Of tobacco spirits and tobacco changelings: The etymology of seripigari, Part III

In previous posts (here and here) I have worried the Matsigenka word seripigari ‘shaman’ in an effort to arrive at a decent etymology for the word. I ultimately concluded that the term was originally a compound: seri ‘tobacco’ + pigari ‘seer’, where the head of the compound is a nominalized form of the verb pig ‘hallucinate, see visions’.

Having arrived at what I find to be a fairly satisfactory conclusion to the etymological puzzle presented by seripigari, I now wish to throw a serious wrench into the works: some Matsigenkas, instead of saying seripigari, say seripegari. Moreover, as Chris Beier noted in a comment to my first post on the subject, if we look in the first published dictionary of Matsigenka, Pio Aza’s 1923 Vocabulario español-machiguenga, we actually find the seripegari variant and not the seripigari variant.

At this point, I must admit I find the occurrence of the seripegari variant to be quite mysterious, although I have three hypotheses about the form. Before I go into these in detail however, I want to observe that cognates of seripigari/seripegari are to be found in all the Kampan languages, suggesting that the term is an old one, and probably reconstructs to Proto-Kampan, which I estimate was spoken some 750-1000 years ago. So its important to keep in mind that the history of this term could be quite complex, and it will probably not be possible to lay this issue to rest until a great deal more historical work has been carried out on the Kampan family.

There are two basic ways to account for the Matsigenka facts. The first is to assume that the seripegari is essentially the Proto-Kampa form, and that seripigari is an innovation that has spread to certain dialects of Matsigenka. The second is to assume the converse: that seripigari is the original form and that seripegari is the innovation.

So, the first idea for accounting for the seripigari ~ seripegari variation is that the original form of the term in Proto-Kampa was, in fact, seripegari, and that in some varieties of Matsigenka, there was a sound shift from /e/ to /i/. We know for a fact that some Kampan varieties (e.g. certain varieties of Ashéninka) systematically experienced this very change, which suggests that we are on the right track. However, we find the form seripigari even in varieties that did not experience the systematic sound change, such as Nomatsigenga and Matsigenka itself, which raises a problem with the sound change analysis.

On the other hand, if we compare certain forms in Matsigenka with those in the closely-related language Nanti, we do see some /i/:/e/ correspondences: ponchoheni ‘bird sp.’ (Nanti), ponchoini ‘bird sp.’ (Matsigenka); pomerintsih ‘take pains doing something (v.)’ (Nanti), pomirintsi ‘work hard (v.)’ (Matsigenka); taheri ‘tree sp.’ (Nanti), tairi ‘tree sp.’ (Matsigenka). The curious thing about these correspondences is that they appear to be idiosyncratic. That is, they do not seem to be the result of regular sound changes, as it does not appear possible to identify an environment that correctly predicts the alternations. In conjunction with data from other Kampan languages, we can identify the sound change in these idiosyntractic cases as /e/ to /i/ in Matsigenka, but the reason for the sound changes in these isolated instances remains quite mysterious to me. (One possible explanation for this situation is the Matsigenka references may be mixing forms from more than one dialect, in such a way that obscures the systematicity of the sound changes.) So, examples like this seem to give credence to the idea that Matsigenka has undergone some irregular /e/ to /i/ changes, which could account for the seripigari form in Matsigenka, despite the fact that Matsigenka has not undergone a systematic /e/ to /i/ change. However, if we accept the idiosyncratic sound change hypothesis, we would be forced to hypothesize an identical idiosyncratic change in Nomatsigenka, which is not particulalry plausible.

Another possibility is that the current distribution of seripigari and seripegari in Matsigenka is due to language contact among Kampan languages. For example, one possibility is that the occurence of the seripigari variant is a result of relatively recent language contact between Matsigenka and Ashéninka speakers, which has resulted in the displacement of the hypothesized hisotrically prior Matsigenka seripegari variant. This is not as crazy as it might first seem. I have noted, for example, that the Ashéninka word shirampari ‘man’ has displaced the Matsigenka word surari ‘man’ in parts of the Lower Urubamba River valley. I believe that the primary language contact occurred in the Picha River basin (which is an affluent of the Urubamba), where some Ashéninkas resettled in traditionally Matsigenka territories in the 1970s and 1980s to escape the violence of the Shining Path in their home territories to the west. From there, its seems that shirampari spread from Matsigenka speaker to Matsigenka speaker. I’ve heard the word in use as far east as Cashiriari, the uprivermost Matisgenka community on the Camisea River, which is quite far from the Picha Basin. (Note also that there is intense interaction between Nomatsigenga speakers, who also use the seripigari form, and Ashéninka speakers.) In certain respects I think this is a nice explanation, in that it tidily explains why there are two variants of the word in use by Matsigenka speakers. However, we would really need a lot more information to confirm or falsify this hypothesis. At the very least it would be nice to have isoglosses for the two variants. Any records about the date at which seripigari began to be used by Matsigenkas would also be helpful.

Note that if either of the two preceding explanations is basically correct, we would need to completely rethink the etymology of seripigari/ seripegari. Following the reasoning in my previous post, I would need to locate an intransitive verbal root peg that is consonant with Kampan ideas about shamanism to serve as the basis for the nominalized head of the compound.

When we do so, however, the options are not particularly promising. The best is peg ‘become invisible’, but Matsigenka shamans are not particularly known for becoming invisible. However, we find that in Ashéninka, the word peyari, which is cognate to Matsigenka pegari, means ‘spirit’ (lit. ‘fantasma’)(Payne 1980, p103). So plausibly, the compound seripegari originally meant something like ‘tobacco spirit’. The problem I see with this term is that it would seem to have originally denoted not the shaman, but rather his spirit helpers. Semantic shift is certainly a possibility (consider, for example, the multiple senses of ‘leech’ in traditional European medicinal practice, where the term applied to both the invertebrate and the person who employed them for curing), but I beginning to feel like I’m stretching here.

It is interesting to note, in this regard, that in Payne’s entry for sheripiyari ‘curandero, hechicero’ (healer, witch doctor) (p. 126), he actually proposes the etymology sheri ‘tobacco’ + peyari ‘fantasma’ (ghost, spirit). So even in Ashéninka we run across a mismatch in the vowel quality between the synchronic term and its supposed components under the etymology we are presently considering. Its possible that there is a tidy historical explanation for this discrepancy, but at this point I am beginning to feel that the semantic and phonological difficulties piling up for the Proto-Kampa *seripegari hypothesis render this option unattractive, even if we appeal to language contact processes.

So I think that the most plausible hypothesis at this point is that the Proto-Kampa form was indeed *seripigari and that the seripegari is an innovation in Matsigenka. The question, then, is why such a change has occurred in certain Matsigenka dialects. It would be nice if there were any evidence of dissimilation phenomena in Matsigenka that could account for this, but I have not come across any signs of such a process. Another possibility is that some Matsigenkas have reanalyzed seripigari as seri + pegari on semantic grounds — a kind of Amazonian eggcorn that subsequently gained currency as a kind of folk etymology. For this hypothesis to have much chance of being correct, we would need to have evidence that ‘transformation’ plays a prominent role in Matsigenka conceptions of shamanism. There is actually some evidence for evidence for this, as Allen Johnson notes (pdf):

In the Matsigenka conception a seripigari works by changing places with his spirit helper (or counterpart, or double) among the unseen ones. Working only at night, the seripigari drinks ayahuasca and climbs the ladder or notched pole to his platform (menkotsi) in the roof beams of his house. According to Shepard (1990: 32), the seripigari’s counterpart simultaneously drinks ayahuasca and the two trade places, occuping each other’s bodies. The spirit is now present in this world to help treat those who need his powers.

Under this analysis then, Matsigenkas have reanalyzed the proto-Kampan seripigari, originally meaning ‘tobacco seer’, as seripegari ‘tobacco changeling’, or the like. At this point, this is the best hypothesis I have for explaining the seripigari ~ seripegari that fits the historical facts for the Kampan family. However, I strongly suspect that further historical work on the Kampan family will reveal complexities I have yet to understand, so I expect to be writing a Part IV post in a couple of years…


Shepard, Glenn. 1990. Health and healing plants of the Matsigenka in Manu, Southeastern Peru. Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley. Ms.

Payne, David. 1980. Diccionario Ashéninca – Castellano. Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.

Snell, Betty. Pequeño Diccionario Machiguenga – Castellano. Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.


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