Forms of Popular Religiosity

Chile Table of Contents

Anthropologists of religion would be hard-pressed to find expressions of indigenous beliefs in the "popular" sectors of Chile. The principal exception to this is in the north, where various religious festivals honoring the Virgin Mary show bold traces of highland Andean indigenous beliefs. The most noted of these is "La Tirana," held each July in Iquique and the nearby village of La Tirana. In the rest of the country, Christian and indigenous religious syncretism has been largely confined to native American communities, where faiths in various animal and bird spirits coexist with beliefs of Christian origin.

Popular religious beliefs focus to a large extent on the notion that there is a struggle between good and evil, the latter seen as a force personified by the devil. This perspective is much in line with Mapuche beliefs. Illnesses are often seen, like sin, as tied in some way to the devil's work. Catholic priests in poor parishes usually have had the experience of being called by their least educated parishioners to perform exorcisms, particularly of demons thought to be afflicting sick children, and many Pentecostal services focus on ridding body and soul of satanic influences and on faith healing. A belief in heaven and in the eternal horrors of hell is a fundamental ingredient of the popular religious imagery, with earthly life said to be a brief trial determining the soul's final destination. Much of the message of Pentecostal sermons revolves around these concepts, focusing on the weakness of the flesh and on the necessity of leading a life of constant preparation for eternal deliverance. In this respect, there is a puritan streak to the Pentecostal message that is reinforced through a liberal use of individual testimonies of repentance and conversion from members, of the congregation. Among Catholics, this element of popular religiosity is tied intimately to a belief in the intercession of saints and, most important, of the Virgin Mary. Intercession may be invoked on behalf of deceased family members who are remembered in prayers.

The afterworld is heavily populated in popular religious imagery by errant souls atoning for their sins and seeking their final rest. Particularly in rural areas, it is common along roadsides to see niches carved into the sides of hills or shaped from clay the contain crosses, occasionally photographs, and candles. The niches are in the proximity of places where people met sudden, violent deaths, primarily from traffic accidents, without the benefit of last rites. The candles are lit mainly to plead for their souls but also in some cases to ask the deceased to intercede for those who light them. It is customary among the Chilean poor to believe that infants who die become little angels. Pilgrimages to Catholic churches that house special images of the Virgin or of saints and multitudinous processions in which these images are displayed are also part of the popular religious landscape. The faithful frequently offer penances in the hope of obtaining special favors.

A central objective of Pentecostal services is to experience a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The leader of the service tries to cleanse the congregation of devilish influences and to prepare the way for this manifestation. Between his or her invocations stressing the necessity and possibility of redemption from sin and anointments of the sick, the congregation joins in rhythmic but often lamentational singing, sometimes to the accompaniment of guitars and tambourines, and often supplemented by the clapping of hands. While singing, some of the women who attend will frequently begin to dance, swaying back and forth, and even to "speak in tongues." Sometimes the dancing will surround certain individuals who are chosen because they need special attention for some reason. Another common practice is for members of the congregation to pray individually in a loud voice.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress