Soulful voices: birds, language and prophecy in Amazonia.
This paper explores the significance of human-bird interactions among Peruvian Urarina, focusing on bird speech and its relation to concepts of voice, power and prophecy. It suggests that while the potential status of birds as subjects remains complex and uncertain, this very ambiguity has stimulated the development and refinement of more abstract ideas of meaning, language, and what it means to be human. The ways in which bird sounds signify is not simply arbitrary, but rather indexical or analogic, leading to the impression of a privileged access to reality and a powerful claim to truth. Together with their vocal transparency - their capacity to give voice to messages or insights that purportedly originate with powerful divinities – this largely accounts for birds’ prophetic qualities, and their role as a model of the authoritative and efficacious speech striven for by ritual specialists, in which meaning cannot be reduced to the intentions of a single speech actor. This particular language ideology, inspired by birds, is further inscribed in local models of the person and grounds a vision of the heart-soul as the voice of conscience.
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