Sorcery and Society: At the Intersection of Ethics and Cosmology

It is often at the intersection of cosmology and ethical engagement that the Western anthropological investigator finds him or herself in terms of indigenous cultural expression, perhaps nowhere more immediately evident than in the face of the cultural production of violence, sorcery, and death.  Such an investigation of kanaimà among the Patamuna likewise begins with cosmology – that is to say, the ordering and structuring of the universe – and in the end returns to it, though through a perhaps unexpectedly circuitous route, its expression and analysis along the way navigating the problematization and situatedness of history, sociality, and politics. Indeed, as Neil Whitehead suggests, all “Acts of history-making include not only material, physical events but a hidden dimension of struggle for the order of the cosmos” (131). This struggle is not limited to the combat and aggressions of indigenous shamans and sorcerers, working by turn toward order or chaos, or toward sociality and its antithesis, but encompasses as well the struggle between colonial or neo-colonial cultures and indigenous cultures, each striving to simultaneously understand, derive, determine, and defend meaningful order in the context of indigenous cultural expressions.  Any such alignment with the construction of this kind of meaningful order bears indisputably on cosmology, in that, within both the culture of the investigator and the culture of the investigated, it arranges and delineates patterns, in line with Geertz, that act as both “models of” and “models for” reality (in Lambek 65).  It is for this reason that ethical response must be so carefully borne in mind by investigators into indigenous cultures: it is impossible to absent the responsibility and admission of agency in the process of determining the boundaries of a multifaceted modernity as it presents itself, often unasked, to these same indigenous cultures under investigation.  Questions of ethical response, especially to such a highly charged subject as violent death, must remain at the forefront of any discussion or investigation, for it is here that cosmology returns, in a very immediate sense – whatever this “poetics of violence” (Whitehead 65) may ultimately describe, the meaningful content that is drawn from such debate and discussion is, inarguably, part of a process of defining an “order to the universe” of indigenous cultural expression, and as such, is a very real agent in a cosmological process that distinctly impacts and affects the individuals and cultures under investigation.  Ethics becomes a question not raised as an intellectual abstraction, but one that bears on the very nature of the ordering of the universe, and hence on cosmology itself.  In order to approach such an ethically circumscribed investigation, it is paramount that these kinds of “darker” cultural expressions – be they sorcery, cannibalism, or kanaimà – be explicitly situated within their cosmological, historical, and social settings as they have been described and lived.  By approaching an understanding of kanaimà, and sorcery or dark shamanism more generally, within the framework of the construction and maintenance of sociality, identity, and alterity, it should prove possible to work toward a demarcation of the boundaries of ethical investigation and theorization about these kinds of indigenous cultural expressions, without making the mistake of silence on the one hand, or sensationalism on the other.  To be silent paints a false picture, which itself does an injustice to the complexity and depth of indigenous cosmological representations and attendant praxes, and yet without vigilance, sensationalism recapitulates all the worst attitudes and lends itself to all the prejudices of colonialism.  The challenge is, as Fernando Santos-Granero has said, “to find ways of talking about cultural practices that are odious to Western sensitivity without either making enemies out of those who practice them or providing their enemies with arguments to deny them their rights” (in Whitehead and Wright, 14).

Beginning with a definition of kanaimà immediately makes apparent some of the complexity surrounding both the practice and terminology.  As Whitehead affirms, “The term kanaimà refers both to a mode of ritual mutilation and killing and to its practitioners.  The term also can allude to a more diffuse idea of active spiritual malignancy, in existence from the beginning of time, that consumes the assassins” (1).  From this it is possible to discern that not only does the practice of kanaimà have a real, physical brutality to it, making necessary such an investigation into the nature of its violence, but that this corporeal or somatic expression has a cosmological positioning for both the murderers and the murdered.  This positioning can be understood in terms of that ubiquitous Amerindian cosmological trope of predation and exchange, for again as Whitehead indicates, “Kanaimà as a shamanic practice centers on the relationship of exchange between the kanaimà adept and Makunaima, creator of plants and animals, and this interrelation of affinity, cannibal predation, and exchange forms a triad in other Amazonian cosmologies” (Whitehead and Wright 61).  It is possible then to suggest that there are two struggling tendencies at play in the cultural and cosmological arena wherein such acts are carried out: a tendency toward the creation and maintenance of sociality, and a tendency toward the destruction or unmaking of the same.  This duality has explication in Patamuna cosmology, though it can be found in many Amerindian cultures.  Sorcery and dark shamanism – of which kanaimà is a form – are regularly opposed to the socially constructive forms of healing or light shamanism, though this opposition is by no means a simple binary of good and evil, nor are the actors and agents of one force and the other so easily distinguishable or even disentangleable one from the other.  In Patamuna culture, this duality has, again, a cosmological origin.

This divergence begins with the cosmogenesis of society itself, which is pictured as the divine gift of Piai’ima, through the revelation of shamanic techniques and the means of manioc agriculture.  By contrast Makunaima, ‘a man who can command anything,’ although contemporary with and related to Piai’ima, begets no social order and through his malicious trickery can be understood as even inimical to such order (Whitehead 102-103).

Makunaima’s association with kanaimà and his seeming antipathy to ordered society, and potentially to the very tendency toward sociality, casts the practitioners of kanaimà then as agents working in this cosmological tradition as outlined by the deity himself, engaging in assaults not just on the bodies of their victims, but on the body-politic of society.  This is an intriguing, but ultimately unsettling, concept, for such an antisocial spirituality seems at odds with Durkheim’s notion of God as society, a notion that, even if not held to mark the furthest limits or extents of religious experience, does have an inarguable appeal as a notion of how religious experience functions as an aspect of culture.  But as Whitehead states “kanaimà is the archetype of senseless, meaningless death, precisely because kanaimà cannot be located in the production and continuation of society but rather stands in opposition to it” (237).  The reification of ideals within a cosmology that do not reproduce society and societal structures, values, and mores thereby begs the question of when and how such ideals were elevated to sacred postulates at all.  It is not possible, in this case, to simply reduce kanaimà to an aberration, a kind of reactionary “satanic” or antinomian cult, insofar as it has equal place cosmologically with other forms of shamanism, and the spirit or deity toward which such efforts are directed is not simply a destructive or evil god, but is also the same entity that provides sustenance in the forms of plant and animal life to humans.  Indeed, beyond the acceptance that kanaimà “is from the first time – a primordial force that has structured the universe and formed the world as we know it” (Whitehead 41), and participates in notions of predation and exchange between humans, plants, animals, and an at least violent, if not outright malevolent, divinity, there seems little to position or situate this expression of violence in terms that are amenable to the production and reproduction of society.  Kanaimà, and perhaps sorcery more generally, seems to be a kind of spirituality that finds its cultural expression in terms of this previously suggested antisocial tendency, meaning that while it can be acknowledged as a cultural production, it may not be a social one.

A cosmological template of anti-sociality does not, however, relieve kanaimà of a historicity, nor of social impact, interpretation, and explication.  In order to understand kanaimà not as a timeless, atavistic expression of an untouched indigeneity, but as an aspect of the dialogues of modernity and traditionality in Patamuna culture, it is necessary to examine the ways in which kanaimà has changed and adapted in response to the expansion of modernity.  Modernity itself, however, is a term that is complicated by more than “a simple opposition of, say, feathers and loincloths to trousers and shirts” (Whitehead 176).  Patamuna culture has not remained inviolate, and the encroachment of sustained development and other aspects of neo-colonial culture have resulted in an “explosion of alternative modernities” (Whitehead 176) in which both indigenous modernities produced by Amerindian agency in terms of their own history, as well as those of neo-colonial incursion, simultaneously participate in drawing the boundaries between what is seen as “traditional” and what is seen as “modern.”  In the context of these multiple modernities, then, kanaimà emerges as a cultural production of violence distinctly shaped by historical experience.  While kanaimà had purportedly been an active force in Patamuna culture from time immemorial, it was the missionary-led suppression of its countervailing force, the piya and alleluia shamans, that opened a space for the unchecked expansion of kanaimà as a cultural presence.  According to Whitehead, “the missionaries laid the groundwork for the current upsurge in kanaimà by their culturally inept suppression of piya and alleluia” (166).  In a way that is not dissimilar to Robin Wright’s statements on the abandonment of traditional shamanism concomitant with evangelical conversion among the Baniwa and the resultant lack of cultural resources “capable of combating witchcraft” (Whitehead and Wright 103), with the suppression of piya and alleluia shamans by the missionaries among the Patamuna, kanaimà – itself a form of dark shamanism or sorcery, akin to the witchcraft noted by Wright – had no naturally balancing force with which to contend any longer.  Like any ecological system, once this balance has been disturbed, those forms less suppressed and weakened tend to overrun to the point of dangerous excess.  Missionary involvement was not, however, the single source of historical pressure to cause an exacerbation of kanaimà activity.  Whitehead contends that it was gun warfare and the smaller parties that could be made offensively viable through its adoption that led to the practice of kanaimà spreading more rapidly (138).  In Patamuna culture, revenge killings had traditionally been the province of the wenaiman, or “secret avenger” (Whitehead 136) which was a small group formed for rapid response, with the intention of a very immediate redress of wrongs or aggression.  However, as gun warfare became more the norm, assault parties were able to diminish in size without entailing a subsequent loss of effectiveness, making the tracking and pursuit correspondingly more difficult for the wenaiman (Whitehead 138).  Because kanaimà was “an already accomplished exponent of solitary or small group attack” (Whitehead 138), its role began to increase, taking over cultural productions of violence that had been previously reserved for other groups.  Its extension into warfare, in this light, is an understandable response, though it is important to recognize that kanaimà is not, by this token, a kind of war shamanism, but that instead “the growing connection between kanaimà and warfare was a historical, not ritual, phenomenon” (Whitehead 133-134).  That the form of kanaimà had a new-found utility in its application toward the ends of warfare does not indicate that the ritual realities of kanaimà had mutated from their origins.  This conflation of kanaimà with war shamanism, or with a revenge complex more broadly, proves necessary to disentangle, if for no other reason than because it has acted as a vehicle for anthropological and ethnological sanitization of the practice in the literature surrounding kanaimà.  Attempting to situate kanaimà as an enactment of a “retributive law and capital punishment” (Whitehead 45) or an “eye-for-an-eye” kind of lex talionis, while an appealing notion in that it grants the vicious assault of kanaimà a socially productive place, is a misleadingly reductive explanation.  As comforting as it might be, perhaps, to reformulate an understanding of kanaimà in terms of the production of order, albeit even a violent one, Whitehead’s analysis argues:

That vengeance does not fully explain kanaimà is also evident from the fact that contemporary kanaimà killings do not necessarily follow a pattern of personal dispute, for even if that remains a possibility, it is the arbitrary nature of the victims that most concerns that Patamuna today (76).

This “arbitrary nature of the victims” – including women and children, those having neither the standing nor the force required to cause injury or insult grave enough to warrant a vengeful death – precludes a notion of kanaimà as being able to be easily situated within the constraints of a socially sanctionable enactment of violent retaliation by an aggrieved party.  Attempting to wrestle this admittedly difficult subject into a more palatable Western moral category of violent cultural production bears out the “futility of sanitizing the violence of others” (Whitehead and Wright 15), though a Western discomfort with violence that has not been socially sanctioned stems as much, it seems, from the fact that the unbounded nature of such violence imposes upon our sensibilities the necessary reengagement with our own social and cultural productions of violence, as from any direct moral repugnance for violence on its own terms.

Just as kanaimà is not free of history in either its expression or analysis, neither is it unyoked from its social impacts and implications, however thoroughly it may be an attack on that same sociality.  That kanaimà should have a social interpretation and degree of engagement should not be surprising, since the actors of kanaimà, both aggressors and victims, are regularly drawn from the same social sphere.  Kanaimà can be seen to be a mode of constructing a kind of Amerindian identity among the Patamuna, as well as a source of explanation, giving a frame of reference and “used to supply meaning to an otherwise purposeless death” (Whitehead 207).  While the agents of kanaimà, and the violent deaths such a practice entails, may not be able to be understood as producing sociality, it is possible to understand kanaimà as a manifestation of a hyper-traditionality in active opposition to the encroachments of modernity (Whitehead 175).  In the ambiguities of the acknowledged multitude of modernities facing indigenous culture, a determination of a clear identity takes on a distinct value.  Kanaimà, both because of its capacity to generate abhorrence through the mechanisms of its violence and because of its potential to “bring whites within native categories in a way that renders them less powerful and threatening” (Whitehead 38) by means of this occult aggression, is able to be understood as a “real Amerindian thing” (Whitehead 201), making it uniquely suited to the task of constructing or producing this same indigenous identity.  However much outrage might be suffered at the hands of kanaimà, the fact of its efficacy against the encroachment neo-colonial culture renders it with a significant degree of ambiguity in its social interpretation, for while it is bound to cause sorrow among the indigenous people themselves, it is inarguably a powerful force of establishing potency in the face of a devouring alterity in the form of modernity (Whitehead 204).

“The common denominator of all these acts is that they are antisocial; they threaten the integrity of the bodies of individual Arawak men and women or that of the body politic as a whole” (Santos-Granero, in Whitead and Wright 298).  Though speaking of witchcraft more broadly, Santos-Granero clearly sums up this notion of sorcery, dark shamanism, and kanaimà as culturally meaningful productions of violence that seem to be manifestations of this tendency toward the destruction or disintegration of society.  What is uniquely troubling to a Western investigator of these kinds of cultural expressions, and no less occupies indigenous discourse in efforts to comprehend and make meaningful such events, is that the normal divisions of enmity and alterity do not seem to demarcate the boundaries of permissible violence.  In both Western and indigenous cultures, to kill an enemy – be it a personal enemy for reasons of vengeance, or a social enemy as in warfare – does not threaten the foundations of sociality itself.  Such an expression of violence is, in a sense, socially “sanctioned” for use, especially, as Whitehead argues, to the ends determined acceptable by the State (195).  But in both indigenous and Western cultures, violence enacted against subjects who stand in a kinship relation, or at least in an equitable and non-inimical relation, to the perpetrator of such an aggression, does violence not only to the body of the victim, but to the body-politic of the social group as a whole.  It attacks a notion of sociality in such a way that it becomes extraordinarily difficult to attempt to draw such acts back into socially productive categories.  The distinction, then, may simply be that “Westerners culturally represent the collective violence of others as an aspect of their sociocultural incapacity but, by contrast, see their own violence as criminal or delinquent only in an individual sense, rather than as an aspect of wider cultural patterns” (Whitehead 246).  It may very well be that this kind of aggressively antisocial cultural expression may not be localized to indigenous cultures participating in sorcery and dark shamanism, but may be in evidence in Western cultures as well, though without specifically named institutions such as kanaimà by which they are able to be identified.  Understanding and representing antisocial violence as a cultural form, rather than the aberrant behavior of “delinquent individuals” has the potential to lead the discourse in a direction that will prove meaningful not only for analysis and theoretical situating of violent indigenous cultural expression, but of violent cultural expression in Western culture as well.  For it is in this theoretical situating that a return to the same cosmological process with which the investigation was begun can be recognized.  The structuring and ordering of a world – especially, perhaps, that world of meaning – is an elaboration of a cosmology, and mandates again an ethical engagement with the same.

Works Cited

Whitehead, Neil L. Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death. Durham, N.C: Duke UP, 2002.

Whitehead, Neil L, and Robin Wright. In Darkness and Secrecy: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2004.

Lambek, Michael. A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Blackwell anthologies in social and cultural anthropology, 2. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.