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Mapuche machis in 1903
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. In contemporary Mapuche culture, women are more commonly machis than men but it is not a rule.


Illustration of a machi healing a patient, from Atlas of Physical and Political History of Chile (Atlas de la historia física y política de Chile), by Claudio Gay
Illustration of a machi healing a patient, from Atlas of Physical and Political History of Chile (Atlas de la historia física y política de Chile), by Claudio Gay

As a religious authority, a machi leads healing ceremonies, called Machitun. During the machitun, the machi communicates with the spirit world. Machies also serve as advisors, and oracles for their community. In the past, they advised on peace and warfare.

The term is sometimes interchangeable with the word kalku, however, kalku has a usually evil connotation whereas machi is usually considered good; this, however, is not always true since in common use the terms may be interchanged.

The Mapuches live in southern South America mostly in central Chile (Araucanía and Los Lagos) and the adjacent areas of Argentina.

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:

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 pewma (IPA pronunciation: pewma) in Mapudungun. Machis are also said to help communities identify witches or other individuals who are using supernatural powers to do harm.

Mapuche traditional medicine is gaining more acceptance in the broader Chilean society.[citation needed]


Becoming a Machi is a spiritual transformation that also fosters a place where people can flow between spectrums of gender. Within Machi rituals and ceremonies, gender is fluid and dynamic. The majority of Machi are female, but males can also be Machis. The Machi power is usually passed down from the maternal grandmother. Gender is not determined by sex, as it typically is in Chilean society, but rather by identity and spirituality and is ambiguous among Machi. Some scholars have coined this as "cogender", which is a partly feminine and partly masculine identity. Most of this research has focused on males and femininity versus females and masculinity, but all forms of gender fluidity are present within Machi culture. During some ceremonies gender is transcended and transformed spiritually, where binaries between genders do not exist and new gender identities are explored.

Within Machi culture, plants and spirits are given gender. Usually these assigned genders are based upon perceptions of masculinity and femininity. E.g. Laurel is a feminine plant because it is regarded as soothing and soft, whereas Triwe is masculine because it has protective powers.[1] These genders are fixed and do not change. Machi, however, transcend static gender and dynamically flow between them. For example, during healing ceremonies Machis can flow between male, female, and cogendered identities in order to balance the spirit of the person they are healing. As Shamans of the Foye Tree says, “gender of spirits remain permanent, whereas Machi move between gender identities”.[2] This is because in Machi cosmology, the Nguchen, or the giver of life, is balanced by 4 identities; the man, the woman, the young man and the young woman. Therefore, during ceremonies Machis embody some or all of these identities at different times or simultaneously in order to heal. When someone is sick, Machis believe it is because the 4 are out of balance.[3] Thus within Mapuche culture, there are “well defined notions of gender, but Machis are able to manipulate them”.[1] Thus, gender exists in two realities, the earthly where gender is fixed and spiritual where gender is fluid. Machis are able to flow between both realities freely.

Gender roles and discrimination

While the Machis accept many different and even conflicting identities, Chilean society does not. Transgender Machi women who do not fit into traditional gender roles face a lot of discrimination and transphobia. Homophobia and transphobia are rampant in Chilean and Mapuche culture. The Machis are respected, but also shunned. Machi women are not viewed fully as women by Mapuche society because of their “masculine power” and Machi men are not viewed fully as male because of their femininity.[1]

Male machis, also called the Machi Weye, face discrimination from other Mapuches. Males are perceived as weak for taking upon a feminized role but are simultaneously regarded as more powerful than female machis. Yet other people view them as “not possessing as many powers as the [female] machis” because “females are more connected to nature”.[4] Some people view male machis as more powerful and adept than female machis due to traditional gender stereotypes of women inherently being weaker. One Mapuche person states that while he discriminates against Machi men that “when [he] is sick, when [he] needs a ngillatun, [he] goes begging to the male machi”.[4] As a result of the gendered perception of Machis i.e. that they are usually female, many male machi face discrimination from fellow Mapuche and Chilean society as a whole. Since they do not fit conventional gender stereotypes, these feminine male Machis are made outcasts and called derogatory names. One Mapuche states “they [male machi] may be stronger, but they wear women’s clothes...He must like pigs legs”.[5] Many male Machi dress in women’s clothing as this is perceived to be more pious and connected to nature. Machismo in Chilean society plays a large role in such discrimination as men are made outcasts from groups because they are seen as “too feminine”. In this way patriarchal culture simultaneously outcasts male Machi but also reinforces stereotypes that males are more powerful than females. As a result many male Machi have reinvented themselves as “celibate priests” or “spiritual warriors” in order to avoid further criticism and protect their masculinity. In some healing ceremonies and rituals male Machis are not permitted to participate because “they are not close enough to nature” and “[women] are more patient with the sick and know more about herbs…the spirits get along with women better”.[6] Therefore, patriarchal culture works in multiple ways. It leads to discrimination and misogyny against male and female machi and also creates complicated power dynamics where in some circles women are perceived as inferior and in other circles perceived as more powerful.

Machi women are sometimes out-cast from traditional Mapuche gender roles. Machi women are revered and feared. Masculine female machi are called derogatory terms such as bruja (witch) mujer de la calle (woman of the street) or marica (derogatory term of homosexual). One Machi describes that Machi women are given a higher status than Mapuche women because “they are sent here [earth] by god” and are therefore divine. She says for example “she is served before other people [at meals]”.[6] In this way the Machi regulate their own gender norms but are also combatted with traditional gender norms of Mapuche and Chilean society. This further complicates the notion of gender within the society.

Gender in Machi culture is filled with contradictions, paradoxes, and complications because they simultaneously exist within the gender binary and defy it. “Whereas male Machi legitimate their sexuality as celibate priests, most female Machi gain status and virtue by marrying and having children”.[7] Thus Machi still abide by the gender roles and norms of Mapuche culture, but then fight against them during spiritual ceremonies and rituals where they challenge traditional roles and perceptions of gender and embrace cogendered identities. The gender identity and construction of the Machi is nuanced and complex. Machi are able to fluidly move between genders throughout different ceremonies, but then face discrimination from Chilean society and fellow Machis themselves. One Machi states, “Here people don’t talk much about homosexuality because it is looked down upon”. Some Machis are concerned about the way the West portrays Machis, afraid that they are only perceived as homosexuals or brujas “witches”. One Machi states “Why do anthropologists always say who we are? Why don’t they ask us?” Ana Bacigalupo, a distinguished anthropologist in the field of Machi gender roles, urges people to see the nuances in Machi gender identity and allow complexity to exist.”[7] Machis gendered identities and practices can be experienced and interpreted endlessly along different paths and for different purposes that simultaneously bind people together and draw them apart”[8]


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.[9] 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 the 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."[10]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Bacigalupo, Ana (2007). Shamans of the Foye Tree. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  2. ^ Bacigalupo, Ana. Shamans of the Foye Tree. p. 75.
  3. ^ Faron, Louis (1963). The magic mountain and other origin myths of the mapuche indians of central chile. The Journal of American Folklore.
  4. ^ a b Bacigulapo, Ana. Shamans of the Foye Tree. p. 163.
  5. ^ Bacigalupo, Ana. Shamans of the Foye Tree. p. 165.
  6. ^ a b Bacigalupo, Ana. Shamans of the Foye Tree. p. 212.
  7. ^ a b Bacigalupo, Ana. Shamans of the Foye Tree. p. 224.
  8. ^ Bacigalupo, Ana. Shamans of the Foye Tree. p. 260.
  9. ^ Patrick Tierney, The Highest Altar: Unveiling the Mystery of Human Sacrifice (1989) ISBN 978-0-14-013974-7
  10. ^ "Asking for Calm." Time Magazine. 4 July 1960 (retrieved 28 June 2011)