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When Clibadium surinamense was a Fisherman.
According to tradition Clibadium surinamense called Masu in the Shuar language was once a human man who had a brother named Timiu. These two brothers became transformed into the two plants most commonly used as fish poisons. Timiu, the older brother was transformed into a powerful fish poison plant, a Lonchocarpus nicou in the Fabaceae family while Masu, the younger brother was transformed in the “weak” fish poison plant pictured here, Clibadium surinamense. A brief examination of this story will show that the relative weakness of Clibadium surinamense when compared to Lonchcarpus is due to a difference in the moral character of the two brothers when they were human. The weakness of Clibadium surinamense is due to a moral fault called “ killa (quilla) in Kichwa.
Talking about Panga Barbasco
In a Quichua version of the story a hunter was walking alone through the forest when he heard a particular tree frog called an atan (Shuar: kaka). This frog, which is generally heard only in old growth forest at night, has a loud a- rhythmic call which Runa men jokingly associate with the sound of a woman in the throws of sexual pleasure: “atan a-tán atán.” Hence the name of the frog atán. Hearing this sound the hunter jokingly calls on the atan to come down from the tree and make love with him. Later, as he again passed the tree on his way home he was startled to find a woman. “That woman was a beautiful woman, a good looking young woman.” The hunter was overcome with fear but she put him at ease, “You said to me ‘tan tan tan do me’ well now do me then.” After making love the woman turned back into the atan and climbed up the tree without letting go of his penis. When his penis stretched out tremendously the man panicked and cut it off with a machete. The pieces were eventually thrown into the various rivers where they became anacondas.
In the Achuar version of this story there are two hunters rather than one and the hunters are named Timiu, Lonchocarpus species, and Masu, Clibadium surinamense (Descola 1994:280-81). Although the Achuar version does not mention the sound of the frog, in a Shuar version both brothers joke together about the frog’s erotic call expressed in Shuar as “kaka kaká kaká (Pellizzaro 1979:115). When the woman appeared the older brother (Timiu in the Achuar version) resisted, sticking to the task of hunting while the younger brother Masu succumbed to the seduction of the atan woman. It was his penis that was stretched out and thrown into the rivers to become anacondas. In Quichua such joking is called quilla-chi-na: (flirting, seducing, literally: “making someone to be quilla”). A shinzhi aicha yaya (strong hunter) would have resisted the temptation to make sexual jokes about the forest. The idle sexual joking had consequences which spiraled into the sexual encounter and finally into transformation. The two brothers became the plants Masu, a weak fish poison that can only kill minnows in relatively still shallow water; and Timiu, a potent poison that can kill larger fish. While both could now be seen as aicha yaya (a complementary term for great hunters and fishermen) plants useful in the male task of fishing, Masu is a weaker fisherman because as a human lover he was more of a quilla, while Timiu is a stronger fisherman because as a human man he was more able to control his sexuality.
Lonchocarpus nicou is a cultigen whose root is used primarily as a fish poison. When found in the forest (as in the picture above) the plant is a clear sign that the location is an old home or garden site. According to tradition Lonchocarpus nicou, called Timiu in the Shuar language, was once a human man who had a brother named Masu. These two brothers became transformed into the two plants most commonly used as fish poisons. Timiu, the older brother was transformed into a the powerful fish poison plant Lonchocarpus nicou while Masu, the younger brother was transformed in the “weaker” fish poison plant Clibadium surinamense. A brief examination of this story will show that the relative weakness of Clibadium surinamense when compared to Lonchcarpus is due to a difference in the moral character of the two brothers when they were human. The weakness of Clibadium surinamense is due to a moral fault called killa (quilla) in Kichwa.
Religious traditions can be compared on what they see as the key sin or fault. For the Amazonian Quichua tradition a key human fault is called “quilla”. Quilla is a word which can be translated by both the English words “lazy” and the words “sexually loose” and yet is not exactly either.” The key is to understand the similarities and differences between the Quichua word “quilla” and the English word “lazy” and “promiscuous. Quilla is laziness at performing that particular task that a person is given by the place, gender, and ethnicity of their birth. For example an Amazonian Quichua woman may sometimes be considered a “quilla” because she is too lazy to maintain a manioc garden even if she does some other modern type of work. Quilla leads to homelessness because the quilla is unwilling to do the work that gives them a home and a place in society Quilla involves sexual promiscuity because the quilla is distracted from their work by the desire to flirt. Quilla is laziness at fulfilling the task that one is given within the web of reciprocity that constitutes ayllu exchange. A woman may be considered “quilla” if she gives the fruit of her labor (chicha) to the wrong person, for example to a lover, instead of giving it to her husband and her husband’s ayllu. Quilla involves envy in that the quilla prefers somebody else’s job, reciprocity relationships to his or her own. The quilla man or woman is always imitating other people and their work, and so ends up being nobody. Quilla is blindness in that it involves the inability to recognize the job and network of reciprocity that comprises a person’s home. Conversely it is blindness in that it involves overvaluing unsuitable people outside of one’s given network of reciprocity who will not provide a home. Quilla involves arrogance and pride. The quilla man or woman thinks that they are too good for their own job the relationships that constitute their home. They are thus ashamed of their own home and relatives, pretend to be from somewhere else, and end up being from nowhere with no home and no relatives. Finally quilla is a kind of immaturity where the individual has not yet accepted working hard at the role that they have been given in life. In all of these ways quilla is a condition or symptom of the end of a world age. It also is the fault that ages the earth, gradually bringing it to an end. Over time, quilla makes the world uninhabitable because everyone wants everyone else’s job, home, lovers and food. They devour each other in a kind of monster world. Native creation stories start with this generalized condition that I equate with the Quichua word “quilla”. It is out of this uninhabitable world that the habitable world emerges. Speciation (animal and plant origin) stories are a part of this creation of a habitable world. Animal and plant origin stories are about how a person lost their home due either to their own quilla or someone else’s. It is about how they withdrew and grew distant due to emotional pain and were eventually given a new home with a new task as a different species.
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