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South America Religion

Indigenous Peoples' ViewThe Axis Mundi

The axis mundi—an imagined and often represented up-down orientation that extends from earth straight up into the sky worlds and straight down into the underworlds—is framed by a strong east-to-west orientation that occurs when the sun emerges out of primordial water on the edge of the earth to begin its journey over land, moving first northward to cross the apex of the vertical axis at the center, and then back westward, where it goes underwater at the other edge and travels southward and then eastward at night. The spatial representation of the axis together with the cardinal points of reference that radiate from its center are motivated by the daytime sun's temporal movement and the disorderly nighttime movement of the moon. The axis mundi is the center of the universe, constituted by a peoples' territory, village, house, body, and even fighting sticks, all of which are represented aesthetically as a dynamic, living, structure of, and in, particular times-places. The axis mundi is often manifest as a world tree or a tree-of-life that grows and branches, creates diversity of fruits and other beings that, when violently cut down, peppers the earth with its variety of life-giving plants, animals, and diverse human beings that transform eventually into today's people and their living environs. It is also represented as a ladder or stairway coming out of deep earth from underwater, and extended up into sky worlds. Severing of this ladder sets in train more events that eventuate in contemporary people and cosmos.

Indigenous historicity—what people take to be salient in their pasts—is intricately and inextricably bound to the landscape, which is itself a sacred and cosmic phenomenon embodying everything by which people identify as us and other. Shamans travel the routes of landscape and mythopoetic history. There they "see" what others can only know by direct or vicarious experience. The shaman is "one who knows." Both male and female shamans exist, though males predominate. All fully human beings, and some focal animals, have something of shamanic power in them, represented as their very own life force that gives meaning to cosmos, landscape, kin, enemies, home, and self. In South America, such focal animals include the anaconda of the water domain, the jaguar or puma of the earth domain, and harpy eagle or condor of the sky domain. Great powers abide in the sky, earth, water, and underearth and are concentrated in special places and objects. Control of these powers lies in the ability of the shaman (and in some areas past and present, a priest)—and counterparts to the shaman, such as artists, speakers, dancers, and ritual specialists—to move in and out of the world of spirits; to cure body, soul, and psyche; and to "see" the everyday world and the cosmos in aesthetic patterns communicated to others through ritual, art, design, speech, drama, poetics, rhythm, and song.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Reason to RetrovirusSouth America Religion - Indigenous Peoples' View - Conceptualizing Space-times, The Axis Mundi, Shamans And Ritual, European Contact, Conclusion