GODS OF AMERICA

A natural pantheon

 

In the early years of my career as a photographer, I focused on the religious imaginary of a number of cultures, especially from the point of view of archetypal psychology. Over the last twenty-five years, I have worked with more than thirty-five cultures native to the five continents (including the Sami of northern Europe and the Maori of New Zealand).

In the year 2000 I found out, by chance, that my paternal great-grandmother had been indigenous, a member of a group that disappeared completely, whether exterminated directly or through miscegenation. I felt a strong urge to find about their beliefs, their mythology, their cosmogony. But not a trace was left. I therefore set myself a life project: to research the mythologies of native American groups that have survived up to the present without succumbing to the Christian religion, and to suggest an iconography for their gods, before they disappear altogether. These groups, of course, inhabit remote areas, generally quite isolated.

This is a task which, in spite of its urgency, goes against the present trend. The colonialist mentality is deeply rooted - although apparently covered up - in the American continent and in the world in general. We know much more about Greek, Egyptian and Roman mythology than the mythology of groups that still live among us. No one would dare to say publicly now that the indigenous should die and their cultures should disappear from the face of the earth. But in considering the work of a photographer, it is acceptable only that they should be shown as victims: prostitutes, alcoholics, wretches. If they are shown in all their dignity, with their beauty and strength, as representing cultures from which something can be learnt, an interminable bombardment of labels begins: "the noble savage", "folklore", "exoticism", and a long etc. Rhetoric is another means currently used to complete the genocide begun centuries ago.

But, far from inhibiting me, this difficulty became a stimulus for me, another signal that obliged me to undertake a project which, by the way, found the support of the shamans,  teachers and wise men of the communities where I have been. So, since the year 2001 up to the present, I have included eleven indigenous cultures in six countries, and I have created more than eighty images based on the myths, legends and beliefs of these groups. All the images have been sent later to the communities where I worked, for their schools and communal spaces. And each person portrayed has received the image I made of him or her.

The research has consisted, in brief, of studying the mythologies of the groups with which I am going to work, based on the writings of anthropologists. Then, in the communities, my allies have been the wise men and teachers, who describe to me and advise me on how to make each image: they tell me which people in the community will be the most suitable to represent each deity, and what attributes or items should accompany the figure. So, the field work consists of making the portraits with which later, in my workshop, I assemble each icon.

As for the forms of representation, I decided on plurality and avoided restricting myself to a single format or aesthetic, which would be contrary to the diversity of gods and cultures involved. When it comes to representations of deities, I have shared the cult of manifest beauty, not only in the original cultures, but in practically all cultures, except the contemporary western one. Curiously, we are temporarily possessed by a terror of beauty that is otherwise quite understandable: in times monopolized by reason, beauty and its consequence - emotion - constitute a frank threat given its overwhelming transformative power. What is one of its fields of action par excellence, the world of the arts, is temporarily closed to it. 

In a space of less than twenty years, I have seen communities disappear under the waters of a big dam (A'ukre, Kayapo community of Brazil), and be threatened by mining and tourism (Quero communities of Peru), by the drug trade (the Huichol of Mexico), or by evangelizing (the Piaroa and Pemón of Venezuela). The Gods of America are leaving for ever at a faster pace than I initially imagined, and with them an essential part of humanity - of all of us - will sink irrecoverably into oblivion, or even worse, into ignorance. I am working against the clock and the way is still long.

Antonio Briceño

June 2018

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Pumé
Pumé

The Pume are an indigenous people of some 5.000 people living on the south of the Apure state in Venezuela, and the north of Arauca department in Colombia. They live mainly on the flatlands of the Arauca and Cinaruco rivers.

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The Ianambó.(Carmen Hortensia Subín)
The Ianambó.(Carmen Hortensia Subín)

Ianambó. The Ikhará and 3 pumethó. Pume culture, Venezuela, 2017. For the Pume people every person [Ianambó] is made of one Ikhará –the physical body or shell- and one or several pumethó –the vital essence or spirit-, since everyone has a pumethó for each social role, facet of their personality or traits of character they may have.

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Kumañi. (Ana Rosa Pérez)
Kumañi. (Ana Rosa Pérez)

The Great Mother. Pume culture, Venezuela, 2017. Kumañi is the great mother. She is the first deity and the creator of all things; everything emanated from her and she rules over everything. She created all traditions at the beginning of time, and before time even existed, and everything was darkness, she dreamed of a rising sun, Amariva. Kumañi lives beyond the horizon and ensures that the sun rises every morning.

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Poaná. (José Romero)
Poaná. (José Romero)

The father Anaconda, creator of river beds. Pume culture, Venezuela, 2017. At the beginning of time, together with the primordial mother Kumañi, Poaná and Iticiai, the Great Anaconda and the Jaguar, created themselves from "nothing". It was Poaná who molded the world and its physical features. He defined the courses of the rivers, great and small, and is the ruler of animals and the creatures of the deep.

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Itciaí. (Julio Flores)
Itciaí. (Julio Flores)

The Jaguar. Pume culture, Venezuela, 2017. The jaguar, as the main predator of the continent, usually has a leading role in the mythologies of the regions where it inhabits. Such is the case of Itciaí, creator of the waters of the rivers, one of the first beings and brother of Puaná, the great serpent.

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Kumaleina. (María Dolores Meteya)
Kumaleina. (María Dolores Meteya)

Mother of great floodwaters. Pume culture, Venezuela, 2017. At the beginning of time, the first men did not know Kumaleina, the creator goddess of the Pume people, and for that reason she decided to flood the earth, except for the canopy of some trees. Therefore, she is the owner of the great flood and its waters; she rules over them.

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Kiberohoañí. (Luisa Teria)
Kiberohoañí. (Luisa Teria)

Owner of fire. Pume culture, Venezuela, 2017. Kiberoañi, the frog, was the original owner of fire. She had it inside her and from there, with the help of the mythological hero Hachava, it was shared out to humans.

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Töhehoamé. (Luís Felipe Villerma)
Töhehoamé. (Luís Felipe Villerma)

The singer. Pumé culture, Venezuela, 2017. For the Pume there is a parallel world, a place where everything has already happened and everything is known, where the ancestors go: the world of the gods. It is possible for the Pume to make a spiritual journey to their lands. The pumethó can travel in dreams, during an illness, or guided by the ritual songs of the shamans: the Tohé, through which the sick are cured and all conflicts, problems and questions of daily life, reach a solution.

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Tió Hidañí. (Francisca Ruíz)
Tió Hidañí. (Francisca Ruíz)

The female singer. Pumé culture, Venezuela, 2017. For the Pume there is a parallel world, a place where everything has already happened and everything is known, where the ancestors go: the world of the gods. It is possible for the Pume to make a spiritual journey to their lands. The pumethó can travel in dreams, during an illness, or guided by the ritual songs of the shamans: the Tohé, through which the sick are cured and all conflicts, problems and questions of daily life, reach a solution.

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Pemón
Pemón

The Pemon are indigenous people living on the South-East of the Bolivar State in Venezuela, on the border with Brazil and Guyana. They dwell mainly into the Canaima National Park, and its surroundings, an area known as the Guyanesse Highlands.

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Waranapí. (Joel Cova)
Waranapí. (Joel Cova)

The owner of lighting bolt. Pemon Culture, Venezuela. 2017. For the Pemón, the waranapí are the rulers of thunder and lightning. The story is that their hair stands on end and their faces are reddish, and they have a sudden fatal power that they exercise from the heights, from the clouds.

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Puemuey Pachí. (Ruth Lanz)
Puemuey Pachí. (Ruth Lanz)

The daughter of chilly, Pemon Culture, Venezuela. 2002. For the Pemón, the consumption of ají (chili) is constant and essential to their lives, to the extent that they always have it planted around their houses. They have at least seven varieties of ajíes, all inherited from Puemuey Pachí, the Daughter of Ají, who at the beginning of time also had a human shape.

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Rató
Rató

Spirit of waterfalls, Pemon Culture, Venezuela. 2005. The Pemon people live in a region famous for its great abysses and its lavish rivers, that in these rugged lands give rise to enormous cataracts. The waterfalls and swirls they generate represent very powerful forces, often lethal. Every year there are victims of these waters, unwary people that succumb to their power, dazzled by the magnificence and beauty of waterfalls and their wells. Those turbulent waters are the refuge of Rató.

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Rató II. (Samuel Sarmiento)
Rató II. (Samuel Sarmiento)

Spirit of waterfalls, Pemon Culture, Venezuela. 2005. The Pemon people live in a region famous for its great abysses and its lavish rivers, that in these rugged lands give rise to enormous cataracts. The waterfalls and swirls they generate represent very powerful forces, often lethal. Every year there are victims of these waters, unwary people that succumb to their power, dazzled by the magnificence and beauty of waterfalls and their wells. Those turbulent waters are the refuge of Rató.

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Rató III (Roberto Rodríguez)
Rató III (Roberto Rodríguez)

Spirit of waterfalls, Pemon Culture, Venezuela. 2005. The Pemon people live in a region famous for its great abysses and its lavish rivers, that in these rugged lands give rise to enormous cataracts. The waterfalls and swirls they generate represent very powerful forces, often lethal. Every year there are victims of these waters, unwary people that succumb to their power, dazzled by the magnificence and beauty of waterfalls and their wells. Those turbulent waters are the refuge of Rató.

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Rató IV. (Freddy García)
Rató IV. (Freddy García)

Spirit of waterfalls, Pemon Culture, Venezuela. 2005. The Pemon people live in a region famous for its great abysses and its lavish rivers, that in these rugged lands give rise to enormous cataracts. The waterfalls and swirls they generate represent very powerful forces, often lethal. Every year there are victims of these waters, unwary people that succumb to their power, dazzled by the magnificence and beauty of waterfalls and their wells. Those turbulent waters are the refuge of Rató.

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Makunaima. (Ladislao Lanz)
Makunaima. (Ladislao Lanz)

Shaman´s apprentice, Pemon Culture, Venezuela. 2003. The myth of Makunaima describes every step that a young apprentice must take for his shamanic initiation. Not every man can become a shaman: he must be clever, strong and resilient. One of the main tests he must endure is to be bitten in the chest by some bullet ants, also called ‘24-hour ants’ due to the 24-hour fever produced by their painful bite. A young man born to be a powerful shaman will nevertheless withstand such bites, unscathed.

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Iboribó. (Mauricio Rodríguez)
Iboribó. (Mauricio Rodríguez)

Boy-god of fishes, Pemon Culture, Venezuela. 2003. Iboribó was a very spoilt child. His father, a great fisherman, always took him the best fishes, but he was always dissatisfied. One day Iboribó was sitting in a canoe when, suddenly, a shoal of catfish surrounded the craft and kidnapped the child, taking him canoe and all to the bottom of the river. Since then, he is said to be the god of fishes, and fishermen always pray to him for a good catch.

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Piaimá. (Reinel Pérez)
Piaimá. (Reinel Pérez)

Spirit of the forests, Pemon Culture, Venezuela. 2007. The piaimá are anthropomorphic beings of great size that always live deep in the jungle. Traditionally, their world is thought to be a parallel universe in reverse: mice and rats become their deer and tapirs, and mushrooms, their bread; their arrows are made of wax; and they climb trees with their feet up and their heads down.

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Mawarí. (Roberto Rodríguez)
Mawarí. (Roberto Rodríguez)

Spirit if the mountains, Pemon Culture, Venezuela. 2007. For the Pemón people, the summits of tepuis -high table-top mountains that rise abruptly from the jungle in the Guiana highlands- are taboo sites, because they are home to the mawarí. These mythological beings are associated with the ravines, mountain summits and fantastic landscapes of these regions and are often guilty of the disappearance and death of the unwary that come to their territories, since they are generally enemies of men.

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Canaimö. (Roberto Rodríguez)
Canaimö. (Roberto Rodríguez)

Evil spirit of the jungle, Pemon Culture, Venezuela. 2007. For the Pemón, the canaimö are imaginary beings that live in the thick of the forest. They have exactly the same appearance as humans - it is impossible to tell them apart - but they attack humans when they go alone into the forest, which is a taboo for this culture.

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Kayapó
Kayapó

The Kayapo people are indigenous peoples in Brazil, from the plain lands of the Mato Grosso and Pará in Brazil, south of the Amazon Basin and along Rio Xingu and its tributaries. Kayapo call themselves "Mebengokre", which means "people of the wellspring". In 2010, there was an estimated 8,638 Kayapo people.

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Bepkororoti. (Niepre)
Bepkororoti. (Niepre)

Owner of storms. Kayapo culture, Brazil. 2006. A tapir was hunted and its flesh distributed among the community prematurely, leaving behind Bepkororoti, who complained to all instances but no one paid attention. He went up a hill and invited all the community, and summoned a mighty storm that swept them all away. He is the owner of the storms, and when there is one is because some selfish men are not sharing with others.

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Botoque. (Kupato)
Botoque. (Kupato)

Owner of fire. Kayapo culture, Brazil. 2006. The owner of the fire was the jaguar. He ate cooked food, warmed himself and lit up a fire at night. One day he met Botoque, a lost boy, and adopted and raised him as his son and lived with him in the comfort of the fire. When Botoqué grew old he felt nostalgic and went back to his village and confessed his secret and steal the fire. For this betrayal the jaguar, condemned to cold and darkness, is the most feared enemy of men.

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Oirob. (Ireo)
Oirob. (Ireo)

The first man. Kayapo culture, Brazil. 2006. The first human was the humble Oirob, founder of humanity from the deep heart of the forest.

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Mry-kaak. (Kwaimok)
Mry-kaak. (Kwaimok)

Electric eel-man. Kayapo culture, Brazil. 2006. Mry-kaak is an electric eel man that inhabits deep wells, protecting the spawning grounds and nursery areas for freshwater fish, making them taboo for the Kayapó people. Therefore, it is forbidden to fish in these areas, which guarantees the survival of so many fish species that happen to be the base of the Kayapó diet to a great extent.

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Tono. (Tonho)
Tono. (Tonho)

Brother of the forest. Kayapo culture, Brazil. 2006. At the beginning of times, during the era of innocence, two brothers dwelled at the jungle. They used resources as their were available. Everything was easy and simple, everything was by hand. They did not need anything else.

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Bemoti. (Bemoti)
Bemoti. (Bemoti)

Brother of the forest. Kayapo culture, Brazil. 2006. At the beginning of times, during the era of innocence, two brothers dwelled at the jungle. They used resources as their were available. Everything was easy and simple, everything was by hand. They did not need anything else.

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Arara I. (Aibi)
Arara I. (Aibi)

Macaw. Kayapo culture, Brazil. 2006. The Kayapó are great lovers of beauty and the body ornamentation. Settled in such exuberant scenery –the Amazon jungle- they live among the most magnificent jungle creatures, especially the birds, the macaws being its maximum expression. In fact, in August takes place the "dance of the macaws", in which the participants, dressed like these showy birds, dance throughout the night, imitating their appearance, songs and deployments.

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Arara II. (Emmy)
Arara II. (Emmy)

Macaw. Kayapo culture, Brazil. 2006. The Kayapó are great lovers of beauty and the body ornamentation. Settled in such exuberant scenery –the Amazon jungle- they live among the most magnificent jungle creatures, especially the birds, the macaws being its maximum expression. In fact, in August takes place the "dance of the macaws", in which the participants, dressed like these showy birds, dance throughout the night, imitating their appearance, songs and deployments.

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