A Rich Life of the Mind Makes a Hard Life Easier
By CLIFFORD KRAUSS
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.
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.
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
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.
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
"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."
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.
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.
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
Still, many of
the older residents swear that they have had close
encounters with the supernatural. And few are ready to to dismiss their
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
"I was so scared
my hair stood up," she recalled, "and I broke out in a