Sokendai Review of Cultural and Social Studies


vol.15 (2019)

Tupi Translation of Christianity and
Reinterpretation by Shamans:

Taking Sixteenth-Century Brazil as a Case Study

UEDA Megumi

Department of Regional Studies
School of Cultural and Social Studies
SOKENDAI (The Graduate University for Advanced Studies)

Key words:

sixteenth-century Brazil, Jesuits, Tupi language, shamans, resistance movements, Caraíba

This study seeks to reconstruct how the indigenous shamans reinterpreted Christianity in sixteenth-century Brazil, comparing Jesuit mission work conducted in the Tupi language with the resistance movements led by shamans.

Jesuit missionary activity in Brazil began in 1549. In the first period, activity focused on the Tupi-speaking peoples living on the coast. It was difficult to evangelize a people with a culture completely different from the Occidental culture. The missionaries needed to seek a new method that suited the reality of local community. One of the difficulties was the Tupi translation of Christianity. In this language, words representing Christian elements were absent. To solve this problem, the missionaries reused elements of the indigenous culture for the translation. For example, they chose “Tupã”, a word meaning a mythological figure identified with thunder, to nominate the Christian God.

As the Portuguese developed sugar plantations in Brazil, compulsory work and epidemics affected the indigenous peoples. Moreover, the missionaries rejected their culture and practices. The indigenous people participated in resistance movements led by the shamans to free themselves from oppression. These movements were called “Santidade” by the Portuguese.

The specific features of the “Santidade” movements are that Christianity elements were adopted in the shaman rituals even though the movements sought to eliminate Christianity: some shamans called themselves “Pope” or “Mother of God”.

The missionaries used the Tupi word “Caraíba”, meaning shamanistic power, to represent the Christian concept of holiness. However, Caraíba represented both true holiness (Christianity) and false holiness (shamanism) in the Tupi translation of Christianity. Tupi Shamanism, therefore, was not entirely eliminated from Tupi Christianity, which led the indigenous people to reinterpret Christianity in accordance with their own religious practices.

It is possible that, through this reinterpretation, the shamans attributed a kind of shamanistic power to the figure of the Pope or Mother of God that could enable their victory against the missionaries. For this reason, they incorporated these Christian figures into the Santidade movements.