The Role, and the Training, of the Mámas


It is the Mámas who lead and guide Kogi society, and to whom everyone comes for advice and, periodically, confession. ‘Confession takes place at night in the ceremonial house, the mama reclining in his hammock while the confessant sits next to him on a low bench. The other men must observe silence or, at least, converse in subdued voices, while between the priest and the confessant unfolds a slow, halting dialogue in which the máma formulates several searching questions about the confessant’s family life, social relations, food intake, ritual obligations, dreams and many other aspects of his daily life ... It is natural then that a máma obtains ... much information which allows him to exercise control over many aspects of local sociopolitical development. I know of no case, however, where a máma would have taken this knowledge for his own ends ... (they) constitute a truly moralising force and, as such, occupy a highly respected position.’ The key to this integrity may lie in their education.

Ideally, future priests are chosen by divination and undergo their training from birth. Full education lasts 18 years, split into two periods of nine years each, with puberty in between, at which point either the ‘moro’, or his teacher, can decide to discontinue the process. It used to be the case that girls would be educated too, but within the last three or four generations, this seems to have lapsed, only some girls given a basic education ‘in the manner of the ancients’.


During their training, the novices are designated by the term ‘kuívi’, or abstinents, and live in certain secluded places in the Sierra with their teacher and his wardens (hánkua-kúkui). There is an emphasis on avoiding daylight and on eating only white food. The first nine years, after nursing, are spent learning basics. ‘For hours on end, night after night, and illuminated only by torches and low-burning fires, the children are taught the dance steps, the cosmological recitals, and the tales relating to the principal personifications and events of the Creation story.’ It is a gentler time than the post-puberty period, the novice calling his teacher ‘hátei’ (father) and he calling them his ‘children’ or ‘sons’.

The more formal training begins after puberty. Now, the novices can eat, sparingly, the meat of game animals such as peccary, agouti and armadillo which ‘have great knowledge, and by eating their flesh the novices will partake in their wisdom.’ They learn deep meditation (using controlled breathing and muscular relaxation), divinatory practices, ‘listening’ to within and the ancient, ceremonial language and begin to perform for themselves the minor rituals. Slowly, having mastered a particular knowledge, they acquire the power objects or ‘sewá’ (beads of stone and different minerals) which are the ‘permits’ for that knowledge. The aim of all this training ‘is to discover and awaken those hidden faculties of the mind that…enable the novice to establish contact with the divine sphere…The entire teaching process is aimed at this slow, gradual building up to the sublime moment of the self-disclosure of god to man, of the moment when Sintána or Búnkuasé ... reveals himself in a flash of light and says:‘Do this! Go there!” ’ (Búnkuasé - ‘the shining one’ - was the first legendary máma to educate disciples and ‘is the personification of the highest moral principles in Kogi ethics and ... the patron and spiritual guardian of the priesthood.’)


From ‘The Sacred Mountain of Colombia’s Kogi Indians’.

‘All training is carried out under conditions of strictly scheduled lighting changes: for years the novice must live in an enclosure where he must rise at sunset and go to sleep at dawn. The apprentice must lead an entirely nocturnal life; during the night they may go for a short walk and bathe in the river but when there is a moon they should cover their heads with a small woven mat. Besides, the whole training period is accompanied by a complete change in diet.

  The manifest intention of the priestly teachers is to deflect the child-novices from their accustomed circadian activity rhythms, and to ungear or “declutch” their time perception. It is significant that Kogi priests declare that in children whose training began after the age of five, their circadian rhythms may be very persistent and that, for this reason, they prefer children of two or three years for initial training.’ (R-D 1990: 6-7).

  ‘Since Kogi priests believe that timing can be manipulated, they also believe that light/darkness stimulation can be manipulated for specific ends, and that this can be done quite independently of time. The idea of ‘throwing time out of gear’ - if I may say so - is found mainly in the early stages of priestly training and, later on, in the preparation for mystical experiences.

  In order to suggest some approaches to the study of the personality of the Kogi priest, we must return to the earliest phases of the training period. The knowledge and interpretation of circadian rhythms is used by the mámas in their attempt to deflect young children from biologically-based activity patterns, in order to create in them another, culturally-defined, perception of the relativity of time and space. Time and space are not thought to set inescapable barriers to the human condition, and a true mama must be able to step outside of time. This endeavour, and the practises it involves, constitute, to say the least, an extremely interesting proposition.

  The predominantly nocturnal life of the novices is most likely to cause what is known technically as winter depression. In the case of an extraordinarily long period of reclusion this would probably lead to depressive states of a high order. This manipulation of circadian rhythms is combined, in the Kogi case, with a specific, protein-low diet, salt-starvation, severe sexual repression, the absence of female affectivity, unaccustomed iterative learning, the occasional use of hallucinogenic substances, and other practices the nature of which is still little known. In view of these multiple factors in priestly training among the Kogi, even an approximate description of a mama’s personality, would fall outside the limited possibilities of ethnological analysis.’ (R-D 1990: 9-10).

Throughout training, emphasis has been on moral education, self-control and purity. ‘Only the pure, the morally untainted, can acquire the divine wisdom to control the course of the sun ... the change of the seasons and the times for planting and harvesting.’ Punishment for any lapse may have been sharp and painful - long periods spent kneeling on broken shells or frantically working a loom with the admonition, ‘I shall yet make you respect the cloth you are wearing.’ In society generally, overindulgence, physical aggression, disrespect, theft and cruelty to children and animals are all condemned, and a máma must be above all that.

Finally, at the age of twenty or so, he is returned to society, sometimes taking some years to adapt after so long in a rarified and élitist situation. He will not be skilled in practical matters such as land tenure, seed collection or soil qualities - his role is to ‘turn back the sun or to drown (the world) with rain’. He must be aloof from the potentially polluting practicalities of daily existence, his ‘otherness’ giving him a detachment from emotional entanglement - ‘neither sex, hunger, fear, nor friendship ... must bias his judgment’ if he is to be a leader, an ability expected in the common man also. ‘One never marries the woman one loves’, Dolmatoff was once, quite categorically, told.

Because ‘the Kogi…feel responsible for the moral conduct of all men… there is great interest in foreign cultures… The training of novices is, therefore, a necessity not only for Kogi society, but also for the maintenance of the wider moral order…The education of a máma is, essentially, a model for the education of all men (who) should follow a máma’s example of frugality, moderation, and simple goodness.’