Ritchie Peers into the Heart of Darkness

Ritchie_06282014Mark Andrew Richie [1]. 2000. Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomanö Shaman’s Story. Chicago: Island Lake Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I was elementary school, the curriculum emphasized repetition. If one paid attention and got it the first time, then boredom was the big challenge. At first, I spent the extra time acting out in class, but I later learned to keep a pile of library books in my desk and simply read during repetitious lessons. To keep the pilot light running in seminary, I read books from the recommended reading lists or recommended by trusted friends in Christ.  Mark Richie’s Spirit of the Rainforest was one such book.

Understanding why this book is interesting requires a bit of background.  In the early modern era, humanists questioned the divinity of Christ and especially the doctrine of the atonement.  The atonement suggested that Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3-6) and it implied that humans were inherently sinful (Genesis 3:6).  By contrast, the humanists believed that humanity was basically good (and was not in need of Christ’s atonement or absolute moral standards) and they sought to build a utopia without God. In this context, the idea of a noble savage arose—primitive human beings untainted by civilization who were inherently good, not evil [2].

Enter Jungleman, a Shaman [3] living among the Yanomanö people of the Amazon rainforests of Columbia who was untouched by the corrupted influence of civilization.  Spirit of the Rainforest is the narrative of his life told from his perspective (8).  Richie writes in his introduction:

The Yanomamö are one of the world’s most mysterious peoples.  Small, rarely over five feet tall, they have the speed, strength, and agility of a jungle cat.  Their woman can tote their own weight up and down a jungle trail that would challenge me even if I were empty handed.  Their men can call, track, and shoot anything that breathes in a jungle that is hostile enough to kill anyone but a trained survivalist (7).

As a young warrior, Jungleman invited demons from the spirit world into his heart and mind.  These demons offer him knowledge of far off events and strength in defeating his enemies. Jungleman knows these demons by animal names, such as Jaguar Spirit, Monkey Spirit, and so on.  For example, Ritchie writes about Jaguar Spirit, the dominant, warrior or hunting spirit:

“Don’t go in here.” [Referring to a Christian village] Jaguar Spirit told me.  “There’s too much danger here. We are afraid.” It was the first time I had ever heard fear coming from Jaguar Spirit, and it made me feel poor inside. My hands began to flutter and I held my bow tight to make them stop. (97)

But these spirits cannot be trusted and will abandon and turn on a Shaman when he shows weakness (like not following their advice to kill someone—especially children in a competing village) or for growing old.

Much of the violence among Yanomanö people historically arose in fights over women.  The Yanomanö traditionally practiced polygamy and raided other villages to procure young women.  Such raids were not easily forgotten because people would be killed and families broken up.  Consequently, longstanding blood vendettas existed among neighboring villages.

Jungleman eventually comes to know Christ.  His spirits abandoned him.  In turn, he abandoned his warrior ways and becomes an advocate for the right of Yanomanö women to marry men of their own choosing.

Those who want to believe the noble savage myth (or to disbelieve the existence of the spiritual world) will be disappointed with Ritchie’s Spirit of the Rainforest.  Critics question Ritchie’s claim that he simply wrote down what he was told (8).  I was not disappointed and found his accounts credible, in part, because his accounts of Yanomanö life are consistent with accounts of other native cultures.  For example, the purpose of head-hunting in pre-modern Taiwan was:

To gain a head, as noted earlier, was to qualify a young man to gain the young woman he wished to marry.  Revenge for the death of a loved one was also the occasion to take an enemy head [4].

There is also striking consistency in the influence of a Monkey Spirit (a spirit of lust acted out indiscriminately) in jungle culture and our own.

Ritchie’s Spirit of the Rainforest is a page turner and a great book to take along to the beach—reality is so much more interesting than fantasy.  As a narrative, this book lends itself to becoming a good screen play [5].

[1] http://markritchie.me/spirit-of-the-rainforest.

[2] The film, The Wild Child (1970) by Francois Truffaut chronicles the story of an abandoned child in 1798 who lived in the woods alone.  When he was discovered, he could not speak and was suspicious of other people.  A French scientist takes him in attempting to educate him and to learn from him as a potential validation of the noble savage hypothesis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wild_Child).

[3] A shaman is a term that replaced the politically incorrect term, witch doctor.

[4] Ralph Covell. 1998.  Pentecost of the Hills in Taiwan. Pasadena:  Hope Publishing House. Page 26.

[5] Another film about Amazon tribal life is:  End of a Spear (2006; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeEF_3J0ZY0).  This film re-enacts the story of Mincayani, Waodani warrior, who leads the raid that kills Steve Saint’s father and four other missionaries in 1956.

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