Shuar Spirituality, Heightend Sense of Nature

The Shuar (an indigenous tribe to Ecuador) are a very spiritual people, with their actions governed by what is for the greater good rather than what is best for them individually. Their culture is alien to the Western world, with customs that seem bizarre if not even grotesque, but there is value in them to everyone when you look past the actions themselves and discover their meaning.

To understand, first you need to be acquainted to the gods. There are four in Shuar beliefs: Etsaa, the sun god; Nunqui, the earth goddess; Ayumpum, the fire and lightning god, and; Tsunkqui, the river/water goddess. In addition there are numerous spirits such as Nase (the wind) and Jempe (the hummingbird) which are not explicitly described so but are subordinate to the gods and respected equals to the Shuar.

In Shuar culture, the men cut the trees, build the houses, hunt the animals and fight the enemies; whereas the women care for the children, farm the land and make the chicha (a weak beer made from yucca that is the main sustenance in their diet). Jempe, as well as being the hummingbird, also represents balance and is said to work through women. The men typically do not know when to stop undertaking their pursuits so it is up to the women to moderate and say: we do not need any more trees cut, our house is big enough, we have plenty of meat and leave our enemies in peace. For this reason the Shuar describe the “developed” world as being too man orientated and that we should urgently listen to the women for balance.

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A Shuar in a waterfall.
This balance between all things means that they do not view themselves as superior to nature but an equal part of it. It is said that the Shuar do not die but they shapeshift into another spirit of the rainforest, such as Nase, Jempe, Panqui (the spirit of the jaguar) or ayahuasca (the vine used to induce hallucinogenic visions), to name a few. A human is just one form of a spirit so as a result they respect everything. The women will sing to their plants to ask permission to harvest and men speak with the forest to ask permission to hunt. We could interpret this as a conscious effort to show gratitude, much like how Christians say grace before eating.

Ayahuasca to them is sacred for it is equal to a human which was, and will, shapeshift into a human again. It feels like a lot of tourists use the ayahuasca ceremonies as an excuse to get high, but only a negligible few respect the ceremony as if a human were being sacrificed for their benefit, like the Shuar see it equal to. This again is comparable to Christianity, where many denominations believe the consumption of bread and wine at sermon is the literal consumption of Jesus’ body and blood.

The ayahuasca vine is referred to as one of the “teacher plants”, used to induce powerful hallucinations that enable you to perceive the spirits. You are supposed to begin with a question and then allow the spirits to guide you to the answer during the ceremony that takes most of the night. I’ve heard of Shuar children being introduced to ayahuasca as young as eight, for it is not a drug to them but a means of spiritual education.

There is a spiritual force referred to as arutum, that inhabits men and women and allows them to excel in their duties. Arutum is gained in many ways, such as standing under a waterfall where the rainbow spirit Tuntiak inhabits, standing in a strong wind that is Nase, or most famously with hoarding tsantas (the shrunken heads of slain enemies to capture their arutum). All methods involve some form of ordeal, for the waterfalls are distant from each other and the strong winds are dangerous when they bring down trees. These ordeals seem to build strength of character, making people resilient to adversity so more likely to succeed. I believe this is a more literal interpretation of what we may figuratively refer to as moral fibre, which would make this an alternative interpretation of a psychological effect.

If you took a Shuar home and they showed respect to your hamster and house plants I hope you would agree that there is sanity behind what we would otherwise consider insanity. I believe spirituality in its purest form to be an awareness and appreciation of everything, of nature. In my humble atheist opinion I believe that religion would have started out like this. Humans saw nature and found it divine, whereas now, those religious tend to look at nature and consider it the creation of divinity. We had questions we could not answer so the factors of the universe were represented in polytheism, simplifying the forces of nature with gods. Only when different cultures clashed did the idea of an omnipotent monotheistic God arise to triumph over rival believes, but loses further the components of nature. We went from appreciating each beetle, leaf, grain of sand; to seeing only animals, plants, earth; and then simply to all encompassing forest. Our perception has zoomed out, along with our appreciation. Whereas we once had questions and no answers, now we seem to have all the answers without knowing the questions. How many people express opinions more than they ask someone else’s? I believe that there is spirituality and wisdom to be found in the beetles, leaves and grains of sand – we just have to ask them.

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