Acting translation

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Carlos Fausto and Emmanuel de Vienne. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.008

Acting translation

Ritual and prophetism in twenty-first-century indigenous Amazonia

Carlos FAUSTO, Museu Nacional-PPGAS

Emmanuel DE VIENNE, Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre La Défense-CNRS; Laboratoire d’Ethnologie et de Sociologie Comparative

This paper focuses on a prophetic movement led by an Amerindian from Mato Grosso, Brazil, in 2006. This man created a radically new liturgy and cosmology by combining elements borrowed from local shamanism and mythology, Christianity and TV shows, among other sources. He managed to convince entire villages to take part in spectacular healing ceremonies and gathered a huge number of followers. One of these ceremonies was extensively filmed by indigenous filmmakers, making it possible to examine the micromechanisms of this cultural innovation, and thus address with fresh data and a new approach the old issue of Amerindian prophetism. We propose here the concept of translating acts to describe this indigenous practice of transcreation, giving special attention to the multiple semiotic mediums through which it is enacted.

Keywords: Amazonia, shamanism, prophetism, messianism, translation, ritual, pragmatics

“He said he was an Old Christian, born in the city of Silvis, in the reign of Algarve . . . and, confessing, he said that about six years ago, a gentile people from the hinterland emerged with a new sect named Santidade [Sanctity], one of them being called pope and a gentile woman Mary of God” (Furtado de Mendonça [1591–92] 1922: 35). And so confessed Fernão Cabral de Taíde before the Inquisitor Furtado de Mendonça during the First Visitation of the Holy Office in 1591. The slaveholder Cabral de Taíde had hosted the movement led by a certain Antonio, an Indian raised by Jesuits in the Tinharé mission in Bahia, who, according to other adepts of the movement, proclaimed himself pope—or God:

The principal said he was God and Lord of the world, and there is another gentile among them whom they called Jesus and a gentile woman whom they called Holy Mary. (Confession of Cristovão de Bulhões, Furtado de Mendonça [1591–92] 1922: 137)

Known as Santidade do Jaguaripe, the movement brought together Indians, people of mixed blood, and some Whites, combining many different elements into its rites. The movement had a strong political connotation, as many confessions make clear:

And they worshiped it [the idol] saying that their God would soon come to free them from the captivity they found themselves in, and would make them the masters of White people and the Whites would become their captives, and those who do not believe in that abomination they called Sanctity would become birds and other beasts of the forest. (Confession of Gonçalo Fernandes, Furtado de Mendonça [1591–92] 1922: 111)

Since the beginning of the colonization of the Americas, we find similar references to the emergence of indigenous charismatic leaders announcing a profound sociocosmic transformation, conceived both as the overcoming of the human condition and as the inversion of asymmetric relations between Amerindians and White people. In Lowland South America, references to such movements appear in the second half of the sixteenth century along the Brazilian Atlantic coast (Monteiro 1999: 1009–15)—as in the case of the Santidade do Jaguaripe (Vainfas 1995)—and accompany the history of indigenous peoples in the region until the present.1

These movements have been interpreted in a variety of ways—as messianic and millenarian, as resistance to colonialism, as political utopias, as syncretic cults resulting from the encounter of two cosmologies, or as structural permutations of a mythic world facing new historical situations. Less attention has been given to the actual process of appropriating, translating, and creating a new cultural form, particularly in regard to the pragmatic dimensions and the interactive frames of this process. A more recent approach has come to see these events as providing a privileged entry for the investigation of ritual communication and cultural transmission in a broad sense. These studies focus particularly on the propagation of such movements through the analysis of their communicative dynamics, both within and outside the ritual setting.

Stemming from Boyer’s analysis of the Fang epic genre (1988), which links the asymmetries of knowledge in public declamation with its repetition (and thus with its definition as a tradition), this line of inquiry has also drawn on certain developments in ritual theory (Humphrey and Laidlaw 1994; Houseman and Severi 1998). Severi, in particular, has contributed to the conceptualization of the kind of chimeric complexity that characterizes ritual enunciation in prophetic movements. Analyzing late-nineteenth-century Western Apache messianism, he shows how a pragmatic counterintuitivity was generated through the condensation of different and contradictory identities in the person of the “prophet” (Severi [2007] forthcoming). His earlier notion of a paradoxical enunciator (Severi 2004), in continuity with his analysis of Kuna shamanism, is also meant to explain how prophetic innovations “capture imagination” and rapidly spread beyond their original setting. From a more epidemological point of view, Pierre Deleage (2012, 2013) has investigated the ritual construal of a prophetic authority and the specific mediums employed for the spreading of the prophet’s message.

Most anthropologists who have investigated such movements in South America have had to rely on historical data and secondhand accounts, making it difficult to produce a fine-grained analysis. Moreover, only successful movements at a certain stage of their development (when their choreographic, musical, and linguistic elements had more or less stabilized) appear in the written sources. The actual and initial process of invention is mostly absent in these studies. This article aims to fill this gap by peering into the microdynamics of an Amerindian prophetic movement. Here we examine a recent case that erupted in the Upper Xingu region, in Brazil, in 2006, when a man in his forties started curing people through radically new ritual techniques, claiming to have received his powers from a direct encounter with God-Sun. Self-designated “Master,” this man also prophesied the end of witchcraft (i.e., the end of disease and death) and the end of the world.

We were not present during the movement’s apogee, but we have at our disposal six hours of video recording of one of its climatic moments, and a number of later interviews.2 This material makes possible a minute description of the ritual actions in all their dimensions: speech, gestures, bodily orientation, the gaze, the manipulation of objects, and so forth. It bears witness to the hesitations, uncertainties, misfires, and repetitions that characterize the birth of a new cosmology embedded in a new ritual form. Our case also has the advantage of being closer to failure than to success. The literature on prophetism and related phenomena has had no alternative other than to privilege the great movements that passed the test of history, and to dismiss the more discreet outbursts that remained unnoticed. The latter nevertheless deserve to be considered as minor variants of the former. While presenting a number of specific elements, our case pertains to the same family of phenomena commonly labeled “prophetism” in indigenous America, and it is directly relevant to its understanding. Although there is much discussion in the literature on how to characterize these movements (Brown 1991; Veber 2003; Fausto, Xavier, and Welper 2014), they all combine features of the colonizers’ world (especially Christianity) and indigenous traditions in a particular way, generating a new propagating form. Here we propose to address the production of this new form as a special case of translation, one that is made of what we call translating acts.

Translating acts

We must first make clear the sense in which we take translation here. Let us proceed by means of a contrast: compare the sort of semantic-oriented translation intended by missionaries in the colonial space of the Reducciones (Hanks 2010) with the following iconic and ironic translation effected by a Guarani shaman at his village in the distant year of 1628. Named Ñeçu (possibly a corruption of Jesus), this shaman and chief had initially welcomed a few Jesuit missionaries into his people’s lands, but then decided they should be killed. Montoya recounts what he did afterward:

To show he was a priest, albeit a false one, he donned the liturgical paraphernalia of the priest and, thus attired, presented himself to the people. He summoned the children before him and proceeded to eradicate, through barbaric ceremonies, the indelible character which baptism had impressed upon their souls. (Montoya [1639] 1985: 201–2)

He scraped the tongues of the children who “had tasted the salt of the sapient spirit,” as well as their backs and necks to “smudge the holy ointments,” and reversed the ritual, washing the children from their feet up to their heads. This inverted baptism is an act of translation (and betrayal), which makes the Christian and indigenous imageries collide (and combine). A certain level of shared knowledge is required for people to engage in these actions. More than a conceptual operation, though, what is at stake here is the construction of a successful interactive and communicative context. Ñeçu undoubtedly mimics the priests, but he also transcreates their liturgy on the spot, counting on the engagement of his audience to make it work, and thus reinforce his own position. What kind of translation was he making?

As in our case, Ñeçu’s translation does not involve questions of semantic or stylistic accuracy, nor the dilemma of privileging the target or the source language while trying to preserve meaning. It is, rather, a question of transference, of carrying across (as the etymology of the word makes clear), in order to produce a dynamic equivalence through which the translator establishes his/her authority. In this sense, it is closer to the notions of transcreation and transliteration characteristic of some strands of poetic translation theory (Campos 1981; Lages 2002), and also to notions of cultural translation as pragmatic situations involving what Pina-Cabral (1999) calls “equivocal compatibilities.”3 Specific to our case is the fact that there is someone—the Master—continuously producing these equivocal compatibilities in the act, and not two sides situated within different cultural traditions colliding. As we will see, our “prophet” transcreates his own experience of both worlds into a new form, striving to produce a commensurability between the indigenous and nonindigenous traditions.4

The expression “translating acts” also has a number of echoes and connotations. Firstly, in much the same way that speech act theory sees verbal utterances to be doing things and not only carrying meanings, we seek to explore how translating acts induce transformations in practical situations rather than only focusing on semantic and conceptual elements. These acts of translation are situated like any other social action, and subject to evaluation in terms of success or failure by the actors themselves in the course of their interaction. Secondly, “translating acts” is also to be understood as “translation made of actions,” and not solely or mainly of utterances or texts. This widening of the scope of translation in order to include multiple semiotic mediums implies giving as much attention to nonverbal as to verbal aspects of communication. Translation made of actions requires us to pay attention to choreographies, gestures, body transformations, the manipulation of artifacts, and so on. Speech is often not the main medium for translation, and semantic content is hardly ever the primary concern of participants in the course of translating acts. Finally, our concept also implies the idea of “translation in action.” We wish to focus here on processes of transcreation unfolding in space-time, within certain interactive frames, and prior to the stabilization of any given translation. In sum, the expression “translating acts” contains three related ideas: “acts of translation,” “translation made of actions,” and “translation in action.”

We are particularly interested in actions that produce a kind of working misunderstanding between two or more fields (call them “ontologies,” “cosmologies,” “cultures,” or “religions” as you wish) by condensing them into certain ritual forms. Translating acts differ, for example, from a translation of the Bible negotiated between Amerindians and missionaries, in which equivalences between meanings are sought. Translating acts imply images coming together and colliding on the spot. They also have to create their own metacommunicational conditions in order to engage people in them. Their context is thus one of an interaction in which the felicity of each act of translation is calibrated within a complex set of relations, thus making them subject to correction and change over their course. Finally, translating acts imply uncertainty and experimentation, and work by triggering abductive reasoning.5

In order to ground our concept empirically, we shall describe and analyze a number of ritualized situations as they unfolded during the visit of the Kuikuro people to the Kalapalo village of Tanguro, where the self-designated Master was prophesying and curing during the 2006 rainy season.

A case of Jesus

The news about the miraculous cures performed by Manuá had begun to spread across the Upper Xingu.6 The Kuikuro were the first to collectively engage in the movement, which until then had been limited to the Kalapalo people themselves. One day, the shaman Lümbu entered the Kuikuro village, running, swaying his head, and sighing as though in a trance. He said that Manuá had “made” (tüilü) him, and that he had become like him. He had adopted the Master’s new curing technique: instead of smoking and extracting the spirit darts from the patient’s body, he would strike the painful area. Some people immediately submitted themselves to the therapy, and paid for Lümbu’s services in the appropriate way. At dusk, the men gathered in the middle of the village and summoned the shaman to tell his story.

Manuá had announced that the world would come to an end, and that those who did not go to his village would be taken away by Ogomügü, the anthropophagic double-headed vulture that holds up the sky. Having heard this prophecy, the men asked Lümbu: “When will the world end?” Not knowing our number system very well, he replied: “In thirty years.” Since they were both in their sixties, Chief Afukaká and his brother-in-law Jakalu were relieved: “Let it go. By then we’ll be well dead.” Lümbu noticed his mistake and retracted himself: “No, it will happen in five years.” Everyone was disappointed.

That night, Lümbu treated many people for free. Not all were convinced of his new powers. A man in his late twenties with a headache submitted to the therapy, and after many ineffective blows to his head, decided to tell Lümbu he felt better just to avoid any more slaps. The next morning this man stayed home, but some thirty people—men, women, and children—decided to board the boat and depart for the village of Tanguro, under the guidance of Chief Afukaká.

With them went three Kuikuro videomakers, who started shooting halfway to Tanguro, when Manuá, having learned that the Kuikuro were arriving, went to their encounter. Over the next two days, the videomakers recorded all the ritual actions that took place at the village: the welcoming ceremony, the staging of the Master’s illumination, the baptism rites, the healing sessions, and so on. The present article focuses on the first two moments only, starting, for analytic reasons, with the staging of the events that turned Manuá into a prophet.

In an interview recorded six months later, Manuá explained that everything began when, very ill, he went to defecate in the bush on the outskirts of the village and fainted.7 On waking up, he saw Tãugi, the Sun, donning a resplendent crown of yellow feathers.8 The divinity said to him:

I’m Tãugi. To you, I reveal myself. I’m worried about you, you’re almost dying. I’ve revived you and shall help you. You’ll become a shaman, the most powerful shaman and all other shamans will be below you. (Manuá 2006—interview)

Taugi gave Manuá a new name: Master-King (Mestre Rei), which, as Taugi explained to him, was his own former name (“the one people used to call me”). Here Manuá conflates Taugi and God (Deus) with Jesus, who is commonly called “Master” or “Christ-King” (Cristo Rei) in Brazilian Christian churches. This conflation is made clear soon after in the interview when Manuá recounts that Taugi presented his mother to him: “Her name is Anhipe, but I always call her Mary (Maria) to White people.”9

Mary was beautifully adorned and painted: “Like a young girl leaving seclusion during a funerary ritual. Beautiful.” And Manuá continues: “But she’s old, from ancient times, she is his mother.” Here he conveys a paradoxical image, insofar as Mary is presented both as a young woman at the height of her beauty and reproductive potential, and as Taugi’s mother, the very one who nurses the dead. As we shall see, these paradoxical identifications are all acted out in the staged scene of Manuá’s illumination. He relates it here directly to the pivotal Xinguano myth, at the same time as he inserts himself and the Christian deities within it.

Notably, six months after the events, the Master provided a stable oral version of his illumination, which contrasts with the improvisation and innovation that characterized the rituals we recorded. However, this story was stabilized much earlier, during the prophetic movement itself, and not afterward, as if Manuá needed a narrative framework to structure his own innovations. Here he draws directly on a striking feature of Xinguano rituals, in which myths function as a charter for ritual actions. This feature may have resulted from the historical process through which the Upper Xingu became a single multiethnic system. Rituals of different origins were appropriated and adopted by all the peoples forming this cultural constellation (Fausto, Franchetto, and Heckenberger 2008; Fausto 2011a). A mythical charter would have been a convenient tool for transmitting and making sense of complex ritual routines in the absence of prior shared knowledge.10 And this was precisely the case for the recently arrived Kuikuro. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Master decided to put his own origin story on stage.

Manuá’s followers had cleared a “plaza” (hugógo) for him—a circular space, carefully weeded, located at some distance from the village. It clearly pointed, though, to another plaza: the village center, where the main chief, called the “master of the plaza” (hugogó oto), makes his formal speeches. The fact that this plaza was decentered in relation to the village meant not only that Manuá defied the chiefs from the periphery, but also that he wanted to distance himself from a specific setting in order to build a new physical context for his innovative communicative practices. He operated in space the kind of deictic “de-anchoring” that one finds in myths. The new setting afforded him a considerable expansion in scope: Manuá’s ambition being cosmopolitical, his plaza was a cosmic one, where indigenous and nonindigenous deities came together. His plaza synthesized all Xinguano plazas, and projected them onto a virtual space filled with the Sun’s shining presence and Sangitsegü’s eternal youth. From his plaza Manuá could hear everything, as he claimed in his interview: “Taugi improved my hearing. Tak! I could hear everyone, the whole world, as the Whites say.”

Staging the illumination11

The plaza is connected to the village by a large path. Manuá arrives totally naked, even though just shortly before, while still in the village, he had been fully adorned to formally welcome the Kuikuro. Now he is ill. He arrives talking. He says: “Look, here is my beginning,” employing a term (etihunte-) that applies to origin narratives.12 “My belly was hurting a lot, I went to defecate.” He carries a little flute in his hands, the flute with which Whirlwind masks “talk” to ask for food.13 He makes strange gestures, stretching his arms into the air and spinning around slowly. He enters the plaza, and addresses the people there: “My belly was really hurting. Do you like it when your bellies hurt?” They shout: “No!” Then he addresses Chief Afukaká, instructing him: “Go there, father, you will be Taugi.” Manuá employs the correct kin term to address his classificatory father Afukaká, whereas previously, while still in the village during the welcoming ceremony, he would only call him anetu (“chief” or “noble”). Afukaká now dons a full feather diadem, similar to the one Manuá was wearing earlier.

Manuá turns to Afukaká’s daughter, Auná, who is a high-ranking chief in her late thirties: “Maria, you stay there.” The three characters—Taugi-Afukaká, Maria-Auná, and Manua-Master-to-be—stand up in the middle of the circle formed by the men. “In no way am I lying. All of you, look! That’s how it started.” Manuá tells the audience how painful it was and how worried he was. He goes to the center of the circle, rests one knee on the ground, stretches up one of his arms, and addresses the Sun: “Taugi, look at me, my belly is hurting, what is doing that to me?” Then reporting Taugi’s speech, he yells: “Manuá!” and falls down on the ground. After a brief moment, he raises his head slightly and talks to the audience, while pointing to Taugi-Afukaká: “Look behind me, is he haunting me?”14 The audience respond in unison: “Yes!”

Manuá calls Maria-Auná to come and see what is happening to him. Entirely naked save for a shell necklace, Auná does not respond to the command. Manuá goes on talking: “Say: ‘What am I going to do for my son, what are you going to do for him?’” Without moving from her place, Auná starts repeating her line. Afukaká murmurs: “Approach him.” Manuá sits and talks to the audience: “Listen to me. I get it. It’s still difficult for her, she hasn’t absorbed it yet?” The audience applaud. Manuá tries once again, asking Afukaká to tell her what to do. But the chief is also puzzled. Manuá cuts it short, and asks Afukaká to come closer to him and play his part: “You are going to shout ‘Manuá!’ for them.”

Standing up now in front of Manuá, who lies down on his back, Afukaká raises his arms and shouts very loudly. Manuá raises his head as though waking; the audience applaud. He gets onto his knees and, staring at Afukaká, asks: “Who are you?” The chief now replies without delay: “I’m Taugi.” Manuá falls down again, this time facing the ground. He stays still for twenty seconds, and Afukaká becomes uneasy, not knowing what to do. He looks up at one of the Master’s auxiliaries and makes a discreet inquiring gesture. He returns to his part again, raises his arms, and shouts once more: “Manuaaaaá!” Still lying on the ground, Manuá suddenly turns over onto his back melodramatically. Fresh applause. He gets up again on his knees: “How are you going to cure me?” he asks Taugi-Afukaká, who answers: “I’m going to teach you.” “What for?” replies Manuá. “To stop your belly pain.”

The scene draws on the shaman-patient interview that precedes any cure in the Upper Xingu, but now recast in the manner of a Catholic revelation with the patient kneeling down and the divinity standing up. “What’s inside my belly?” asks Manuá. Afukaká responds in a detached tone: “Who knows?” and Manuá murmurs: “Blood.” Getting once more into the play, the chief repeats “blood” twice. Manuá whispers to him what to do next, and Afukaká takes some water from a huge aluminum pot and washes Manuá’s head and back, while saying: “Get well, get well, get well.” He then helps the sick man to stand on his feet. Manuá looks around, as if he had just gained consciousness. He then laughs in a bizarre way. Nobody talks, nobody applauds. He turns to Taugi-Afukaká and asks in a low voice: “Who is she?” “She’s Maria,” Taugi-Afukaká answers. “Oh, you came from inside her, didn’t you?” “Yes.” “Should I go to see her?” In this way, Manuá draws Auná back into the scene, but now with her own father identifying her as Maria. Manuá thus skillfully overcomes his initial failure to make her participate in the staging of his illumination.

He walks toward her, limping and tottering, and in a beseeching voice asks her to cure him. He repeatedly calls her name: “Maria, Maria.” Auná hesitates, but finally capitulates and talks to him. She walks toward him, she stretches out her arm and almost touches him, but he falls down to the ground again. He stays there, waiting for her, but it is only after a while that she approaches him and yells: “Manuaaaaá!” With a brusque movement, he gets up on his knees and slowly stands up. Now he does everything gently, taking his time. He gets very close to Maria-Auná, facing her, but says nothing. He is a tall and sturdy man. Auná is visibly uncomfortable. After a brief pause she murmurs: “I’m going to teach you how to stop your belly pain.” Manuá does not give any clue to the right answer now. She touches his belly lightly with the tip of her fingers, and he moves away, still limping, while one of his auxiliaries gestures for those present to applaud. They do so.

Manuá now addresses the audience directly, showing them the content of the aluminum pot: a reddish-brown liquid like permanganate water. He uses symmetric consanguine kinship terms (“my sisters,” “my brothers”) to address the Kalapalo, and refers to all the Kuikuro as “those who have arrived.” He questions all of them: “Is this my blood?” and people respond in a somewhat shy and apathetic way: “Yes.” This seems to have been an innovation even for the Kalapalo, who had already been taking part in Manuá’s cures for some time. He keeps talking in a reflexive way, saying that they do not yet know how to answer his words, until he regains control of the situation, and reinstalls the frame of rhetorical questions and responses in unison.

God as a hyperspirit

In order to gauge the innovations introduced by the Master, we need to provide a quick overview of shamanism and chieftaincy in the Upper Xingu. Shamans and chiefs are two prominent and distinct positions among the Kuikuro and the Kalapalo. They also both have different levels of power and legitimacy. In shamanism, the main difference resides in the modality of initiation. Some specialists are said to have been directly “made” (tüilü) by the spirits during a dramatic and recurrent illness, while others are said to have been made by other shamans only. The former are considered more powerful than the latter.

However, even shamans made by spirits must undergo a lengthy and expensive training process guided by another shaman, until he is ready to be initiated in a collective and secret ceremony. The first thing he must learn is how to smoke tobacco, which is the earmark of shamanism.15 The crucial moment, though, is the transmission of a viscous substance (called nguto in Upper Xingu Carib languages) from initiator to initiate. This substance, which originally belonged to a spirit, allows the new therapist to remove the disease with his hands or mouth, or both, depending on where the substance is located in his body. This transmission establishes a substantial community between the spirit, initiator, and initiate.

Manuá short-circuits this institution by claiming to have been directly elected by Taugi-God, and refusing to submit himself to shamanic training. While his illumination can be interpreted as a form of shamanic election, his attitude implies a rupture: he tells all shamans to yield to his power, and even makes new shamans (or remakes old ones like Lümbu).16 He also deprecates tobacco, and claims that the substance he shares with Taugi is blood, which he exudes from his body. He does not cure by extracting pathogenic agents from the patients, but by hitting them and inflicting pain on them. Violence is indeed a recurrent therapeutic action, if not the main one. It expresses an obvious paradox: the injury is the remedy that relieves pain.

God as a king

Manuá’s relation toward chieftainship is likewise complex, but overall more respectful than his relation toward shamanism. After all, he is a member of the Kalapalo elite, and had been a prestigious champion wrestler in his youth. Sportive wrestling competitions between hosts and guests are a central aspect of intertribal rituals in the Upper Xingu, and victory not only increases the prestige of a community, but also turns individuals into celebrities. Almost all the current executive chiefs in the region are former champions. Manuá was well placed, then, to acquire an eminent political position through traditional means, although perhaps not that of a “master of the plaza,” which he certainly coveted (Franco Neto 2010: 252–53). According to Cardoso, Guerreiro, and Novo (2012: 26), from the very beginning of his prophetic movement, Manuá was haranguing people each morning in the village, something that only high-ranking chiefs would feel sufficiently legitimized to do.

Manuá’s movement is full of resonances for Xinguano politics, including his cosmological conflation of Taugi-God and himself as Master-King. In the region’s mythology, the Sun is the great transformer. Together with his twin brother Moon, he instituted the world in its contemporary form, including human mortality. It was also the twins’ decision not to revive their mother Sangitsegü, but to commemorate her in a funerary rite by means of an artifact: a wooden effigy. Since then all dead chiefs have been celebrated in a ritual that depicts the substantial continuity existing between chiefs and demiurges: like Sangitsegü and her sons, chiefs are made of the noble wood that the Kuikuro and the Kalapalo call uegühi.17

As a chief, Afukaká is really the offspring of Taugi and his mother. His eldest daughter Auná, who bears the name of his late mother, is also herself a chief. Not surprisingly, Manuá asks Auná to play the role of Mary, mother of Jesus, who is both young and old at the same time, while asking Afukaká to play Taugi’s role, making him the son of his own daughter. In the Upper Xingu, names produce an infinite recursion between alternate generations, which leads back to the time of origins and forward to the future. And the future here is Manuá’s.

Through his initiation by a hyperspirit (the cultural hero himself and his mother, alias the father and mother of White people), Manuá identifies himself with the very source of the power of both shamans and chiefs, approximating, as Cardoso, Guerreiro, and Novo (2012: 27) argue, a kind of authoritarian power that exceeds what local standards define as legitimate. The illumination scene has a clear political message, therefore: by attributing Taugi’s identity to an influential Xinguano chief, literally crowning him with shamanic, political, and Christian emblems in a context that emphasizes his own importance, Manuá actually dethrones both chiefs and shamans.

A paradoxical I

In the illumination scene, Manuá inserts Christian imagery into the Xinguano mytho-ritual world, drawing on his fragmentary exposure to both Catholic and Evangelical church services in the city (Franco Neto 2010: 255). He makes simple identifications: Taugi is God (and Jesus), Sangitsegü is Maria. There is a theological simplification at work here too: the Christian Trinity is eclipsed, indigenous twin-hood disappears. The Moon is never present, and the Sun, called by his personal name Taugi, is ever-present. Manuá’s conflation of Christian and Xinguano deities thus presumes a prior de-complexification: each of them must appear as one in order to make the translation possible (Jesus, for instance, becomes one of God’s names). Such simplifications, however, allow new condensations to occur and the creation of new complex figures. The reconfiguration of a plurality into a unity within each tradition seems to be a precondition for the production of a new plural and paradoxical person: the Master.

Severi’s notion of a “paradoxical I,” which he coined to describe Apache prophets in the nineteenth century, aptly captures this ritual configuration, and the ambivalent appropriation of the Conquering Other (Severi [2007] forthcoming: ch. 4). According to the author, the paradoxical character of Amerindian prophetism results not from the mapping of ontological concepts from one tradition onto the other, but from the production of a relational scheme where being “like the other” implies being simultaneously “different from (and above) the other.”

During the night trip, Manuá boarded the Kuikuro boat and started to preach and cure. At a certain point, he stopped to recount that Taugi had told him that he would be higher than the pope, who cannot cure people: “I’m fed up with hearing my own speech from the Bible,” God said to him. “That’s why I’m teaching you, so that you can become the one who will spread my word.” The Book does not cure; writing has no power or presence. It will befall the Master to talk and heal without mediation. Given the importance of writing in other prophetic movements in South America, such as the Aleluia in the Guianas, it is rather surprising that God-Taugi so clearly affirms the inefficacy of the written word.18

In contrast to Severi’s study, the opposition to the Whites in our case is much less pronounced. The latter are not the main targets of the ritual communication. Yet the contradictory proposition “I am like you, thus I am different to you” is constantly mobilized in Manuá’s interaction with Afukaká. In the illumination scene, Manuá plays himself as he was before becoming a Master: that is, as a sick person. At the same time, he duplicates himself, acting as both his former and present self. Here the “paradoxical I” is matched by a “paradoxical you,” since Afukaká plays the role of Taugi-God, but he is also the sick patient asking to be cured. He is split between two simultaneous conditions, although a stable identity underlies the scene as a whole: he is undoubtedly the chief.

We have here a kind of pragmatic translation in which the focus is less on the equivalence between different entities (God = Taugi; Mary = Sangitsegü) and more on a translation of the ritual conditions under which these entities are normally mobilized. The Master activates different regimes of communication: the indigenous private shamanic communication with the spirits, the ecstatic collective communication with Jesus characteristic of some Evangelical cults, and the mediated communication of Catholicism where the mother of God plays a crucial role.

While shamans converse with a variety of spirits, they never address the cultural heroes of indigenous mythology. Manuá, though, talks directly to the latter and reveals them to be the same as the White people’s divinities. He puts himself in the position of an ultimate intermediary. At the same time, he establishes a communicational frame in which the indigenous collectivity directly addresses the deities by constantly calling them with their arms raised toward the sky: Taugi! Deus! Jesus! Maria! Sangitsegü! Manuá even makes his followers blow with hands clasped over their mouth and nose in order to unblock their ears and force them to listen to God’s words.

Another essential aspect of Manuá’s innovation is his use of “therapeutic violence.” Shamanism in Amazonia does not ignore the link between suffering and healing. But suffering is a prerequisite to become a healer, not a solution in itself.19 We can also find in shamanism an identification between the patient’s present condition and the shaman’s past (as a sick person) and future (as a healer). However, the whole system is based on the idea that personal communication with the spirits excludes normal communication with humans. The shaman is a double person, both a benevolent spirit (who extracts the pathogens instead of injecting them) and a visually perceptible human. People are left to watch over his shoulder while he interacts with his auxiliary spirits during the treatment (de Vienne 2011). True, the sound of the maracá, the smoke of the tobacco, and the dancing shaman do render the spirits present and material, but the patient must stand completely still, and never look at him. By importing the idea of a direct verbal encounter with the divinity, Manuá explodes this communicative context. If curing implies both speaking and listening to the gods on an open public stage, then the difference between healing and initiation disappears, and the suffering intrinsic to initiation now appears as the healing process itself.

Improvisation and the management of uncertainty

The translation between two macro structures of communication with the supernatural is not the only remarkable feature of Manuá’s ritual actions. We still have to account for how he manages to reenact his complex personhood constantly and captivate his audience, how he can perform strange collective actions for hours on end, multiplying his translating acts ad nauseam, and how these are evaluated by the participants.

Any ritual innovation must face the problem of the paucity of shared knowledge about how to act in this or that situation. Translating acts are performed in a context of a profound asymmetry in knowledge. In the literature on ritual, such asymmetry is often considered the means, rather than the obstacle, to the efficacy of ritual interaction (Boyer 1988, 1990). In our case, however, a maximum discrepancy combines with other parameters: ritual knowledge is ultimately in the hands of a single individual who stands alone—except for his chosen assistants—before a crowd. Most of his actions are not only new, they also reveal themselves to be opposite to commonly accepted practices. In other words, the Master’s stakes are quite high: the prophet can either convince people (i.e., convert patients into adepts) or end up being considered a fraud, a crook, or a sorcerer.

Presenting himself as the focus of attention and the main organizer of the collective action, he must continually switch from one interactive frame to another, invoking (or improvising) various aspects of context, sometimes in complex and potentially dissonant layers. According to the feedback received, he strives to control any misunderstandings that might jeopardize the fragile common ground achieved thus far. He thus acts not only as the main actor-translator in the scene, but also, at a meta level, as its director, incurring the risk of seeing the whole situation collapse. Becoming a “prophet” requires a communicative feat that we also need to explain.

While the work of translation mainly belongs to the prophet, the participants are not just mimicking actions or adhering to them out of a naïve belief. They are neither imitators nor believers, but interpreters, albeit not in a hermeneutical sense. The adhesion is practical and always subject to testing within what we could call “an abductive frame.” This expression seeks to ground the cognitive notion of abductive inference, which Boyer takes from Peirce in order to explain magic-religious ideas. By replacing “inference” with “frame,” we wish to convey the idea that abduction is a two-way relation: to captivate the participants, the prophet has to provide clues, which trigger abductive inferences, making it plausible that he is “a case of X.” But more than just inferring, which supposes a kind of pure propositional operation, what seems to be at stake is the “capture of imagination” (Severi 2002). We could even say that the ritual frame is an “art-like” situation, in Gell’s (1998) sense: at issue is the conflation of the prophet and his prototype (God-Sun), the power of this image, its “trapping quality,” dependent on the success of a series of translating acts.

Let us now see how this was acted out during the welcoming ceremony held just before the illumination scene.

Stabilizing a certain common ground20

Early morning, the hosts get ready to formally receive the visitors, as demanded by Upper Xingu etiquette. This time, though, the greeting ceremony is different from the one preceding or opening intertribal rituals. Kalapalo men and women gather inside Manuá’s house, where the shamans are already sat on their stools, smoking. Manuá does not smoke, but sighs continuously as though in a pre- or posttrance state.

In front of the house, young men stretch out a sort of clothesline on which they suspend Xinguano luxury items (shell necklaces and cotton belts) as well as a ritual object (specifically the “face” of the Whirlwind mask). This line is similar to those strung up by a sick person’s kin when shamans perform the soul retrieval ritual.21 Luxury items are offered to the abducting spirits as a gift to persuade them to release the captured soul. The current setting is that of a superlative healing session that includes the whole village.22

Manuá organizes his people inside the house in a precise order. He gives a fine feather headdress to the young man leading the line, and asks the audience: “Is he now a shaman like me?” They all reply in unison: “Yes!” He claps his hands and everybody follows him. Well adorned, the Kalapalo exit the house and split into two parallel rows outside, men facing women, a formation that echoes both collective vaccination protocols and Evangelical baptism. Manuá shouts “Taugi! Deus! Jesus! Maria!” and says: “Extract the disease out of my shaman” (i.e., out of himself).23 All the people raise their arms and shout in reply. Amid the shouting and applause, Manuá leaves the house held by his parents and parents-in-law, who are weeping. As he walks between the rows, he asks: “Did I cure you all?” and the audience respond: “Yes!” He then proceeds to ask: “Does your [some part of the body] hurt?” and the audience shout “No!” He arrives at the end of the rows and, pointing to his family, who are still crying, tells the people to listen to them weep. His family are unadorned and completely naked, as when people are ill or in mourning.

The whole scene conveys a paradoxical idea: although the Master has cured everyone, his kinfolk cry as if he were dead. Time-space collapses here: as we have seen, he did indeed die, only to be revived by God-Sun, becoming like him and starting to cure. At this stage of the ritual, however, his followers ask God-Sun to cure him, as though he were still dead, and his kin wail as though he were a corpse. He announces that he is about to leave them all, that he is going up to meet Taugi. “Am I going to take off?” he asks, and the people respond all at once: “No!” He ascertains the degree of adherence, admonishing the women: “If you do not cry enough, I shall take off.” They cry louder.

He then approaches his wife and takes their little son from her arms, telling the participants that only the baby will become like himself: “You are not going to believe in him,” he says, “that’s why he is not looking at you. Call him Pope and he will look at you.” The followers shout “Pope!” Manuá turns his baby to face the shouting audience and smiles as he says: “I told you.” They keep repeating “Pope!” and the baby suddenly pees. Unperturbed, Manuá states that he has just urinated their illness. He then reproaches the women again for not shouting loudly enough. “Don’t you want him to become the one who extracts illness from you?” and the women respond “Yes!” He tells them to applaud and thereby terminates this particular act.

Interval. People stop shouting, kin stop crying. Manuá reorganizes the setting, issuing mundane instructions. Next, his sister by his side and his parents and parents-in-law behind his back, he kneels down and stretches out one of his arms, showing a pigeon made of wood. He does not kneel as Christians do in a church, but as chiefs do when receiving visitors from other villages, with only one knee on the ground. He poses a new question: “Is he going to cure you with this pigeon?” Nobody answers. The Kalapalo do not understand the innovation. It is unclear what the pigeon is doing there. Xinguano people do confect wooden miniatures of birds, typically for the Pequi fruit festival, but not pigeons. Unaware of the Christian symbolism of the dove, the participants wait in silence until Manuá poses a more direct question: “Do you want it to become like me?” and the followers shout “Yes!”

For a lapse of time he seems unsure what to propose next. He then asks: “Am I trembling?” People seem to already know the answer: “No!” “Who is trembling then?” and they immediately shout: “Maria!” Obviously his sister’s association with Maria had been previously established, and Manuá regains control of the situation. He then hands the wooden pigeon to her and asks the people to applaud, quickly ending a frame in which people had failed to grasp part of his translations.

Wild translations and fast switching

After staging this first ritual before his own people, thereby ensuring a certain level of shared knowledge, even if some innovations were lost in translation, Manuá tells his auxiliaries to fetch the guests. The Kuikuro enter the village in two lines divided according to sex. On the left, Chief Afukaká heads the male line; on the right, Auná leads the female one. In front of the two lines comes Lümbu, the Kuikuro shaman who had already learned how to cure in Manuá’s style, and had gone to the Kuikuro village to persuade them to come to Tanguro.

The Kuikuro are completely naked, which, from the Xinguano point of view, evokes sickness, while the adorned bodies of the Kalapalo indicate that they are feasting, and therefore happy and healthy. This embodied distinction establishes a new frame: on the one side, we have the Master’s followers, who have already been cured; on the other, the Kuikuro, who are collectively ill. It is from these distinctive conditions that Manuá will now try to establish a common ground with the visitors, who are unacquainted with any of his translations, except for the fact that he summons Taugi, Deus, Jesus, and Maria all the time.24

The visitors slowly enter the village circle, and stop at a distance to face the two rows formed by the Kalapalo. Chief Afukaká calls Manuá using a formal chiefly speech, addressing him as a consanguine of a younger generation, but then he adds: “Look, here are my followers. I brought them for you to cure them.” Manuá walks with his sister (who still carries the wooden pigeon) to the end of the lines, raises one of his arms, and greets Afukaká in a nontraditional way: “If you were angry with me, I wouldn’t cure you. It’s really true, and you believe in me.”25

His voice is slightly raised in pitch, the prosody flat and descending at the end of each sentence, like a whimper of pain, evocative of shamans as they moan while curing. While explicitly formulating a greeting, he is actually invoking another setting (Gumperz 1982): a shamanic séance. Pointing to the sky behind the Kuikuro, he then provides evidence of his power: “Look over there. Look what has come to cure you. Do you think that it is the rain you are seeing?” Bewildered, the Kuikuro turn and seek out the referent to his words. The Kalapalo applaud. Manuá continues: “Do you want your disease white or black?” No answer. He exhorts Afukaká to provide him with an answer: “Chief?” Afukaká responds: “White.” The Kalapalo applaud, making it clear that this was the right answer.

Without pausing, the Master now shows his people (and the still distant Kuikuro) a small measuring receptacle, a plastic cup used to administer drugs to patients. From this cup he drops a tiny white moth onto the palm of his hand, displaying it to those present, while saying: “Here it is, here it is, look at it! Is it?” The Kalapalo reply: “Yes!” And Manuá adds triumphantly: “He said it was white.” One of his auxiliaries tells the people to applaud. Clapping hands.

Manuá now turns to face the Kuikuro, raises his hand, showing them the white moth, and tells them: “Look, you’re no longer ill, here it is with me.” The act of showing the pathogenic object extracted from the patient’s body is an exaggerated and public version of what shamans normally do. Not only is its ostentatious and collective quality new, but also the fact that it is made at a distance, without any physical contact between specialist and patient—a technique that would later be adopted by some traditional shamans as a new form of curing among the Kuikuro.26 The other innovation is to display the pathogenic agent inside a measuring cup, such as those that come with cough syrup or children’s antibiotics. Instead of being an intaking device, the cup becomes, so to speak, an outtaking one. Here Manuá appropriates—and simultaneously inverts—the indigenous experience with Western medicines, which forms a central part of their relations with White people.

After the initial greeting, Manuá tells the visitor to approach. Chief Afukaká is the first to step forward. The Master takes out a soaked toucan-feather diadem from an aluminum pot full of water, places it on the chief’s head upside-down, and makes a small gesture with his fingers, as though blessing him. Here he conflates an image of Christian baptism with an inverted Xinguano ritual attire. However, unlike the seventeenth-century Guarani shaman Ñeçu, he does not invert baptism, but the way Xinguanos don a feather diadem. Nude and perplexed, Chief Afukaká is overpowered by the Master, who presents himself as the Master of masters.

Still holding the white moth in his open hand, Manuá kneels down in the same posture used by a host chief to welcome a chiefly visitor. Instead of being seated on a stool, however, Afukaká is standing up. Manuá starts with the classic opening of formal dialogues (“Chief, chief, chieeeeeeeef”), elongating the last vowel. Then he says something unexpected, retaining the correct prosody, but speaking in a louder voice: “I have been working while you were arriving.” Chief Afukaká murmurs: “Do I have to respond to this?” “Yes,” Manuá murmurs back, and Afukaká responds in the traditional chiefly way. Then, sighing again as shamans do, Manuá continues. Having grasped the dialogic structure of the scene, Afukaká now replies promptly. The dialogue revolves around the fact that the Kuikuro had all come to Tanguro in order to have their diseases extracted from their bodies.

Manuá is again clearly resorting to different, normally incompatible settings: ceremonial dialogue and precuring talk between the shaman and patient. He speaks in a louder voice, clearly addressing all participants, as well as Afukaká, who for his part answers in a lower voice, respecting normal usage, and thus considering the surrounding Kalapalo as mere “overhearers” (Goffman 1981). Manuá is already navigating between different frames of participation, splitting himself, so to speak, into two layers: Manuá the interlocutor of Afukaká, and Manuá who shows everyone that he is talking to Afukaká. This position as the publicist of the actions of others and himself is a defining trait of Manuá’s translating role.

Next, while the Kalapalo audience clap, Manuá stands up, places the white moth in Afukaká’s hand, and asks in a playful tone: “Did the dead thing open its eyes?” Staring at the perplexed Afukaká, Manuá smiles broadly and waits for a confirmation, which comes in the form of Afukaká’s own shy smile in response. Manuá gives the signal for applause.

Now walking around the chief, he invokes a new setting, that of a humorous stage performance, as though on a TV show. This time the cue for the new “footing” is the amusing tone, as well the movement of his body.27 He asks everybody: “Do we want it to fly? Say ‘Yes’!” With the moth again held in his hand, he shouts at it: “Rise, rise!” He then throws it up into the air, but the little insect falls to the ground. This violation of what everyone was expecting fails to dent the Master’s self-confidence. He analogically connects the moth’s downward flight to the disappearance of the disease for which it stands: “Your ex-disease is now on the ground!” he exclaims.

Sighing again, he scoops out some water from the aluminum pot with the little measuring cup and serves it to Afukaká, saying: “Drink the blood of Taugi.” The chief drinks and is told to enter the house and sit on a stool. Next comes Afukaká’s daughter, Auná. She also drinks, and is dispatched to join her father inside the house. But when she is about to walk between the Master and his sister, the former holds her and Lümbu tells her what to do: she has to pass to the left of the Master’s sister rather than split them.

Here Manuá plays in two different keys. On the one hand, he produces an imagelike association between dispensing medicines, Catholic communion, and the Sun, conflating in his own person the roles of priest and doctor, while he also convokes the main Xinguano mythological figure, with whom he identifies himself. The Eucharistic substance dispensed is not the bread-flesh but the wine-blood (here converted into Taugi’s water-blood). However, in the local mythology, drinking blood is what distinguishes warlike Indians from pacific Xinguanos.28 It is impossible to know how this cannibal translation reverberated in Afukaká’s imagination. By any reckoning, though, Manuá was making a risky association here, one among many others that would eventually lead to him being accused of witchcraft.

On the other hand, the practical rectification of Auná’s slight ritual mistake makes visible that there is a correct way of proceeding, one with which the Kuikuro are not yet acquainted, but which is central to the ritual’s organization and success. Errors and corrections establish a differential in knowledge and give the impression that improvisation plays a minor part in the scene. This is played out at diverse levels of inclusion: the Master knows more than his auxiliaries, his auxiliaries know more than the Kalapalo, and the Kalapalo know more than the Kuikuro. This explains why Manuá stages a set of actions with his own people before letting the Kuikuro enter the village plaza. He has to establish different levels of shared knowledge.

Manuá continues to dispense Taugi’s blood to the Kuikuro, who approach him in a hierarchical order. This is a basic structuring principle in Upper Xingu rituals, but here it is reinforced both by Manuá’s political ambitions and by the presence of one of the most important Xinguano chiefs. At a certain point, though, Kumãtsi, a Mehinaku man married to a Kuikuro woman and descendant of an ancient Kalapalo chief, presents himself, painted with red annatto dye and wearing a necklace and a belt, in stark contrast to the other visitors. Manuá interrogates him: “Who are you?” Kumãtsi responds in an Arawakan language: “I’m Mehinaku.” “Who am I?” retorts Manuá. Without grasping the questioner’s intent, Kumãtsi replies: “You are half Kalapalo, half Nahukwá.”29 Manuá accepts the answer, but then flips it over: “What did I become? I’m not Kalapalo anymore, I’m not Nahukwá anymore. What did I become?” he asks, raising his arms and pointing to the sky. Kumãtsi now says: “You have become God.”

One would expect Manuá to call for applause at this point, but instead he continues to question the man: “How do you say God’s name?” Kumãtsi once again fails to get his point, so Manuá gives him a clue: “The name I have now.” Someone whispers to the baffled Kumãtsi: “The name you give to Taugi [in Arawak].” Kumãtsi still does not get it, and it is only after his wife whispers the correct term that he replies in a hesitant tone: “Kamu?” Clapping. Kumãtsi finally relaxes, while Manuá addresses the audience, saying that he had held his interlocutor’s speech within his chest: “I hold ‘Kamu’ here.”

This event shows how Manuá is able to reframe an interaction in order to regain control of the situation. Kumãtsi presents himself as a healthy visitor going to a traditional festival, not as someone ill expecting to be cured. Manuá presses him to give proper answers, without ever losing his magisterial grace, but always putting the visitor in an uneasy position. Manuá makes Kumãtsi mumble that he is God, but is not satisfied with the answer. He wants to make him say God in the Mehinaku language: he wants him to provide a new translation identifying Deus, Taugi, and Kamu, and, of course, himself, the Master.

Is this a ritual?

We cannot present the entire set of actions that ensued at the Kalapalo village of Tanguro on that damp day in 2006. We hope our description has shown how skillfully Manuá was able to switch from one footing to another. In his famous essay on footing, Goffman (1981) mentions that certain people in certain situations excel in acting like pivots, pursuing different courses of communication, with different persons, in different tonalities. While this ability may be constitutive of human communication in general, it also seems clear that Manuá takes it to a level of complexity rarely achieved in everyday communication. And he does so on many grounds.

The most obvious aspect is the extremely wide scope of the settings he invokes. These are often dissonant, sometimes contradictory: communion, baptism, dispensing medicines, shamanic treatment, chiefly reception, traditional formal speech, funerary wailing, witchcraft, TV shows, and Evangelical church services. He does so to a point where it seems futile to seek for a coherent preexisting metaphysical agenda. From the prophet’s perspective, what is at stake is the invention of new settings in which different contexts and forms of communication become commensurate. To achieve this aim, he rapidly alters his tone, gestures, or addressees. For instance, he may be talking to a patient as a therapist and then suddenly address the audience, mobilizing a TV show setting, before immediately coming back to a kind of shamanic interview. He also combines different modalities simultaneously. When greeting Chief Afukaká, for example, his body posture invokes a ceremonial welcome, while his speech and prosody invoke shamanic healing. Finally, he also switches quickly from one context to the other, and employs a wide range of mechanisms to do so. By using different modalities in divergent ways, the Master not only juxtaposes settings, he also merges them.

Participation frames play an important role here in reducing this dazzling complexity. This is less explicit in the collective welcoming ceremony, but very clear during the curing therapies, where the communication between Manuá and the patient basically consists of straightforward instructions (stand up, lie down, drink), therapeutic gestures, and rhetorical questions. The communication between the Master and the audience corresponds largely to the dialogue established with the patient, which is closer to a monologue than a dialogue. The interactional pattern is similar to Evangelical testimony, where the pastor publicizes what the believer is saying by repeating, commenting on, and drawing circular conclusions from his or her words.

The Master is always controlling the flow of communication, and aligning different degrees of knowledge about each of his performative acts. He is indeed the universal translator he claims to be, someone able to hear and speak to everyone in an ever-changing context that he himself constantly recreates. At the same time, this communicative behavior risks trapping him in a vicious circle: the very moves he performs in order to construct a common ground or assure the participants’ commitment invariably cast doubt on the ritual frame itself. Consider one of these frantic switches or combinations of footings. Most of the time they are meant to clarify the situation. Manuá explains to everyone what is going on, or to someone what he or she is supposed to do. Then he suddenly interprets a slight detail in the environment as a confirmation of his Taugi-quality, or as proof that Mary is indeed present (in the form of a blowing wind or a flying bird), and asks everyone to yell out their belief and faith in him. But these constant contextualizations loosen his grip on the audience, who forget what the main course of action is supposed to be. In addition, some states, like shamanic distress and pain, cannot be dismissed suddenly without arousing some suspicion about their sincerity.

Here two important reflexive actions are crucial: the applause and the Master’s whimsical laughter.30 Most of the time, his auxiliaries begin clapping as a way of forcing everyone to demonstrate their agreement on the situation publicly, as well as their active participation in it. But they clearly invoke staged situations, making it hard to decide what exactly is going on. Laughter, on the other hand, is almost entirely exclusive to Manuá and Manuá only. His laughs are often inserted at a juncture between two different actions, as a means to fill the gaps and, perhaps, to mask some slight embarrassment. They show that the Master knows what he is doing, even if no one else does. At the same time, no one is sure what exactly is supposed to be amusing, nor what sort of action he is reacting to or commenting upon. If his laughter applies to the highest order of context (i.e., to the whole ceremonial encounter), would that not imply that everything is just a (serious) play? We have already seen that there is a complex relation between acting and ritual in the illumination scene. One may wonder if this feature is not far more systematic, giving to the whole scene its predominant tone.

According to Bateson, any playful behavior implies metacommunication: “The actions in which we now engage do not denote what those actions for which they stand would denote” (1972: 180). A playful nip, for instance, does not denote aggression. Bateson also recognized a more complex form of play: “the game which is constructed not upon the premise ‘This is play,’ but rather around the question ‘Is this play?’” (ibid.: 182). Following this insight, Houseman proposed to define hazing rituals in elite French preparatory schools as built upon this very question. While openly fictitious, the humiliations the new students suffer are decidedly too painful not to provoke real distress and anxiety. At the same time, the new students are “forced to pretend to pretend that this is so” (Houseman 2001: 4), that is, to maintain the fiction of the fictitious quality of hazing. Our case can be seen as an inversion of such a frame: while being submitted to what they believe to be a serious ceremony, the Master’s patients constantly face the question “Is this really a ritual?” The whole event, therefore, oscillates between (fake) ritual and (serious) play, an oscillation that could partly account both for the Master’s capacity to captivate, and for his later disqualification as a witch.

The fall

The Master effectively generated a new communicative context and established new ritual condensations. However, like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, he had to run to remain in the same place, constantly innovate to continue to amaze. His task became ever more complex as he became famous and was asked to cure people in other indigenous villages and even White people in the city. He started asking for large sums of money, saying that his spirit Taugi no longer accepted traditional luxury goods. He had already hugely inflated the price of shamanic treatment in terms of luxury goods; now he was throwing the entire system of shamanic payments into disarray (Fausto 2014).

The Master’s innovations were soon regarded with suspicion by a number of powerful shamans, who first suggested that he had to submit himself to formal training with another shaman, and later began spreading a counterinterpretation that attributed his powers to witchcraft. When other Kalapalo people, with a history of political dispute with Manuá’s family, started to fall ill, many fingers pointed to the Master (Cardoso, Guerreiro, and Novo 2012: 28–29). As the accusations became ever stronger, the Master’s fate was sealed, forcing him into exile under the threat of execution. His fall was as rapid as his rise.

The rise and fall of a prophet’s empire is not exactly a question of belief and disbelief, at least not in a theological sense. The Master’s translating acts were received within what we earlier called an “abductive frame.” People took part in these actions as long as they could practically engage with the possibility of him really being a hypershaman, capable of putting an end to pain, sickness, and witchcraft (the only cause of death in the Upper Xingu).31 For some he was actually managing to attain this condition and, to tell the readers the truth, a number of our acquaintances really were cured. But guess what? Most of them were not. Still, there is no consensual judgment about the Master today: Was he a fake? Had he been powerful but subsequently lost his power? Was sorcery the real source of his power?

After his downfall, traditional shamans adopted some of his innovations—like curing at a distance or via the radio—but most of them returned to business as usual. People just moved on, and so did the shamans. Even if the Kuikuro visitors were not entirely convinced, the event itself proved a success, communicated over an ample area through the grapevine and the radio. After the visit and some months before his fall, the Master went to the Kisedje (Suya) people in order to cure their great chief Kuyusi, a therapy that cost a couple of thousand reais, paid by the municipality of the nearby town of Querencia. This was probably the climax of Manuá’s prophetic movement, which lasted approximately a year, spreading like wildfire, but containing within it the very sparks of its own failure.

Concluding claims

Let us conclude with some straightforward general claims concerning the notion of “translating acts.” We hope these claims will render more explicit the ideas that have guided our analysis of the ethnographic data. First of all, we claim that:

(1) translating acts are a modality of translation through actions, in which referential meaning plays a less important role than form, context, and expressive force.

From this privileging of pragmatics over semantics, we derive two main consequences: on the one hand, translating acts operate by using different modalities of communication and distinct semiotic modes; and, on the other, the failure or success of a translating act is not a matter of adjusting to the conceptual content of one or other of the languages/worlds in contact.

Our second major claim is that:

(2) ritual situations are a privileged experimental context for translating acts, especially those mediating between radical alterity, meaning that in different “cultural encounters” translation is less a matter of producing a lingua franca and more a question of generating a new ritual form.

Here we propose a shift in the way one understands such encounters: we address them as a way of creating new forms of communication (both with “spirits” and with people) rather than of producing a new syncretic cosmology. In this sense, the emerging rituals are a kind of experimental frame in which a certain number of communicative means are put to the test.

Rituals are not the only place for the production of new intercultural pragmatics (see Stasch, this issue), but they are remarkably rich in this respect. At the same time, they involve risk, since translating acts produce an abductive landscape of a special kind: one that involves both creating a new prototype (here Taugi-Sun) and convincing the audience that the main actor on the ritual stage is this very prototype (Master-King) and not a case of another, better-known person (a shaman, a crook, or even a sorcerer). Responding to this abductive landscape is a matter of practical engagement rather than belief.

As we have seen, the richness and riskiness of translating acts seem to presuppose a prior simplification of meaning and relations within each of the different worlds in contact. Simplification would be a precondition, then, for producing a new complex ritual configuration, meaning that in the process of translation, some elements must necessarily be eclipsed and others foregrounded.

Finally, there is a chronological and topological dimension to such prophetic movements, which involve the invention, selection, and transmission of new forms in space-time. They tend to speed up all the procedures involved. They rise as fast as they fall, they spread as far as they shrink back. But when some of the translating acts survive, and this is our last claim, then:

(3) the stabilization implies the begetting of a new tradition, a new original, which often implies the forgetting of the very process of translation that gave birth to the new form.

Memory effaces the acts of appropriation and translation, though traces of them remain registered in ritual form (Severi 1993; Fausto 2007; Santos-Granero 2007). Reading these acts back then only remains possible through a sort of indicial investigation (Ginzburg [1986] 1989). Here we have tried to present an ethnographic case in which these translating acts can be observed still unfolding before attaining any stabilization.


The first version of this text was presented at Carlo Severi’s seminar at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in 2012, and a second one was prepared for the Fyssen Seminar ‘Translating Worlds’ held in Paris in 2014. We thank William Hanks and Carlo Severi for their kind invitation. We heartily thank Takuma, Mahajugi, and Ahukaka Kuikuro for making the tapes used to write this article available to us. Our gratitude also goes to the anonymous reviewers who helped us to improve the manuscript. David Rodgers revised our French-Brazilian English.


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Une traduction en acte: rite et prophétisme dans l’Amazonie Indigène du 21e siècle

Résumé : Cet article étudie un mouvement prophétique initié par un Amérindien du Mato Grosso, au Brésil, en 2006. Cet homme a imaginé une liturgie et une cosmologie radicalement nouvelles, qui combinent des éléments empruntés, entre autres sources, à la mythologie et au chamanisme locaux, au christianisme et aux émissions de télévision. Il a fait participer des villages entiers à de spectaculaires cérémonies de guérison et a été suivi par un grand nombre de disciples. Une de ces cérémonies a été presque intégralement filmée par des réalisateurs locaux, ce qui nous permet d’analyser les micro-mécanismes de cette innovation culturelle, et ainsi de poser à nouveaux frais, et avec de nouvelles données, la question classique du prophétisme amérindien. Nous proposons ici l’usage du concept d’actes de traduction (translating acts) pour décrire cette pratique indigène de transcréation, en accordant une importance particulière aux divers modalités sémiotiques par lesquelles ces actes sont realisés.

Carlos FAUSTO is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. He is the author of Os Índios antes do Brasil (2000), Inimigos fiéis (2001) and Warfare and shamanism in Amazonia (2012). He is the coeditor (with Michael J. Heckenberger) of Time and memory in indigenous Amazonia (2007) and (with Carlo Severi) L’image rituelle (2014).

Carlos Fausto
Museu Nacional - PPGAS
Quinta da Boa Vista s/n
Rio de Janeiro, RJ
20940-040 Brasil

Emmanuel de VIENNE is Associate Professor at the University of Nanterre, France. He conducted fieldword among the Trumai in the Upper Xingu Region (Mato Grosso, Brasil). His topics of interest include shamanism, ritual, and joking relationships.

Emmanuel de Vienne
Université Paris-Ouest
Laboratoire d’Ethnologie et de Sociologie Comparative (Lesc), UMR 7186
Maison Archéologie & Ethnologie René-Ginouvès
21, Allée de l’Université, 92023 Nanterre cedex


1. Famous cases discussed in the literature include, among others, the Guaraní of Paraguay and Brazil from the late sixteenth to early twentieth centuries (Melia 1987; Nimuendajú 1987); the Arawakan peoples of Selva Central in Peru in the seventeenth century (Métraux 1942; Santos-Granero 1992; Varese 2006); the Upper Negro River Tukanoan and Arawakan peoples in the nineteenth century (Hugh-Jones 1994; Hill and Wright 1988); the Tikuna of the Solimöes river in the twentieth century (Nimuendajú 1952; Oliveira Filho 1988; Goulard 2009); and the Ge-speaking Canela of Maranhäo in the twentieth century (Melatti 1967; Carneiro da Cunha 1973). For the Guianas, Whitehead refers to an apocalyptic upheaval in Trinidad and the Orinoco region at the beginning of the seventeenth century, but also states that “no millennial tradition emerged until the nineteenth century, unlike in Peru or coastal Brazil” (1999: 897). From the mid-nineteenth century on, we witness the proliferation of the Aleluia prophetic movement among the region’s Carib-speaking peoples (Butt Colson 1960, 1971, 1994/1996; Thomas 1976; Andrello 1993).

2. The filming was made by Takuma, Mahajugi, and Ahukaka, members of the Kuikuro Cinema Collective, who were trained by Fausto in filmmaking and have been close collaborators for the last ten years. The ethnographic data result from approximately two years of fieldwork among the Kuikuro (Fausto), and a year and a half among the Trumai (Vienne), both in the Upper Xingu. The Kalapalo and Kuikuro speak dialects of the same Southern Karib language (Meira and Franchetto 2005). Takuma Kuikuro and Yamalui Mehinaku Kuikuro worked with us on the transcription and translation of the video recordings in Rio de Janeiro. Ahukaka Kuikuro collaborated on the transcription of the interviews made later with Manuá and his parents in the city of Canarana. Fausto has also interviewed two Kuikuro shamans who were protagonists of these episodes: Lümbu and Samuagu. However, in this text, we avoid using a posteriori discursive explanations of the episode in order to focus on actions. More apposite to our aim are the discussions we had with Takuma and Yamalui on each of the main scenes recorded in the tapes, which gave us a firmer grasp of the actions and the backstage. (Takuma is not only the main filmmaker, but also Samuagu’s first-born son and is half-Kalapalo.) Clearly, there was no stabilized exegesis at the time, and Takuma was also uncertain about some of Manuá’s innovations. Further data were also collected through informal conversations with many Kuikuro and Trumai people in the following years. We also benefited from Cardoso, Guerreiro, and Novo’s (2012) and Franco Neto’s (2010) writings on Manuá, whose data were gathered among the Kalapalo. Marcela Coelho de Souza shared information about Manuá’s visit to the Kinsedje village, where he treated Chief Kuiussi.

3. In his work on human trafficking in Macau, Pina-Cabral (1999, 2001) coined the expression “equivocal compatibility” to refer to the misunderstandings that emerge in intercultural situations, when each party defines the linguistic or material object that enables the relation using distinct criteria and conceptions. As Viegas points out, the interactions here are “pragmatically viable, that is, compatible, not only despite, but precisely because of the fact they are founded on equivocations” (2007: 237–38). In other words, the pragmatic translation here is based not on semantic accuracy, but on equivocal compatibilities. Viveiros de Castro (2004) applied this notion of equivocation to reconceptualize comparison in anthropology. He aims at the practice of anthropology as a form of translation, which must be controlled so that the source language (the “local,” “native”) subverts the target language (“anthropology”). Here we are looking at a process where a native person translates-subverts both the source and the target language by exploring equivocal compatibilities between Christianity and Xinguano mytho-ritual practices.

4. It would be interesting to compare the kind of “twisted commensuration” attained here with the one Hanks examines in the context of the colonial reduction of the Maya language, where the aim was to convert Christian doctrine into Maya utterances with minimal semantic distortion of the source language: “Cross-language commensuration is bidirectional, at least in principle . . . but in point of fact this reversibility is more a logical possibility than a historical actuality. The two languages were asymmetric . . . it was the Maya that was to be reformed according to the meaning patterns of Spanish, not the other way around” (2010: 159).

5. As Boyer points out, abductive explanations are conjectural, and the process of inferring is triggered by the explanatory demands of particular situations (1994: 217–18). Taking his lead from Boyer, Fausto (2002) employed this notion to simultaneously account for the flexibility and resilience of magico-religious ideas among an Amazonian people, circumventing the problem of belief, and the distinction between practical action and religious ideas. Gell had recourse to abduction in order to formulate a radically nonlinguistic theory of art: “The usefulness of the concept of abduction is that it designates a class of semiotic inferences which are, by definition, wholly distinct from the semiotic inferences we bring to bear on the understanding of language, whose ‘literal’ understanding is a matter of observing semiotic conventions” (1998: 14–15). As is well known, it was Peirce ([1901] 1940) who introduced the concept of abduction in epistemology as a third term in-between induction and deduction.

6. The Upper Xingu is a transitional zone between the savannah and the Amazonian rainforest, located to the north of the central Brazilian plateau and the southernmost limits of the Amazonian basin. It was first colonized by Arawak-speaking people as early as the ninth century AD, and received further migratory influxes after the Conquest. Carib-speaking people probably arrived in the region by the sixteenth or seventeenth century, Tupi-speaking in the eighteenth century, and the Trumai in the nineteenth century. Through a complex process of amalgamation and recreation, these peoples came to forge a single sociocultural constellation, known as the Upper Xingu society, which is plurilingual and multiethnic (Franchetto and Heckenberger 2001; Hecken- berger 2005). In this text, we use the term “Xinguano” in reference to the people of this sociocultural constellation.

7. Takumã Kuikuro recorded this interview in July or August 2006, in the town of Canarana. Marina Cardoso obtained another version in Portuguese, which is very similar to our own, but contains additional data, particularly concerning Manuá’s experience in the town, just prior to his “illumination” (see Cardoso, Guerreiro, and Novo,. 2012). Takuma also interviewed Manuá’s parents, but we will not analyze these data here.

8. The typical Xinguano feather headdress is composed of four different layers: the frame woven from plant fibers, the diadem of toucan feathers (red, black, and yellow), the Cacicus sp tail-feather diadem (yellow), and the feathers of hawks and the red macaw. The Sun has a particularly bright version of this headdress, one he wears to obfuscate his enemies. Here there seems to be a conflation of this attire with Jesus’ dazzling crown.

9. Anhipe is the designation given to the women made from wood by Kuantungu and sent to marry Jaguar. Two of them, made from a harder wood, arrived at Jaguar’s village, and one of them, called Sangitsegu, gave birth to Taugi and Aulukuma, the twins Sun and Moon, the main figures in Xinguano mythology. Nowadays Sangitsegu puts the recently dead into seclusion and breastfeeds them, enabling them to rejuvenate.

10. It is difficult to say, however, which comes first: the learning of the ritual actions or the acquisition of the narrative charter. Moreover, these kinds of initiatory stories seem to be frequent in other Amerindian prophetic movements.

11. From this point on, we shift to the present tense to describe the ritual events in question in order to convey the situation better. We call Manuá’s revelation “illumination” in order to foreground the meanings associated with the Sun and his resplendent crown.

12. Origin myths are called X-etihuntepügü or X-opogipügü. These verbs (suffixed by a perfective aspect) connote the idea of “origin,” and contain an explanation of how a certain feature of the world came into being.

13. Manuá told Cardoso that during his illness, a shaman had identified the Whirlwind as one of the agents causing his disease (Cardoso, Guerreiro, and Novo 2012: 14). Manuá did not mention this in his interview, but his father said that he had been ill for some time, “because his Atuguá was killing him,” meaning that he had become an owner of this expensive mask, and thus a sort of double person: a human-whirlwind (on this mask, see Barcelos Neto 2008 and Fausto 2011b).

14. He employs the verb -ihintsi-, which indicates an uncanny encounter, often portending a bad event.

15. Unlike the Arawakan and Tupian peoples in the Xingu, only shamans smoke among the Carib populations.

16. In a scene recorded inside his house, Manuá stands up on a stool and displays all his wealth (the shell belts and necklaces with which he was paid), while the kneeled shamans chant with their rattles.

17. This is also known as the “Sun’s tree” (kwaryp) among the Tupi-speaking Kamayura. This term (also kwarup or quarup) became the ritual’s common designation in the anthropological literature.

18. Among Carib-speaking peoples of the Guianas, by contrast, “books, including educational ones, gained a ritual use as soon as indigenous people put their hands on them. . . . Indeed, papers and books were often kept as true treasures” (Amaral 2014: 138). See also Abreu (2004) and Deleage’s work (2013) on the role of writing in different prophetic and nonprophetic traditions.

19. In this respect, see Davi Kopenawa’s extraordinary account of his initiation and the pain the spirits inflicted on him (Kopenawa and Albert 2010: 140–42).

20. Clark’s concept of “common ground” refers to the mutual knowledge of participants in an interaction, which guides inferences about the contextual meaning of their utterances (Clark 1992, 1996). For Clark, common-groundness makes possible joint commitments, which are essential to all true joint activities. It is a basic condition of any cooperation, and therefore of human sociality in general (Clark 2006). Hanks (2006) applies this notion to the analyses of a Yucatec Maya shaman’s divination session. In a situation where disparities in knowledge are very important at the beginning, the shaman progressively manages to build a common ground, in which the divination and therapeutic session becomes both true and effective, regardless of the semantic meaning of his utterances.

21. With one difference, though: no feather headdresses are hung on this occasion. The absence is due to the importance of its current use: as stated earlier, the crown of yellow feathers is the Sun’s distinctive attire, and here it is worn by the main character in the staged events.

22. Most ritual events in the Upper Xingu originate in a healing process, in which the expatient is converted into the sponsor of a festival related to the spirits deemed to have caused the disease (Barcelos Neto 2008). These festivals are not, however, ritual healings on an amplified scale. The most public situation that maintains a similarity with Manuá’s collective healing sessions is called, among the Kuikuro, “the docking of the spirits.” At the behest of the shamans, the community performs it during the therapeutic process, materializing a special relationship between a class of spirit and a patient that can later evolve into a future ritual cycle.

23. He says “upagisu ikuike,” the first word being formed by a possessive pronoun, plus the root pagi and a genitive suffix. The term specifically designates the shaman hired by the parents of a baby to provide care over its first two years. The parents make a single payment at the start of the contract, and can call the shaman whenever the baby needs (see Fausto 2014).

24. True, the previous night, while still on the boat, Manuá had performed a number of different “translating acts,” but they were so wild that most of the time the Kuikuro were left completely baffled, and only the constant intervention of the shaman Lümbu ensured that they responded in the expected way.

25. Here Manuá employs the verb -ikeni-, meaning “to believe,” the same term he had just used when chiding the women who seemed not to believe in his son, the peeing pope. In daily contexts, the verb -ikeni- is employed pretty much in the same way as we do. But here Manuá is also retranslating it from its use in religious contexts in the city. This retranslation impacts less on the semantics of the verb “to believe” than on the metalinguistic presuppositions about the possibility of saying the truth. The Sun is the greatest trickster. Our Kuikuro collaborators even interpret his name (Taugi) as an abbreviated form of the noun tauginhu (’liar’—the suffix -nhu is a nominalizer). Jehovah and Taugi stands thus in opposition in regard to truth and deceit. (On this topic, see Basso 1987.)

26. Gregor writes that in the 1970s the great Kamayura shaman Takuma would extract pathogenic substances from his patients without any direct contact with them (1977: 348). After Manuá’s debacle, however, some Kuikuro shamans started curing without even going to the patient’s village. They would just send their spirits—particularly the “master of tobacco”—to do the job for them.

27. Goffman defines footing as “the alignment we take up to ourselves and the others present as expressed in the way we manage the production and reception of an utterance” (1981:128).

28. In one famous narrative, the mythical character Ahinhuka offers a bowl of manioc porridge to the ancestor of the Xinguanos. The latter looks at the contents and sees only blood, refusing to drink it. The ancestor of “wild Indians” (ngikogo) drank the whole cup, however, confirming his predatory disposition.

29. There are four Carib-speaking peoples in the Upper Xingu: the Kalapalo, the Kuikuro, the Matipu, and the Nahukwá. They all speak mutually comprehensible languages (Meira and Franchetto 2005).

30. Applause is a nonindigenous form of expression which the Xinguanos incorporated in new activities in the villages (e.g., when someone scores a goal in a football match or after someone talks in a nontraditional political meeting). Applause is also quite common in TV shows and in Evangelical cults in Brazil.

31. As attested in the historical record, what became known as “prophets” in the literature on the indigenous peoples of South America were mostly hypershamans: that is, individuals who acquired a power similar to that of the cultural heroes. They were deemed capable of refounding the conditions in which humanity has lived since the end of mythic time by producing a state of continuous ritual effervescence. These movements were themselves sorts of hyperrituals intended to put the world in flux and remold it through unending ritual activity. The Tupi-Guarani who inhabited the Atlantic Coast in the sixteenth century had a category for incorporating this possibility: the term karaiwa or karai designated regional shamans, distinct from the more ordinary and local payé. In the early colonial period, this category was applied to both Europeans and leaders of “prophetic” movements (Clastres 1975). It is important to note, however, that hypershamans are more powerful than biblical prophets: they do not only announce the coming of a new time, but intend to ritually fabricate this new world themselves.