Skip to main content

Mapuche Religion


MAPUCHE RELIGION . The Mapuche currently live in Chile and Argentina. In Chile, they have settled between the Bio-Bio River to the north and the Channel of Chacao to the south, a territory that encompasses the provinces of Arauco, Bio-Bio, Malleco, Cautin, Valdivia, Osorno, and Llanquihue (approximately between 37º and 41º south latitude). In Argentina, they are found at similar latitudes in the northern Patagonian province of Neuquén and, to a lesser extent, in the Río Negro and Chubut provinces; to the north there are scattered and isolated groups in the Pampas region. The most optimistic calculations estimate that there are 500,000 Mapuche in Chile and fifty thousand in Argentina.

The Mapuche belong to the Araucana-chon linguistic family. Most of the Mapuche live in small settlements in a pattern of scattered encampments. The basic economic activity among the Chilean Mapuche is agriculture; the Argentinians rely on sheep and goat herding, as dictated by varying ecological settings. Patrilineal descent, patrilocal residence, and matrilateral marriage are the most noteworthy traits of contemporary Mapuche society. Patrilineage or, in many cases, a subdivision thereof, as well as the residential family, increasingly constitute the minimal units of the settlement in economic, social, and religious terms.

The structural changes undergone by the Mapuche in the past hundred yearsa product of their adaptation to a new natural and social environmenthave transformed Mapuche economy and, to a lesser degree, Mapuche society. Nonetheless, despite insistent missionary activity by Roman Catholics and Protestants (particularly fundamentalists), the foundation of their system of religious beliefs and practices remains practically intact in many regions.

To describe their mythico-religious beliefs even briefly, to characterize the numerous major deities, both regional and local, and to elucidate the symbolic content and meanings of each of the many rites of this people are tasks far beyond the scope of this work. I have therefore chosen to summarize them, making use of two cognitive structures common to them all, which will allow me to piece together the complex Mapuche belief system of religious practices and images and to outline their internal logic.

The first structureapparently the most widespreadis dualism, which orders and defines two polar elements according to their relationships of opposition and complementarity. The second is the tetradic division generated as a result of a first bipartition that brings two opposed couples face to face and a second bipartition of degree that defines in each couple a climax and its attenuation.

The vast Mapuche pantheon is divided into two great antithetical and complementary spheres. The first is made up of beneficent deities, organized into a tetradic family based on a combination of sex and age (old man and old woman, young boy and young girl). These deities are the agents of good, health, and prosperity, and their tetradic nature symbolizes perfection. Cosmologically and vertically, they are found in the celestial sphere, or wenú mapú, which is the summit of the positive aspect of the four vertical components of the universe. Horizontally, some of them are ranked, with varying degrees of positivity, with the four regions of the world (the east, south, north, and west cardinal points). Temporally, they are associated with clarity. Given that the tetradic division is also the ordering principle of the day, they have their most exact manifestations in epewún ("dawn"), a superlative concretion of anti- ("clarity"), whose sign is positive, and in ki-ri-ni-f ("dusk"), the attenuation of pún ("darkness"), whose sign is negative. Finally, they are associated with positive colorsblue (the most important) and white-yellow (denoting attenuation).

The second sphere of this theophanic dualism is made up of the malefic beings, of wekufi-, who appear isolated, in odd numbers, and of indeterminate age and sex. They are agents of evil, illness, and chaos, and they symbolize imperfection. Their place in the cosmos is ambiguous; some groups place them in the anká wenú, or middle heaven, but generally they are considered to belong to the pu mapú, or netherworldthe climax of the negative aspect in the vertical conception of the universe. The temporal acts of the wekufi- are most evident during rangi-n púñ ("midnight"), the most negative moment, and, to a lesser extent, during rangíñ ánti ("midday"), the attenuation of the positive pole. Wekufi- that are associated with red and black, the malefic hues, play an even greater role in determining the qualities attributed to them.

The implied symbolic network arises from various levels of discourse, such as the ngetrán (accounts of mythical or historical events characterized by truthfulness) and the decoding of dreams and signspresent events that anticipate the qualities of future occurrences. The social correlative of this theophanic dualism is incarnated in the figures of the máchi ("shaman") and kalkú ("witch"), who manipulate the forces of good and evil, respectively. The paraphernalia of the máchi include, among other things, the kultrún (a kettledrum), which serves as a symbolic microcosm; the wáda (a rattle); and the kaskawílla (a girdle with small bells). The máchi are assisted by benevolent deities and are responsible for staving off illnesses caused by the kalkú, who are assisted by the wekufi- beings.

Shamanic rites include Machiluwún, an initiatory rite carried out after the máchi has undergone a period of revelation through illness or dreams and after he has received instruction from an initiated shaman, and the Ngejkurrewén, a postinitiatory rite of power renewal. The Pewutún is a diagnostic ritual. There are two therapeutic rites: the Datwún, for serious illnesses, and the Ulutún, for minor ailments. All these rites and their associated artifacts and actionsincluding the réwe, a wood carving representing the cosmic stages; branches from sacred trees; ritual displacements of objects from the right (positive) to the left (negative), facing east and counting in twos, fours, or multiples thereof; songs and dances beseeching the benevolent gods to act; blue and white flags; and the moments (dawn and dusk) when the rites are performedare symbolic expressions denoting supplication to the forces of good and the restoration of health.

In contrast, the witch directly or indirectly causes kalkutún ("harm") by throwing objects with malefic powers around the victim's house or by working magic on the victim's nails, hair, clothing, sweat, or footprints. The witch may poison the victim, or may enlist the help of a wekufi such as a witranálwe, the soul of a dead man that has been captured by the kalkú. The nocturnal appearance of the witranálwe in the form of a great, resplendent, cadaverous horseman causes illness and death.

Community members take part in numerous rituals outside of the specialized orbit of shamanism and witchcraft. The funerary rites, or Awn, are still practiced in the Chilean settlements. Their object is twofold: to ensure that the soul of the dead can cross into the world where the ancestors live (a site that some scholars say is very close to, or is associated with, the domain of the benevolent deities) and to prevent the spirit of the dead person from being captured by a witch and transformed into his aide during his nocturnal am-bushes.

The term ngillatún alludes to the act of prayer and connotes diverse practices on individual, family, and group levels. Strictly speaking, on the group level it designates a "ritual complex" that varies in several respects according to the traditions of the community performing it. These variations include the number and affiliation of the participants, the extent of group cohesion, the ritual's duration, its association with agrarian or pastoral economic cycles, and its occasional or periodic nature, that is, whether it is carried out to counteract natural phenomena or to observe crucial dates of the annual cycle. Despite this great diversity, what finally defines the ngillatún is its strongly propitiatory nature, its charactersvarying with the time it is performedas restorer of the cosmic order, and its enrichment of coherence and meaning within communal life through the ritual congregation.

Within this cultural domain, the symbolic network also impregnates with meaning each of the ritual episodesfor example, the forms of spoken and sung prayer, ritual sprinkling, ritual painting, women's songs, men's dances and mixed dances, sacrifices, libations, and horseback rides. It is this network that determines the temporal bounds of the episodes, the meaning of the displacements, and the colors used, as well as the number of times (twice, four times, or a multiple thereof) that each action must be repeated.

This summary, centered around the ideological principles that serve to organize and define a large part of the symbolic beliefs, rites, and images of the Mapuche, should not lead the reader to suppose that this is a closed system lacking flexibility. The history of the Mapuche people indicates exactly the opposite. They have adapted to new conditions while preserving their traditional knowledge and beliefs, even if these have sometimes been modified or given new meanings.


Among the classic studies of the subject, the most noteworthy for the Chilean region include Ricardo E. Latcham's La organización social y las creencias religiosas de los antiguos araucanos (Santiago, 1924) and Tomas Guevara's Folklore araucano (Santiago, 1911) and Historia de Chile: Chile prehispánico, 2 vols. in 1 (Santiago, 19251927). The North American anthropologist Louis C. Faron, who spent several years living in Chilean settlements, offers an excellent analysis of Mapuche society and its connections with religious practices in Mapuche Social Structure: Institutional Reintegration in a Patrilineal Society of Central Chile (Urbana, Ill., 1961); one of his many articles on this ethnic group, "Symbolic Values and the Integration of Society among the Mapuche of Chile," American Anthropologist 64 (1962): 11511163, deals with the dualism of the Mapuche worldview and offers valuable contributions. Other articles that should be cited, both because of the wealth of their data and the new outlooks they bring to the subject, are Maria E. Grebe's "Mitos, creencias y concepto de enfermedad en la cultura mapuche," Acta psiquiatrica y psicologica de America Latina (Buenos Aires) 17 (1971): 180193, and "Cosmovision mapuche," Cuadernos de la realidad nacional (Santiago) 14 (1972): 4673.

One of the most extensive monographs on the religion of the Argentinian Mapuche is Rodolfo M. Casamiquela's Estudio del nillatún y la religión araucana (Bahía Blanca, 1964). The compilations and observations of Bertha Koessler-Ilg in Tradiciones araucanas (La Plata, 1962) are a good addition. Other books worthy of mention are Else Marta Waag's Tres entidades 'weku-fü' en la cultura mapuche (Buenos Aires, 1982), which is outstanding for its wealth of information, and the anthology of essays Congreso del Area Araucana Argentina (Buenos Aires, 1963). The theoretical and methodological bases as well as the development and exemplification within different cultural domains of the two cognitive structures summarized in this article can be found in two essays by C. Briones de Lanata and me: "Che Kimí-n: Un aborde a la cosmologica Mapuche," Runa: Archivo para las ciencias del hombre (Buenos Aires) 15 (1985) and "Estructuras cognitivas e interacción social: El caso de la brujeria entre los Mapuche argentinos," in Actas del 45° Congreso Internacional de Americanistas (Bogotá, 1985).

New Sources

Calvo, Mayo. Secretos y Tradiciones Mapuches, Santiago, 1992.

Foerster, Rolf. Introducción a la Religiosidad Mapuche. Santiago, 1993.

Kuramochi, Yosuke, ed. Cultura Mapuche. Quito, Ecuador, 1997.

Kuramochi, Yosuke, and Juan Luis Nass, eds. Mitología Mapuche. Quito, Ecuador, 1991.

Sierra, Malú. Mapuche, Gente de la Tierra. Santiago, 2002.

Miguel Angel Olivera (1987)

Translated from Spanish by Erica Meltzer
Revised Bibliography

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Mapuche Religion." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 18 Dec. 2018 <>.

"Mapuche Religion." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (December 18, 2018).

"Mapuche Religion." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved December 18, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.