Machis are Mapuche indigenous religious practitioners. Most are selected during infancy, especially if it is believed that they have inherited the spirit of a machi ancestress on the mother’s side. Others are initiated by visions of spiritual animals (especially snakes, horses or bulls playing shamanistic instruments) or wild nature spirits that offer them their powers. They can also be called by natural phenomena, like earthquakes and lightning. Those called often experience shamanistic illnesses (like partial paralysis or partial blindness, foaming at the mouth, insomnia, fevers, boils...) that generally disappear at initiation at machi school.
The coexistence of shamanistic beliefs with Christianity has always been a difficult one. Machis themselves did not hesitate to incorporate Christian beliefs to their own, actually asking to be baptised to increase their powers, and incorporated the saints, the Virgin Mary and Jesus into their healing epistemology and practices. Priests, however, saw that power as a threat, and witchcraft accusations were usual (most against unmarried or older, widowed women, independent of men).
Nonetheless, colonial values eventually pressed Mapuche beliefs towards an a priori contradictory direction: the feminization of machi power. While female power was (and is) patently threatening is and had (and has) to be curtailed, women held at the same time an intrinsically spiritual authority that the Church linked to domesticity – collecting plants, cooking and making textiles and ceramics- and to fertility (their bodies can literally create life, give birth). This, together with the increasing importance of land fertility for Mapuches – due to the reduction of Mapuche land as consequence of the creation of Chile and Argentina as modern national states and its erosion from overexploitation- has led to machis being nowadays a majority of women. Today, female machis are the ideal intermediaries with the deities (especially the moon) to ask for bountiful crops and fertile animals, and to take care of their communities’ health and well-being.
At the same time, they have also incorporated powers that traditionally belonged to male machis (or machi weyes): the waging of spiritual war through claiming a connection to the spirit of ancestral warriors. Their roles now exceed that of healers and midwives and have become highly political, rallying their communities to defend their cultural rights and obtain political autonomy from the state.
C. Grant May 29 2014. Paris, France
Bacigalupo, A. M. “The Struggle for Machi Masculinity. Colonial politics of gender, sexuality and power in southern Chile”. Ethnothistory Vol. 50 2003
Walter, M. N. & Fridman, E.J.N. “Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, Volume 1”, Abc-Clio (2004) p. 420