Folklore: The customs of essential Chile

The Chile of the melting pot, of magic and creativity. Beliefs rooted in oral traditions, fragments of the people’s soul.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009  
Artesanía Artesanía (Photo:Sernatur)

Customs are pure wisdom passed on from one generation to another. It is in the essential Chile, where superstition, stories of ghosts and spirits, the heritage of cultural mixture live. In the country’s folklore the popular soul is preserved so that it may manifest itself through different elements and customs.

Handicrafts created by simple hands with the materials offered by nature: silver is the principal material of Mapuche smithing; wool worked with knitting needles,  spinning wheels and looms; enameled copper; in addition to handicrafts in wood, with seashells and even  horsehair. Handicrafts are joined to traditional games, dances and songs, as well as tales and legends that are orally passed on. The imaginary of the country and its people is preserved and recreated throughout the length and breadth of the land.

Folk Music

Creole music, which is typically Chilean, was born from cultural mixture. It is sung and danced from north to south, from the sea to the mountain range. The celebrations of rural folk start with a guitar and a pandero (a large tambourine without metal disks or small bells) or a pandereta (the smaller, common tambourine with metal disks or small bells), a harp and an accordion.

A classic image of Chilean folklore is that of a couple dancing cueca at the same time that a group breaks out the music with a guitar and tambourine. In Chile there are as many styles of cueca as there are stories and localities. It’s about a tradition that transcends peasant songs. In the north it has the sounds of quenas (flutes) and zampoñas (reed pipes); in the central zone the main instrument is the guitar, and in the south, the trutruca mapuche or the acordeón chilote, the Chiloé accordion.

Folk music with indigenous roots is related to religious and healing rituals. The creole or Chilean music from peasant and popular folklore, has its origins in cultural mixture and is expressed in songs in the form of the tonada (ballad) and, as a matter of course, the cueca. Spanish influence is manifest in the instruments that were brought over from Europe, such as the guitar and the accordion.

Handicrafts

Traditions are also manifested through the hands of craftspeople. Theirs is another form of expression of a way of being and seeing the world.The materials they use are those provided by nature: silver in Mapuche smithing, enameled copper to shape ornaments and functional utensils; wool worked with knitting sticks, spinning wheel and looms; wood, sea shells and horsehair.

For crafstpeople’s hands a tree is more than a tree and mud is more than mud. Sirens and butterflies crafted from horsehair in a rural town deep in the countryside are an unexpected marvel. Clay pitchers, figures crafted with ancestral techniques, an immense diversity of objects that give voice to the people’s soul. 

Ceramic work is especially representative of Chilean handicrafts. The first samples of pottery are the pre-Columbian vestiges of the Diaguita culture in northern Chile. In the central region, the towns of Pomaire and Quinchamali are best known for their pottery traditions. Famous are the practical and decorative pieces, clay dishes, pots and animal figures, miniature stoves and guitarreras, which are figurines representing a woman singing and playing her guitar. In these places the Indian past fuses with peasant traditions. Nearby, in the town of Chimbarongo, wicker is used to create a variety of objects, from ornamental jars or decorations to furniture for the home. 

Mapuche art

Basketwork is one of the Mapuche nation’s most typical expressions of handicrafts. They are also practical, like the colorful baskets made from coiron, a plant also used as forage for animals.

Wood carving is another traditional expression of the Mapuche people, given their forest environment. Oak, rauli, and coigue, are native species of the indigenous forests, and within easy reach for building dwellings called rukas, and utensils for domestic use. Bowls, ladles, trays and plates with animal or boat motifs were born from the Mapuche traditions of handicrafts.

Thousands of miles away, on Easter Island, woodcarving is also an identifying feature of Rapa Nui culture, especially  using toromiro wood, highly valued for its hardness and quality. Besides producing oars and other utilitarian objects, carvers are inspired by the traditional figure of the stone moais of Easter Island. Examples are the Kava Kava Moai, with its prominent ribs, and the Tangata Manu Moai, meaning “bird man.”

Wool knitting and weaving are typical in different areas of the country, the legacy of Aymara culture in the north and Mapuche culture in the south. Knitting sticks, spinning wheels and looms are used to produce mainly protective garments and others for ceremonial uses. The weavings portray figures or drawings that are especially significant: medicinal and decorative plants, animals (the serpent, for example, is of special importance in Mapuche culture), the union of communities and cosmic symbols of the heavens and of life after death. In the central zone of the country the shawls from Doñihue and the chamanto, an elegant blanket similar to a poncho, are very typical. In the south, the traditional chilote cap is everywhere to be seen.

Chile’s mining activity has also birthed smithing and metal handicrafts. The Mapuches use silver to create accessories for their typical costume: the trarilonco, worn around the head, and the trapelacucha, which is pinned to the chest, are pieces that usually represent the condor, a bird that is sacred to the culture of the “People of the Earth” – the meaning of the word “mapuche.” For the women of this nation, silver jewelry has a religious meaning and protects them from evil spirits. Copper, which is Chile’s main export, is used to make embossed plates, mobiles and pendants with enameled copper, and plates, pots, teapots, and other utilitarian objects.

Lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone colored like the sky, is extracted from deposits in the Ovalle mountains of the north. Artisanal jewelers use lapis to carve figures that visitors and tourists find singularly impressive.