Mapuche machis in 1903
A machi is a traditional healer and religious leader in the Mapuche culture of Chile and Argentina. Machis play significant roles in Mapuche religion. Women are more commonly machis than men.
As a religious authority, a machi leads healing ceremonies, called Machitun. During the Machitun, the machi communicates with the spirit world. Machis also serve as advisors, and oracles for their community. In the past, they advised on peace and warfare.
The Mapuches live in southern South America mostly in central Chile (Araucanía and Los Lagos) and the adjacent areas of Argentina.
The term machi is sometimes interchangeable with the word kalku. Kalku or Calcu, in Mapuche mythology, is a sorcerer or witch who works with black magic and negative powers or forces. The essentially benevolent shamans are more often referred to as machi, to avoid confusion with the malevolent kalku. Its origins are in Mapuche tradition.
The kalku has the power of working with wekufe “spirits or wicked creatures”. The kalku also have as servants other beings such as the Anchimayen, or the Chonchon (which is the magical manifestation of the more powerful kalku).
A mapuche kalku is usually an inherited role, although it could be a machi that is interested in lucrative ends, or a “less powerful”, frustrated machi who ignores the laws of the admapu (the rules of the Mapuches).
Becoming a machi
To become a machi, a Mapuche person has to demonstrate character, willpower, and courage, because initiation is long and painful. Usually a person is selected in infancy, based upon the following:
- premonitory dreams
- supernatural revelations
- influence of the family
- her or his power of healing disease
- own initiative
Machiluwun is the ceremony to consecrate a new machi. The chosen child will live six months with a dedicated machi, where he or she learns the skills to serve as a machi.
Role in Mapuche medicine
The machi is a person of great wisdom and healing power and is the main character of Mapuche medicine. The machi has detailed knowledge of medicinal herbs and other remedies, and is also said to have the power of the spirits and the ability to interpret dreams, called peumo in Mapudungun. Machis are also said to help communities identify witches or other individuals who are using supernatural powers to do harm.
A modern ritual human sacrifice occurred during the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 1960 by a machi of the Mapuche in the Lago Budi community. The victim, five-year-old José Luis Painecur, had his arms and legs removed by Juan Pañán and Juan José Painecur (the victim’s grandfather), and was stuck into the sand of the beach like a stake. The waters of the Pacific Ocean then carried the body out to sea. The sacrifice was rumored to be at the behest of local machi, Juana Namuncurá Añen. The two men were charged with the crime and confessed, but later recanted. They were released after two years. A judge ruled that those involved in these events had “acted without free will, driven by an irresistible natural force of ancestral tradition.” The arrested men’s explanation was: “We were asking for calm in the sea and on the earth.”