Initiations are also used to mark the ascent of individuals into positions of religious authority. Priests, diviners, and spirit mediums play special roles in religious life. The precise kinds of authority exercised by them in the community, however, varies greatly across South America. Prominent in many parts of South America is the religious specialist in states of ecstasy, commonly referred to by the term shaman. The shaman is one who learns to control the passage of the soul out of and back into the body. As a general practitioner of the arts of the soul, however, the shaman in South America not only controls the ecstasy of his or her own soul but is devoted also to the knowledge and care of the souls of others. The length of shamanic
training varies widely from one South American culture to another. Among the Arecuna and Taulipang, Cariban groups of Venezuela and Brazil, the shamanic novitiate was reported to last from ten to twenty years. In other traditions, by contrast, knowledge might be transmitted to the novice in relatively brief but intense periods of ecstasy. The types of knowledge imparted may include the use of different forms of fire (such as ritual fires, or sparks struck from special elements, or the light contained in bright crystals), the use of musical instruments, the mastery of primordial sounds (which have the power to recreate the bodies of suffering patients, or to reorder the seasons in order to overcome drought or famine), esoteric languages, and sacred songs.
This education usually takes place under the direction of a master. That master may be a human shaman who is accomplished and practiced, or the master may be a supernatural being. Among the Makiritare of Venezuela, the sacred songs (Ademi) were taught to shamans at the beginning of time by sadashe (masters of animals and prototypes of the contemporary animal species), who cut down the tree of life, survived the subsequent flood, cleared the first garden, and celebrated the first new harvest festival. In order to preserve their power, the Ademi must be repeated in the exact phonetic pattern in which the sadashe first revealed them.
The shaman’s rattle is a most sacred instrument in South America. Through its sounds, its structural features, its contents, and its connection to shamanic ecstasy, the rattle embodies the sum total of the sacred forces of the cosmos. The rattle’s various parts may symbolize the structures of the world. The original of the shaman’s rattle of the Warao (of the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela) was brought back to earth after the primordial mythic shaman ascended to the heavenly realm to visit the spirit of the south, from whom the rattle is a gift. The handle is the vertical path that rises into the heavenly vault. The heavenly realm is represented by the great head-gourd of the rattle that contains spirits. Joining the handle to the head represents the joining of male and female elements in the universe, an act of fertilization that gives the sounds of the instrument creative power. Safeguarding the rattle and playing it properly during ritual fulfils the destiny of the human spirit: to sustain the order of existence.
Shamanic performances are generally theatrical. The shaman’s cure is miraculous, something to see. It is a deliberate exhibition of normally invisible powers and it aims to astonish spectators and compel them to admire what is real and, therefore, life-giving.
The Blessing Way is a comparatively short ritual, taking only two days to perform. Performed for the general well-being of the community, rather than for specific curative purposes, it contains none of the typical features of curing rituals (e.g., sand paintings, prayer sticks, medicine songs, and herbs). To invoke good fortune—such as during childbirth, in blessing a new hogan (house), and in a girl’s puberty ceremony—the Navajo family would have the Blessing Way sung at least twice a year. Parts of the Blessing Way are incorporated into almost all other Chant Ways.
The story of the Blessing Way contains details of the mythical events that occurred after the legendary emergence of the Navajo from the earth at creation. These events provide the prototypes for the organization of the cosmos, important Navajo ceremonials, and their central cultural institutions.