The ancestral Mapuche medicine and their pursuit of harmony

The ancestral Mapuche medicine and their pursuit of harmony

In Mapudungun, the language of the Mapuche people, the word ampin literally means “to say to the soul”, but its generalized translation is “to medicate, to cure”. In the Mapuche culture, the medical practice is evidently associated with spiritual pathologies and the power of the word – people fall ill because of a disturbance in the harmony of the spiritual world. There is a mutual cooperation and interaction between the natural and supernatural forces that constitute their worldview. And since these energies must be in harmony and stability, illness becomes an expression of a disproportion in some aspects of the daily life: the environmental balance reflects the inner order and vice versa.

Diseases can be cured by restoring the inner energies’ integrity, expelling the extraneous force from the true self. Indeed, causes of sickness can be natural (re kutran) or ascribed to the agency of malevolent spirits (weda kutran) and supernatural influences (wenu kutran). The etymological meaning of “doctor” (ampife) is “the one who knows verbal commands for the soul”, and his/her duty was originally to gain power over – and with – the forces of the “Word”. A relevant aspect of this power is to avoid using the word for “disease”. Without the term, there will be no concept. The mind cannot conceive it and also its materialization in our body is bound to fail.

The figure of the machi…

Currently, the Mapuche traditional healer is called machi. Both men and women who possess willingness, temperament, and courage, can become a machi, but in contemporary Mapuche culture, women are more commonly machis than men. Machis are actually protectors of the Mapuche people; they propitiate the equilibrium between the spiritual and natural forces, diagnose the pain causes, and offer remedies for diseases based on an extensive and ancestral knowledge of the healing herbs of their land. A machi is chosen by powers and spirits and must undergo a long and arduous initiation to take on the role. After that, machiluwun (a ceremony to consecrate the new machi) can be held.


Machis leading the machitún, a healing ceremony (1854). Photo: Wikimedia Commons.


The most common way of diagnosis is pewtuwün willenmeo, and consists in the observation of the urine of the patient. Through this examination, the machi can identify the origin and the nature of the pain and decide the appropriate remedy. Other forms of diagnoses include looking at the clothes or the saliva of the sick person and making predictions about the illness, while the expulsion of evil is performed by summoning the ancestral spirits (pillañ). The sound of the kultrung, the traditional Mapuche drum, and chants accompany these rituals. The machi usually gets into a trance in order to communicate with spirits and deities, and confers with them about the disease.

…and the meaning of the land

Patients can be cured at the discretion of the machi who realizes, after the diagnosis, whether or not her remedies will be effective. In this latter case, she can suggest to her patient someone who is able to help him (this may be also a doctor in the western sense). However, the most striking trait of Mapuche healthcare is certainly the collective wisdom that arises from their symbiotic relationship with the environment and the land: they have been able to explore the exclusive resources that biodiversity supplies. For instance, the relationship between a machi and her foiyé, a native slender tree, was so strong that it was said that if someone had cut down her favored foiyé, she would have inevitably died. Foiyé wood is now used for the construction of the kultrung and is a natural antidote for scurvy, scabies, ulcer, cancer, and rheumatism.


A young adult specimen of Drimys Winteri (foiyé). Photo: Baamenabar (, Wikimedia Commons.

Protector of the Mapuche people

Because of their significant medical knowledge, many machis have been assimilated into Chilean healthcare system (with the resulting conflicts). Nevertheless, machis are the very symbols of the Mapuche pursuit and establishment of harmony. The Mapuche people suffer from uprootedness, that is, most of them have been compelled to migrate to the cities or to roam in search of shelter and food. In this context, machis have taken on a new meaning: they take care of the health of the Mapuche people succumbing to the uprootedness drama which results in depression, trauma, frustration, obesity, respiratory diseases, and many other dysfunctions.


Mapuche flag. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.


Dispossession has been the cause, and land should be the cure. Nowadays, the concept of land bears all the hallmarks of a commodity, something to be owned and traded. Private property rights hegemonically regulate the access to this natural resource and constitute a critical aspect of human resource management. However, land is far more than just an individual, exclusive property; much more than soil, rocks, and minerals: it is the repository of an ancestral wisdom which has sustained peoples and cultures. The Mapuche people are still fighting to get back the regions of South America they have occupied for over 2,000 years. Those areas are their history, identity, tradition, and, obviously, their cure.


With Tribalingual you help revitalize endangered cultures by learning their worldviews and languages. You can explore hidden stories and traditions, talking directly with our first-hand cultural experts, and you can prevent the disappearance of cultures that would deprive our humanity of its richness and diversity.

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