Boiúna

Variations: Anaconda, Boi-úna, Cobra Grande, Cobra-grande, Eunectes murinus, Mae-d’agua, Mae-do-rio, Mboia-açu (“Large Snake”), Mboiúna; Mru-kra-o (Kayapo); Vai-bogo (Desana)

Boiuna

Boiúna or Cobra Grande is one of the most widespread and polymorphic myths of the Amazon basin. The name is applied to concepts and creatures ranging from a goddess of the water to a synonym of the green anaconda (Eunectes murinus).

In lingua geral the term boi denotes a snake (such as jiboia, the boa constrictor). Una means black. Thus a boiúna or mboiúna is a black snake, a name it shares with the mussurana. Its other name of cobra grande (“big snake”) is even less descriptive.

But a cobra grande is nothing if not big. It grows up to two hundred meters long and ten meters wide. Its enormous eyes, 0.5 to 1 m apart, glow like searchlights, with colors including orange-yellow and blue. Sometimes it has large, sharp canines on its lower jaw that stick out through holes in its upper jaw like horns. It has a powerful stench that can make people dizzy, and it makes loud rumbling sounds. Its massive bulk easily hides in the underwater holes it digs. Sometimes it appears as a ghost ship, a steamboat or a sailboat.

Boiúna can be found at the bottom of streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds, but it usually avoids the rainforest and dry land. When water levels fall in the dry season boiúnas slither out in search of deeper water, gouging out new stream channels and troughs. Its mere presence in the water can impregnate women.

When it swims a boiúna leaves a distinctive, huge, v-shaped bow wave. It protects the fish of its waters. It has a magnetic power that allows it to immobilize ships in the middle of the river, and release them at its discretion; inexplicable boat malfunctions can be ascribed to a meddling boiúna. The glowing eyes of a boiúna can mesmerize anyone who looks at them, rendering the victim enchanted (encantado). The snakes can also kill people by stealing their shadows. A de-shadowed person (assombrado) wastes away and dies in a few days. It can take a more direct approach by attacking small boats and eating the passengers, although it may also take its captives to its underwater kingdom, a sort of watery afterlife, to live with it as river snakes.

Boiúnas are intelligent. They can be summoned in séances, where they are quite talkative. They can also take on human form and mingle with people. Norato was a boiúna who would leave the Tocantins river and head into Carolina at night to party. He was an avid dancer who swapped his scaly hide for a dashing white jacket. A man once saw a giant snake leave the river and turn into a man, leaving his skin behind. Horrified, the onlooker decided to burn the skin. Norato returned to find that he was stuck as a human.

Sometimes a boa constrictor that grows too big becomes a boiúna. Sometimes a boiúna is spawned from human behavior. The boiúna of the Itacaiunas River was conceived by a girl who became pregnant and hid her condition from her parents. When she gave birth she was too scared to tell her parents, and threw the baby into the Itacaiunas. There it metamorphosed into a huge snake that terrorized river traffic. The boiúna revealed in a séance that it wanted to be disenchanted; the way to do so involved luring it with hot milk, slashing its throat, and turning around without looking back. Nobody took it up on the offer.

Tales of giant snakes are common throughout the Amazon. These include the mru-kra-o of the Kayapo and the vai-bogo of the Desana. In the Peruvian Amazon the giant anaconda is known as the Yakumama, the Mother of Water.

References

Barbosa, A. L. (1951) Pequeno Vocabulario Tupi-Portugues. Livraria Sao Jose, Rio de Janeiro.

Cascudo, L. C. (2000) Dicionario do Folclore Brasileiro. Global Editora, Sao Paolo.

Fonseca, F. (1949) Animais Peconhentos. Instituto Butantan, Sao Paolo.

Galeano, J. G.; Morgan, R. and Watson, K. trans. (2009) Folktales of the Amazon. Libraries Unlimited, Westport.

Osborne, H. (1986) South American Mythology. Peter Bedrick Books, New York.

Smith, N. J. H. (1981) Man, Fishes, and the Amazon. Columbia University Press, New York.

Smith, N. J. H. (1996) The Enchanted Amazon Rain Forest. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Cuero

Variations: Hide, Skin; Manta; Huecú, Chueiquehuecu, Chueiquehuecuvu, Trelque, Trelquehuecufe, Trelquehuecuvu, Trilkehuecufe; Ghyryvilu (erroneously?); El Cuero (erroneously)

Cuero

The tale of the living cow-hide is widespread throughout the lakes of Chile. Originally a type of huecuve, a Mapuche evil spirit responsible for all sorts of ills, it has since assimilated into local folklore and been attributed to animals such as the octopus and ray. Sometimes the creature is merely a physical manifestation of the huecuve, which can then go on to possess people or animals and inflict them with consumption.

The Mapuche term for this creature is Trelquehuecuve, “skin huecuve”. In Spanish-speaking contexts it is known as Cuero, “Hide” or “Skin”, or Manta, “Mantle” or “Cloak”. Molina describes it as a variant of the ghyryvilu or fox-snake, another aquatic terror.

A cuero is a creature that looks like a cowhide, sheepskin, or goatskin, stretched out flat and laid on the surface of the water. It is usually white with black or brown spots, or brilliant yellow and white. The edges of the cuero are armed with hooked claws. The cueros of Butaro laguna, Atacama, resemble living fabric with suckers; they are also the souls of the damned. In central Chile the cuero is an octopus that resembles a cowhide with numberless eyes and with four enormous eyes in its head. Laguna Copín, Aconcagua, is home to a furry, flat creature fond of human flesh.

Anything that enters the water is engulfed and squeezed in the cuero’s folds, and dragged under to have its blood sucked out. After feeding the cuero will release its drained prey and find itself a solitary beach on which to stretch out, bask, and digest peacefully. Unexplained drownings are the work of a cuero. In Ovalle and Coquimbo the goatskin cueros couple with cows and sire deformed offspring.

Cueros can be killed by tossing branches of quisco cactus (Cereus or Echinocactus) into the water. The creature will attempt to seize the cactus, injure itself, and bleed to death. The heroic youth Ñanco successfully confronted a cuero by holding quisco in his hands and tying quisco branches to his legs

The motif of the living hide extends to other beings and motifs. Another Chilean folktale tells of a magical cow that told its master Joaquin to kill and skin it. The resultant cowhide was alive in its own fashion and served Joaquin as a boat, and the cow’s eyes in his pocket granted him the power to see through anything. At the end of his adventures, the skin, bones, eyes, and other remains of the cow were collected for burning, but the moment the last hair of the cow touched the pile, the cow was brought back to life, plump and healthy, and walked off to the farm as though nothing had happened.

References

Aguirre, S. M. (2003) Mitos de Chile. Random House, Editorial Sudamericana Chilena.

Borges, J. L.; trans. di Giovanni, N. T. (2002) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Vintage Classics, Random House, London.

Cifuentes, J. V. (1947) Mitos y supersticiones (3rd Ed.). Editorial Nascimento, Santiago, Chile.

Guevara, T. (1908) Psicolojia del pueblo araucano. Imprenta Cervantes, Santiago de Chile.

Latcham, R. E. (1924) La organización social y la creencias religiosas de los antiguos araucanos. Imprenta Cervantes, Santiago de Chile.

Molina, M.; Jaramillo, R. trans. (1987) Ensayo sobre la Historia Natural de Chile. Ediciones Maule, Santiago de Chile.

Soustelle, G. and Soustelle, J. (1938) Folklore Chilien. Institut International de Coopération Intellectuelle, Paris.

Jarjacha

The Jarjacha is a nocturnal Peruvian beast, quadrupedal, with a long neck and glowing eyes. It lives on a diet of human flesh, but has very specific preferences: it feeds solely on incestuous men and women, or those who have committed carnal sins towards their spiritual compadres. It itself may be born from the soul of an incestuous person or taboo-breaker.

A jarjacha manifests primarily in its call, a loud rattling cry that echoes through the hills. “Jar-jar-jar-jar-jar”… It repeats, over and over. The villagers shiver, cross themselves, and lock their doors.

By morning the atmosphere is tense. Everyone knows there is a sinner among them, some incestuous wretch who has brought judgment down on themselves. The parish priest decries the existence of the son of Satan in their midst, one who will be punished by divine retribution. Eventually the shamed culprit is brought to light, and given an auto-da-fé in the public square.

Jarjacha is the worst insult that can be leveled at someone.

References

Bustamante, M. E. (1943) Apuntes para el folklore Peruano. La Miniatura, Ayacucho.

Wako

Variations: Waco

Wako

The Wako are tsawekuri, animal spirits in the folklore of the Cuiva of Colombia and Venezuela. They look like pacas, with spots and long vicious fangs. Wako dig caves with many small exits and hiding-places, and live there in large numbers. Their call sounds like ao, ao, ao, ao.

Wako are carnivorous and anthropophagous. Anyone who ventures into their caves is hunted down and devoured. However, they refuse to chase anyone who is naked.

A Cuiva man who was left by his wife once made the suicidal decision to dig into a wako nest. Despite his son’s entreaties, he dug into the hole where a wako had been seen, feeling around with his hand and pulling it out quickly. His actions startled the wako, who ran out of their burrow calling ao, ao, ao, ao. There was nothing left of him after they were done.

Another man descended into a wako cave to avenge his pregnant wife, who had been eaten by the wako. He successfully exterminated the entire nest of wako.

References

Arcand, B.; Coppens, W.; Kerr, I.; and Gómez, F. O.; Wilbert, J. and Simoneau, K. eds. (1991) Folk Literature of the Cuiva Indians. UCLA Latin American Center Publications, University of California, Los Angeles.

Pira-nu

pira-nu

The Pira-nu, “black fish”, is born in old timber canoes lost in the rapids. This Argentinian fish is of great size, with a horse-like head and big eyes. It swims at the surface of the water to capsize canoes, and it quickly devours humans and livestock that have fallen into the water.

References

Ambrosetti, J. B. (1917) Supersticiones y Leyendas. La Cultura Argentina, Buenos Aires.

Falajitax

Variations: Leile, Leile, Liwo

Falajitax

The Falajitax snakes are both violent ogres and benevolent rain-bringers. The Makka of Paraguay believe that they come from humid areas and bring the water with them wherever they go. Most falajitax live in the Chaco forests.

A falajitax has a head like that of a rhea. When it rears up with its body out of sight, it looks exactly like a rhea, and fools many hunters into coming too close. It wears earrings. Its massive serpent body is beautifully colored with eye-catching stripes. But a falajitax need not stick to one form, as it can assume any appearance it wishes, including human and equine guises. A falajitax disguised as a horse can tempt people into riding it, galloping with them into a lake where they drown.

At best, the falajitax are intelligent creatures that can be reasoned with by shamans. Falajitax often protect sources of honey in the forest, and the shaman can placate them by singing and soothing them with a sort of balm. A group of Makka and their shaman were permitted to harvest honey, and the falajitax next guided them to their secret stores of honey. The snakes finally appeared in the shaman’s dreams, telling him that they would live in peace with the Makka.

The falajitax that chased a rhea-hunter was much less friendly. With its head raised, it would beckon him to approach, then lie down and roll up as he came closer. When he discovered the deception, he rode off at full speed, with the falajitax following close behind, jumping from branch to branch like a monkey. When the hunter reached a burned field, the falajitax stopped moving, for such places are unpleasant to the snake. The man returned with other villagers and killed the helpless falajitax, taking its beautiful skin, but after they hung it out to dry it started to rain. The torrential downpour stopped only after they had thrown the skin away.

At worst, the falajitax are little more than anthropophagous monsters. They often swallow people alive, but victims can escape by cutting out the serpent’s heart from within – a difficult proposition, considering that a falajitax has multiple decoy hearts around its neck, with the real heart located in its tail. It took two days for one hunter to find the falajitax’s heart and slay it; by then, his hair and clothes had been dissolved and his skin was decomposing. Fortunately for him, his wife’s magic comb restored him to health. But if the falajitax decides to kill first, then there is no escape. The snake constricts its prey to death and then introduces its tail in its victim’s anus, making it walk like a macabre puppet.

References

Arenas, P.; Braunstein, J. A.; Dell’Arciprete, A. C.; Larraya, F. P.; Wilbert, J. and Simoneau, K. eds. (1991) Folk Literature of the Makka Indians. UCLA Latin American Center Publications, University of California, Los Angeles.

Ix-hunpedzkin

Variations: Ix-hunpedɔkin, Hunpedzkin, Hunpedɔkin; Mexican Beaded Lizard, Heloderma horridum

Ix-hunpedzkinMexican beaded lizards are large, sluggish, and colorful Central American lizards. They have a venomous bite, and popular Yucatec Maya folklore has exaggerated their toxic qualities.

The Mayan beaded lizard, or Ix-hunpedzkin, is 3 to 4 inches long, with black, rose, and ash-colored bands across their bodies and a pink underbelly. It strikes with both its mouth and its tail. In fact, its entire body is virulently toxic, and it can kill a grown man if it so much as touches his clothes. Even that is not the ix-hunpedzkin’s most infamous activity.

Ix-hunpedzkins frequently enter houses and come in contact with humans. They can cause severe, debilitating headaches merely by biting the shadow of one’s head. These headaches are lethal if not treated immediately.

To heal a hunpedzkin-headache, the plant hunpedzkin or hunpedzkin-ak (or ix-hunpedzkin or ix-hunpedzkin-ak, the names are shared) must be used. It is a climbing plant found in association with Sabal japa, and its long, narrow, and yellow leaves resemble those of the henequen, except it is smaller and has soft spines. It is probably a Tillandsia. The leaves should be crushed or burned to ashes, poulticed, and applied to the patient’s head.

References

Pacheco Cruz, S. (1919) Lexico de la Fauna Yucateca. Merida, Mexico.

Roys, R. L. (1931) The Ethno-Botany of the Maya. The Tulane University of Louisiana, New Orleans.

Huayramama

Huayramama

Huayramama, “Mother of the Wind”, is one of the three ancient snake mothers of the Peruvian Amazon. She has no direct biological counterpart, but is believed to be an enormous boa with an old woman’s face and very long hair that tangles in the clouds – in comparison, her counterparts the Sachamama and the Yakumama are the boa constrictor and the anaconda, respectively.

The guardian of the air and the daughter of the red huayracaspi or “wind tree”, she is herself the mother of all the good and evil winds. Huayramama also grants power to deserving healers and shamans, giving them control over the weather.

Don Emilio Shuña was one such man. After fasting for nine days and drinking ayahuasca tea brewed from the huayracaspi, he was rewarded by the appearance of Huayramama, her long body billowing in the sky and her hair trailing behind her. She landed on his house and proclaimed “OK, man, here I am. What is it you wish?” “I want to control the wind, the rain, and anything from the sky”, said Don Emilio. Huayramama granted him his wish on condition he fasted for an additional forty-five days. At the end of that period of fasting, Don Emilio gained the magical powers he asked for, and was taught songs by the Huayramama herself. He could control weather, heal those afflicted by evil winds, return crops to life, and revitalize dying fisheries. When the Huayramama’s malevolent children tried to stir up trouble, he drove those winds under the trees through fasting, singing, drinking huayracaspi tea and blowing tobacco smoke. Huayramama would touch his head to strengthen him in times of need. He also used his powers for simpler blessings, such as preventing rain to allow local boys to play football in peace.

At the end of a long and charmed life, Don Emilio finally died. Perhaps it was rival sorcerers who murdered him, or perhaps the evil winds finally won. All who knew him wept. He was buried under the huayracaspi in the middle of the forest, for as he said, “that tree is my mother”.

References

Galeano, J. G.; Morgan, R. and Watson, K. trans. (2009) Folktales of the Amazon. Libraries Unlimited, Westport.

Yakumama

Variations: Yakumaman, Yacumama, Yacumaman; Puragua; Anaconda

Yakumama

Yakumama, “Mother of the Waters”, is one of the three ancient snake mothers of the Peruvian Amazon. She is the anaconda magnified and empowered, in the same way as the Sachamama is the boa constrictor. She appears as a gigantic anaconda with blue scales and eyes glowing like the headlights of a boat. Yakumama is the same creature known as Boíuna or Cobra Grande in Brazil.

The Yakumama can often be found resting on the banks of the river, her tail trailing away into the water. She is capable of entrancing prey into immobility with her gaze and drawing victims to her like a magnet. When happy, she blesses people with plentiful rain and abundant fish. When angry – which can happen for no discernible reason – she summons storms, fogs, and whirlpools in addition to putting her enormous bulk to destructive use. Sometimes Yakumama swallows all the fish and prevents fishermen from catching them, or flies into the sky and causes downpours that ruin crops. Offerings of food and aguardiente can placate her.

After years of work in the forest, a man decided to returnt to Iquitos. He set off down the Napo River on a large boat, bringing with him his family, servants, lumber, and livestock. Soon a storm broke, and he ignored warnings from native fishermen that Yakumama was around, only to get caught in a whirlpool. Prayer to God did nothing, but tossing food and aguardiente in calmed the whirlpool. But still the man pressed on, into a sticky, bluish fog that all other animals avoided. The storm raged until an enormous wave lifted the boat and lodged it in the branches of a capirona tree. Then they saw Yakumama rise from the river, water flowing off her glistening coils as yaras rode her back and laughed at the humans. Yakumama proceeded to gobble up the lumber, the livestock, the cargo raft, several trees, and an island before going back under. The man, his life’s work obliterated, limped back to the native village with his family. He was greeted warmly and offered food and a place by the fire, and there he was told of Yakumama the ever-changing.

The presence of outboard motors and large ships have driven Yakumama away. She is hardly seen nowadays.

References

Galeano, J. G.; Morgan, R. and Watson, K. trans. (2009) Folktales of the Amazon. Libraries Unlimited, Westport.

Stiglich, G. (1913) Geografia Comentada del Peru. Casa Editoria Sanmarti, Lima.

von Tschudi, J. J.; Ross, T. trans. (1847) Travels in Peru during the Years 1838-1842. David Bogue, London.

Sachamama

Variations: Sach’amama, Sacha-mama, Sach’a-mama, Sacha Mama, Sach’a Mama; Boa constrictor

Sachamama

Sachamama, “Mother of the Forest”, is one of the three ancient snake mothers of the Peruvian Amazon. She is the mythological boa constrictor, in the same way as the Yakumama is the anaconda. Sachamama is about forty meters long and two meters wide, with an iguana-like head and scales like stone plates. There is a bulldozer-like blade under her neck. Trees, bushes, vines, fungi, and all sorts of living things grow on her back, such that she never moves unless provoked.

Not that Sachamama needs to move. She has magnetic or hypnotic powers capable of drawing to her any animal that passes in front of her head. The animals living on her also have those magnetic powers. She can also cause storms, rain, and lightning, inducing fevers and headaches in anyone foolish enough to intrude in her domain. Illnesses caused by the Sachamama require shamanistic intervention to cure, usually involving chants and lots of tobacco smoke.

The plants growing on Sachamama’s back are unique – a veritable pharmacopoeia of medicinal herbs that would save countless lives if the Sachamama allowed it. There is boa huasca, a liana with healing resin. Lluasca huasca is another vine whose phlegm-like resin heals facial blemishes. Puma huasca and puma sanango are vines whose cooked stem and cooked root (respectively) cure sorcery and evil spells, and whose spirits are jaguars. Zorrapilla or shabumpilla is a herb that heals cuts and injuries. The lluvia caspi (“rain tree”), rayo caspi (“lightning tree”), or trueno caspi (“thunder tree”) is an enormous tree whose bark, cooked and eaten, grants the ability to create and quell storms.

Most encounters wth the Sachamama occurred during the rubber boom in Peru, when many rubber harvesters found themselves entering the snake’s domain. A man and his wife collecting rubber once sat by the trunk of what seemed to be a huge fallen tree. When they cut into it with their machetes, it bled; when they built a fire, the trees shook, and a torrential downpour extinguished the fire. Next day the “fallen tree” had vanished. In its spot was a wide road. The man consulted a shaman who told him what he was dealing with. “The Sachamama lives in one place but she has moved. She doesn’t like trespassers”. Despite the shaman and his wife’s advice, the man decided to follow the road and find Sachamama. He came upon the tree trunk in a meadow, in the midst of human and animal bones, and at the end of the meadow was a cave where mesmerized animals were congregating. The “trunk” was Sachamama’s tail, and the “cave” her mouth! He cut through the trance with his machete and ran for his life.

References

Galeano, J. G.; Morgan, R. and Watson, K. trans. (2009) Folktales of the Amazon. Libraries Unlimited, Westport.

Montes, F.; Harrison, K. trans.; in Posey, D. A. (ed.) (1999) Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity. United Nations Environment Programme, Intermediate Technology Publications, London.

Stiglich, G. (1913) Geografia Comentada del Peru. Casa Editoria Sanmarti, Lima.