Monday, March 13, 2017

Myths, flowers, and an army of chinchillas (Following folktales around the world 16. - Bolivia)

Today I continue new blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Mitos, leyendas, y cuentos populares de Bolivia
Textos en castellano; quechua-castellano y aymara-castellano
Roberto Ágreda Maldonado (Ed.)
Grupo Editorial Kipus, 2015.

A little under 300 pages, this collection is a great introduction to the traditional stories of Bolivia (and it doesn't include nearly as much Quechua or Aymara text as suggested by the subtitle). It was created by an organization of poets and writers, and each chapter corresponds to a certain region of the country - each containing traditional stories of great variety, from indigenous myths through historical legends all the way to 20th century ghost stories. The original authors of the texts are always noted; some of the tales come from earlier written sources (some from the 19th century), but there was also at least one that came from the Internet, where someone posted stories from their grandma. It is a mixed assortment of stories, some gorgeous, and some slightly confusing, but I am very happy it exists. It even has a glossary at the end, and a handy table that explains the differences between myth, legend, and folktale.


One of the most beautiful stories in the book was the origin legend of the kantuta flower (one of the national flowers of Bolivia). It told about the rivalry of two kings over whose star was brighter on the night sky, and how their vanity brought war to their lands. The kings, dying from battle wounds, left the war to their sons, who had to fight even though they did not want to. In the end, wounded like their fathers, the two young princes made peace on the battlefield, saving their people, and they were buried together. On their grave grew the kantuta flower, the symbol of unity.
There was a similarly beautiful myth about the birth of the chestnut tree, in which two deities wanted children, but did not know how to procreate. They observed the natural world around them and learned to make love. Their first child was the chestnut tree, and then all the other trees, until the jungle was born.
Because I have a soft spot for hummingbirds, I also loved the legend about the condor that kidnapped a wife for himself, and the hummingbird named Lorenzo who rescued her from her mountain cave. Similarly vivid and visual was the origin myth of the peanut, where a mysterious supernatural woman combed the first peanuts out of her hair to feed hungry people. In fact, there were origin legends for almost every indigenous plant in the book, from corn born from a murdered wife to potatoes born from executed lovers. Especially touching was one legend about how the Sun God gave the coca plant to indigenous people at the dawn of colonization, to ease their suffering.
Less serious and more amusing was the myth about four mountain deities competing for the love of the same woman, in which one brother sent an army of chinchillas to (literally) undermine his rival. Chinchillas were not the only native species featured either; there was also a nice little folktale about why the armadillo's armor is so uneven.
Among the historical legends, the most interesting was probably the chapter about Inca rulers playing chess. One story told about how Atahualpa, the Inca imprisoned by the Spanish conquerors, learned to play chess, and when his captors found out, he was ordered to be executed, perceived too smart to be allowed to live.
Finally, one remarkable ghost/monster story was that of the k'arisiri, a creature that hunts people at night in order to suck the grease out of their body...


I did not have to wait long to have my first encounter with the Crying Woman (the ghost of a mother walking along a river, crying for her children) on this South American journey. I suspect I'll be seeing her more later on...
Reminiscent of North American indigenous tales was the guarayo myth where two brothers (Sun and Moon) climbed up to the sky on a ladder created by shooting arrows into each other. There was also a flood myth from the chiriguana, where a boy and a girl were placed in a gourd so that they could survive. A story about raising the sky reminded me of Polynesian mythologies - in this case, earth and sky were so close to each other they sometimes smashed together, killing people. The sky was finally raised up by a giant worm named Nyucu, whom we can still see every night in the form of the Milky Way.

Where to next?
Moving on to Paraguay.

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