Gaining Strength with Ant Bites

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South America

It is early spring in Denmark, and the tricky changing temperatures mean that people run the risk of getting yet another cold. Getting a cold often means staying in bed and many people drink mug after mug of hot chamomile tea with honey until their body recovers.

For the indigenous Waiwai in northern Brazil, a strong body was equally a means to battle illness. However, the Waiwai’s means for strengthening one’s body was rather different from the Danish treatment of tea with honey. Among the Waiwai, weaved ant belts, such as the two in the collection at Moesgård Museum, were used in cases of combating illness.

The two ant belts were collected by Jens Yde, curator at the National Museum in Copenhagen, during an expedition in 1958-59, along with a number of other objects from the Waiwai, the Xeréo, the Katxuyana and the Hixkaryana in the northern part of the Brazilian Amazon. Ant belts, however, are not only known from the Waiwai, but also from many other indigenous people in South America, although shape, size and use can vary in the region.

Among the Waiwai, ant belts were made by two different kinds of palm leaves and in various animal-like shapes and the belt were only used once before being discarded. Particular types of biting ants were placed in the interstices of the weaving so that they would all face the same way, unable to escape from the narrow weave. The belt was then consecutively placed on various parts of the body where its circumference was adjusted to fit the specific body part, allowing for the ants to leave the stinging sensation of their bites all over the body of the ill person. This treatment was probably a way to give a sort of physiological stimulus to combat illness rather than a means to cure pain caused by the disease.

However, the Waiwai did not limit the use of the ant belts to treatment of regular diseases. Throughout the years, the ant belt was used in other contexts as well. For instance in initiation rituals for girls and boys where the function of the belt was to strengthen the bodies of the boys and prevent the girls from being lazy. In other words, to make boys into strong men and girls into hard-working women, both effects caused by the ants’ bites.

 

Yet, the ant belt was also used as a collective act, such as being used before important ceremonies or before clearing an area for a new village. In the latter case, it was said that whoever used the belt would cut down trees faster and be quicker to plant the crops needed for the new village.

In all of the cases, the stinging sensation of the biting ants transformed the body by removing unwanted weaknesses such as illness, feebleness and laziness. The ant belt thereby shaped up the body so it was capable of fighting illness, made it resistant and strong and extracted it’s laziness to give way for a body fit for working.

So, if you feel a cold sneaking in on you or maybe feel lazy with a wish to just enjoy the warm rays of early spring sunlight instead of working in the garden, the Waiwai would probably have advised you to consider giving yourself a quick ant biting treatment to make your body ready to face spring time.

//Astrid Kieffer-Døssing

References:

Campbell, A. 1995 Getting to know Waiwai. An Amazonian Ethnography. London and New York: Routhledge.

Fock, N. 1963 Waiwai. Religion and Society of an Amazonian Tribe. Copenhagen.

Mentore, G. 2005 Of Passionate Curves and Desirable Cadences. Themes on Waiwai Social Being. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Yde, J. 1965 Material Culture of the Waiwai. Copenhagen.

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