In Search of the aboriginal Mapuche machi (II). The drum, or kultrun.

This is the second post of a series on Mapuche shamanism.

In the first, I argued that many machi “trappings,” particularly the silver jewelry, are modern.  In effect, the present day machi wears what the Mapuche woman (domo) puts on for special occasions.  Here’s a wonderful  postcard of a contemporary domo in her “finest.”

Mapuche domo

Mapuche domo



The reader will note that the machi of the previous posting wears much the same silver jewelry.  The head band is a trarilongko … the pectoral pendant is a trapilacucha.





IMG_3754 - Version 2 - 2007-02-25 at 10-23-44



Here’s the machi at the wetripantu ceremony I photographed, for comparison.



Until fairly recent times, it seems, Mapuche of both sexes wore some sort of cloth headband (trarilongko).  But the wearing of silver is a consequence of Spanish contact.  The aboriginal Mapuche knew both gold and silver, and had their own words for them.   Perhaps they had some idea of what these “precious” metals meant to the Inca, with whom they fought.  But the wearing of silver was ultimately a consequence of trading with the Spanish once they were there to stay.  Having no use for money as itself–at least at the outset–such coins as the Mapuche acquired were beaten into ornament.

So, having stripped the contemporary Mapuche machi of silver and modern cloth, what is left from ancient times…?  I propose that what has survived has to do with what is indispensable to their calling….  And I think myself probably right in assuming that the drum of the machi (the kultrun, or kultrung) is the first of these things, and even in these days much as it was in times aboriginal.  Rare is the machi portrayed as such at any time–say for portrait, or postcard–who does not hold drum and drumstick.  And this drum, to all appearances, has remained more or less the same in size, construction, and decoration of the drum skin.  Here”s a typical example …


which demonstrates that the head of the drum is always ritually divided by paint into four sections (although other elements vary).  The body, traditionally carved out of solid wood, is hemispherical and represents the universe: the drum skin is the surface of the earth; the space above is wenu mapu, the heavens; and the base is the underworld.  The lines dividing the quadrants of the drum skin figure forth the cardinal directions, and the quadrants themselves represent the four seasons and the four winds…. In short, the drum represents the Mapuche universe, in a way that allows the shaman to play a kind of “music of the spheres.”

The design which divides the drum skin into four varies (as well as the elements depicted in each quadrant–which frequently represent the sun, moon, and stars).  Here are some other examples:


It is worth mentioning that machi place pairs and ‘quadruplets’ of small objects inside their drums, so that they add their part to the noise produced.  These objects are divided into ‘male’ and ‘female,’ according to their qualities and attributes.  For example, the seed of maize, wool, the leaves of laurel and kopiwe, llanka and lican (sacred stones) are added as ‘female,’ because of their association with fertility and life. Some objects considered ‘male’ are chili and foye leaves, charcoal and volcanic rock, because of their association with exorcism and fire.  Interestingly, therefore, the drum not only figures forth the universe, but also contains within itself the representation of both sexes, and thus adds this additional element to its totality.

Endnote: This post contains much material taken from Ana Mariella Bacigalupo’s book on Mapuche machi: Shamans of the Foye Tree

To be continued….




Interview by Bryn Hammond

Bryn Hammond is an author living in Australia who is writing an amazing trilogy about Genghis Khan, titled Amgalant, based on The Secret History of the Mongols.   Her research has been exhaustive … but her prose is truly and wonderfully anti-pedantic. She takes us to where we can live and breathe and have our being along with such Mongols as changed the world–which, if you ask me, is what the best historical novels do.  Her style is fresh, and all her own….

And I am delighted to report that she interviewed me about Arauco, sending me wonderful questions (that I am still mulling over), to which I responded in her blog….

The Q&A, in Bryn’s blog:

My review of the first volume of her trilogy: //

In search of the aboriginal Mapuche machi

Although I in no way pretend to be an expert on Mapuche shamanism, this is the first of several posts in which I will attempt to present how I arrived at the shamans of my novel….

While in Chile in 2007, my wife and I stayed  in a Mapuche campground near Lake Budi, in the south.  The Chilean government was encouraging ethnotourism, and these were Mapuche attempting to keep their ethnic roots alive (presumably with government help).  We were fortunate to arrive  at a time when they were celebrating wetripantu–the New Year.  They performed traditional songs and dances, and a machi presided at the ceremony.  (You can click on this photo–or any other in the blog–to enlarge it.)
Machi ceremony:1

Above you see the machi playing on her sacred drum, the kultrung.  Behind her are two men playing a circular instrument, the  trutruka.  Another man plays on a bull’s horn.  Behind them is the thatched side of the traditional Mapuche dwelling, the ruka.

Worth mentioning is the fact that the men are wearing contemporary clothing, while the machi is ritually dressed.  She is barefoot, and wearing silver jewelry.  Also worth mentioning is that her apron is contemporary cloth, colored with modern dyes.

Here, the Mapuche dance around the sacred foye (or foiqui) tree, carrying branches taken from it….  Note the little learner, on the left, holding his own branch.

Dancing Mapuche


And now, a not quite so contemporary photo of three machi, taken in 1903….

Some things have not changed.  They are all dressed as women.  And their kultrung are pretty much the same.  Those are the constants.  However, all the silver jewelry, and all the contemporary cloth (save perhaps for the machi on the left), are simply just not there, in a clearly formal portrait.  Also, the brightly colored apron is gone….  In a little more than one century, at least the machi trappings have radically changed.

To be continued….