Dark Sorcery: Horrific Ritual Murders in Amazonia

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Anthropologist Neil Whitehead once got too close for comfort in his study of sorcery.

Isthmus | September 7, 2004
He is an anthropologist whose research in the highlands of Guyana nearly cost him his life in a manner almost too horrific to comprehend. But when Prof. Neil Whitehead welcomes me to his office on the UW-Madison campus, he is captivated by the exquisite beauty he has found in an online trove of 15th-century illuminated manuscripts by Bartholomew the Englishman, Jean Froissart and Gaston Phoebus — one of which decorates his computer screen.

Horror and beauty. These may be the most obvious compass points from which to take a bearing on Whitehead, but they are not the only polar opposites that balance his life.

He is a native of London who came of age “watching the IRA blow the fuck out of us,” yet is married to an Irishwoman. He smokes Natural American Spirit cigarettes but also swims a half-mile three or four times a week at the Natatorium because it keeps him in shape for fieldwork and because “I quite enjoy swimming, and I’m quite vain.”

An Oxford-educated member of the faculty here and a leading authority on shamanistic warfare, assault sorcery and indigenous social structures in Amazonia, Whitehead, 48, can recite Shakespeare with ease but can also howl along with prepubescent conviction to a Huckleberry Hound children’s album.

And he has the scholarly enthusiasms of a polymath.

“Guess what I’m on about now?” Whitehead asks.

“Umm, uh, hmm...what?”

“Comic books!” he exclaims with disarming enthusiasm. And not the goofy U.K. comics like The Beano and The Dandy that can render him almost gleeful in unguarded moments, but vintage graphic stories from Amazonia featuring, as he puts it, the kind of nonstandard antihero who at the surface represents working-class feelings and ideas.

“Sure, that’s all there, that’s your Damon Runyon, fine,” he explains. “But there’s a whole ’nother level, or should I say, smelly seam of this. It’s a different way of narrating violence for the purpose of stabilizing or controlling it.” A tangential way of approaching kanaimà.

Kanaimà (kuh-NI-muh) is the form of Amazonian assault sorcery Whitehead has been studying for more than 10 years. It is the subject of Dark Shamans, his career-defining 2002 book about the history of kanaimà, its persistence in the face of colonialism and commercial exploitation of the Guyana highlands, its resistance to academic inquiry, its meanings in the context of indigenous cultural expression — and its relevance for understanding the human capacity for violence.

It is also a prolonged, torturous way to die.

A kanaimà practitioner first stalks the victim, at night or on isolated forest trails, announcing the intention to kill with a whistling noise but then waiting until the victim is deemed vulnerable, as Whitehead describes in a paper published in 2001. The initial attack is swift and incapacitating, resulting in broken fingers, dislocated shoulders and spinal injury but leaving the victim alive with the knowledge that he or she is almost certainly doomed.

The fatal attack may come months or even years later. Once again, the victim is set upon. The tongue is pierced with snake fangs to cause swelling, rendering the victim speechless and unable to eat or drink. The anal cavity is stripped out by the friction of an iguana or armadillo tail. Part of the sphincter muscle is forced out and cut off. Herbs are packed deep into the victim’s rectum to induce auto-digestion, the body is rubbed with natural astringents and the victim dies a lingering death due to diarrheal dehydration.

“Kanaimà violence is very humiliating, and it is in that sense doubled,” Whitehead says. “I mean, no one wants to be hurt physically, but there are clearly ways of being hurt physically that are more humiliating than others. Insult on top of injury, if you like. Which redoubles the force of kanaimà violence, and I think it causes all these outsiders including myself to have their attention grabbed by it.”

The ritual achieves its greatest symbolic potency after the victim’s death, when the kanaimà visits the victim’s grave to suck the cadaver’s juices and retrieve pieces of bone and tissue for use in the next cycle of stalking and killing.

This is the fate that Whitehead appears to have narrowly avoided in 1992, when, during a visit to Guyana to conduct a preliminary survey of archeological sites for the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology, he unwittingly disturbed an artifact in an effort to photograph it.

“I have no proof otherwise and make no accusations,” he writes in Dark Shamans, but how else to explain what followed? A wretched meal was served back at the boarding school where he was lodged, and “I started feeling extremely ill within a few minutes of finishing.” He was soon afflicted with fever and “incessant” vomiting.

Suspecting that his food had been poisoned, Whitehead nonetheless soldiered back out into the field to continue his survey, only to be overcome with intestinal distress. “I had never ever laid down on the forest floor before,” he writes, “for the obvious reason that it is home to many voracious biting insects, but neither can I recall having felt quite so grim, even though I have had malaria, hepatitis, and pneumonia, as well as ‘normal’ food poisoning.”

His symptoms eventually waned, but a series of unnerving encounters with shadowy figures and his continued weak state ultimately led him to beat the retreat and fly out of the region with a vow to return and to continue his study of kanaimà.

“I had a lot of people backing me, walking around with guns,” Whitehead says. “This was all very reassuring. I was angry, too: ‘You don’t do that to me, because I’m going to study you till you’re dead.’ You know, my form of revenge is I’m going to write a book about you and then you’ll be fucked, right? Ha ha ha ha! Or whatever, something like that.”

At the same time, he says, “I felt like, ‘get kanaimà fucking off my case.’” But it wasn’t easy to pull up stakes. “That is a very difficult thing for an ethnographer, because if you lose your nerve.... It’s all about sustaining some kind of, you know, identity and forcefulness when you are necessarily challenged quite possibly to your inner core.”

The meanings of kanaimà rituals among the Patamuna and neighboring Amerindian groups are shrouded in darkness and secrecy. Western observers in the 19th and early 20th centuries ascribed their brutal aspects to pathology, or to notions of revenge rooted in primitive beliefs about magical power.

But Whitehead and his colleagues have peeled back the historical misinterpretations that colonials superimposed on kanaimà and similar shamanistic practices. They have found meanings that are more profound than mere psychopathology.

Whatever their functions in antiquity, for example, kanaimà rituals appear to have metamorphosed during 19th-century colonial encounters to become a cultural performance that “was explicitly understood as a means to resist and reject the white man’s materiality and spirituality,” according to one paper co-authored by Whitehead.

The mutability of purpose continued into the 20th century, as kanaimà and other forms of assault sorcery became a potent expression of autonomy, ambiguous yet spiritually significant, braided into remote sociopolitical structures as a defense against other Amerindians and against what Whitehead calls the “depredations” of the nation-state.

Kanaimà, he suggests, has served to help the Patamuna sustain their culture. Their society is primarily agrarian, focused on the harvesting of manioc, the root that yields tapioca. It is a way of life supplemented by hunting and fishing — “a very standard mode of existence in Amazonia,” Whitehead says.

Clustered in villages of 400 or 500 people, the Patamuna are “hardly Westernized at all,” he adds. Though they may wear T-shirts and other modern attire, he says, those visual markers are deceptive because the way people dress has been globalized — blue jeans and Tommy Hilfiger castoffs are, like cigarettes, universal currency. More significant, Whitehead says, is the fact that the Patamuna are “not part of the nation-state. Kanaimà is part of that independence. It’s a signal that, ‘We’re still Patamuna.’”

Indeed, “part of the challenge of kanaimà is its intimacy,” he says. “The killers and victims are known to each other. Everyone in that sense is at risk. The Patamuna haven’t professionalized violence and handed it over to specialized police and military. It is still very much part and parcel of the community.”

As we sit in his office, which is crammed with books and files, he says, “By and large, scholars and even policymakers have often shied away from contemplating violence, not in the sense of talking about it but actually unpacking what it is.

“Everyone thinks it’s obvious, everyone thinks they know what violence is, and they’re damn sure that it’s always wrong. But my question is, do we really know what it is and is it always wrong?

“The troubling answer I’ve received, through my own fieldwork and my engagement with this extreme and almost incomprehensible killing and murder, is that when I came to understand its origins and context, while I don’t advocate it, there has to be, you know, yes, I do see meaning in this violence.

“I do now think it is not so straightforward to say all violence is bad, we can never tolerate it.”

I ask him why it’s important to come to an understanding of kanaimà violence in the greater context of the world.

“Because kanaimà seems to fit all our prejudices and assumptions about the savagery of others and the civilized nature of ourselves,” he answers. “In other words, yes, we think we’re violent too, but our violence has rationale, it is disciplined and controlled, whereas kanaimà seems to be simply cruel, florid, gross and unnecessary.”

The study of anthropology can help Westerners move beyond this stereotype, he says. “Because people know nothing about kanaimà, they’ll give me the chance to talk about it and put in place an explanation that they, when they’re finished reading, might surprise them. Makes them at least ready to understand that not all violence is meaningless.

“We can turn those frameworks on ourselves and ask: ‘Well, what happens if we look at our own violence as performance, as actually meaningful and not meaningless?’ And face up to the fact that some of us do approve of some forms of violence — that there are some legitimate forms of violence.

“Who legitimizes it?” he asks. The question hangs there, echoing, succinct and rhetorical amid the adverbs Whitehead uses so precisely in conversation.

As editor of last year’s scholarly collection on Histories and Historicities in Amazonia and co-editor of In Darkness and Secrecy: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia, published this summer, Whitehead finds himself in the middle of one of anthropology’s hot lines of inquiry — one that re-engages old questions with new scholarship and new methodologies.

“What happens is, certain parts of the world get hot because they seem to spit out important new ways and thoughts of how to approach things,” says Whitehead. In witchcraft and Amazonia, “we’ve got a lot of very, very, very important themes here, cross-cut by modernity and globalization, which is what ties us all into it.”

In Darkness and Secrecy the subject of sorcery “is global, because what we’re seeing across the globe is a resurgence of traditional forms of violence, principally. Look at those two Wisconsin missionaries. Who were they shot down by? They were killed not because they were Americans but because they were missionaries.

“Now, this is important. They were killed explicitly for the reasons of witchcraft, darkness, secrecy. It’s the shamanic warfare going on there. But you know, when we look at Sierra Leone or Rwanda, we try and read it as Nazi genocide. What we’re missing is what is actually driving these people. We are looking at a post-colonial culture of witchcraft.”

The field is simmering so close to full boil that Whitehead has joined with UW journalism Prof. Jo Ellen Fair and political science Prof. Leigh Payne to marshal a three-year, $30,000 grant to fund a “Legacies of Violence” project that will, over the next two or three years, produce workshops and seminars to address child soldiering, perpetration, collaboration and related topics. (See sidebar.)

“We’re going to truly try and change the agenda,” says Whitehead, “and, you know, stimulate people with, you know, some extremely frightening and challenging ways of thinking about violence.”

I ask him if the sensational aspects of shamanism and warfare, sorcery — dark sorcery — obscure the profound nature of it.

“Absolutely,” nods Whitehead. “That’s exactly what I think happened with kanaimà. You know, people are entranced, the colonial mind was entranced by kanaimà. But it was exactly that which meant that it failed to perceive, just as is the case with radical Islam, the profound spiritual meaning of this violence. What we’re missing with Osama, what we’re missing with Hamas.... These are spiritual acts for them.”

Part of Whitehead’s job as a member of the anthropology faculty here involves lecturing. He’ll teach a course on the anthropology of war this fall — a course that has long since filled to capacity.

During one lecture I sit in on this past spring, he is engaging, dynamic and rigorous, with a rhythmic cadence of speech that provides for thorough note-taking and a volume that projects well throughout Room 5206 of the Social Science building.

His lecture does not break stride when tardy undergrads trickle in a few minutes late, or when a cell phone rings. Bracing himself on the lectern, gripping its edges, or thrusting his hands into his pockets and pacing a bit, Whitehead’s physical presence serves as the vessel for a restless mind.

He appears to work off an outline instead of a fully formed text, and employs the good habit of repeating key words and phrases for emphasis. He gestures little. The heads of his audience are upright, attentive. Time flies by in a jet stream of ideas until the bell.

Whitehead’s capacity for examining a topic that makes other people recoil may be attributable to the experiences of a youth spent in violent times and circumstances.

“I came of age during the whole Irish thing,” he said earlier, when we spoke in his office. “I was deeply involved with the anti-war movement. I’d been to Northern Ireland, I’d talked directly to IRA personnel. This was not part of anthropology but part of life’s journey itself. I’m married to an Irishwoman, so I would say the whole Irish situation was very important in allowing me to formulate ideas about violence that were somewhat nonstandard, because that experience was my growing-up experience. I saw our country go through what this country is going through now. Right?”

He is also the product of a brutal English school system, the pupil of schoolmasters who “were all shattered people from prisoner of war camps, people with tattoos on. I grew up in a world in which Germans were still enemies. I grew up in a world in which the Second World War had finished just 15 years previously.”

Whitehead averts his gaze down to his hands, grows subdued at the memories of being schooled in violence. “I think I was encouraged as a youth to inflict it,” he reflects, “and I’m afraid I don’t have a problem inflicting it as a result.”

He acknowledged this early in life, “because that’s what English public school is about.” But acknowledgement does not mean he is not troubled by it.

“It’s hard now for people to understand, and perhaps it never was like this in the States, but if you lived in England through the ’70s and ’80s as you people were deploying Cruise missiles, we really felt that, hey, the first strike would be on England,” he says. “The imminence of complete annihilation was not something that could easily be put from one’s mind. I think that sentiment was far stronger throughout Europe than it ever was in America.

“I don’t see the world getting any less violent. And this makes it I think a central issue for anthropology. Our thinking on this matter is as primitive as our thinking on sexuality was 30 years ago. You know, we’ve come out of the closet sexually, but we haven’t come out of the closet violently.”

Instead, he suggests, we have co-opted violence, rendered it abstract and distant. “What I think is relevant to know here in the States, the representation of violence, violence as entertainment, I mean, people’s lives here are pretty unviolent. I know we have all that stuff out there, but I was saying to my wife, Jesus Christ, people have no idea what it’s like to live on the West Bank with rockets coming down.

“So we live pretty safe, nonviolent lives here, which is why I think we spend so much time rehearsing it through the media. You know, what a nation this is! Jason and Freddie?!?!? What’s that? The whole — Hannibal Lecter is a hero, he’s not a villain! You know, that’s how far we are lost in all this.”

Whitehead himself lives a pretty safe, nonviolent life with his wife, Theresa — a homemaker and former lecturer in industrial relations — and their four children in Shorewood Hills. When I rang the bell some weeks later, his two youngest daughters and both of the family’s beefy Labrador retrievers (one black, one chocolate) answered the door, followed by the professor. Another daughter and a son are away this evening; he expects Theresa home at any moment. Two cats, a budgie and two hamsters complete the household.

“I don’t see that my story is exceptional,” he says. “It’s because I think my story is part of everyone else’s. My reaction to [acts of violence] is to understand them as not just being produced by individual bad decisions or poor judgment or lousy character, but by the way structurally and socially people are impelled into these violent situations.

“I’ve tended to take risks in life to begin with,” he explains. “I don’t think very conservative characters become anthropologists in the first place, so you’re a bit wild and wacky to begin with.”

How does your wildness and wackiness express itself in daily life?

“Ha! Well, you’d find my classroom less formal and proffy than many,” he replies. “I’m not very respectful of my betters and my elders, necessarily. I spend hours leafing through medieval illuminated manuscripts instead of getting on with my job.

“I also hunt and fish,” Whitehead says. “I like the outdoors, I like all that engagement, and by the way: No, I don’t think hunting is wrong. I think it’s a more real relationship with the natural than wandering around gawking at it.”

At the back of the house, on the three-season porch overlooking the backyard, Whitehead does something wild and wacky indeed. He pulls out an old 33-1/3 rpm album from the stereo cabinet and brandishes the cover. It is a well-played Huckleberry Hound children’s album. He cues up the theme song.

“The biggest show in town is Huckleberry Hound,” the song begins. “For all you guys and gals/The biggest clown in town is Huckleberry Hound/With all his cartoon pals.” As the song builds towards its refrain, Whitehead gathers himself and finally joins in, chorusing the cartoon dog’s name, elongating it into a howl: “Huckleberry Ho-ow-w-w-wnd.”

As a cultural performance, it is thoroughly disorienting. A scholar of ritual violence at the peak of his career, howling along to the theme song for a vintage children’s cartoon. But his howl makes perfect sense. Here is a man at home in a violent world.

For the complete interview with Neil Whitehead, see Document Feed at thedailypage.com.

Let’s talk about violence

“The Legacies of Violence,” an interdisciplinary conference scheduled for Oct. 15 on campus, is the inaugural event funded by the three-year, $30,000 grant secured by UW Profs. Neil Whitehead, Leigh Payne and Jo Ellen Fair.

Session topics aren’t for the weak-hearted: “The Poetics of Violence,” “Skin Hunger,” “The Rwandan Genocide and Its Aftermath,” “The Politics of Genocide,” “The Media and Violence,” “Torture and Its Meanings,” and “Human Rights in a Violent World.” In addition to UW-Madison faculty, participants include Rwandan human rights leader Aloys Habimana, gonzo anthropologist and self-described ficto-critic Michael Taussig (author of Law in a Lawless Land and My Cocaine Museum) and anthropology Prof. Veena Das of Johns Hopkins University, who delivers the Soffa Lecture on “Human Rights in a Violent World.” A reception and dinner follow. For more information, contact lpayne@polisci.wisc.edu, jefair@wisc.edu or nlwhiteh@facstaff.wisc.edu.


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