Mataco - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Mataco believe in an interrelationship between humans and animals, the sky and the earth, and the natural and the supernatural. A distant and vague Creator is complemented by a rich pantheon of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures who intervene very little in a person's life if he or she adheres to the Mataco codex or keeps to the human zones. Breaking of taboos, or any other type of border crossing, brings a person in direct contact, or even conflict, with the supernatural. A characteristic feature of Mataco religion is the existence of "lords" over different phenomena central to the Mataco, like honey, caraguatá, or peccaries. The Mataco worldview is expressed, outlined, and explained in their rich mythology and in their oral tradition. There are numerous supernatural individuals and categories in the Mataco cosmos. Some of the most important are Lawo', the rainbow or giant serpent, who controls tempests, storms, and cyclones and is easily irritated; Ahââtaj, the head of all evil; Ijwala, the sun and the evil master; and Thokwjwaj, the feared but cherished trickster who represents "Mataconess." Most Mataco adhere to a type of parallelism, a combination of traditional beliefs and Christian faith spread through Anglican and Pentecostal missions.

Religious Practitioners. The only religious specialists are the shamans, who have advisory as well as curative functions. Through shamanic trips, they have knowledge of the supernatural and the unknown and pass this information on to the people. Whenever a person fears supernatural intervention, he or she goes to a shaman for advice or curative rituals. Shamans have no direct political authority, but may, through their extensive knowledge, influence decisions. Missionary teachings have diminished the number of shamans and their caseloads.

Ceremonies. Traditional rituals included a rite of passage for girls, a wedding ceremony, and a funeral. Besides these, there were several types of shamanistic rites. Most of these have disappeared as a result of the influence of Christianity.

Arts. Mataco artistry reaches its supreme height in the string-bag designs, based on natural or symbolic patterns and closely related to their mythology. Several natural dyes are used and some fifteen basic patterns, with hundreds of variants. Aesthetic expression is also found in carvings, pottery, and, in bygone days, facial paintings.

Medicine. The Mataco are familiar with a large number of herbs that are used for most somatic ailments. Aside from these, there are natural and supernatural forces that are accessible only to the shaman.

Death and Afterlife. When a Mataco dies, he or she is buried with a jug of water, an important item for a trip in the barren Chaco. The deceased is supposed to initiate a long journey and must do so to avoid disturbing or molesting the living. The deceased will continue his or her afterlife in the underworld, much as he or she lived on earth. Some Mataco philosophers believe in metempsychosis, however (i.e., in successive transformation of humans into ghosts, bats, and spiders before they vanish totally).

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