Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

Native peoples > Mapuche

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Beliefs and funeral rites

Current Mapuche religious practices are imbued with syncretism—an attempt to reconcile opposing concepts, in this case those introduced by Christian evangelists and those of traditional Mapuche cosmology. This process has produced new symbols, rites and dimensions of the sacred. The Admapu includes all the traditional symbols, customs and beliefs of the Mapuche people and their world (mapu), affirming that these were created by Nguenechén (“master of Man”). In former times the primary mythical figure was the Pillán, the founding ancestor of the Mapuche lineage. The Mapuche cosmovision is organized around the duality of left and right, with the former associated with inferior things and the latter with superior things. The dichotomy of this dualism produces pairs of opposites, resulting in a four-part system that is best represented in the design typically seen on Mapuche ceremonial drums or kultruns. This four-part system is also seen in religious rites, in which Mapuche shamans (machi) invoke the four great deities: the Elder Male, the Elder Female, the Young Male and the Young Female. The four heavens of the Wenumapu are symbolized in the number of dances or prayers in the Nguillatún or rogativa, one of the most important Mapuche ceremonies.
The Mapuche buried their dead in different ways through the ages: Some were buried in canoes or hollowed out trunks, others in stone boxes, others directly in the ground and still others in ceramic funeral urns. Urns were the most common form of burial among the people of the El Vergel culture, who inhabited the lands between the Bío Bío and Toltén rivers. Canoe and ceramic urn burial sites have been found in the same cemetery. The tombs of the most ancient culture—the Pitrén—contained offerings of ceramic vessels, both symmetric and asymmetric pitchers with black glazing or with relief decoration in geometric and phytomorphic (plant-form) motifs. Funerary urns from the El Vergel burial sites are accompanied by ceramic pitchers painted with red motifs on a white background— a decorative feature that was later popularized in the “Valdivia Style” that emerged in Spanish colonial times. Other artifacts found in these sites include silver and copper ornaments, tools for daily work and equestrian elements.