In the culture of the Bribri, cacao is considered a sacred drink that accompanies people throughout their lives. When a child sees the light of day, it is cleansed with sacred cocoa, as is the mother. When a girl becomes a woman, the drink accompanies the ceremony. And even those who embark on their final journey are once again anointed with cacao. Preparation of the chocolate is in the hands of a woman: the mistress of ceremonies grates dry cacao beans and shapes them into chocolate balls before they are dissolved in hot water. At her side is the awá, the medicine man, who supports the ritual with herbs and song.
“All medicine is in the garden, in the environment, in the forest. Nature gives us everything we need.”
“With the Bribri, many things are different. There is no violence or aggression. Man and woman are equal. For us, women and men are like the two wings of a bird. It needs both to fly.”
The Bribri in Costa Rica
The Bribri, an indigenous people, who have been able to preserve their appreciation for nature, their matrilineal structures and distinct language for centuries, live on the land bridge between North and South America. There are around 35,000 Bribri, about 11,000 of whom live in the forests of the Talamanca border region in southern Costa Rica and northern Panama.
Spiritually tied to nature, the Bribri worship Sibú as their main deity. He is the creator of animals, humans, the sky and Mother Earth. According to legend, he created humans from kernels of corn, with blood from the cacao fruit. He divided them into thirty-eight clans, each of which was assigned different tasks, responsibilities and protectors: animals, plants or even the Earth. After creating all this, he took the cacao tree as his wife. The cacao tree is thus of great importance to the Bribri. It is considered feminine. From its seeds, the cacao bean, the everyday drink chocolate is prepared; on festive and ceremonial occasions, cacao beans are used for the preparation of a special drink for ritual purification which is considered a symbol of fellowship.
For the Bribri, Mother Earth represents the basis of life. It provides them with what they need to live: food in the form of vegetables, fruits, grains and cacao, animals that they breed or catch, clean water, wood and leaves for their huts, as well as herbs, seeds, bark and roots to treat disease.
The Bribri seek out healing in the gifts of nature, but also through ancestral incantations and chants. The awádraws on these when he is called upon as a spiritual advisor and healer. At the bedside of the sick, he establishes contact with the spirits, applies herbs, and implores the illness to leave the body. The training for becoming an awá is long and intensive: it begins at the age of eight for boys chosen by the clan and lasts about ten to fifteen years. However, the awá depends on the support of the female clan members, as they are the ones who gather and prepare the medicinal plants.
In addition to the awá, there are other functionaries in Bribri society who are vested with certain responsibilities. For example, only specially trained women are allowed to perform the sacred cacao ceremony, traditionally held in honor of births or funerals. The Bribri are organized matrilineally; family lineage is passed down exclusively through the female line. Born into their mother’s clan, daughters later inherit the property and in turn pass on the family name to their daughters.
The original dwelling of the Bribri, the casa cónica, has since been replaced with more practical timber pile constructions. The casa cónica is now only used for special celebrations and festivities. It is supported by eight pillars and represents an above-ground and underground microcosm for the Bribri, for in their belief, the casa cónica continues mirrored downward, representing the connection to the world of other beings and the dead. The ground level is the realm of the present, earthly life. In the upper strata of the house there are various spiritual beings with the main deity, Sibú, at the top.
The casa cónica serves as a visible representation of the bond between these three worlds and not only as a symbol of cohesion, but also of the Bribri commitment to helping each other. These values have served as the basis for Bribri community and reciprocity for centuries.