Friday, August 3, 2007

Canaima: Pemon Spirit of Death

For most people who visit Venezuela, the name Canaima conjures up images of jungle tours, boat trips in dugout canoes up the Rio Carrao and visits to the base camp below Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world.

But for the Pemon Indians of the Gran Sabana, Canaima is nothing less than the evil spirit which lurks in wait for them in the dense forest, the poisonous snake in the underbrush, the sharp branch that catches them in the eye.

According to Venezuelan writer Jose Berti, the Pemon, "like most pre-Colombian tribes don't believe in a natural death; and in order to explain their eternal disappearance from this world, they have created a symbolic character, Canaima, who pursues them without rest and who in the end defeats and kills them."

Canaima, the Indians say, can take the form of a jaguar in the forest, or a spirit who passes through their huts at night. Every mishap that ends in cuts and bruises is laid at his door.

"If an Indian suffers from pneumonia, they say that Canaima has blown on his chest, if he has a stomach ache, it is put down to the evil work of Canaima, so that Canaima, or Death, is his implacable and eternal enemy," he adds.

I experienced the Pemon fear of Canaima first hand a number of years ago when I was working in Canaima camp as a tour guide. I had started working there with the idea that I would spend all my time leading tour groups to Angel Falls and the tepuis but my first weeks were spent at the small airstrip fighting the other guides for the few tourists who arrived in air taxis from Ciudad Bolivar.

One morning, the drowsy stupor of the airstrip was broken by shouts that something was happening down at the lagoon.

It seems that an American tourist had gone for a swim in the cold, tea-red waters of the lagoon and had never come back. He was with a young Venezuelan woman and her child and when they lost sight of him they had called the National Guard and the staff at the beach bar to help them look, but nobody could find any trace of him.

She said he was a strong swimmer and had insisted on swimming beyond the area marked out near the beach with small bouys and out towards the Hacha Falls.

Later, somebody said a reward had been offered for anybody who found him. It was feared he had drowned but the National Guard needed proof.

Next day, the rumours of a reward had spread all over the camp. People came down from the base camps to help in the search. As the day wore on it seemed the reward changed with whoever you asked until it reached several thousand dollars, a small fortune for most people marooned out here in the middle of the jungle.

Soon, nearly all the Indians had launched their wooden curiaras (canoes) and fashioned long branches and poles so they could probe the bottom of the lagoon and find the unfortunate US tourist. Some even brought out old diving masks, useless in the dark waters, and dived in again and again to feel with their hands along the deep, murky bottom.

It seemed like everybody had come out to try their luck that day and the day after.

But it was only after they'd all given up, on the third day, that the body was found- just floating on the surface. Again I was at the small airstrip when the word came and we all rushed down to the small church in the camp to see what they'd found.

The Pemon Indians from the village next door had already arrived and were holding cloths or their T-shirts over their mouths and noses so as not to be infected by any vapours from the corpse.

The body had set rigid and the man, who was at least six foot, looked like a large action figure, his legs caught in the action of kicking out against the eddies and swirling currents that had dragged him down. He must have been head first down in the water because his shoulders were enormous and pink, puffed up like a superhero. His face was contorted with the effort of saving his skin. The fish had nibbled away at his ears.

But the strangest thing was his ankle. The Indians were all pointing to some marks on his ankle, like the puncture marks a snake might make, only it would have to be a mighty large snake to make those kind of marks.

"Anaconda bite", one young Indian said. I'd seen small anacondas in the lagoon and on the beach but never anything that could hold a grown man under the water like that.

Like, where's Jennifer Lopez when you need her?

But the older Pemon were shaking their heads: "Canaima", an old man said in a sort of whisper, as if it was a word you shouldn't say out loud. "It was the Canaima who took him down to its lair in the calm waters behind the falls."

And that was it. Case closed. All anybody could talk about was the Canaima. And nobody went swimming, at least for a week, until the tourists started to arrive en masse and we were all too busy to think about the strange case of the big, scary snake in the lagoon.

I guess I'll never know what caused those marks on the dead man's ankles, but for a moment, standing in that church with most of the Pemon village crowded in around me, the idea that he had been drowned by a malignant spirit taking the form of a giant anaconda seemed to make perfect sense.

Russell Maddicks

Pemon Myth 1: The Legend of Makunaima
Pemon Myth 2: The Tree of Life
Pemon Myth 3: The Great Flood and the Creation of Roraima
Auyan-tepui, Angel Falls and Pemon myths

Return to Venezuelan Indian main page


Jungle Mom said...

thanks for stopping by! I am enjoying looking through your blog. I have traveled among the pemon quite a lot. mainly on the Paragua.
It is true among most of the tribes, no one dies of natural causes, always a spirit. I could relate to your thought that it seemed quite possible while there.
I am curious how you came upon my blog.

Anonymous said...

Hi Russ, Enjoyed the interview re: the British mercenaries who fought in Venezuela´s Independence Wars, and was intrigued by the following comment by your interviewee:

A few dozen wrote their memoirs, variously praising Bolívar for being the greatest hero of the age, or criticizing him as a power-crazed dictator...

Could we say, alluding to Mr. Chavez, that this is a case of ´what goes ´round, comes ´round?


Isabela said...

Hola Russell, muy interesante tu relato, de hecho los Pemón atribuyen casi todas las muertes a los ataques de Kanaima. Mi tema de investigación del postgrado es sobre la situación actual del sistema religioso Pemón, incluyendo lo tradicional y lo no tradicional... evidentemente tocando el tema del Kanaima como uno de los más importantes..

janet said...

Great site Russ,
Really enjoyed the legends and loved seeing the photos. Took me back to the days of Venezuela and the great trips.

Christian said...

Hi Guys,
very interesting story about the Pemons relating relatives´ death to the evil Canaima spirit.

I experienced it myself. We just did a multi-day tour through the Gran Sabana with a smart native tour guide who told us all about the Canaima spirit. The four of us took it as a nice story to tell before going to bed. Actually we then asked a Pemon Indian at the Mantopai Camp about the Canaima spirit. This very nice guy then told us about his diseased brother who was found in bed with body parts cut off - typical for the Canaima, which are refered to be an evil Indian tribe from direction Guayana.

So, after the Pemon told me about his brother we stayed another night at a totally lonely camp near Kavanayen, close to the Pioneer road N10. I can tell you, in this night, with nothing not even the wind surrounding us, I suffered the nightmare of my life! My friend could hardly awake me. Now, that must have been the Canaima spirit, I thought. I barely shut an eye in this night after that incident and it left quite an impression on the Canaima spirit.

Now that I´m back home I try to understand that myth by objective means and I am glad to read that the Pemons normally relate their ancestors´ death to those spirits. It makes me understand the story of the Pemon Indian we talked to.

What an experience...

Tom said...

woah i swam in that lake and went out quite deep, saw a dead baby anaconda on the shore but thought they would only hunt out by the edges. maybe i was lucky!

Josh said...

Great blog. We actually just went to Angel Falls and just like Christian says, our guide told us a story about the jaguar and the night indians that come by the camp. I could not sleep at all! In fact to this day I remember the sound of a drum, drumming a costant beat around the camp and the sound of feet shuffling around.