DER Documentary

Magical Death



From the Yanomamo series
by Napoleon Chagnon
color, 29 min, 1973




Pricing information and conditions

The shaman plays a vital role in Yanomamo society, for it is he who calls, commands, and often is possessed by spirits, or hekura. "Like myriad glowing butterflies dancing in the sky," the hekura come down invisible trails from the mountain tops when they are summoned. A powerful shaman such as Dedeheiwa, who is known even in distant villages, manipulates not only the spirits of the mountains but also those that live within his own body. The body is a vehicle for the hekura: lured by beautiful body paint, they enter the feet and eventually settle in the chest.

In 1970, Dedeheiwa's village Mishimishi-mabowei-teri was visited by leaders of the village Bisaasi-teri. After twenty years of hostilities, the visitors wished to establish an alliance with Mishimishi-mabowei-teri, and they came to invite their former enemies to a feast. One of the visitors stayed behind when the others had left, and Dedeheiwa asked him: "Brother-in-law, do you have any enemies you want us to kill with our hekura?" The visitor replied that indeed the Mahekdodo-teri had killed his older brother, and he asked Dedeheiwa to send hekura to destroy the souls of this enemy's children.

For two days following this request, a shamanic drama is enacted, led by Dedeheiwa. Dedeheiwa and other shamans prepare by taking hallucinogenic drugs which enable them to speak to and become the spirits. Dedeheiwa calls a "hot and meat-hungry" hekura to devour the children's souls with fire. Then the shamans become their victims, as they writhe like dying children in a pile of ashes. Becoming hekura spirits again, they devour the ashes representing the dead children. The first day's drama ends when Dedeheiwa himself falls unconscious, attacked by a magical hook sent from another enemy. The second day, the elaborate drama resumes, as Dedeheiwa becomes a young man from the enemy village who dodges the shamans' attacks but eventually is destroyed.

Three weeks later, men from Dedeheiwa's village visited their new allies and participated with them in a raid on another village. The new alliance, strengthened by the shamans and their spirit manipulation, was reaffirmed, momentarily, by this act of war.

The film is an exceptionally vivid portrayal of shamanic activity, as well as an exploration of the close connection between politics and shamanism in Yanomamo culture.

Related Resources
Study Guide


Film Festivals, Screenings, Awards
American Film Festival Blue Ribbon

View more photos on www.flickr.com

Other films in the Yanomamo series:
Arrow Game
The Ax Fight
Bride Service
Children's Magical Death
Climbing the Peach Palm
A Father Washes His Children
The Feast
Firewood
Jaguar, a Yanomamo Twin Cycle Myth
A Man and His Wife Make a Hammock
Man Called Bee: Studying the Yanomamo
Moonblood: A Yanomamo Creation Myth
Myth of Naro, as told by Dedeheiwa
Myth of Naro, as told by Kaobawa
New Tribes Mission
Ocamo is My Town
Tapir Distribution
Tug-of-War, Yanomamo
Weeding the Garden
Yanomamo: A Multidisciplinary Study
Yanomamo of the Orinoco



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