Waja Designs: Part 2

Portal to a parallel world in Makiritare trays

June 21, 2016

Part 2 of 2 of Charles Brewer-Carias’ introduction to the artistry of waja basketry produced in the Amazonas region of Venezuela. The baskets’ seemingly abstract designs are actually expressions of the Watunna, the creation epic of the Makiritare people who weave them.​ Click here for Part 1. 

Mawádi-esadi, the snake Mawádi, inside view

The large water snake called Mawádi, mother of anacondas and boas, is one of the characters in the epic saga Watúnna, attentively compiled by Marc de Civrieux, to the world’s benefit. But besides being part of the Watúnna narrative, Mawádi also occupies a precise and verifiable geographic site as the place where God's emissary Wanádi cooked Mawádi at the foot of the Cerro Duida on the banks of the Cunucunuma river.

In another tale about Mawádi, the snake seems to be allied with Kuamachi when Kuamachi decides to take revenge on his enemies, the stars—who were formerly living near the Cunucunuma river–because, along with the jaguar Mado, they had devoured his mother. Then, accompanied by his grandfather, Kuamachi set a trap for the stars. By climbing the dewaka fruit tree, Kuamachi was able to shoot arrows at the stars, which fell into the water where they were devoured in a single bite by the great snake Mawádi, while alligators and Caribs, who were also allies of Kuamachi, were cutting up and mutilating the stars remaining in the water. What is seen on the interior of this star–eater is precisely what he had ingested, represented in the design by a row of little crosses arranged in a row within the walls of the snake’s intestine.

However, the seven stars of W'láha (Pleiades), along with other stars, managed to stay afloat and made a straight ladder with rungs made of sahudíwa vine, attached to arrows shot into space, which allowed them to escape into the sky. When they got to the top, the stars were settling themselves to form the constellations. Kuamachi, who eventually forgave them, also decided to go to heaven. But as he was last, he was very low in the sky and now you can see Kuamachi as the evening star who wanders the horizon.

I take this opportunity to incorporate a mosaic that I have organized to show the various folds that weavers can give an initial design (located below to the far left) known as the Erebato river Mado-fedi (Jaguar face) or the Kangwa-menudu (the design of the petaca). This is considered by Makiritare (Yekuana) to be the first step in learning to develop other designs with distinct names which, depending on the ability of the weaver, lead them to be able to achieve the extraordinary kinetic swirl called Awidi (located below on the far right).


From Mado-fedi, passing through Kangwa-menudu and Kasu-nehodidi to Awidi

Wanádi-Tonoro-Motai, the bird-God's back

This design corresponds to Wanádi-Tonoro-Motai (the back of the bird-God). In the Watúnna epic, the preferred form adopted by one of the doubles of Wanádi (God) is a demodede spirit, who on earth is represented by the real woodpecker (Campephilus melanoleucus).


* Crimson-crested woodpecker (Campephilus melanoleucus)
* Crimson-crested woodpecker (Campephilus melanoleucus)

About Wanádi-Tonoro-Motai, the Watúnna epic states: Wanádi then went fishing in the Cunucunuma river with his hook and managed to snag a very beautiful woman named Kaweshawa who was the daughter of the master of the fish and who lived like a fish under the Kasuruña Rapids of that river. Wanádi fell in love with the woman-fish and flirted with her, but as she kept piranhas (Kah'she) inside her vagina to protect herself, he would not have been able to marry her without the Yarákadu monkey, the Ahísha heron, and other friends assisting him in removing that formidable protection.

But as it happened, before Wanádi consummated his marriage to Kaweshawa, she was abducted by Odo'sha (the evil one), who was disguised as a curassow (Paují) and took her to live in Fauhi-ewihti (Paují hill).

Grieving over the loss of his girlfriend, Wanádi tried to create other wives but always failed. A bumblebee took pity on him and informed him that his girlfriend Kaweshawa was still alive. That was how Wanádi, who had taken the shape of Wanádi-Tonoro (the Royal Woodpecker), came to ask Wareráta (the lazy one) to lend him his old-man body to disguise himself so that the evil Odo'sha would not be able to recognize him when Wanádi reached the hill where his wife was being held. Kaweshawa then recognized Wanádi-Tonoro, and, crying, asked him to rescue her because she had been so maltreated and had become old.

Then Wanádi-Tonoro, disguised as Warerata, waited with his girlfriend Kaweshawa until the guests at the party that Odo’sha was hosting got drunk. Amid the confusion, Wanádi turned them both into cockroaches that furtively climbed way to the top of the center pole of the big atta (house). And at the top of the roof, Wanádi shouted to the guests who he was, and that he had taken his girlfriend Kaweshawa. At that moment, Wanádi transformed himself into the Wanádi-tonoro, and he changed his girlfriend Kaweshawa  into the frog Kwé-kwé to better carry her with his beak. But when he took flight from the roof of the house, Wanádi-tonoro realized that the frog was heavy, so he flew up and down, while the drunken guests pursued them, trying to shoot them with arrows. That’s the reason why the woodpecker’s grandchildren still fly so sinuously instead of in a straight line.

The lines of the rain (Konojo kudu ishakidi) that usually surround the central motif of the Waja, are used to remember the first great flood as it rushed down Mará-Huaka, the great fruit tree. It also commemorates the second deluge that occurred when the great serpent Mawádi died, the mother of all anacondas.

Wanádi Hiñamohídi, Wanádi’s fourth girlfriend Wanádi

Wanádi Hiñamohídi ("was the wife of God") is the name of the design that represents a certain kind of spotted frog, who despite being called the wife of God was not the only spouse Wanádi had, nor the most important. The frog design represents the fourth girlfriend whom the emissary (damodede) of Wanádi (God) created after Wanádi’s first girlfriend, Kaweshawa, was abducted.

The Watúnna epic relates that after the bride-fish that Wanádi had courted by the Cunucunuma River was kidnapped, he decided to create a second wife whom he modeled from white clay (Madi), but whose body was dissolved in the river when she went to get water. Then, Wanádi modeled another woman using Peramán (groundnut) tree resin, resulting in a third girlfriend who was black and melted in the heat of the sun when she left to work in the conuco (garden plot). Wanádi was very sad about these losses and he sat on his jaguar stool with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, thinking and smoking tobacco. Then he put his Maraka filled with quartz beads (wiriki) on a box-shaped basket called kangwa (pouch), which was casually decorated with images of some frogs (sapitos) with spotted bodies. He began to dream of those sapitos drawn on one side of the basket kangwa and as he smoked, sang, saying: "Frog, frog, woman, you're alive, you're a woman."


Yellow-banded poison dart frog (dendrobates leucomelas)

This frog (Dendrobates leucomelas) is the Wanádi-hiñamohídi that is portrayed in the baskets. It’s known in Guyana as the "mining frog" because it proliferates around gold mines near the Caroní River. Their aposematic coloration offers protection because it represents a warning to  predators about their toxicity.

The basket on the left side, which is the bottom (Kangwa-akono) of this particular Kángwa, is adorned with the design Wanádi Hiñamohídi. It is characterized by a figure covered with spots that represents its skin. The top cover (Kangwa-arútu) is adorned with another frog called Shiñáwe that has no spots on its body. Both frogs are represented in jumping pose (Yahamúdö). The broken line shaped fretwork around the bottom of the basket is known as "Kangwa-menudu" which means that the design of the basket itself is the basis for a series of very important abstract drawings.

Another ornament that the artisan of this particular basket (Waja) used other than the Wanádi Hiñamohídi frogs, is a zigzag representing a group of Ahísha (white herons) flying in formation around the central delineated box. This motif appears frequently in the Wajas, because it was a heron who helped Wanádi to marry his girlfriend-fish Kaweshawa.

Extended Image Caption

* Crimson-crested woodpecker (Campephilus melanoleucus). Photo by Javier Wioneczak, taken from www.avesdelnea.blogspot.com


Ahísha: White herons

Atta: House

AwidiCoral snake

Conuco: Garden plot

Kah'she: Piranhas

Mádi: Kaolin clay

Mawádi: Water snake

Peramán: Groundnut

Sahudíwa: Vine-chain

W'láha: Pleiades


Barandiarán, Daniel de. 1979. Introducción a la cosmovisión de los indios Ye'kuana-Makiritare. Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. Caracas

Civrieux, Marc de. 1970. Watunna, Mitología Makiritare. Monte Avila Editores. 236 p. Caracas

Guss, David M. 1994. Tejer y Cantar. Monte Avila Editores. 260p. Caracas

Hames Raymond B. and Ilene L. Hames. 1976. Antropológica No 44 p.3-58,  Fundación La Salle. Caracas

Roth, Walter E. 1924. An Introductory Study of the Arts, Crafts and Customs of the Guiana Indians. Bureau of American Ethnology (1916-17) USA. Washington, D.C., Smithonian Institution