Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

Native peoples > Atacameños

Beliefs and funeral rites

In the Atacameño cosmic vision, certain high mountains considered sacred by local and even regional inhabitants. These peaks are known as ‘Providers’ – that is, they are thought to bestow riches such as pasture land, minerals and water. The people associate these peaks with farming success, fertility, weather and health, as well as personal protection and prosperity, honoring them in ceremonies to clean the irrigation canals or to pray for abundant water. These rituals sometimes include offerings made in places that are considered sacred.

Rituals exist at both the community and the family level in the Atacameño culture. In the former case, the most important celebration—and a clear case of a syncretic Andean-Christian belief system—is the patron saint’s day. This ceremony is organized and largely paid for by the alférez (‘flag bearer’), an honorary position that comes with great responsibility and personal expenditure. Today, such celebrations are on the decline due to steady migration away from the villages, the increasing cost of operating the festivals, and pressure from the growing regional protestant evangelical movement, which opposes these traditional belief systems.

Other community ceremonies are related to agricultural cycles; these include canal cleaning, sowing or ‘flourishing’, and livestock mating. For their part, family rituals are related to the life cycle: baptism, marriage, roofing new homes, and death, along with some related to health and ancestor worship. Yatiris are local experts in rituals and medicine that are roughly equivalent to shamans or witch-doctors.

Funeral rites consist of four stages that take an entire year to complete. First, at the time of death the family sings and prays for a day and a night in a ritual known as cóflar. The deceased is then dressed and the sash that he wore in life is exchanged for a funerary one; on the same day, all the deceased’s clothes are washed and the yatiri ‘cleanses’ the living family members. A year after the death, the yatiri presides over a final ceremony to bid farewell to the deceased in a ceremony known as ‘the end of the year’.