Cubeo Hehénewa Religious Thought

By Schmidt, Titti | Ibero-americana, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Cubeo Hehénewa Religious Thought


Schmidt, Titti, Ibero-americana


Irving Goldman, Cubeo Hehénewa Religious Thought. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Cubeo Hehénewa Religious Thought is the last book by the anthropologist Irving Goldman, posthumously published and edited by Peter Wilson. It is about the Cubeo Hehénewa, a group of Tukanoan-speaking Amerindians in the Vaupés region, located in Northwestern Amazon, Colombia. The first studies on the Amerindians of the Vaupés date from the late 19th century and the early 20th century by the naturalists Alfred Russel Wallace (1870) and Richard Spruce (1908) and the ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grunberg (1909). Goldman, however, must be accredited for being the first modern anthropologist working in the Vaupés. His first fieldwork was done during the years of 1939 and 1940 and more fieldwork periods followed in 1968, 1969-1970, and 1979. His work has been a major inspiration for new generations of anthropologist. Today the Amerindians of the Vaupés are among the most documented of all South American Amerindians.

This book has two introductions; one written by the editor and the other by Goldman. It takes up, in order: Cubeo myth of creation, social order, daily life, cosmic order, ritual order, death and morning, shamans, concepts of power, and gender. One major theme of the book is Cubeo metaphysical thinking, which Goldman sees as a key for understanding the Cubeo culture. He shows that there is a core of mythic consistency that the Cubeo draws upon for synthesising a coherent ideology and which they do not separate from social organisation, economy, and politics. It is an organised form of knowledge that has its own rationale (conforming to rules in the same way as scientific precepts do) and which is intricately interwoven with other aspects of life.

Power, another major theme of the book, is also framed by Cubeo cosmological reasoning. By comparing the power of the payé (the shaman) with that of ordinary persons, Goldman aims at revealing the underlying principles of Cubeo conceptions of power, showing how power is linked both to deeper Cubeo religious sentiments and to patrilineal descent. The latter is important because Cubeo ritual life is a masculine world. The primordial and initial force of life is masculine and in the Cubeo mystical past the creation deities and the first human ancestors are all men. This masculine force stands for human initiatives, intellectual capacity, and stability in all forms. The feminine force, on the other hand, is according to the tradition something destabilising, capable of turning the social order upside down. While the men are firmly connected to an imagined, mystical past, the women are seen as the reproducers of the real world, both biologically and symbolically. In fact the presence of women is ambiguous in Cubeo thought and constitutes a major intellectual problem. This is so because it is the women that move the social order away from the mystical past into the real world, anchoring the "sacred" to the "secular".

Cubeo Hehénewa Religious Thought is a book rich in ethnographic details. Written in the spirit of anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) of whom Goldman once was a student and research assistant, it may come as no surprise that the book lacks an explicit theoretical discussion. Boas, famous for his rigorous focus on ethnographic fieldwork, made a deep impact on Goldman who in this book declares that "[ethnography is itself sufficiently theoretical" (p. 8). However, this is not to say that Goldman's work lacks a theoretical basis. He offers both explanations and comparisons that are interwoven with the ethnography. He is, as the editor points out in the introduction, only "very discreet about it" (p. xli). Another Boasian characteristic of Goldman's work is the attempt to depict the Cubeo from their own perspective, with the aim of letting the reader "inside the minds" of the Cubeo.

For anthropologists specialised in the ethnography of the Vaupés region, this fine piece of work will for sure be received with open arms. …

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