The psychology of the dead in the Amazon

Anthropologist Anne Christine Taylor lived with the Achuar people of the Northern Amazon and described the traditional beliefs about how death causes specific psychological impairments to the deceased although their presence can be experienced through drug-induced visions that form a part of a boy’s voyage into manhood.

In an article on the mourning practices of the Achuar, Tayor describes how the tribe have no concept of an ‘afterlife’ as they make no distinction between planes of existence and believe that the wakan or disembodied essence of the dead still remain in the area.

Strikingly, death is thought to affect the mind of the deceased so that the disembodied person retains sensory perception and some limited understanding but they remain entirely unaware of the nature of their own (un)existence.

This lack of understanding of their new ‘situation’ is thought to cause intense intense loneliness and psychological distress in the dead.

The funeral ceremony serves to inform the deceased that they have died and provides a way of disremembering the deceased. There are no rituals of remembrance, tombs or markers.

In fact, the tribe makes efforts to ensure that the dead are no longer talked about, remembered or memorialised in any way because thinking about the ‘dead’ is thought to be a form of dangerous contact in which the mentally impaired wakan can capture people to alleviate their solitude and anguish.

The wakan do, however, play a part in the rituals of manhood. From the age of about ten or twelve the menfolk of the village go into the forest to drink a mixture of green tobacco juice and datura stramonium – a plant common around the world and known by a list of poetic names such as jimson weed, devil’s trumpet and burundanga.

The plant is highly hallucinogenic and despite the fact that it grows almost everywhere it is rarely used recreationally as it usually leaves the affected person completely delirious and dangerously close to death.

But for the Achuar men, the drink separates the wakan from the body of the drinker, allowing a meeting with a wakan of the dead. Taylor describes the visions:

The apparition eventually comes forth, first in the shape of a huge ball of fire rolling towards the supplicant (the payar or comet evoked in many mourning chants), or of two giant, intertwined anacondas thrashing about in the clearing, or of a huge, dead and blackened tree, a blood-soaked warrior, or possibly a looming, mutilated arm cracking the joints of its fingers. The seeker must then go up to this horrifying vision and touch it with his hand or a stick, whereupon it explodes and disappears.

After this almighty vision, the seeker encounters the wakan of one of the deceased who communicates a verbal message to the seeker which he must never reveal.

The ceremony is repeated throughout the lifespan in order to establish the manhood of the Achuar males and build up both their fighting spirit and self-control.

Link to locked Anne Christine Taylor on mourning in the Achuar.

Update: Now, thanks to Galina Miklosic a Ukrainian translation of this post (we’re told!)

3 thoughts on “The psychology of the dead in the Amazon”

  1. Is burundanga related to ayahuasca? A friend has been making documentaries in Columbia about aya for years. I’ve heard it referred to as the drug that helps you remember (haven’t heard them mention the “to forget” part).

  2. Sasha: No. Datura’s psychoactive ingredient is a deliriant, while ayahuasca derives its effects primarily from DMT, and so is a true hallucinogen.

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