top of page
Pod and red seeds of Bixa orellana
Bixa orellana (Bixaceae Family; Kichwa: manduru; Shuar: Ipiak ) is a primary agent of beauty in the traditions of the Runa and Shuar communities of eastern Ecuador. Its fruit produces a bright red dye that is used as a face paint. So beautiful and mysterious is this dye that it is believed to be an agent of creation. In Runa origin stories Manduru Warrmi (Bixa orellana) was once a sensuous human girl. After Manduru and her sister Huituc (Genipa americana) mature through a series of amorous misadventures they turn into the trees that impart beauty and mystery to other species: Bixa orellana, the source of red face paint and Genipa americana, the source of black face paint. The two sisters then transform the various beginning time people into variuous species of plants and animals by painting them various shades of red, reddish brown, and black.
Talking about Manduru
Luisa Cadena - Origin of Dahua Pishku, Wituk and Manduru.
Luisa Cadena - Wituk and manduru gestures.
Luis Vargas - Wituk and Manduru.
Amazon plant medicine used for prostate cancer.
Origin of Manduru and Wituk
The narrative cycle of the sisters Manduru and Wituk is central to the creation story of Achuar, Shiwiar, Shuar and Kichwa speaking people south of the Rio Napo in Eastern Ecuador. A series of loosely related stories narrate the sexual experiences of these two human sisters who move from one man to another until they eventually mature and become plants. The red woman, Manduru (below left) becomes Bixis orellana (left) and her sister Black woman or Wituk (below right) becomes Genipa americana. These are two of the plants with greatest cultural significance to Amazonian communities. Bixis orellana is the source of a red paste or dye that is used as body paint. It is symbolic of blood and used in many ceremonies. Genipa americana is the source of a black dye that is also used as body paint and has many ceremonial uses. After becoming trees these women create the animals we know today by painting their human children in various shades and patterns of red and black. In some way, the red and black paints are believed to contain the beautiful qualities of these women.
Manduru and Wituk
The experiences that they had as women are important for it is through these experiences that they develop the powerful and mature femininity that they have now. In some way these two plants still carry within them the complex and sensual personalities they acquired as human women prior to their transformation into plants, and something of this personality is contained in the paints and medicines that come from them. By examining the stories of the sisters, Manduru and Huituc, it may be possible to gain a deeper insight into how Runa understand the past love life of plants. This in turn may provide insight into the present status of plants as potential objects of human love songs. I will begin with a short overview of the story and then focus in some detail on the relevant episodes. According to Luisa Cadena, before becoming plants, Manduru and Huituc were human sisters about to marry brothers. Manduru, the older sister, (and in some versions both sisters) had a series of affairs. While married to a man who later became the squirrel, she had a secret affair with a man who became the dolphin accepting fish from him and giving him manioc. After a series of other affairs the two sisters entered into a relationship with two brothers who later became swallow-tailed kites. The two brothers offered fish to the girls and sent them to bathe their future mother-in-law. They warned the girls not to bathe her in hot water but the girls playfully did bathe their future mother-in-law in very hot water, melting the old lady. As a result the girls were abandoned by their potential husbands. The story then continued as follows: 1. In the afternoon when they were left behind they said, when they were left [one sister] said ‘Now what is going to happen to us? Let us stay right here. Now what will we turn into?’ Now what will we become? 2. I am (have a) hairy vagina. I am going to turn into manduru,’ [one sister] said. 3. The other sister said, ‘I am hairless. I don’t have hairs. I am a naked vagina. I will turn into huituc,” she said.. 4. I am going to be in the mud and you will stand in good soil,’ she said. 5. Then the sister who was transformed first stood up as a huituc tree. Standing she said “Now I am transformed. I am going to become huituc. You be manduru.’ She said. For the purposes of my argument, the important elements of the story are these. Bixis orellana and Genipa americana were once very attractive human girls. These girls got themselves into so many problems with men that, eventually, they became homeless. When there was no place left for them in the human family they became plants. It is particularly the sexuality of each girl that is important in determining the kind of plant that she will become. In order to understand the nature of these plants it necessary to explore in some detail the problems that they had with men. To anticipate, the problem that they had with men can be attributed to a particular moral fault called quilla. It is because of this same moral fault called quilla that a new species typically splits off from the human family. We can now return to the story of Manduru and Wituk to show how their relationships to men exemplify the character trait called quilla. Although there are many oral versions of the girls’ encounters with these different men the most complete text published to date is a Shuar language version recorded by Siro Pellizzaro (1988) In Shuar culture the preferred form of marriage was one man married to two sisters. Hence in Shuar versions the two sisters Manduru and Huituc move together from man to man. According to Pelizzaro’s text (as well as Luisa Cadena’s unpublished version) Manduru and Wituk lived with a man named Kunamp/Ardilla (Sciureus sp.) who had very prominent front teeth. Although the girls appeared to be working hard carrying the corn from their gardens, they were unable to control their tongues and loudly made fun of their husband’s teeth. The annoyed husband promptly imprisoned the girls in bamboo ending the relationship (Pellizzaro 1988:181-86) Another man, Paushi (curassow) according to Cadena, or Sicuanga (Ramphostos cuvieri the toucan) according to Whitten (2008), cut them free but instead of pursuing stable alliances with these men, the girls move on to more unsuitable encounters. The two sisters then arrived at a home of an older woman who invited them in to wait for her son. Her son, she told them, was a great warrior. Instead of asking questions the girls allowed desire for marriage to cloud their judgment. At first the sisters prepare steamed fish for this man in the hopes of getting married. Then, unable to stick to their intentions, the girls eat the food themselves and fall asleep. Upon waking they sensed that someone had molested them. As they lay watching they saw the woman feeding her son by the fire. To their surprise he was not a warrior at all but the moth boy Katarkap sitting by his mother in the night, a long penis wrapped around his neck. After feeding him the mother placed her son on a stool beside the girls’ bed. Without giving game to the girls’ family or receiving manioc drink, the boy sought to penetrate first one sister and then the other. This time however the girls were sleeping with their skirts tucked tightly between their legs and he was unable to penetrate them through the cloth (Pellizzaro, 1988, 87-94). Leaving the home of Katarkap, Manduru and Wituk finally meet a good man, Nayapi (Elanoides Forficatus; Quichua: Tijeras Anga), who offered the girls fish and game and was willing to marry them. Because Naypi was on his way to a long hunting trip he sent the girls to wait for him in his home where he asks them to take care of his mother. The girls lose there way however because they are tricked by a man who later became Tsuna, a large deep forest tree with a very foul smelling sap. Instead of arriving at the home of Nayapi they mistakenly arrive at the home of Tsuna. Tsuna’s mother invites them to help her make asua while they wait her son who, she says, is a great hunter (and whom they think is Nayapi). After the girls are in bed, the son comes home. The woman and her son noisily chew on a little crab commenting loudly that they are chewing the bones of a large animal killed by the son. The girls thought that he was indeed the great hunter. Tsuna climbed into bed between them and spent the night caressing first one and then the other. In the morning the girls found themselves covered with a disgusting secretion that reminded them of sap of the Tsuna tree. Instead of making love with the hunter they had been seduced by the tree man Tsuna. The foul smell of his sap was in their eyes, in their armpits in their nostrils and in all of the places where he had kissed them. Although they bathed they could not completely get rid of the smell (Pelizzaro 1988: 103-110, 151-163). Finally, still smelling of their night with Tsuna, the girls arrive at the home of Nayapi and are invited in to wait by his mother. In return for his gift of fish Nayapi had asked the girls to perform the female task of bathing his aging mother with lukewarm water. In Runa thinking a cari mama or husband’s mother is a respected figure for a cachun or daughter-in-law. Loving care of a cari mama is a central part of female labor. Yet instead of bathing their cari-mama carefully in lukewarm water, the girls playfully and deliberately scald the old woman with hot water as a kind of joke, melting her and causing her son to withdraw from the marriage. (Pellizarro 1988:110-120). In a Quichua version collected by Foletti-Castegnaro the girls do bathe their future mother-in-law carefully at first but are then overcome by curiosity to see what would happen if they bathed her in very hot water (1985:99-103). The girls then fled from Nayapi to the home of a young man named Machin/Tsere who later became capuchin monkey (Cebus capucinus). In a narrative style reminiscent of erotic comedy the narrator tells how Machin invented an array of schemes designed to satisfy his sexual curiosity. First he invented lice hoping that the girls would ask him to delouse them so he could play with their hair. Instead the girls learned to delouse each other. Machin then invented fleas hoping they would let him search their bodies for the pesky creatures. Finally, Machin invented scabies and other skin diseases in the hopes that the girls would ask him to cure ailments in their private parts. The girls, however, learned to heal each other. (Pellizzaro 1988:167-74). Eventually though, the girls succumbed to Machin’s seduction when they were unable to resist curiosity. Machin had busied himself rolling fiber into string. Curious, the girls asked him why he was making string. Machin offered to tell them on the condition that they let him kiss their breasts. Dying of curiosity, the younger sister Wituk exposed her breasts first. Machin kissed one breast and then another. Still he still would not tell what the string was for so Manduru exposed her breasts too. After kissing Manduru’s breasts Machin finally told the girls his secret. To avenge the death of his mother, Nayapi had commissioned Machin to make the string so that Nayapi could make smoked meat out of Huituc’s body (Pellizzaro 1988:122-123). Hearing this, the girls continued their flight. They soon realized however, that they had no where else to go. They had become estranged from men and men had become estranged from them. Through their acts of quilla they had alienated the aicha yaya Nayapi who wanted to marry them and who might have sustained them with fish. In addition they had become disenchanted by quillas like Katarkap, Tsuna and Machin. These men only sought to seduce them offering nothing in return. In short Manduru and Wituk had had a series of misadventures in which different men had had sex with them, not so much because the girls wanted sex, as because they were tricked into things, could not resist curiosity, fooled around or were too lazy to pay attention. Now distanced from human men, they were no longer capable of entering into a productive marital union. Manduru and Wituk therefore withdrew from the human race to become plant species. As with all of the transformation stories there is continuity between who the women were before and what they become. The older sister who had a hairy vulva becomes Bixis orellana a plant with a hairy red pod containing seeds that yield a red paint symbolic of blood. The younger sister becomes Genipa americana, a plant with a smooth hairless pod that yields a black paint. As a result of the transformation Manduru and Wituk ceased to be quillas. Instead of wandering, they became stationary. Manduru, the girl who wandered most, became stationary in the chagra, or garden, the place of female work. The word quilla, it will be remembered, means both ‘lazy’ and ‘sexually loose. Instead of being promiscuous and avoiding work the transformed vulvas of Manduru and Wituk now produce valued gifts. Manduru produces a red paint while Wituk produces a black paint. Once they become plants Manduru and Wituk become agents for transforming their human ex-lovers into elegant and productive animal species. Squirrel man painted himself red with manduru to become the Amazonian red squirrel. Nayapi painted his chest black with genipa to become the swallow tailed kite. Sicuanga, the toucan painted his feathers black with huituc and red with manduru. The curassow painted his feathers black with Wituk. Through the women’s transformation into plants their men too were transformed into the various species animals and plants that now interact in an orderly and productive ecological exchange (Pelilizzaro1988: 206-210; Whitten and Whitten 2008:4). In Amazonian society, these two paints are central to the exchange between men and women who are not quillas. Women paint their own faces as well as the eyes of their manioc stems when they plant manioc to make asua. Men painted their faces with manduru and wituk to attract game while hunting. In social situations, these body paints symbolized the attractiveness and sensuous beauty of men and women who came together in socially appropriate exchange. Wituk and manduru dyes are now gained by humans through exchange with these plant species. Although the exchange is with plants, the origin story leaves little doubt that the reception of these dyes and medicines is to be understood on the pattern of exchange of female for male products. Bixis and Genipa may be transformed women but they are women all the same. The red and black dies are inescapably the products of female work because they are produced in the transformed female organs of Bixis and Genipa. Although Manduru and Wituk are clearly quilla women, they are not flat characters that represent only sexual looseness and laziness. As they proceeded through their adventures they also resisted and matured so that in the end they also became exemplars of the shinzhi warmi’s (strong woman’s) modesty and ability to resist quillachina (seduction). By learning to resist seduction they invented many of the practices that become recognized markers of female modesty. They were the first to learn to groom each other’s hair rather than ask men to do it. They were the first to learn to sleep with their dresses tightly tucked between their legs. By learning to cure each other’s itches and skin ailments rather than allowing themselves to be treated by men Manduru acquired the medicinal properties that inhere in the plant today.
Miriam Vargas “Manduru Palu."
Coral snakes are called manduru palu. Manduru is the Kichwa name for Bixis orellana the soure of a bright red dye used in painting the face. According to oral tradition when Manduru was a human woman she and her sister Wituk painted the animals as they were being transformed from human into animal form, giving them the color they have now. See the Story of Wituk and Manduru. The manduru snake is believed to have a stinger in its tail.
Drawing of Manduru Warmi (Bixa orellana woman by Miriam Vargas Dagua. 2009)
Shuar Toucan Feather earings, circa 1965
According to tradition toucans owe the red color of their feathers to Bixa orellana.
bottom of page