Misfortune Ritual: Dispelling Chagas’ Disease


The following “misfortune ritual” of a Kallawaya warmiyachaj (woman diviner) illustrates how ailments of Chagas’ disease can be seen to reflect the forces of nature. It is derived from contemporary research of rituals among the Kallawayas from 1963 to the present (see Bastien 1978, 1987a, 1992). Pseudonyms are used and the account is narrated in the first person. The patient’s name is Tika, “flower” in Quechua. Tika tells about her ailments:


Chuyma usu [heart disease], I asked for a yachajs [soothsayer] to read the coca leaves and the bowels of a cuy [guinea pig] to see why my ajayu [spiritual fluid] and vira [fat: material energy] do not flow back and forth between the earth. Why my chuyma [heart] gets bigger and bigger…

The yachaj spoke with Pachamama [Mother Earth], who said that my chuyma contains fluids that must flow down the river like my yawar [blood] used to flow. Yawar, ajayu, and vira have stopped. I must call a Jampiri [herbalist] and a Warmi Yachajs to perform a sajjra mesa [misfortune ritual] to the mayu [river].


Figure 10.

Kallawaya jampiri or herbal curer. Approximately 120 Kallawaya herbalists live in the Department of Bautista Saavedra, Bolivia. They travel throughout Andean countries treating people with Chagas’ disease and other illnesses. They practice a thousand‑year‑old tradition and use over one thousand plants. (Photograph by Joseph W. Bastien)


Tuta Korota, a warmiyachaj, was called to perform a sajjra mesa. The first part of the ritual was performed in the cooking room of Tika’s house to dispel the misfortune with the wind; the second part was performed near the river to wash the misfortune away. A woman performs sickness rituals to the wind and river due to her structural position in a society in which she marries and moves away from her matrilineage but in which her daughters marry and return to their mother’s land. She links the generations in marriage in a movement away and yet continuous. According to age‑old traditions, women are linked with misfortunes, both causing as well as removing them. So, too, rivers wash away misfortunes but also restore. Rivers form the boundaries of the land. The configuration of Cuzco as the body of a puma was defined by rivers flowing through the capital of the Incas (Rowe 1967). Rivers are also seen to traverse the heavens and netherworld. The Milky Way is believed to connect the stars across the sky. Concomitantly, it is believed that underneath the ground are rivers along which the dead travel on their return to the earth (Bastien 1978).

Tuta Korota arrived at Tika’s house on a Friday night, shortly before midnight. Tika described it:


Tuta Korota sat in the eastern corner facing west, I sat with my mother and sisters around her. We placed cloth, potatoes, oca, and coca leaves in a bundle, tawichu, a woman like us. Tuta Korota was a wizard of the wind also. She purified us with incense and asked permission of the wind [Wayra ] to perform the ritual by throwing aqha [chichal corn beer] into the air so that Wayra could carry it “to where Wayra blows.”


Wayra had supposedly brought chuyma usu to Tika, and, in retaliation, Tuta Korota poured another cup of chicha for the community wind. She passed this cup over Tika’s and her matrilineal relatives’ heads and went into the courtyard to throw it into the wind. This toast was to ensure that the wind of those who cursed Tika would be destroyed.

Wayra has two aspects: it serves as a metaphorical vehicle for cursing people, and it also brings the rain clouds to wash away sicknessto remove the chijekuna (invisible troublesome substances) within Tika and to dispose of them within the river. The wind’s two climatic properties parallel the river’s two relationships to the mountain as both erosive and cyclical. As Andean etiology parallels telluric forces of nature, so too Andean ethnomedicine symbolically serves these forces (see Bastien 1978, 1985, 1987a, 1992). Tika continued:


Tuta Korota laid a wayllasa [ritual cloth] between us. She laid a rat at the head of wayllasa and sorted out twenty wads of dark llama wool. Mamay [my mother] brought coca leaves from Cabildo [shrine of patio] and Capilla [Chapel]. Tuta Korota put slivers of llama fat on the coca, saying, “Here’s some food for the rats and mice.” Tuta Korota also served daisies, seeds, herb clumps, and moss. The wads were wrapped to the rat’s back and two wads were given to each of us. Tuta Korota rubbed me with the wads, demanding, “Chijekuna purijchej! Chijekuna purijchej! Chijekuna purijchej!” [Be gone!]…


Tika traveled with Tuta Korota and her relatives to the river to wash themselves and to expel the inner fluids contaminating her. Tuta Korota dispelled Tika’s misfortunes [chijekuna ] into the river to be washed away, as Tika narrated it:


…I put one wad in my sandal and the other inside my headband. We filed out the front gate into the mud and rain. Everyone carried a large pack of dirty clothes to wash in the river. We stumbled along in the dark. Tatay [my father] led. Tuta Korota followed. She was old but kept up with us.

…we arrived at the Kunochayuh River and climbed another steep path up the mountain. Tatay showed me a cave alongside the river. “This goes to the Uma Pacha [place of origin and return]” he explained. “It is where we feed our ancestors.”

…Tatay built a small fire inside the cave. Tuta Korota placed one wad in each of my hands. I prayed to Mayu and asked her to remove the chijekuna within my chuyma. I knelt facing the river’s descent. Tuta Korota threw the yolk and white from a duck egg into the water, and then she removed the black wads from my headband and sandal. She broke wool threads around my right and left hands and right and left feet. She put the black wads into an old coca cloth with guinea pigs, rat, coca quids, and ashes. Everyone looked away, as Tuta Korota flung the cloth into the river, saying, “Puriychej chijekuna! Puriychej chijekuna! Puriychej chijekuna” [“Begone Invisible substance!”]


As is the case in other Andean misfortune rituals, the participants entered the icy waters to cleanse their bodies and then returned home. Tuta Korota revealed that sickness was related to corporeal, social, and geographical entities and that the human body in its constitution and dissolution is related to similar factors within the environment. In a sense, every symbol in the ritual suggested returning the misfortune to its place in nature. In a symbolic way, this could be seen as the desired return of vinchucas and T. cruzi to their forest environments.

The misfortune ritual is far removed from the microscopic view of the disease of the paleopathologists who examined Tika’s Inca ancestors. The former found wind, river, and earth; the latter found nests of amastigotes of Trypanosoma cruzi within human tissue. Neither perspective presents an entirely complete picture of Chagas’ disease. Andean ritual symbolically and spiritually adds to microbiology by metaphorically reversing the microscope and seeing the broader context.


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