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Tehuelche Religion


TEHUELCHE RELIGION . [This entry discusses the religious system of the Aónikenk, or southern Tehuelche Indians.] Known as the Aónikenk ("southerners"), the southern Tehuelche Indians inhabited the region of Argentine Patagonia, which extends east and west from the Atlantic Ocean to the foothills of the southern Andes and north and south from the Chubut River (43° south latitude) to the Strait of Magellan. The ethnographic data used in this essay come primarily from fieldwork done in the 1960s, when the surviving Aónikenk population was estimated to number about two hundred, although barely seventy were still speaking their own language, which is part of the Araucana-chon family.

Until their final biological, social, and cultural annihilationdue to pressures exerted by the Araucanian peoples to the north and to European conquest and colonization during the nineteenth centurythey were nomadic hunters with set patterns of movement, encampments, and territories. Their displacements were subject to seasonal variations: summer hunting in the coastal region was accompanied by a certain social dispersion, whereas the western areas of Aónikenk territory were associated with more stable winter settlements and some degree of population concentration. The Aónikenk were subdivided into three groups, with a varying number of exogamous patrilineages; their residential pattern was patrilocal. There are numerous gaps in our knowledge of the religious system of the southern Tehuelche, but an imposing, if fragmentary, mythology stands out. By the time travelers began to be familiar with Aónikenk mythology, it had already begun to disintegrate, in part because it was forbidden to share it with outsiders.


The mythic chronology speaks of four ages. The chaos of the first age is expressed in the image of a deep sea (the Flood?) or of a thick, wet darkness. During the second era, the high godknown variously as Weq.on ("truthful one"), Kooch ("heaven"), the Old One, and the Everlasting One, among other paraphrasescreates and gives order to the cosmic elements. Third is the epoch of Elal, the young god who shapes the earth, performs the ontological schism between undifferentiated and differentiated reality, and makes possible present-day human life with his ordering of technoeconomic, social, ritual, and ethical phenomena. His actions cover the end of the mythic era and mark the transition to the fourth age, the present one.

The cosmology describes the world as a system of four superimposed strata: the celestial sky, the atmospheric sky, the earth, and the subterranean region. The first is considered to be the highest, the second and third are rated ambiguously, and the last stratum is ranked the lowest. The cardinal points are rated similarly: the east is the best, the north and south are ambiguous, and the west is very bad.


No form of cult to the high god is recorded. The women possessed a repertory of sacred songs, dedicated to Elal and to Moon and Sun and their daughter, that were transmitted matrilineally. The canonical and reduplicated form of periodic exhortations given before hunting expeditions, which were uttered loudly by the chief of the local group, suggests the transformation of an ancient prayer addressed to Elal, inventor of hunting weapons and techniques.

Moon is the feminine deity who rules over periodic and alternating processes: menstruation, gestation, the life cycle, and the tides. During the new moon and eclipses, the members of the community would assemble behind their tents looking to the east; the women intoned the song of the deity and addressed prayers to her, begging her to "return to illuminate the world," to grant them health, longevity, and good luck.

The song to the daughter of Sun and Moon was included in a rite for regulating high tide. This rite is related to an episode of Elal's cycle that associates the tides with the daughter's animistic states. According to it the goddess was transformed into a siren; her excitement over the maternal apparition was linked to high tide during the first quarter of the moon, and her unhappiness during the last quarter to low tide. The life cycle was marked by rites of passage: birth, puberty initiation, marriage, and death were culturally meaningful milestones. The events of the life of Elal symbolically reflect these experiences, suggesting in both instances evolutionary stages of understanding, with special powers gained at each stage.

The ritually and mythically significant classification of colors is based on the white-red-black triad. The highest opposition sets up white and black as symbols of life and death (or concealment), respectively. Newborn babies were ritually painted white, while gravediggers (a strictly female role) were painted black. The lowest opposition, according to a hypothesis formulated by Carlos J. Gradin (1971, p. 113), contrasted the attraction of favorable aspects, denoted by white, with the rejection of the malefic, indicated by red; in contextual terms, however, the two colors complemented each other through their shared protective nature. Gradin's hypothesis reaffirms the sequence of colors used in therapeutic and funerary rites, where red accompanies the segregative phase, staving off the dangers entailed by impurity, and white accompanies the reincorporative phase, capturing the virtues to which a renewed condition allows one to aspire.


The Aónikenk deities' spheres of activity and their relationships of complementarity and exclusion present a confusing panorama, which I will attempt to clarify. Elsewhere, I have noted processes of superimposition and transposition of attributes from the high god to other deities (Siffredi, 19691970, p. 247): for example, Elal possesses omnipotence and creativity as well as characteristics of a culture hero, while atmospheric phenomena are assigned to Karuten ("thunder"), a being of the atmospheric sky who is subordinated to Elal. The role of judge of the dead is assigned to the dyadic deity High God/Seecho; the high god judges how well the ethical ideal has been realized by the deceased, while Seecho, the "old woman" goddess, seconds his judgment. She admits to the afterworldthe eastern celestial skythose among the dead who have tattoos on their left forearms (formerly such tattoos were the mark of initiates) and throws into the ocean those who lack tattoos. The belief that the dead were reunited with Elal and the high god in the eastern celestial sky, a land that knows neither penury nor illness, was well established. Elal moved definitively there after finishing his acts on earth, mounted on the swan goddess Kukn, the young goddess who assists Elal in many of the cycle's most important events.

The dyad Elal/Kukn displays a similar structure to that of the dyad High God/Seecho. The connection and hierarchical relationship between both dyads appears in the fact that the genesis and permanence of Elal's and Kukn's powers are ascribed to the high god. The secondary role and the spatial liminality of both feminine deitiesexpressed by their placement in the atmospheric skysymbolically confirms the social dominance of men. The resulting tetrad, articulated along the criteria of age and sex (Old God/Old Goddess-Young God/Young Goddess), suggestively resembles the composition of Araucanian divine tetrads.

A similar coincidence between Tehuelche and Araucanian belief can be seen in a dualism that goes back to the primary confrontation between high, portrayed by the high god, and low, represented either by darkness (tons) or by the deep sea (xóno); high and low are the foundations of Order and Chaos. This dialectic extends over a vast semantic field in which roles, states, orientations, luminosity, numerical properties, zoological and color classifications, and behavioral and cognative qualities converge. One pole links the celestial deities, life, healing, shamans, the masculine, east, day, evenness, water birds, herbivores, white, red, temperance, and wisdomall of which contrast with the chthonic beings, death, illness, witches, the feminine, west, night, oddness, carrion birds, carnivores, animals that live in dens, fish and sea mammals, black, intemperance, and ignorance.


The southern Tehuelche anthropogony includes motifs that relate to the differentiation of the human species and to the origin of copulation, marriage, and death. The beginning of Aónikenk people is accounted for in two ways. One is that Elal modeled male and female genitals out of clay into which he then blew the breath of life; another is that a role reversal between sea and land animals converted the former into the Aónikenk. Since land creatures were turned into marine fauna, the Aónikenk attribute the taboo on eating fish to this second mythical account.

The cosmogony recounts that the high god abandons his typical inactivity to begin the work of creation, which results from acts that are not always deliberate or conscious. One version of Aónikenk cosmogony contrasts the high god with xóno, the aquatic chaos that covered almost all primordial space except for a small piece of land in the valley of the Senguer River, in which the high god, little by little, grew larger. This region, the true "cosmic center," contains the palpable signs of divine action (i.e., certain topographical features) and is also the setting for the fabulous birth of Elal and for his acts on earth.

Manuel Llaras Samitier's versions of Aónikenk cosmogony (in Wilbert, 1984, pp. 1718) contrast Kooch with tons, ubiquitous darkness. Saddened by his overwhelming solitude, Kooch's tears generate the "bitter sea" and his breath creates the wind that dispels darkness. The creation of Sun and Moon also plays a part in the darkness's attenuation. The amorous coupling and uncoupling of Sun and Moon evoke the rhythmic succession of darkness and light. Such images express the establishment of a temporal ordering by means of the alteration of day and night and of spatial ordering through the regulation of the cosmic elements: light, wind, and clouds.

The Cycle of Elal

Elal is the fruit of the union of antinomial conditions: his father, one of the chthonic monsters engendered by tons, devours his pregnant mother, one of the clouds created by Kooch. Elal's maternal grandmother rescues and raises the newborn Elal. Two testimonies enlivened the Aónikenk's memories: a bottomless spring, risen from the corpse of the Cloud, Elal's mother, marks the spot where Elal was born, appropriately called Beautiful Water. The red dawns observed from high vantage points reaffirmed for the Aónikenk this primordial shedding of blood.

Elal symbolically represents a mediation between heavenly and chthonic, the mythical and the present era, nature and culture. His quasi-earthly condition is in harmony with the formation of a world on a human scale. His mediation of the chthonic realm, for purposes of giving it order, is evident in the battles against cannibalistic giants, whose peculiarity lay in the vulnerability of their heels, a complementary and converse trait to that shown by the solar people, whose mouths operate as anuses. Elal's slaying of the ogres, beginning with his own father, culminates in their petrification. They can thus be observed by the Aónikenk in the immutable form of rocks or fossil remains.

The mediation of the high aspect is developed during Elal's celestial journey to the region of Sun and Moon, his future in-laws. The couple show their hostility by assigning him to perform deadly trials for a three-day periodnot unlike the Aónikenk's shaman's apprentice, who was required to spend three days of initiation in cavesbefore giving him their daughter. Unlike other suitors, Elal is able to carry out all the trials with the help of Kukn, the swan goddess.

In sociological terms, Elal's unsuccessful marriage to the daughter of Sun expresses the risks of extreme exogamy. Conversely, the cycle's next episode, in which Elal's grandmother attempts to seduce him, highlights the Aónikenk's abomination of incest in that the grandmother is transformed into a mouse and condemned to live underground. The gravity and eschatological meaning of this is supported by one old Aónikenk woman's assertion: "My grandmother trod on the mouse whenever she saw it, because it was to blame for the departure of her powerful grandson, whom she had raised."

The transition between the mythical and present eras is understood as the passage from predifferentiated to clearly defined reality. The Aónikenk believed that the earth emerged from the unformed sea, which was forced to the east by Elal's unfailing arrows. Elal's comings and goings from west to east, resembling the Aónikenk's seasonal migrations, endowed their habitat with the contrasting topography of mountains, woods, plateaus, valleys, lakes, rivers, and islands. The image of an almost empty sky is opposed to that of one peopled with constellations representing earthly animals and objects, a tradition shared by many hunting peoples. Molded by Elal, the constellations constitute visible guides for human action.

The schism between animal, human, and divine natures is marked by the confinement of each to a defined sphere. Although there is room for mediation between these spheres through shamans and witches, easy communication disappears after the mythical era. A rock with the imprints of Sun's feetprobably a reference to the petrographs of the "footprint style" (2500 bce) of southern Patagonian rupestrian art (Gradin, 1971, p. 114)locates the site where Sun, exiled by Elal, was supposed to have helped himself up in order to climb to the sky.

Temporally, the homogeneity of the original, predifferentiated realityeternal life, continuing winter, and the unformed seais contrasted with the periodicity and alternation suggested by the appearence of the driving forces of the cycle of death and reproduction, of seasonality (and each season's specific activities), and the movements of the tides. In ontological terms, the lack of differentiation between the many primordial beings and thingsindicated by their shared humanoid conditionis set against the delineation of specific identities. On a sociological plane, the antisocial and incestuous natureor the "meanness"of the primordial humanoids is contrasted with human sociability based on the adequate sharing of goods, collaboration in hunting, sexual division of labor based on complementarity, prohibition of incest, and the exogamy of the local group. On an ethical plane, the formation of an Aónikenk ideal focused on courage, industriousness, tolerance, hospitality, respect for the property of others, and reserve in front of outsiders.


We are now witnessing the deplorable annihilation of this ethical ideal, extending throughout the southern Tehuelche religious system. Although in mythical terms the Aónikenk recognized the shock of the changes wrought by Europeans and their own consequent frustration, they did so merely by becoming aware of, and not by actively resolving, the conflict.

The absence of revivalist or revitalizing reactions would have been compensated for, at the very least, by mythical reflection on the meanings of alcoholism, of being deprived of their hunting lands, and of having to submit to foreign power. Incorporated as part of the cycle of Elal, the Aónikenk's great penury is reflected in the final impotence of the once-powerful deity. Thus one sees a religiosity that, since it is unable to form new relationships, is signaling the demise of its foundations as a rationale for cultural practice.

I hope in this article to have begun to fulfill, in at least a limited fashion, the mission entrusted by the last of the Aónikenk: that of revealing and spreading their "Word," which they knew would outlast their own lifetime and that of their gods, annihilated by history.

See Also

Mapuche Religion.


The most complete compilation of Tehuelche mythic texts and narratives can be found in Folk Literature of the Tehuelche Indians, edited by Johannes Wilbert and Karin Simoneau, "UCLA Latin American Studies," no. 59 (Los Angeles, 1984). Johannes Wilbert's introduction (pp. 113) provides a rigorous history of Tehuelche folk literature studies. Among the versions contributed by authors to the compilation can be recommended those obtained by Tomás Harrington (text 49), Rodolfo M. Casamiquela (texts 4, 69, 80, 95, and 104), and Marcelo Bórmida and me (texts 5, 11, 2224, 2844, 4648, 5056, 5860, 6264, 6668, 7073, 75, 78, 79, 83, 8594, 96102, and 105110); these versions meet the appropriate heuristic requirements in regard to collection, transcription, identification of informants, and genealogical proofs. Undoubtedly, the versions contributed by Manuel Llaras Samitier (texts 13, 810, 1214, 25, 45, 65, and 74), especially the cosmogonic ones, are the richest, although unfortunately they do not always meet the above requirements.

The cultural links between certain southern Tehuelche, northern Tehuelche, and Selk'nam (Ona) mythic themes are outlined by Marcelo Bórmida and me in "Mitología de los Tehuelches meridionales," Runa: Archivo para las ciencias del hombre (Buenos Aires) 12 (19691970): 199245. For a comparison of these elements with those contained in the anthropogonies of the Gran Chaco, see Edgardo J. Cordeu's and my "En torno a algunas coherencias formales de las antropogonías del Chaco y Patagonia," Relaciones de la Sociedad Argentina de Antropología 5 (1970): 310. An interesting literary analysis that excerpts an episode from the cycle of Elal and reformulates it in its context was done by Juan Adolfo Vázquez in "Nacimiento e infancia de Elal: Mitoanalisis de un texto Tehuelche meridional," Revista iberoamericana (Pittsburgh) 95 (AprilJune 1976): 201216. For a typological-comparative analysis of the deities and hierophanies and a summary exposition of the rites of passage and shamanistic and witchcraft conceptions and practices, see my "Hierofanias y concepciones mítico-religiosas de los Tehuelches meridionales," Runa: Archivo para las ciencias del hombre 12 (19691970): 247271. Carlos J. Gradin makes many valid suggestions on the magico-religious meaning of southern Patagonian rupestrian art in "A propósito del arte rupertre en Patagonia meridional," Anales de arqueología y etnología (Cuyo, Argentina) 26 (1971): 111116. A reconstruction of the mythico-religious components of the Aónikenk habitat can be found in my own "Aspectos mítico-religiosos de los Tehuelches meridionales (Aonik'enk): El Habitat," Boletín del Centro Argentino de Estudios Americanos (Buenos Aires) 1 (JanuaryApril 1968): 4954.

New Sources

Aguerre, Ana M. Las Vidas de Panti: En la Tolderia Tehuelche del Rió Pinturas y el Despues, Provincia de Santa Cruz, Argentina. Buenos Aires, 2000.

Bernal, Irma, and Mario Sánchez Proaño. Los Tehuelches y otros cazadores australes. Buenos Aires, 1988.

Casamiquela, Rodolfo M. En pos del Gaulicho. Rio Negros, 1988.

McEwan, Colin, Luis A. Borrero, and Alfredo Prieto. Patagonia: Natural History, Prehistory, and Ethnography at the Uttermost End of the Earth. London, 1997.

Nacuzzi, Lidia R. Identidades impuestas: Telhuelches, Aucas y Pampas en el norte de la Patagonia. Buenos Aires, 1998.

Pérez Bugallo, Rubén. Pillantun, estudios de etno-organología patagónica y pampeano. Buenos Aires, 1993.

Alejandra Siffredi (1987)

Translated from Spanish by Erica Meltzer
Revised Bibliography

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