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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Quero
Quero

The Quero is a Quechua community on the Paucartambo Province, Department of Cuzco, in Peru. They are around 3.700 people living on a region of heights ranging from 3000 to 5500 meters over sea level.

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Pachamama. (María Quispe)
Pachamama. (María Quispe)

Mother Earth, Quechua culture, Peru. 2018. She represents The Earth, but not just the soil or the geologic earth, nor only the nature; she is it all. Is a daily and immediate goddess of fertility, who acts directly, because of her presence, and with whom one permanently dialogue by asking her for livelihood, apologizing for our faults or thanking her for everything she provides to us.

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Apu. (Seferino Soncqo)
Apu. (Seferino Soncqo)

The Mountain, Quechua culture, Peru. 2018. The apus are mountains considered living since pre-incan times, to which direct influence over vital cycles of the regions they dominate is attributed. They are continuously revered and in some places they guard the inhabitants of the valleys watered by the melting of their summits. To consult the oracles, shamans must pay tribute first to the apus of the consultant.

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Inti (Feliciano Soncqo)
Inti (Feliciano Soncqo)

The Sun, Quechua culture, Peru. 2018. Inti is the strongest and most powerful divinity, because from its energy derives everything we have, and his movements across the sky determine the seasons and the fertility periods, as well as many other cycles.

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Viracocha
Viracocha

The Creator, Quechua culture, Peru. 2005. Viracocha is the creator god in the Quechua culture. It is said that he created both world and men from the heights of the sacred Andean mountains and that, for this reason, he is venerated as one of their main gods and his very name is a sign of respect and admiration.

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Mamacocha. (Teresa Quispe)
Mamacocha. (Teresa Quispe)

Mother of the waters. Quechua culture, Peru. 2005. For the Quero people, in the Peruvian highlands, the mountains are sacred, not only because they are closer to the divine Inti –the Sun- but also because they gather the clouds and collect the snows, sources of water. The mother goddess of the waters is Mamacocha, whose kingdom descends from the Andean peaks.

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Pachacamac. (Seferino Soncqo)
Pachacamac. (Seferino Soncqo)

God of earthquakes, Quechua culture, Peru. 2005. The Andes region is one of the youngest on the planet, and still rising. It is therefore a region of strong seismic activity, and this power of the earth is incarnated in of one of the most important gods, Pachacamac, the god of earthquakes, much feared and respected in the Quechua culture.

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Apacheta. (Marcelino Soncqo)
Apacheta. (Marcelino Soncqo)

Guard of the roads, Quechua culture, Peru. 2005. The heights of the Andes form an imposing landscape crossed by the paths the Quero use to go from one village or valley to another. It is a region of extremes, subject to sudden changes in the weather, where mist, lightning, rain, snow and wind can turn a journey into a tragedy. Walkers constantly pray and make offerings to Apacheta, the guardian of paths, for him to protect them on their journey.

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Apacheta II. (Lino Arana)
Apacheta II. (Lino Arana)

Guard of the roads, Quechua culture, Peru. 2018. The heights of the Andes form an imposing landscape crossed by the paths the Quero use to go from one village or valley to another. It is a region of extremes, subject to sudden changes in the weather, where mist, lightning, rain, snow and wind can turn a journey into a tragedy. Walkers constantly pray and make offerings to Apacheta, the guardian of paths, for him to protect them on their journey.

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Wayra. (Seferino Soncqo)
Wayra. (Seferino Soncqo)

The Wind, Quechua culture, Peru. 2018. Andean heights are an open corridor to the sky, were the most powerful forces manifests and fight against each other. Next to the thunderbolt, the fog and the earthquakes, the wind is a feared lord of the heights.

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Wallatani. (Jerónimo Arana)
Wallatani. (Jerónimo Arana)

The Mountain Pass, Quechua culture, Peru. 2018. The summits are a kind of labyrinth were the walls are the giant apus. Vision is always limited to the valley one is crossing. To go from valley to valley, one should cross the lowest points between them: the mountain passes. Tehy are so sacred and symbolic that the traveller stops there and offers his coca quid to the apachetas. They make a pause and contemplate the world from that entrance, before diving into the next valley.

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Kogui and Wiwa
Kogui and Wiwa

The Kogi or Kágaba, meaning "jaguar" in the Kogui languaje, are an indigenous ethnic group that lives in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in Colombia. They are around 10.000 people. The Wiwa people are neighbours to the Kogui on the lowest parts of the Sierra. They are around 13.000 peoples on the North-East parts of that mountains.

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Aluna Java (Antonia Dingula)
Aluna Java (Antonia Dingula)

The ancient mother. Kogui culture, Colombia. 2018. At the very beginning there was only the Sea. Everything was dark. There was no Sun, no Moon, no people, no animals, no plants. Only the Sea was all around. The Sea was The Mother. She was water, river, lake spring and sea. Thereby, at first there was only The Mother. She was Aluna. She was spirit of what it was to come, and she was thought and memory. Thus the mother existed just in Aluna, in the world below the world, alone.

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Sintana. (Lorenzo Gil)
Sintana. (Lorenzo Gil)

The first man. Kogui culture, Colombia. 2018. The first man was born on the sea. There was a small house, in the middle of the sea, called Nyídulúma "water foam". Sintana was born in that house, on the waters, in the darkness. He was afraid to be born. There was not yet land, nor people, animals, plants, food. There was no sun, no moon. Everything was dark.

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The Mama. (Mama Juan Lozano)
The Mama. (Mama Juan Lozano)

The shaman. Kogui culture, Colombia. 2017. The ancestral knowledge of the Kogui is stored in the mamos. These extraordinary figures are selected from before birth - through revelations - and receive a strict education under the guidance of the sages. It is said that their childhood is spent in the dark, where they come to know the world in "aluna" (in the spirit, that is, in concepts), in order to compare it later with the material world.

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Monsauí. (Mama José María Gil)
Monsauí. (Mama José María Gil)

Owner of snow and ice, Kogui culture, Colombia. 2004. Monsaui is one of the lords of the great heights, since he is the ruler of snow and ice. The peaks of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta are his home, and from him descend all the waters that fecundate the mountain range as they pass, melting and forming rivers and streams.

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Tewímako. (Mama Ramón Gil)
Tewímako. (Mama Ramón Gil)

Owner of stones, Kogui culture, Colombia. 2004. It was Tewimako who taught the Kogui the power of divination with stones. He was the first to decipher the oracular language of gems, and he established the rules, uses and meanings connected with them. Gem stones are of particular importance in this culture, which uses them not only for divination, but also for burials or "payments" to the different gods and rulers of places.

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Mamaugui. (Lorenzo Gil)
Mamaugui. (Lorenzo Gil)

Owner of cotton, Kogui culture, Colombia. 2004. Mamaugui is the ruler of cultivated plants, plants that grow according to the order and plans of humans. He is incarnated especially in the cotton plant, which he created in his dreams. Cotton is essential for this culture; weaving is synonymous with living and the loom is a representation of the universe. Men weave the clothes and women the bags.

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Kalakshé. (Mama Romualdo Gil)
Kalakshé. (Mama Romualdo Gil)

Owner of forest, Kogui culture, Colombia. 2004. The Kogi people consider that each and every natural resource has their owner. It is mandatory to pay tribute to them, both before using the resources and once they have been used. The cloud forest is ruled by Kalakshé, the owner of all vegetation that grows in the wild. He owns the mountains and the impenetrable mountain jungle, which provides the Kogi with endless vital resources.

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Kualáyuma
Kualáyuma

Owner of cultivated plants, Kogui culture, Colombia. 2004. In the Kogui culture, all the resources and phenomena of nature have both a male and a female ruler to whom petitions and payments are made for their use. Kalavia and Kaláyuma are the women rulers of vegetation; the former is the ruler of wild plants - the forest - while the latter is the ruler of plants that grow in a orderly fashion, cultivated plants.

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Kalavia
Kalavia

Owner of forest, Kogui culture, Colombia. 2004

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Kualekn (Teresa Gil Moscote)
Kualekn (Teresa Gil Moscote)

Owner of cotton, Kogui culture, Colombia. 2004. For the Kogui, weaving is a metaphor for life. They produce their woven goods, from sowing and processing the cotton to spinning and weaving the cloth; the men weave the clothes for everyone and the women the bags. Cotton, therefore, is a plant of great cultural importance, and Kualekn, as its female ruler, is represented as a symbol of purity, spotlessness and innocence.

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Hiyuxa. (Chema Gil)
Hiyuxa. (Chema Gil)

Owner of fishes, Wiwa culture, Colombia. 2004. The Wiwa culture occupies the lowest parts of the Sierra Nevada, as far down as the Caribbean coast. Among the rulers of their resources Hiyuxa stands out as the ruler of fishes, an important resource and supplier of proteins.

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Awishama
Awishama

Owner of coca, Wiwa culture, Colombia. 2004. The coca plant is sacred for many Andean cultures. For the Wiwa culture the original owner of the coca was Awishama, a teenage girl from whose hair sprouted the sacred leaves like butterflies. It was only after the hummingbird stole the coca seeds from the goddess that it became accessible to men.

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Huichol
Huichol
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Tatevari. (Pancho Carrillo)
Tatevari. (Pancho Carrillo)

Fire God, Huichol culture, Mexico. 2004. He is considered Grandfather Fire, the most ancient of the gods, the first. On him the whole culture depends, because it is he who provides heat against the cold, light in darkness, the ability to cook foods.

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Tatei Wexica Wimari. (María Díaz)
Tatei Wexica Wimari. (María Díaz)

The Eagle Mother. Huichol culture, México. 2018 Eagle Mother Goddess, the messenger, is the wife of the Sun, daughter of Tatevarí -the Fire Grandfather- and mother of Tamatz Kallaumari, the blue deer, our brother.

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Tamatz Kallaumari. (Gregorio Torres)
Tamatz Kallaumari. (Gregorio Torres)

The blue deer. Huichol cultures, Mexico, 2001. The Huichol mythology is based on a trilogy [trimurti] whose central deities are the Maize, the Peyote and the Deer. It is a trinity through which God becomes corporeal. However, the representation of the god Deer may take many forms. Indeed, there are many types of deer, and all those deer are of a different nature. The closest one to humans is the Tamatz Kallaumari, called the blue deer, our brother.

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Tatei Nivetzica. (Alma Torres)
Tatei Nivetzica. (Alma Torres)

Girl-goddess of Maize, Huichol culture, Mexico. 2001. In the Huichol culture many varieties of maize are cultivated and consumed, used in very different ways. Therefore there are also many goddesses associated with the different types of maize. Tatei Nivétzica is a child goddess of maize, one of the most important because among the first, representing the young maize and thus the innocence and purity of youth.

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Aramara. (Marina Espinoza)
Aramara. (Marina Espinoza)

Goddess of Waters, Huichol culture, Mexico. 2004. Tatei Aramara is the divine ruler of the waters and their power to fertilize. She is the ruler of rains, lakes, rivers. She is one of the primordial mothers.

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