February 24, 2014

Gift of the Spider Woman: Spinning, weaving and womanhood among the Matsigenka of Peru

The moon is bright, the night is giddy with festivities and Shanuiva has emerged from her cage. Jaula, literally "cage," is how Spanish-speaking Matsigenka refer to the palm leaf enclosure where Matsigenka girls spend their months-long initiation after first menstruation. However the native Matsigenka word for this rite is far more appropriate: antarotira, “the time during which she becomes an adult.” Shanuiva is pale and lovely, with woven cotton armbands tight around her plump biceps, thick necklaces of beads and animal teeth whispering between her awakening breasts, and a freshly shorn head that gives her the serenity and dignity of Buddhist nun.

Shanuiva emerges from ritual seclusion, 1996 (photo: Manuel Lizarralde).

During her three-month-long ritual seclusion, Shanuiva shunned sunlight and the admiring glances of men, remaining inside the small enclosure. She ate a special diet of boiled manioc, palm hearts, bland boiled fish and the breast meat of succulent game birds. She was allowed to leave only at dusk or dawn to bathe and relieve herself, accompanied by her mother, grandmother or aunt. On these brief excursions, female relatives might teach her some of the closely guarded secrets of adult womanhood, such as medicinal plants in the garden or along the path: bark to chew to keep her teeth healthy and strong, leaves to heat and rub to remove unsightly pubic hair, aromatic roots to delay, induce or terminate pregnancy, to facilitate childbirth, to ward off illness and evil spirits that might attack her coming children, to keep her husband faithful, to steady her hands when spinning and weaving cotton. 

But aside from her budding adolescent beauty, her pale skin, plump arms, shorn head and esoteric knowledge gleaned, Shanuiva has emerged from her ‘cage’ with an essential and hard-earned treasure: a roll of handspun cotton thread nearly the size of a soccer ball. She has been spinning cotton nonstop for most of her three month seclusion. Indeed almost every time you passed by the enclosure, you heard the percussive “Slap! Slap! Slap!” as she beat out cotton seeds and joined individual cotton balls into long matted locks, or the distinctive grating sound of the palm spindle whirling in a calabash gourd bowl with a pinch of fine sand in the base.

Counter-clockwise from bottom right: Raw cotton balls, locks of cotton ready for spinning, spun cotton on a spool, and cotton thread dyed with Tapirira guianensis bark.