One of the most sacared Embera traditions is a chaman ceremony. Our chaman, Mamerto, is renowed for his healing ceremonies, a known as ''witch'' who uses his powers for good instead of evil. I've gotten to know Mamerto quite well. He's an excellent artisan, and has carved for me (I in return sought him the bonafide US army hat he requested from a supply store while on leave). He's one of my favorite people in the village, and I felt so privileged when we allowed me to sit in on one of his ceremonies.
Last week, a young Embera couple and their infant son came to Mamerto, concerned because the baby’s “soft spot” on his head was irregular, and his whole head swollen. He had been to the doctor several times for testing, and they were unable to determine a cause. They hoped that our renowed chaman, Mamerto, would be able to help them.
I arrived at Mamerto’s house at 8:30 to find him already sitting in front of a candle, with nearly a dozen empty beer cans in front of him, all covered with a thick palm leaf. He smiled as he invited me in, took another sip of his open beer, and clutched his cocobolo bastons. He had a collection- approximately 10. I noticed each was carved at a different height and held a different design (usually an animal, or a corresponding spirit) on its head.
To begin, he held the bastons to his chest, and blew out the candle. It was quiet and still. Then he began to chant, in a deep, monotone voice. He chanted in Embera, and furiously shook the palm in his head as he did so. Eliecer, next to me, explained hat he was calling the evil spirits in the area to a party. The chanting lasted approximately 20 minutes, and then Mamerto lit a cigarette. He invited the other men, Eliecer and the baby’s father, to smoke with him. He smoked slowly, pensively. Then he then began to chant, and shake his palm again.
Suddenly, he stopped. Surprised, I heard a light “bing.'' I looked all around, unsure where it came from, but it sounded like something metal hitting one of the pots nearby. At the noise, the infant wailed. Mamerto began to have a conversation, furious, although it was in Embera and I could not understand. Eliecer explained to me that a spirit had arrived, and that Mamerto was asking him what sickness the child had. The furious conversation, and then again chanting, continued. After nearly 2 hours of chain smoking and chanting, Mamerto stopped and went to pee off the side of the house. He came back, and then began to speak with the parents of the infant, asking various questions.
He asked if the grandmother, the mother of the baby’s father, had been around the infant. The couple responded yes. It came out that the grandmother had taken a certain type of plant, which is very powerful to the Embera. Mamerto asked them why she had taken it, if she knew the implications or if she had ingested it wanting to be a witch herself. He explained that it was through the grandmother, and the plant, that a evil spirit had entered the child and caused it harm. It was only through her, and the detention of this evil spirit, that he would be cured. The baby’s mother was furious, and she began to yell what sounded like a string of Embera obscenities at her husband.
I was confused. I left the house, tired, but in complete and utter awe of what I had seen and heard. Evil spirits or no evil spirits, I was shaken to the core by what I had just seen.
The chaman’s cemony is certainly one of the most powerful things I have been in my life. As I laid on my back on the floor of the chaman’s hut, between his wife, Dominga and Eliecer, I was struck by the magic of the whole process. The power of the ritual is palpable. The energy in the chaman’s chants and his tone, in contrast with the stillness of the night around us, is definitely a force to be reckoned with. I’m not religious, and I can only compare it to the way I felt nearly 6 years ago, when I was, for no reason at all, bawling at Easter mass on my trip to the Vatican. I am fascinated by the power attached to the meaning of a God, and a culture’s interpretation of the forces of good and evil in this world.
I feel so lucky to have experienced this ancient tradition here in my village, and am even more touched that I have reached a level of trust and respect with the people here that they were comfortable performing it in my presence. I know that it is my culture, or moreso the Western world’s religious influence, that has shamed many Embera from these beautiful healing ceremonies, and the truth and comfort they have brought to their culture for so many years.