The Guarani Altar

The Guarani Altar: A Donation Tells a Deep Story

Making the Altar

The altar was carved by the spiritual leaders Don Leonido Benitez Romero and his wife Na Silvia Arce. Don Leonido is a wood craftsman, inspired by wild animals from the jungles of Amambay, such as owls, armadillos, fish and birds. He also creates ceremonial objects, many of them with designs inspired by the ancient rock art in the hills. Don Leonido is one of the last Pai Tavytera Indians to make altars.

The altar itself is composed of two vertical lines (made of wood) crossing the horizontal line from which objects can be hung. These lines connect the altar with the sacred hill of Yasukarenda where creation began. Yasukarenda, also known as Guazu Hill, is the largest hill in the region. The Pai Tavytera consider it the navel, meaning the center of the world. The altar is considered not only to represent this sacred hill, but actually to be part of it, where the beginning of the cosmos is located, and where their main god, Name Ramoi Papa, resides.

In an interview in Guarani, Don Leonido explains, “It was there that the Pai Tavytera was born, and then the law of day-by-day living on the earth emerged and we still follow it today. Then we see how people are not using the customs and teachings, because they abandoned the prayers; they are punished by nature.”

The Pai Tavytera Rituals and the Altar (Mba’e Marangatu)

The Pai Tavytera have so many reasons for rituals that they carry out one almost every day, normally at sunset. The main ceremony is jeroky nembo, a sacred communal ritual directed by the shaman in which the whole community participates. The ritual includes use of the ceremonial objects, singing of prayers and dancing. Singing provides the group with spiritual and corporal energy and helps them maintain communication with the divine. While full of religious significance, this celebration also conserves and transmits cultural and social memory from one generation to another. It is through these rituals that the Pai Tavytera fulfill their duties as guardians of the center of the world.

1. Mbaraka: maracas made of gourds adorned with toucan feathers and cotton. Each man owns one which is named through divination, and they are required to participate in ceremonies. The maracas are kept in the Mba’e Marangatu hanging from the yvyra’i or ritual rods. “The mbaraka is to be used by people to pray and the yvyra’i, too,” says Don Leonido.

2. Yvyra’i: thin rods or batons that are distributed to all male participants and are held in their left hand during ceremonies.

3. Takuapu: rhythmic bar made of takuara (bamboo or large reed). They are used exclusively by women who hit them on the ground to set the rhythm of the sacred songs. Says Don Leonido, “The takuapu is the instrument used exclusively by women, they do not use the yvyra’i; they have to have many takuapys ready, so women can use them as they arrive.”

The altars also usually include a mimby, a wooden flute used by men in the ceremonies. “The mimby,” says Don Leonido, “is to start the prayer. When it is blown, people know that the prayer will begin.”

As Don Leonido explains, referring to the altar by an alternate name, “The Yvyra Marangatu needs to be accompanied by yvyra’i, mimby, takuapu; everything needs to be ready in order to bless the people when they arrive.”

The donation also included Apyka, traditional benches used in ceremonies and social gatherings, and Uruku, designs with achiote.

The ceremonies tend to begin early in the night. They are led by the shamans, who are the mediators between the people and the gods. To contact the supernatural, the shaman begins, and is joined by the community, by singing, men rattling the mbaraka and women hitting the ground rhythmically with their takuapu. The shaman uses the communal singing-dancing-prayer combination as the instrument to contact their gods. The participation of the community assists him in reaching the divine.

Don Leonido explains why the Pai Tavytera wished to donate a piece of such cultural and religious significance:

L. Antonio Curet is an archaeologist who specializes in Caribbean and Mesoamerican ancient history. He is currently the Curator of Archaeology at the National Museum of the American Indian-Smithsonian Institution. Frank Weaver is a native Paraguayan filmmaker who resides in Florida. His project, the Solar Map Project on the rock art of the Amambay Hills, has led him to live and document the culture of the Pai Tavytera for several years. The interview with Leonido Benitez Romero was conducted in Guarani by Osmar Valenzuela, the first Pai Tavytera to attend college. It was translated into Spanish by Rita Carolina, and into English by the authors of this article. Ethnographic information was provided by Stella Isabel Gonzalez de Olmo.