Ana Gonzalez Rojas


Hijas del agua – Wade Davis

Wade Davis

Colaboración Ana Gonzalez – Ruven Afanador

This book celebrates mythic origins. Each work of art serves as a prayer. Together they awaken the mystic threads of memory that reach back to the dawn of creation, and a cosmic moment when women and water as a single generative force brought life and fertility to a barren and chaotic world. Out of myth came moral order and grace, a proper way of being, life lessons from the gods.

In the beginning, according to the Elder Brothers, all was darkness and water. There was no land, no sun, moon and nothing alive. The water was the Madre Creadora. She was the mind within nature, the fountain of all possibilities. She was life becoming, emptiness and pure thought.

At the first dawning, the Great Mother began to spin her thoughts. She placed an egg into the void and the egg became the universe. The universe was to have nine layers, four of the nether world and four of the upper world, with the plane of contact being the central world of human beings.

The Great Mother fertilized herself, and gave birth to Sintana, a black-faced jaguar who was the prototypic human being. At the first dawning, the universe was still soft. The Great Mother stabilized it by thrusting her enormous spindle into the center, penetrating the nine layers of the world axis. The Lords of the Universe, born of the Great Mother, pushed back the sea and lifted up the Sierra Nevada around the world axis. Then the Great Mother uncoiled from her spindle a length of cotton thread with which she traced a circle around the mountains, circumscribing the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which she declared to be the land of her children.

Thus, the spindle became a model of the cosmos. The disk is the earth, the whorl of yarn is the territory of the people, and the individual strands of spun cotton are the thoughts of the sun. The white cone of yarn represents the four layers of the upper world, but below the disk the cotton is black and invisible. The sun in moving around the earth spins the yarn of life and gathers it about the axis of the cosmos, the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, the homeland of the Arhuacos, Kogui and Wiwa.

To this day the peoples of the Sierra remain true to their ancient laws —the moral, ecological, and spiritual dictates of the Great Mother— and are still led and inspired by a ritual priesthood of

mamos. They believe and acknowledge explicitly that they are the guardians of the world, that their rituals maintain the balance and fertility of life. They are fully aware that their common ancestors, the Tairona, in 1591 waged fierce but futile war against the invaders. In their mountain redoubt, lost to history for at least three centuries, they chose deliberately to transform their civilization into a devotional culture of peace. Today when the mamos speak, they instantly

reveal that their reference points are not of our world. They refer to Columbus as if his arrival were a recent event. They talk of the Great Mother as if she were alive—and for them she is, resonant and manifest in every instant in their concept of aluna, a word that translates as water, earth, matter, generative spirit, and life force. What is important, what has ultimate value, what gives life purpose is not what is measured and seen but what exists in the realm of aluna, the abstract dimension of meaning.

The conical hats worn by Arhuaco men represent the snowfields of the sacred peaks. The hairs on a person’s body echo the forest trees that cover the mountain flanks. Every element of nature is imbued with higher significance, such that even the most modest of creatures can be seen as a teacher, and the smallest grain of sand is a mirror of the universe.

The Arhuaco make no distinction between the water found within the human body and what exists outside it. The blood that flows through their veins is no different from the water that flows through the arteries of life, the rivers of the land. They see a direct relationship between urine, blood, saliva, and tears, and the waters of a river, a lake, a wetland, a lagoon.

And in this, they are undoubtedly correct. Humans are born of water, a cocoon of comfort in a mother’s womb. As infants, our bo dies are almost exclusively liquid. Even as adults, only a third of our being has solidity. Compress our bones, ligaments, muscles, and sinew, extract the platelets and cells from our blood, and the rest of us, nearly two-thirds of our weight, stripped clean and rinsed, would flow as easily as a river to the sea.

Every animal that lives in the Sierra Nevada, the mamos say, every herb and flowering forest tree, survives because of the sea. Everything is in balance. The air becomes wind, the wind condenses into clouds, rain falls from the clouds and runs over the earth through

the rivers to the sea, where it arises again, carried by the wind.

Ice is formed on the highest peaks so that it may cool the sea, which in the absence of fresh water would become too hot. Yet if the sea becomes too cold, it won’t be able to yield its energy

to give light and life to the world. When a river meets the sea, these two energies merge, just as hayo, the sacred coca leaves, brings together the poporo, a gourd from the mountains, with lime, derived from shells found in the sea.

Rivers are like people. When they are small, they must be cared for. When they grow and come together with other streams, they must learn to socialize and get along. As they increase in strength, they must give to the greater community, yielding some but not all of their water. As they mature, reaching their final years as they enter the oceans of the world, they are seeking a return to the Madre Creadora, for the sea is the uterus of all origins.

In this cosmic scheme people are vital, for it is only through the human heart and imagination that the Great Mother may become manifest. For the Elder Brothers, people are not the problem but the solution. “We know,” an Arhuaco mamo explains, “so much more about life than the Younger Brothers. We never destroy a river, for to do so would be to destroy ourselves.

”FOR THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLES OF THE VAUPES, rivers are not just routes of communication, they are the veins of the earth, the link between the living and the dead, the paths along which the ancestors travelled at the beginning of time. Origin myths vary but always speak of a great journey from the east, of sacred canoes brought up the Milk River by enormous anacondas. Within the canoes were the first people, together with the three most important plants—coca, manioc and yagé, all gifts of Father Sun.

When the serpents reached the center of the world, they lay over the land, outstretched as rivers, their powerful heads forming river mouths, their tails winding away to remote headwaters, the ripples in their skin giving rise to rapids and waterfalls. Thus came into the being the homelands of the Makuna, Barasana, Tanimuka, Tukano and all the other Peoples of the Anaconda.

The Makuna acknowledge this primordial journey, even as they trace the genesis of the world to a far earlier time, when there was only chaos in the universe. Spirits and demons known as He preyed on their own kindred, bred without thought, committed incest without consequence, devoured their own young. The Ancestral Mother, Romi Kumu, Woman Shaman, responded by destroying the world with fire and floods. Then, just as a mother turns over a warm slab of manioc bread on the griddle, she turned the inundated and charred world upside down, creating a flat and empty template from which life could emerge once again. Romi Kumu opened her womb, allowing her blood and breast milk to give rise to rivers, allowing her ribs to become the mountain ranges of the world. As Woman Shaman she gave birth to a new world: land,

water, forest, and animals.

In a parallel story of creation, four great culture heroes —the Ayawa, mythic ancestors also know as the Thunders— came up the Milk River, passing through the Water Door, pushing before them as ploughs the sacred trumpets of the Yurupari, creating valleys and waterfalls. Rivers were born of their saliva. Slivers of wood broken off by the effort gave rise to the first ritual artifacts and musical instruments. As the Ayawa journeyed to- ward the center of the world, the notes of the trumpets brought into being the mountains and uplands, the posts and walls of the cosmic maloca.

At every turn, the Ayawa confronted greedy demonic forces, avaricious spirits that thrived on destruction and coveted the world. Outwitting the monsters, casting them into stone, the Ayawa brought order to the universe, causing the essence and energy of the natural world to be released for the benefit of all sentient creatures and every form of life. Then, stealing the creative fire from the vagina of Romi Kumu,they made love to her, and, fully satiated, rose into the heavens

to become thunder and lightning.

Realizing that she was pregnant, Woman Shaman went downriver to the Water Door of the East, where she gave birth to the ancestral anaconda. In time the serpent retraced the harrowing journey of the Ayawa, returning in body and spirit to the riverbanks, waterfalls, and rocks, where it birthed the clan ancestors of the Barasana, Makuna,and all their neighbors.

The world of the Makuna begins at the falls of Yuisi and ends at the cataract of Jirijirimo on the Río Apaporis. The hills along the Taraira, and the falls of Yurupari on the Río Vaupés and Araracuara on the Río Caquetá, the mountain escarpments beyond the Kanamari—all of these physical and geographical points of memory and origin remain vibrant and alive, a mythic geography written upon the land. Each is part of a sacred nexus that recalls an impossibly distant era where the Ayawa released to hu mans the raw energy of life, even as they bequeathed to all Peoples of the Anaconda the eternal obligation to manage the flow of creation.

For the people living today in the forests of the Apaporis and Piraparana, the entire natural world is saturated with meaning and cosmological significance. Every rock and waterfall embodies a story. Plants and animals are but distinct physical manifestations of the same essential spiritual essence. At the same time, everything is more than it appears, for the visible world is only one level of perception. Behind every tangible form, every plant and animal, is a shadow dimension, a place invisible to ordinary people but visible to the shaman.

This is the realm of the He spirits, a world of deified ancestors where rocks and rivers are alive, plants and animals are human beings, sap and blood the bodily fluids of the primordial river of the anaconda. Hidden in cataracts, behind the physical veil of waterfalls, in the very center of stones are the great malocas of the He spirits, where everything is beautiful—the shining feathers, the coca, the calabash of tobacco powder, which is itself the skull and brain of the sun.

It is to the realm of the He spirits that the shaman goes in ritual. The Barasana shaman has little interest in medicinal plants. His duty and sacred task is to move in the timeless realm of the He, embrace the primordial powers, and harness and restore the energy of all creation. He is like a modern engineer who enters the depths of a nuclear reactor to renew the entire cosmic order.

Such renewal is the fundamental obligation of the living. In practice, this implies that the Barasana see the earth as potent, the forest as being alive with spiritual beings and ancestral powers. To live off the land is to embrace both its creative and destructive potential. Human beings, plants, and animals share the same cosmic origins, and in a profound sense are seen as essentially identical, responsive to the same principles, obligated by the same duties, responsible for the collective well-being of creation.

There is no separation between nature and culture. Without the forest and the rivers, humans would perish. But without people, the natural world would have no order or meaning. All would be chaos. Thus, the norms that drive social behavior also define the manner in which human beings interact with the wild, the plants and animals, the multiple phenomena of the natural world, lightning and thunder, the sun and the moon, the scent of a blossom, the sour odor of death.

Everything is related, everything connected, a single integrated whole. Mythology infuses land and life with meaning, encoding expectations and behaviors essential to survival in the forest, anchoring each community, every maloca, to a profound spirit of place.

These cosmological ideas have very real ecological consequences both in terms of the way people live and the impacts they have on their environment. The forest is the realm of the men, the garden the domain of women, where they give birth to both plants and children. The women cultivate thirty or more food crops and encourage the fertility and fecundity of some twenty varieties of wild fruits and nuts. The men grow only tobacco and coca, which they plant in narrow winding paths that run through the women’s fields, like serpents in the grass.

For the women, the act of harvesting and preparing cassava, the daily bread, is a gesture of procreation and a form of initiation. The starchy fluid left over once the grated mash has been fully rinsed is seen as female blood that can be rendered safe by heat, and drunk warm like a mother’s milk. The crude manioc fiber resembles the bone of men. Fired on the griddle, shaped by female hands, the cassava is the medium through which the plant spirits of the wild are domesticated for the good of all.

Like all food, it has ambivalent potential. It gives life but may also bring disease and misfortune. Thus, nothing can be eaten unless it has passed through the hands of an elder, and been blessed and spiritually cleansed by the shaman. Food in this sense is power, for it represents the transfer of energy from one life form to another. As a child grows he or she is only slowly introduced to new categories of food, and severe food restrictions mark all the major passages of life—moments of initiation for a male, the first menses for a woman, transitional moments when the human being, by definition, is in contact with the spirit realm of the He.

When men go to the forest to hunt or fish, it is never a trivial passage. First the shaman must travel in trance to negotiate with the masters of the animals, forging a mystical contract with the spirit guardians, an exchange based always on reciprocity. The Barasana compare it to marriage, for hunting too is a form of courtship, in which one seeks the blessing of a greater authority for the honor of taking into one’s family a precious being.

Meat is not the right of a hunter but a gift from the spirit world. To kill without permission is to risk death by a spirit guardian, be it in the form of a jaguar, anaconda, tapir, or harpy eagle. Man in the forest is always both predator and prey.

The same cautious and established social protocols that maintain peace and respect between neighboring clans of people, that facilitate the exchange of ritual goods, food, and women, are applied to nature. Animals are potential kin, just as the wild rivers and forests are part of the social world of people.

Together these ideas and restrictions create what is essentially a land management

plan inspired by myth. Entire stretches of the Piraparana, home to several hundred species of fish, are deemed off limits for spiritual reasons. Shamanic sanctions, though inspired by cosmology, have the very real effect of mitigating the impact of human beings on the environment. And, as the mythological events that inspired such beliefs are ongoing, the consequence is a living philosophy that really does view man, woman and nature as one.

All of this comes alive in the great seasonal ceremonies that bring together families from up and down the Piraparana and beyond. For days on end, there is little rest. As the ritual

begins, time collapses. There are two series of dances, separated by the liminal moments of the day, dawn, dusk, and midnight. The regalia is not decorative. A corona of oropendola feathers actually is the sun, each yellow plume a ray. It is the literal connection to sacred space, the wings

to the divine.

In donning the feathers, the yellow corona of pure thought, the white egret plumes of the rain, the men really do become the ancestors, just as the river is the anaconda, the mountains the house posts of the world, the shaman the shape-shifter, in one moment a predator, in the next prey. He changes from fish to animal to human and back again, transcending every form, becoming pure energy flowing among every dimension of reality, past and present, here and there, mythic and mundane. His chants recall by name every point of geography met on the ancestral journey o  the Anaconda, toponyms that can be traced back with complete accuracy more than 1,600 kilometers down the Amazon to the east.

White people see with their eyes, but the Barasana, it is said, see with their minds. On the wings of trance, they journey both to the dawn of time and into the future, visiting every sacred site, paying homage to every creature, as they celebrate their most profound cultural insight,

 the realization that animals and plants are only people in another dimen-

sion of reality.

FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AFTER THE CONQUEST, Colombia remains home to more than eighty distinct and vibrant indigenous nations. Though a small percentage of the country’s total population, they are collectively nearly two million strong, roughly equivalent to the number of native people believed to have been living in Colombia at the time of European contact. They and all the generations before them have lived through a glass darkly. They are all the survivors of El Dorado. And yet, in what can only be described as a small miracle, their voices over time have been muted but never fully silenced.

That the Makuna, Barasana and all the Peoples of the Anaconda have emerged from decades of exploitation to become at last the masters of their fate, the ethnographers of their own lives, is a measure of the wisdom of President Virgilio Barco and Martin von Hildebrand who, beginning in 1986, set aside no fewer that 162 resguardos, establishing a system of indigenous reserves collectively the size of the United Kingdom, with land rights that were for- mally encoded into law in the 1991 Constitution. Nothing like it, on such a scale, had ever been done by a nation-state.

That the mamos of the Kogui, Wiwa, and Arhuaco —in spirit and convictions the direct descendants of the sun priests of the Tairona— are alive and well, at work each morning praying for the well-being of the Earth and all of humanity, is a testament to the strength and enduring resonance of indigenous lives in Colombia. That such ritual devotions, such a universe of faith, may be found today not two hours by commercial jet from Miami, on the slopes of a volcanic massif that is home to every major ecosystem on the planet, in hamlets looking west to the very shores where Columbus’s men landed in 1499, suggests a continuity of knowledge, wisdom, and tradition that can only inspire wonder and hope.

Perhaps this is the ultimate meaning and purpose of myth, ancient voices reaching into the future to inform the living. Romi Kumu and the Madre Creadora watching over us still, allowing the rivers to flow, bringing life to the land, nursing the young, infusing the world with the wisdom, grace and power of women, las Hijas del agua.