In Darkness and Secrecy

The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia

In Darkness and Secrecy

Book Pages: 256 Illustrations: 8 illustrations Published: June 2004

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Latin American Studies > Brazil, Religious Studies

In Darkness and Secrecy brings together ethnographic examinations of Amazonian assault sorcery, witchcraft, and injurious magic, or “dark shamanism.” Anthropological reflections on South American shamanism have tended to emphasize shamans’ healing powers and positive influence. This collection challenges that assumption by showing that dark shamans are, in many Amazonian cultures, quite different from shamanic healers and prophets. Assault sorcery, in particular, involves violence resulting in physical harm or even death. While highlighting the distinctiveness of such practices, In Darkness and Secrecy reveals them as no less relevant to the continuation of culture and society than curing and prophecy. The contributors suggest that the persistence of dark shamanism can be understood as a form of engagement with modernity.

These essays, by leading anthropologists of South American shamanism, consider assault sorcery as it is practiced in parts of Brazil, Guyana, Venezuela, and Peru. They analyze the social and political dynamics of witchcraft and sorcery and their relation to cosmology, mythology, ritual, and other forms of symbolic violence and aggression in each society studied. They also discuss the relations of witchcraft and sorcery to interethnic contact and the ways that shamanic power may be co-opted by the state. In Darkness and Secrecy includes reflections on the ethical and practical implications of ethnographic investigation of violent cultural practices.

Contributors. Dominique Buchillet, Carlos Fausto, Michael Heckenberger, Elsje Lagrou, E. Jean Langdon, George Mentore, Donald Pollock, Fernando Santos-Granero, Pamela J. Stewart, Andrew Strathern, Márnio Teixeira-Pinto, Silvia Vidal, Neil L. Whitehead, Johannes Wilbert, Robin Wright


“A timely study of a rarely discussed aspect of Amazonian social life. . . . This careful presentation of violence will stand both as a lesson on how to deal with anthropological taboos, and against many other reductionist approaches to the same topic not only in anthropology but also in the wider scope of the social sciences.” — Juan Luis Rodriguez, Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology

“The point is made in this anthology that relatively little work has been published on ‘dark’ (evil) sorcery in comparison with ‘light’ (good) sorcery. The appearance of this volume goes a large part of the way to rectifying this imbalance and its contribution to our knowledge of witchcraft, sorcery, prophets, and shamanism in South American societies is significant.” — David Hicks, Anthropos

“Whitehead and Wright present a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the range of influence of shamanism within different segments of Amazonian cultures.” — Amy Hale, Ethnohistory

"Exploring the secretive side of shamanism, this esoteric research contributes to the knowledge of Amazonian cosmology and social relations. Recommended." — V. J. Baker, Choice

“The great merit of this volume is that it amply documents the wide variety of ideas and practices that can be classified as shamanistic in Amazonia and, in so doing, establishes that dark shamanism is an essential element of the worldviews and moral philosophies of peoples of this region.” — David Maybury-Lewis, Harvard University

“In Darkness and Secrecy takes sectors of Amazonian ethnography to a new level of productive and provocative excellence.” — Norman Whitten, University of Illinois


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Neil L. Whitehead is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Among his most recent books are Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death (published by Duke University Press) and Beyond the Visible and the Material: The Amerindianization of Society in the Work of Peter Rivière (coedited with Laura Rival).

Robin Wright is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Research in Indigenous Ethnology at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas in Brazil. He is the author of Cosmos, Self, and History in Baniwa Religion: For Those Unborn and the editor of several books in Spanish.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Introduction: Dark Shamanism / Neil L. Whitehead and Robin Wright 1

The Order of Dark Shamans among the Warao / Johannes Wilbert 21

Dark Shamans and the Shamanic State: Sorcery and Witchcraft as Political Process in Guyana and the Venezuelan Amazon / Silvia Vidal and Neil L. Whitehead 51

The Wicked and the Wise Men: Witches and Prophets in the History of the Northwest Amazon / Robin Wright 82

Sorcery Beliefs, Transmissions of Shamanic Knowledge, and Therapeutic Practice among the Desana of the Upper Rio Negro Region, Brazil / Dominique Buchillet 109

The Glorious Tyranny of Silence and the Resonance of Shamanic Breath / George Mentore 132

A Blend of Blood and Tobacco: Shamans and Jaguars among the Parakana of Eastern Amazonia / Carlos Fausto 157

The Wars Within: Xinguano Witchcraft and Balance of Power / Michael Heckenberger 179

Siblings and Sorcerers: The Paradox of Kinship among the Kulina / Donald Pollock 202

Being Alone amid Others: Sorcery and Morality among the Arara, Carib, Brazil / Marnio Teixeira-Pinto 215

Sorcery and Shamanism in Cashinahua Discourse and Praxis, Purus River, Brazil / Elsje Lagrou 244

The Enemy Within: Child Sorcery, Revolution, and the Evils of Modernization in Eastern Peru / Fernando Santos-Granero 272

Commentary / E. Jean Langdon 306

Afterword: Substances, Powers, Cosmos, and History / Andrew Strathern and Pamela J. Stewart 314

Contributors 321

Index 324
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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3345-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3333-3
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