Why Remembering Folklore Matters

Why Remembering Folklore Matters September 19, 2018

For Hispanic Heritage Month, I wanted to take some time to talk about beliefs and how we as Hispanics deserve to remember what our ancestors believed and told themselves about the distant past. This is actually a much older essay that I wrote several years ago and felt like publishing so that my readers could look at it and talk about folklore. In it, I talk about a few of my favorite myths and beliefs that were once passed down in various parts of the Caribbean, Central, and South America and even encourage readers to join me in remembering a few more obscure monsters that haven’t been repeatedly mentioned by me in the past.

I spent a lot of time remembering and editing this essay.
I spent a lot of time remembering and editing this essay.

Remembering what some might not want us to remember:

Latin American, Indigenous, and Spanish folklore deserve more coverage and more conversations. As Latin Americans, we deserve to have more exposure to the various tales which shaped the perceptions of spirituality and beliefs of our ancestors and to spend time remembering that these beliefs aren’t gone. Polytheists who worship the gods, ancestors, and zemi, mentioned in the myths we’re going to explore today are still around and they deserve to be acknowledged. 

Spain, Spanish Latin-America, and Indigenous Latin-America are all surprisingly supernatural places if one knows where and how to look. It’s easy for people in Latin-America and Spain to accept Christianity and remove themselves from the beliefs of past generations if they are so inclined but it’s important that we not do this to ourselves that we not truly embrace the urge to forget the deities that some polytheists still worship.

I think to have an understanding of the beliefs of our ancestors’ matters for people in Spain and in Central and South America. I think it’s important that our understanding and conception of religion and belief isn’t limited to Catholicism or another form of Christianity. I think we must remember the beliefs that made the lands we live in seem filled with the divine and the monstrous to the people who came before we did.

To illustrate this point I’ll briefly talk about some commonly known supernatural tales and some less commonly known ones. I want to point out that the Popul Vuh a text containing the myths of the Quiche people of Guatemala’s western highlands has twins who are born of a virgin, are capable of resurrecting others, die, and come back to life and through trickery defeat the rulers of the underworld. This is a massively rushed summary of the tale of the Hero Twins.

Another tale, one from Puerto Rico has its own decidedly supernatural version of Romeo and Juliet in the legend of the Hummingbird. In this story, supernatural events occur to a young woman named Alida and her love, a young man named Taroo. Unfortunately, this is a tragic tale where Alida is transformed into a red flower and Taroo is transformed into a hummingbird to search for Alida and is still searching for her to this day.

These are commonly known tales that are frequently talked about by people with little more than a passing interest in Indigenous myths in Latin-America. For some that are less commonly known we can spend some time chatting about the monstrous Pesanta, a legendary canine whose activities are not entirely unlike the generally more famous Night Hags in that both enter homes of sleeping people and place weight on their chests making them experience horrible nightmares and making it tough for them to breath. There’s also the Asturian explanation for “changelings” which was once believed to have been a near human creature named Xanas, a woman of extraordinary beauty who’d snatch human children from their cradles and replace them with their own supernatural children since the Xana was incapable of producing milk needed to feed her babies.

Other lesser known supernatural tales harken back to before the beginning of recorded history and feature floods and other calamitous events. The Shuar of Ecuador and Peru have a flood myth involving a man who fell in love with a Tsunki, one of the ancient water spirits capable of having a human form and a form of some water animal. In the contemporary understanding of this myth, there is a hunter who came across a Tsunki who had the form of a beautiful woman. The two go to the water world and while there they have a son. Eventually, the man returns to his world and his Tsunki lover decides to follow him after a period of not being with him makes her feel immense sadness. She follows him to his land and lives with him, in snake form while at their home and in human form whenever he hunts. Eventually, she becomes pregnant again and decides to live permanently at home and refrain from hunting with him. At this point other women discover the Tsunki (explicitly ignoring her husband’s commands that they not go near where she lives, which is a small basket which had more than enough room for her snake form) and treat her cruelly which causes her to disappear, retreating to the spirit world. He learns of this because he looks to the sky while hunting and sees a powerful storm brewing. He confronts the women who ignored his commands and they confess what happened. He quickly flees with his family and heads to the highest point they can reach. When they get there the screams of the women who had ignored his orders as they were attacked by snakes commanded by the tsunki’s father (another tsunki), followed by witnessing and surviving a gigantic flood. The tsunki who was the hunter’s lover would come back following the flood and begin a new family with the hunter and the hunter’s daughter.

Yet another less than commonly told tale is that of the Tawahka orphans. In this tale from the Tawahka people, we get an explanation as to why there are biting insects in the mountains and why toads look the way they do. It all goes back to a brother and sister who were orphaned at an early age. Being orphaned at an early age led the brother to take responsibility to find food for himself and his sister. One day luck would have it that he’d find an orchard with massive fruit-bearing trees and he’d begin to rely on this orchard to feed himself and his sister. He’d always go to the orchard and grab some fruits. One evening the owner of the orchard noticed his fruit was going missing and assigned a guard to watch over the orchard during the day. The orphaned boy was careful whenever he’d go to the orchard and the next day noticed the guard. He waited until nightfall to take more fruits. The owner noticed this and assigned told his employee, a demon, to watch the orchard at night. This worked.

The demon discovered the orphaned boy and was about to eat him until the boy told him his story. The demon commanded the boy to go and fetch his sister and the little boy did so. When the two of them were assembled in front of the demon it enslaved them. The little girl made tortillas and the little boy gathered firewood. This robbed them of their hope and they despondently did what they were told until a bird (a woodpecker) told them that the demon planned to kill them. The bird didn’t stop there and instead told the siblings the key to challenging their fates and said that if they followed its instructions they’d overcome their despair.

The twins followed its instructions and tricked the demon. It had planned to command them to dance on a wood cover of a well and then it would have moved the cover out from beneath them and they would have fallen down the well and died. When the demon commanded them to dance they responded by saying they didn’t know how and that the demon needed to show them how. The demon did this, and was tricked and fell as they had planned after learning of the demons scheme. It died at the bottom of the well due to the immense heat of the water in the well, and the siblings burned the body, before gathering the ashes and placing them in a jar so that they could be transported to the other side of the sea. Here is where things begin to rush towards the end.

The siblings had no clue how to arrive at the other side of the sea and asked for help from anyone who’d help them. Eventually, they got two volunteers: a deer and a toad. After a confrontation between the two, the toad came out on top and was tasked with traveling to the other side of the sea with the jar. The toad was told that the jar could not be opened at any cost. It agreed to not do this and proceeded to swim across the sea. It began to swim across the sea for a long time, before stopping from exhaustion at a small island. Here it would hear a sound from the jar and it forgot what it had been warned, which led to it opening the jar. Once opened the jar exploded with swarms of insects, all of which bit and attacked the toad as they fled their prison, leading to the toad having such an ugly and gruesome appearance covered in scars. The insects seemed to flee to the mountains, and some still believe that if the deer had been the winner of the confrontation between the two it would have succeeded in crossing the sea and safely placing the jar on the other side of the world.

These are just two fantastical tales from Latin America that are often not talked about. These tales might strike us as silly but they are connectors to the past for many of us and living stories that for some reflect tales surrounding gods that are just as real to them as Yahweh is for Christians and they help us understand some of the ways our ancestors understood the world around them before the arrival of ancient Christians in Latin-America.

I fear that if we forget stories like this that predate Christianity in Latin-America we’ll begin to forget about the people who once believed these stories much like how we always forget that people still believe in the gods talked about in these folkloric tales. By talking about fantastic folklore, myths, legends, and oral histories we tie memories of ours to the past and to civilizations that still exist. The Tawahka and the Shuar are still around. Not all ancient peoples are, but at least the Tawahka, the Shuar, the Miskito, the Tehuelche, and hundreds of other Indigenous groups still exist in Latin-America and beyond. Many of the civilizations and Indigenous tribes that told our ancestors magical stories about the lands we live in are still here and deserve to be remembered.

The gods, monsters, and spirits, of ancient Spain, deserve to be remembered. We should not forget about creatures like the Pesanta, legendary near human beings like the Xana, and ancient dragons once believed to roam our homes like the Cuelebre. We are doing our own histories a disservice if we forget the magic and belief that predate and once coexisted alongside Christian beliefs. If we forget these tales we forget a part of ourselves.

Why I want us to keep remembering diverse and unusual beliefs:

There’s this idea that atheists are out to destroy religion. It’s partnered with this idea that atheists view all religions as the same. I won’t speak for other atheists but at least relative to me this idea is inaccurate. I don’t want to see religions “defeated” or as some statistical minority. I want to create a world where people don’t cling to the religion of their parents but explore religions and believe in whatever they determine to be the most reflective of reality after examining the evidence at their disposal. I also want to create a world where atheists, polytheists, monotheists are free to believe or disbelieve whatever they wish without fear of discrimination or isolation on the basis of their beliefs alone.

I want us to remember the other gods, monsters, and spirits, that were once believed to be just as real as angels, demons, and God. Part of it is as a skeptic it’s not the easiest thing to explain disbelief to a believer until I convey an example like this to someone, but mostly it’s as a historian and as someone who wants us to remember our own pasts that I feel the urge to remind people of what was once believed to be lurking out there in the darkness. I want people to remember the things that we once believed were responsible for our terrible nightmares. Before our ancestors knew about the disciples and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, they believed the stories of how Xquic fooled her father into thinking his servants had killed her. Before the Spanish arrived with Christianity and Noah, the Shuar told tales of a massive flood used to punish the planet for disobeying the lover of the Tsunki. Before the story of Jesus’s ascension to Heaven, there was the Miskito tale of Nakili who followed his wife’s soul to the underworld, leaping across a massive pot filled with boiling water, and chasing off birds of prey that might have eaten the soul of his wife. Before David vs Goliath, there was Elal vs Noshtex. I believe that remembering these stories is important for any Latin-American who wants to understand religion holistically and not just look at belief in an Abrahamic or monotheistic mindstate. What I want to do with this is to instill a seed of curiosity in anyone who reads this. I want to give readers just enough to want more while giving them names that they can research themselves.

I hope you want to remember what your ancestors once believed in. I hope you want to remember the beliefs of those who walked where you stand, centuries ago. Because in order to begin to throw off an incomplete conception of religion and belief thirsting for knowledge is necessary. In order to resist apathy when it comes to history and religion, we must feed curiosity and that’s what the folklore of our past can give us. It can give us a more fruitful imagination and it can feed our sense of spirituality. Let’s feed our curiosity and support each other as we strive to understand the folklore of our ancestors more completely.

Remembering these beliefs might be seen by some as an unnecessary part of our heritage but I strongly feel that these beliefs are an important part of our history and are a fascinating introduction to bits and pieces of cultures that we often don’t understand at all or misunderstand. They’re worth remembering no matter whether or not you believe in them.

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