Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Guarani Genesis: The Intricate Cosmogony of South America's 'Forest Theologians.' (in the Beginning ... Imagining the Birth of the Universe)

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Guarani Genesis: The Intricate Cosmogony of South America's 'Forest Theologians.' (in the Beginning ... Imagining the Birth of the Universe)

Article excerpt

French anthropologist Pierre Clastres once wrote that the Guarani Indians of South America are "the theologians of the forest". It is certainly true that their conception of the creation reflects the subtlety and the complexity of their thought.

The Guarani cosmogony, unlike most others, does not postulate the pre-existence of a Creator. Genesis takes place in several complex stages, beginning with the self-creation of the supreme deity Namandu. In the midst of the primeval darkness, Our Father-the Ultimate-the Foremost-the Primordial "caused his own body to emerge" from the original chaos. This self-creation emanated from a radiance-the divine wisdom-located in what was to become Namandu's heart.

The majestic process unfolds like the burgeoning of a tree. All the imagery used to describe it is borrowed from the plant world-feet are plants, arms are branches, fingers are leaves, and, crowning all, the head is a magnificent tree-top in full leaf.

The second stage of creation is anthropogenic, although it does not concern the origin of human beings as such, but of speech, their distinguishing attribute. A fragment of the divine word, speech will enable the Guarani, the "Chosen", to communicate with the divinity and to enjoy the distinctive condition of the gods-immortality. This divine yet human speech, the cement of society that forms and shapes the community and ensures its collective solidarity, is called ayuu, to distinguish it from ne'e, the speech used in human relations.

The next stage involves the creation of the four principal gods, who will help Namandu in his arduous cosmogonic task. Each of the four is allotted a specific field of action: Namandu Great Heart is the master of words; Karai is master of the flame, of the fire of the sun; Jakaira is master of the fog that moderates the heat and of the revitalizing mist; Tupa is master of water, of the sea and its extensions, of rain, thunder and lightning. Each of these gods creates for himself a companion known as the "true mother".

The pillars of the sky The fourth and final stage in the creation concerns the genesis of the first land, the land of man and woman, of plants and animals. A blue pindo or palm-tree arises in the centre of this land-to-be. (The colour blue symbolizes the sacred.) The tree is sustained by four other palm-trees spread out in the directions of the four winds and of time (in Guarani, a single word, ara, covers these two concepts). Five blue palm-trees, like the fingers of a hand, thus support the bedrock of the earth. Then comes the creation of the firmament, which also rests on four pillars, with a fifth added to prevent the heavens from shifting when buffeted by the winds.

With the creation of the first earth comes a piecing together of its different components-the aquatic world, the subterranean world, the dry land, day and night. The existence of these separate entities became perceptible as animals gave them shape. Thus, the serpent outlines the surface of the land; the song of the "little coloured cicada" gives birth to sound; the girino beetle gives life to the waters as it skims above them in acrobatic flight; the green grasshopper creates the prairies, since, wherever it alights on the ground, the grass begins to grow; the armadillo is "the first to violate the bedrock of the earth" with its burrowings; night falls when the owl, "mistress of the shadows", closes her eyes in sleep.

At last the moment comes for Namandu to create man and woman. This act of genesis is not described. Our Father-the Ultimate-the Foremost-the Primordial grants "wisdom" to the "Chosen" and orders the god Jakairi to place the halo of life on their heads so that "the revitalizing mist shall crown the heads of my sons and my daughters". He commands Karai to "lodge" within his beloved daughters and sons "the sacred, beautiful flame", and he enjoins Tupa to implant the fountain of freshness" in the "heart of hearts" of his human creations. …

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