The New York Times
December 22, 2000

A Rich Life of the Mind Makes a Hard Life Easier



          QUICAVÍ, Chile, Dec. 15 The winds are cold and  moist in this old fishing
          village, but they are not as chilling as the stories that the fishermen
          and potato farmers tell.

          There are people in and around Quicaví who swear they have seen
          lights dancing across the outlying islands, lights they believe to be
          low- flying warlocks able to leave strange sores on those who live
          below their flight paths. Inhabitants have been known to transform
          themselves into dogs or birds.

          And when sailors are lost at sea, neighbors console one another by
          suggesting they might have been picked up by the Caleuche, a
          phantom galleon that slips through the fog and is inhabited by ghosts
          who laugh merrily to the eternal playing of party music.

          The village has had a rich fantasy life for hundreds of years.

          In the 18th century, Quicaví was the center of a clandestine
          movement of Huilliche Indian warlocks, who used curses and
          poisonous potions to resist the Spanish colonial landowners
          around this island, called Isla Grande de Chiloé.

          Villagers still talk about the time  more than a century ago when the
          police came to Quicaví to repress a band of warlocks; they are said
          to have killed one with a shotgun and then buried him under a heavy
          rock in the town cemetery, just to make sure he would never come
          back to haunt anyone again.

          "When people are sick or something bad happens to their families," said
          Mauricio Nancuante, a 19-year- old accounting student, "they say it's the
          work of the warlocks. It's something passed on from generation to

          While tending to the chicks in his front yard, Claudio Elgueta, a 29-
          year-old fisherman, recalled how his grandmother used to take him on
          her knee after dinner and tell him stories of the Caleuche and an entire
          pantheon of creatures who roamed the impenetrable forests and the misty
          shores of Chiloé. "But for her it wasn't like Santa Claus," Mr. Elgueta
          said with a smile. "For her, the stories were real."

          It is much the same way all across the island of Chiloé, especially in the
          towns and villages that have been connected by dirt roads only during the
          last generation or two, where the old stories of the Huilliches remain a
          source of inspiration and folklore.

          When buzzards land on the cross in the central square of the nearby
          hamlet of Colo, for instance, villagers say that it is a sure sign that
          someone will soon die. Throughout the island, when a swallow or wren
          enters the shingled houses, it is said to be a sign that a visitor is about to
          come by.

          "I would say a third of the people keep this mythology deep in their
          consciousness," said Renato Cárdenas Álvarez, a poet and author of
          several books on Chiloé folklore. "These myths are the ethical, spiritual
          and aesthetic pillars of the society. Not everyone will discuss these beliefs
          openly. It is like the intimacy one has with a husband or wife."

          Mr. Cárdenas Álvarez noted that Chiloé warlocks are supposed to die
          within a year if they are identified, so it is understandable that they keep
          their presence quiet. But he said he believes they continue to have a
          clandestine organization that casts spells on enemies, and he noted that
          there are reports that a second underground group exists in the city of
          Castro dedicated to fighting witchcraft.

          The mythology is very much in the open, though.

          In Castro and in Ancud, Chiloé's rich fantasy life has become a resource
          for a growing tourism industry.

          The markets, restaurants and hotels feature statues and wall hangings
          depicting traucos, pincoyas and camahuetos half-animal, half-human
          figures roughly akin to satyrs, mermaids and unicorns who supposedly
          inhabit Chiloé. But the Disneyfication of the mythology, as local
          intellectuals like to call it, does not suggest that the folklore does not still
          have a hold on the beliefs of Chiloé's 130,000 inhabitants.

          The myths are sometimes poetic and beautiful, sometimes sinister and
          violent and they usually teach a lesson or explain a common problem.

          Chiloé's story of creation, for example, is about a fight between
          Caicai-vilú, the evil water goddess, and Tenten-vilú, the good land
          goddess, who fought to a rough draw a sign that the island and its
          inhabitants are a mixture of good and evil.

          Then there is La Pincoya, a beautiful woman whose dancing on the sea
          controls the supplies of sea life around the island. When the fishermen
          overfish, La Pincoya takes away the fish, crabs and clams. But when the
          fishermen take care not to overexploit seafood supplies, she makes sure
          the seas brim with abundance.

          Some of the myths have changed over time. El Trauco, a tiny figure that
          walks the forest with stump feet and bearing an ax, has become a
          character who seduces young women and a convenient explanation
          for pregnancies out of wedlock.

          The myths spring from the precarious nature of life on Chiloé, an isolated
          island in southern Chile that is often shrouded by fog and rain, and where
          storms and earthquakes have wreaked havoc through the ages.

          The oral tradition's hold on the young seems to be weakening, though. It
          has been gradually diluted by radio and television. Logging and road
          building as well as the emergence of an international salmon industry have
          slowly eroded Chiloé's solitude, and now plans for the first bridge to
          connect Chiloé with the mainland promises to bring major changes in the
          years ahead.

          Still, many of the older residents swear that they have had close
          encounters with the supernatural. And few are ready to to dismiss their
          tales completely.

          Margarita Marilicán, a 59-year-old vendor of woolens in the Ancud
          market, said she was convinced that El Trauco still roams the forests and
          the Caleuche still sails the seas under a foggy shroud. She told of several
          strange incidents in the days after a devastating earthquake and tsunami
          40 years ago in which several bodies washed ashore with dry coats. She
          said the only explanation was that they had been aboard the Caleuche.
          One night after the earthquake, she said, she saw the phantom galleon's
          lights herself.

          "I was so scared my hair stood up," she recalled, "and I broke out in a
          cold sweat."