For as long as the Amazon rainforest has been known to the outside world, people have associated it with myths and legends. The Amazon River got its name when the first explorers returned with stories of the female warriors they saw on the riverbanks. The search for El Dorado, an ancient empire believed to be hidden deep in the jungle, has captured the imaginations of conquistadores, archeologists and adventurers for centuries.
I was curious to find out about stories and myths that come from within the jungle itself – stories that might have a moral element or help people relate to their environment, the wildlife, and the dangers of the forest.
During my stay at the Manu Learning Centre on the remote borders of Manu, Peru’s oldest national park, I sat down with some of the staff one evening for a rather atmospheric story-telling session by candlelight.
Here are five of the most memorable tales, but before, a lovely recording of the sounds of the Amazon to put you in the mood…
Considered a type of evil spirit that wanders in the night, it is never seen but it can be heard at night as a shrill and insistent bird call. If you try to imitate the bird, you risk making it angry and putting a spell on you. The spell is the sound of the bird call growing more and more persistent until it invades your sleep, and eventually drives you mad.
A very common figure in local folklore, this story has similarities to Greco-Roman myths of woodland fauns and satyrs. In the Amazon, descriptions of the Chuyachaki vary, but he is often described as dwarf-like, with one faun’s leg, or sometimes that of a wild boar. He is said to live in giant trees like the ceiba, and he looks for people who are lost in the forest, disguising himself as someone they trust and then luring them deeper and deeper into the woods. Once they are completely lost, he abandons them, waits for them to die, and then captures their souls. Stories of strange experiences deep in the forest are widespread so it is not surprising that in remote areas people keep guard dogs to ward off evil spirits like this one.
The nocturnal potoo bird is often seen in pairs – the larger one is the female, and the smaller one is the male. The story about these birds is that they were originally two young children whose evil stepmother convinced their father to abandon them in the forest so that she would have the only claim to his inheritance. His first attempt to lose them in the woods is foiled by his elder child, the daughter, who has overheard the plot and drops breadcrumbs along the path to find the way back home. The second time he succeeds by making sure his children’s pockets are empty, and the children become utterly lost in the jungle. The spirit of the sachamama (‘mother forest’) takes pity on them and decides to adopt them, but not as children – in bird form. This is why the female potoo’s song is said to sound like a sad lament (‘ay-ay-mama’) and the male’s like the cry of a human child.
El mono Machin
The white-faced capuchin monkey is a highly intelligent monkey that adapts to different habitats and uses tools for weapons and food. This particular character is a hero in the stories of the Aguaruna people who live along the Maranon River in northern Peru. In one story, Machin has the ability to talk to stones, trees, animals and plants. When the Aguaruna are threatened by a family of cannibals, he sets up an elaborate trap to defend them by rigging up a rope bridge and convincing the cannibals to cross it. As they do so, he speaks to the vines that hold up the bridge and they loosen, letting all of the cannibals fall to their deaths. In retaliation, the leader of the cannibal tribe curses him to live by himself in the forest, a fate that reflects the often solitary characteristics of the male capuchin monkey.
The spider monkey and the howler monkey
In this story, one whose motto clearly advises choosing your friends wisely, the red howler monkey wants to learn how to whistle as well as his friend, the black spider monkey. The spider monkey tells him that he will be able to whistle just as well if he eats a whole coconut at once. The howler monkey does this, but the coconut gets stuck in his throat and nothing he can do will dislodge it. He eventually learns to live with the coconut and as a result develops a deep throaty call that can be heard over two miles away. Meanwhile, the spider monkey notices that the howler monkey is really good at climbing trees and he asks him how he can learn to do it too. The howler monkey has not forgotten the trick the other monkey played on him, so he holds up four of his fingers and hides his thumbs, saying: “Cut off one of your fingers and you will be able to climb just as well as I can.” In the context of the story, the fact that the monkeys followed each other’s dubious advice explains why the spider monkey is a clumsy tree-climber with only four fingers, and the red howler monkey has a very bulbous throat.