A shamanic Bible and its enunciation

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Emmanuel de Vienne. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.020


A shamanic Bible and its enunciation

Emmanuel De VIENNE, Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre La Défense-CNRS; Laboratoire d’ethnologie et de sociologie comparative

Comment on Kopenawa, Davi and Bruce Albert. 2013. The falling sky: Words of a Yanomami shaman. Translated by Nicholas Elliott and Alison Dundy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

“Without our knowledge, outsiders decided to travel up the rivers and penetrated our forest.” The falling sky’s opening line sets the tone for this highly impressive collaborative work between the Yanomami shaman, Davi Kopenawa, and French anthropologist Bruce Albert. The book starts with the opening act of a war, some 70 years ago . . . a war that has yet to end. At the time of writing, the Yanomami people of Brazil have just celebrated the peaceful expulsion of the last illegal landholders from their territory, but there are still a thousand gold miners in the reservation. At the same time, the Brazilian government and congress are dismantling indigenous rights that had been patiently gained over recent decades. To read The falling sky and immerse oneself in the history of this struggle, through the extraordinary lives of Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, is more than ever necessary— especially since it is not only a very impressive and minute ethnographical and historical piece of work, but first and foremost a political speech act, “a collaborative politico-shamanic essay”1 meant to have real effects in this world.

Because of its singular nature, a review of the book can hardly take the form of a classical academic debate. If there is a theory to be discussed here, it is that of an erudite shamanic cosmology, which can be commented upon, but not criticized. This is the exegetic path adopted by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in a famous article (2007) based on excerpts of Kopenawa and Albert’s discourses that had been published earlier (Kopenawa 2000; Kopenawa and Albert 2003): The narrative “develops ideas that can be found in a more or less diffuse state in sundry other indigenous cultures of the region. It is this exemplarity which interests me in this paper, the aim of which is to call attention to some recurrent features of the mode of existence and manifestation of spirits in indigenous Amazonia. In particular, I take Kopenawa’s discourse as expressing a pan-Amazonian conception in which the notions we translate as ‘spirit’ denote an ontological mode of the ‘intensive virtual multiplicity’ type.“ (Viveiros de Castro 2007: 155)

Just before this passage, however, the same author suggested in passing another line of inquiry, that of characterizing the nature of the text itself, not the metaphysical implications of its content: “If shamanism is essentially a cosmic diplomacy devoted to the translation between ontologically disparate points of view, then Kopenawa’s discourse is not just a narrative on particular shamanic contents—namely, the spirits which the shamans make speak and act—; it is a shamanic form in itself, an example of shamanism in action, in which a shaman speaks about spirits to Whites and equally about Whites on the basis of spirits, and both these things through a White intermediary” (ibid.: 154–55).

As a matter of fact, it is clear that the second approach can encompass the first one just as much as the other way around: if cosmology (or metaphysics or ontology or . . .) can shed light on the form of diplomacy to be elaborated, it is in itself also greatly affected, in its form and content by the exigencies of diplomatic dialogue. In other words, the things that make this shamanic discourse fascinating (or indeed annoying, depending on one’s angle of approach and theoretical starting point), such as its explicit character, de-contextualizing generalizations, conceptual density, beauty, et cetera, is in part the result of a “resistant adaptation,” a “discourse on oneself for the other” (Albert 1993: 352).

The two aspects (the cosmopolitical discourse and the definition it gives of itself) were considerably elaborated for the book. The reading of ecological crisis, cities, mining, global warming, into a shamanic-mythological frame of interpretation brings it to another level of complexity and richness. But I will focus on the evolutions of the book’s status. What we witness here is the invention of an unprecedented speech genre (and speech act) at the intersection of Yanomami verbal arts and shamanism on the one hand, with a literary and ethnographic writing tradition, on the other, both deeply affected by the convergent life stories of Kopenawa and Albert. And this singularity is explicit for both of them. In the late 1980s, Kopenawa began to develop a prophecy about the end of the world, in collaboration with his father-in-law, Lourival, a great shaman and big-man from the village of Watoriki. The prophecy would merge shamanic cosmology and vision with emerging discourses about land protection, territory, and ecology (see Albert 1993 for a first analysis). Albert, meanwhile, was issued with a “mandate” in the form of a conundrum and a burden: to spread the word, which meant transcribing, translating, and organizing the ninety-three hours of recorded narratives and interviews made between 1989 and 1999. The result is not only a history, or an ethnobiogra-phy, but also a key weapon (or diplomatic present, or shamanic calling, these are not mutually exclusive) in the ongoing war. The book is explicitly designed as a means to end this war by achieving a profound transformation of the aggressors themselves. A conceptual Trojan horse, so to speak, in the form of a written text— eloquent, true, poetic, efficacious, able to move the heart and transform the soul of its readers, able to convince, or better to convert them. In a word, The falling sky is a Bible, but a shamanic one, which makes a significant difference. This oxymoron (a shamanic Bible) is a tribute to the political and intellectual creativity of the two authors for inventing a new diplomacy between Yanomami and the whites.

The book shows how hard it was to establish common ground for communication, considering how different these new “others” were compared with former ones. What existed for the Yanomami was a continuum of practices and conceptions around disease, warfare, and witchcraft that designed a concentric social morphology. At the core of this system is an interlocal ceremony called reahu, constantly referred to in the text since it is the paradigm of a social event, held for funerary rituals and raiding, and an occasion for marriage settlements and gift-exchanges. It is also systematically the moments where epidemics (especially measles) declared and spread dramatically. The Reahu ceremony is also the setting for complex ritual choreographies that allow for a rapprochement between former enemies (but also an opportunity to generate future grievances), beginning with a dance of presentation of the visitors for their guests that mirrors the dance of the xapiripe spirits in front of their shaman father. For the Yanomami, establishing a relationship with another was about exhibiting beauty, sharp contrasts of dark undulating painted lines on a red painted body, shining feather ornaments, and slowly moving like the Cock-of-the-Rock in a nuptial parade. The establishment of peaceful relations with strangers met in the forest consisted in giving everything one had, as a proof of one’s good intentions. The continuous practice of reciprocal generosity could, slowly, create “paths of generosity” between villages. Brilliant chapters of “reverse anthropology” on war and merchandise allow one to seize the tragic misunderstandings that explain the horror of this history and the Yanomami’s apparent lack of reaction against the invaders. The generous presents (metallic tools, cloths) offered by missionaries, SPI, or FUNAI agents and gold miners, were not to prevent war but instead were part of it. Their smoke and dust unleashed terrible attacks of epidemic disease that could wipe out half a village in a couple of days. Later, as exemplified in the poignant narrative of the 1993 Haximu massacre by Albert, the gifts offered by gold miners when arriving were the first act of a mechanical escalation toward violence. And the war triggered by what was mistaken as generosity turned out to be something quite different from war as they had previously known it. No symmetry was possible as the whites were legion. In traditional Yanomami wars no one ever killed women and children. Contrarily, the whites, as in the hax-imu massacre, did not hesitate to kill whole villages, including women and babies. On the shamanic level, we find the same problem: epidemics, called xawara, do not differentiate; they kill everyone and are too numerous to be controlled easily by the xapiri spirits, the shamans’ auxiliaries. The Yanomame expected war to be feuding, a genuine form of social relationship possibly leading to reahu, both shamanic and human. Instead gift-giving turned into genocide.

Chapter 17 (“Talking to white people”) tells how Davi Kopenawa managed to establish the dialogue. In a perfect world, where white people were Yanomami— i.e., human beings, he could have performed a ceremonial dialogue yãimu with them: “Squatting face to face, we would argue at great length, hitting each other’s flanks. My tongue would be more skilful than theirs, and I would speak to them with such vigour that they would be exhausted” (Kopenawa and Albert 2013: 314). Instead of that, in order to defend his people, at age 28 he had to perform a political discourse in Portuguese, assimilated to elder’s speech hereamu, when he was too young to do it in his own language in his village. A hereamu in Portuguese instead of a yãimu in Yanomami: the burden of adaptation lies on the Yanomami.

This is so because white people as a group are understood as communicatively impaired. One could argue that this is the fundamental difference between whites and Yanomami. White people are other others, not because they distribute physi-calities and interiorities differently or because they “are” perspectivists but because they are deaf, mute, deceptive, and immune to transformation into others. Even when they learn the Yanomami language, dramatic misapprehensions remain. The chapter dedicated to the missionaries of the New Tribes Mission is a case in point. In this chapter, Kopenawa’s narrative is offset by Albert’s endnotes, which give dates and quote publications of the missionaries from the same period. The two versions respond to each other in a sadly ironic duet. Thus Kopenawa tells that after having learned the language, the missionaries “began to frighten us with Teosi’s [God’s] words, and to constantly speak to us in anger. ‘Don’t chew Tobacco leaves! It’s a sin, your mouth will be burnt by it! [...] Don’t laugh and copulate with others’ wives, it’s filthy!’” (Kopenawa and Albert 2013: 188) The note quotes the missionaries’ perspective: “We are endeavouring to explain God’s love for mankind, His hatred for sin, His knowledge of all we do and say, and, most of all, our need of a savior” (ibid.: 522).

This communicative impairment is a running theme in Kopenawa’s discourse. “Remori, the ancestor of the big orange remoremo moxi bee, gave white people their twisted tongue. Doesn’t their talk resemble the buzzing of bumblebees? He [Omama the creator] put a different throat than ours inside them” (ibid.: 166). This was meant to prevent disputes between these two people, but it turned out to considerably complicate the diplomatic task of Kopenawa and Albert. Because of Omamas brother, the deceptor Yoasi (identified with Teosi), white people stopped hearing the spirits and their warnings. In New York, Kopenawa hears the image of the sky threatening to break apart, but he is the only one to do so. In Paris, he remarks that the Eiffel Tower reproduces the structure and shining of the house of the auxiliary xapiri spirits, hung in the chest of the sky. With one significant difference: it is silent, no spirit inside is singing his chants.2 To sum up, the text builds a generic portrait of white men and the whites’ spirits as the perfect opposite of the cacique bird spirit ayokora. The xapiri spirit of this polyglot bird is repeatedly said to be more beautiful, fascinating, rare, and to know more chants than any otherspirits.3 It is also the most difficult to call. White people are depicted as overwhelming, buzzing, deaf, and inescapable. And Teosi is held responsible for that, for “he was jealous of the beauty of the xapiri’s words. [...] ‘Instead of listening to them, contemplate my words glued on paper skins’” (322)!

The book shows the intense efforts of commensuration necessary to build a dialogue in spite of the communicative limitations of this terrible other. It is indeed a shamanic work, not of translation sensu stricto (find a way to preserve meaning while changing the code) but of diplomacy (find a way to bend the other’s intentions even when in a situation of subordination). As shown especially in the chapters dedicated to Kopenawa’s shamanic initiation, to maintain his relationship with spirits, to keep them in their house (which is also his own body), the shaman has to constantly listen, dialogue, and answer their chant—that is, identify with it, repeat it, and learn it. This linguistic and melodic mode of relation goes along with a physical transformation, described in detail as the violent surgical replacement of body parts. It is thus a “becoming other,” an alteration. To what extent does it go with white people? There is no doubt that his talking to and taming of them is modeled on his relationship with his xapiri spirits. “So Remori and Porepatari’s images placed their spirit larynx in my throat so I could imitate the white people’s talk” (ibid.: 308). Porepatari is a hunting ghost that first learned the outsiders’ language while bartering with them. This operation explains Kopenawa’s ability to speak fluently in front of important audiences of white people.

If we zoom back from the content to the enunciation, we also find an extremely rich and complex process of alteration. Shamanic discourse, as shown in Carlo Severi’s seminal research on Cuna healing chants (2002), may devote considerable time to the building of a complex speaker, who can be simultaneously here and elsewhere, himself and someone else. This play with deixis (in language or through gesture or modification of material setting) is certainly a central mark of shamanic practice, a way of building bridges between different frames of interaction (Hanks 2006), and thus re-placing the patient in the proper position. The falling sky, similarly, builds, through a very rich peritext, a complex speaker. Albert comments on this in the final section, “How this book was written.” In the French version, it is entitled “I is someone else (and vice-versa),” quoting Arthur Rimbaud’s famous formula “Je est un autre” which is indeed perfectly adequate here. He lists the many voices that can be heard behind the first person singular: Davi Kopenawa, Bruce Albert, who translated and organized the book, Lourival, Kopenawa’s initiator and mentor, who witnessed, amused, the process of creation. There are also, finally, he says, the innumerable xapiri spirits. But we might add that Kopenawa himself is double. His life story as presented in the first third of the book (Becoming other) does not hide his acceptance of Teosi, when still a child, and then his desire to become white and live in the city. And the clearest sign of this movement outward and then inward is his name itself. Davi (David) is the Christian name given by the missionaries, and Kopenawa is the name of wasp spirits that drank the blood of a mythical invincible warrior and are emblems of rage and bravery. He received this second name while disinterring dead relatives murdered by gold miners, as an index of this anger and a reminder of who the enemies are. In other words, behind the I of Davi Kopenawa lies the very duality that the book wants to bridge: the Christian and the Yanomami warrior, the white and the Indian.4 It is a summary of his own route, from mission to endless struggle. And this complex “I” addresses a “you” who is a French anthropologist, who finally, after years of “almost hypnotic immersion, listening and rereading countless times” (454), recognizes himself as a significant part of the “I” that addressed him, and now addresses the reader. It is hard not to see an analogy between the unending conversation between Davi Kopenawa and his xapiri, and the unending conversation he has kept up with Bruce Albert over the last thirty years (even when absent, through his tapes). In short the structure of enunciation is dynamic: the reader is led to identify with Bruce Albert and follow him in identifying with Kopenawa’s point of view.

This general intention is opposed to, but nonetheless comparable with, more common forms of prophetic movements in the Americas. Usually, the idea is to transform shamanism by importing Christian figures, and claim to be more Christian than the white people themselves. Frequently this inversion supports uprisings against the oppressor. Here Davi Kopenawa asks the white people to believe the truth of his words and who knows, to become shamans.

In line with this proselytizing intention, the book frequently brings aspects of the Bible to mind. First, it has the same cosmological magnitude, if not (quite) the length. When the body of the shaman has the same limits as the sky, his biography is a cosmography. It starts with a genesis and ends with an apocalypse: if the shamans die, all the orphan xapiri spirits, in anger and grieving, will start cutting the sky, thus reproducing a fall that already happened in mythic times. In the opening peritext, one foreword (by Jean Malaurie) and two epigraphs (by Claude Lévi-Strass and Davi Kopenawa) urge us to listen to this prophecy. Second, and more interestingly, The falling sky makes explicit comparisons with the Bible.

Davi Kopenawa asked Bruce Albert to write a book about shamanism in order to prove the superiority of another epistemological device: yakoana powder. It is clear that the authors are shamanically adapting to the epistemic and religious standards of truth of their interlocutors, as well as to their communicative and memorial abilities: “Omama did not give us any books in which Teosi’s words are drawn like the ones white people have. He fixed his words inside our bodies. But for the white people to hear them they must be drawn like their own, otherwise their thought remains empty. If these ancient words only come out of our mouths, they don’t understand them and they instantly forget them” (24).

Nonetheless, the fact remains that the decision to turn this discourse into a book is self-contradictory. It pushes to its very limits the alteration inherent to shamanic practice, since it tries to mold itself to the epistemology of its opponent (dogma, writing, fixity of doctrine, blindness to change, silent contemplation of mute signs) in order to prove its inanity (the superiority of dialogue, openness, and yakoana powder). The book however is not the only medium of the authors’ political fight. I would love to know what Davi Kopenawa thinks about Facebook.


Albert, Bruce 1993. “L’or cannibale et la chute du ciel: Une critique chamanique de l’économie politique de la nature (Yanomami, Brésil).” L’Homme 33 (126–28): 349–78.

Hanks, William 2006. “Joint commitment and common ground in a ritual event.” In Roots of human sociality, edited by Nick Enfield and Stephen Levinson, 299–328. Oxford: Berg.

Kopenawa, Davi Yanomami 2000. “Sonhos das origens.” In Povos indígenas no Brasil (1996–2000), edited by Carlos Alberto Ricardo, 18–23. Sao Paulo: ISA

Kopenawa, Davi Yanomami, and Bruce Albert. 2003. “Les ancêtres animaux.” In Yanoma-mi—l’esprit de la forêt, edited by Bruce Albert and Hervé Chandes, 67–87. Paris: Fondation Cartier / Actes Sud.

———. 2010. La chute du ciel: Paroles d’un chaman yanomami. Paris: Plon.

———. 2013. The falling sky: Words of a Yanomami shaman. Translated by Nicholas Elliott and Alison Dundy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Severi, Carlo 2002. “Memory, reflexivity and belief: Reflections on the ritual use of language.” Social Anthropology 10 (1): 23–40.

———. 2004. “Capturing imagination: A cognitive approach to cultural complexity.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10 (4): 815–38.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo 2007. “The forest of mirrors: Notes on the ontology of Amazonian spirits.” Inner Asia 9 (2): 153–72.


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, France


1. “Essai politico-chamanique a quatre mains” in the French original version (Kopenawa and Albert 2010: 582), translated as “attempt at joining shamanism with ethnopolitics” in the English version (2013: 441).

2. I propose the hypothesis that we might be here facing a parabola, that is a stylistic appropriation of one of the Bible’s favorite tropes.

3. Cacique birds, which can imitate other birds and even animals, are central to shamanic thought and practice throughout Amazonia.

4. The cover of the French version shows a darkened Kopenawa holding a machete in the middle of bows and arrows. The cover of the English edition shows a peaceful Davi in a white halo.