Celestial Journey of the Carib Shaman from ‘Shamanism’ by Mircea Eliade

Though also centering on the neophyte's ecstatic journey to the sky, the initiation of the Carib shamans of Dutch Guiana makes use of different means. A youth cannot become a pujai without succeeding in seeing the spirits and establishing direct and lasting relations with them. There is less a "possession" than an ecstatic vision making communication and conversation with spirits possible. This ecstatic experience can take place only in the course of a celestial journey. But the novice cannot undertake the journey unless he has been both taught the traditional ideology and prepared, physically and psychologically, for trance. As we shall see, his apprenticeship is extremely rigorous.

Usually six youths are initiated at once. They live in complete isolation in a hut built especially for the purpose and covered with palm fronds. They are required to do a certain amount of manual work; they tend the master initiator's tobacco field and make a bench in the shape of an alligator from the trunk of a cedar and set it in front of their hut. On this bench they sit every evening to listen to the master or to wait for visions. In addition, each of them makes his own bells and a "magical staff" six feet long. Six girls, under the supervision of an old woman teacher, serve the candidates. They furnish the daily supply of tobacco juice, which the candidates are obliged to drink in large quantities, and every evening each of them rubs the entire body of one of the candidates with a red liquid; this is to make him handsome and worthy to enter the presence of the spirits.

The initiation takes twenty-four days and twenty-four nights, and is divided into four parts; each series of three days and nights of instruction is followed by three days of rest. Teaching takes place at night, in the hut; there is dancing in a circle and singing, after which the candidates sit on the alligator bench and listen to the master discourse on the spirits, good and evil, and especially on "Grandfather Vulture," who plays an essential role in the initiation. He has the appearance of a naked Indian; it is he who helps the shamans to reach the sky by a spiral ladder. This spirit is the mouthpiece of the "Indian Grandfather” that is, the Creator, the Supreme Being. The dances imitate the movements of the animals of which the master has spoken during his teaching. By day the candidates remain in their hammocks, in the hut. During the rest period they lie on the bench, their eyes rubbed with redpepper juice, thinking of the master's lessons and trying to see the spirits.

Throughout the instruction period fasting is almost absolute; the apprentices constantly smoke cigarettes, chew tobacco leaves, and drink tobacco juice. After the exhausting night dances, with fasting and intoxication superadded, the apprentices are ready for their ecstatic journey. The first night of the second period they are taught to turn into jaguars and bats. On the fifth night, after a complete fast (even tobacco juice is forbidden), the master stretches several ropes at different heights, the apprentices dance on them in turn or swing in the air, holding on with their hands.  At this time they have their first ecstatic experience; they meet an Indian, who is really a benevolent spirit (Tukajana). "Come, novice. You shall go up to the sky by Grandfather Vulture's ladder. It is not far." The apprentice "climbs a sort of spiral ladder and thus reaches the first storey of the sky, where he passes through Indian villages and cities inhabited by Whites. Then the novice meets a Water Spirit ( Amana), a woman of great beauty, who urges him to dive into the stream with her. There she imparts charms and magical formulas to him. The novice and his guide land on the farther bank and reach the crossroads of 'Life and Death.’ The future shaman may choose between going to the 'Land without Evening' or the 'Land without Dawn.’ The spirit guiding him now tells him of the destiny of souls after death. The candidate is suddenly brought back to earth by an intense feeling of pain. The master has applied the maraque to his skin, a sort of woven mat in whose interstices large poisonous ants have been inserted."

On the second night of the fourth period of instruction the master puts the apprentices in turn on “a platform suspended from the ceiling of the hut by a number of cords twisted together, which. as they unwind, make the platform revolve with increasing speed.” The novice sings: "The platform of the pujai will carry me to the sky. I shall see the village of Tukajana." And he enters the various celestial spheres one after the other and sees the spirits in a vision.  Intoxication by the takini plant, which produces a high fever, is also employed. The novice shakes in every limb, and evil spirits are believed to have entered him and to be tearing his body. (The well-known initiatory motif of dismemberment by demons is easily recognizable here.) Finally, the apprentice feels that he is carried into the sky and enjoys celestial visions.

Carib folklore preserves the memory of a time when shamans had great powers; they are said to have been able to see the spirits with their bodily eyes and could even bring the dead back to life. Once a pujai went up into the sky and threatened God; seizing a saber. God drove the insolent mortal away; since that time, shamans can go to heaven only during ecstasy. We must emphasize the resemblance between these legends and North Asian beliefs concerning the original greatness of shamans and their subsequent decadence, which the present has only increased. We can read in it, as it were in filigree, the myth of a primordial age when communication between the shamans and God was more direct and took place concretely. Following some act of pride or revolt by the first shamans, God forbade them direct access to spiritual realities; they can no longer see spirits with their bodily eyes, and ascent to heaven can be accomplished only in ecstasy. As we shall see before long, this mythical motif is still richer.

Métraux cites the observations of early travelers on the of the West Indian Carib. For instance, Laborde reported the masters "also rub his (the neophyte's) body with gum and cover it with feathers to make him able to fly and go to the house of the zemeen (spirits).” There is nothing surprising in this, for the ornithomorphic costume and other symbols of magical flight are an integral part of Siberian, North American, and Indonesian shamanism.

Several elements of the Carib initiation are found elsewhere in South America. Intoxication by tobacco is characteristic of South American shamanism; the ritual seclusion in the hut and the stem ordeals to which the apprentices are subjected are one of the essential aspects of Fuegian initiation (Selk'nam and Yamana); instruction by a master and "visualization" of the spirits are likewise constituent elements of South American shamanism. But the technique of preparation for the ecstatic celestial journey appears to be peculiar to the Carib pujai. It should be noted that we here have a complete scenario for the typical initiation: ascent, encounter with a spirit-woman, immersion in water, revelation of secrets (most importantly, of human destiny after death), journey into the regions of the beyond. But the pujai makes every effort to gain an ecstatic experience of this initiatory schema, even if ecstasy is to be obtained only at the cost ofaberrant methods. We receive the impression that the Carib shaman uses any means to gain a concrete experience of a spiritual condition that, by its very nature, refuses to be "experienced" in the way in which certain human situations are "experienced." This observation should be borne in mind: we will return to and complete it in connection with other shamanic techniques.