    • Kuchi
    • Semenia
    • Mado and Wachedi
  • Wahnatu
    • Wahnatu
    • Kahiuru
    • Ankosturaña
    • Mahaiwadi
    • Amenadiña
    • Wanadi Nistama
    • Medatia
    • The Waitie
  • Glossary

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The People

The Makiritare live, as they did at the time of the Spanish Conquest, on the right or northern bank of the Upper Orinoco River of Venezuela. This region of mountains and virgin forest has remained almost unexplored up to this day. It is crossed by five great rivers, all tributaries of the Orinoco itself—the Kunukunuma, Iguapo, Padamo, Upper Ventuari, and Upper Caura.

The name Makiritare is not their own, but the one the Spanish conquistadors gave them in 1759, the year of their first contact. These pioneers had as their guides and interpreters a group of Arawak-speaking Indians who used to trade with a tribe they referred to as Makiritare. It was under this name that the first detachment of Spaniards heard of them. The guides were Uaipunabi (Puinavis) and Urumanavi Indians from the Atabapo River. The name Makiritare, of Arawak origin, stuck and has been used in Venezuela without interruption ever since.

In 1911, a German ethnographer, Theodor Koch-Grünberg, visited Makiritare living in the headwaters of the Caura (Merevari) and Ventuari, but he gave them the name Mayonkong, the same as their eastern neighbors, the Arekuna and Taulipang, give them. Koch-Grünberg arrived there from the Mt. Roraima plains and Uraricoera headwaters to the east. It's obvious that his first news of the Makiritare, under the name Mayonkong, must have come from these eastern informants. But Koch-Grünberg also referred to a subdivision of the tribe into four local groups known to themselves as Ihuruhana (those from the Caura, Ventuari, and Padamo headwaters), Dekuhana (those from Mt. Dekuhana, the mythic birthplace of the tribe), Yekuhana (a phonetic variant of the preceding name), and Kunuhana (those from the Kunu or Kunukunuma River). The Dekuhana and Yekuhana were originally one group. Then, as their population grew, they split into two separate bands with their own chiefs and communal organizations. Mt. Dekuhana (or Yekuhana), from which all the Makiritare are said to originate, is located in Ihuruña, an area formed by the headwaters of the major rivers of that region. The Dekuhana, Yekuhana, and Kunuhana all emigrated from this mythic site of communal origin where the Ihuruhana ('Headwater People') still live today. The four groups are closely tied to each other by the same oral tradition, the Watunna, the sacred cornerstone of their political and commercial alliance. They also all speak the language of So'to, and for that reason, they form the So'to tribe. If one wishes to use the Makiritare's own name to refer to them, it is this: So'to.

The Watunna is the compendium of religious and social models of the 'true people' or So'to. These are the sacred deeds and actions of the heroes in primordial times. These four local groups all speak the language of So'to, the same one which the first heroes of the Watunna spoke and taught. So'to literally means 'people', 'man', 'human being', but the use of the word is restricted to those people who speak a common language united by their collective origin. Those who do not speak that language or do not know the Watunna are considered animals. The word So'to also means 'twenty' as this is the number of fingers and toes a human has. It serves as the natural basis for the indigenous counting system and is also the symbol for man.

For the Makiritare, the term So'to has a purely linguistic significance. The native concept of tribe is not a racial one. The tribe does at various times adopt members of other tribes, principally women and children, and as they live with the tribe and learn the So'to language, they become So'to. So'to, the member of the tribe or the true human being, is recognized by his manner of speaking and not by his physical form. Makiritare mythology is filled with examples of beings considered nonhuman (animals, invisible spirits, shamans, demons of all sorts) who, in order to fool people, magically change their forms and adopt that of the So'to. Any species of being can alter its form, but it is language which identifies it. The apparently 'human' tribes which speak languages unintelligible to the So'to actually belong to the nonhuman category. These tribes will occasionally take on fictitious forms, but their strange language will always reveal their true nature. These beings are the enemies of the real people and can be hunted like animals. The influence of this linguistic factor can be seen in the instinctive distrust of the So'to toward all foreign tribes (human animals) as well as in their choice of commercial and military alliances. There is no doubt that their linguistic affinity with the eastern Cariban tribes (the Arekuna, Taulipang, and Makushi) who dwell in the plains of Mt. Roraima and the Uraricoera basin, has led to their traditionally excellent relations. These eastern groups are members of the single great Pemon tribe whom the So'to call Ëti. The word Pemon, like So'to, means 'human being', 'the one who speaks Pemon', and the number 'twenty'. The concept of tribe, both proper and foreign, is the same among both groups. Their respective languages allow the two a close cultural and commercial relationship which is explained in each of their oral traditions. Each one, So'to and Pemon, is almost human for the other.

As the linguistic difference between two tribes becomes more pronounced, the mutual communications become more problematic. A tribe whose language is unintelligible is dangerous to the 'real human'. A typical example is that of the Makiritare's habitual enemy in the times of the Conquest as recalled in the oral tradition. These were the True Caribs who call themselves Kariña. For these people too, their name means 'human being', 'one who speaks Kariña' and the number 'twenty'. Despite representing the original trunk from which the various Cariban tribes branched out, the True Carib has a difficult language for these other tribes to understand. Beyond the evident morphological nexus, the Kariña's phonetics differ significantly from those of the So'to and Pemon, creating a major barrier to communication. During the Spanish Conquest, missionaries noted the same problem among the True Caribs and the Cariban Shoto of northeastern Venezuela. They wrote that these languages were completely distinct and that the Caribans could not understand the Caribs.

The Kariña were warlike and proud of their tribe, considering themselves as the only true human beings. Numerous, powerful, and almost invincible in war, they made no distinctions between the Caribans, Arawaks, and linguistically independent tribes. To them, all foreigners were unintelligible barbarians, dangerous animals to be hunted and destroyed. The Carib incursions neighboring territories were actual hunting expeditions. The Kariña practiced ritual cannibalism and they ate, for magical purposes, the flesh of their victims, whom they did not consider human. These rites communicated the occult power of their enemies' souls, whose flesh was ingested as a powerful spirit food.

At the time of the Conquest, the Makiritare were the True Caribs' immediate neighbors, sharing with them the Caura watershed. The border between the two tribes was Para Falls where navigation of the river was cut in half. The Kariña would invade up river, raiding the Makiritare villages along the Merevari, Canaracuni and Erebato Rivers. They took prisoners and traded them with their Dutch allies on the Essequibo in exchange for guns, metal utensils and other European goods. When, in 1775, the Spaniards finally succeeded in dislodging these marauders of the Orinoco and lower Caura, the Kariña invaded the Makiritare territories in the Caura headwaters and from there fled to the Uraricoera River and Mt. Kanuku, where they went on trading with the Dutch miners and merchants who offered them protection.

The Makiritare gave these Carib enemies the name Matiuhana. Continually suspect of black magic, they feared them greatly. This is why so many tales appear in the Watunna portraying Carib shamans in the form of jaguars and Kanaima monsters out looking for people to eat.

The History

For this people without a history, living in an endless Stone Age for thousands of years in the virgin forests of the Upper Orinoco, their first contact with the conquistadors was an extraordinary event. The impact of this event on the psyches of these tribes can be felt in the Watunna. The Makiritare, through their repulsion of the foreign invader, escaped the Conquest. The Spaniards' attempt to subjugate them and save their souls ended in failure. Belated and brief, it took place in the second half of the eighteenth century, in the last years of the colonial era and lasted but two decades. The memory of that chaotic period, both miraculous and disastrous, has not disappeared from the epic tales of the Watunna.

Up until 1744, no Spaniard had even tried to enter the Upper Orinoco. It was a sacred sanctuary guarded by impenetrable walls of water—a no man's land. Atures and Maipures Falls were inhospitable obstacles to navigation. But in this year, a Spanish explorer, daring the unknown, skirted the falls and charted his course up river to the high Orinoco. His name was Manuel Roman and he was the Father Superior of the Orinoco River's Jesuit Missions. He was chosen to live an extraordinary adventure which he himself would hardly believe. In this no man's land, he happened across some European traders who were very calmly paddling down the Orinoco without the slightest idea of where they were. They claimed to be subjects of the Portuguese Crown out exploring their king's dominions in the Indies. They insisted they were on some tributary of the Amazon River, as they had arrived there by water from that river. Refusing to believe the Spanish Jesuit's claims that they were on the Orinoco, the errant Lusitanians allowed Roman to join them on their return voyage. He travelled with them as far as the Amazon, and thus confirmed the existence of a connection with the Orinoco. Then he went back and told the Spanish, but no one in the entire Indies would believe him. Nevertheless, the Spanish Crown was anxious about reports of Portuguese incursions in the headwaters of the Orinoco. In order to verify these, and take defensive measures, the king quickly dispatched a Frontier Commission under the charge of the Marquis José Solano with an order to confirm or disprove the mysterious fluvial connection of the Casiquiare channel and to explore all the unknown lands of the Upper Orinoco and Rio Negro.

The Marquis and his men crossed Atures and Maipures Falls in 11756 and installed their headquarters in a place they called San Fernando de Atabapo where a group of Puinave Indians were living. The discovery expedition lasted a full six years, till 1761. Makiritare legend still recalls San Fernando de Atabapo (Marakuhaña) as the place where Iaranavi, the European discoverer, had his home.

In the Watunna, the figure of the Spanish conquistador is separated into two contradictory images, one luminous, the other dark, incarnations of two antagonistic characters, Iaranavi and Fañuru. Iaranavi, the White Man, corresponds to the Golden Legend of the Discovery. The Watunna identifies him with the great egret, that beautiful, pure bird who symbolizes light. It tells that Iaranavi was good, rich, wise, powerful, and generous. He was also the master of that marvellous metal, iron, and the master of the arakusa (arcabuz), that invincible weapon which the Watunna identifies with the heavenly power of thunder and lightning. Like the Makiritare, Iaranavi was a creature of Wanadi, the celestial father of all Being. Fañuru (a phonetic alteration of Español, 'Spanish') on the other hand, represents the Black Legend of the Conquest. He was an evil cannibal who raided distant lands killing and enslaving Indians. Not satisfied with overrunning the So'to, he abused Wanadi and eventually forced him to leave his home on the Earth. Fañuru's memory is engraved on the consciousness of the So'to as a synonym for the devil. Even today, shamanic rites conjure up the name of Fañuru along with those of other evil spirits in order to keep his malevolent force away from the sick and their homes.

The period from 1759 to 1767 was the 'Epoch of Iaranavi'. Later, according to the Watunna, another, less joyous, period came. This was that of the demon, Fañuru, from 1767 to 1776. During this second period, the initial Spanish-Makiritare idyl rapidly deteriorated. Iaranavi was deposed by a devil. Finally, a Makiritare rebellion burst out, led by a powerful shaman who freed the Indians from their new oppressors.

Iaranavi appears for the first time in Makiritare territory in the year 1759 under the form of Sergeant Francisco Fernandez de Bobadilla and a detachment of soldiers. Sent from San Fernando de Atabapo by the Marquis Solano, they explore the Iguapo, Kunukunuma, and Padamo Rivers situated by the strategic Orinoco-Casiquiare fork. The Iaranavi receive a warm welcome from the village of Warapa, located to the east of Mt. Duida between the Iguapo and Lower Padamo. Soon after, they visit another village called Warema (for its chief) in the Upper Padamo beyond the mouth of the Kuntinamo on the banks of the Kuitamoni. In order to reach it, these unknown children of Wanadi had to go up the Padamo to Cuare Rapids and then follow two more tributaries, the Machakuri and Mawanami, up river. It was a dangerous journey through difficult mountainous terrain. Accepted into the Makiritare's homes, the Iaranavi promised the So'to protection against their enemies. They exchanged fabulous gifts for their food and left, promising to return.

In the beginning of the following year, the Iaranavi came back. This time their leader was Lieutenant Apolinar Diez de la Fuente, another official from Marakuhaña. He told Chief Warema and his people that he had come to defend them against the marauding Caribs who were invading their lands in search of prisoners to sell as slaves. They were also going to defend them against the Portuguese who were infiltrating from the Amazon by way of the Casiquiare. In exchange for this protection, the Iaranavi chief asked for Warema's loyalty as a vassal of his Catholic king and demanded that his people convert to Christianity. As a token, Warema changed the name of his village to Santa Gertrudiz.

The king of Spain had ordered the Iaranavi to build a fort at the mouth of the Casiquiare to protect the So'to. This fort was to be built immediately and called Buenaguardia. The Iaranavi invited their new allies to move to the banks of the Orinoco, near the Christian fort in order to benefit from its protection and the trade offered by the Spanish merchants.

Don Apolinar also told Warema that the Iaranavi wanted to take advantage of the Upper Padamo's wild cocoa. Warema told him that there was indeed lots of cocoa in the mountains which he would lead them to. The Makiritare and Spanish set off together to explore this land of promise. The people of Warema collected sixty baskets of cocoa, for which Don Apolinar gave them iron, cloth, and other goods. The alliance was sealed with a great feast.

The Iaranavi left and Don Apolinar began supervising the building of the Buenaguardia fort. Then he explored the adjoining territory around the foot of Mt. Duida and discovered along the Orinoco an ideal plain for the founding of a new village where he planned to gather the people of Warapa and Warema together. The plain was close to Buenaguardia and the mouth of the Iguapo where Warema had a port for canoes, from which he controlled the commerce along the Upper Orinoco. Don Apolinar called this new site La Esmeralda. He had discovered veins and seams of beautiful transparent rock crystals there. The So'to called them wiriki and their shamans put them in their maracas to give them their magic power. The Iaranavi thought that the crystals were emeralds and that the deposits also contained gold. Eventually hoping to turn La Esmeralda into an El Dorado to refinance the Conquest, Don Apolinar wanted to make the Indians exploit these mines. The Iaranavi craved gold, while the So'to dreamed of nothing but the Iaranavi's iron. For Don Apolinar, the El Dorado of La Esmeralda would be a mine filled with precious stones and gold. For the people of Warema and Warapa, Meraraña (the Watunna's name for La Esmeralda) would be the El Dorado of the Indians, a place where they could get all the Iaranavi iron they desired. The exchange of iron for gold was the incentive for this alliance between Indian and Spaniard. They were both looking for Heaven, but searching for it in the earth.

Solano had instructed Don Apolinar to discover the mysterious sources of the Orinoco River. The Iaranavi believed that Manoa, the fantastic City of Gold, was hidden on the shores of a mythical lake named Parimé which was to be found in the uncharted headwaters of the Orinoco and Uraricoera. A Makiritare trader named Une (or Iune) was enticed by the Iaranavi fantasy and agreed to accompany them up river, warning them, however, that they could not reach the sources of the Orinoco due to the many rapids and savage Shirishana Indians who dwelled there. Upon reaching Guaharibos Rapids, Don Apolinar suddenly announced that he had discovered the sources of the great river and turned around, having come nowhere near his goal.

Soon after, the Iaranavi sent soldiers to the villages of Warapa and Warema to bring the Indians to Meraraña where they would erect a great village. The So'to enthusiastically left in November of 1760 and began to build it. But this initial joy soon turned to cruel disillusion for both the So'to and the Iaranavi as the project was abruptly abandoned. The village of Meraraña was left unfinished. Don Apolinar and his troops were recalled from La Esmeralda and the So'to forced to return to their former villages, once more exposed to the Caribs. The fort at Buenaguardia and the headquarters at Marakuhaña were also abandoned. By the year 1761, Solano, the commander in chief of the Iaranavi, had concluded his exploratory mission. The king had ordered him to gather all his troops, concentrating them on the strategic Lower Orinoco where they were to build a city-fort capable of securing all of Spanish Guyana against the traffic of the Caribs and Dutch.

It was four years before the So'to received news of the Iaranavi again. This was in 1764, a crucial year in the history of Spanish Guyana. Along the Orinoco, the Spanish had never had a military strength capable of defending their small forts and missions against the raids of the Caribs. Nevertheless, several small groups of Europeans had managed to maintain themselves there under the most extreme misery and danger. Now Solano was given material forces sufficient to impose the law of Iaranavi on the Orinoco. He chose a strategic site at the Angostura ('Narrows') of the river to raise his fort and so in 1764, that city which the Makiritare still call Ankosturaña (Angostura, the old name for present day Ciudad Bolivar) was founded.

Warema, the chief of the Upper Padamo's So'to, was to see Iaranavi's new fortress for himself. Bobadilla was sent out again to renew his contacts and solemnly invite Chief Warema, in the name of the king of Spain, to visit Ankosturaña. It was an unforgettable journey. Warema was able to view, with his own eyes, the El Dorado dreamed of by the So'to, the 'City of Iron'. As Warema had believed, Ankosturaña was the source of the 'Riches of Heaven' which the Great Father Wanadi had given to Iaranavi, his chosen son, as a reward for his goodness and wisdom. He stared at the wealth, witnessed the feverish activity of the carpenters and masons, observed how they made their houses and their roofs of red tiles. He marvelled at Iaranavi's cows and his horses. Along with other chiefs from the Orinoco, he was received by the city's governor, Don Sabas Moreno de Mendoza. As tribute to his loyalty to the king of Spain, the Makiritare brought an offering of cocoa from the Padamo. He left loaded down with the honors and gifts owing to a chief. When he returned to his village of Santa Gertrudiz, he carried with him a canoe filled with treasures from Ankosturaña. The So'to gathered from every neighboring village to hear his tales. They never tired of listening to them. And so was born the story of that Earthly Paradise, Ankosturaña, which is still told today to every new generation of Makiritare.

Within two years, the city of Ankosturaña was flourishing. The ambitious new governor of Guyana, Manuel Centurión, decided to continue the conquest of the Orinoco, expel the Dutch-backed Caribs and renew the search for the mythic city of Manoa. José Solano, who was overseeing Centurión's activities from the capital in Caracas, ordered Don Apolinar to Guyana to resettle the abandoned village of La Esmeralda with the Makiritare. This would be the ideal advance post to control the movements of the Caribs and Dutch. The Makiritare would also help explore the supposed mines of precious stones and gold. It would be necessary to open a road straight through the forest between Angostura and La Esmeralda. It would follow the route of the Caribs and stop their raids on the Makiritare. It would be a base of operations in the search for El Dorado.

Now the Andalusian Capuchins wanted a part in this great scheme, but Centurion refused to let them participate. Nevertheless, the priests obtained control over all future missions in the Upper Orinoco and Rio Negro from Solano, the supreme commander in Caracas. In 1765, four of them left from Cabruta on the Middle Orinoco. Their prefect, Father Jerez de los Caballeros, wanted to convert the Makiritare himself. He put his companions in charge of founding the missions on the Rio Negro and set off alone for the Padamo where he planned to start a Christian village. Warema, remembering the failure five years earlier, refused, and the priest was forced to withdraw.

Two years later, Apolinar Diez de la Fuente visited Warema with a military force in order to invite him and his people to settle at La Esmeralda once again. The Makiritare ignored him. Against their will, the soldiers carried off several groups of Indians, and brought them to La Esmeralda where they were forced to build a dozen huts. This outrage was to mark the end of the epoch of laranavi. It began that of Fañuru.

In August, Father Jerez de los Caballeros arrived and began converting by force. Thus began the Meraraña mission mentioned in the Watunna. There the So'to found out for the first time who the Fadre (Padres, 'Fathers') were. This is where the legend presenting the missionaries as demons in the service of Fañuru began. The militant proselytism and intolerant messianism of the Catholics trampled over the So'to's religious tradition, forbidding its rites and ancient cults. The Makiritare were confined to Meraraña where they were forced to live with other tribes also kidnapped and deported to that mosquitoridden plain. Father Jerez's mission did not last beyond three and a half months. Nevertheless, its brief duration left an indelible mark on the oral tradition of the Makiritare. He was implacably fanatical in his zealousness for salvation. At the same time as he spoke of the crucifixion of Christ, he pleaded for the destruction of Wanadi, the Makiritare's 'false god' who would be replaced by the religion of Jesus. The Watunna remembers this evangelism with bitterness. It states that the Fadre took Wanadi to Caracas, the Fañuru's city, to be crucified, and that they then tried to convince the So'to that they had killed him. But the Watunna says that this was a lie. Wanadi had too much power. He couldn't be killed. He was able to escape from those demons. Yet because of them, he was forced to say goodby to the Earth and flee to Heaven. He abandoned the So'to to their sad fate, leaving them to face the Fadre and Fañuru alone. Wanadi's farewell is the saddest episode in the entire Watunna.

Soon after Wanadi's farewell, the Watunna says the Fañuru invaded the Orinoco region from Caracas, seizing the city of Angostura where the So'to's friend, Iaranavi, was living. Then the armed demons continued their advance up the Caura River and entered Makiritare territory. This final campaign took place in 1775 when Governor Centurión sent a force out from Angostura under the command of Captain Barreto and Lieutenant Santos de la Puente to invade the Erebato, Votamo, and Padamo Rivers. They were attempting to secure a permanent route between Angostura and La Esmeralda. Overrunning the So'to, they established nineteen small forts along their way.

Legend says that a Makiritare shaman named Mahaiwadi led the resistance and repelled the intruders. This character probably corresponds to a real one as there are many instances during the Conquest in which native shamans took on the leadership in the war against the Spaniards. What does not correspond to historical reality is the supposed taking of Angostura by the Spanish in that same epoch. This event actually took place in 1817, or forty-two years after Mahaiwadi's victory over the Fañuru, and represents one of Simón Bolivar's most celebrated offensives in the Venezuelan War of Independence. This is a perfectly natural chronological error in the world of the legends. As for the fantastic version of Iaranavi's defeat in 1775 at the hands of the Fañuru from Caracas, there is only one likely explanation for its origins.

As has been said, in its early years, Angostura's relations with the So'to had been very good. Only after the forced proselytism at La Esmeralda by Father Jerez did the situation radically change. The Capuchin also had bad relations with Centurión, the anticlerical commander of Angostura, but his mission among the Makiritare received the support of Solano, the commander-in-chief in Caracas. It is probable that Jerez told the So'to that his mission depended exclusively on Caracas and no longer on Angostura. This fact could explain the Indians' interpretation that the Fadre were friends of Fañuru in Caracas and thus enemies of Iaranavi, the white man from Angostura.

Because of Mahaiwadi's victory over the invaders, the So'to no doubt felt anxious over possible Spanish reprisals against their lands, reprisals which never came. The Spanish gave up their dream of conquering the Upper Orinoco forever. Nevertheless, the story of the exodus of a part of the tribe from Ihuruña to the East under the command of a dynasty of Makiritare chiefs named the Waitie, seems to correspond to this time. Groups of Makiritare emigrated to the Uraricoera and Mt. Roraima where the Ët'i (Makushi and Taulipang) lived and still live today. These emigrants observed the Ët'i's dealings with the Caribs and Dutch from the Essequibo River. Deprived of all access to Angostura and the Spaniard's coveted goods, they discovered the way to Dutch Guyana and established a friendship with distant Amenadiña, the commercial capital of those rich foreigners whom legend describes as 'people of Wanadi', which is to say, good people, friends of the So'to, just as Iaranavi had once been.

The Watunna

The myths of the Makiritare are the story of what the 'Old People', the Heavenly Ancestors, did. These deeds serve as models for the So'to's behavior. They are the perfect expression of tribal law, the wisdom bequeathed to the Earth by the Primordial Beings. This tradition, which the Makiritare call Watunna, has been handed down from generation to generation since the beginning of time in a series of magico-religious festivals known as Wanwanna. These rituals, which include dancing, singing, drinking, and a trancelike communion leading to a total collective frenzy, are used to inaugurate the new gardens and communal houses.

The New Conuco or Garden Festival, Adahe ademi hidi, begins with great activity in the village. The women pull out the yuca presses and begin preparing cassava bread and other foods. A great canoe, painted with ritual drawings, is used like a bowl to ferment the iarake drink whose quantity will determine the ecstasy and length (usually three to five days and nights) of the festival. Now from a path in the jungle leading from the new garden to the village, the men approach, blowing as hard as they can on horns made from wamehiye bark. The deep mooing sound of the horns is identified with that of the jungle spirits and calls the supernatural beings to the village to participate in the Wanwanna. The musicians enter into the hododo, the cleared circular area surrounding the roundhouse. They are loaded down with wasai palm, bamboo, bird feathers and seed pods. With these materials they start work on the ceremonial skirts and crowns they will wear during the Wanwanna. They also begin making necklaces, earrings, bracelets, staffs hung with multi-colored birds and the long wanna bamboo flutes. They begin painting their bodies with magic designs taken from the myths themselves. Now the drinking starts and the excitement picks up. A group of adolescents, invited to participate in the festival for the first time, joins the men to help in the preparations. Some men begin the traditional wrestling. On their shoulders are wooden triangles from which electric eels hang, communicating strength and bravery. The eel is the master of Akuena, the Celestial Lake, and the guardian of the electric ray and manly strength.

Once the preparations have ended, an elder leads a procession of the boys who will sing and dance for the first time. This is the master of the Wanwanna dance. He picks up the insignia of his office, the wasaha, the rhythm staff from which deer hooves are hung like rattles.

Now the ceremonial fire is lit in the center of the dance floor near which is seated an old man, the Master of Song. The debutantes begin the dance around this center, forming a circular chain, left hand on the shoulder of the person in front. In the other hand is a wanna, the bamboo clarinet from which come endless, low, monotonous cries. They listen to the master's voice, that of the wisest elder, the Ademi edamo, the Master of Song, who sings the law of the people in the form of myths. Only the elders completely know the secrets of the ademi, whose meanings they have discovered, little by little, over a lifetime of participation in the repeated Wanwanna. They have made contact with the sadashe, the animal masters and grandfather spirits. They have gained the wisdom and power which the Watunna has opened to them. That's why the people call these old men Watunei—'the ones who know the tradition'.

The Watunei enjoy a privileged position with universal respect. The young person never dares to sit next to them while eating, and remains silent in their presence. These young people cannot understand the ademi, the secret meaning of which is not revealed by explanations. Those who know it say that the language of the sadashe cannot be translated to ordinary people. The Adahe ademi hidi, the ritual complex of the tribe's great myths, must be comprehended directly, like dreaming. It is an intuitive communication increasing in accordance with the initiate's progressive mental change. It is only through submission to the rigorous demands of the initiation that the candidate can receive it. It is only through patience and passiveness.

The techniques for opening consciousness through song and myth are simple and well known to the So'to. They are determined by various rules which the ancestral spirits taught to Wahnatu, the first man on the Earth. The exclusive purpose of the initiatic technique is the rupture of the ordinary mental state in order to achieve a direct, nonrational communication with the supernatural world. The mind hoping to achieve this will have to turn itself into a free, spontaneous force. That's why these teachings can't be communicated in everyday language. There is no professor of 'Heavenly Language'. The student cannot learn this language the way he learns that of another earthly tribe. He has to do it through his own strength, developing his own new powers of hearing.

The traditional method of initiation is to completely wear out and weaken the body's normal instinctive resistance to achieve contact with the world of the sadashe. This requires that the candidate go through an intensive preliminary fast accompanied by isolation and silence. This initiatic period marks the end of his childhood, during which he has lived with the women. Now the adult males will submit him to tests of strength and resistance to pain; tests which include the application of poisonous biting ants whose magic effects consist in imparting courage, strength, and skill in his future male duties such as hunting, fighting, cutting trees, clearing gardens, and making houses.

A little before the ritual seclusion, the adolescent will have received practical training in these new duties, accompanying his elders in their work and forays in the forest. If, in the course of this period of practical instruction, the boy has shown satisfactory signs of obedience, discipline, a noncompetitive community spirit, and physical aptitude, he will suddenly be separated from his mother, grandmother, and other women of his extended family who have been responsible for his childhood education. Now he is submitted to the strict period of fasting and seclusion which will prepare him for the spiritual entrance into the cooperative circle of his sex. Finally, he is brought into the ritual gathering of the Wanwanna for his first participation in the religious secrets of the tribe. He begins several sleepless days and nights of continuous drinking, dancing, and singing, the monotony and power of which will succeed in breaking down the normal functions of both body and mind.

The youth is immediately forced to drink huge quantities of iarake. When he finally collapses from drunkenness, the Master of Dance rejoices, screaming the ritual word 'Neumai', 'he's dead', which means that the candidate has entered into another state of consciousness, similar to that of death. At no moment can the youth allow himself to fall asleep. His companions lift him up and force him to move about and vomit so as to expel the impurities or evil spirits hidden in his body. He must force himself in this strange waking dream to go on drinking more and more iarake while periodically vomiting to make room for still more. He must go on dancing and singing and listening, never for a moment losing contact with the spinning world around him. That's the way one learns how to conquer death—entering the collective trance of the dancers, singing, listening, responding, lost in the monotony of movement and song, integrating further and further into the telepathic circle of So'to in the communion of ritual.

Listening to the words of the Master, the dancers' task is to immediately and accurately repeat them. The Ademi edamo, however, sings in such a way as to make the comprehension of his words as difficult as possible. He wants to sharpen the senses of the youths, musicians, and dancers to their absolute maximum. As if absorbed in himself, he sings in a very low, almost inarticulate voice. In order to hear the words, the initiates bring the noise of their steps and the sound of their instruments down to a bare minimum, drawing close enough to the Master to see the fleeting whisper itself escape from his lips. And so they get it and repeat it, just the way the hunter gets and repeats the song of the bird he draws near in order to kill. They open their eyes and ears. They hold their breath. They wait for the words and pry into the mind of the Master. The students' mental concentration now is extraordinary, the repetition unerring, even though in the beginning the sounds were unintelligible.

The sacred songs sung in the Wanwanna are in a strange language very different from the everyday speech of the Makiritare. These ritual orations called ademi or aichudi, belong to the language of the sadashe, the primordial spirits and masters of the tribes. The ademi were given for everyone at the beginning of time and cannot be altered in any way by men. Nevertheless, their semantic uniqueness does show signs of certain simple tricks of human origin: archaic words, others taken from neighboring tribes, more or less phonetically deformed, complicated ritual endings concealing words from normal daily usage, refrains with no definite meaning, inarticulate vocables, onomatopoeias, whistles, jungle and water sounds, animal movements. As the initiate begins to understand this language, he immediately grasps its phonetic essence, its music, without paying any attention to the meaning of the individual words. Those who still don't understand it, perceive no more than incoherent madness.

On the final night of the Wanwanna, after several consecutive days of intoxication, the music suddenly stops. Now the Ademi edamo stands near the central fire and begins the closing of the festival with the solemn singing of the Adahe ademi hidi pertaining to the Watunna's principal creation myths. Without accompaniment of drum or horn, the dancers continue their rhythm, approaching and retreating from the center where the fire and the Master are located. Like the other participants, they listen with great silence to the true, unaltered text of the Watunna.

The most important ademi go on for the entire night without interruption. By dawn, it's just an unintelligible murmur. The participants are like automatons moved by an invisible force. They remove their ritual costumes, their palm skirts, the feathered crowns and fetishes, and toss them into the fire. This is the sign of farewell to the spirits, preparing the men for their return to earth. From these remains, the last flames burst from the fire and the Ademi edamo goes on whispering until they have turned to coals. Now the dancers draw near and enter the fire, stamping the embers with their bare feet. They cannot be burned. It is the final test in their initiation, the authentication of their trance, a display of their new magic powers obtained from the sadashe. Like the mythic twins, Iureke and Shikiemona, the initiates have become masters of fire, true men, disciples of Wanwanna. Moments later, they leave the roundhouse and collapse on the ground, completely exhausted from their superhuman ordeal.

The Watunna is in its essence a secret teaching restricted to the circle of men who undergo the initiations of the Wanwanna festivals. But there is another, popular Watunna which belongs to everyone regardless of sex or. age, and this is the Watunna which is told daily outside the ritual dance circle. It is an exoteric Watunna told in everyday language, a profane reflection of that of the sacred space.

These popular versions which form an integral part of every Makiritare's daily life and recreation differ in fundamental ways from the ademi heard in the Wanwanna. The ademi are rigid and exact texts which cannot be altered in any way without losing their oral power. They are the Watunna exactly as the sadashe revealed it to the So'to, and to change them in any way whatsoever would be to rob the Wanwanna not only of its initiatic effectiveness, but also of its ability to communicate with the spirit world and thus influence it. But once outside the Wanwanna, everyone, including the women and children, is free to tell the stories in whatever form they like. These variations, altered and abbreviated, subject to personal interpretations and the teller's level of knowledge and memory, still fulfill the Watunna's essential role of teaching the tribe's history and spreading its ethical and social ideals. More concerned with the anecdotal aspects of the ademi however, these popular versions are unable to preserve the symbolic structure created by their secret language. The phonetic games and mental associations which are such an important part of the sacred dance cannot be translated into profane language.

Sacred or profane, the Watunna is a living tradition in constant use. It is hard to pass a day among the Makiritare without hearing a tale or at least some isolated fragment of a story as it relates to the circumstance at hand. You may be hunting or travelling, fishing or basketmaking, there will always be a Watunna tale to give some insight into the event. Perhaps it will just be an allusion to a hero or an episode. Perhaps it will be late at night and you'll be lying in your hammock and there'll be time for much more than that. Whatever the situation, there will be a story about something that happened a long time ago.

There was Kahuña, the Sky Place. The Kahuhana lived there, just like now. They're good, wise people. And they were in the beginning too. They never died. There was no sickness, no evil, no war. The whole world was Sky. No one worked. No one looked for food. Food was always there, ready.

There were no animals, no demons, no clouds, no winds. There was just light. In the highest Sky was Wanadi, just like now. He gave his light to the people, to the Kahuhana. He lit everything down to the very bottom, down to Nono, the Earth. Because of that light, the people were always happy. They had life. They couldn't die. There was no separation between Sky and Earth. Sky had no door like it does now. There was no night, like now. Wanadi is like a sun that never sets. It was always day. The Earth was like a part of the Sky.

The Kahuhana had many houses and villages in Kahuña and they were all filled with light. No one lived on the Earth. There was no one there, nothing, just the Earth and nothing else.

Wanadi said: "I want to make people down there." He sent his messenger, a damodede. He was born here to make houses and good people, like in the Sky Place. That damodede was Wanadi's spirit. He was the Earth's first Wanadi, made by the other Wanadi who lives in Kahuña. That other Wanadi never came down to the Earth. The one that came was the other's spirit.

Later on, two more damodede came here. They were other forms of Wanadi's spirit.

The first Wanadi to come was called Seruhe Ianadi, the Wise. When he came, he brought knowledge, tobacco, the maraca, and the wiriki. He smoked and he sang and he made the old people. That was a long time before us, the people of today.

When that spirit was born, he cut his navel-cord and buried the placenta. He didn't know. Now the worms got into the placenta and they started to eat it. The placenta rotted. As it rotted, it gave birth to a man, a human creature, ugly and evil and all covered with hair like an animal. It was Kahu. He has different names. They call him Kahushawa and Odosha too. This man was very evil. He was jealous of Wanadi. He wanted to be master of the Earth. Because of him, we suffer now. There's hunger, sickness and war. He's the father of all the Odoshankomo. Now, because of him, we die.

When that old Wanadi's placenta rotted, Odosha sprang out of the Earth like a spear. He said: "This Earth is mine. Now there's going to be war. I'm going to chase Wanadi out of here."

He misled those people who had just been born. He taught them to kill. There was a man fishing. He had lots of fish. Odosha told them: "If you kill him, you'll have lots of fish."

They killed him. Odosha was happy. Then the people were turned into animals as punishment.

Because of Odosha, Seruhe lanadi couldn't do anything on Earth. He went back to the Sky and left the old people as animals with Odosha. He didn't leave any of Wanadi's people on the Earth though. That was the end of the first people.

The birth of Kahu on that old Earth is a sign to us, the people of today. When a baby is born, we should never bury the placenta. The worms get it. It rots. Another Odosha will come again, like in the beginning to hurt the baby, to kill it. Like what happened when Kahu fought against Wanadi for control of the Earth. When a baby is born, we put the placenta in a nest of white ants. It's safe there. The worms can't get it. Okay. Now you can bury the nest of white ants.

That was the story of the old people. That's all.

Later on, the other Wanadi, the one that never left Kahuña, thought: "I want to know what's happening on Earth. I want good people living down there."

So he sent a second Wanadi, a damodede called Nadeiumadi. When he came there, he thought: "The people are going to die now because Odosha is here. Because of Odosha they're sick. They're dying. But I'm here now. People are going to be born again soon. Through my power, they're going to live again. Death isn't real. It's one of Odosha's tricks. People are going to live now."

The new Wanadi wanted to give a sign, a show of his power. He did it to show us that death isn't real. He sat down. He put his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands. He just sat there in silence, thinking, dreaming, dreaming. He dreamt that a woman was born. It was his mother. She was called Kumariawa. That's the way it happened. That man was thinking and smoking. He was quietly blowing tobacco, dreaming of his mother, Kumariawa. That's the way she was born. He made his own mother. That's the way they tell it. He gave birth to her dreaming, with tobacco smoke, with the song of his maraca, singing and nothing else.

Now Kumariawa stood up and Wanadi thought: "You're going to die." So Wanadi dreamed that he killed his mother. She was born full-grown, big like a woman. She wasn't born like a baby. And right away she died, when he dreamed her death, playing the maraca and singing. It wasn't Odosha who killed her but him himself. He had a lot of power when he thought. When he thought: "Life." Then Kumariawa was born. When he thought: "Death." Then she died. Wanadi made her as a sign of his power, of his wisdom. He knew that that wasn't real. Death was a trick.

The new Wanadi had Huehanna. He brought it from Kahuña to make people with. He wanted new people for the Earth. He wanted lots of people. Huehanna was like a great ball, huge and hollow, with a thick, heavy shell as hard as stone. It was called Huehanna. Inside Huehanna you could hear noises, words, songs, laughter, screaming. It was filled with people. You couldn't see them. You could just hear them. Wanadi's unborn people were all in there talking. He brought them down to Earth from Heaven. They were happy. That's why they were singing and dancing and making so much noise before being born. Wanadi wanted Huehanna opened on the Earth so its people could spread over it. "They'll die," he thought, "because Odosha is here. He doesn't want them to live. He doesn't want good people. He's going to make them sick. He's going to kill them as soon as they come out. But I'll bring them back to life. They'll get born again and won't die."

Wanadi killed Kumariawa as an example. He did it to bring her back to life again. He wanted to show Odosha his power. He was the master of life. His people can't die. Now when he killed his mother, he thought: "She's dead. She'll come back again soon. She'll live again just as my people will live again. Because Odosha's going to kill them as soon as they come out of Huehanna. But I'll make them live again."

After he killed Kumariawa, he went hunting. When he left, he said: "I'm going." He called Kudewa and asked him to help bury the woman. It was the first burial. They buried Kumariawa in the ground. "I'm going," he told Kudewa. "I'm going hunting. I'll be back soon. Guard the grave. Kumariawa is going to reappear in this spot. When she comes out, it will be a signal for the people to come out of Huehanna and live. Watch my mother's body. Don't let Odosha near it." Now he called his nephew, Iarakaru. "Watch Huehanna!" he called out as he left.

Wanadi forgot his chakara. That's where he kept his power, his tobacco, his cigarettes. He kept the night in the chakara too, because at that time, they didn't know about the night. There was only light on the Earth like in the Heavens. It was all one world, Sky above and daylight here below. When Wanadi got tired, he just opened the chakara and stuck his head inside and slept. Hidden sleep, the night, was in there. That's the way he slept. When he got up he closed the chakara again and shut the night inside.

Wanadi had warned Iarakaru: "Never play with the chakara. It's my power! Be careful! Don't open it. If you do, the night will get out."

When Wanadi left, Kudewa kept guard over Kumariawa. Kudewa kept watching to let out a scream when it began to move, when the body began to rise again. "Call me right away. Shout and I'll come," Wanadi told him when he left.

When the ground began to move, Wanadi was far away. Kudewa saw a hand stick out, Kumariawa's arm. The earth opened. He turned into a parrot and began to shout and scream the warning. When Wanadi heard him, he came running to see what his new mother looked like. He came running to see if the Huehanna had burst. As he ran, night fell. All at once, EVERYTHING went dark. Suddenly, the WHOLE world went out and Wanadi was running through the night. "They opened the chakara," he thought. "Iarakaru did it." And that's just what happened. Iarakaru was too curious. Someone said to him: "Open it!" It was Odosha. He didn't see him. He just heard him, like in a dream. "Open it!" Odosha said. "You'll learn the secret." It was as if Iarakaru was dreaming. At first he didn't dare. And then he did it. "What's this secret hidden in Wanadi's chakara?" he thought. "I want to see. I want to smoke and be powerful like Wanadi. I want to meet the night." So he opened the chakara to look inside and right away the night burst out. Sky hid itself. The light went out over the Earth.

That's the way darkness came to our world. It was Iarakaru's fault. It didn't exist before that. I didn't see it. But that's the way it's told.

When it burst, he was like a blind man. He couldn't see Sky or Earth. He was terrified. He just started running in the dark, not like a man but like a white monkey. And that's the way he stayed, as punishment. He's the grandfather of all the iarakaru (capuchin monkeys) that exist today. He was the first one. He gave them their form. As soon as they were born, the monkeys took his form. That's why they call them iarakaru. They're all children of that same Iarakaru, the one who let out the night long ago. He was Wanadi's nephew and he was punished. That's the way they tell it.

When Wanadi went hunting, Odosha thought: "That man has power. He wants to make his own people on the Earth. He thinks the Earth is his. He thinks he owns everything, that his people are going to be born, that it's always going to be light. He left that woman's body in the ground and he thinks, 'She's dead but she's going to live again. Huehanna will open'. He left guards to warn him when the signal comes. I don't like it. The Earth is mine, not his. I'm not going to let Kumariawa out of her corpse nor the people out of Huehanna."

Then Odosha hid. He spoke to Iarakaru as in a dream. He said: "Open the chakara!"

He was happy when it was opened. "Now it's dark. The night is mine. No one's going to live. I'm the ruler of the Earth."

He had his own people. They could see and move and do lots of things in the dark. Wanadi's people couldn't see. They couldn't do a thing, just be scared and nothing else. This really made Odosha happy.

Odosha sent a hairy dwarf named Ududi to watch the grave. Ududi told him: "She's coming out!" Odosha heard him and knew what to do. He pissed in a gourd. He gave it to Makako and sent him to the woman's grave. Makako was like a small lizard. He ran with the gourd full of urine. Kumariawa split the Earth and began to rise. The little lizard threw the gourd. Odosha's urine was like a poison, seething with fire. It covered the woman. It scorched her body. The flesh was roasted. The bones fell apart. The parrot kept on screaming and the Earth closed up. "It's done," said Makako when he went back to Odosha.

When Wanadi arrived, he found darkness, ashes, bones, cinders, the monkey gone, the parrot silent, the chakara opened. "I can't do anything now," he thought. "There's no flesh, no body. She won't come back to life. There's no light. The Earth isn't mine anymore. The people will all die now."

Then he went to find Huehanna. It was still there. Those people were inside there, screaming, shaking with fear. They hadn't been born. They hadn't died. They weren't anything yet, like in the beginning. They couldn't be born. When he burned the woman, Odosha went with Makako to open Huehanna, to smash it to pieces, to kill the people about to come out. They found it and started beating it with their clubs, but nothing happened. They couldn't do a thing to it. Huehanna was as hard as a stone with that thick shell. They couldn't break it. They just left it there.

Wanadi found Huehanna. When he picked it up, he heard the voices inside. It made him sad. "They'll have to wait now," he thought. "I'm going to hide them." He took them to Mount Waruma hidi. He hid Huehanna with all the unborn people up in that mountain.

It's waiting there, in peace, since the beginning of the world, and it will stay there till the end. When the night came, Wanadi hid Huehanna. The good people inside haven't been born yet. They haven't died either. They're waiting there in Waruma hidi for the end of the world, for the death of Odosha.

Odosha is the ruler of our world, but he's not eternal. He'll die when evil disappears. Then Wanadi will go back to Waruma hidi again. The light from Kahuña will shine once more. We'll see Heaven from here like in the beginning. Wanadi will come looking for Huehanna. The good, wise people who couldn't be born in the beginning will finally be born. He'll tell his people that the time has come. In the place called Warumaña, they're waiting. I haven't seen it. But that's what it's called.

Wanadi left the Earth in darkness. He left it to Odosha and went back to Heaven. He put Kumariawa's skull and bones in a palm basket and took them with him. He threw his mother's bones into Lake Akuena and the woman came back to life once again. She's still living there in Heaven now.

I haven't seen her. But that's what they say.

David Guss teaches anthropology at Tufts University and is an associate of the Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology, Harvard University. Marc de Civrieux, a French-born paleontologist, has conducted ethnographic research throughout Venezuela since the late 1940s. His widely published work has received many awards.

"Anthropologists and folklorists have gathered, against the coming night of worldwide electronic frost, sheaves and sheaves of oral narrative, but little of it is as readable, coherent, and thought-provoking as Watunna... Though the Watunna can be for us... little more than a resonant entertainment and gaudy fossil, the two existential mysteries that it addresses—the existence of the universe, the existence of 'I'—have not been, beneath the great flurry of modern knowing, dissolved."
—John Updike, New Yorker

"One rarely reads a mythical corpus so richly textured as this Makiritare cycle....The result is a stunning portrayal of Makiritare creativity and an enthralling narrative of the way they imagine meaning in the universe. ...Civrieux and Guss bring the reader inside a contemporary worldview breathtakingly different in the way it imagines conflict and beauty."
—Lawrence Sullivan, New Scholar