Araucanians - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The maintenance of a sustained and responsible link between the living and the dead is the central concept of Araucanian religious morality. The living are responsible for the propitiation of their ancestors, and rituals are performed to maintain a positive relationship with them. Dreams, the vehicle of contact with the supernatural, are an important aspect of the Mapuche spiritual life. Araucanians interpret their dreams daily to understand their present situation and learn about their future.

In aboriginal times, the Araucanians are believed to have had an animistic religion. At present, the Araucanian religion is polytheistic, with the highest god located at the highest level of heaven. The family set of the highest god is formed by two couples, one young and one old. The most important of these gods is the male of the old couple. Located in descending order within this hierarchical heaven, there are the gods of fertility, of the morning star, of the stars, of the past warriors, of the rituals, of music, and of the cardinal points and climatic and metereological forces. On the lowest levels there reside the spirits of the Araucanian ancestors and the spirits of the volcanoes. The perrimontu are beings with ambivalent association with the forces of good. They aid shamans in their profession and cause sicknesses. The evil forces are called wekufe and are of three major types: natural phenomena, ghosts, and those of zoomorphic form. In spite of the prolonged contact with missionaries and Whites, Araucanian religion has been little affected and Christianization has been minimal.

Religious Practitioners. A kalku is both a sorcerer and a witch. Kalkus, who are usually women, are trained in their arts by other kalkus. Their powers are obtained through dreams and visions. The forces of evil are activated when envious people ask kalkus to use the evil spirits to attack persons who are the objects of their envy. Shamans ( machi ), aided by their auxiliary spirits, ward off these evil forces. Although men used to practice shamanism during prereservation times, at present the majority of shamans are women. Selection as a shaman and the acquisition of shamanistic power is believed to occur in dreams and visions. Candidates are those who have suffered a prolonged and dangerous illness, display a greater ability to dream than others, and experience visions. The novice receives her training from a senior shaman. The training lasts anywhere from two to four years, during which time the trainee demonstrates obedience and works hard to learn herbal lore, ventriloquism, diagnosis of illness, and divination. After the training has been completed, the neophyte must demonstrate her expertise to other shamans and to the community in a ceremony called machiwüllun. The shamanic paraphernelia consist of a drum ( kultrun ) and carved pole ( rewe ). Shamans are assisted by the thun gunmachife, or shaman interpreter, who translates the language of the shaman while she is in a trance.

Ceremonies. The most important ritual among the Araucanians is the ngillatun. In the prereservation era, the emphasis of the ngillatun was militaristic, but with pacification it became mainly agricultural, except in times of crisis. The ngillatun celebrated near harvest time consists principally of agricultural rites conducted for the purpose either of thanking the gods for the harvest received or asking for a plentiful one. The ngillatun usually involves the participation of more than one community, and some involve as many as four communities, preferably neighbors. The frequency of this ceremony varies, but if several communities should cooperate as members of a ngillatun, they will take turns in hosting each other. In times of stress this ritual is conducted as soon as a catastrophic event has occurred and may or may not involve the participation of other communities.

Arts. The traditional art most practiced among contemporary Araucanians is oratory; it is characteristic primarily of chiefs, but ordinary people also engage in it. Mapuche oral narrative can be classified into five categories: epeus (mythological tales, animal tales, and legends), peumas (dream reports), nut'amkans (narratives that recount the heroic deeds of past Araucanian warriors), weupins (formal speeches made by men at social and religious events), and qulkatuns (improvised sung narratives usually expressive of strong emotions). The main musical instruments are the kettle drum, flute, and trumpet. Men and women dance—but rarely together—imitating animals with masks and movement. Men and women engage in spontaneous singing at social gatherings.

Medicine. In earlier times all sicknesses were believed to be caused by supernatural agents. Among contemporary Araucanians, however, there are two kinds of sickness: one caused by supernatural agents, the wekufe and the perrimontu, and the other by natural agents or environmental factors. Shamans treat all sicknesses with herbs and rituals.

Death and Afterlife. After death, the soul is believed to undergo a series of transformations on its journey to the wenu mapu (the place of final rest). The soul has the potential of becoming an agent of evil if captured by the evil spirits on this journey. Special ceremonies are conducted by the relatives of the dead to ensure the safety of the soul. At its final destination the soul becomes an ancestral spirit. Through dreams and visions the ancestor visits the living and helps them. Funeral rites involve the gathering of friends and relatives of the deceased, ceremonial wailing, tearing of the hair, shamanistic autopsy, temporary preservation of the cadaver, and the heavy drinking of alcohol.

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