Animal characteristics

Darkness is full of mysterious horrors to the Indian, nor can one wonder
that he fills with imaginary demons the weird and terrifying solitudes of
the bush by night. The children are openly afraid of the dark, because of
the tigers that may then be prowling about, let alone less substantial
perils. Adults are not so frank with regard to their fears, but as a
matter of course all occupations cease at sun-down, and every one makes
for the sheltered warmth of the _maloka_. There, by the flickering
firelight, after the contents of the family hot-pot have been discussed,
long tales are told. First one and then another takes up the burden of
recital. The chatter dies slowly, maybe it will linger on by the fire
of some verbose story-teller, till the chill of coming dawn brings the
sleepers from their hammocks to stir the smouldering embers into a blaze,
and to gather round them waiting for daybreak to dispel the evil agents
of the night.

The tales are endlessly long, and so involved that they are utterly
unintelligible to the stranger until they have been repeated many times.
Then the drift of myth and tradition, the meaning of fable and story, may
be broadly grasped. To win it comprehensively in detail is a matter of
time, patience, and intimate knowledge of the speaker’s tongue. Moreover,
the tales have such numerous variations, and are so grafted the one on
to the other, according to the momentary fancy of the narrators, that it
is exceedingly difficult to differentiate between a variant of a known
story and one that may in its essentials have been hitherto unheard.

“It is,” postulates Dr. Rivers, “not the especially familiar and uniform
which becomes the object of myth.”[374] The mythopœic influence of that
which is seldom seen would lead us to expect that among these Indians,
sunk in “the gloom of an eternal under-world of trees,”[375] the heavenly
bodies would play a prominent part in tribal folk-tale and myth. But
so far as the stars are concerned this is not the case at all;[376]
they seem to be ignored; and, as regards the sun and moon, it is the
sun–contrary to usual tropical custom–that is the most important, the
moon–as with more northern peoples–occupies the subordinate position
of wife. Her inconstant appearances are accounted for by the suggestion
mentioned in the previous chapter that she is sent periodically by
the sun her husband to drive away the evil spirits of the night that
await the stray or heedless loiterers in the forest thickets. But this
protective character is denied to the moon by other tribes, and some
South American Indians will hide young infants lest the moon should
injure them.[377]

What I cannot but consider the most important of their stories are
the many myths that deal with the essential and now familiar details
of everyday life in connection with the _manihot utilissima_ and
other fruits. The tale that follows does not purport to be a literal
translation of the myth as related to me, or in my hearing. I have merely
attempted to put together, infinitely more concisely than any Indian
raconteur would ever dream of doing, the various details of the local
story and belief:

The Good Spirit when he came to earth showed the Indians a
manioc plant, and taught them how to extract the evil spirit’s

But he did not seem to have explained how the plant might be

The Indians searched for seeds, but found none.

They buried the young tuberous roots, but to no effect.

The Good Spirit was vexed with them; that is why he did not
divulge the secret.

But long, long after, a virgin of the tribe, a daughter of the
chief, was found to be with child.

When questioned she replied that long, long ago, when sick to
death, and under the medicine-man’s magic,[379] she wandered far,
far into the bush.

In the bush she found a beautiful manioc plant.

She was seduced by the tuberous root–some Indians say the plant
was metamorphosed into a beautiful young hunter–and in due
course she gave birth to a girl-child, who could both talk and
walk at birth.

This child took the women of the tribe to a beautiful plantation
of manioc, far, far up a certain river, and there the precocious
infant explained how to reproduce the plant with bits of the

So to this day the chief food of all the peoples is cassava.

This story is utterly different from one Spruce heard from more northern
tribes at Saō Gabriel. The Barré story has it that a bird discovered to
the Indians the use of the mandiocca, then a great and solitary tree. All
the tribes came to procure the roots, and when none were left carried off
branches; hence the varieties of mandiocca now grown.[380]

Deluge traditions are to be found among practically all the tribes. I
repeatedly asked questions on this point, and invariably found, as other
travellers had discovered previously elsewhere,[381] that the Indians
would tell of a flood that drove their fathers in the long, long ago to
seek refuge in canoes, for all the earth was under water. But though
Mr. Joyce considers it “strange how this deluge myth not only pervades
practically the whole of the Andean region of South America, but extends
also to many regions in the northern portion of the Continent,” it must
be remembered that inundations are frequent in these regions, and a great
one probably occurs every few decades. It would only be strange were
there no deluge myths. As Sir Everard im Thurn has so aptly put it, when
“the Indian tells in his simple language the tradition of the highest
flood which covered all the small world known to him, and tells how the
Indians escaped it, it is not difficult to realise that the European
hearer, theologically prejudiced in favour of Noah, … is apt to identify
the two stories.”[382]

With the possible exception of the Eldorado fable, there is no South
American legend that has excited so much interest and speculation as the
story of the warrior women who in some mysterious forest fastness dwelt
apart from men, cultivated masculine attributes, and destroying the
male brought up the female progeny resultant from the yearly exception
to their celibate rule,[383] to be women of the same stern pattern as
their extraordinary selves. Some writers would make them a seventeenth
century edition of the modern suffragette, rebel against the “tyranny”
of man–and with certainly better reason for rebellion.[384] The story
has been treated as mere Spanish romance,[385] or a mistake on the part
of the invaders due to the custom of wearing the hair long among many
of the tribes.[386] It has been taken to be a deliberate fabrication on
the part of Pizarro to explain his failure, a temptation to which Sir
Walter Raleigh himself also fell victim.[387] Be it what it may, the
tale was told, the land known as the land of these women warriors, and
their name of Amazons bestowed upon the great river. The tale of warrior
women is, however, not confined to the forests of the Amazon. One comes
therewith to the question of nomenclatory origin. The Baron de Santa-Anna
Nery devotes the first ten pages of his _Land of the Amazons_ to this
discussion. It seems to be a case of where doctors disagree.[388] But at
least the tale, Asiatic, African, or autochthonic, was localised here,
and stories of feminine prowess in the field continued to be quoted even
in the nineteenth century. Wallace himself mentions “traditions” said to
be extant among the Indians themselves, of “women without husbands.”[389]
This is no proof of the local existence at any time of celibate women
warriors. The tradition may well exist, the only curiosity again would
be if it did not. For three centuries at least the invading white man
has talked of, and inquired for, a tribe of such warrior women. It takes
less than this to start the most robust of folk-tales. A world agape like
the Athenians of old for some new thing, some tale to vary the oft-told
stories, does not require three centuries to adopt a novel romance. The
question “do such things exist?” is not asked long before it ceases to
be a question and becomes an assertion. The more positive the assertion
the greater will be the wonder of the tale. When the wonder is sufficient
it will be established as a current myth. I do not therefore deny that
such a tale is told, or at least may be told, but for my own part I
never heard mention of it. Spruce speaks of women assisting their men to
repulse an attack on tribal head-quarters,[390] but no story of any woman
fighting, or having done so at any time, was ever told me. Moreover it
should not be forgotten in this connection that all weapons are strictly
tabu to women.

A story that is prevalent throughout South America tells of a race of
white Indians who sleep in the daytime, and only go abroad at night.
This tale was laughed at when repeated at a recent meeting of the
Royal Geographical Society, but it is certainly in existence among the
tribes,[391] and Crevaux states that the Ouayana will not go near one
river, “_à cause des singuliers habitants qui habiteraient près des
sources … des Indiens aux chevaux blonds qui dorment le jour et marchent
toute la nuit_.”[392]

Of tales as to the reputed origin of any tribe I have no note, though
when I cross-questioned a Boro tribe as to why a certain district was
almost uninhabited, they told me that the reason was as follows:

Once a large tribe lived there, one of the most powerful of all
the tribes, and also one of the most numerous.

But long, long ago a chief, an _Abihibya_, of this tribe of
the Utiguene had a daughter, who was not only ugly but bird
rumped. The _Chekobe_, the medicine-man, gave her the name of

When she grew older and was about five feet high,[394] Komuine
went into the _Bahe_, the bush, to pick _dio_, peppers, and
berries, but did not return.

The tribe then said that a _wipa_, a tiger, must have carried her
off. So a tribal hunt was instituted, and the bush searched for
the tiger; but with no success, for when they were in the bush
they were attacked by a wicked tribe, which fell upon them and
killed them in great numbers.

So they returned with great sadness to the _maloka_.

Long, long after this Komuine reappeared in the _Ha-a_, the great
house of the tribe, and sang a solo, as is the custom among the
people when making a complaint. And this is the complaint Komuine

The Chief’s daughter was lost in the forest,
And no one came to find the spoor;
The branches were broken, the _gwahake-ane_, the leaves, were turned,
And no one came to find the spoor.
And where were my brothers, and the sons of the chief’s brothers,[395]
That no one came to find the spoor?

And while Komuine was dancing, it was noticed, to the disgust of
the tribe, that her bird rump was covered with _nikwako_, hair,
so the old women came and rubbed milk[396] upon her to remove
the unsightliness. But as they pulled and the unsightliness was
removed, more unsightliness came, and the hairier she grew. When
she was covered with leaves,[397] she told her story:

“O my brothers! When I was in the forest picking peppers a
_komuine_ came to me, and taking me by force he deflowered me. He
took me with him into the bush to become his _gwame_, his woman,
and I gave birth to twins, and the second one was buried, for
even _komuine_ have but one _ehemene_, one child. And the child
was hairy like a _komuine_, but had the face of a man. And when I
gave him milk the unsightliness came, and I ran from the beasts
and came to my own people.”

The tribe then had a tobacco palaver, and because of the
unsightliness, and the pollution,[398] and the blood-feud with
their enemies which had cost the tribe so many warriors, it was
decided to destroy her.

And when she heard this she fled into the forest, and all the
_komuine_ came and robbed the _emiye_, the plantation, and there
was no _pika_, manioc, and no _kome_, fruit.

And when the men of the Utiguene went out to hunt, the lianas
were like a net in the path, and so thick no one could pass. And
the tribe got thinner and thinner, and now to-day there is no
tribe of the Utiguene.[399]

The Amazonians have stories equivalent to many worldwide tales, such as
that of the lion and the mouse, only in the forest version it is the
jaguar who enacts the lion’s part, while the mouse is replaced by the
ant, a liana serves instead of a net to keep the great beast captive,
and there are other correspondingly local and numerous variations. The
hare and the tortoise fable has its counterpart in the story of a race
between the deer and the tortoise. The ramifications of this tale are
most intricate. These stories are very dissimilar in detail, so far as I
could gather, from their equivalents in the Old World, but in each case
the same principle is evolved: by a widely different route Old and New
reach eventually an identical goal.

There is a marked prevalence of animal stories, tales–and this is a
point not to be overlooked–of the familiar forest beasts, the birds
and the reptiles of everyday life. In these the birds and beasts have
certain accepted characteristics, they stand in the Indian folk-tales as
representing definite abstract ideas. Thus, as with us, the tortoise is
crafty and slow; the ant and the bee are typical of industry. The snake,
that is to say the poisonous snake, in Amazonian myth, as in Biblical
story, represents evil, the evil eye. The tapir stands for blindness and
stupidity, while cunning and deceit are represented by the dog. These
bush dogs approximate to our fox, and like Reynard have sharp up-standing
ears. They prowl round the _maloka_, and will clear off anything they
can find, even in close vicinity to the house. The agouti, or capybara,
takes with the Indian the place held in African folk-tales by the hare.
He is the wittiest of beasts, can outmanœuvre all the others, and is the
practical joker of the forest. The boa-constrictor, unlike the poisonous
snake, is not evil; it exemplifies the silent and the strong. The
chattering parrot represents irresponsibility; it is a woman in disguise,
and is certain in Indian animal tales to be noisy and unreliable, and
probably will betray some secret. The peccary is for constancy, the hawk
for cunning, the sloth for laziness, and the tiger for bravery. The
monkey stands for tenacity of life, which is probably due to the fact
that owing to constriction of the muscles its hold on a branch does not
relax for some time after death.

These characteristics, however, do not appear to govern in any way
the question of food tabu concerning the respective animals. On the
contrary, the reasons alleged for such tabu often appear to be, if
anything, opposed to what one would expect to find from the foregoing
classification. It is the material, not the abstract characteristic
with which the tabu deals. Moreover the tabu varies. Irrespective of
those connected with birth, at certain times of the year there is a
restriction, if it does not amount to an actual prohibition or a tabu,
with regard to eating heavy meats. Simson assigns such avoidance to a
belief current among Indians “that they partake of the nature of the
animal they devour.” This is the case professedly for any tabu on foods
for women with child, but the reason given to me for general restriction
as regards, say, tapir flesh, was not that the eater would be affected
by any characteristic of the animal, material or spiritual, but that
the tapir meat if eaten at forbidden seasons was very bad, that is to
say unhealthy, and would be the cause of certain skin diseases. It
probably would be. Tiger meat, as already explained, is treated much
as human flesh is treated. Apart from the tiger, the meat of larger
game will, it is sometimes averred by other tribes, make the eater
gross and unwieldy.[400] In connection with this question of big game
and food, Spruce refers to a “superstition” among the Uaupes Indians
that may be a possible survival of a totemic system, though he does not
advance the theory. “How should we kill the stag?” they say, “he is our
grandfather.”[401] However this may be with other language-groups, among
those of the Issa-Japura regions there is no trace of any totemic system,
except in so far as that boys and girls are named, as already stated,
after birds and flowers respectively. Animal names are made use of
occasionally, but only as names of contempt and ridicule. These Indians
look upon all animals as enemies. To suggest that any animal is an
ancestor would be the direst of insults to people who so strenuously try
to avoid all likeness to the brute creation. One need only refer to such
customs as the killing of one of twins, or depilation, to give the lie to
any theory that would seek to trace in Boro story–for example–for sign
of suggested descent from any eponymous animal. Relationship is traced
indeed only so far as memory serves; that is to say the oldest man may
relate how he remembers his grandfather telling who _his_ grandfather’s
father was. Also there are invariably tales of bygone chiefs, great
warriors whose deeds and characters are outstanding enough to be

A story is told of a small fish that is to be found in these rivers
which may be fact or may be fable. All Indians say that this fish is a
parasite that will find its way into the intestines of human beings when
they are bathing. This belief is noted elsewhere, and I merely refer to
it here because it is so universally credited without–so far as I could
ascertain–an atom of corroborative evidence.

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