Boruca, Bribri, and Cabécar - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Most Boruca are nominally Catholic. Nearly every house has at least one religious picture. A catechism class is conducted for the younger children; mass is said when a priest is available, and people attend services such as the rosary. Legends and myths are told but are considered things of the past.

The Bribri-Cabécar belong to the Catholic church, to different Protestant denominations, and to the Baha'i faith. A few have revitalized the traditional system of belief, which includes a single creator with whom people relate through the shamans but not through individual supplication. All social norms are said to have come from him. Spiritual beings related to nature are important in this cosmology.


Religious Practitioners. Among the Boruca, the mayordomos, or delegados de la palabra, who assist the Catholic priests, have been instrumental in tending religious buildings, teaching the faith, and leading prayers. In the Protestant denominations, there are Boruca, Bribri, and Cabécar pastors. Among the Indian cultures that remained in Costa Rica after the eighteenth century, the Bribri-Cabécar culture has the most elaborate patterns for dealing with disease, birth, and death. On both sides of the Talamanca range, native shamans and trained buriers officiate on these occasions. Not all the Talamanca utilize these traditional services or believe in their efficacy, but all respect them.


Ceremonies and Arts. The three groups celebrate Costa Rica's national holidays with activities organized by the schools. Public Catholic ceremonies such as those commemorating patron saints, Christmas, and Holy Week are also major events. The Boruca have retained two colonial celebrations. Día de los Negritos, celebrated 6 through 8 December, commemorates the coming of the Spaniards and their repulse by the Boruca. Seven to ten players make forays against a carved horse head carried by the master of ceremony. The horse head symbolizes the Spanish; it is lassoed and symbolically burned. During this dance-game, players must slur their words, replace phonemes in them, and change sentence order. Drum and flute are played. Jokes are told and a spirit of merrymaking prevails. Día de los Diablitos is celebrated from 31 December to 2 January. The master of ceremony is the principal devil. Players wear carved masks of light wood and a gunnysacklike dress. Voice and language are disguised, and the native language may be used. A skin drum and a reed flute are sounded. A player, representing the Spanish conquistador, carries a carved bull face and cloth frame. The bull chases the little devils (representing the Borucan) round the village. The latter steal little things from the houses and do other mis-chief to neighbors. Stolen things are distributed to players on the last day. The bull kills the principal devil and the second devil first, then the remaining diablitos. Women, represented by men, are killed last. The bull hides, but the dead diablitos revive and look for him. When the bull is located, it is dragged to the center of the village and symbolically burned. Thus the Spaniards are destroyed. The three groups practice the chichada, an occasion for drinking a beer made of maize. This celebration often brings together dispersed relatives and neighbors for recreation and as repayment for farm or communal labor. During this event, the more traditional Bribri and Cabécar perform an aboriginal dance (symbolic of relationships with forest animals) derived from their stories of origin.

Medicine. The three groups normally rely on Western medicine. Health posts are located in the villages or nearby. Traditional medical practices are conducted in homes or on the advice of native specialists. The Boruca have female herb healers. In times of need, they resort to herbal drugs for specific purposes: to bring about love, hatred, marriage, divorce, pregnancy, amnesia; to prevent pregnancy, labor pains, frustration; to cure snake bite and other ills. A few believe that a drug could change a human to an animal. Traditionally, Bribri-Cabécar shamans and non-Indian witchcraft practitioners in Buenos Aires and the Central Valley of Costa Rica were consulted. For the Bribri and Cabécar, the native medical system and Western medicine are complementary. Bribri-Cabécar shamans treat illness by means of fasts, herbal and other kinds of medicines, and esoteric chants. They consult spirit beings by means of crystals.


Death and Afterlife. Among the Boruca, if there is no priest in the village when a death occurs, a mayordomo goes to the church and rings the bells. The corpse lies in state at the home of the deceased or that of a relative or friend. There must be adequate space for people to sit and view the body, which is covered with a white sheet. Candles are placed at the head and feet and religious pictures or sculptures complete the scene. Meat (pork, chicken), tamales, and beverages are served. The mayordomo—or someone else—recites prayers at intervals during the wake. People may bring money to help pay for the funeral expenses, candles, coffee, rice, and other foods. If the priest is available, a Mass will be held before burial, which is usually attended by most villagers. If not, the mayordomo leads prayers. Prayer sessions or Masses are attended for the next nine days. At the ninth, or Last Rosary, food is served at the house where all have come to pray.

Among the Bribri and the Cabécar, for those who are Catholic, the proceedings are about the same, except that religious pictures or sculptures are uncommon. Regardless of religious affiliation, these people prefer to bring in the buriers to handle the body. Visitors must not talk to the parents of the deceased for a specified period. They—and anybody who had contact with the burial proceedings—must be ritually cleansed by the main burier or a shaman. The native death ceremony requires ritual cooking and ritual distribution of food. Death procedures address a proper return of the soul to the underworld so that the reproduction of the deceased's clan is assured on earth.


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