Yaje and the Mythic Origins of Society

As described by Reichel-Dolmatoff (1972:97-102), the yaje-drinking ceremony commences in the communal house after nightfall with ritualized dialogues that recount the Creation Myth and the genealogies of the exogamous phratries, the origins of humanity, of yaje, and of the social order being commemorated with song and dance to the accompaniment of instrumental sounds: a phallic rattle staff that symbolizes the primordial fertilizing ray of the Sun, the rhythmic pounding of wooden tubes, and the rubbing of a turtle shell with wax to imitate the croaking of a frog. Each distribution of yaje is formally introduced by the blowing of a decorated clay trumpet. The yaje is distributed at prescribed intervals and with ritual gestures and speech-making by the headman, who fills the cups from the sacred maternal yaje vessel, while the men sit or continue their dancing. As the yaje effects increase so does the precision with which the dancers coordinate their movements, until at last they seem to be dancing as one body. The hallucinations are called "yaje images," and the Indians say that the order in which they appear is fixed: some are seen after the third cupful, others after the fourth, and so on. To have bright and pleasant visions one must have abstained from sexual intercourse and have eaten only lightly on the preceding days (exactly as in the peyote rituals of the Huichols of Mexico). At intervals an old man or someone who lays claim to esoteric knowledge describes his visions and interprets them publicly: "This trembling which is felt is the winds of the Milky Way," or "That red color is the Master of the Animals." The women meanwhile keep to themselves at one end of the house. As a rule they do not drink but participate with shouts of encouragement or derisive laughter when someone vomits or refuses a proffered bowl or cup.

What Reichel-Dolmatoff* writes of the subjective reasons why the Indians take yaje is of the greatest interest, not just because of what it reveals specifically about the psychocultural mechanisms of the social group involved, the Tukanoan Desana of the Vaupes of Colombia, but also because of its sometimes striking similarity to other such aboriginal "psychedelic" rituals; a comparison with the meaning of peyote among the Huichols, as described later in these pages, will immediately demonstrate this similarity.

In the first place, the Tukano say that one who has had the yaje experience awakens as a new person, a true Tukano, fully integrated and at one with his traditional culture, for what he has seen and heard in his ecstatic yaje trance has confirmed and validated the ancient truths of which the shamans and elders have told him since childhood. This is exactly what my Huichol friends told me many times of the meaning of their initiation into the magic of the peyote quest: "We went to find our life; we went to see what it is to be Huichol." Let me quote some salient passages from Reichel-Dolmatoff s account:

* For other significant recent anthropological literature on Banisteriopsis in its aboriginal context see Michael J. Harner's The Jivaro: People of the Sacred Waterfalls (1972) and Hallucinogens and Shamanism, M. J. Harner, ed. (1973). For those who read German, Koch-Grunberg's Vom Roraima wm Orinoco (1917-1928) contains much information on Banisteriopsis and other hallucinogenic plants in the mythology and practice of shamanism in Venezuela, the Guianas, and Brazil, and of course R. E. Schultes's many publications are an essential source not only of botanical and pharmacological but also ethnographic data.

According to our informants of the Vaupes, the purpose of taking yaje is to return to the uterus, to thefons et origo of all things, where the individual "sees" the tribal divinities, the creation of the universe and humanity, the first human couple, the creation of the animals, and the establishment of the social order, with particular reference to the laws of exogamy. During the ritual the individual enters through the "door" of the vagina painted on the base of the vessel.* Once inside the receptacle he becomes one with the mythic world of the Creation... . This return to the uterus also constitutes an acceleration of time and corresponds to death. According to the Indians, the individual "dies" but is later reborn in a state of wisdom, because on waking from the yaje trance he is convinced of the truth of his religious system, since he has seen with his own eyes the personifications of the supernaturals and the mythic scenes... .

According to the Tukano, after a stage of undefined luminosity of moving forms and colors, the vision begins to clear up and significant details present themselves. The Milky Way appears and the distant fertilizing reflection of the Sun. The first woman surges forth from the waters of the river, and the first pair of ancestors is formed. The supernatural Master of the Animals of the jungle and waters is perceived, as are the gigantic prototypes of the game animals, and the origins of plants—indeed, the origins of life itself. The origins of Evil also manifest themselves, jaguars and serpents, the representatives of illness, and the spirits of the jungle that lie in ambush for the solitary hunter. At the same time their voices are heard, the music of the mythic epoch is perceived, and the ancestors are seen, dancing at the dawn of Creation. The origin of the ornaments used in dances, the feather crowns, necklaces, armlets, and musical instruments, all are seen. The division into phratries is witnessed, and the yurupari flutes promulgate the laws of exogamy. Beyond these visions new "doors" are opening, and through the apertures glimmer yet other dimensions, which are even more profound... . For the Indian the hallucinatory experience is essentially a sexual one. To make it sublime, to pass from the erotic, the sensual, to a mystical union with the mythic era, the intra-uterine stage, is the ultimate goal, attained by a mere handful, but coveted by all. We find the most cogent expression of this objective in the words of an Indian educated by missionaries, who said, "To take yage is a spiritual coitus; it is the spiritual communion which the priests speak of."

* Among the sacred places on the ritual itinerary of the Huichol peyote pilgrimage to Wirikuta. the divine, paradisiacal land of the peyote and place of ultimate origins and primordial truths, there is one called "The Vagina.

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