Yanomami Shamanic Initiation: The Meaning of Death and Postmortem Consciousness in Transformation



The main aim of shamanic initiation among the Yanomami people of the Upper Orinoco River region in Venezuela is the metamorphosis of the human body into a cosmic body, or what I term “corporeal cosmogenesis.” During the initiatory ordeal, the neophyte undergoes an intense experience of death through dismemberment by the spirits and subsequent rebirth, thus overcoming the human condition and becoming an individual living spirit. But, at the same time, he becomes a “collection” of other spirits who leave their natural habitats—located on the mountaintops and in the forest—and move into the initiate's body, which becomes their abode. As the candidate surrenders his soul and humanness to the spirits, the latter become his personal allies and sources of power while imbuing the shaman's postmortem ego with certain properties that can best be described in holographic terms. After the shaman's biological death, his personal spirits become disembodied again and disperse back into the forest and on the mountaintops. When the shaman dies, his soul multiplies, as each of the disembodied spirits becomes a carrier of the shaman's soul image. In this way, through initiations, the shaman becomes a part of a dynamic cosmic circuity, as his hekura can be called upon to invade the bodies of new shamans, and start a cosmogonic initiatory act anew.