Páez - Religion and Expressive Culture

The majority of the Páez were converted to Roman Catholicism by the eighteenth century, and a church stands in each Páez town. A significant number of people have been converted to evangelical Protestantism.

Religious Beliefs. Although the Páez have been Catholic for at least three centuries, the landscape of Tierradentro is populated with a variety of supernatural beings. Seventeenth-century Spanish chroniclers noted the importance among the Páez of highland lakes, sometimes the abode of Kpish, the Thunder. Colonial sources also mention hilltop oracles into which the sun rose and set. Pre-Columbian ceramics display images of snakes and serpents. Many of these ancient symbols are articulated today in the political arena. The mythic caciques are the children of the star, a wedding of the pre-Columbian symbol of divine heavenly bodies with the legal titles that legitimize post-Conquest communal landholdings. Those caciques not fished from the waters in which they float are transformed into serpents that eat villagers. The caciques defend their people with slings given to them by Kpish. They disappear into highland lakes from whence they have returned to defend the Páez against interlopers, just as Kpish sometimes does. In addition to these politically inspired beings, there are numerous water and mountain spirits that inhabit the landscape, inflicting harm on unwary passersby. Pre-Columbian burial sites are considered to be the abode of the pijao, dangerous spirits of the ancestors.

Religious Practitioners and Medicine. Just as myths of caciques and Kpish are political expressions of the belief system, shamans operationalize this wedding of myth and politics in everyday life. Called to their profession by the caciques, shamans perform divination and cure diseases caused by supernatural beings, assist the cabildo in ceremonially cleansing its staffs of office each year, and act as intermediaries between the supernatural and the human worlds. They are, moreover, active participants in the ethnic-rights movements through which land claims and cultural revitalization are coordinated.

Ceremonies. Each Páez community celebrates a number of Catholic saints' days, as well as Christmas, Easter, and Corpus Christi; festival sponsors go to great expense to organize communal festivities. Each January cabildos used to withdraw to highland lakes to commune with their caciques and bless their staffs of office; in the late twentieth century this custom is being reintroduced by the ethnicrights movement. Important ceremonies take place on such occasions as the completion of the construction of a house, when mythic history is reenacted by households.

Death and Afterlife. The Páez bury their dead in shaft-tombs, after having given them a Catholic wake. Shamans are charged with ceremonially cleansing the house of the impurities that come with death.

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