Gender and Religion

Kuna religion, which embodies the assumptions of Kuna gender roles, is carried on primarily by village chiefs called saila, who chant to their assembled followers several times a week in a gathering house

(see Howe, 1986; Sherzer, 1987). (Today in some villages men and women only meet separately, and attendance has fallen off.) The deities are a married couple: Great Mother, who inspires devotion from the Kuna, was put in place as the earth by the more powerful and fearsome Great Father, who animated her trees and rivers and counseled her on their functions. Individual humans go through a cosmic life-cycle, sent to earth by a celestial midwife Muu (another incarnation of Great Mother), and returning at death to their heavenly parents in "Father's Place" above.

Among the many named actors in Kuna mythology or sacred history, the great majority (other than heroes' wives) are male. In one way or another, the few exceptions reinforce traditional assumptions about gender. They include Gikatiryai, who taught women their crafts and duties; Nagagiryai, who taught designs for molas; a female seer who, by inadvertently causing the death of eight successive husbands, led to the dispersal of the proto-Kuna; and a young girl menaced by vampire peoples, embodying the fragility of Kuna ethnicity. Even the notable star-woman Inanatili, who outwrestled her future husband, came to earth to marry and to teach women lullabies and mourning (Howe & Hirschfeld, 1981).

The Kuna feel that all people need frequent counseling on their behavior, and, according to men, none more than women. Often addressed condescendingly in chiefly chants and spoken admonishments as girls (siamarye), women are reminded to keep their houses clean, care for their families, and avoid gossip and arguments.

The puberty ceremonies mentioned above celebrate female maturation and offer prominent roles to a few women. Moreover, the occult symbolism of the puberty chant cycle deals with female sexuality and reproduction (Prestán Simón, 1975, pp. 135-230), as do the inner secrets of some curing chants. Here as elsewhere, however, male ritualists predominate, and they pay more attention to each other and the crowd at the inna than to the girl for whom the ceremony is given. Moreover, the symbolism could arguably be taken as a male attempt to tame or appropriate female procreative power.

Through the early 20th century, gender roles and many other practices of daily life were hedged around by a profusion of taboos (ised) (see Prestán Simón, 1975, pp. 29, 50, 86, 130-131). Today, except in a few areas such as childbirth, these taboos have lapsed, and no ethnographic account exists showing convincingly how they once worked.

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Pregnancy And Childbirth

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