Kogi Religion and Cosmology

From ‘Training for the Priesthood among the Kogi of Colombia’ (UCLA 1976)

Reichel-Dolmatoff begins with a contrast, describing the hardship and seeming drudgery of the Kogi way of life, and concluding that ‘to the casual observer, Kogi culture gives the impression of deject poverty, and the dishevelled and sullen countenance of the Indian adds to this image of misery and neglect. Indeed ... one would easily come to the conclusion that by all standards of cultural evolution these Indians are a sorry lot.’ However, ‘nothing could be more misleading than appearances. Behind the drab facade of penury, the Kogi lead a rich spiritual life in which the ancient traditions are being kept alive and furnish the individual ... with guiding values that ... make bearable the arduous conditions ... (and) make them appear almost unimportant if measured against the profound spiritual satisfactions offered by religion.’ R-D then turns to the ‘coherent system of beliefs which is the Kogi world view.’

‘Traditional Kogi religion is closely related to Kogi ideas about the structure and functioning of the Universe, and Kogi cosmology is ... a model for survival in that it moulds individual behaviour into a plan of actions or avoidances that are oriented toward the maintenance of a viable equilibrium between Man’s demands and Nature’s resources. In this manner the individual and society at large must both carry the burden of great responsibilities which, in the Kogi view, extend not only to their society but to the whole of mankind.’

In Kogi cosmology, there are seven points of reference (North, South, East, West, Zenith, Nadir and Centre) and within these points is encompassed the cosmic egg created by the Mother-Goddess, our world being the fifth, or centre, of nine horizontal belts which constitute it. ‘The seven points ... are associated ... with innumerable mythical beings, animals, plants,minerals, colours, winds,and many highly abstract concepts’ whilst the four cardinal points ‘are under the control of four mythical culture heroes who are also the ancestors of the four primary segments of Kogi society ... and ... are associated with certain pairs of animals that exemplify the basic marriage rules’. Thus the rules prescribe that a man from the Puma patriline will marry a woman from the Deer matriline and so on, this teaming of natural opposites being another example of how balance is maintained in the society. Dualities, opposed yet complementary, are recognised everywhere. A village is divided by an invisible line, known to all, into two sections, the sun divides the sky into a right and a left side and the ‘nuhue’ is divided by the line between the two entrances into two parts, each with its own central post and each designated either male or female.

The Kogi, says Reichel-Dolmatoff, dedicate their lives to the learning of ‘The Law of the Mother’, the body of esoteric knowledge that contains ‘the myths and traditions, the songs and spells, and all the rules that regulate ritual’. A man ‘should never work for material gain and should not make efforts to acquire more than he needs in order to feed and house his family’ but should dedicate himself to learning so as to ‘contribute to the maintenance of the world order ... and reach old age in a state of wisdom and tolerance.’ But Reichel-Dolmatoff warns against imputing any romantic idea of the ‘noble savage’ - ‘yulúka’, the process by which balance is achieved, does not mean blissful tranquillity but an acceptance and rationalisation of harsh reality. An old máma once said to him: ‘You are asking me what is life; life is food, a woman - then a house, a field - then, god.’ This realistic approach is constantly mentioned as being a respected and desirable attribute in a Kogi.

The Kogi surround themselves with a mass of mythological figures, symbols, guardians and spirits. The Great Mother herself, Gaulcováng (from the root gau - to make, create, consecrate) appears in a number of guises e.g. Hába Guxsénse, the mother of the fire, or Málkwa-yang, the mother of weaving. Her children become the Lords of the Universe and their wives. Two of these lords, Seokúkui and Seizankwa, support the egg-shaped universe with a pole carried on their shoulders. Earthquakes are caused when they shift the weight between them.

Death for the Kogi is not seen as a tragic event but rather a fulfilment of life, the time when the individual returns once more to the body of the Great Mother. Life is seen as an intermediary stage, ‘a brief period between two intra-uterine states…a period of trials, a task that has to be fulfilled’. Mourning the dead is a concern for the immediate family only, otherwise there are ‘no great lamentations or commotion, nor are lengthy rituals thought to be necessary….A priest will accompany a dying person but he will not pray or talk; he will sit next to the moribund and ‘only think’‘.

After death, the released soul begins its journey to ‘The Land of the Dead’ (heiséi-chi kuíbuldu, literally ‘death’s little houses’) which lies high up in the snowfields. The journey is long (at one point, the mountains cry out ‘mixa mixa’, ‘hurry, hurry’) and full of trials and questions concerning the actions of the person whilst still in life. Dolmatoff likens it to the idea of purgatory which eventually leads to peace and repose. However, he makes a distinction between this simple idea of the afterlife and another pilgrimage made in completely different dimension. Here, there are again certain pre-established trails ‘the most important of which are called alúnan géina , “ways of the soul’, and seivákein géina , ‘ways of perfection’.

  “The word alúna (also pronounced aldúna ) is commonly said to refer to the soul, but it can also mean heart, spirit, sentiment, memory, even emotion or passion. From the study of a large number of examples it would seem that alúna refers to a variety of human feelings and endeavours, to emotions, but always in a positive and righteous way. Alúnan géina (or géna), then, are the ways for the souls of people who have felt such strong emotions in their lifetimes as sexual passion, aggression,and melancholy without having become dominated by them. They are said to be ‘warm’ ways, not abstract directions but dimensions filled with a certain human warmth, having little to do with moral bickerings about right or wrong.”

But the utmost achievement of the soul consists on becoming seiváke during the person’s lifetime and in wandering over seivákein géina during the afterlife. To be truly reborn (ishkuéldyi ), the soul must have arrived at a state of innocence like that of an uninitiated boy. This image of the ‘pure’ boy is very elaborate and is described as a state of youthful perfection (zueldúxa ). The concept of purity refers above all to sexual innocence and emphasis is placed upon the boyish image as something ‘whole, complete, perfect like a child’. Another condition of the state of seiváke is called nakuíza , meaning ‘he who forgot’. A seiváke person must have forgotten everything he has learned during his life, a state that must be achieved by an intentional mental effort at unlearning and thus returning to a childlike state. A third condition of seiváke is called sui séishi , ‘to feel cold’. The person must have mastered all emotions such as passion, lust, sorrow, and anger. A priest said: “The body must become all thought. There must be no thoughts of women, no thoughts of a body that has orifices.” So seiváke means cold, virginal, innocent; it stands for thoughts devoid of all sensuality, unaware of, or rather, beyond sex. In summary, the person must lose his or her individuality.”

The Kogi are a deeply religious people, and whenever they approach one of their priests they are not fearful but trusting; they are expectant in the security of being understood and guided by a mature mind who long since has mastered the difficult task of balance. (It is interesting to note that the use of hallucinogens is frowned upon by the Mámas- ‘truly illuminating experiences must be endogenously produced by disciplined sensory deprivation and by concentration.’) On these occasions a máma will not speak of jaguar monsters or cannibal spirits; these are creatures of one’s own imagination and each man has to vanquish them in his own solitude. Instead he will speak of the Great Mother who said to Sintána when, after his long wanderings, he returned and broke out in tears: “Never fear, my son; I shall always save you.”

This is a ‘mulkuákve’, a prayer or religious formula that a Máma may use for meditation or counselling someone asking his advice;

iskími alúna hangu ité
  iskími hába guaselgukú hangu ité
  iskími mulyigába nici gataugénka
  iskími hiúngulda guxa nici naugénka

  Only one thought
  Only one Mother
  Only one single word reaches upwards
  Only one single trail leads heavenward

Dolmatoff concludes; ‘The Kogi cherish their culture, they believe in it, and from this certainty they derive a deep satisfaction.’

The Cosmic ‘egg’.

The egg-shaped object is the universe, brought into existence by the Great Mother, Gaulcovang. The nine layers to the universe are the nine worlds. They correspond to the nine months of human gestation in the womb, and are represented in certain structural details of temple architecture.


The cosmos is described as an egg. When drawing this diagram using Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff’s descriptions of the different worlds, however, there was no conscious attempt to reproduce an egg shape. Reichel-Dolmatoff, following Kogi descriptions, describes the middle or fifth world, in which humans and the natural world exist, as the largest world and the top world, ruled by Mama Mususi & Hába Nyexan, as the smallest. As there is a symmetry between the upper and lower worlds, the egg shape naturally occurs when attempting to represent the worlds graphically.