Amerindians of Guyana’s Northwest Rainforest Region, Animism, Arawaks, British Guiana, Bush Spirits or Forest Spirits, Caribbean Region, Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), Indigenous Peoples’ Day, The Animism and Folklore of The Guiana Indians by Walter E. Roth (1915)
On October 8, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a presidential proclamation declaring October 11th as a national holiday in celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Does this mean that we will no longer remember this day as Columbus Day? Growing up in what was then British Guiana, I was taught to regard the Genoan explorer Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) as a hero. During his four voyages to the New World, he explored a vast area of the Caribbean Region that he called the West Indies. The gentle and kindhearted indigenous Arawak peoples who first welcomed Columbus and his crew knew not the misery that this encounter would later unleash upon their world.
Based on what Columbus told Peter Martyr, who recorded his voyages, Martyr wrote: “They seeme to live in that golden worlde of the which olde writers speake so much, wherein menne lived simply and innocently without enforcement of lawes, without quarreling, judges and libelles, content onely to satisfie nature, without further vexation for knowledge of things to come.” [As quoted by Edmund S. Morgan in his article “Columbus’ Confusion About the New World”]
Not until his third voyage (1498-1500) did Columbus sight the coastline of Guiana but made no attempt at landing. The Dutch, the first to settle Guiana, referred to this forbidding region of dense tropical rainforest, stretching between the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers on the South American mainland, as “The Wild Coast.” After two centuries of Dutch rule (1600s to 1803) and another century of British rule, the indigenous peoples of then British Guiana, called Amerindians, had lost sovereignty over their territories. Beginning in 1902, the British forced them into reservations.
The Arawaks lived the simple lifestyle of self-denial that Christian monks sought to attain. Yet, the European colonizers considered their Christian belief system as superior to that of the naked heathens who believed that non-humans, including animals and even natural phenomenon, also possess souls.
For all the simplicity of their lifestyle, the Amerindians in Guiana’s rainforest region faced their own terrors. Forest or Bush Spirits with supernatural power dominated their forestial world. Both good and evil, these Spirits could help or harm them. Only the piaiman or shaman could drive away the Evil Spirits causing sickness and misfortunes. In The Animism and Folklore of The Guiana Indians, first published in 1915, anthropologist Walter E. Roth, the British Protector of Indians in the Pomeroon District (1907-1928), offers us a window into the nature of these Forest Spirits.
Forest or Bush Spirits, called Hebus, emanate from the human corpse as well as the dead bodies of animals and birds, and live underground in the forest. An Arawak described them to Roth as hairy people, both male and female, who have so much hair that you cannot see their faces. They have no buttocks. Sometimes, they may appear as skulls or skeletons.
These Spirits inflict harm with their limbs, leaving no mark on the body of their victims. They may also eat their victims, making it impossible for their relatives and friends to ever locate their bodies.
Even when invisible, the Hebus reveal their presence by means of a long, loud, melancholy whistle. Instead of a whistle, they may make a noise like that of a neighing horse, even in places where there are no horses. After dark, they may emit sharp noises like breaking branches. An offensive smell is also indicative of the presence of an Evil Spirit.
With all the evil Spirits lurking in the forest, it would be unwise to travel alone. Unusual sounds should not be ignored. During the year I lived in Guyana’s northwest rainforest region, none of my Amerindian students warned me of this danger when I walked alone along the road to and from school in Mabaruma. I can only assume that the younger generations no longer held such beliefs, following centuries of European Christianization.
Not all Spirits of the dead were condemned to roam the forest. For those individuals who led good lives and caused no harm to others, they may join other Spirits in Skyland. Others may be changed into birds and so have their place in the heavens. Some inhabit trees, such as the sacred silk cotton tree and kofa vines. With the aid of the rattle and tobacco, shamans could invoke the help of the Spirits of their predecessors residing in Skyland.
While working on my novel, The Twisted Circle, I immersed myself in this mythical world of the Amerindians in Guyana’s northwest rainforest region. When we become so attuned to our fictional world, strange things can happen. One day, from the Cosmic Consciousness came the words of the Forest Spirit of the sacred silk cotton tree. She soothed my wounded soul.