chapter  X
30 Pages

INDIAN CONCEPTION OF PLANT SPIRITS

W HEREAS superstitious ideas about animals are mentioned from different parts of South America, there are com­paratively few direct traces to be found of what may be called a plant worship among the South American Indians. The best known on this point are the ideas and customs of the ancient Peruvians, recorded by certain ecclesiastical Spanish writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to whom in other matters also we owe our best information concerning the culture of the Inca empire at the time of the conquest. On the other hand, we know enough of the primitive Indian religion east of the Andes to show that the belief in, and worship of, an Earth-mother, a Maize-goddess, and other plant deities, was not a phenomenon exceptional to the Incas, but still exists in other parts of the South American continent. In fact, we may say at once that plant spirits play the same important role in the practical religion of the Indians as animal spirits, and from a certain point of view perhaps a still more important one. But unfortunately most modern ethnologists who have travelled among the Indians have been far less thorough in their studies than the early Spanish writers, and have paid but little attention to this particular aspect of their customs and beliefs. In many cases the true nature of the “ sacredness ” ascribed to certain trees and plants can only be found out by a careful analysis of the myths, rites, and superstitious practices with which they are connected. For my own part I shall in the present chapter, devoted to an examination of the Indian plant spirits, to a great extent base my conclusions upon facts collected by myself during my sojourn among the Indians of Gran Chaco and of Ecuador.