Aymara - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The majority of the Aymara today are nominally Roman Catholic. In practice their religion is a syncretistic blend of Catholicism and indigenous religion, based on a parallelism, in which supernatural phenomena were classified similarly to natural ones. Such phenomena, as well as religious leaders, were ranked in vaguely hierarchical and relatively unstructured and flexible orders. Some indigenous rites are still practiced, mostly in addition to established Catholic ceremonies. Spirits, in the indigenous Aymara cognition, inhabit not heaven but surrounding high mountains, rivers, lakes, and so on, or rather, those sacred places are personified spirits.

Religious Practitioners. Intermediaries between the natural and supernatural spheres are several kinds of magicians such as yatiri (diviner) and laiqa and paqu (practitioners of black or white magic). The aim of their activities is to bring about a balance between human and natural phenomena. Magic is used (e.g., in courtship, at childbirth, to cure illness, at planting and harvest rituals, and in weather-controlling rites).

Ceremonies. Reciprocity, the basic and most salient feature of all Aymara social relations, is culturally institutionalized in several systems (e.g., those of ayni, compadrazgo, and fiesta). Ayni, compadrazgo, and the two types of fiestas (religious and life-cycle) are all surrounded by specific rules and ceremonies. Although there has been much debate over the origin, development, and meaning of these systems, it is evident that in the form they exist today, they serve to extend and maintain an individual's personal network and fulfill his or her occasional need to express group cohesion and feelings of cultural identity.

Arts. Performing arts in the form of band music and dancing are important parts of every ceremony and fiesta. Most common are brass instruments, completed with drums, Andean flutes ( kena and sampoña ), and a minimandolin ( charango ) made of armadillo hide.

Medicine. Illness is considered to be caused by both natural and supernatural phenomena and may be cured accordingly—with the help of medicine and/or a curer. Most medicines derive from plants; roots, leaves, or flowers, are administered as infusions or herbal teas. Animal parts and minerals are also used. Indigenous methods are applied along with Western medicines prescribed by clinical doctors or obtained at the drugstore.

Death and Afterlife. Formalized passage rites are staged for a deceased, in which food and drink are important elements. This series of rituals (extending over a period of three to ten years) includes mourning wake, funeral, cabo de ano (end of the mourning year), and yearly celebrations at Todos Santos (1-2 November). The souls of the departed are then believed to return to earth, where they must be treated properly (i.e., fed) so they will refrain from vengeance. For the interment, the common practice is to send a number of items along with the deceased, mostly clothing and food, for use during the difficult journey into the highlands, where the spirits dwell.

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