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Cuna Religion


CUNA RELIGION . There are perhaps forty thousand Cuna Indians today, living mostly in the San Blas Reserve on Panama's Atlantic coast, with small groups along the interior Bayano and Chucanaque rivers and in three villages in Colombia. The Cuna survived the traumatic but ephemeral Spanish conquest of the Darien Isthmus (modern-day Isthmus of Panama) after 1510. They are thus one of the few remnants of the flourishing pre-Columbian chieftaincies of the circum-Caribbean. The Cuna maintained their autonomy partly by allying themselves with the buccaneers who harassed the Spaniards.

Cult Organization

Institutionally, Cuna religion is organized in both communal and shamanic cults. The communal cult is maintained by the village chiefs (sailakana ), who chant from oral mythological texts known as Pap Ikar ("god's way") some three nights a week to the assembled village. Official interpreters (arkarana ) explain the arcane language of the chants, using homilies on contemporary morality. Female puberty feasts are collective rites sponsored by each village once a year.

The shamanic cult is not conducted communally, save for the rite of village exorcism that occurs during epidemics or other collective dangers. Shamans (nele s) are credited with clairvoyance, through trance or dreams, into the four layers of the underworld. Nele s, who may be male or female, are born to their role and are discovered by midwives through signs in their afterbirth. A born nele must nurture the gift and be apprenticed to an adult nele.

Other experts are not clairvoyants. All know a sacred text, ikar ("path" or "way"). These texts invoke spiritual helpers, such as stick dolls (suar nuchu ) or magical stones (akwanusu ), as allies in combating evil, meddlesome spirits, who usually have captured the patient's soul and who hold it in their stronghold at the fourth level of the underworld. In addition, there are herbalists (inatuleti ) who know native plant medicines and brief incantations. Usually these specialists go to work only after a nele has clairvoyantly diagnosed the patient.

The various curing, exorcism, female puberty, and funerary texts are all recited verbatim as learned from an authoritative master. Not so with the texts of the chiefly God's Way. Chiefs are free to render myths as they see fit, or even to recount events from recent history. Some of their chants are not narratives, but complicated poetic metaphors.

Cosmogony and Mythic Themes

Cuna cosmogony, as disclosed in God's Way, posits an original creation by God, who sends the first man, Wako, to earth. In a primordial paradise, Wako finds the earth to be his mother, and the rivers, the sun, the moon, and the stars to be his brothers. The trees are young women. Wako lives here blissfully until God calls him back. (This image of a primordial paradise resembles the childhood of a male Cuna in a matrilocal household belonging to his mother and composed of his brothers and sisters, the type of household that exists before marriage disperses the brothers to other households and brings in outsiders to marry the sisters. Thus Wako does not have to grow up.)

Wako is merely the first of many human sons or emissaries whom God sends to earth. Most of their descendants become corrupt, necessitating more emissaries to correct them. When this fails, God repeatedly visits catastrophic punishments upon mankind and the cycle begins again. This is not quite a creation cycle since mankind is never destroyed and created anew. Rather, emissary prophets attempt to correct wayward peoples. They succeed with some, for a time; others degenerate into evil spirits andlater"animal people."

After Wako, God sends Piler, together with his wife, to found the human race. Piler's grandchildren become vainglorious and quarrelsome. After two successive groups of emissary teachers fail to correct them, God upturns the world, banishing Piler's descendants to the fourth layer of the underworld, where they remain as ponikan ("evil ones") ready to wreak illness upon mankind.

The next great emissary prophet is Mako, sent to correct the obstreperous ponikan who are making their way through tunnels up from the underworld. Like Piler, Mako is given a wife by God. Both he and his wife are called back to God unblemished. Their three morally ambiguous children, who are neither exemplarily good nor particularly evil, start the major cycle of Cuna mythology: that of Tat Ipelele ("grandfather lord shaman"; also, the personified sun).

Ipelele and his six siblings are born of an incestuous union between two of Mako's children. Forced by their crime to flee, Ipelele's father becomes the Moon, while Ipelele's mother takes refuge with Frogwoman. Frogwoman's animal sons devour Ipelele's mother, and Frogwoman raises the children as her own. Ipelele discovers the secret of his birth and journeys to the underworld to find the herbal medicines that will revive his mother. Able to restore her only temporarily, Ipelele then devotes his life to heroic struggles against the descendants of Piler, as well as against other enemies.

Ipelele marries the daughters of evil chiefs to learn their secrets. He gives his sister to Wind in order to make an ally of him. He discovers the powers inherent in tobacco, hot pepper smoke, and cacao incense to make the ponikan drunk and helpless during feasts he offers them. He turns many of them into "animal people," animal spirits with their own strongholds at the fourth layer of the underworld. He finds allies in magical stones and stick spirits (from the balsa tree), which are the magical allies of shamans today. At one point, he even defeats the ponikan in battle, leaving the battlefield strewn with their corpses. Finally, Ipelele is called back to heaven to become the Sun, riding each day in a giant canoe steered by his helmsman servant and accompanied by his sister.

After Ipelele's ascent, the cycle of emissary preachers, human corruption, and catastrophic punishment (by fire, wind, darkness, and flood) is repeated four more times. After the final flood comes the beginning of the present epoch. Here the great tribal culture hero, Ipeorkun ("lord gold kuna") arrives among the Cuna, who are at this time corrupt, ignorant, and little different from the "animal people" who surround them.

Mythic Origin of Cuna Culture

Now there is a reversal of the usual theme. Instead of the descendants of a prophet lord becoming corrupt, the Cuna (like Ipelele before them) discover their true identity as olotule ("golden people") and shed the filthy ways of the animal people. Ipeorkun, like Mako, is not a warrior but is rather a teacher who reveals the particulars of Cuna culture: female puberty ceremonies; bodily cleanliness and, closely associated with it, purity; "correct" (Cuna) kin terms; terms for parts of the body; how to use the magical spirit allies of the shamans and the texts that control them; how to mourn properly; how to build proper houses; how to sleep in hammocks; and, finally, the texts of God's Way. His sister teaches women the arts of cleanliness and sewing. Ipeorkunlike Wako, Mako, and Ipeleleis called to God.

After Ipeorkun come the eight Ipelerkan ("lord shamans") to continue his teachings. They grow vainglorious and corrupt, now in specifically Cuna ways. For instance, one of them who knows the female puberty text keeps the young initiates for himself. The eight Ipelerkan are corrected by a young son of one of them, Nele Kwani, who foresees a drought (another punishment from God) and bests them all in a contest of magical powers.

Although the Cuna are a horticultural people whose staple is the banana in various forms, and whose cash crop is the coconut, neither crop is sacralized or commemorated in any myths yet collected. Cacao, tobacco, balsa wood, and magical stones, all supernatural allies in the struggle against evil, are, however, richly attested in the Ipelele cycle of narratives.


Cuna cosmology, with its four levels above and four below the earth, is continuously revealed by the nele s, who mystically journey through the cosmos, often forging alliances with evil spirits to learn their secrets. In the underworld are the strongholds of the kings of the spiritual allies. Heaven itself, revealed by the nele s through a chant that recounts the adventures of a soul brought back from the dead, is a stronghold at the fourth layer above. Its golden buildings not only evoke the ancient chiefly strongholds of nearby Colombia, but today heaven also includes skyscrapers, automobiles, and telescopes, which permit souls to gaze upon the living, the underworld, and the United States (located, by implication, somewhere near the underworld). Souls who arrive at God's golden house do so only after having been physically punished for their earthly sins as they journey through the underworld.

God and Morality

The image of God, called Pap ("father") or Diosaila (from the Spanish Dios and the Cuna saila, "chief"), is that of a stern and distant paternal figure. He is never directly personified, unlike his sons and emissaries. His morality is consistent with the good and harmonious management of a matrilocal extended household and of a community made up of a number of such households. That morality, preached weekly in the local assemblies, enjoins a man to be hard-working, productive, and cooperative, and a woman to be fertile, clean, industrious, and nurturant. Women must avoid gossip, and men, quarrels. Minor conflicts must be dealt with promptly by wise, paternal chiefs, and punishment meted out swiftlyoften in the form of verbal admonishmentsafter which all is forgiven and forgotten. To do otherwise raises the specter of backsliding into the evil ways of the "animal people."

Mythology and Cultural Survival

Armed with this religion, the Cuna were an insuperable foe to the Spaniards, whom the Cuna associated with the ponikan, and whom they correctly identified as the source of illnesses. Just as the ponikan steal men's souls, so did the Spaniards capture their bodies and enslave them. The Cuna borrowed their mythological strategy for dealing with the ponikan and applied it to the Spaniards. Just as nele s ally themselves mystically with friendly spirits, get the ponikan drunk magically, and confine them to their proper strongholds, so too did the Cuna form alliances with the Atlantic enemies of Spain, feast the Spaniards, and keep them at arm's length. In 1925, the strategy was played out exactly. The great tribal chief Nele Kantule, who was also a shaman, formed an alliance with an American adventurer and organized an uprising against the Panamanian administration, which took place during Carnival. The plotters fell upon unsuspecting, drunken guardsmen and killed them. The United States imposed on Panama a treaty favorable to the Indians.

Cuna mythology is kept open-ended and vital through the nele s and through the chiefs who incorporate recent history into their chants. The dominant ritual is the recitation of texts. Prayer and sacrifice are not practiced.

Cuna religion continues to be practiced vigorously despite the incursions of Christian missionaries and public health clinics. One community, however, has already appointed "singing chiefs" for a traditional congress house separate from the "administrative chiefs" who conduct secular affairs. It is possible that this development contains the seeds of a Cuna church or ecclesiastical cult separate from the civil government. Such a church could very well be the outcome of continuing acculturation and urbanization.


The single most important source for Cuna mythology is Norman MacPherson Chapin's Pab Igala: Historias de la tradición Cuna (Panama City, 1970). This comprehensive set of texts is arranged in a sequence that Chapin's chiefly informants agree is correct. The current edition is mimeographed, but a print edition is planned. There has been no such compilation of curing, puberty, or funerary texts. The text for childbirth appears in Nils M. Homer and S. Henry Wassen's The Complete Mu-Igala in Picture Writing (Göteberg, 1953). This is the subject of a celebrated essay by Claude Lévi-Strauss, "The Effectiveness of Symbols," in Structural Anthropology (New York, 1963). Chapin has corrected Lévi-Strauss's ethnographic errors in "Muu Ikala: Cuna Birth Ceremony," in Ritual and Symbol in Native Central America, edited by Phillip Young and James Howe (Eugene, Ore., 1976). This volume also contains Howe's cogent "Smoking Out the Spirits: A Cuna Exorcism," pp. 6976. The best study of curing is Chapin's "Curing among the San Blas Cuna" (Ph.D. diss., University of Arizona, 1983).

Unfortunately, recent work has shown the texts of Erland Nordenskiöld's 1920s expedition to the Cuna to be garbled. His An Historical and Ethnological Survey of the Cuna Indians, written in collaboration with Ruben Pérez and edited by S. Henry Wassen (Göteberg, 1938), should be read only in connection with other works cited here.

James Howe, Joel Sherzer, and Norman MacPherson Chapin have published Cantos y oraciones del Congreso Cuna (Panama City, 1979) in a beautiful edition that presents a number of texts and excellent sociolinguistic and ethnological analyses. Sherzer expounds the different styles used in reciting Cuna sacred texts in "Namakke, sunmakke, kormakke: Three Types of Cuna Speech Event," in Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking, edited by Richard Bauman and Joel Sherzer (New York, 1974).

The female puberty ceremony is described, without symbolic analysis and without the major sacred texts, in Arnulfo Prestán Simón's El uso de la chicha y la sociedad Kuna (Mexico City, 1975). The continuing open-endedness or productivité of Cuna sacred texts is explained in Dina Sherzer and Joel Sherzer's "Literature in San Blas: Discovering the Cuna Ikala," Semiotica 6 (1972): 182199. I have explicated the application of this mystical strategy to practical diplomacy in "Lore and Life: Cuna Indian Pageants, Exorcism, and Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century," Ethnohistory 30 (1983): 93106. My "Basilicas and King Posts: A Proxemic and Symbolic Event Analysis of Competing Public Architecture among the San Blas Cuna," American Ethnologist 8 (1981): 259277, explicates the peculiarly rectangular Cuna house construction both in mythological and symbolic terms. Finally, the single best ethnographic study of the Cuna is James Howe's "Village Political Organization among the San Blas Cuna" (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1974).

Alexander Moore (1987)

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