DER Documentary

Magical Death

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

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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 Dedeheiwä, 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, Dedeheiwä'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 Dedeheiwä 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 Dedeheiwä 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 Dedeheiwä. Dedeheiwä and other shamans prepare by taking hallucinogenic drugs which enable them to speak to and become the spirits. Dedeheiwä 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 Dedeheiwä himself falls unconscious, attacked by a magical hook sent from another enemy. The second day, the elaborate drama resumes, as Dedeheiwä becomes a young man from the enemy village who dodges the shamans' attacks but eventually is destroyed.

Three weeks later, men from Dedeheiwä'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

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

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