Folk Religion

The rose-coloured dolphin abounds in the Amazon basin. Many folk stories surroundthis creature. It is said to be able to change into a human at will, live in an enchanted city at the bottom of the river, and cause harm. Candace Slater has written a fascinating book on these narratives and their significance in the lives of the people who tell them (Dance of the Dolphin, 1994, Chicago).

The curupira a figure from the folk tales of many Amazonian people. It is a malevolent creature which makes hunters lose their way in the forest. It has feet turned backwards and no anus. The picture above is by an artist from the city of Obidos.

Instead of presenting a dry analysis of the syncretic features of folk catholicism, I have included a short story of an episode that happened during my fieldwork. It was originally written as an exercise to rethink how ethnography can be exposed. It is based on an event that shook me greatly. What is the interface between my memories and imagination and actual events? between fiction and fact? Whatever the answer to these questions the story will provide you with much information on shamanism and possession where folk catholcism meets the legacy of their indigenous past.

A short story about possession

Ailton aproached barefoot carrying a bunch of fish. He was having difficulty negotiating the slippery path. He normally had a cheeky smile, but this time he had a much graver expression. He told me that his cousin Raimundo, his next door neighbour, had left his family to live on a small boat with another woman. Ailton did not have time to explain further but on his return he vowed to do so.

I received the news with surprise. Affairs were commonplace, but separation and divorce were virtually unknown in this Catholic community. However Raimundo's increasingly erratic behaviour had been a focus of interest for some time. I had heard he had threatened one of his son's friends with a gun and had regularly not paid the full amount for the volumes of fish he bought from locals. I awaited my companion Ailton.

Raimundo was the youngest of the brothers. When he smiled he revealed a set of perfect white teeth, except that two in the top row were gold. This set him apart from many of his fellow kinspeople: he seemed well preserved and looked after. A while later, a movement to my right caught my eye; Ailton was climbing over the cattle fence separating plots of land.

His face and neck were covered in droplets of sweat. He explained that he had to go to his sister-in-law's house and invited me to accompany him. We walked past the houses, perched on stilts. They were arranged in a line along the floodplain ridge overlooking a stretch of the Amazon river, rather like an army waiting to go on a march. It meant that there was no natural focus for village life. Instead it moved with a family's sphere of influence.

It was quiet because the children were at school and the dogs had barked themselves to sleep. We passed a woman breast-feeding in a hammock, another sweeping the floor, and two sisters washing clothes at the river bank. Further on, a group of men could be seen mending their nets in the shade of the trees. Most of the other men were out fishing or resting from the previous night's excursion. In spite of its slow-motion appearance, there was a buzz of industry. I had learnt that people were forever vigilant to change and new opportunities.

As we walked he recounted that Dalcira's estranged husband and children were very upset. They had moved to live with Zival's brother, who was married to Ailton's sister-in-law, his wife's sister. In front of the house we clapped, announcing our presence. We were invited in by Mar-Luzi, his sister-in-law, and immediately offered some cafezinho, a small super-sweet coffee. As usual I assumed a marginal place in the proceedings and was watched over by young children, eager to play with my pencil and notebook. Ailton had been sent by his mother-in-law to check with Mar-Luzi that everything was in order and whether they needed anything. Apart from being a little crowded, things were fine, she explained. I watched her eldest son restoring a nylon fishing net, hung from the rafters, weaving back its holes. He told me the damage had been caused by a dolphin stealing a fish caught in the net. Ailton offered space in his own house, if there were any problems. Mar-Luzi thanked him as we got up from our seats. I left amazed at the way change is accommodated so effortlessly.

This made the whole matter easy to forget about, at least for me. Then about a week later something happened that made it impossible to ignore any more. There was a women's football game. The pitch was still quite muddy, but the women were desperate to play. I watched from a neighbour's veranda with a couple of men, drinking sugar cane rum. Suddenly our attention was caught by an off-the-ball argument between two women. After the words failed to resolve the tension they begun pushing each around, though one of them looked more aggressive than the other. Then the bigger and older one punched the other on the nose. The smaller one's hands immediately cupped round her face; and a few women went to comfort her. My heart was beating fast and the other men seemed taken by surprise and were sitting upright. One shouted out to the older woman to come over. She glanced over and decided instead to rush away in the direction of her house. The football playing came to an abrupt end.

Only later did I get to know the story behind the scene. Jane had accused Benedita of having an affair with her husband. This was denied; but Jane disbelieved the repudiation, hitting her to assert dominance. Benedita was very much the younger party, Jane being twice her age. Benedita was the eldest daughter of Dalcira and Zival and thirteen years old. Even though she was not badly injured by the bare-fisted punch, the next day she fell very ill, running high fevers and complaining of seeing terrible demons in her sleep. Resting in her hammock and drinking herbal concoctions did not improve her health. She was taken to the local shaman by her sisters and best friend. In the care of shaman, Benedita underwent a cure involving a special diet and an enchantment through spells. But the illness ravaging her body could not be drawn out. Her high fevers went unabated and the demons continued to torment her mind. With much distress the shaman sent her away, declaring himself too old and weak to cure her of the spirit which possessed her.

Benedita returned to stay in the school with the teacher, since a person in her state should be secluded and avoid pregnant or menstruating women, for fear of getting even more ill. The morning after her return, out of the brutal heat came Benedita's screams from the school. As if drawn by a magnet I approached the building.

A number of adults and children had formed a semi-circle around her in the classroom. I placed myself behind a smaller man, eager to see what was going on. But it was the expressions on people's faces that caught my attention first. They were so concentrated and intense. Benedita lay struggling on the floor, frothing at the lips, pulling at her arms and legs. Four men were trying to subdue her, each one holding a limb and sweating in the thickness of the air. She had been transformed into a wild animal and nobody knew how it might react. We all seemed to be waiting for something. Her snake-like eyes bulged from their sockets, staring ahead through everything. All of a sudden her screams gave way to a grunting of the word devil. This voice was much deeper than her own. A man to my left got a bible from the school teacher's desk and opened it in front of her face. It only augmented the rage invested in the body. Another man came in with a stem of a herb and lightly hit her, then putting it near her nose, so that she was able to smell it. The body climaxed with such force in a violent kicking and snapping that the men subduing her were thrown off. Then in a spasm something seemed to recoil in the body, and it became calm. The voice no longer spat the word devil. The interval allowed for a collective draw of breath.

The body which was a mix of limbs became a rigid corpse. A bearly audible voice from within started muttering words. The audience in turn became very still. The voice said that Raimundo, the man with whom Benedita's mother had run off, had visited a shaman in a nearby town in order to cast a spell on his estranged wife. The spell was supposed to prevent his wife from taking revenge on Raimundo or his new lover, Benedita's mother. However, the voice claimed, Raimundo had not paid the shaman for the witchcraft. In retaliation the witchdoctor had sent an bad spirit to Benedita; knowing that she was a daughter of Raimundo's lover. Evil, as the voice explained, had resulted because the witch had been tricked into commanding the spell for nothing. The voice recommended two solutions. The first was that Benedita should be taken to a sacaca, a very powerful shaman, the old man Miguel who lived downstream in Curumu, another riverine settlement, in order for the spirit to be extracted. And secondly, that the witch be properly paid for his work. Miguel would know the person who had originally cast the spell and would be able to direct people for the payment to be made. For these people, shamanry and sorcery have their source in the same knowledge and power.

Having offered its advice the voice disapeared and Benedita's body visibly became less taught and stretched. She asked in her own voice for a glass of water and was taken to a hammock in a corner to rest.

With Benedita back to her normal self and an explanation given for her madness, the assembly began to discuss what they had witnessed and what they should do. Previous to the current event one of my neighbours, Rosa, had claimed that Benedita's possession was the result of her taking a bath at the river bank at dusk, when she was menstruating. A pink river dolphin had been nearby and smelt blood, something which they abhor, and taken revenge by sending an evil spirit into Benedita. Alternatively, Ailton told me that Benedita's mother, Dalcira, had been angry with her and her siblings for wanting to remain with their father. He thought that Dalcira had asked someone to perform witchcraft on her children as revenge. It just happened that Benedita was weak when the spirit came. Vitoria thought that she was pregnant and Benedita had tried to get rid of the child with a medicine that had gone horribly wrong.

The adults debated how they might get Benedita to where the sacaca lived and who should go with her. It was decided after only the briefest of discussion that my boat should be used to take her and that she should be escorted by Zival, her father, Edson, the school teacher, Socorro, her closest female friend and Ailton and myself to run the boat and do any errands when we were there.

No time was lost in boarding the boat. Benedita was carried by her father and placed in a hammock. It was difficult to reconcile this young woman with demonic body writhing only minutes ago on the floor and grunting like a pig. The rest of us perched along the side the boat, awaiting the deafening thrashing of the engine. Throughout the three hour journey, she remained in her hammock, with her eyes straining against the intense light reflecting off the water - the sun often made the river look as though it were on fire. The movement of air on the water during the journey gave a welcome relief from the raging heat.

I talked to Zival, Benedita's father; his huddled posture and crossed legs gave away his anxiety. He thanked me for taking his daughter in the boat. Ailton and I talked about Curumu and how he would introduce me to his adopted sister who lived there and how hopefully she would give us some food, for we had left in such a rush we had nothing to eat.

The journey gave me a chance to reflect. I was feeling a mixture of exhilaration and confusion. I was intrigued by the physical changes Benedita seemed to undergo. Most of all, it was different and exotic, breaking up the monotony of daily life. The whole process seemed so complex, involving the break-up of two marriages in a very dense network of family relations, a young woman beginning her adult life, a change in residential arrangements, revenge, accusations of witchcraft, beliefs in spirits, and, of course, sex, money and work. In addition, there were numerous local explanations, and not one. It all seemed so informal and unritualised. Most of all, I felt myself moving into something I had no capacity to understand. How could my vision of humanity cope with this, I kept asking myself. My anthropological training seemed quite meaningless to help me answer the question satisfactorily.

Our approach to Curumu was through a channel, which linked the lake to the main river. Occasionally cattle swam across our path, buffalos waded up to their heads in water to eat the floating grass meadows. The channel opened out into the lake and at the north end lay the village. A large white church, with a high facade, dominated the lake front. White sands lined its shores and forests encircled the village. By the time we docked it was late afternoon, and we went straight to the old man Miguel, the sacaca, leaving Benedita and her companions on the boat. We found him by his shed on the lake front. He was concentrating on repairing a disinterred motor with an assistant.

Miguel, I was to discover, was not just a powerful shaman, but a mechanic, a carpenter, a farmer and the head of a large family. He was hardly the exotic image of a shaman, especially with his political campaign T-shirt, saying vote for Zezinho, a right wing populist in the area. I liked him as soon as I met him - he smiled as though he wanted to. He was a stereotypical paternal figure: he had a round face capped by white hair, was stocky and spoke in purposeful way. Zival explained the situation. Miguel immediately agreed to see Benedita at seven that evening. We would need to provide a half bottle of sugar cane rum, 3 cloves of garlic and two white candles to perform the cure. Having given us this list Miguel explained he had to get back to mending the motor. Ailton and I wandered off in search of the necessary items; Zival and Edson returned to the boat.

The village resembled a low budget Wild West movie setting: the roads were dirt track and the houses were all wooden, mostly one single storey, but some had a small upperlevel. The roads were lined with flowering bushes and various fruit trees; and pigs, goats, turkeys, chickens all wandered freely scratching, pecking or digging for food.

After asking where we would be able to buy the items, we found our way to the goods store operating at the back of someone's house. Ailton then insisted we go to his sister's house for something to eat, despite my reluctance at turning up uninvited. It was not the first time I had met this family, since they also spent some of the year in Paru. Rice was served to accompany the fish soup, probably because I was present. The talk was of Benedita's madness and the predictions for water levels in the coming months. There seemed to be general agreement that Benedita's mother and her lover, Dalcira and Raimundo, had acted very badly, in both leaving the community and in ordering a witch to cast a spell. This led them into the personal histories of Dalcira and Raimundo. Stories of violence and exploitation against close kin were recounted with respect to Raimundo, and the numerous affairs of Dalcira were used to explain their current behaviour.

We expressed our gratitude for the hospitality and proceeded to the sacaca's house. We waited for Miguel to call us in, after he had taken the candles, rum and garlic. It was totally dark now, except for a few sparse street lights, powered by a diesel generator. His house was typical of the others, except that it had been painted. I could hear a howler monkey in the distance, as the other men talked. They asked me what I made of the whole business. Were there evil spirits in my country?

Miguel's appearance prevented me from answering the question. He called us inside and showed us into his front room. The only light came from two candles on the only table. As we walked respectfully in single file our shadows leapt like monsters on the walls. It was like entering a different time and space. Benedita, her father and friend were already seated on one of the benches. As the shaman poured the rum into two glasses standing on the table, he asked us how things were in Paru. One cup was filled to the top, two cloves of garlic were placed in this one; the other was only half filled and had one clove of garlic.

The focus of the room was the table which held the candles. It had an ironed white cloth. We all sat at the opposite end of the room, except for the shaman who sat on a stool next to the table. The combination of the heat and the darkness made the atmosphere quite suffocating. No windows could be opened during the session. There were two hand-size figures on the table, St. Benedict, the patron saints of Blacks, and the Virgin Mary. A Pope John Paul the second poster, his hands cupped, with his eyes looking upward, was fixed on the wall. Alongside it there was a painting of the enlightened face of Jesus Christ post crucifixion. I counted four crosses standing on various ledges of the wall. The shaman had finished his preparations and the conversation had died out. The mood was becoming more and more intense. I stole a glance at Benedita, and realised in that moment that she was a victim.

The sacaca rolled a spliff size cigarette, a mixture of tobacco, and various special herbs used for curing. He lit it and blew smoke slowly into the cups, some of which rested on top of the liquid. Children could be heard in the other part of the house running around and talking. He called Benedita to sit on a stool in front of the table. She moved forward very deliberately. Once in place, she sat upright, her whole body taught and strained. The shaman stood up beside her and asked her for her name. The name announced, he held the reefer vertically just above her head, the smoke rose undisturbed in a series of thin serpentine lines. The sacaca then muttered some words, but their sense was unintelligible. He then moved behind her back, holding the cigar upright all the time. He rested before mumbling some more spells and pausing again.

Zival, Benedita's father, was called forward to the table and was asked to place some rum from the half filled glass on her arms. Miguel held the cup while Zival dipped his two fore fingers in and painstakingly stroked the liquid onto his daughter's arms; and continued to do the same on her legs. The liquid in the glass glittered in the candle light. Benedita's back started to curve under the stress. Once the rum had been distributed, Miguel put the cup back on the table and took some deep drags from his cigar. His eyes closed, as though they turned inward searching for inner strength. He exhaled the smoke ever so carefully and slowly on Benedita's wettened limbs; one drag for each arm and leg. His lips moved evenly over the top of her skin. It was a beautifully sensual scene, they were like lovers taking part in foreplay. Benedita looked uncomfortable in this courtship of the spirit. Miguel, however, seemed transformed and unaware of his surroundings.

He sat back down, still with eyes closed and everything stopped for a minute or two. He was waiting for the spirit to appear. In a somewhat more hurried manner he repeated his mutterings with the vertical spliff at the top of the head and behind her back. He blew smoke into her ears, which only cascaded out, enveloping his head. Again he stood still, waiting for something to happen. He laid his flat hands on her shoulder blades, mumbled, squeezed her head imbetween his hands, and massaged her shoulders. He then stopped, waiting momentarily, and said, 'the spirit is frightened to come out'. Silence reigned for some moments.

Suddenly her torso convulsed, as though something had just jumped out of her. It was as though she had been turned on - her hands started to stretch out, her fingers opened and closed, eyes blinked. As if from the depths of some distant darkness a deep voice spoke from her body. It announced its name as Severino, addressing Benedita in the third person, as this girl here. Its tone was more insistant than earlier in the day. It demanded that a photograph be fetched from a black magic doctor in a nearby town. The photograph lay under a black saint in the witch's house. It was of Raimundo's family. The voice explained that the spirit was supposed to have entered another woman, Raimundo's estranged wife. However her body was strong, so it could not settle. Instead it found the nearest weakest person. The voice added that the previous shaman had not done his work well enough, but Miguel was powerful and it would now leave Benedita's body. Before going, it asked for something to drink. It was offered water, but spat it out angrily, claiming that only rum would do, otherwise it would stay. As a large glass of rum was drunk, Benedita opened her eyes, indicating the spirit had taken its leave. People wanted to ask questions, but its departure had come too soon.

Her cure was not complete explained Miguel. It might return as she was very weak. He recommended she be given one injection, two tonics, and to take baths with water soaked in herbs. He ordered us to remain in Curumu until the next day, just in case the spirit decided to come back. Benedita was taken back ot the bench, like an invalid. Other people in our expedition asked to be blessed by the sacaca. The blessing consisted of Miguel laying his hands on a person's shoulders and reciting a prayer. We then sat around drinking the rest of the rum, talking about Protestants and their beliefs. Protestants, they argued, had a view of evil as existing within people and not in the universe as a whole. This was absurd, they agreed, evil originates from without and enters the body; and this is what makes people sin or go mad.

Benedita, her father and friend stayed in Miguel's house, while Ailton, Edson and I returned to the boat. Emerging from the cavern-like room I felt it difficult to see the world in the same way. I desperately wanted to rest. But my companions wanted to play dominos. We lit the kerosene lamp and sat on the floor of the boat. The lake water clucked underneath. After a while we were joined intermittently by two friends of Ailton's from the village. We stopped playing and talked about Benedita. I asked them about the significance of the photograph. Photos are dangerous, Edson said, because the image acts a substitute for the real person. This means witchcraft can be performed without the object of the spell being close by. Normally, such harm can only be caused by the close contact of two people, either through evil eye or actual physical touch. I also wondered how the spirit had given two different explanations in the same day for Benedita's problems. The answer was simple in this case: the spirit was evil, a real trickster, and would do anything to avoid the truth. They even doubted that Benedita was properly cured; they thought that this spirit was especially resilient.

Edson earnestly explained that when an evil spirit enters the body it replaces one's own soul. He likened being possessed to being asleep. When a person sleeps, the native spirit is not aware of its surroundings. When a person is possessed, he or she does not have their own thoughts or feelings because they are dominated by another spirit. Many people in the community had similar experiences to Benedita, men and women alike, but this one was different, because it had remained despite the cures. Edson himself had been possessed by a dolphin spirit a few years back and had been haunted by frightening dreams of demons. Unable to control himself, he said he hit out at people, unaware of what he was doing.

Ailton's friends had brought with them a bottle of rum. We drank it, talked and played more dominos for the rest of the night. My companions often merged with the darkness, making them indistinguishable as individuals, as I sipped at the rum and pretended I was not tired. I could not help likening this to my experience of Benedita's possession by an evil spirit: it had engulfed her body, eclipsing her humanity with some invisible and terrifying force.

We were just talking about getting some rest as the first hint of light appeared. We had not brought any hammocks so it would mean lying on the wood of the boat. Despite my tiredness I struggled to enjoy my favourite time of day. It was the coolest it ever got, so I went out for a walk along the shore. I stopped as I spotted someone being carried in the ashen light. I watched the figures move towards my boat and realised it was Benedita being brought by her father. Zival wanted to leave as soon as possible.

The engine was started and we began our return journey. Ailton took the helm, as lively as ever. Everyone else seemed to want impossibly to disappear into the fading darkness. My head throbbed. My excitement with the strange world of demons slowly dissolved. The top most edge of the sun nudged above the horizon to my left. The grey became pale yellow. It was a tremendously uplifting scene, travelling along the river and the light getting stronger. In these slow changes, I came to understand that I too was trying to possess this young woman. It seemed my own interest was a colonising and voyueristic one, which wanted to speak through other people. The realisation was hardly an epiphany, since I could see it coming. We arrived back in Paru and I felt sick with despair.

Ailton's and Edson's doubts about the certainty of Benedita's cure became reality two days later, when she became mad again. This time her body punched and snapped with more force than before. Six men were needed to subdue her. In its declaration the spirit said it was called Zeca and that the photographs had to be retrieved from the witch for there to be a resolution. The children were less reverent than before, provoking the spirit as it talked and pinching Benedita's body. As soon as the violent possession stopped, people prepared to fetch the photograph and resolve the matter.

She was again taken in my boat. This time by six men accompanied her father because it was feared she was very strong. We visited what we thought was the alleged witch's house, the one who had cast the original spell and had the photograph. He was not at home, being away on a trip to the countryside. We were forced to visit another powerful shaman in the town. A similar curing routine had taken place, but the shaman had found four sprains, caused from bones coming out of joint, in Benedita's back. He had put these right, and indicated that these were the work of the spirit. We set off on the return voyage happy that Benedita was apparently better, but angry that the business of the witch and the photos were still unresolved.

This time we left just after night fall, around six o'clock. It had rained most of the day and the boat had gotten quite wet. Benedita lay resting in her hammock, though in the darkness it was difficult to see. The wind delayed us somewhat but eventually we turned into the channel of the Amazon which is called Paru. I tried to make out the men in the blackness; there are different textures of darkness. There was an abrupt movement from Benedita's hammock and I could just make out some of the other men grabbing her. There was still a lot of thrashing around. Someone shouted to shine a torch on Benedita. I shakily managed to turn mine on. A most frightening scene was revealed. Limbs seemed to be flying all over the place. Some of the men were struggling to maintain their balance. The boat was only a bit more than metre across at its widest. Suddenly Benedita sprung out her hammock; the men seemed powerless to intervene. She bounced on the side of the boat and plunged into the river. Her fall shocked everyone so much they were paralysed to act. Someone regained the initiative by diving in after her. The blackness made the water like treacle, ready to absorb anything. The boat was still moving forwards so it was difficult to know exactly where she entered the water. Another man grabbed the torch from my hand and told me to turn off the engine. Stillness as the engine died out. The darkness was broken by the shaft of light behind the boat. I could see the wet head of the man who had gone after Benedita. Another man went into the water and swam to other one. Both disappeared under the water for a while, but reappeared with nothing or nobody. Zival told me to stay on the boat, and shine the light in their direction. He and the three other men jumped in. A frantic underwater search continued for quite some time after that. I could do nothing, only let the boat flow with the river. It ended up stranded in some grass on the side. In the most frigthened of states, I gasped for breath, trying to stay in control. I had to wait for the other men to join me. Eventually they did all come back, but without Benedita. Zival could not talk and the others were trying to think what could have happened to the body and where it might have gone. They were hoping that she had been able to recover herself and swim ashore. So we started the engine and headed back upstream, shining the torch along the river bank and then on the other side. As we found nothing, people became more and more despondent. Somebody said from shadows that the dolphins had probably got her at last and taken her down to their underwater city. Zival declared in a strangled voice that it was pointless searching further. We should go home and rest, until first light the next day.

Benedita's bloated body did turn up the following morning quite a way further down from where she had fallen out of the boat. Her lips, eyes and ears had been nibbled at piranha. People said the dolphins had stolen her soul, but returned her body.