Religious Beliefs. Emberá religion is centered around shamanism based on invisible forces called jai. These constitute the essence of things, natural phenomena, animals, and people, and are manifested as animals. They belong to nature, and only the shaman ( jaibaná ) can see and control them. Emberá life and society stem from an original closed singularity containing everything that exists, but that was separated in primordial times. Illness occurs when these elements, which must be kept separate in everyday life, unite; they must then be separated anew by the shaman. Myths describe Carabi, the Moon, as the giver of culture, and some refer to him as the creator, but the moon as a mythical being does not play a role in life today. In varying degrees, missionaries have superimposed Christian religious belief. White people interpret the jai as spirits because they are purported to exist invisibly. The Emberá are emphatic in their belief that the jai are material forces or energies. The same is true of other beings that inhabit the water, the forest, or the underworld, several of which are monstrous and fierce guardians of these places. Noteworthy is the belief in "mothers" or "root stocks" of animals—for example, the mother of fish or of peccaries. The human body is inhabited by several shadows that leave the body during sleep or at death.
Religious Practitioners. The shaman is both respected and feared for his ability to do good as well as to cause harm. His knowledge and control of nature through his visionary powers makes him indispensable in the processes of producing food and managing natural phenomena. During the Conquest, Shamans were one of the most potent means of fighting the Spaniards; they, or the forces under their control, served to attack them effectively. Besides his professional duties, a shaman performs the same regular daily chores as any ordinary man. Only non-Indians are priests and nuns.
Ceremonies. Ritual or ceremonial activities are linked to the life cycle and to shamanism. In the past, female initiation was celebrated by confining a girl to a small room built in the tambo and holding a great feast at the end of the confinement. Ceramic pitchers for brewing chicha beer played a principal role in this ceremony, which in the late twentieth century has almost disappeared. Among shamanistic rituals are chicha cantada (chicha singing) at the time of the maize harvest; the "healing of the earth" during planting; and the "song of the jai" when curing illness. In many communities Christian religious ceremonies are celebrated.
Arts. The shaman communicates with his jai by means of lengthy songs, unaccompanied by musical instruments. In the ceremonies, dance plays a minor role. Body and facial painting, which are very sumptuous among the Emberá, are also part of shamanism but do not pertain to it exclusively.
Medicine. The Emberá differentiate between two kinds of sicknesses: those of the Whites, which arrived after contact and are cured with Western medicine, and those they had previously recognized, stemming either from magic or natural causes. Sickness by magic is produced by the jai that penetrate the body or steal its shadow. This type can be cured by the shaman. Natural sickness responds to treatment with medicinal plants.
Death and Afterlife. The Emberá bury their dead in shaft tombs with a lateral room, located under their dwellings. Bodies are wrapped in bark cloth or bamboo matting. At the wake, female relatives sing songs of lament that proclaim the deceased's virtues as well as the faults that caused his or her death. These will be repeated during burial and for months and years to come, in the same house and at the same time that death occurred. In Christianized areas, missionaries force the Embera to bury their dead in cemeteries, but even so, traditional tombs are still frequently made. The shadow of the dead person is transformed into a jai and roams the earth until a shaman takes control of it. A shaman who follows certain prescriptions in life can turn in death into a being half-man and half-jaguar with superhuman powers, which is greatly feared.